Life on the Edge.
Exploring the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Driving a big 4x4 camper through the pine forests of northern Arizona, the tall trees stretching their bows right up to a distant blue sky, an insulated mug of coffee in the cup holder and the certain knowledge that it is a pleasant 25ºc outside is about as good as it gets for any Overlander seeking a gentle adventure. Pulling up in a small clearing the experience takes on a fresh excitement because there, maybe 50 feet away is the edge of the Grand Canyon. No fence, no boring Health & Safety notices warning of certain death, no other people. Just a 1000 foot drop! “Seems a good spot for lunch” say our friends John and Julie Hartley retrieving the folding table from the back of the Sportsmobile and delving into the fridge for cool beers and a salad. The Hartleys have recently launched Tonto Trails – a business dedicated to helping small groups explore this remarkable landscape well away from the crowds normally associated with such features and draw upon their extensive knowledge of the area to guide and give advise on the best routes.
We were driving the trails that allow the local fire service access to the hundreds of square miles that make up the Kaibab National Forest around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. These trails are free for anyone to drive and, unlike the South Rim, relatively devoid of tourist traffic. They require a little more commitment, thereby keeping the coach loads of casual visitors on package tours safely installed in the gift shops of Grand Canyon Village. Being a little higher that the southern rim at 7000 feet many of the northern trails are closed by snow in the winter and even in April there were still a few crusty chunks of snow lingering in the shade and defying the warm spring sunshine.
We left the tarmac behind somewhere along Route 89A and as it was getting late opted to pull into a wooded clearing and fly camp. It was already dark and we had driven the length of Arizona over a long afternoon. For me the Sportmobile was a new experience so John showed me how to raise the top – being an American design you just press a switch! Julie soon had a meal on the stove in the Four Wheel Camper, chosen as supper venue at this late hour as you cook inside the camper as opposed to outside on the Sportsmobile. Within half an hour four of us were snugly sitting around a table eating good food and enjoying a bottle of wine, John and Julie’s dog Ozzie, an Australian Red Heeler, waiting patiently for any leftovers. Outside it was a chilly night with the temperature nudging zero so before we all turned in I ran the Sportsmobile engine for a while to warm up our bedroom for the night. With petrol at $4 a US gallon (65p a litre) this was not considered an extravagance and when we did get to bed everything was at an inviting temperature. We opted to use the ‘upstairs’ bed on the first night so that in the morning we could roll up the blinds and admire the view. This worked well and it the morning we rolled up the blinds to be rewarded with shafts of sunshine cutting through the trees and lighting our ‘bedroom’.
A leisurely start the next morning took us along lengthy stretches of easy going trail, the signs of Spring all around us and with the odd glimpse through the trees of something far bigger in the distance. Once at the edge of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon words and even decent photos struggle to accurately describe the sheer enormity and beauty of this natural feature. Over millions of years the Colorado River has eroded a one mile deep course through the Colorado Plateau exposing nearly 2 billion years of rock formation. Each sediment layer has its own unique geology resulting in the stunning colours revealed as the sun sets. So vast is the Grand Canyon National Park that thousands of visitors can enjoy its scenery and explore areas that are relatively empty. So empty that those who are unprepared can become lost and suffer the consequences. The trails are well mapped, however, and signs posts and road numbers confirm where you are as long as you stick to the marked trails.
Our first big view was the day of the cliff edge lunch. Knowing we were close, John suggested we split up but remain within radio contact and explore some of the smaller tracks that would lead to the big views. This we did and before long the radio crackled with instructions on how to reach the perfect spot for lunch. Once there, with plenty of space for the trucks, we enjoyed our meal with a great view of Steamboat Mountain and, several miles away, the South Rim roughly 1000 feet lower.
I have never considered myself to be afraid of heights. I can climb a ladder, use a Cherry Picker, and used to enjoy climbing trees, but the edge of the Grand Canyon is on a different scale. I was reduced to crawling on my hands and knees to the edge and could only look down for a few seconds before becoming overwhelmed by some illogical nausea! The dog ran around totally unfazed by this and had all of us calling him to heel for fear of his excitement getting the better of him. He was, of course, fine and making the most of being out of the truck.
It was such a desirable place we opted to have a lazy afternoon and spent the night there. No permits needed, no landlords to ask, no fellow campers, just the great outdoors and the four of us until Kevin cycled into our lives! Kevin League was Bikepacking around the Rainbow trail, an even more unused trail just wide enough for hiking and cycling and even closer to the Canyon edge. Kevin’s mountain bike weighed about as much as a good lunch and his camping gear somewhat less. In that one super-neat package he had everything he needed for 10 days of solo adventure. Sensing he actually craved a decent meal and a drink we invited him to join us for supper, which he duly did regaling us of his adventures round the camp fire and how we were the first people he had seen in four days. He had bumped (almost literally) into a Brown Bear, spotted a lot of smaller wildlife, but people were blissfully thin on the ground. After a jolly evening Kevin wandered off into the woods to pitch the lightest tent on the planet and we eased ourselves into very comfortable beds.
After breakfast ‘on the edge’ we packed up and set off in search of a Kevin recommendation – Point Sublime. Renowned for having one of the finest views of the Grand Canyon it was an essential destination. With Julie map reading from large scale maps and us in close pursuit we were soon back in the woods and heading west stopping occasionally in lovely clearings just to breath in the sweet scented air and listen to the rare sound of silence peppered with the occasional tapping of a distant Woodpecker. There was evidence of old corrals where cattle would have (or maybe still are) rounded up ready to be driven off to market. Perfect spots to camp on another occasion we mused.
Point Sublime, as the name suggests, is on a peninsula in the Grand Canyon National Park, as opposed to the National Forest. The slight difference is that you do need a permit to camp in the Park and a Park Ranger regularly patrols the area.
This was our only experience of meeting fellow overlanders with the same goal. Overland Journal Photographer, James Langan was camped with a couple of friends on a small area designated for camping that actually featured a loo! They were out there to take a break and enjoy the same things we had on our agenda and were using some pretty desirable rigs; an Australian Kimberley off-road caravan, a trailer with an Eezi-Awn roof tent and another Four Wheel Camper similar to ours, mounted in the back of a Toyota pick-up.
After exchanging notes with them we headed on right to the very end of the peninsula and the view swept out to the left and to the right of us. As the sun was setting it seemed the perfect spot for a small sundowner and who should turn up as the first cork popped, but our new friend Kevin! His cycle route had been far more direct than ours and with certain death just feet away we had a little drinks party right on the point – the colours of the rocks around us exaggerated by the warm rays of the setting sun.
John had applied in advance for the camping passes, so we opted to spend the night there giving us the finest of views to wake up to. I couldn’t resist the hypnotic lure of the edge and strolled down to the point before everybody else woke up. It was about 6.30am and the silence in the half light of morning was deafening. Even the wild birds had not left their overnight perches. In the bottom of the canyon to the east I could just make out a short stretch of Colorado River and through binoculars make out a group of tents on the river shore. There is, apparently, a 21 day white water rafting trip right through the bottom of the canyon which must be breathtaking as the deepest rock layer at river level is 1.84 BILLION years old making it the most accessible pre-history feature in the World.
Following another memorable ‘edge’ breakfast we wound our way back to civilisation calling in at Grand Canyon Lodge where President Theodore Roosevelt based himself back in the early 1900’s whenever he fancied a few days' hunting. It is hard to imagine a modern day world leader indulging in such practices. We settled for four Cappuccino’s and a slice of cake, then it was back on tarmac for the long drive back, both trucks sitting at a very leisurely 70 mph, big V8s purring under the bonnets – or ‘hoods’ as they say over there.
Most of the trails can be driven in two wheel drive, but just occasionally deep ruts, a steep climb, a muddy section, or a combination of all three have you reaching for low ratio 4WD and having to actually concentrate, rather than cruise. Because we could, John and I were swapping drives between the big Sportsmobile which had an eye watering 6.8 litre V10 petrol engine and John’s more recent purchase a Dodge Power Wagon with smaller 5.7 V8. Both of these trucks are far more capable that their appearance would suggest. Far from being a cumbersome mobile home sitting on off road tyres, the Sportsmobile is actually a very accomplished 4x4 as various excursions deeper into the forest proved. Soft leaf springs and a detachable front anti-roll bar give excellent axle articulation and 420 lbs/ft of torque fed through a new set of BF Goodrich All-Terrains ensuring a total lack of drama in any of the situations encountered. The Dodge had the advantage of being a younger design and actually left the factory with a whole host of extras aimed at those who really need to use a truck in off-tarmac situations daily; locking diffs, skid plates to protect the underside, raised suspension, a 12,000 lb winch. Oh - and a 383 hp Hemi V8 with 400 lb/ft of torque! Add to this a well designed Four Wheel Camper conversion and it is a formidable combination.
You too can do this! Tonto Trails is based in Durango, Colorado and they rent out a small fleet of purpose built 4x4 Camper conversions including the Sportsmobile and the 4 Wheel Camper on the Dodge Toby shared with them on this adventure. Itineraries include a variety of trips in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and John and Julie can help with custom trip planning. Prices start from as little as $1750 (£1135) for a four day, self drive, trip in a Toyota Land Cruiser with roof tent, up to $3500 (£2265) for 7 days in a Sportsmobile – and remember that a Sportsmobile can accommodate up to five people. What is refreshing is that the Hartleys are both passionate about the area and convinced that a 4x4 camper conversion is by far the best way to see it. This is no here today, gone tomorrow business, but a well researched operation committed to giving customers a memorable experience. Full details and terms are on their website.
Also check out their Facebook page:
James Langan-18.jpg A Cocktail Party on the Edge. Be careful!!
Photo courtesy of James Langan. Photowrite
Toby USA Pano.jpg An impressive view of Steamboat Mountain and the South Rim beyond make a perfect place to stop.
Toby USA-2387.jpg The Sportsmobile has an enthusiastic following in the States and the electrically operated roof gives good headroom even for big fellas.
Toby USA-2417.jpg The 5.7 litre Dodge Power Wagon leads the way through easy forest trails.
Toby USA-2422.jpg Deserted trails through stunning scenery make the National Forest a great venue for a holiday.
Toby USA-2446.jpg Toby enjoyed the performance of both trucks, but the Dodge gave the biggest grin!
Toby USA-2501.jpg Julie Hartley loves driving off road!
Toby USA-2512.jpg Despite its size the big Sportsmobile was remarcably nimble both on and off road.
Toby USA-2574.jpg Easy to imagine a few Cowboys herding cattle into these remote corrals.
Toby USA-2594.jpg The Sportsmobile had far more room inside that the Dodge, though both could accommodate 4/5 adults.
Toby USA-2599.jpg Ozzie the dog finds something of great interest in a bush. There are many lizards to chase.
Toby USA-2600.jpg Jo and Julie spotting woodpeckers high in the Pine Trees.
Toby USA-2613.jpg A setting sun, a great view and a few cool beers. Perfect camping.
Toby USA-2660.jpg Open fires are tolerated in the National Forest, but have to be monitored with great care as forest fires are a real threat.
Toby USA-2683.jpg The design of the Sportsmobile living accommodation is best experienced in fine weather, but it can be used all closed up in ‘English’ style weather.
Toby USA-2709.jpg The finest breakfast view in Arizona. Steamboat Mountain in the foreground and the South Rim far away in the distance.
Toby USA-2733.jpg All flexed out. The Dodge Power Wagon with anti roll bar disconnected from the cab.
Toby USA-2771.jpg Julie, Jo and John sit where any sensible people fear to tread – including Toby.
Toby USA-2790.jpg Driving so close to such a big drop certainly sharpens a drivers concentration!
Toby USA-2799.jpg A chance meeting with fellow overlanders James Langan and friends near Point Sublime.
Toby USA-2867.jpg Out on the Prairie imagining herds of Buffalo roaming on the plain.
Toby USA-2884.jpg John and Julie Hartly who do a terrific job of organising tours around Arizona in their Exotic Campers.
Toby USA-1030256.jpg Lunch with a view.
Toby USA-1030270.jpg Occasionally the trails do require 4WD and low ratio, but generally 2WD is enough.
Toby USA-1030283.jpg Kicking up the dust in the big Sportsmobile.
Toby USA-1030339.jpg Kevin League waves goodbye as he departs to ride the Rainbow Trail.
Toby USA-1030368.jpg Deserted clearings in a pine forest look like tempting places to camp – maybe on another occasion.
Toby USA-1030398.jpg Kicking up the dust in the Dodge Power Wagon.
Reproduced by kind permission of 4x4 Magazine.
Toby Savage June 2013