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Friday, June 13, 2014

Grand Canyon's North Rim: Toroweap/Tuweep Area

"Where's Kevin?"

That's how our next adventure started--we lost Kevin.


Mark and I are used to going it alone; we aren't big on planning our adventures to the letter but prefer to have a vague destination in mind. This enables us to stop when we feel like it or stay longer if we find a really nice spot. A large part of this philosophy is based on laziness; making reservations is a pain in the neck sometimes. When traveling as a group certain adjustments need to be made, the first of which is: patience. Number Two? Keep track of your travel mates.

We were traveling with four other vehicles on a 270 mile journey to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, a plan that we had hatched with our Overland buddies a few months previous. Our goal was to reach the Toroweap/Tuweep area in Grand Canyon National Park, an overlook and campground 65 miles down a rough gravel road outside of Fredonia AZ. Ideally, we would all be camping together there, 3000 feet above the Colorado River.

But first we had to find Kevin.


Our friend Mel had lined us up that morning at Mormon Lake outside of Flagstaff; he would take the lead, Mark and I would be second in line with our CB radio, then two other vehicles would be between us and Kevin, who also had a CB. The plan was we would keep an eye on Mel, and Kevin would keep an eye on the two between; we would communicate backwards any important info and Kevin could keep us updated on any problems from the rear. What we didn't count on was traffic lights.

Flagstaff is full of traffic lights. It's also heavy with right angle turns and convoluted roads, mostly due to all the railroad tracks that run right through the middle of town. To navigate from one side of Flagstaff to the other as a group requires a bit of finesse and a large quantity of green light luck.


The plan was to go into town, grab coffee and a pastry and head out the other side. After the first few traffic signals it was clear we were losing a vehicle after every major intersection. It was somewhat miraculous that four of us ended up at Macy's coffeehouse. Poor Kevin had missed the turn, and by the time we got ahold of him he was several miles out of town. This was when we found out our borrowed CB was only good within a two mile radius. And one of the trailers in the party needed grease before we could go any further.

After a few starts and stops looking for an open auto parts store, we were finally on our way. We found Kevin patiently waiting for us near the KOA about three miles out of town, finally completing our wagon train.

Mel up ahead on Highway 89A
The crew behind us. Yes, that's Kevin bringing up the rear (we managed not to lose him again.)
Grand Canyon National Park covers 1900 square miles, but it's far from square; it follows the contours of the Colorado River for 277 miles, making it a long park (with a big ditch down the middle.) Driving from Flagstaff to the north rim isn't a straight shot either; you have to drive up and around to the nearest bridge across the canyon at Lee's Ferry, then backtrack west.  If we had purchased a helicopter for the trip it would have only been 106 miles away (but we would have missed out on some spectacular scenery.)


We followed Highway 89, turning onto 89A to cross the dry scrub lands of the Kaibab plateau. We passed Highway 67 at Jacob's Lake--the road leading to the official North Rim part of the park--and headed to Fredonia, where we turned off on highway 389 towards Colorado City. Eight miles from Fredonia, we turned onto Mt. Trumbull Road. From here we left the pavement behind for the last 65 miles of the journey.
Judd Auto is a must stop before heading to Toroweap. Located in Fredonia AZ, it's the last stop for ice, gas, water and of course Lotto, guns, ammo and beer if you feel the need.
The website for Toroweap lists dire warnings about the road: unmaintained surfaces, high clearance required, no cell coverage, have good condition tires and matching good conditioned spare on hand.
Help (if you can manage to summon it) is miles and hours away so be prepared for an overnight stay if you get stuck.  While we would never ignore the warnings, we found the road to be in excellent condition, especially compared to many of the tooth-grinding washboard roads in the California deserts. Traveling with this group made any worries we may have had go by the wayside, as we probably had more air compressors, winch kits, hi-lift jacks, gasoline and water between us than a fleet of tow trucks.

Lined up and ready for our 65 mile journey to Toroweap.
The first sixty miles were easy: A wide gravel road traveling across a gently rolling plateau, up and over a set of hills, then descending into the wide Toroweap valley. The only unsettling thing we saw were a couple of large tractor-trailers hauling something mysterious with signs reading "Radioactive Materials Only" on their sides. We were glad they were traveling the other direction, but not sure exactly where they were coming from.
What sign in the west is complete without bullet holes? Someone must have stocked up at Judd's Auto. 

Through the bullet hole "Unimproved Road Surface"
We reached the park boundary and the "Greater Tuweep Metropolitan Area" (the ranger station) at about mile 60. From there, the road is a bit more challenging.


There is a parking area here for two wheel drive, low clearance vehicles that make the trek this far. From here, those unfortunate people either have to walk the hot and dusty last few miles, or hitch a ride with a high clearance friend. The road narrows to a single lane, and the going gets rocky and uneven. Taking it slow and getting out to survey the more boulder-strewn areas is the way to go here. I can imagine after a rainstorm it would have been a tire sucking slog; we saw a few places where deep grooves had been dug in the previously muddy parts of the road. The most technical part of the road was actually within the campground: a sharp drop off a rocky shelf had all of us assisting each other with picking the best route for the vehicle on the way down.

Mel guiding Shaun down the rock shelf, Tuweep campground
The Tuweep campground is on a first come/first served basis except for the group site (this is about to change in September. Read about it here) so we were worried we had driven all the way out just to find it full. We hadn't reserved the group site since we didn't know how many vehicles we would be camping with until the day before we left Overland. We were relieved to see only a few sites were taken.
There are rules. Follow them and everyone is happier.
After some shuffling back and forth, Volunteer Ranger Bob appeared and we talked him into letting us have the group site. No one was occupying it and he told us we could stay until someone showed up claiming to have reservations. (Apparently the reservation system books the site, but that information doesn't make it out to the ranger station.) We set up camp and held our breath every time we heard an engine in the distance, sure a group of reservation-wielding overlanders were on their way to take our spot. That didn't happen until the second night.

Setting up at the group site, Tuweep campground.
The Grand Canyon is truly an amazing sight. Like most people, we had first viewed it several years ago from the south rim, driving from overlook to overlook trying to make sense of the Hollywood backdrop-ness of the scenery. Even standing on the edge you get the feeling that this huge chasm just can't be real, that someone's clever 3-D effects are messing with your brain. Then you descend just a few hundred feet down a trail and realize, yes, this is very real and if I don't turn around soon I don't think I'll make it back up without medical support.

The rough road to Tuweep cuts out 99% of the potential visitors, and the length of the road cuts out another 0.5%. Since the campground only has 10 primitive campsites (no water, no electric, pit toilets) you can be pretty sure it won't be crawling with people once you get there. Our party more than doubled the occupancy of the place, for which we sincerely promised the two other campers there that we would be very quiet and respectful. After spending four days at Overland Expo in the company of 7,000 of our closest friends, we were relieved to sit and listen to the wind for a while.

The Tuweep area is covered with this potholed sandstone; in fact this surface made up most of the campground road, making it difficult to walk at night.
Mel found these tiny tracks in the dust on his back bumper in the morning.
Another reason to keep a clean camp.
We were tired from our long drive so after setting up camp we lazed about, had dinner and went to bed early, vowing to get up in the morning and walk to the overlook. (One thing to note about camping on the edge of the Grand Canyon: don't wander around without a flashlight. It's dark--really dark--and it would be very easy to take a misstep...say...over the edge of the Grand Canyon.)

The view from under a rock overhang in the campground. A great place to hang out to get out of the sun, wind and dust.
Waking up to this view out the camper window? Priceless.
The Toroweap Overlook is stunning. Most of the views from the South and North Rim areas of the park have a graduated cliff side--more like a very steep mountainside than a cliff--but Toroweap is as close to sheer as you get. The overlook parking area cracked us up; it's a gravel road that leads to a lone picnic table sitting under a forlorn little tree. It looks like a roadside pullout, except for the 3,000 foot drop immediately behind it. There are no guard rails, hand rails, warning signs: nothing. You are (refreshingly) on your own and I'd advise putting your pets, children, and unruly spouses on a short leash if you enjoy having them around.

The "parking lot" at Toroweap Overlook

The view to the east...
...and to the west.
Mark perched on the edge.
We all clambered down to the rock shelf on the edge and had the requisite photo taken, then stood for a while in silence admiring the view. The river looked so small down there, and we wondered if rafting season had started up yet. Just then, we spotted three little yellow dots; sure enough, they were rafts full of people. We had to use our strongest telephoto lens to catch them, and even then they were just slightly larger dots in the water. It's a long way down.

Group photo (From left: Mel, Andrew, Kevin, Kelly & Mark), Toroweap Overlook
That next step is a doozy.
Rafters down below
The best we could do with our telephoto lens.
There are a couple nice hiking trails out of the campground: the Saddle Horse Loop Trail has trailheads at both the campground and the overlook parking area as it circles through the high desert near the canyon, meandering through the sandstone and cactus (which was in bloom while we were there in May); the Tuckup Trail starts at the group camp and follows the canyon rim for 6 miles along an old two track road. There are multiple smaller canyons to explore and interesting rock formations to poke around, just be sure to watch for hidden cactus spines and sleeping snakes.

This gopher snake had just had a meal when we came across it near the overlook.
He got a bit grumpy as Mark tried to get his photograph.
Yucca in bloom, Saddle Horse Loop Trail
Cactus garden, Tuckup Trail
Yucca seed pods, Tuckup Trail

Many thanks to Mel, Andrew, Shaun & April and of course, Kevin for making the trip with us. You made us realize just how much more fun an adventure can be when you share it with really good people.

Check out Andrew's account of the trip on his blog: The Dusty Trail to Toroweap Point