Ponderosa pines, tall and dense, waft their fresh scent into the blue sky as branches form needled canopies above the road on the north side of Arizona's Grand Canyon. Scattered among them are almost contradictory figures -- smooth, ash-white and bare-trunked aspen trees with heads full of leafy hair, like angel giants glowing slender in the midst of forested darkness.
At the next curve, the giants break to an open meadow of green. Blue fingers wave from the clusters of tiny wildflowers quivering in the cool breeze. A wooden sign declares the presence of Indian Lake, a mere sinkhole 20 feet across, in which a mallard, black eyes glinting through metallic green feathers, has come to rest in its own private pond. With a view so enchanting, seeing a little red-cloaked girl with a basket over her arm skipping among the trees might not be surprising. No wonder that State Route 67 from Jacob Lake to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park was Arizona’s first designated scenic parkway, and only National Scenic Byway recognized by the Federal Highway Administration. A few years later, it was also designated as a National Forest Scenic Byway.
The Kaibab Plateau-North Rim Parkway traverses beautiful land even before it reaches its terminus – the spectacular North Rim. Kaibab is a Paiute Indian word meaning “mountain lying down.” The Kaibab Plateau is part of a 65-million-year-old folding of the Earth’s crust. Geologic forces pushed the level land upward 3,000 feet – indeed a mountain lying down. Taking in the vivid greens and wildflower-blues, it is hard to believe that this paradise plateau has very little surface water. The thirsty Kaibab limestone beneath the soil drinks most of it down, leaving only scattered sinkhole ponds that vary in size according to season.
Fed by underground springs that eventually release below the Rim of the Grand Canyon, many of the sinkhole ponds are empty part of the year. The altitude on the plateau brings extreme winter weather, so the road and the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park are closed from November through May due to heavy snowfall. Since this is the only paved road in the area, winter travelers must resort to snowmobiles to navigate the white depths of the plateau.
The 45-mile scenic parkway on State Route 67 begins at Jacob Lake, named after Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon missionary who frequented the area during the 1860s and 1870s. Hamblin was responsible for finding many routes across the plateau and around the North Rim area. Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell used some of Hamblin’s routes during his western research journeys. Twenty archaeological sites and about 88 isolated finds in the area reveal a history dating as far back as 4000 B.C. to A.D. 1150. Mule deer, often seen roaming the roadsides through the dense forest of the plateau, are the largest native mammals in the area. Watchful visitors also may glimpse black bears, weasels, skunks and badgers.
Each season brings a variety of birds to the treetops and wild turkeys roam the meadows. Bushy-tailed little Kaibab squirrels with tassels tufting from their ears also live on the plateau, running among the trees and close to the Rim. The squirrels live only on the Kaibab Plateau – nowhere else. President Theodore Roosevelt and the US Congress declared the Kaibab Plateau a national game preserve in 1906.
The historic Jacob Lake Ranger Station, built in 1910, sits along the original route leading to the North Rim. One-mile southwest of the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center on Forest Service Road 282, the two-room cabin and barn no longer in use, had no amenities in the days when rangers patrolled the forests on horseback. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site is one of the oldest ranger stations still standing in the Southwest. Twelve miles south of Jacob Lake stands another testament to man’s presence in the Kaibab forest – the Jacob Lake lookout tower.
After a ravaging wildfire destroyed large parts of Idaho and Montana in 1910, officials began building fire lookout towers and trail systems in the national forests as ways to combat such devastation. Early fire lookout perches in the Kaibab National Forest were ladders leading to platforms built into the tops of tall trees. The Jacob Lake Lookout, erected of steel in 1934, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Lookout Register. As well as beauty, the aspen trees also pass along a history of the area, but not like one might think. Giddy with the ease of traveling in a new invention called the automobile, and flabbergasted by the beauty of the area, travelers began stopping along the roadway and leaving their own mark on the world or, more precisely, on the trees.
Many carvings – basically tree graffiti – cover the smooth, white bark of many aspens in the Kaibab National Forest. Most carvings have names and dates from the 1920s through 1940s, representing the thousands of travelers who drove the road to the remote North Rim to gaze into the Grand Canyon. Along the way, a number of forest service roads lead off State 67 into Kaibab National Forest to trailheads and canyon-lookout points, offering ample opportunity to explore by car, horse or foot. Visitors with permits may hunt, gather fuel wood or cut down Christmas trees. Campgrounds throughout the area offer great spots for pitching tents. Accommodations are available at Jacob Lake Inn and Kaibab Lodge, both on State 67, and at Grand Canyon Lodge, located right on the Rim.
As the scenic parkway ends, a new world begins, and the traveler stands literally on the edge. Formed over millions of years by the eroding waters of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon spans 277 miles from end to end. It is about 18 miles across at its widest and a mile down at its deepest. The North Rim has suffered less wear and damage by tourists, as the drive through the Arizona Strip places the North Rim somewhat out of the way for many travelers. The extra mileage is well worth the drive, however, as the North Rim of the Canyon rises 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim, affording views like nowhere else in the world. Trees grow precariously up the sides of the canyon walls, adding green to the browns and reds, and shadows cast across the many faces of the rock cliffs seem to have swallowed the earth.
It's a final destination like no other. For a little taste of fairytale beauty in an enchanted forest with a view for miles at the end, venture down the Kaibab Plateau's North Rim Scenic Parkway.