Boondocking, Vermilion Cliffs and North Rim Grand Canyon National Park

When you think of The Grand Canyon, you probably think of the super-busy South Rim Visitor’s Center with wide Canyon overlooks and plenty of services available.

This would be our first visit to the North Rim Grand Canyon that typically only 10 percent of the visitors venture out to see. Each Visitor’s Center is directly across the canyon from the other, but it’s a 210 mile drive by curvy roads and large elevation changes making it slow going in an RV. Our plan was to stay closer to the North part of the park and take a couple of days to see it.

Boondocking

Our Boondocking spot shows the ruts in the road

Forest Boondocking

With no reservations to be had, we decided to stay for 3 nights on public land near Jacob Lake, about an hour from the North Rim National Park entrance.

Dispersed camping with no services, also known as boondocking is allowed on the Forest Service road that Bruce found on Campendium, a campsite review app. Officially, our first time really boondocking, we unhooked the car at a nearby pullout and drove up to see what was available. We have stayed off-grid in organized campgrounds, a store parking lot, and our friend’s vineyard, but never on public land. The Forest Service Road 225 was still muddy and very rutted from recent rains but we found a large empty clearing not far from the main road and hightailed it back to the pull-out to get the RV. 

Getting the RV into the clearing was ok but leveling it was quite a challenge. Level conditions are necessary to avoid damage to the slide-out rooms. The ground was too soft and our jacks pushed through the soil, even with our jack pads in place. After a good while, I was ready to give up and keep the slides in. Bruce was determined and he found rocks, some pieces of wood and fashioned good enough support for the jacks to allow our slides to be deployed. I was thankful to have the additional room. The tall pine trees prevented our solar from kicking in enough power but we just augmented with the generator for a little while in the morning and evening.

Surprisingly, we had decent cell service! That’s when we realized that the North Rim Grand Canyon was still closed for Winter, re-opening on May 15th, which was our departure day. By this time, we had no real openings in the schedule because we needed to be in Oregon for a doctor appointment in advance of pouring wine tastings for our friends at Styring Vineyards over Memorial Day Weekend.

So we decided to be up early and get to the park right at opening time on our departure day.

4-Wheeling

Exploring the Forest Service Road further on the first day in the Jeep was an adventure. We checked out some of the camping options further up the muddy road that was nearly destroyed by ruts and was very steep in places. We didn’t see as many camping options as the reviewers in Campendium led us to believe, however, a LOT of people came in that night, including a Schoolie converted bus and multiple small Class C RVs, plus a couple of Jeeps with roof-top tents. Nothing as big as our rig. We still have no idea where they all fit!

We kept exploring the roads up on the hill which mostly leveled out and were easy to drive, except for the occasional tree across the road that we went around.  We came upon a very steep hill with loose rock (roller coaster style where you can’t see the ground in front of you) which freaked me out. We made it down but I was determined NOT to do that again. Unfortunately, after that hill, we saw signs that we were now on the Arizona Tail where no motorized vehicles are allowed. Bruce tried to placate me by finding another way up the hill but there were no other options and our GPS was misleading. He then put the Jeep into “rock” 4-wheel drive mode and headed up the hill which took a couple of tries. It took me quite a while to calm down while wiping tears of fear away. For some reason, I am afraid of rolling over, how silly! Then I said, “Wow, I should have videoed it!”  Guess Bruce will convert me to a true 4-wheeler sooner than he thought.

We returned to the main highway and went into Jacob Lake for lunch at the Jacob Lake Inn. We could see the road closure leading to the Grand Canyon National Park from there.

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Apache Bridge

The next day, we drove back down to the gorgeous cliffs that we had passed on the way into our campsite. Hundreds of feet high, the cliffs are bright orange-red with sheer drop offs. The highway leads down from our campsite about 5,000 feet lower in elevation to the base of the cliffs. It is so grand that it’s hard to put into words and photos don’t begin to capture the scale and color that is visible in person. Hiking to the famous Wave formation is limited by daily lottery drawings by permit, which was just as well because we weren’t prepared for a back country experience.

The Apache Bridge crosses the Colorado River and boasts some small inns, a restaurant and a National Park Store. It’s just inside the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and adjacent to The Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  We walked across the bridge and had a mediocre lunch in the restaurant. The scenery is so beautiful, it is worth routing though this area if you can take the time to do it.

The National Park

Up and at ’em early on the 15th of May, opening day for the North Rim Grand Canyon National Park, we were happy to see the gate to the road was open. About an hour in toward the park, there was a line of cars stopped waiting for the park gates to open. We figured we would have been one of the first to enter and thought it would be pretty quiet. Must be that ten percent of all visitors we had heard about all decided to be there on opening day! The park rangers gave up and just opened up the gates instead of trying to collect fees, most people had passes anyway, so they just gave out the park brochure and map and on we went. It was another hour or so from the park gates to the Visitor’s Center.

Parking space at the Visitor’s Center was very tight, especially for RV parking and we had the tow car attached. We got one of the last remaining parking spaces and were surprised to see that old Schoolie that had parked up our Forest Service Road the night before was already there! It’s miraculous especially when we saw that they had 4 teenagers, how did they beat us there?

Once the stamps were added to my journal book and passport at the Visitor’s Center, we hiked from the lodge along the edge of the canyon on Bright Angel Trail. We didn’t have much time because our driving route that day was long but we hiked all the way to Bright Angel Point. The trail is narrow and descends a fair amount with few fences, only chains in spots which made it hard to pass people coming out along the trail. Stopping for photos was impossible without blocking the path for other hikers. The hike took longer than we had planned so we returned quickly along the uphill trail to the lodge at 8,200 foot elevation. The canyon looked overcast at first but really showed beautiful colors as we got further in. What a gorgeous place! I’m glad we decided to be part of the Grand Canyon visitors to venture to The North Rim! Reservations awaiting in Utah kept us moving Northward. This is one of the best stop-overs I can remember.

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