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Grand Canyon Expedition: 7 Days Of Remote Backcountry Exploring

Posted in Events on December 7, 2016
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Scientists say that millions of years ago the force of nature heaved and eroded large masses of earth, which formed the Grand Canyon. The Canyon runs about 277 miles from beginning to end, is approximately 10 miles wide and a mile deep. The Colorado River at its depths has flowed and carved the walls in this great wonder, and side streams have widened the canyon over time. It is said that ancient Indians inhabited the Canyon region more than 10,000 years ago, and there are records of Hopi Indians leading Spanish conquistadors to the South Rim in 1540. After that, various prospectors have scoured the area for precious metals since the late 19th century. In many cases, explorers have found the canyon to be a serious obstacle in their path.

Today, many of the common visitor locations lie on the South Rim of the Canyon where buses and cars stream in with tourists from all over the world. However, the North Rim is far more remote and nearly void of paved roads to the edge of the Canyon. It was at the North Rim we sought to travel and explore in late summer.

For the past 16 years, Andy Schauer has led friends on an annual weeklong expedition-style wheeling trip somewhere in Arizona. The trips involve a lot of time in the dirt and access some of the most scenic vistas in the state. The 2016 trip was no different as he assembled a group of 19 4WD rigs and their excited occupants for this epic adventure.

We found a wide, flooded wash on our way into and out of Alstrom Point, but Jay Bialo made quick work crossing it in his ’13 Ram. The truck sits a little taller than stock with a small lift and Bilstein 5100 shocks along with LT285/65R20 BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2s.

Night Zero
Alstrom Point
Our first night of the trip actually started in Utah, just north of Page, Arizona, near the edge of Lake Powell. We converged at a camp spot at Alstrom Point. Many from the group were from the Phoenix area, but we had wheelers roll in from as far away as Texas and North Carolina.

As it grew dark, we made our way towards Alstrom Point. The loose muddy trail surface turned to solid rock as we wheeled closer to the edge of the Canyon.
Kaibab National Forest spans 1.6 million acres here. The high Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon is cool and moist in contrast to the desert at lower elevation. As such, the environment supports large forests of pine, fir, aspen, and blue spruce trees.

Day One
Entering Kaibab National Forest
After watching a magnificent sunrise over Gunsight Bay, we packed up and headed west and into Arizona. We jumped off the highway onto the Great Western Trail, a backcountry route that runs from the border of Mexico to Canada, including an 800-mile stretch in Arizona. We hit dirt under a blanket of huge, billowy clouds and started up the switchbacks onto the Kaibab Monocline.

We wheeled through Orderville Canyon, named after a Mormon cooperative that established a dairy and sheep ranching operation there in about 1880. Back on the highway for a brief time, we made a quick stop in the small community of Jacob Lake to top off coolers and gas tanks, as we had a long dirt trek planned for the following day. We then found our way into a large pine forest and set up camp in the trees at an elevation of about 7,700 feet.

Sherry Fritz makes her way across a broken rock trail headed to one of the Canyon overlooks. Our Grand Canyon trip was just part of a three-week adventure she was on that started in New Mexico and ended in Montana. Her ’11 Ford F-250 with bed rack was well loaded for her long trek.

Day Two
First Look Into the Canyon
Clear skies met us at dawn and we packed and hit dirt once again, headed into Grand Canyon National Park. We made a 120-plus-mile roundtrip expedition to the Toroweap Overlook, the narrowest point of the Canyon and our first view into the amazing wonder. It was a long, dusty trail in and out and our group managed to get strung out over a good number of miles. Backtracking to the small town of Fredonia we filled our thirsty tanks again at a small store with a succinct sign offering life essentials: lotto, guns, ammo, and beer.

Toroweap Overlook sits 3,000 feet above the Colorado River and offers a commanding view of cinder cones and lava flows from volcanic activity that is said to have started about seven million years ago. With less than a mile separating the North Rim of the Canyon from the South Rim, this is one of the narrowest and deepest portions of the inner Grand Canyon.

After a long day of off-road exploring we followed a forest service road in Lookout Canyon to a campsite at over 7,000 feet of elevation in the western Kaibab Plateau. We found an open, grassy meadow where we could pitch tents surrounded on two sides by pine and aspen trees. It turned out to be a damp, cool night but a hearty campfire took the chill off.

Day Three
A Grand View From Every Point
We continued to follow Lookout Canyon southeast towards the edge of the Grand Canyon and followed the two-track of the Rainbow Rim Trail to the first of several high vantage points we would visit for the day. Parissawampitts Point sits at 7,550 feet of elevation amongst a thick ponderosa pine canopy. It was at this point we discovered a Ford F-250 in our group had an automatic transmission dipstick tube that had broken in half. Debate ensued about how best to patch the problem. Since the break was above the fluid line, a makeshift plug was carved from a piece of a tree branch to keep dirt from entering the tube.

With campsite coordinates given to all, vehicles went off on their own to explore backroads and do some hiking along the Canyon edge. We visited a number of other overlooks, including Fence Point, Locust Point, and the two Timp points. Each offered a different view of the expansive North Rim, and in between we followed connector trails that meandered through thick pine, fir, aspen, and blue spruce forest. Camp for the night put us near Stine Point, with our tents perched along a scenic cliff.

What was muddy earlier in the day later turned to a dusty trail as you can see from Dustin Hamman’s coated F-250. The ’12 Ford sits on a 6-inch suspension lift so he can fit 35-inch rubber under the fenders.

Day Four
Point Sublime
The fourth day was again spent at elevations between about 7,000 and 8,000 feet. We followed the forest trails toward Point Sublime. The trip here was well worth the remote trek and we were greeted with a stunning look down into the craggy abyss. From this vantage point you can see a portion of the Colorado River below, South Rim trails across the canyon, and many other points of interest, especially if you’re into geology and earth formations.

We found a good wooded spot to set up camp near Fire Point, just outside the Grand Canyon National Park boundary. Permits are needed to camp within the boundaries near much of the Canyon edge. However, there is also abundant open camping in the nearby national forest, which is where we stayed each night. In all our time spent in the backcountry, we never saw more than about one other vehicle a day in this remote terrain.

Keith Maddox had a rooftop tent perched on top of his ’98 Nissan Pathfinder, and he used it to enjoy awesome sunrises looking out over the Canyon. Each rig was loaded down with full camping gear and supplies to last the better part of a week.

Day Five
Trails & Tourists
After breaking camp and packing, we followed dirt trails and made our way into Grand Canyon National Park where we topped off our 4x4s fuel tanks once again and grabbed a few needed items at the little store there. We had more than one interesting conversation with the gas station attendant and with a few highway-limited tourists that were curious as to how we managed to attach so much mud to every surface of our vehicles. It was a bit beyond their comprehension that we had just spent the last five days exploring hundreds of miles of trails.

We played tourist ourselves for a bit and traveled the paved road in the park to visit Point Imperial and Cape Royal, where we hiked to more breathtaking overlooks. Along the way, one of the Xterras in our group needed to make an alternator swap as all the mud and mucky water had taken a toll on the brushes, leaving the charging system crippled. We jumped back to dirt and wound our way up to an elevation of 8,500 feet at Dog Point. Minutes after finding camp, water poured on us for about 20 minutes as we scrambled to put up some sort of rain protection. Once the brief storm passed, we were treated to some large rainbows and some interesting clouds. Luckily, the rest of the evening we would stay dry.

Here’s something you don’t see out running trails often. It’s ’97 GMC 3500 Crew Cab dualie. Flipper Geiger ran the 7.4L big-block rig over a lot of Grand Canyon trails. Things got interesting in a few of the tighter spots given his supersized body.

Day Six
Descending to More Scenery
We thought we were spoiled with our scenic camp at Dog Point, but little did we know that more grandeur lay ahead. We packed up and ventured back out on the trails, entering Tater Canyon, which is a grassland valley bordered with high-elevation timber. Again, we saw no other vehicles here.

Marble Canyon turned out to be an awesome camping location as we were perched up top as close to the edge as we dared. Andy parked his Nissan truck so that he had cliff-side views right outside his tent.

We descended in elevation, dropping down the switchbacks by following Forest Road 220 off the Kaibab Plateau. We dropped about 3,000 feet in elevation to find ourselves in high desert scrub on fairly open plains. Bad weather was starting to roll back in and we watched rainfall in the distance. At about 5,600 feet, we drove to the edge of Marble Canyon where we would set up camp for the night. We had an awesome view again over the carved rock below. Small rainstorms blew over us, and we were treated to a variety of changing weather as the afternoon wore on. We simply enjoyed the views and changing lighting as the clouds and sunset decorated the landscape before us.

A few of us spent some time hiking around Marble Canyon, and like many of the locations, you can’t fully appreciate the unique rock formations without crawling around beside them.

Day Seven
Finding Our Way Back Out
With our final night of camping behind us, it was time to work our way off the North Rim and back to civilization. We got to see some more storms moving around us as we followed the dirt trail to the highway. We saw a few spots where deep water had flooded some of the washes, but we were never stopped by deep water.

Back at the highway, we aired up our tires and started toward home and other destinations. It had been an awesome week exploring remote backcountry with friends and seeing incredible sites accessible only by wheeling into these areas. We’d covered approximately 400 miles of dirt and everyone went home with a smile.

Much of the terrain on the Utah side of Lake Powell is desolate and appeared much like a moonscape. We made the trek in right after heavy rains had hit the area and found some substantial mud on the trail. In places it could be described as driving through thick chocolate pudding with someone throwing chunks of fresh-baked brownies at your rig.
Gunsight Bay lies just below Alstrom Point and treats campers to some stunning views out over the water. We spotted boats camping down at the shoreline as well.
We made our way across the state line from Utah to Arizona. Distances here can be deceiving. Also, other than rain, there are typically few water sources here in the high desert.
We encountered mud in numerous places as we traveled the trails. All our vehicles gained a lot of weight as it stuck to the underside and anywhere else it happened to be flung.
The Kaibab Plateau extends to an elevation of about 9,200 feet. The North Rim is about 1,200 feet higher in elevation than the South Rim and experiences twice as much snow (up to 12 feet annually) and rainfall.
Yes, that’s a BMW. Rob Kunzmann braved the trails and mud holes in his ’11 X5. To improve the off-road capability, he’d swapped the 20-inch wheels and passenger tires for a set of 18-inch wheels wrapped with LT265/60R18 BFGoodrich All-Terrains. It worked quite well combined with his driving skill.
We zigged and zagged through hundreds of miles of Kaibab National Forest. Much of it was simple two-track dirt road. The point of the trip was not to seek out hard trails, but to explore scenic backcountry with the occasional use of 4WD thrown in.
We also spotted several roaming bison herds in the National Park, where they live in the meadows and open woodlands of the North Rim area. Herds here can number up to several hundred. They’re not native to Arizona, but were introduced in 1905 when rancher “Buffalo” Jones imported some to try to breed a cattle-bison hybrid.
We always like finding old machinery remnants when we’re out exploring backcountry trails. We spotted this old Adams Leaning Wheel Grader from a bygone era left to slowly decay in what is probably its final resting place.
After being at high-elevation for much of the trip, on the sixth day we dropped some 3,000 feet to more arid high desert.
As we left the Marble Canyon overlook on our last trail day more storms were brewing in the area. The week had offered a near perfect mix of weather so that we had sunny days balanced by some scenic inclement weather.
These odd formations and structures can be found at Cliff Dwellers off Highway 89A just west of the Navajo Bridge and near the 3,000-foot-high Vermillion Cliffs. Some are remains of an old rock house lodge built about 80 years ago.
Tater Canyon was another open meadow we encountered at these high elevations. One could spend many more weeks in this area wheeling, camping, and hiking, as there’s a lot of great sites to see.
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