The morning of Saturday, September 17 was clear and warmer than the previous morning. Our plan for the final full day of our Grand Staircase adventure was to hike the Widforss Trail, a ten-mile round trip through the forests of the Kaibab Plateau to Widforss Point. Widforss Point, which provides a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon, is the type of viewpoint that on the developed South Rim would be served by shuttle buses and a packed parking lot. But because it was on the far less developed and less visited North Rim, it was accessible only to hikers and backpackers.
We took our time with breakfast and prepping our daypacks, enjoying our final morning to relax. The next day we’d have to be up and out fairly early to head back to Phoenix for the flight home.
At one point we were talking near the tent when I began freaking out about something behind Sean. I was so excited I couldn’t get out the words to tell him why I was so worked up. Later he observed that he thought it was something bad, like a crazy person with a shotgun. But no, it was something wonderful.
A beautiful Kaibab Squirrel had come to visit our campsite.
After a day of searching in vain for a squirrel, now one had come to us. My camera was still locked in the Jeep, so Sean kept an eye on the squirrel while I ran and got it. When I got back, the squirrel was busily foraging in and out of the shadows all around the rim side of our campsite. I started snapping away happily.
It was only after the squirrel had vanished fewer than three minutes after I first spotted him that I realized that the aperture on my camera was still set to be quite dark from the moon and campfire photos from the night before. I’d been so intent on capturing images of the Kaibab Squirrel that I’d not thought about adjusting my settings. I was disappointed that I’d messed up what was likely my only chance to get a truly great image of a Kaibab Squirrel.
Before we hopped in the Jeep, we gazed out across The Transept. Widforss Trail would take us around to the other side of the chasm allowing us to look back to the campground side in a few hours.
Widforss Trail, which is named for painter Gunnar Widforss who painted the National Parks in the 1920s and 1930s, begins in Harvey Meadow a bit up the road from the Campground. The meadow was used in the early decades of Grand Canyon tourism to stage mule trips down North Kaibab Trail, which begins nearby. We shouldered our packs and set out from the parking area at about twenty minutes after ten.
Almost immediately, the trail led up a ridge out of the meadow and into the forest of Ponderosa Pine, White Fir, and Quaking Aspen.
The Transept is strikingly rectangular, rather than gradually narrowing at its uppermost reaches. The first two miles of the trail passed through a series of draws along the top of The Transept, providing alternating views of the chasm and the forest.
The depth of field was astounding from the South Rim some twelve miles away to Brahma Temple out in the main canyon to the walls of The Transept to the rim we were standing on.
Evidence of past wildfires was clear at points throughout the entire length of the hike. For the most part, save for one section later on, the forest felt well recovered to our novice eyes.
But it was also a raggedy forest compared to, say, Yosemite, with abrupt transitions in and out of the draws, occasional downed trees, and helter-skelter tangles of branches.
The trail, however, was very well maintained and easy to follow.
As we moved farther toward the center point of The Transept, Wotan’s Throne came into view out in the Canyon.
Eventually we rose out of a draw up onto what was a major promontory above the center of the top of The Transept. It offered a view 4,000 feet down to the narrow floor of the chasm. The Transept is a major tributary of Bright Angel Creek, which carves Bright Angel Canyon out into the Grand Canyon.
Now we began to get good views of the eastern rim of The Transept, which held essentially all of the North Rim’s visitor facilities including the lodge out at its tip.
The trail led back into the forest well away from the rim. We could see from the map that the next view we’d have into the canyon would be from Widforss Point at the end of the trail.
We entered a more recently (or more intensely) burned portion of the forest, where it was clear that many of the conifers and underbrush had succumbed to flames. Here the burned area had been colonized by Quaking Aspen, which was quickly turning yellow as summer gave way to autumn.
I spotted a squirrel, but it was a Red Squirrel, not a Kaibab Squirrel.
The trail climbed a sunny ridge, and we spotted a Horned Lizard sunning itself along the path.
The entire hike, I had been somewhat obsessively keeping an eye out for Kaibab Squirrels. It was so bad that I began seeing ghost squirrels everywhere. This mania culminated in a piece of burnt tree that from a distance looked like a large squirrel (above). I decided to chill out about the squirrels (but not really).
Soon we were at Widforss Point. We had passed several pairs or small clusters of hikers on the trail (both coming and going). But at Widforss Point we were mostly alone. Near the point, there is a primitive camping area (basically a level bit of ground with a picnic table that can also be used for picnics for day hikers). That would be a great overnight trip.
The hike out to Widforss Point had taken us almost exactly three hours, almost a third again longer than the estimates in the hiking guides since we had taken our time and stopped often to take photos and gaze at views (and look for Kaibab Squirrels).
We pulled a picnic lunch out of our packs, settled in on some low boulders, and had lunch with an immense view.
Since it was midday with the sun gleaming overhead, the features of the canyon, particularly the walls of the South Rim, were washed out in an atmospheric blue. While it didn’t make for the finest photos, the effect was arresting nonetheless, particularly to the west where the canyon just kept going and going, disappearing in a haze of blue. Since the developed portions of the rims are basically opposite each other, most of the visitation is centered in the same spot, but the canyon extends for basically another two hundred miles to the west. The popular, mind’s eye images of the canyon from the rims are only a small slice of it.
Sean remarked that, save for the hot sun beating down, he could have spent hours gazing at that view. Someday, perhaps, we will backpack out to Widforss Point and spend some more time there. As it was, we spent about half an hour taking it in before we set out on our return to Harvey Meadow.
Back at the western rim of The Transept, we spotted the general store building at the northern edge of the campground. Out there was our little tent.
Back near one of the final viewpoints of The Transept, we got chatting with a couple in their early sixties about the trail and the view. We took their picture for them. While we were gabbing, the husband asked, “What’s that thing? Is that one of those squirrels?”
I spun around. There was a huge, gorgeous Kaibab Squirrel foraging near the trail.
I quickly attached my telephoto lens and snapped sixteen frames in the seven seconds it took the squirrel to pick up a mushroom, examine it, put it in its mouth, and bound away with it. The squirrel was gone in seven seconds, but I had managed to capture my longed-for truly great photo of a Kaibab Squirrel. It is the image at the top of the post of the squirrel holding a mushroom that sort of looks like a Chips Ahoy cookie. That photo has been the background image on my phone for the better part of a year. A colleague noticed it once and asked, “Is that your dog?”
No! It is a wonderful little squirrel that looks like a white-tailed forest demon!
I was absolutely thrilled.
Although we hiked for another forty minutes before we reached Harvey Meadow, it felt like no time passed at all.
All told, our Widforss Trail hike comprised a hugely satisfying five and a half hours on the trail. Now we anticipated relaxing in camp before a celebratory dinner at the lodge.