Our ten days in California began with three nights in Los Angeles visiting Charlie and Kevin, who had just moved there from Chicago and were still settling into their apartment in Marina del Rey. Sean and I were excited to see them in their new life.
After our grand hike on Widforss Trail, instead of returning immediately to our campsite, we went to the Grand Canyon Lodge campus to hit the North Rim Visitor Center one last time. It was the late afternoon of Saturday, September 17, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to linger at Grand Canyon National Park the next morning waiting for the visitor center to open if we wanted to get back to Phoenix in time for our flight home.
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.
By 4:30 in the afternoon on Friday, September 16, Sean and I were back in the general vicinity of Grand Canyon Lodge. The Visitor Center had not been open in the morning when we went to breakfast, so we stopped in and stamped our passports for Grand Canyon. We also noted the times of sunset and moonrise and the time of the ranger talk at the campground amphitheater, all of which we wanted to experience.
We had a busy evening ahead of us, so we headed back to camp to relax for a bit.
In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country—to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is. I was delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe railroad people in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the canyon. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see. We have gotten past the stage, my fellow-citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery. Whatever it is, handle it so that your children’s children will get the benefit of it. If you deal with irrigation, apply it under circumstances that will make it of benefit, not to the speculator who hopes to get profit out of it for two or three years, but handle it so that it will be of use to the home-maker, to the man who comes to live here, and to have his children stay after him. Keep the forests in the same way. Preserve the forests by use; preserve them for the ranchman and the stockman, for the people of the Territory, for people of the region round about. Preserve them for that use, but use them so that they will not be squandered, that they will not be wasted, so that they will be of benefit to the Arizona of 1953 as well as the Arizona of 1903.
– President Theodore Roosevelt, from Speech at Grand Canyon Arizona, May 6, 1903
After taking in the views at Cape Royal, we drove a short way north on the Walhalla Plateau to Cliff Spring Trailhead for a hike before lunch on Friday, September 16. Cliff Spring Trail drops beneath the rim of the Walhalla Plateau into a steep canyon until it reaches a natural spring about half a mile from the trailhead. The trail continues for another half mile before it peters out. Theodore Roosevelt camped at Cliff Spring during a 1913 hunting trip to the North Rim.
Late morning on Friday, September 16, Sean and I climbed into the Jeep and departed North Rim Campground for the Walhalla Plateau, which juts some fourteen miles south into the canyon from the end of the Kaibab Plateau. That morning at breakfast, we had seen the primary view into the canyon from the busiest point on the North Rim (the equivalent of driving into Grand Canyon Village and having a look from the South Rim), but now we wanted to spend the day seeing other aspects of the Grand Canyon from its North Rim. In part because of the Walhalla Plateau, the views from the various vantage points on the North Rim are more varied than those on the South Rim. Our intention was to spend the greater part of the day on the Walhalla Plateau.
It was already 5:45pm (Utah time) on Thursday, September 15 by the time we drove away from Zion National Park en route to the final National Park in our descent of the Grand Staircase.
Grand Canyon National Park was the first National Park I’d visited, twenty-four years earlier when I was thirteen years old. Back before that trip with my aunt and uncle and cousins, I’d read everything I could about the canyon in my Catholic grade school’s small library. I had become enchanted with photos of black Kaibab Squirrels with their tufted ears and white tails. But the squirrels are only found on the North Rim, and on that long-ago trip we’d visited the South Rim. This would be my chance to see a Kaibab Squirrel.
After lunch on September 15, we weren’t quite finished yet with Zion National Park. That night, we’d be camping on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but before heading south to our final stop on the Grand Staircase, we had one more Zion adventure complete: East Mesa Trail. The out-and-back trail is a three-mile one-way route to Observation Point across relatively flat country from the eastern Park boundary to the rim. Unlike Yosemite National Park, where the road to Glacier Point offers views from the rim to thousands of people a day, all of the rim views at Zion must be earned by hiking.
We woke in pre-dawn light on Thursday, September 15. Wind whipped our tent. And the decision that we had been increasingly fretting about was made for us by the wind.After the splendid performance the previous evening, we’d returned to our campsite and rekindled our campfire. We’d tried to turn in relatively early since we’d wanted to be up early to make an attempt at Angels Landing before it became crowded (we were aiming to be on the first shuttle into the restricted portion of Zion Canyon). Since we’d both had a faint signal on our phones, we’d read up a bit more on the hike. In particular, Sean had gotten his first real taste of news items about Angels Landing. The news stories of deaths on the route in the previous decade and a half hadn’t comforted either of our nerves. Nor had they helped me sleep.