Quiet on the Kaibab Plateau – A Cycling Trip

Kaibab Plateau
A Closed Highway Makes a Fine Bike Path.
KAibab Plateau
Day One on the Dirt Roads.
Kaibab Plateau
Jacob Lake, A Bend in the Road.
Jacob Lake Inn Kaibab Plateau
Jacob Lake Inn. Accommodations and cafe in one.
Kaibab Plateau Summit
Lunch at the Summit.

By Andy Writt

The idea for the trip started with a late April four day weekend and no plans, and I knew I wanted to see someplace new. I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon so I decided to do some research into the North Rim, where I heard it was both beautiful and a bit less crowded than the South Rim. A quick search revealed that Highway 67, the road into the North Rim, would not be open until the middle of May, and my plans seemed to be scuttled before they really took shape. Then it hit me, there was a forty-four mile long two lane highway with no traffic on it, I wondered if it was rideable.

Highway 67 heads south out of Jacob Lake towards the North Rim, thirty miles in is the official entrance to Grand Canyon National Park, and then it is another fourteen miles to the rim. That day I phoned the forest service in Northern Arizona and asked whether it was kosher to bike on the road even though it was closed. A pleasant ranger said she thought so, but that I should beware of plows clearing the road for its opening. Then I called the Jacob Lake Inn to inquire about the conditions of the road, the fellow that answered the phone told me he had just arrived for the season and wasn’t too hip to the conditions of the entire road. However he had jogged up it a mile or so and hadn’t run into any snow, as far as he knew the road was clear. That’s all I needed to hear, the decision was made and I would head down to do some exploring.

I really did not know what to expect, but after a seven hour drive from Salt Lake I arrived at the Jacob Lake Inn. Headed out of Fredonia, Arizona the road starts to climb out of the desert. For a bit the highway goes through Pinyon and Sagebrush and then you arrive on the Kaibab Plateau. This is where Jacob Lake Inn is situated, it is just a bend in the road with the Inn, a cafe and gas station connected and across the street a seasonal campground. All of this is situated in a ponderosa pine forest, it is gorgeous.

When I checked in the desk clerk was surprised to find out I was staying for two nights. It seemed this place was more of just a one night stop-over at that time of year, rarely did anyone stay longer. I told her I was going to poke around on my bike for a couple of days and do some exploring, and while I explained this I focused in on a cartoonish painting of a squirrel behind her. I told her it was a cool painting of a squirrel. Oh yeah, that is a Kaibab squirrel, she explained. I had had no idea a tufted eared, white bushy tailed squirrel was endemic to the Kaibab. Wonderful, now I had a mission, go out and find a Kaibab squirrel!

After check-in I headed up the closed highway, ducked the gate and found myself in utter solitude. An initial climb up a hill shortly landed me at a fire tower that was open for climbing. I imagine the view to be stupendous, but my fear of heights precluded me from climbing to the top. I biked on from there, up the highway, soon discovering a plethora of packed dirt side roads headed in all directions. My touring tires at 1.75” proved perfect for these tracks and I wound around these for a while as the day waned, careful not to get lost in their sometimes labyrinthian jumble through the ponderosas. From my forays on these roads I would guess you could spend days exploring them, though I reckon it would be prudent to have a GPS to prevent getting lost.

That first afternoon was an excellent introduction to the area and I looked forward to more in the coming days. Come evening I had a nice dinner at the Inn’s cafe and finished it off with one of the home-made cookies they are famous for. During dinner a young couple from New Zealand came in bundled from head to toe, they were traveling the States on their touring motorcycles. They huddled over cups of tea to warm up, and when I left I figured out why. While I dined a strong cold wind had started to blow from the north, it would portend the next days weather.

That next morning I awoke to a howling wind and a rather substantial snowstorm. Quickly it was apparent that biking would be off the itinerary for the day, it would have been a perfect day for a fat bike, but alas I had only my touring bike. Luckily I had brought along hiking boots and waterproof gear. The wind subsided a bit and I had a peaceful hike through the ponderosas, the red of the trunks contrasting beautifully with the white of the snow. And just like the day before, all was quiet.

When I first started planning this trip I had thoughts of biking the full forty-four miles into the rim and setting up camp. These plans were soon whittled into a more realistic vision of day trips, probably for the best considering the snowstorm of day two. My third and final day on the Plateau broke sunny and mild, I lingered a bit over coffee allowing the snow from the day before to melt.

My plan for the last day on the Kaibab was to bike out to a nice spot for lunch and then double back from there. It was still a bit chilly when I started out, the temperature in the low forties, but it warmed up a bit as the miles went by. After about fifteen sunny miles on the highway I arrived at a summit and feeling good I pushed on. Soon the road grew more shaded as it dropped down the other side and yesterdays snow was still covering the road, so rather than risking a fall and injury I decided to return to the sun of the summit and have my lunch. Fortified by my meal, I again explored many of the dirt tracks on my way back to Jacob Lake. At one point on a dirt road I found a nice overlook and could see the Grand Canyon in the distance. I’m sure as far as Grand Canyon views go it was not spectacular, but at least I got a peek at it. It turned out to be an amazing ride and I was beaming when I made my way back to the car, a bit sad that it was time to head north and back to the city.

Even though I did not get to do all the biking I had intended on the trip I was very happy with how everything worked out. I would not hesitate to repeat the trip, especially as I did not get to spy a Kaibab squirrel and really would like to. Always something else to look forward to.

 

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