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Tales from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim

Fewer visitors make the trek to this side of the canyon, which has its own rich history
North Rim views are not as wide in miles as views from the South Rim, but the colors are equally dramatic. Unlike the South Rim with its almost 6 million annual visitors, the North Rim more clearly represents Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition to “Leave it as it is.” (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Almost 6 million people now visit the Grand Canyon annually, with 90% going to the South Rim, walking to the edge and staring off into the vast gorge that Theodore Roosevelt said every American should see. That’s why I prefer the North Rim, which is 1,000 feet higher, more like Colorado and has far fewer visitors.

I have fond memories of the South Rim. Family photos of me at around 6 years old, show this little kid wearing cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, shorts and scuffed knees. I don’t quite remember this, but my brother says I dropped my favorite stuffed elephant off one of the viewpoints. I made such a fuss that I prompted a ranger rescue of my gray pachyderm. Over the years, I’ve returned many times, including the hot hike out of the bottom with my wife on the Bright Angel Trail after exiting from a river trip.

But the North Rim is a world unto itself, and it is open only from May 15 to Oct. 15 because deep snows close the long road in from Jacob Lake on Highway 67. The entrance is stunning as you pass through miles of the Kaibab National Forest without a barbed wire fence in sight.

Before I take that turn at Jacob Lake, I drive Highway 89 across the Marble Canyon Bridge. As the Vermilion Cliffs rise up unimaginably steep and red, I head to the vintage stone café at Cliff Dwellers for one of the best green chili cheeseburgers on the planet. With thick french fries and a large iced tea, I’m now ready for the drive across the House Rock Valley.

The goal is to be on the North Rim at sunset fortified by one of those prickly pear margaritas from the Rough Rider saloon just a few steps from the North Rim’s flagstone patio already abuzz with similar sunset worshippers ready to count the stars as they come out.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon gets only 10% of visitors who come to the South Rim. Many guests stay in these small log cabins that look like they inspired the children’s set of Lincoln Logs. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

We rent a small log cabin. They are in tight rows on the North Rim looking like cabins made from a children’s set of Lincoln logs. Reservations for dinner are a must at the historic stone Grand Canyon Lodge with its floor to ceiling windows, elegant menu and fine dining. The lodge itself is a classic example of parkitecture, or using local materials such as log and stone to build a structure on the edge of the canyon that both stands out and blends in.

A mammoth lounge with leather couches and chairs beckons, and looking out the massive windows, tourists feel that they have truly arrived at a world-class destination. There’s no reason to go further. The canyon opens out far below and there are numerous hikes along the rim from just outside the lodge.

Like the hotel El Tovar on the South Rim, the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim has fine dining by reservation only and floor-to-ceiling views for tables close to the windows. The first lodge burned and this one was rebuilt in 1938. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

But it’s the bronze statue in the lounge that I remember most. Down the wide wooden stairs from the reception desk, the statue appears on the right flanked by historic photos. Unlike most commemorative statues, this one has a shiny nose. That’s because generations of children have touched this statue of a little burro, Brighty, sitting on his haunches, looking up, grinning with his big ears focused straight ahead.

I’m sure it was on our family’s summer vacation, probably in a four-door, emerald green Packard Caribbean my dad always drove, when my mother bought me the book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon.”

The most famous wild burro in the Grand Canyon was Brighty, who became quite friendly with tourists at the North Rim and did various chores, including hauling water in casks. Subject of the 1953 book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” by Marguerite Henry, Brighty is beloved of children the world over. Historic photos of the burro are on the wall behind his bronze statue. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

I love that book. In those well-illustrated pages the author Marguerite Henry introduced me to Brighty, Theodore Roosevelt, the lion-hunter Uncle Jimmy Owens and the bad guy, Jake Irons, who was fleeing Arizona to escape questions about the disappearance of Brighty’s pal, Old Timer, a prospector who had helped to tame and name the wild burro Brighty. I was captivated by that book and probably read it two or three times in the Packard’s back seat on the way home.

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Though Old Timer and Jake Irons may have been fictional characters, Brighty, TR and Uncle Jimmy Owens were legends on the North Rim.

Uncle Jimmy Owens guided numerous lion hunts, including a few for President Roosevelt after he left the White House. In the book “Brighty,” the plot is simple. Mountain lions are castigated as ruthless, evil creatures. One even attacks Brighty who, with the snarling cat on his back, manages to flee to a hidden spring-fed pool, dive in and drown the clinging cat. For a child, there’s plenty of action in the book’s chapters, but real-life stories are much more complex.

Uncle Jimmy Owens sits in a roughhewn chair in front of his North Rim cabin with snowshoes behind him on the porch. Photo ca. 1926 by Art Brown from the William H. Claflin Photo Album, #21089. Courtesy of the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection

Roosevelt wrote that Jim Owens, who ran a pack of five hunting hounds, “early hailed with delight the growth of the movement among our people to put a stop to the senseless and wanton destruction of our wildlife.” But Jim Owens killed too many mountain lions. He claims to have shot, trapped and even roped 1,200 lions.

A sign at one of his hunting camps read: COUGARS CAUGHT TO ORDER. RATES REASONABLE. However many dozen lions Owens killed, he did not realize, and neither did TR, that big predators have an essential role in ecosystems. By killing the cats, the mule deer population exploded. What historically happened is worth another children’s book as an eco-lesson in environmental truth.

A young Jimmy Owens stands with four of his hunting dogs by a plank wall where three mountain lion hides are stretched, ca. 1906. #49025. Courtesy of the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.

The biological term is irrupted. With no predators, the deer population grew exponentially doing severe damage to trees, shrubs and plants on the North Rim within Grand Canyon National Park and across the entire Kaibab National Forest and Kaibab Plateau, resulting in a “trophic cascade” of death or ecosystem collapse.

Starving deer ate everything, including pine tree branches as high as deer could reach. By the early 1920s, there were far too many deer on the North Rim and hardly any on the South Rim. Deer had over-populated the boreal forest of conifers, Douglas-fir, Englemann spruce, aspens and open meadows.

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Here’s where the eco-lesson comes alive. An enterprising cowboy, roustabout, smooth talker and handsome man in his tall Stetson hat, goat-hide chaps and boots with spurs, convinced celebrities and federal agents that he could solve the problem.

George McCormick of Flagstaff, Arizona, organized the Great Deer Drive of December 1924, using 70 Paiute and Navajo cowboys. McCormick claimed he could simply round up the excess deer, drive them off the North Rim, down into the canyon’s bottom and up to the South Rim on a trail he knew.

Writer Zane Grey enthusiastically supported the idea. D.W. Griffith agreed to film the deer drive. McCormick hoped to earn $2.50 per animal after he started his moving roundup only to be met with rain, sleet and snow. The Kaibab forest supervisor said it was “the most interesting failure he had ever witnessed.” Not a single deer took the trail.

It required decades to re-establish cougars and eco-balance on the Kaibab Plateau. There were also too many wild burros, but what happened to them is another story that the National Park Service needs to tell.

Meanwhile, the bronze Brighty welcomes visitors to one of our greatest national parks. When you get there, pat him on the nose before you step onto the patio to see a wide, Western view of an ecosystem reborn.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

North Rim views are not as wide in miles as views from the South Rim, but the colors are equally dramatic. Unlike the South Rim with its almost 6 million annual visitors, the North Rim more clearly represents Theodore Roosevelt’s admonition to “Leave it as it is.” (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Wylie Way Camp staff membres with the McKee family and Brighty the burro pose at the first North Rim tourist camp, July 1918. #05427. Courtesy of the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.
Stunning North Rim views include this shot from the Transept Canyon Trail. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Brighty the burro on the right with Uncle Jimmy Owens on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim in 1910. #05270 Courtesy of the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection
North Rim views include Point Royal with its vast distance below. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)