Northern Arizona has eluded us for many years. With its higher elevations and cooler temperatures, we never seem to time it quite right for an optimal visit. Even though we’ve spent many winters in southern AZ, we usually try to hold off on arriving in Arizona as long as possible in the fall and then skedaddle out of there as early as possible in the spring. Not that we have anything against Arizona, but with so many other places to explore we’ve never felt a huge draw to stay longer than necessary. And then 2020 happened and all our normal ideas about RV travel went out the window.
Here’s where I admit that we have no grand plan for this winter. Aside from staying healthy, staying away from crowds, trying to avoid science-denying idiots, and not going crazy from boredom and isolation, we’re just taking it day by day. Which brings us to mid-October where we found ourselves in the southeast corner of Utah with no plans and no great ideas on where to go next. The two weeks we spent in Utah were enough to determine that it wasn’t a place we wanted to spend more time (see my comment above about trying to avoid the science-denying idiots). So with temperatures in northern Arizona still hovering in the above normal range, we decided this was the year to see what some of the AZ high country had to offer.
First up was Flagstaff. A friend recommended boondocking in Walnut Canyon. She reported that the area was more crowded than ever this past summer, but by the time we got there in mid-October is was only marginally busy. I suspect the cold night-time temperatures thinned out the crowds a bit. We arrived at the coordinates she shared with us to find a nice pull-thru spot shielded by juniper trees on one side and open to mountain views on the other. Thank you Lauri!
Flagstaff is a fun college town. The historic downtown is full of cute shops, breweries, and restaurants. But with the pandemic still raging we avoided all of that and instead stayed home, walked around our “neighborhood”, and hiked at the nearby Sunset Crater National Monument.
We could have stayed in Walnut Canyon for another week, but with a looming feeling that the warmer than average weather could come to an abrupt end at any time, we made a last-minute decision to high tail it to the Grand Canyon before the cold arrived. Yeah, I know. It sounds silly to say that we’re trying to avoid crowds and then decide to visit one of the most popular National Parks in the country. But with plans to boondock in the nearby national forest, no need to visit any inside spaces, and the ability to be flexible in all other aspects, we figured we could avoid any crowds we encountered. And for the most part, we did.
After reading reviews of all the boondocking spots in the area we decided on the Coconino Rim Road dispersed area near the east entrance to the park. To get there we entered the park through the south gate, turned onto Desert View Drive, and then onto Fire Road 310. After about a mile we came to the Kaibab National Forest sign. This is where the boondocking begins. While not a perfect area by any means, there was plenty of room for RVs to spread out and a cell tower located less than a half-mile from where we parked. The biggest downside was how dry and dusty it was. Even walking from the trailer to the truck meant your feet would acquire a thick layer of dusty dirt.
The location of this spot couldn’t have been more convenient for visiting the canyon. One day we hiked right from our spot across the road, through some forest, and over to the edge of the canyon. Amazing!
This location was also really close to the South Kaibab and Grandview Trailheads. We drove over there a couple of times to hike and once to use as a starting point for riding our bikes on the paved path into the park.
We also drove over to the campground one day to fill some jugs with water. I guess the local elk population enjoys the water as much as we do because as soon as we started filling jugs, a lady elk wandered over and began licking one of the faucets.
Tim quickly moved to the other spigot and as far away as he could but the elk just kept coming closer while trying to get his water. Eventually, he sprayed some water near the base of the faucet to keep her occupied.
He was only partially successful as she seemed just as interested in us as the water. We tried our best to follow the signs posted around the park that read, “Don’t approach the wildlife”, but this thirsty beast was having none of that. Needless to say, the whole thing was very entertaining.
Due to the pandemic, we decided not to ride the shuttle bus which limited our exploration of the canyon to only the areas reachable by car. At this time of year that meant Desert View Drive and the area east of the Bright Angel Trailhead. While we spent most of our time on Desert View Drive, we did drive over to what’s referred to as the Village area one afternoon in the middle of the week. This is a busy area with a couple of lodges, art studios, and stores located along the canyon rim. I don’t know at what capacity these places were operating, but at the time of our visit, it was not even the least bit crowded. We walked on the rim path for a bit and looked down on the hikers huffing and puffing up the popular Angel Bright Trail.
The shortened fall days meant that any hiking we did in the canyon was limited to weekends only. This can sometimes be a recipe for crowded trails, but it wasn’t nearly as busy as we had feared. We did our first hike on Sunday after setting into our boondocking spot. The drive from Flagstaff was short, and we purposely left first thing in the morning to allow time for a hike.
Since we were starting later in the day, we decided on a short hike from the South Kaibab trailhead down to the Ooh Aha viewpoint and then back up. Clocking in at 3.8 miles round trip with an elevation loss/gain of only 1,000 feet this was a pretty cool hike that offered a great canyon experience for only moderate effort.
After spending the week hiking all around our boondocking area and along various parts of the rim, when the weekend arrived it was time for a real hike down into the canyon. After considering a variety of trail options, we ultimately decided on an 8-mile hike that would take us from the Grandview trailhead down 3,000 feet to the Horseshoe Mesa and then back up.
With temperatures dipping down into the 20s each night we decided on a not-too early 8:00 start time with lots of layers that we could shed as the sun warmed us. Predicably, at this time of day the crowds were at a minimum and for the first hour or so we only saw a handful of other people on the trail. As one of the two trails on the south rim that travel all the way to the bottom of the canyon, this is a popular route for the backpackers who were lucky enough to get a permit to stay in the canyon overnight. As we hiked down to the mesa almost everyone we passed was hiking up and out with large backpacks.
The first few miles were the steepest with some sharp switchbacks up near the rim and a lot of rock stairs to navigate. I’m always impressed by the trail work in National Parks.
After a few hours of hiking, we made it to the Horseshoe Mesa where the terrain flattened out. We bypassed the trail that continued another two miles to the bottom of the canyon, hiked past some backcountry campsites, and made our way over to the edge of the mesa.
The hike back up was difficult but not as grueling as I had feared. And while we were a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see the bottom of the canyon, at no point did we wish for another 2,000 feet to climb up!
Our predictions about the weather were spot on and with colder temperatures and possibly snow in the forecast, we left the next day in search of someplace warm to hunker down for the winter. Goodbye canyon and hello cactus!