Off the beaten canyon: exploring Grand Canyon’s hidden gems

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There’s something familiar about the Grand Canyon. Its dramatic landscape and red-gold hues have been depicted in movies, posters, pencil cases and postcards. It’s a recurring symbol of the road movie, a faithful slice of wholesome Americana – and, yet, when you see it for the first time, it’s still daunting, still overwhelming.

Its sheer scale stretches for 277 miles (446km) along the course of the Colorado River, reminding you that America isn’t just a land of super-sized McDonald’s and greasy hotdogs; it’s home to some of the most beautiful scenery on the face of this Earth.

The Grand Canyon alone attracts over five million visitors every year, the majority of which explore the National Park from the South Rim. Far fewer visitors (just 10% in fact) explore the Canyon from the North Rim. This lies just 10 miles (16km) across the canyon from the South Rim visitor centre (as the Californian condor flies), but is a 220-mile (354km) drive – all the way around the canyon. On top of that, it is closed to the public in wintertime as it averages 2,438m (8,000ft) above sea level, rising 305m (1,000ft) higher than the South Rim.

We wanted to explore a different area of Grand Canyon National Park, somewhere far from the masses. Unfortunately, as we were visiting in late February, the North Rim was closed. This didn’t put us off and with a little research and a touch of luck we found some adventure north of the Canyon which we enjoyed all by ourselves. We discovered plenty of other things to do around Grand Canyon National Park.

Lee’s Ferry

We stayed at Cliff Dwellers Lodge near Lee’s Ferry which proved a great base for exploring the surrounding terrain. Lee’s Ferry – due to its unique geography – was once the only place for hundreds of miles where the Colorado River could be accessed from both sides. Historically, a boat service at Lee’s Ferry served as an important river crossing from the mid-1800s until the early 20th century, before being replaced by the first Navajo Bridge, completed in 1929.

Cliff Dwellers Lodge itself supplies everything you’ll need to explore the area. The lodgings are homely and comfortable with a small grocery and angling shop, gas station and an excellent onsite restaurant serving delicious, generously-portioned meals throughout the day. There’s plenty of information available at the lodge – just ask Kelly or Eran who will happily offer recommendations. We only had one complete day so settled on the following two trails.

Spencer Trail

We spent the morning scaling Spencer Trail, a steep, snaking climb up from the historic Lee’s Ferry area. The trail switches back repeatedly as it slowly climbs 475m (1,560ft) to the rocky plateau at the summit. The view grows progressively incredible the higher you climb. It took us just under an hour to reach the top, which included plenty of stops to catch our breath, take photographs and absorb the intense panoramic vistas. Below, the snaking Colorado River glints emerald green as it winds its way through the limestone rock walls.

At the top, the rugged plateau stretches to the Northeast where you can enjoy grand views of the city of Page, the limestone landscape and meandering Colorado. Take the time to rest, sign the visitor’s notebook on the central cairn and enjoy the views before turning back to head down. Hopefully, you’ve still got some energy left for the afternoon…

Cathedral Wash

If Spencer Trail was punishing on the legs, you’ll find Cathedral Wash more challenging to the brain. The trail begins at the side of the road just a few miles from the historic Lee’s Ferry area and immediately you’ll be faced with the first of many exercises in problem solving. The trail is less than two-and-a-half miles along the wash to the Colorado and back, but it feels longer as you pick your way through the canyon often having to double back when you find the route down to the canyon floor blocked or too steep to traverse. Don’t worry: it’s almost impossible to get lost as you either go forward or back.

The hike is incredibly rewarding and evokes a real sense of adventure. We visited in January and had the entire canyon to ourselves. The rock formations and patterns are mesmerising, offering plenty of opportunity for the photographer. Once you reach the river, there’s not much to do but take in the view before doubling back. Take note of landmarks and cairns on your way as you’ll be thankful for them on your return. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get back – you don’t want to be hiking this in the dark!

More to do at Lee’s Ferry

Lonely Dell Ranch and Lee’s Ferry Historic District
Paria Canyon
Navajaro Bridge and Interpretive Center (Californian Condors)
Upper South Fork of Soap Creek
Lower Soap Creek
Condor Release site
The Wave
North Rim trails
Horse-Show Bend
The Arizona Trail
Antelope Canyon

Just ask Eran at Cliff Dwellers for her incredibly helpful guide!

Atlas & BOots

How to get there

From the visitor’s center at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, it’s about a two-and-a-half hour drive to Cliff Dwellers Lodge. Take the Desert View Drive road eastwards, stopping regularly to enjoy the many viewpoints. Turn left (north) onto the US-89 and keep driving for 134 miles. When the road splits, be sure to turn left on the 89A. Twenty-three miles later, Cilff Dwellers is on the right hand side of the road.

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