Kaibab Plateau, Kaibab National Forest
The Grand Canyon is not the highlight of this hike. It’s not. But don’t let that get you down. The Kaibab Plateau Trail is one of the most beautiful trails around. Plus, within five minutes of closing your car door, you’ll get some great panoramic views of Saddle Mountain Wilderness, House Rock Valley, Marble Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs. The rest of the route is evergreens, aspens and meadows. There’s wildlife, too. And solitude — very few people find their way to this beauty. It’s enough to make you forget about the nearby natural wonder that everyone is always talking about.
The hike is a segment of Segment 40 of the Arizona Trail. In all, Segment 40 runs for 21.4 miles one way. This listing covers 7.5 miles (15 miles round-trip) of that. It’s a great introduction to a route that’s also known as Kaibab Plateau South and Arizona Trail #101. But don’t worry about the name. Just remember to pack a camera.
From the well-developed trailhead, a paved pathway leads about 100 yards to a “T” at the East Rim Viewpoint. You’ll turn right at the scenic overlook and immediately pass into a thick forest of spruce, firs and aspens. Mule deer are common along this trail. There are elk on the plateau, too, but they’re extremely rare. Keep your eyes peeled. And your ears. The first part of the forest is teeming with birds. Imagine the Owens Aviary at the San Diego Zoo. Only less exotic.
About 20 minutes in, old-growth ponderosas will get your attention as the trail goes in and out of a wash. Then, after another up and down, the trail arrives at an intersection with the North Canyon Trail, which is simply marked “4” and drops steeply to the left, into the Saddle Mountain Wilderness. Stay straight and look for turkeys. In early summer, it’s not unusual to see as many as 12 poults racing after a mother hen. About 45 minutes in, the trail leaves the woods and bisects a long, narrow meadow. It’s a recurring theme on the plateau: forest, meadow, forest, meadow ... .
In the initial meadow, the single track transitions into a jeep road. It’s ideal terrain because it allows your eyes to wander — on steep, rocky trails, you have to watch your step to avoid turning an ankle. To the right you’ll see a water tank, followed by another jeep road that splits off in the same direction. Stay straight, and after a half-hour in the meadow, you’ll move back into the woods. It’s a thick woods, with mounds of natural debris on the forest floor.
Moving on, you’ll head downhill through a healthy grove of young aspens. When the trail levels off again, you’ll find yourself in yet another lush meadow, which stretches for more than a mile and measures about 75 yards wide. Because the grasses grow tall on this leg, the route can be tricky to follow. However, there are cairns to lead the way.
At the two-hour mark, you’ll see an exposed wall of rock, about the size of a log cabin. It’s a noticeable departure from the trees and grasses that dominate the trail’s ecosystem. Just beyond the rocks, the trail veers right as it approaches Forest Road 610. Although the Arizona Trail continues for another 0.3 miles to the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park, and then hundreds of miles to the Arizona-Mexico border, FR 610 is the turnaround point for this hike. There’s not an established trailhead like the one you saw at the East Rim Viewpoint, and there aren’t any panoramas of the Grand Canyon, but the Grand Canyon isn’t the highlight of this hike. It’s the evergreens, aspens and meadows that make the Kaibab Plateau Trail so special.
Length: 15 miles round-trip
Elevation: 8,855 to 8,993 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 36˚25.015’, W 112˚05.495’
Directions: From Jacob Lake, go south on State Route 67 for 26 miles to Forest Road 611. Turn left onto FR 611 and continue 4 miles to the trailhead on the right.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Maps: Little Park Lake, Dog Poin
Information: North Kaibab Ranger District, 928-643-7395 or www.fs.usda.gov/kaibab