By Molly Absolon
Smooth trails. Heart-stopping views. Great camping. What more can you ask for?
Cycling in Grand Canyon National Park is Limited
Most of the trails in the park do not allow mountain bikes, and road biking on the main byways is not recommended because of heavy traffic and non-existent shoulders. Nonetheless there are a number of options available to cyclist looking for great riding, as well as the unique experience of seeing the Grand Canyon from the saddle of a bike rather than the seat of a car.
Biking on the Grand Canyon's North Rim
On the North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park has partnered with the Kaibab National Forest to create the Rainbow Rim mountain bike trail, an 18-mile singletrack that connects five points: Paissawampitts, Fence, Locust, Timp and North Timp.
"The trail is as good as it gets," says Jen Lamb, a mountain bike guide who has led trips along the Rainbow Rim Trail. "It's a fun singletrack ride through aspens and ponderosa pines with extraordinary views of the canyon. There are a few short, steep climbs but it is a pretty moderate ride really. And the whole package- the setting, the views, the wildlife, the light- makes for an amazing wilderness experience. I remember sitting in camp one evening watching the setting sun paint the canyon walls an incredible array of colors: red, pink, gold, white, black. It was very moving and beautiful."
For Jen, another highlight was surprising a condor next to the trail one day. California condors were reintroduced to Arizona in 1996 and now are a common sight soaring above the canyon during the summer.
"Condors are huge and, unfortunately, not that scared of people, so we came right up on one while riding. They are incredible. Just giant. I also got to see six or seven of them cruising along on the thermals below the canyon rim. Their wingspan must be eight feet or more across. Watching the condors was an added bonus for me on a trip that was already hitting the top of the scale."
The Rainbow Rim Trail can be ridden in a number of different ways. For those looking for a demanding physical challenge, you can opt to ride the whole trail out-and-back in a long 36-mile day. Most people prefer to camp at one of the points from which they can ride out-and-back to one, two, three or more points in a day.
"It's the most non-out-and-back feeling out-and-back trail I've ever done," writes Mountain Bike Bill on his cycling blog, which includes descriptions of trails throughout the western United States. "We finally got desensitized to the scenery and were able to stay on our bikes for more than 60 seconds at a time."
The views along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon have a different flavor from the South. This side of the canyon is higher and the mesas are blanketed in a green that contrasts sharply with the red rocks of the canyon walls and the endless blue skies that arc overhead. The Rainbow Rim trail winds in and out of the forest and then ducks out to the rim where the views open up and drop a thousand feet down to the Colorado River below. Jen says the ride is perfect for families since you can park your car mid-way and opt for rides of varying distances.
"I'd say the riding is moderately difficult. There are some technical sections but nothing you can't walk your bike around if you need to, and you can opt to make a two or three hour ride to a single point, or to ride the whole trail in one day, whatever suits your fancy," Jen says.
The big thing to remember about the Rainbow Rim trail is that it is remote. You drive for 30 miles over dirt roads before you even begin riding. There are no facilities, no water, and no developed campsites along the way, so come prepared. Currently, you do not need a permit to camp or ride unless you are a commercial group, but during the peak summer season, it is recommended that you get to your desired campsite early in order to make sure you find a place. The typical riding season runs from mid-May through mid-October, but the weather can be extreme and the ride is above 7,000 feet, so it's worth calling ahead to find out about conditions.
For basic information about the Rainbow Rim trail you can visit the Kaibab National Forest website or just Google Rainbow Rim trail and you will come up with all sorts of personal narratives and riding recommendations. Several tour companies offer guided trips along the trail for those of you who don't have the time or the desire to deal with the logistics of setting up a trip.
Biking on the Grand Canyon's South Rim
On the South Rim, mountain bikers can find riding near the South Entrance just outside the park boundary. Near Tusayan in the Kaibab National Forest, three interconnected bike trails offer riders a variety of options ranging from a mellow three-mile loop to a more challenging nine-mile circuit. The trails can be linked together to give you any where from an hour to a day of riding. The Arizona Trail, which takes off from Grandview Lookout Tower inside the park, heads south into the Kaibab National Forest and runs for 24.2 miles one way, trending downhill for most of its length and including a an exciting section along the rocky spine of the Coconimo Rim. A number of dirt roads intersect the trail, so with a map, you can create loops of varying lengths.
Road biking can be perilous on park roads, where drivers are prone to rubbernecking at the views, resulting in unpredictable driving at best. This problem is compounded by narrow roads, heavy traffic and distracted pedestrians crowding the pavement. This should change in the near future, however, as the park?s General Management Plan calls for banning private vehicles on the South Rim's roads and replacing them with light rail and alternative-fuel buses, as well as a 33-mile rim-side greenway specifically designed for bikers, walkers and horseback riders.
There is one notable exception to this general rule of thumb, however, you can road bike along the Hermit Road, which is closed to private vehicles from mid-March through mid-October. The road travels for eight miles west of Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest and provides for peaceful, enjoyable road riding broken up only by the handful of buses (to which you must yield) that pass periodically. On the North Rim, the park's entrance road is wide enough for cyclists although the traffic can be heavy. The Cape Royal Road is not recommended for biking, however. Though scenic, this narrow, winding road has poor sightlines and may be dangerous for cyclists.