Grand Canyon’s North Rim as spectacular as ever

A debris teepee.

Change may be inevitable in some places, but not at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

I just spent three days there with friends from Ohio. We are making a 10-day loop through the national parks of southern Utah.

It’s been about a dozen years since I last visited the canyon’s North Rim, which draws mostly serious hikers and nature enthusiasts.

I came expecting to see a new level of commercialization much like what I encountered and wrote about at the canyon’s South Rim last year.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the North Rim had changed little and commercialization remained at bay. Accommodations continue to be a campground, cabins, and motel (I use the word loosely) that offer little more than basic amenities like a bed and toilet.

The view was as spectacular as ever. There is simply nothing like it.

However, this week much of the scenery was “smoked in” by wildfires from California. A park ranger said smoke from the fires around Los Angeles had drifted directly eastward over the mountains and into the canyon, leaving the view obstructed and the air tinged with the smell of burning wood.

Which brings me to the one thing that has changed the North Rim a bit – wildfires.

Much of the landscape leading to the North Rim, through the Kaibab National Forest, is scarred by wildfires. Beginning in 2000 with the Outlet Fire, lightning strikes have caused a series of blazes that altered the make-up of the woods. The Fuller Fire and the 2006 Warm Fire changed the nature of many woodlots around the canyon.

Where the mixed pine forest once flourished, aspen are now thick. The aspen come back quicker than the pines in burned out areas. However, they are less fire tolerant. And in some places, the aspen also appear burned.

Over the years, forest management staff have learned a few things about wildfire fighting, a ranger told me. Lightning-strike fires are now allowed to burn themselves out. Staff simply establish back-burn perimeters around the fires to control them.

Most importantly, in warm weather they clear the forest floor of debris – the fuel that makes fires so deadly. Debris is piled into “teepees” and allowed to dry. Once the first snows come, the “teepees” are set ablaze in controlled burns.

It’s a very good idea and seems to be working well in the national forests and, to a lesser extent, in the national parks.

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