ATV Riding in Grand Canyon’s North Rim

Home Page Slide Show, West — on October 26, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Adrenaline junkies aim for life’s superlatives: the tallest peaks, steepest climbs, deepest canyons, longest hikes and highest speeds. Adrenaline (a.k.a.

ATV Reviews Managing Editor, Tom Kaiser

ATV Reviews Managing Editor, Tom Kaiser

epinephrine) packs a payoff that hits like a hard drug. The heart beats faster, blood vessels contract, air passages open and the sympathetic nervous system engages its “fight-or-flight” mode to prepare the body for anything.

I wouldn’t call myself a junkie per se, but I’ve dabbled. Jumping off cliffs, whitewater rafting, mountain snowmobiling and off-road riding are where I find my fixes and, lately, I’ve been craving another feat — getting as far off the human grid as possible.

There’s something profound about the uncertainty of isolation and distance that excites me. Venturing away from civilization is a thrill that’s well worth dusting off the map and doing some research. In June I found that hyperarousal aboard high performance Arctic Cat Prowlers in the jagged lands of northwestern Arizona, near the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. High desert conditions, extreme scenery, brushes with lizards and dehydration — it didn’t disappoint.

First Stop: Las Vegas

Gambling is not my scene, but our soon-to-be-lonely travels began at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. The Great American Playground has a seemingly imaginary skyline populated by buildings of immense proportions — recreated versions of the world’s most famous structures, like the Empire State Building, pyramids of Egypt, canals of Venice and Paris’ Eiffel Tower. It’s neat to see, but I was happy we drove straight through, headed north through the desert toward the town of Mesquite.

With a population near 15,000, Mesquite is a less flashy gambling oasis an hour and a half northeast of Vegas near the border with Utah and Arizona. At Casablanca Resort Casino we hit the pool, games were played and our group of off-road editors and Arctic Cat officials rested for a long adventure beginning in the morning — three days and more than 300 miles of riding with the forecast calling for sunshine and temperatures above 100 degrees.

As a Midwesterner alternately accustomed to frozen nostrils and suffocating humidity, I realized I had never been in the desert during the peak of summer. This would be an interesting test of my body’s cooling system, I thought.

Heading Out There

Fifty miles into our trip from Mesquite into northwestern Arizona, the terrain mysteriously morphs from infinite desert to massive hills of stone haphazardly jutting out of the sandy plains. The Earth takes on different tones of reds, grays and browns, depending on which direction you’re looking, and the meandering trail attempts to follow the contours of the gradually rising hills.

chopper

Taking in the scenery!

Our dusty group of 16 riders stopped for lunch under a shade tree near a lonely cow pasture. We had gained some elevation and lost a few degrees on our climb, but it was still desert-in-the-summer hot and completely, very dry.

Our group was grinning, snapping pictures and downing Gatorade, but the cows looked underprivileged and in need of an iced tea and a good steak dinner — or maybe some poultry. With ribs protruding from their sides, these emaciated souls didn’t seem like those “happy cows” you hear about frolicking their way through life in Northern California or the Midwest.

Yes, these cows were longing for better food and easier living in a less harsh environment. It was a visual reminder we were heading out, way out, to an area that’s not equipped to sustain mammalian life — scrubby brush, endless sand, very little shade, oven-like heat and a fiery wind that dried out a fresh sandwich in five minutes.

Scenery changed quickly and gradually heading east from Mesquite. The sandy desert became slightly more covered in vegetation with altitude, but it was still a rough environment. I was grateful for motorized transportation, and tried to imagine doing it on foot or horseback. No matter the mode, the rise and fall of the hills created dramatic scenes.

The Bar 10 Ranch

Luxury lodging at the Bar 10 Ranch!

Luxury lodging at the Bar 10 Ranch!

Our trail’s elevation continued to vary and the day’s heat persisted. Dropping down into a valley, our crew was treated to a distant view of the Grand Canyon. The sun dipped toward the mountainous western horizon as our caravan arrived at our first destination. We took a quick detour before entering the Bar 10 ranch to gas up the Prowlers — the only gas pump we’d be seeing for days.

Shabby-looking fences, obligatory bunches of tumbleweed and one old dog greeted us at the tank, while we waited for a ranchman to fill up our rides. We had found a very unique destination several hours from the nearest civilization, and solely powered by generators. It’s a popular stopover for whitewater rafters seeking solace and showers on their 3- and 7-day trips down the Colorado River. This authentic, functioning ranch also offers horseback and ATV rides, Hummer tours, guided river trips, skeet shooting and hiking.

Like the rafters, but less sunburned, we were looking forward to a clean shower, hot meal and evening entertainment on the ranch. After a few cold ones, some cowboy poetry and Wild West song-and-dance, us weary riders retired to a fleet of covered wagons scattered on the hillside.

I pulled back the canvas covering the end of my wagon, and was pleasantly surprised by a charming space with a comfy-looking bed and a lantern hanging from the ceiling. While making up my bed, I was stunned by a fast-moving lizard that had been grabbing a few winks in the soft fabric. We had quite the game of cat and mouse as I tried to show my new friend the exit, while it demonstrated the infinite places to hide within a wagon. Another appeared minutes later, running directly over my chest as I read a book. It was time for sedatives and a tightly wrapped sleeping bag.

Cowboy Breakfast

The dinner bell rang out at 7 o’clock the next morning: time for the Bar 10’s “cowboy breakfast” I had been hearing so much about. The bacon, eggs,

Ranch food was probably never this good back in the day!

Ranch food was probably never this good back in the day!

biscuits, fresh jam and pancakes didn’t disappoint, and neither did the dining room’s view of the canyon. A constant parade of helicopters shuttled rafters to and from the Colorado just a few miles away.

We loaded up the Prowlers and hit some fast, smooth trails headed out of the ranch’s valley — north and east toward the Toroweap Overlook on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Along the way most trails were spacious and fast, allowing us to do some athletic cruising, check out some wildlife and follow exhilarating cliff-side trails.

Prowlers are ideal vehicles for such terrain — all-day comfortable, and their tendency toward under-steering means the 1,300-pound vehicles drift through corners with ease. We entered the parkland, and slowly wheeled over the undulating trail toward the canyon’s edge. It was like riding over a single, giant slab of stone.

The Grand Canyon

Toroweap is a Paiute term for “dry or barren valley,” an accurate descriptor for the surroundings. Volcanic activity began along the Toroweap Fault approximately 7 million years ago, when lava blasted out from more than 60 nearby vents. Standing 3,000 feet above the meandering river was destined to be the highlight of the week.

Riding through the high desert

Riding through the high desert

The more heavily visited South Rim of the canyon was visible across a mile-wide gap — this sheer canyon is unmistakably monumental. Daredevils in our group saw how close they could stomach getting to the edge. Photography cannot fully capture the scale of the canyon, and the brain struggles to compute the time and force needed for its creation.

On our way out of the park, a friendly team of officers from the Bureau of Land Management stopped our group for a lengthy chat. They wanted us to pass along this valuable information if you plan to repeat our trip: Be sure to have your ATV, dirt bike or UTV registered and street legal — mirrors, a horn and proof of insurance!

Such extreme surroundings make one wonder at the recreational possibilities in the area. I’d certainly like to check out a rafting trip, especially after seeing some massive rapids and hilarious boat crashes on the vintage videotape playing in the Bar 10 dining room. Would you take an aluminum fishing boat down the Colorado River? I wouldn’t, but I thoroughly enjoyed footage of classic-looking 1970s folk giving it a try.

Wider, mostly-straight trails brought us away from the park, out of the valley and up into pine-covered hills in the dry country northwest of Toroweap. A wildfire could quickly devastate this area, and we obeyed the signage and stayed on trail. The arid conditions evaporated the body’s sweat before it could cool the skin. I tried to drink a lot of water.

We saw a wide variety of terrain around the Canyon's North Rim.

We saw a wide variety of terrain around the Canyon's North Rim.

For variety, our guide, Rick Wallace from Side x Side Outfitterz, charted a new route back to the ranch — thick woods and a rough, rocky hill climb back down into the ranch valley. Engine braking was in full effect. We had a few flat tires along the way, but they were well worth the challenge, and the Prowlers’ power steering minimized the harsh impacts.

Navajo Tacos

Start with fry bread; add some tomatoes, cheese, onions, lettuce, salsa, black olives and sour cream, and you’ve got yourself some delicious Navajo tacos, which we had for dinner back at the Bar 10. They were tasty, but in retrospect this meal became my Last Supper.

As it turns out, I didn’t drink enough fluids throughout the day. The miserable symptoms of dehydration hit me after dinner, and persisted through the

The original "Navajo Taco".

The original "Navajo Taco".

next day. Drink water in the desert — a lot of it!

After a lizard-free night’s rest, it was time to motor our way back to civilization. The return trip would be a bit more than 100 miles. Arctic Cat’s Kale Wainer assured me we’d soon be excited to see signs of humanity.

Returning To Innocence

The trip back to Mesquite started on familiar high-speed runs, until we took a left turn onto a trail that corkscrewed up switchbacks to a flat plateau. We kept a good pace, with a few steamy snack breaks along the way. It was a hot one out there, and I was hoping my body would handle the conditions a little better this time around. I’m no longer tolerating any of this “it’s a dry heat” talk.

Our team of aggressive riders made the most of the more narrow, twisty trails. Up, down, left, right, dodging wayward cows and sliding around every corner — the way between Bar 10 and the Nevada border winds through dried-out creek beds (some with incredible water-etched contours), past some cattle pastures and rises to its elevated climax a few miles east of Mesquite.

As we climbed higher and higher, the mercury fell with our gained altitude. The air was suddenly cool enough to raise goose bumps in the breeze — a great feeling after days of scorching heat.

And then it appeared through wavy lines of the heat, the far-off town of Mesquite. Kale was right; it was a welcome sight and we immediately made plans to dive-bomb the Casablanca’s pool.

We scrubbed altitude coming off the mountain; the sudden rise in temperature was eerie, like driving straight into a pre-heated oven. The air warmed dramatically by the minute. Seated next to me in the passenger seat, Kale looked at me like, “Are you believing this?”

Thinking about our eventful week in the searing desert, the spectacular scenery, the fun we had and knowing I’d soon be jumping in a cold pool, I hardly could. Getting away from it all feels good, but getting back can be half the fun.

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Check out more photos from our Grand Canyon adventure here!

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