On the Road: Riding the Rainbow Rim

dog and mountain bike grand canyon

By Val Vanderpool

Deciding where to go for an extended weekend van camping and riding trip during a global pandemic isn’t as simple as picking a new spot on a map, or revisiting an old favorite unless it meets all the criteria: Does this destination want us there? Can we drive there? Is it super popular/touristy? Are there sufficient trails/parking, etc. to support the rising number of people taking advantage of the outdoors? Is there ample opportunity to avoid campgrounds, vacation rentals and hotels? Can we do the trip with few stops/minimal human contact? Will the weather be hospitable enough for spending most of the trip outdoors?

Honestly, these are typically deciding factors for us COVID or no COVID, but what’s different is now they are dealbreakers and not just personal preference.

Being intimately familiar with many of the riding destinations across the West, thanks to my two separate stints driving demo vans, and Brian’s laundry list of human-powered endeavors over the years, we knew most places we would want to visit late autumn would not meet the above criteria — be it inclement weather, an abundance of leaf peepers, optimal trail conditions drawing the masses, or the knowledge that many of residents of these towns simply wouldn’t be stoked to have us in their midst.

grand canyon view

We racked our brains for a couple of weeks, trying to find the best, most responsible option but weren’t coming up with anything feasible or inspired — until Brian suggested the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to ride the Rainbow Rim Trail.

It checked all the boxes, and was somewhere I’d never been and Brian hadn’t ridden for 10-plus years. Because he had spent some time on the Kaibab Plateau, he knew there would be ample, remote boondocking, and that if we planned to ride the trail on a weekday, we would very likely have the place all to ourselves. He would be right on both accounts.

The trip to the North Rim is a bit circuitous from Orange County, since the Grand Canyon cleaves the Northern Arizona landscape into two uncrossable halves for a nearly 300 mile-span, with the most direct route taking you north of St. George, Utah, to the Hurricane/Gooseberry area (driving past that place and not stopping was painful, I won’t lie), then east to Fredonia and south to Jacob Lake. Once you hit Jacob Lake and turn off onto one of the many dirt roads that crisscross the Plateau, the fun really starts. The primarily single lane heavily washboarded roads require maximum attention and make for slow driving, especially in a fully-loaded 90’s-era camper van.

van driving on the kaibab plateau
But we are used to that, and we still had plenty of daylight left to enjoy the scenery on this crisp fall day. Aspen trees lined the road on both sides, their leaves rattling in the breeze like a soothing wind chime. For nearly two hours, we wound our way through these golden groves and thick stands of pine and juniper, until reaching the rim. We found a campsite nestled in the trees, a stone’s throw from the Rainbow Rim Trail, with no neighbors in sight, which meant our two dogs would be free to run amuck, dig holes and chase critters. Sweeping views of the Grand Canyon were a bonus.

two dogs in the woods
We promptly settled in and then readied ourselves to ride the tail end of the Rainbow Rim Trail before dark. Because we wanted to finish the entire trail, and were parked on the eastern end of it, riding the final few miles would cut down the following day’s ride and get our legs moving after 9-plus hours behind the wheel.

The Rainbow Rim Trail stretches 22 miles along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, winding in and out of ravines, up and down short rises and meandering out to ample viewpoints along the rim. The undulating nature of the trail makes for quick miles, with very few sustained climbs and even fewer technical sections. Spectacular scenery, solitude and endless flow more than make up for what the trail lacks in adrenaline-pumping excitement, and that evening we got a taste of all three.

mountain biker riding in aspen trees grand canyon
The following morning, we properly fueled up for a few hours in the saddle, with the goal of riding to the Rainbow Rim’s northern terminus, 18 miles one way. My legs already had almost 60 miles on them for the week, so I was secretly happy that the total elevation gain would be moderate.

Starting from our campsite at Timp Point, we quickly arrived at North Timp Point, where we stopped long enough to gawk at the view before making our way out to Locust Point. This stretch of trail was lovely, winding away from the rim and into denser stands of pines and aspen groves, through piles of crunchy leaves and in and out of small drainages.

mountain biker riding in the aspen trees
We were both overbiked for this type of terrain, with Brian on a 2020 Giant Reign 29 and me on a 2020 Scott Contessa Ransom. But thanks to modern geometry, namely a steep seat tube angle, and Scott’s TwinLoc suspension platform, my 170-millimeter travel Ransom climbs like a shorter-travel bike — and it’s sub-30 pounds, which only makes it more versatile.

scott ransom mountain bike

Despite the fact that there is nothing extreme on the Rainbow Rim Trail, I was feeling all the ups and downs and constant pedaling by the time we reached the final viewpoint and end of the trail at Parissawampitts Point. Now we had a decision to make: Ride back on singletrack the way we came, or find a fire road route to mix it up?

mountain biker grand canyon
We ultimately decided to take fire road back to camp, and found a route on Gaia that looked like it would go. Some longer climbs required me to dig deep at times, but we didn’t see a single soul on these desolate roads, and that made every pedal stroke worth the effort.

We rolled back into camp mid afternoon, to the delight of our dogs, who had waited comfortably in the shade in our van. We had ridden 31 miles, with 2,600 feet of gain, and an untold number of jaw-dropping views and too many photo opps to stop for. We capped off the day with a sunset stroll along the rim with the dogs, to savor the stunning beauty of this magnificent place as long as we could.

sunset viewpoint grand canyon

It was the perfect pandemic getaway, that would culminate with Brian crossing the Grand Canyon from north to south on foot the next day, and firing up our Ooni pizza oven outside of Flagstaff to celebrate his birthday that evening.

runner at the north rim of the grand canyon

We saw few people, and kept our interactions to a minimum as we made the most of this new way of traveling: self-contained, self-sufficient and socially distant. Although we missed not sampling breweries, restaurants or coffee shops as we normally would once we got back to civilization, we were grateful for a change of scenery for a few days, and the ride on the Rainbow Rim is one I won’t soon forget.

mountain biker grand canyon
To learn more about the Rainbow Rim Trail, visit Trailforks.com.

Val Vanderpool manages The Path's marketing, communications and online sales. She has worked in the bike industry for almost 15 years, most recently at Liv Cycling USA, and Bicycle Retailer & Industry News magazine, where she was Features Editor for six years. Val lives in Silverado Canyon with her partner, Brian, and their two dogs, Turbo and Honey.