The Grand Canyon—Rim-to-Rim on Two Wheels

It would be one of the world’s greatest loop rides…except for that big crevasse that gets in the way. You’ll just have to settle for a fantastic ride that comes up about 12 miles short of a full circle. Yes, those 12 miles that are impassible on a motorcycle are what make the ride so spectac­ular. A rim-to-rim trek around the Grand Canyon is a true bucket-list ride.

Since there will be camping on this ride, I pack my BMW R 1200 GS with the requisite tent, sleeping bag, air mattress and other campsite essentials. Any sport-touring motorcycle would be fine for this loop. However, the GS seems perfect since there will be opportunities for short off-road excursions along the way.

My ride starts at the Canyon’s South Rim. After paying my national park fee ($25 for a solo motorcyclist), I wind my way through the moderately heavy tourist traffic toward the Canyon. I choose not to spend my time at the bustling “heart” of the park, Grand Canyon Village. The vast majority of park visitors view the Canyon only from this perspective. It is the most visited and “touristy” part of the park and boasts a plethora of campsites, lodges, restaurants and shopping options. However, that’s not why I am here.

Towering evergreens stand as sentinels at the entrance to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Towering evergreens stand as sentinels at the entrance to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

For me, the beauty of the South Rim for the motorcyclist is that Arizona Route 64 follows the Canyon’s lower lip for miles. My counterclockwise circumnavigation of the Grand Canyon gets off to a wonderfully slow start. I am compelled to stop at virtually every lookout point on my eastward journey. Why wouldn’t I? This is the Grand Canyon after all. This is obviously not a ride with miles of nonstop touring; this is a kickstand testing adventure. Each overlook casts the Canyon in a wonderfully different perspective and light. This first leg of the loop has numerous sweeping curves, but the distracting view and the moderate-to-heavy national park traffic keep the speeds low.

After leaving the park to the east, the ride continues through the Navajo Nation. The grandiosity of the Canyon melts into the panoramic red and gray hews of the high desert. The expansive landscape is dotted with Native American arts and crafts stands—more kickstand work if that is your thing. This is the part of the ride that includes long, straight stretches of higher-speed riding. After miles of this lunaresque Arizona landscape on the northward stretch of State Route 89, a change comes on the westward turn onto State Route 89A.

Traditional Native American dwellings, both original and recreated, are abundant along the reservation portions of the ride.
Traditional Native American dwellings, both original and recreated, are abundant along the reservation portions of the ride.

While still painted in vibrant red, the landscape here includes wonderfully stratified crimson and gray cliffs and rock formations. It is on this leg of the ride that I get a look at the sculpting agent in the Canyon’s erosive history. I cross the impressive Colorado River just below the angler’s haven of Lee’s Ferry. Route 89A is the stretch of this tour that boasts the most eco diversity. To the east it is a treeless rock and color fest, while its western portion is an alpine delight. This mountainous stretch is lightly traveled, making for spirited and exhilarating carving of the numerous sweepers and hairpins that grace the ascent up the topography. One word of warning, the road here has an abundance of “tar snake” tarmac patching, so be aware of your line in those curves.

After the wonders of Route 89A, I turn back to the south on the road that will ultimately take me to the North Rim. State Route 67, also known as the Kaibab Plateau-North Rim Parkway, carves through pine and aspen forests and high-country meadows toward Grand Canyon National Park. The pavement here is pristine, scenic and fun to ride. Wildlife abounds, making it important to scan the periphery for animals that could migrate onto the road. I even ride through a large herd of buffalo near the park’s entrance.

Just steps from the North Rim Campground, this spectacular vista is transformed throughout the day as the sun’s spotlight illuminates it from various angles.
Just steps from the North Rim Campground, this spectacular vista is transformed throughout the day as the sun’s spotlight illuminates it from various angles.

For me, the park’s North Rim is a welcome change from the South Rim. There is significantly less traffic, fewer visitors and much more of a wilderness ambiance. The North Rim is a full 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim, and the elevation difference gives this side of the park a completely different feel. However, it is more of a “destination” than the other rim. You can’t “ride the rim” like you can on the south side. Rather, here you park and view. For me, that means finding my reserved tent-only campsite, which is a stone’s throw from the rim of a beautiful side canyon.

The North Rim, while less commercial than the South Rim, still offers restaurant options, stores, a lodge and fuel. I opted for camping, but more luxurious accommodations are available (with substantial advance planning and reservations). Even a summer campsite most often requires reservations and preplanning, but the effort is worth it.

Expansive panoramas are the rule on the road that flanks the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.
Expansive panoramas are the rule on the road that flanks the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument.

On my second day at the North Rim, I make the beautiful and grueling hike from my campsite to Roaring Springs deep in the Grand Canyon. The down-and-back trail boasts over 3,000 feet in elevation change and offers amazing views of the Canyon from an “inside” perspective. The 11-mile hike is a highlight of the trip, but I must admit that it made it a little tough to throw an aching leg over the seat of my tall BMW GS the following day.

A Grand Canyon rim-to-rim ride takes a motorcyclist through a myriad of ecosystems and to the edge of arguably the grandest of the natural wonders of the world. Plan your trip, make your reservations, pack for varied weather and embark on this amazing (almost) loop ride.

Route Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com
Route Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com
Several smaller feeder canyons, like this one near Cameron, are spanned by bridges and pipelines along the route.
Several smaller feeder canyons, like this one near Cameron, are spanned by bridges and pipelines along the route.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Great write up
    But like many others no mention of the time of year this took place……
    How hot was it?
    When is the best time of the year to do this run?

  2. Good question. It is a ride best made in the spring and fall. Winter is out because the North Rim closes due to snow. Mid summer is a bit oppressive on the reservation portion of the ride.

  3. The national park on both rims, is surrounded by national forests, so free camping is easily found just outside the park.

    On the South rim go further away from the park – a couple of miles – because the helicopter tours fly low and frequently over the forrest. It’s like apocalypse now – crazy. Fun once, but I wouldn’t want to do it twice.

    I agree – the north rim is much more enjoyable because it’s less fully exploited.

    • If you’re asking me – while there are official campgrounds in some national forests, in this case I just just pulled on to an nfs dir troad, looked for stone fire rings and chose a site I liked.

      It’s rough camping so bring water and a trowel.

      I also used HERE maps on my phone to navigate the roads. Osmand is good too.

  4. The north rim is far less crowded and relaxing than the south. It is only open from May 15 through October 15. The weather on the north rim can also vary substantially from that on the south rim. Bring rain and cool weather gear if you visit in the spring or fall seasons. Lodging sells out many months in advance. The Vermillion Cliffs and Kaibab Plateau are beautiful sights on the route between the rims.

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