Grand Canyon's North Rim beds down for the winter Scott Craven, The Arizona Republic Published 7:36 a.m. ET Nov. 27, 2015 Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon’s North Rim beds down for the winter
Two men in work shirts popped out and hefted a white sign from the bed. Hinges squeaked from disuse as the A-frame sign unfolded. The men plopped it 8 feet from the entrance, where it could not possibly be missed.
It foretold in large black letters the lodge’s immediate future.
“Closed for the winter.”
Men, women and children clad in hiking shorts and shoes paid scant attention as they headed into the lodge, their eyes focused on the magnificent view framed by the picture windows across the lobby.
Of winter, there was no sign. Temperatures hovered in the mid-60s. The day before, it was sunny and in the high 70s.
But this was less about weather and more about ritual. Each year, most of the facilities on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon shut down on Oct. 15, early enough to avoid winter’s wrath yet late enough to allow fall to settle in and get comfortable.
Over the next few days, and particularly the next nine hours, hundreds of workers would prep the rim for its winter nap. There was furniture to move and food to store and belongings to pack. It was the start of the seasonal transition from cozy village to quiet outpost.
By Dec. 1, when a metal gate 44 miles to the north will close, sealing off the only paved road to the North Rim, only a handful of people will remain, a skeleton staff that will repair, freshen and otherwise maintain buildings that won’t see another soul for five to six months.
The shutdown is most noticeable every Oct. 15, when the Grand Canyon Lodge closes its doors, and with it the restaurant, saloon, deli and the campground’s general store.
On this particular Oct. 15, the ritual began unnoticed shortly after 8 a.m. when two rangers entered the lodge intent on nabbing park-service equipment from the auditorium as dozens of guests in the dining hall enjoyed a meal affectionately known as the Last Breakfast.
It was 8:40 a.m. when Toy removed a $50,000 painting donated to the National Park Service years ago. The canvas — depicting the lodge on a stormy night, a lightning bolt slashing the sky — was gingerly walked to the SUV waiting outside. Toy hunched slightly to protect it from the drizzle and hugged it to her chest once she settled into the passenger seat.
The rim closes not because of snow but because of extreme cold. The Kaibab Plateau sits at roughly 8,100 feet, more than 1,000 feet higher (on average) than the more temperate South Rim.
Most pipes along the North Rim are buried just 18 inches below ground, well within winter’s frosty reach. Without a weather-resistant infrastructure, most of the facilities are closed and sealed well before low temperatures become a threat.
At 10:15, after the last breakfast guests had left and supervisors issued the OK, a dozen men and women fanned through the dining room, toting tables and chairs to the next-door auditorium for storage.
Behind a pair of swinging doors, kitchen personnel steam-cleaned and scrubbed the stoves and ovens pulled away from the walls. Others gathered boxes of perishable food and, stepping gingerly along a tile floor slick with hot water, soap and grease, stacked the goods in the back of a truck parked in the loading dock.
Meats, fish, dairy and some produce were on their way to sister resorts in Utah, said food and beverage manager Greg Von Eubbing. Canned and dry goods were taken to a basement storage room, safe from winter.
Much of the leftovers — precooked chicken wings, fish, brisket and more — would be served at that night’s Survivors Party, a tradition celebrating the end of the season.
“We still have to throw a lot out, but we do our best to use as much as we can,” Von Eubbing said. “In the last weeks we’re open, we try to order only as much as we think we’ll need. But I also have to order enough so we don’t run out.”
On the coldest day of the week so far, Ed Adams paused to wipe the thin sheen of sweat from his forehead.
As he stacked chairs along the auditorium stage, visions of Key Largo danced in his head. This was departure eve, and many of his belongings were already packed with care.
The next day, he’d join most of the 244 seasonal employees of Forever Resorts, the concessionaire operating the lodge and associated businesses. His vehicle would be among one of the several mini convoys heading south and east from the rim on the usually quiet two-lane roads. It’s the closest thing to rush hour experienced along State Route 67 and U.S. 89A.
Adams was ready for his lengthy vacation, which would include a week or two in Phoenix to visit family.
“A lot of us enjoy closing day,” he said. “You miss your friends, but it was a long, busy summer. It’ll be nice to be out and about in civilization again.”
As crews lugged furniture from the dining room and lobby, clearing floors that would be sanded and polished over the next few months, Robert Pennell was just about done prepping the Roughrider Saloon for winter.
Less than an hour before, he served the last espresso in the coffeehouse and bar. Now he cleaned and scrubbed the sink behind a great wall of wine and beer, the alcohol stacked neatly on the bar awaiting pickup from distributors.
Pennell paused briefly, peering over the bottles and six-packs when he heard the creak of the front door. A woman poked her head through the narrow opening.
“Are you closed?” she asked.
“Sure are,” Pennell said, muttering beneath his breath, “What was your first clue?”
Though facilities have always closed for winter, with shutdown dates listed online and in brochures, roughly 5 to 10 percent of post-Oct. 15 visitors arrive wondering why there are so many locked doors, according Mike Kidd, the hotel’s general manager.
To cushion the blow — visitors have come hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to enjoy the North Rim’s unique perspectives — the lodge’s gift shop remains open through Nov. 30. Visitors may not be able to get a room or a hot meal, but they can choose from a wide selection of T-shirts, shot glasses, pens and other items to remind them of their trip.
And starting the afternoon of Oct. 15, they can choose from a limited selection of chips, trail mix, candy, cereal bars and other semiperishable foodstuffs.
Those items, stacked in no particular order on hastily erected shelving at the back of the gift shop, arrived that morning from the general store, which operates about a mile away in the campground. At the end of the season, workers pack up remaining food with relatively long shelf lives and deliver it to the gift shop.
The non-perishable items are boxed and stored on the grounds before workers push shelving to the side, clearing the floor to make room for metal bracing that will prop up the roof even under several feet of snow.
Maintenance workers will clear snow from most of the larger structures, but the general store is left to its own devices, said manager Todd Kern. He and his crew spent the morning packing shelves and bringing in picnic tables from outside. Even the store’s sign was unhooked and brought in, what with some people’s tendency to take what is not nailed down when there is no one around for miles.
“A few years ago, I returned to the store and we were missing some tables,” Kern said, shaking his head. “We’d brought them in and I counted each one. When I got back in April, six were missing. It’s still a mystery since there was no sign of a break-in.”
Although snow and cold make much of the park uninhabitable, and certainly inaccessible, visitors are still allowed. Most are hikers who walked across the Canyon from the South Rim, who will stake out a spot in the campground or spend a night in a yurt, a woodstove-heated canvas dome that can sleep eight. Others who have backcountry permits may hike, snowshoe or ski in from Jacob Lake 44 miles away.
Still, the visitor population often is in single digits, making for a lonely existence.
If not a bit eerie.
When Kidd, the lodge general manager, describes his off-season, he knows anyone listening envisions an ax-wielding Jack Nicholson poking his head through a busted bathroom door.
When you are one of a handful of people taking care of a remote lodge sealed behind miles and miles of snow drifts, visions of “The Shining” loom as large as its haunted Overlook Hotel.
Comments often lead to his one and only ghost story, which occurred — obviously — in the dead of winter.
“I was repairing a set of stairs when I heard some odd noises,” he said, pausing ever so slightly as the tale has taught him to over the years. “I thought some maintenance guys were messing with me. I walked up the stairs but there was no one there. Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.”
Another pause, longer.
“I felt someone, something behind me. I turned and there was this shadow, a blur. And like that it was gone. I high-stepped it out of there and back to my snowmobile as fast as I could. I didn’t go back to the lodge for a couple of days after that.”
There was another time he thought he heard a disembodied voice, but soon discovered it was a smoke detector informing the world its battery was low.
Although an empty lodge perched on a precipice is a chill factory, the scariest thing about winter on the North Rim has nothing to do with spirits and everything to do with logistics.
Take the simple act of grocery shopping.
The dozen people who live there in the dead of winter are roughly three hours away from their vehicles parked at the Jacob Lake Inn. From there, it’s another hour to Kanab, Utah, for basic groceries, or two hours to St. George, Utah, to stock up at Costco.
The snowmobile trip from Jacob Lake back to the rim could take five hours, pulling a sled weighed down with hundreds of pounds of food.
“You plan ahead,” Kidd said. “And you try to freeze everything you can. Did you know you can freeze milk and eggs? I learned that early on. But fresh produce is rare. You learn to appreciate it.”
There are strict rules once the metal gate swings across SR 67 about a quarter-mile south of Jacob Lake. First, no one travels alone to Jacob Lake. Everyone needs a partner, or two or three; it’s vital should a snowmobile break down or get stuck (a common occurrence).
And no one rides on SR 67 even if it is the shortest distance between the two points. Constant use would tamp down snow and ice, making it almost impossible to remove when the highway reopens in April. Employees follow a series of forest roads, adding to their travel times.
Despite the best planning, accidents happen. That’s why the park’s entrance station, a small cabin equipped with a wood-burning stove, is turned into a makeshift emergency shelter before winter settles in. It’s stocked with food, water, blankets and cots, as well as a stack of wood outside. An emergency phone rings the dispatch center, notifying one of the two rangers responsible for safety and law enforcement.
Everyone also keeps a close eye on water and fuel at the rim. Two 2 million-gallon water tanks are topped off before the main lines are shut down. Even a small leak can mean disaster.
Water is not the only vital liquid stored on-site. There are 6,000 gallons of unleaded gas for trucks, vans and snowmobiles.
Even more valuable are the 10,000 gallons of diesel that keep generators fed. The North Rim’s power is delivered from Utah via lines strung through terrain as remote as it is rugged. The wires and poles are no match for a winter storm.
“I get nervous every time the wind blows,” said John McFarland, a National Park Service maintenance man going into his 23rd winter on the North Rim. “I just know something bad is going to happen, that a pole will snap or a tree will fall and sever a wire. As soon as the lights go out, I’ve got to get to the generators and fire them up.”
Despite the fragility of winter life, McFarland looks forward to the season when squirrels outnumber people by hundreds to one.
Work keeps McFarland and the other winter employees busy. There is patching and painting, repairing and restoring. Under a blanket of snow, the North Rim rests, waking fully restored when the thaw arrives.
It’s how they cope with the downtime that makes winter something to be enjoyed rather than merely endured.
One winter, McFarland rebuilt a 1950s pickup. During another, he repaired a broken snowmobile, fashioning it into something you’d see in “Mad Max” (snowmageddon version).
With no TV, spotty Internet connections and limited social contact — “Shining”-like conditions — keeping busy is important. When not restoring vehicles, McFarland carves blocks of obsidian into knives and arrowheads, using some of his creations in folk-art pieces.
“It’s real important to have a hobby,” he said. “And to get out every now and then when you have days off.”
McFarland has a 9-5 schedule: nine days on, five off. He’ll visit Kanab or St. George, maybe even Las Vegas, just to shake the isolation.
Although he looks forward to winter and the silence it brings, by March McFarland eagerly anticipates spring, when he can once again easily explore his favorite place on Earth.
Jake McFee wrapped a fist around the neck of his electric guitar, fingers flexing around the cardboard taped to its length. He carried it outside to his compact SUV, sliding it into the overstuffed back end with Tetris-style precision.
The seasonal ranger still had much to pack for a trip home to Pennsylvania, but he was confident he had space, somewhere, for two keyboards, a game console, dishes and knickknacks.
Earlier in the day, McFee turned in the tools of his trade, including a radio, binoculars, keys and badge. In a few hours his supervisor would inspect the small cabin to make sure he left it clean for the next occupant in spring (though McFee has lived here the past seven summers).
With dishes piled in the sink and a cardboard box brimming with garbage in the front room, McFee had much left to do.
He was confident that by checkout — before 10 a.m. the next day — he’d be ready.
“This is a very bittersweet day,” McFee said. “I’ll miss a lot of people, but I look forward to seeing everyone back home. And I know I’ll be back in six months. It’s like leaving school in summer, saying your goodbyes but knowing it’s temporary.”
Such packing was occurring throughout the North Rim’s living quarters, whether it was rangers leaving their cabins or lodge employees saying goodbye to apartments and dorm rooms.
Other workers would be busy for a few more days. Housekeepers, for example, were hip-deep in guest lodgings to clean. Crews attacked each of the property’s 219 rooms, cleaning and prepping for the only guest the next six months — Old Man Winter.
Workers wrapped mattresses tightly in sheets. They pulled curtains from each window, rolling them into more sheets and leaving the bundles on the beds. Plastic bags were thrust over light fixtures and fans. Toilets were flushed for the last time this year, and sinks received small doses of antifreeze.
As gray skies turned darker and the sun set behind nature’s misty shroud, the lodge fell silent save for the rock band warming up for the annual Survivor Party.
Von Eubbing, the lodge’s food and beverage manager who was about to embark on his first winter — plenty of time for him to refurbish the kitchen and design a new menu — laid out beef brisket, wings, fish, salad and bread. He even prepped a half-keg of beer and numerous half-empty bottles of wine (which ran out faster than anticipated).
At 6:30 p.m., the first white van pulled up and the earliest arrivals popped out, maneuvering past the “Closed for the winter” sign as easily as visitors did that morning.
By 8 p.m., more than 100 employees of the lodge or park service mingled in employer-specific cliques, many greeting each other as if they’d not seen one another in weeks. (In many cases, they hadn’t.)
A half-hour later the band launched into its set, lights shooting through a dry-ice fog. It’s said that swiveling, sparkling light show can be seen from campgrounds at the bottom of the Canyon.
An hour before the start of Oct. 16, the remaining revelers said their goodbyes and headed home. They laughed, they hugged, they were ready to put the North Rim in the rear view.
None would be in the lodge the next afternoon when two men entered through the steam-filled kitchen, dancing around workers laying down a coat of Spic and Span.
The pair pushed through swinging doors into the dining room, strode across the lobby and into the auditorium where the larger of the two grasped a heavy metal bar sitting on the sill of the picture window through which they saw layers of fog lapping at cliffs and buttes.
The man’s partner lifted an iron latch to reveal a square bolt. As he held the latch in place, the other worker fit the bar’s notch over the bolt and began to crank, a rhythmic ratcheting sound bouncing off the bare walls and floor. Outside, a steel shutter lowered slowly from its housing.
No more than five minutes later, the shutter was in place, resting against the wooden ledge at the base of the window. The workers did the same for the other two auditorium windows, dipping the room in shadow.
And daring winter to come.
If you go
Most services are closed until May 15, when the Grand Canyon Lodge reopens, providing rooms, a restaurant and more.
Motorized vehicles are prohibited in the park once State Route 67 is closed at Jacob Lake (by Dec.1 or the first heavy snow, whichever is first).