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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Heading to Grand Canyon's South Rim? Here's an alternative to staying in the park

In 2008 nearly four and a half million people visited Grand Canyon National Park. The huge bulk of these visited the park's South Rim, easily accessible to the sweeping hoards coming up from Phoenix and such points. This Labor Day weekend and following days, you very likely couldn't get a campsite for your RV for love or money: The campgrounds at the park's main entrance north of Williams were just plumb full.

Here's a word to the wise. Your intrepid travel writers of the open boondocks spent several happy days and nights camped out just a raven's wing away from the South Rim entrance station. We paid nothing. We heard almost nothing. We saw very few folks. What's the secret? Boondock in the Kaibab National Forest, which girds the National Park's loins. There's lots of good camping not far from the crazy crowds at the Rim, and Uncle Sam invites you to stay for no fee.

You can 'spy out the land' using MapQuest, just put in Tusayan, Arizona as your starting point. Dial down to the street level of the town and you'll soon find the legend "NF-302" just east of Highway 180, the main highway running from Interstate 40 up to the big trench in the earth that is the truly Grand Canyon. There are other Forest Service roads snaking through the forest near Tusayan, but this one could be the closest to the park's entrance.

If you want "quick access" to the park, just drive on past the sign that tells you camping is allowed 'beyond this point.'  You'll be less than a mile from the highway, in easy reach of fuel, shopping, and plenty of noise pollution. We made the mistake of pulling off at the first fire pit rings we spotted coming in the 302 road. We had the folding chairs out, the awning unfurled, and a bit of firewood gathered in time for the noisy swarms to begin buzzing the camp. We aren't talking mosquitoes here folks, these were big mechanical birds that give environmentalists fits: Scenic helicopter flights. Apparently those first tempting campsites are right on the main flight line. We managed the noise for a little over and hour, hoping it might shift. It didn't, so we did.

Follow that main forest service road north, then follow it more as it bends east, and keep your eyes peeled. You'll find a variety of little pull out spots heading off into the woods and meadows that make up this part of the Kaibab National Forest. We found ourselves 7 miles east of Tusayan, in some of the quietest country we've landed in for a long time. Yes, a few vehicles run up and down the road, but compared to most places, it's like paradise restored.

We did find we had to take a little caution with the local wildlife. Our traveling houseplants were soon off the rig and out in the sun. Our hanging flower pots were in a famous place--hanging off the roof access ladder. And my favorite pot of "Hen and Chicks" were soon installed on the ground under the hanging pots, all the better to catch the excess "runoff" water. But by Day Two, our little bit of paradise was likewise discovered by a wayward squirrel--who discovered a whole new world of flavor in those succulent "Hen and Chicks." The Wife Unit thought the little marauding rodent was a gas as he selectively picked his way through my baby greens, but Mr. Squirrel was soon thwarted when the Hen and Chick family was relocated to the hood of the truck.

There's still plenty of time to camp out on the Kaibab before the snow flies. Just be sure you keep your potted Peonies secured from rodent rage!

All photos, R&T DeMaris


  1. Going to mapquest as you stated I found the road NF-302 on the south side of tusayan az and it joted out a short bit to the east. After that I couldn't find it going to the south rim. Would you please give more details in your description of how to get to these campsites?