By Richard Fox
During the Covid-19 summer of 2020, the Grand Canyon trams weren’t running. These free trams run throughout the park, including along the main 7-mile scenic Hermit Road that is closed to cars, transporting hordes of tourists from around the world to Hermits Rest, stopping at all of the famous spectacular lookout spots, including Maricopa Point, Hopi Pt, Mojave Pt, and others. The tourists swarm the viewpoints, jockeying for position to take photos, then fan out to hike between them. We cyclists we can still find some solitude along the route, but rarely close to tram stops. The Hermit Rd bike ride is a spectacular opportunity to experience some of the most scenic portions of the Grand Canyon on a closed road, a 14 mile round trip piece of paradise. Due to some hills it’s not the easiest ride when combined with the ~7,000 ft elevation, but most acclimated to the altitude should be able to handle it with a multi-geared bike. When the trams go by, about every 15 minutes, cyclists are required to pull off the road and let them pass, which doesn’t happen all that often on a typical ride, but is a pain when it does. The bike-carrying trams can come in handy for cyclists though, in case they get tired or suffer a mechanical problem, which could result in a long walk back to the village otherwise. Also, the first hill up Hermit Rd from Grand Canyon Village can be daunting for those on non-electric bikes not used to the altitude, and a lift up with the tram can remedy that. The roadway eventually descends downhill to its terminus at Hermits Rest, so if cyclists are not up for the ride back over the hill they can hop on a tram with their bike.
With no trams running during our visit in late August, ending before Labor Day weekend, the road was only open to bikers and hikers, so the farther down Hermit Rd we went, the fewer of either we encountered, especially hikers.
Most cyclists rent their bikes at Bright Angel Bicycles, a well-respected concession located at the main Visitors Center complex, about 5 miles from Hermit Rd via the Greenway Trail system, which allows bikes. When they began operations in 2010 it was a game changer, turning Grand Canyon National Park into a biking destination. They currently rent 7-speed cruiser style bikes, but not e-bikes, and also offer guided tours. In past years, tourists from all over the world rented bikes from them resulting in hordes of cyclists on wide Hermit Road, which could easily accommodate them. This summer there were still quite a few cyclists, always great to see, but with so few foreigners, the numbers were significantly less, and in the mornings and late afternoons, the road was virtually deserted, how wonderful for us.
This was our first time riding Hermit Rd with e-bikes; we had done the ride many times over the years on regular geared bikes, most recently our 21 speed Townie comfort bikes. We now have Class I TownieGo pedal-assist models; Steve rides the 7D and me the 8D, and we both love them. The first substantial hill up Hermit Rd required significant pedaling, but it wasn’t a taxing experience at all on our senior bones and muscles. The rest of the route is hilly as well, but more gradual, which is a piece of cake for pedal-assist bikes, even at this altitude. We had spent the rest of the summer in Big Bear Lake, California, at 7,000 feet, so we were already acclimated.
E-bikes are allowed in Grand Canyon National Park as follows per the NPS website:
E-Bikes: The term “e-bike” means a two-or three-wheeled cycle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.).
E-bikes are allowed in Grand Canyon National Park where traditional bicycles are allowed.
E-bikes are prohibited where traditional bicycles are prohibited.
Except where the use of motor vehicles by the public is allowed, using the electric motor to move an e-bike without pedaling is prohibited.
The biggest difference this year was that most of the famous viewpoints were empty, we had them to ourselves! It was like having our own private National Park, shared with a few friendly cyclists, and hikers along the first few miles. Private picnics on shaded benches overlooking the canyon were easy to accomplish, and we enjoyed many moments of Zen contemplating the amazing sequence of geological events that created the canyon. Our rides were like something out of a biking fantasy, a once in a lifetime opportunity ironically created by the most horrible of pandemics. Most of the other cyclists were smiling widely as well, save for a few on rental bikes struggling up the hills.
Of the main Hermit Rd viewpoints, our favorite is the wide ranging Hopi Point, where you can see the Colorado River in five places. We had it to ourselves most of the times we stopped there, or other times with just a few cyclists. Besides the main viewpoints, several pullouts offer equally classic views of the canyon, some all the way down to the Colorado River. Those tend to be less crowded than the main viewpoints when the trams run.
About 2.7 miles before Hermits Rest is an isolated 1.7-mile section of Greenway Trail where bikes are allowed. The trail runs on the rim side of the road through a mixed piñon forest, and offers several idyllic pullouts with shaded benches overlooking the canyon. It’s a bit hillier than Hermit Rd through here, but a worthwhile option. We selected one for a picnic on Steve’s birthday ride; what a way to spend a birthday.
On Wednesday the first half of Hermit Rd was being re-paved, so that created some odor and loose gravel issues, but it did not deter us. On Thursday, our last day, I did a last minute solo ride in the late afternoon. I was virtually alone on the road, which had already been paved the day before past Mojave Point. I turned around before the paving operation began on the road’s second half. It was a shorter ride but still worthwhile to have the place to myself, an amazing solo experience in the Grand Canyon. I would stop at many of the viewpoints and pullouts, and just gaze, mesmerized. That was my fourth time riding Hermit Road that week. Steve had joined me the first three times, and was equally enthralled with it.
We stayed at Trailer Village RV park near the center of the developed area of the park, in the forest about a mile from the rim. It’s nothing special, except for the location accessed by the Greenway Trail system and the fact that elk wander through it, which all campers love seeing, although during the fall rut one needs to be careful of the rowdy bulls. The campground was full, which made sense given the popularity of Covid-safe RV-ing during the pandemic. Indeed, we had no contact with anyone during the week, since we turned down a request to take a photo of a group of unmasked young men on bikes at one point. Mather Campground, which caters to tenters, was not open yet.
The Greenway bike trail system runs mostly through the forest passing both campgrounds, so that visitors can hop on their bikes and ride to the nearby Market Plaza with its general store in a few minutes, or to Grand Canyon Village, the hub of the park with its hotels and restaurants including the El Tovar. The train from Williams stops there, and the rim along this section is the most crowded with tourists. From the campgrounds and Yavapai Lodge area it’s about a 3 mile, or 20 minute ride downhill to the village. When trams are running there is one that can take you and your bike back up to the campgrounds, but not this year during the pandemic. Hermit Road begins at the west end of Grand Canyon Village and rises to the west.
Heading east from the campgrounds on the Greenway trail system leads through the forest to the main Visitors Center in a couple of miles, where the bike rental concession is located. There’s plenty of car parking there if you need to rent a bike.
The trail veers off and reaches the rim east of Mather Point. Bikes are not allowed on the typically crowded Rim Trail to the west of there, all the way to the Village, and adjacent to Hermit Road except the one section of Greenway Trail near Hermits Rest mentioned above. However, heading to the east from this point on the rim begins a section of Greenway Trail that bikes are indeed allowed, making it one of the most scenic two miles of bike trail anywhere. It darts between low forest and rim-side panoramas. Since it’s only about a 15 minute easy cycle from the campground to the rim at this point, we rode it at least once a day to be able to gaze at the canyon in different lights.
The Greenway Trail along the rim here skirts a couple of road pullouts where car parking is allowed, so peds are sometimes milling about at those spots, but besides that it’s pure biking heaven. As it bends around along the rim to the north, different angles of the canyon come into view with a choice of rim-side viewpoints. We’ve frequently encountered elk along this section of trail as well.
The path winds around the rim some more until reaching the restricted parking lot for the South Kaibab Trailhead, my personal favorite trail into the canyon. I’ve hiked down a mile or two many times, and in my earlier foolish years all the way to the river and back. In recent years I’ve kept to the rim on my bike instead, being satisfied with the past memories.
From the S. Kaibab trailhead parking lot, where there is a water fill station and restrooms, you can turn right down the access road, then turn left on the closed-to-cars road to scenic Yaki Point to get in an extra mile each way. Typically a tram brings hikers to the South Kaibab trailhead, and also up to Yaki Point, but not this summer. This ride is much easier than the Hermit Rd ride, as there is very minimal topographical change. From the campgrounds to Yaki point is about 4 miles each way.
We left on the Friday before Labor Day, and watched cars streaming into the park. Trams were set to resume the next day, but only at 1/4 capacity, and only servicing the closed roadways of Hermit Rd and the South Kaibab/Yaki Pt. route. Expect to see more people at the viewpoints with the trams running, but most likely a fraction of the usual for this peak season of summer/fall, due to the absence of foreign visitors.
We never tired of cycling along the rim this past week, around 140 miles total. The weather was fantastic, even with afternoon monsoons the first couple of days, which freshened the air. Temperatures began to rise during the week, but the skies and canyon became clearer as well. Once we arrived, we didn’t need our vehicle at all, it was all about the bikes.
All in all, this was one of our most memorable and enjoyable weeks in recent years.