America's grand ditch is so bloody famous that introducing it to you seems, well, silly. Who doesn't know it's a mile deep, nearly 300 miles long, a dozen miles wide, and a couple of billion years old? It's dry, too, and hot in the summer. But the Grand Canyon is so stunningly beautiful that we're drawn there like Muslims to Mecca. And therein lies the problem: Some of us don't like our pilgrimages to be crowded. We want the wild to feel wild and our legs to go as fast or as slow as they like without having to say polite words to fellow hikers. I have two words for folks like us: North Rim. There, you can't drive up, wait for a paved parking space, and instantly gawk at the great empty space beneath you. Instead, you have to walk to the edge, and slowly the Grand Canyon unveils herself. This rim is not for everyone. Thank God. To see if it's for you, try one of these three undiscovered hikes.
Clear Creek Trail
You'll have to hike 7 or 14 miles with nearly 6,000 feet of elevation loss, and go right through the heart of the canyon's busiest spot, just to get to the start of this 9-mile, one-way trail. But it's worth the effort. To begin at the top, hike down the 14-mile North Kaibab Trail, which drops precipitously past a waterfall gushing from the middle of a cliff, among other natural wonders. The trail ends at Phantom Ranch, a rustic hotel and campground near the shores of the Colorado River. To camp near the river, book your permit months in advance. From November through May, when the North Rim is likely buried in snow, the South Kaibab Trail will take you to Phantom Ranch (after crossing the Colorado on a footbridge) in 7 stunning miles.
From Phantom Ranch, proceed on the Clear Creek Trail 1,500 feet up to the Tonto Plateau, a huge shelf that meanders beneath spectacular peaks or "temples" in the Canyon. Once you've reached Clear Creek, spend an extra day hiking 8 miles round-trip to Cheyava Falls, the highest in the canyon. Or, scramble 5 miles down Clear Creek to the Colorado River. Total round-trip mileage down the North Kaibab to Clear Creek Canyon is about 41; down South Kaibab to Clear Creek Canyon, about 33. Allow 5 to 7 days.
This semidefined route is better known to rafters who explore the canyon starting from the Colorado River. Backpackers can find it by hiking 15 miles through the Kanab Creek Wilderness Area to the national park boundary, from which it's another 15 miles to the river. Expect to meet more humans (in sandals and bikinis) at the end of this hike than at the beginning. But there's more than enough sandstone beauty and great scrambling to keep you entertained in Kanab Creek Wilderness, so don't set the river as your goal unless you have the time and stamina.
The hike to the park boundary is 31 miles round-trip and begins in the open desert of Hack Canyon, then descends into the tight walls of Kanab Creek. Continuing down to Jumpup Canyon and the Colorado River offers another 32 round-trip miles with some moderate scrambling on boulders and ledges, and possibly a couple of swims. Allow 4 to 8 days, and secure permits if you hike within the park boundary.
To start the Tuckup, you must coax your vehicle to the Grand Canyon's most remote ranger station, Toroweap ("dry or barren valley" in native Paiute), on 60 to 90 miles of dirt road. Then you must keep yourself on the "trail," which many a hiker has lost. If this sounds too adventurous, stop here. But if you don't mind a little four-wheeling and occasional route finding, you'll have jaw-dropping views all to yourself. Better yet, you can enjoy them in the winter, when the canyon is cool, the water is more plentiful, and your fellow backpackers are still hibernating. That's because the rim here is usually snow-free, since it rises only to 6,000 feet.
From Toroweap Point, the Tuckup Trail follows a wide esplanade near the 4,000-foot contour--almost 2,500 feet above the Colorado River. It's about 70 miles to trail's end at Buckhorn Springs. Hike out and back as far as time permits. Those with off-trail hiking experience can combine parts of the Tuckup with loop routes that take you down to the Colorado.
All northern access routes come through St. George, UT, or Page, AZ. The North and South Kaibab trailheads (access to the Clear Creek Trail) are more than 200 car-miles apart. The road to the North Rim is paved, but at 8,200 feet it's inaccessible under winter snow for months. Access to Hack Canyon (for Kanab Creek) and Toroweap Point (for Tuckup Trail) involves considerable dirt road travel. Pick up maps and advice in the town of Fredonia.
All overnights in the park require a permit. Expect competition for campsites near Phantom Ranch on the North Kaibab Trail (book months in advance).
Carry plenty of water, know the permanent springs, and bring water treatment. Check weather reports for thunderstorms and beware of the flash floods that follow--never camp within reach of one.
Hiking the Grand Canyon, by John Annerino ($17). Grand Canyon Loop Hikes II, by George Steck (out of print but available used for about $20) for off-trail options along all three hikes. Trails Illustrated's Grand Canyon National Park map #207 (800-962-1643; www.backpacker.com/mapstore; $10). Contact Backcountry Information Center, Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7875; www.nps.gov/grca