Exploring The Great Outdoors With Eric Porter
“Are we there yet?” Everyone reading this has either said this phrase as a kid or has heard it as a parent. It’s an American tradition, passed down from generation to generation. Most of us have memories of jumping in the family station wagon, asking if we’re there yet, sitting in traffic, asking again, fighting with a brother or sister and, of course, having an amazing time in between. Having made a career out of riding bikes in cool places, I wanted to share the experiences I’ve had with my family. My boys are 7 and 9 years old, and even though they’ve lived their whole lives in Utah, they have never been to the Grand Canyon. My wife Megan grew up in Alaska, and she still hadn’t been to the “Big Ditch,” either.
When planning trips, I try to pick the best location, as well as timing, to ensure a great experience. With the overcrowding of national parks these days, we’ve been choosing more low-key areas for family trips, but with some planning I figured I could pull off a Grand Canyon trip and make it special. Part of me wanted to wait until my kids were old enough to remember a trip like this. The other part just simply didn’t want to deal with all of the crowds the Grand Canyon is known for, but my wife and I decided now was the time to do this.
With that in mind, I did a lot of research trying to find somewhere we could have the canyon to ourselves, but also somewhere with great mountain biking! Since you can’t ride singletrack in most national parks, that narrowed it down to the North Rim and the Rainbow Rim trails. The Rainbow Rim trail sits in the Kaibab National Forest, and is built and maintained through volunteer work and close partnerships among the National Forest, local trail groups and, of course, IMBA. Ninety percent of its users are mountain bikers, but it is also used by hikers and horseback riders. Access to the trail isn’t easy; it’s a couple of hours on mostly dirt roads from the closest town, and four-wheel drive is strongly recommended. There is plenty of dispersed camping in the area, but there are no actual campsites with hosts. And if you are going to ride the trail, you’re likely going to be camping there as well.
Our original plan was to embark on this journey after the last day of school for the year in June, but my 9-year-old Milo unfortunately broke his elbow only days before the trip. The suspense built all summer as his arm healed and we pushed the trip into early fall. The area sits at about 7,500 feet of elevation, so it’s covered in snow from mid-October through May. We chose to go at the end of September as the leaves were starting to turn and the temperatures cooled off. Instead of the station wagon of the old days, we loaded up my Tundra with enough food, water, fuel and camping gear to spend four days out there. It’s remote.
As you are leaving the last town and the roads are turning to dirt, cell reception starts to fizzle out as well, which is perfect for helping parents check out from the real world and really focus their time and energy on the kids and the real, real world. We had to stop multiple times on the maze of dirt roads to pull out paper maps and make sure we were on track. The trip involves a maze of roads on the Kaibab Plateau that have been put in over the years for both access and fire/forest management. As soon as I would get out of the truck and start looking at my map, I was immediately swarmed by yellow-jacket bees. Somehow, I avoided getting stung, but it was an unnerving start to be sure! We later found out that even the closest visitor center had been closed due to unusually high numbers of the black and yellow flying needles. It seems that the previous snowy winter had created the perfect conditions for them to overpopulate. That, combined with a dry fall, left them agitated and searching for moisture, so anywhere wooded was packed with them.
We were about seven hours into the drive as we neared the canyon edge and our camping zone, and the kids were cooked! As parents, we had grown tired of the “Are we there yet?” questions, and we were all ready to see the big ditch! All of a sudden, the tree coverage started thinning, and looking out the left side of the truck we could finally see openness. We knew we were close. We pulled up to an open area, and the truck went quiet for a minute. It’s really a breathtaking view to see the Grand Canyon in all of its glory for the first time. Sure, we’ve all seen it in photos, but when you are standing on the edge looking miles and miles out and a full mile straight down to the Colorado River, it’s really something else. Everything suddenly felt right in the world. All of the stress of planning and child management on the drive melted away. We knew we were home for the next few days.
There’s something special about being self-sufficient in the woods, away from any other humans, on the edge of one of the earth’s most spectacular features. As we started to set up camp, the kids immediately began building a fort out of sticks and rocks. We knew we had made a series of great decisions to bring our family here. The first thing I did was set up a hammock on the rim between two trees and lay down to just take it all in. Camping has a special way of slowing down time, taking away everything that doesn’t matter and putting basic needs on the front burner. At this point, life is simple. Shelter, food and fun are pretty much all that’s needed.
The trail is currently 22.6 miles of mostly hand-built singletrack, snaking through the trees with unreal views as it briefly pops out to viewpoints along the way. The landscape is a series of ridges with valleys in between that drain into the canyon. The trail follows these contours out to the edge and then back into the valleys, so you spend the majority of your time in widely spaced pine trees. It’s a blue-level trail that suits the ability of most riders with a few years of singletrack under their belt. It has more climbs than you would expect, some of which are steep and punchy, but none are very sustained efforts. Almost every climbing section ends with an eventual break at one unreal view after another. Since it was a family trip, I knew we weren’t going to be riding the entire trail in one go. The plan was to camp in the middle on a viewpoint and spend our days riding outwards towards each end of the trail, exploring. It wasn’t about the miles; it was about the experience.
As a father, there are many life lessons to teach your kids on a trip like this. This was the first trip where my younger son Owen got to use his new pocketknife—a big day for a young kid! We learned some lessons when his older brother Milo got his first pocketknife a couple years earlier, cutting himself within minutes, as many of us did as kids. We started out with a talk about how far we were from hospitals and how an injury would effectively end the trip, so safety was on the front burner. What a great feeling to pass on the knowledge of how to use such a great, albeit sharp, tool with my son sitting on my lap and carving s’mores sticks for the fire that night.
Of course, nothing ever goes quite as planned, and in this case the “stick in the spokes” was high winds. As nighttime rolled around, wood was gathered for the campfire, but as a lifetime outdoorsman, I knew that the forest was a huge tinderbox, and the winds were just too high to responsibly start a campfire. Is it really camping without a fire and s’mores? Well, it’s definitely a staple, but my smarter side won over my emotions, and I improvised. Since we were car camping, I brought a portable briefcase-size Traeger grill that cooks with wood pellets. It’s both safe and delicious. I decided we’d have brats on that and also came up with one of my best ideas: s’mores on the Traeger! Turns out you can cook them pre-assembled on the grill. It’s even better than over an open flame—and a lot safer. It was one of those decisions I felt good about making. No one wants to be “that guy” who lit the Grand Canyon on fire!
Even though we had high winds, the skies were completely clear. Before dinner, we were treated to one of the most incredible sunsets we’d ever seen, and as dusk took us into the night, the stars began to fill in like we were in an IMAX theater. We saw the International Space Station silently move across the sky, with no competition from city lights. The Milky Way opened up directly overhead, and we were all overcome with a sense of scale that the kids had never felt before. Owen said it made him feel like he was an astronaut floating through space, like he could touch the stars. We saw and heard bats flying around above camp, and there was a silence that settled over us as we lay back in our camp chairs just contemplating our place in the universe.
As we settled into the tent, the winds picked up again and shook the tent as we all snuggled into our sleeping bags, the high elevation providing for near-freezing overnight temperatures. Owen later told us he thought the winds might blow the tent over, so he curled up close to us, but he never said a word about it that night, trying to stay tough and not let anyone know he was a little scared. The next morning as we watched the sunrise, we also saw the moon making its way towards the horizon, and nature played a hilarious trick on us. The way some high clouds were moving quickly across the sky, it created an optical illusion that made it seem like it was actually the moon moving. For a moment, we all thought the moon was setting at time-lapse speed, which really got the kids laughing once we figured it out.
Following a standard camping breakfast of coffee, granola and fruit, we ventured east, leaving the view and heading into the forest. Owen was looking for side hits on the trail, just like he does when skiing, finding little bumps to jump off of and making little hips out of mounds. Milo was up front leading the charge while being a good big brother and looking out for his mom. I was sweeping right behind Owen, making sure he had enough snacks and didn’t go too hard. As we dropped into a steeper loose descent, Milo was already at the bottom, and all of a sudden I saw him running back towards us waving his hands in the air. Turns out he had found a grassy meadow full of tall vegetation and some flowers—and he wasn’t the only one. The yellow jackets I mentioned before had claimed it as their own, and they were everywhere.
My wife Megan was the unlucky one who got stung on the hand by one of those vicious little jerks, and her hand began to swell immediately. While she isn’t allergic, it was painful enough to send her back towards camp for some Benadryl and ice, especially considering that pushing onward could have resulted in more of the same. While she headed back with Owen, it was another great learning experience for Milo. He really wanted to see the next viewpoint that we had identified on the map, and so we moved quickly through the meadow of pain and made it out the other side unscathed. He said afterwards it was a good feeling of accomplishment to face his fears and get in and out of a scary situation, and of course the view was worth it on the other side.
With kids, you tend to hear whatever is on their mind, which inevitably provides for a few arguments, followed by learning experiences, followed by more good times. I remember Milo being upset by a couple of things, like when he got shut down on using the hatchet as a hammer to help set up our massive six-person Big Agnes tent. Of course, the back of a hatchet makes a great hammer for putting in tent stakes, but most definitely not in the hands of a 9-year-old! Another time, he was bummed he couldn’t play on the edge of the canyon. Not that it was a 5,000-foot drop-off straight to the bottom there, but it was most certainly a cascading series of small cliffs separated by steep dirt slopes that would make for a big tumble with serious consequences in a remote spot. That conversation was a non-starter, but it still had to be extensively explained.
One of the biggest takeaways was realizing how much free time you have without life getting in the way and without the constant draw of TV and screen time for the kids. Turns out they didn’t even miss their favorite shows with so much fun stuff to do in the woods.
Whether or not you have kids, and regardless of your proximity to somewhere like the Grand Canyon, you need to make it a priority to get out of your normal routine and get out for a night in the woods. Growing up in Kentucky, I still remember the first time I camped in the woods, and it was a feeling that set me up for a lifetime of getting into nature as much as possible. I challenge everyone reading this to get out of their comfort zone at least once this year. Disconnect from work, phones, internet and never-ending schedules, and go somewhere awesome. Make it happen. Life is short, and you’ll never regret the time you spend with loved ones in nature.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET
MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.
Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.