Of the millions of visitors that peer into America’s favorite abyss each year, only a small fraction do so from their mountain bikes. Those who are lucky enough to combine dirt pedal strokes with Grand Canyon panoramas have found themselves on the Rainbow Rim Trail—the only singletrack trail along the entire canyon rim that is open to mountain bikes and easily one of the most scenic mountain biking trails in the country.
Formerly one of the best kept secrets of the Grand Canyon area, the Rainbow Rim Trail is now recognized as one of the premier mountain bike rides in all of the Southwest due to the remote and wild feel of the trail, a plethora of access points, and spectacular views into the granddaddy of all red-rock drainages: the Big Ditch itself.
National Parks, with some exceptions, do not traditionally provide singletrack trail open to mountain biking. Nearby Grand Canyon National Park adheres to this management philosophy. Along the North Rim of the Canyon though, and beyond the borders of the National Park, the Kaibab National Forest does provide a mountain bike opportunity in the form of the Rainbow Rim Trail.
The trail itself connects five Grand Canyon observation points, located off dirt Forest Service roads, and runs over 18 miles in one direction. Each observation point along the trail contains not only sweeping views of the Canyon, but boasts unique peeks at specific geologic features as well, including Tapeats Amphitheatre, Steamboat Mountain, Powell Plateau, Mt. Trumble, and Great Thumb Mesas.
The Rainbow Rim Trail runs along the extreme edge of the Kaibab Plateau, an area of higher elevation with much more forest cover than the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon. In between the observation points, the trail winds through mixed pinyon pine, old-growth Ponderosa, and aspen forests. Craggy juniper trees spring from red-rock piles. Deer, bobcat, and turkey stalk the thickets lining the trail. The Rainbow Rim Tail winds up and down, never far from the canyon rim but often out of sight, while crossing shaded glens, rocky side-canyons, and the occasional flower-filled meadow.
Part of the trail’s allure comes from its remote location. This section of the Kaibab Plateau that surrounds the Rainbow Rim Trail is part of the Arizona Strip, a portion of northern Arizona characterized by its lack of population and developments due to the difficulty in crossing the Grand Canyon. From the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center, it’s almost 45 miles to the Parissawampitts Viewpoint, one of the five observation points along the trail. For reference, the Kaibab Plateau Visitor Center is already located 30 miles south of Fredonia, one of two settlements in the Arizona Strip and home to only 1,500 or so inhabitants.
And make no mistake, the Rainbow Rim is a true backcountry trail—be prepared for self-sufficiency including food and extra water. There are no services nearby. Ask at the Visitor Center or call the Kaibab National Forest for up-to-date road conditions—the roads to the Rainbow Rim Trail are passable, but not ideal, for cars with standard clearance.
Due to the remoteness, visitors to the Rainbow Rim Trail may choose to utilize the ample and beautiful dispersed camping around one of the observation points and mountain bike the trail over the course of several days. If this option is chosen, the Rainbow Rim Trail can be broken up into several shorter out-and-back rides depending on where your vehicle is parked and the tent pitched. Camping near the Locust Point area, for example, effectively cuts the trail in half, as this observation point also serves as the midpoint of the trail.
Mountain bikers of all varieties will love this trail. The Rainbow Rim Trail is well-planned and well-built with a combination of speedy descents, smooth climbs, and slightly technical side-canyon crossings. The wild country of the Kaibab Plateau, combined with the one-of-a-kind views, only add to the experience. And unlike other premier trails in the Southwest, there’s something different lurking around the next bend instead of other bikers: open singletrack. Solitude is easy to find along the Rainbow Rim.
Wondering if there is a trail worthy of hauling your bike across the country for your next Grand Canyon vacation? There is. Plan for an extra day to sneak away and ride the Rainbow Rim. Maybe even two. Looking for an epic Southwest ride to round out your Sedona, Gooseberry Mesa, and Moab rides? Put the Rainbow Rim Trail on the list. This trail will not disappoint.
Of note: The proposed Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument encompasses the public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon, and would ensure that development is kept in check and that the Rainbow Rim Trail stays accessible forever. Learn more about the proposal for making the lands around the Grand Canyon a national monument and get involved.
Originally written for Sierra Club.