Bar 10 Ranch: Paradise on The Grand Canyon’s North Rim
Photos by Barry Kaufman
Standing amid the endless seclusion of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, where the earth opens before you to write its story in millennia of alluvial plains, it’s easy to feel lost in time. Here, the whole of the canyon opens before you, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, without a soul in sight.
The south rim may get all the glory. But the flipside of that coin is that it also gets all the visitors. To capture that perfect photo you must first jockey for position among a horde of tourists from all points of the globe, brandishing their smartphones and throwing elbows to clear selfie space.
But here on the North Rim, there is silence. There is tranquility. There is the boundless majesty of the awful power of receding glaciers, thundering volcanoes and centuries of wind played out on the rock.
And if there’s a better way to take in the endless struggle between the earth and the elements than from the saddle of an ATV, we’ve yet to find it.
On The Trail
Just up a dusty desert trail, winding through plains of scrub and cactus away from the North Rim, you’ll come to Bar 10 Ranch. A working cattle ranch founded in 1972, Bar 10 first started branching out into recreation in the early ‘80s when the river rafting companies saw an opportunity to break up the grueling 14-day trek down the Colorado.
“The river companies came to us and said, ‘Hey, can we bring rafters out here and make this a stopping point,’ and it just kind of built up from there,” said tour guide Rich Wilkinson before an April ATV trip to the North Rim. “Now we get to do day tours for folks out of Vegas who are sick of gambling and want to see some nature.”
Nature there is in spades, as our four-seat Ranger bounced along the swerving trail carved from (and often around) the rock between Whitmore Canyon, where the ranch lays perched on a grassy hillside, and the North Rim. Along the way, Wilkinson illustrated the fascinating tale behind the area’s geology.
Here and there along the trail, darkened slabs of volcanic rock peppered the rippling waves of sandstone, the last remnants of a catastrophic eruption 120,000 years ago. The closer we drew to the North Rim, the more rocks we saw, collected in vast piles alongside the trail.
“At night the boss has us come out and tidy up these rocks. That’s my pile,” Wilkinson deadpanned with a thumb toward a 20-foot hill of loose volcanic boulders.
The volcanic rock darkened the earth more and more as the trail got more and more treacherous, the Ranger barely ever keeping all four wheels on the earth at the same time. And then finally, we’re there.
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The trail from Bar 10 ended at a dazzling bend in the Colorado River, where bands of red and taupe rock rippled in waves toward a thin band of sage-colored river spotted with rapids. Across the bend, more volcanic rock cascaded down the far bank in a haphazard pile, the result of a millennia old dam forged in the fires of a volcano.
“Can you just imagine,” said Wilkinson, gesturing across the vast gulf to the rocks opposite. “This was just a solid wall of rock and then at one point BOOM. The whole dam just burst… You can see the history of the world right here in this spot.”
From a dizzying perch high above where a dam burst long before recorded history, you could almost feel that explosion echoing still along the canyon walls.
Bar 10 Ranch
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a hungry group of Las Vegas daytrippers returned from their ATV tour of the history of the world, ready for Bar 10’s signature barbecue.
As a working cattle ranch first and foremost, Bar 10 serves up grass-fed barbecued beef in a simple manner, but executed flawlessly. The flavor danced along the tongue with hints of tomato base, while the meat pulled away without effort to dissolve slowly in immaculately textured perfection.
Then again, when you’ve been raising cattle as long as they have at Bar 10, you have plenty of time to developing strong beef barbecue game.
“My great grandfather came to this area in the late 1800s,” said Gavin Heaton, whose family owns Bar 10. “This section of ranch in Whitmore Canyon my dad acquired in 1927.”
As the daytrippers ate, Wilkinson got out his guitar and serenaded the group with a setlist that ranged from country standbys to a twangy cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” On a rocking chair overlooking the grassy hills of Bar 10 and the rippling waves of earth that form Whitmore Canyon beyond, Heaton shared his family’s story.
How his father, Tony, founded the ranch, then built the trail leading down to the Colorado River when the river rafters came calling. How they used to transport rafters back to the ranch on an old school bus, which seems hard to reconcile with the rugged nature of the trail (apparently they went through a lot of tires).
“At that point, the ranch became a destination spot,” said Heaton.
The sprawling cattle ranch 80 miles from any public utility (it relies on solar power and a nearby spring for power and water) built itself up into a multi-faceted destination, offering ATV tours, horseback riding, river rafting, skeet shooting and, at one point, helicopter tours.
In the course of a season, which stretches from the first of March to the third week of November, Bar 10 will host 10,000 visitors from the river, around 1,200 from day tours and a few thousand more that just drop by (which seems far-fetched, but during this particular visit one couple was staying at the ranch as part of a multi-state ATV tour). Across 14 unique covered wagon accommodations as well as dorm-style rooms inside, Bar 10 can sleep 35 comfortably (although they have done groups as large as 55-60).
They’ve even slept visitors out on the deck who wanted to take in the night sky, as Bar 10 received Dark Sky certification two years ago.
When Tony Heaton passed, managing the day-to-day dual nature of the ranch passed to two sons: Gavin oversees the recreation side of things while Kelly has a greater hand in raising the cattle. The boundaries aren’t strictly drawn, however.
“We’re still full partners in all of it,” said Gavin. “It’s in our blood; it’s what we love to do.”
While Bar 10 pulls much of its clientele from the river rafters, it’s starting to see more and more traction serving daytrippers out of Las Vegas. And it’s not hard to see why.
Grand Canyon Scenic Airlines services daytrippers out of Boulder City Airport, just a short ride from the Las Vegas strip. You can hop on a shuttle right from the hotel in the morning and be right back in the casino by mid-afternoon having spent the day taking in the majesty of the North Rim and veering through the desert on an ATV.
And as the old saying goes, getting there is half the fun.
Our group took off from Boulder City in a Cessna 208B Caravan, which soared in a beautiful arc over Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, following the ripple of the Grand Canyon as it cut through the Nevada Desert. The trip alone to Bar 10 is worth the price of admission, as you get an unparalleled view of the Canyon close enough to almost touch, but high enough to take in all of its grandeur.
An audio tour talks you through the sights below, giving insight into how the awe-inspiring sights below came to be through millions of years of earthquakes, floods, eruptions and chaos. From that height, it all seems so at odds with the tranquility below.
Winging our way back to Vegas, seeing the rippling waves of earth carved away until all that was left was one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Wilkinson’s words echoed once more in my head.
You really can see the history of the world right here.
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