FEATURE – The story goes that some visitors to Jacob Lake Inn burst through the door in their swimsuits, goggles and floaties ready for a water recreation experience and are disappointed when they find out there really isn’t much of a lake and what purports to be the lake is approximately a mile away from the actual inn itself.
Some refer to it as “the lake that ain’t” while the website for Kaibab Camper Village, where the lake is actually located, refers to it as “a pretty little pond in a horse pasture.”
Named for Mormon pioneer leader Jacob Hamblin, Jacob Lake in northern Arizona was once an important source of water because there is practically no freestanding water on the Ponderosa-pine-covered Kaibab Plateau.
The inn’s story started in 1923 when Harold and Nina Bowman, of Kanab, saw tourist potential in the area and established a makeshift service station, selling gas from a 50-gallon barrel in the back of a truck.
“If we could sell a barrel of gas in one day, we thought we had had good business,” Harold Bowman later recalled of that first year.
A year after starting the service station, the Bowmans established a lodge. It was rudimentary at first, just a two-room cabin with quilts for doors.
Only 50 years before Jacob Lake Inn’s founding, that same road had been a Paiute migrational trail, later expanded into a wagon road by Hamblin and other Mormon settlers who were shown the route by the Kaibab Band of Paiutes.
The product of Mormon pioneer stock themselves, the Bowmans went into the venture undaunted. They even raised their two young children, Effie Dean, born the same year they set up shop, and Harold Jr., born in 1927, while operating the enterprise; and the children began working at a young age.
Effie Dean started emptying slop jars in the rooms at age 7, while Harold Jr. started taking firewood to all the cabins at age 4. They washed dishes, cleaned rooms, emptied slop jars, gathered firewood and moved on to other jobs. Eventually, Harold Jr. and his family became involved in other interests and left the business, but Effie Dean continued strong, even after her marriage to John Rich Sr., and it is her children who own and operate the inn today.
Jacob Lake Inn’s first location, established in 1923, was nearer the lake, but in 1929 it was moved closer to the road at the junction of U.S. 89A and state Route 67, which leads motorists to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. After the construction of the new road, Harold Bowman felt the highway junction’s position at the base of a large hill would be inconvenient and more challenging for travelers headed to the Grand Canyon; so he borrowed a grader from the Forest Service and graded what he felt was a better road, making the junction on flatter land right in front of Jacob Lake Inn.
The government road was “not exactly ideal for vehicles whose primitive brakes and underpowered motors needed a lot of space to make a run up the slope, or to slow down for that matter,” said Melinda Rich, part of the fourth generation of Jacob Lake Inn’s founding family.
Lucky for Bowman, what he graded became the official road when it was paved in the mid-1930s.
In the first few decades of the inn’s establishment, it was still the “Old West” in the area, Effie Dean’s son John Rich Jr. said. He and his siblings own Jacob Lake Inn today. To illustrate his point, John Rich Jr. recounted a story of two of his great-uncles chasing two bandits who tried to rob the inn’s gas station in the winter of 1933. They notified the sheriff so he could set up a roadblock and chase the robbers down the mountain. When they saw the roadblock, the bandits ran off into the desert; but the sheriff built a fire near it, telling the great-uncles the two would soon be back. Sure enough, the bandits eventually returned and surrendered.
In an era when large corporations usually buy up such businesses, Jacob Lake Inn bucks the trend. It holds the longest-standing Forest Service permit in the nation issued to the same family, John Rich Jr. said. Some permits are older, he said, but in those cases, ownership has changed. The inn is truly a family business; of John Rich Jr.’s 29 nieces and nephews, all of them have been employed at Jacob Lake Inn at one time or another.
The inn has been a family affair in other ways as well.
“We have at times employed grandchildren of former employees,” John Rich Jr. said. “We always have children of former employees.”
Additionally, there have been many occasions when the inn’s employees have met future spouses through their work there.
“Everyone is friends at Jacob Lake,” Melinda Rich said. “We work to help people learn to love and work together. That can be challenging with each new set of employees, but it is worth the atmosphere it creates in the lodge on and off work.”
To Melinda Rich, Jacob Lake is the very core of her existence. She said:
“Jacob Lake and working with my extended family is the foundation of my sense of self. I spent every summer at Jacob Lake until I was 26. I learned from my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles and cousins how to cook, to lead, to be enthusiastic, to plan parties, to sing, to be generous and welcoming to people I’ve never met; to drive, to love beauty in nature and in people, to see the consequences of people’s actions, to see the hand of God in my life, to be adventurous and funny.”
Vanda Wadsworth worked at Jacob Lake Inn during the summer of 1959 just after graduating from high school. Jacob Lake Inn was a very friendly atmosphere in which to work, she said. During their time off, employees had a lot of fun, some of which was provided by their employer. One of the most exciting things she recalled employees doing in their free time that summer was coasting on bikes down U.S. 89A East towards Houserock Valley and Lee’s Ferry … without having to pedal back up since a truck was waiting at the bottom to take them back uphill.
Effie Dean also organized trips to the Hopi Reservation for employees to watch snake dances.
Another favorite activity during Wadsworth’s time at the inn was walking bikes up the hill south along Route 67, climbing the Jacob Lake fire lookout tower and then coasting back down on bikes. Watching Kaibab squirrels, indigenous only to the Kaibab Plateau, jump from tree to tree was also memorable for her.
“It was like watching the monkeys in ‘(The) Jungle Book,’” she said.
Effie Dean was always very nice to her employees, Wadsworth said. On a return trip to Jacob Lake, Wadsworth happened to run into Effie Dean a few years before she died in 2013. The matriarch of Jacob Lake remembered her face but not her name, Wadsworth said, and they had a good chat.
After a more recent return trip, Wadsworth said she felt like not much has changed at the lodge since she worked there, especially to its exterior.
Jacob Lake Inn today
The lodge’s main building purposely has a rustic feel, John Rich Jr. said. The inn’s oldest accommodations are cabins built in the 1930s. The latest addition is a 24-room motel building constructed 12 years ago. In total, Jacob Lake Inn has 62 rooms.
May, June, September and October are the busiest months at Jacob Lake. Surprisingly, July and August are slower because potential visitors think it’s too hot in Arizona in the summer.
The busyness of the winter traffic depends on weather – more people come if there is snow to cross-country ski and snowmobile.
“Winter snowmobiling is spectacular,” John Rich Jr. said. There are Forest Service roads on many ridges ideal for the snow “machines” and some of those roads offer different viewpoints of the Grand Canyon.
He remembers that Reece Stein, outdoor reporter for Salt Lake City’s KUTV, came in the winter of 1972-73 and did a feature on snowmobiling the Kaibab Plateau, complete with images of a snow-dusted North Rim. The report caused somewhat of a sensation, John Rich Jr. said, and Jacob Lake Inn was booked nearly solid the next winter with excited snowmobile enthusiasts. Trouble was, he said, it didn’t even snow that winter.
It does snow most years, he said, and when it does, “the snowmobiling is as good as it gets.” A snowmobile club from Flagstaff has even made the Kaibab Plateau its home base.
Other than being a friendly stopover on the way to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Jacob Lake Inn is also known for its “home cooking.”
In 2009, Arizona Highways made a list of the 100 best things in Arizona and listed Jacob Lake Inn cookies as one of them. Earlier this spring, Buzzfeed said one dessert that readers needed to eat before they die is the inn’s “Cookie on a Cloud” – No. 11 on its list of 26 treats from around the world.
“We bake most of our own bread, and all of our entrees are made from scratch,” John Rich Jr. said. “We have no frozen entrees.”
The gift shop at Jacob Lake Inn is a showcase of Native American arts and crafts and John Rich Jr. gives presentations there about Navajo culture on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, his brother Matt Rich offers a photography program.
Historically, inns have been proprietors’ homes guests were invited into. Jacob Lake Inn is just such a family business in the truest sense of the word. It is a place people can come and relax, John Rich Jr. said.
“We’re in the re-creation business,” he said. “We have purposely stayed away from modern conveniences.”
The inn’s rooms are rustic – especially the cabins that date from the 1930s – and don’t include TVs “so people can get away from it all.”
On occasion they do get complaints from guests, but the inn currently boasts an 89 percent approval rating on tripadvisor.
“Any family business has its complications and squabbles and drama,” Melinda Rich said, “but what I love most about my family is that we can always come together in love, find solutions, forgive, and find a better way.”
Visiting Jacob Lake
Jacob Lake is only a half-hour drive southeast of Fredonia, Arizona, on U.S. 89A and just under two hours from the St. George area. It sits only 44 miles north of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is the end destination of most travelers passing through.
Even if one is not staying at Jacob Lake Inn, it is worth the stop to peruse the gift shop or have a bite to eat and enjoy its charm. Next door, a Kaibab Plateau Forest Service Visitor Center provides visitors information on other activities in the area, including climbing one of the Plateau’s fire lookout towers to learn about the service’s fire management and enjoy stellar views.
Jacob Lake isn’t the only lodging choice in the area. A Forest Service campground is just across the highway, the Kaibab Camper Village is less than a mile south and Kaibab Lodge is 26 miles south.
For more information on Jacob Lake Inn, visit its website.
Author’s note: Vanda Wadsworth, who is quoted in this story, is the author’s mother.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
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Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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