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Arizona - The Grand Canyon State

The Grand Canyon is a sight to behold. It may be why you’re in Arizona in the first place? Many a summer vacation is spent showing the kids the Grand Canyon, at least in the Western United States. From Phoenix it’s a full day’s drive to the Canyon and back—so you might want to plan two or three canyon land days; use Phoenix to “hub and spoke” as you visit several northern Arizona excursions. There are cowboy towns and ranch lands with western vistas to see—they are, literally, right out of the movies. There are sacred native dwellings to visit, and celebrated energy fields to experience. (Sedona vortexes are legendary!) There are lively mining towns to stir your pioneer imagination.

Recommended destinations—with watering holes, state parks, national forests (Kaibab and Coconino) and university environments along the way to sugar coat the journey—include—of course—the Grand Canyon (with two entrances possible) plus the Canyon land cities of Flagstaff, Sedona, Cottonwood, Jerome, Prescott and Wickenburg (as spokes on different days).

Grand Canyon or Bust

Whether you visit the Grand Canyon for an hour, a day, a week or a month you’ll come away with a profound sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of the canyon named Grand by ancient Hopis for a reason. The stats alone belie the enormity of the Canyon, preserved (thank goodness!) by President Theodore Roosevelt as one of America’s first national parks. Today the park contains over 1.2 million acres making it almost as big as the entire state of Delaware. The Canyon is 277 miles long, from 4-18 miles wide and up to one mile deep. It took over 6 million years to carve. The National Park serves as an ecological refuge, with relatively undisturbed remnants of dwindling ecosystems (such as boreal forest and desert riparian communities) still in tact. It is home to numerous rare, endemic (found only at Grand Canyon), and specially protected (threatened/endangered) plant and animal species. Over 1,500 plant, 355 bird, 89 mammalian, 47 reptile, 9 amphibian, and 17 fish species are found in the park. The California Condor, regarded as one of the rarest birds in the world, is sometimes seen soaring overhead Grand Canyon Village. This majestic “ugly duckling” is enjoying a slow comeback from the brink of extinction—thanks to Park intervention and management.

Tourists can drive and/or hike along the South Rim or, if time permits, plan an overnight hike down to Phantom Ranch, located on the Colorado River at the Canyon bottom. (Advance reservations are required!) No matter how you visit the Canyon, and for how long—you can’t help being touched by this encounter with such an awe-inspiring place.

Day trippers from Phoenix wanting to spend 4-5 hours at the Canyon will need to leave early and prepare for a long and tiring day. It helps if you have at least two drivers to share the driving so that everyone gets a chance to gawk at northern Arizona’s beautiful scenery and vistas en route. It’s about a 4 – 4 1/2 hour drive from Phoenix—that is, if there are no traffic delays and you drive straight there. (With only one major highway going north from Phoenix to the Canyon—(I-17) —delays are not uncommon, especially in challenging weather conditions. The most direct and popular route from Phoenix is to take I-17 north to I-40 then I-40 west to Highway 64. Take Highway 64 north directly to the South Rim.) For those who would rather leave the driving to someone else, there are bus tours to the Grand Canyon from the Phoenix, Flagstaff and Williams’s areas. There’s also the Grand Canyon Railroad departing from Williams, Arizona—an event and attraction in and of itself. See the web site for schedules, fees, and more details depending on your visit dates.

Over five million guests visit the Grand Canyon each year; the busiest months are June, July and August. The entrance fee to Grand Canyon National Park is $25 per private vehicle; this covers everyone in the car. To avoid waiting in traffic at the South Rim entrance gate, start early and purchase a prepaid park entry ticket at a vending machine in the IMAX theater in Tusayan (follow signs off Route 64; IMAX is near the Pizza Hut). Then, at the Park’s South Entrance, watch for designated prepaid ticket lanes that move this traffic into the Park quicker. Hint: hold on to The Guide, the newspaper-like Park reference received as you enter the Park. It highlights activities, news and unexpected closures in and from the Park. Or, call 520-638-7888 for current program times and dates. If you’re entering from the East Gate, never mind.

With some restrictions and seasonal closures, visitors are free to drive in the Park and stop at various lookout points. To minimize traffic and pollution, the National Park Service (NPS) encourages use of the free shuttle bus service along the south rim of the Canyon as an alternative to driving. Riders can get on and off the buses as many times a day as they like—there are no tickets or restrictions. Buses run continuously every 15-30 minutes; some coaches feature equipment that aids accessibility. Simply park your vehicle in one of the designated parking areas and board the next bus that comes along. Save time by reviewing the bus map and your parking options before leaving Phoenix or Tucson. The best way to avoid large crowds in the summer months is to head straight for Parking Lot D by the railroad tracks. (Take Center Road left off South Entrance Road as you enter the Park.) This stop is close to gift shops, restaurants, restrooms and historic El Tovar Lodge. Parking here allows you to by-pass the crowds who typically flock directly to Canyon View Information Plaza & Visitor Center upon arrival. From Lot D you are close to Bright Angel Trailhead, Kolb Studios, and Hopi House. When the shuttles are not running, you may need to take the Park's Fred Harvey's 24-hour taxi service (928-638-2822). These taxis do not have meters. Their fares vary according to distance and the number of passengers.

South Rim points of interest include:

Grand Canyon Village

  • Canyon View Information Plaza/Visitor Center/Book Shop/Mather Point
  • On your way in from the south, this is the first place to actually overview the canyon, while looking down on Pipe Creek Canyon and its eroded landscape. It’s also one of the busiest. Hikers can immediately head out to Yavapai Observation Station, just one mile from the Plaza along the Rim Trail. Numerous horse rental outfitters are available in the Village, and there are dozens of shops and small arcades plus several small museums highlighting Native American culture and local flora and fauna. An IMAX theater offers a virtual tour of the Grand Canyon and provides incredible information about the park and its history.
  • Once you’ve determined your visit itinerary make your way to the center of the Village and the Market Place, the spot to shop for supplies, groceries, medicines, souvenirs and sundries. There’s also a bank, post office and the Mather Amphitheater nearby.
  • If you didn’t find picnic items in the Market Place, other food is easy to come by in the Village; in fact, there’s a restaurant for every taste and budget. The historic restaurant in El Tovar is a popular place but a bit pricey and crowded for some. You can’t beat the ambiance! Another open- for-dinner –only favorite is the Arizona Room, located right on the rim with views of Bright Angel, (also a bit pricey; reservations recommended?). Canyon Village Deli has a variety of goodies at a reasonable price, as does Yavapai Canyon Café, which is good for a quick burger and a variety of comfort food. There are also two cafeterias in the Village that are convenient and easy.
  • Begin your walk along the Rim Trail from the historic Grand Canyon Railway Depot. Built in 1909, it is one of only three log-cabin-style train stations currently standing (out of 14 built) in the United States. The depot is the northern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway that begins in Williams, Arizona. The Rim Trail is easy to navigate, even with a stroller or wheelchair. Begin with a stop at Hopi House, built by Mary Jane Colter in 1905 and based on structures that were built in an ancient Hopi settlement called Old Oraibi (located on the Third Mesa in eastern Arizona). It initially served as a residence for the Hopi Indians who sold arts and crafts to visitors along the South Rim. Today Hopi House also displays and sells Native American arts and crafts. History buffs will want to visit El Tovar, the South Rim’s famous historic lodge built in 1905, and Bright Angel Lodge, built of logs and stone in 1935 by Fred Harvey who played a major role in popularizing the Canyon and the American West. Stop here and see the lodge’s stone fireplace. It is layered with South Rim stone set in the same sequence as the Canyon itself. Stop at Kolb Studio, also located in the Village Historic District, at the Bright Angel trailhead. Built in 1904, this was once the home and business of the Kolb brothers, pioneering photographers at the Grand Canyon. The building has been restored and features special programs and changing art exhibits in its auditorium. The Rim Trail provides many stunning overlooks along the way including Bright Angel Trailhead (see it’s challenging switchbacks), Trailview Overlook, Maricopa Point and Hopi Point, a favored spot to watch a spectacular sun set or sun rise.

Hiking in the Canyon—for day trippers will have to be somewhat “short and sweet. Hiking. To hike partially into the Canyon the safest route is the Bright Angel Trail, which is equipped with water, shade and rest rooms along the way. Hermit Trail, at the end of West Rim Drive, is another option, more remote and pristine, less crowded. When it’s hot, it is best to hike in the morning; the Canyon’s summer heat is not to be fooled with or underestimated. Carry water, sunscreen, a camera and binoculars! Might we also recommend a walking stick for balance? And parents make sure kids stay on the designated trails, as the canyon rim is fragile, unstable and unpredictable. And please, read up on what to wear and bring with you before beginning even a short walk down into the canyon, especially in relation to the time of year you’re visiting. Conditions on and in the Canyon change, hourly, weekly and monthly, so are prepared.

Hermit Road/West Rim Drive—is eight miles west of Grand Canyon Village and leads to Hermit's Rest, named for hermit Louis Boucher who lived nearby for 21 years. The West Rim Drive (8mi/13km) offers spectacular views into the canyon, with overlooks at Trailview Overlook, Maricopa Point, Hopi Point, Mohave Point, the Abyss, Pima Point, and Hermits Rest. (The West Rim Drive is barred to private automobiles from May to September; guests must take the shuttle on the West Rim Drive during summer months.)

East Rim Drive—goes 25 miles (on Desert View Drive) to Desert View and Desert View Watchtower (the highest viewpoint on the south rim, opened in May of 1933) and toward Cameron and the park's eastern entrance (a 57-mile-long paved drive in Kaibab National Forest). Along this route you can view the Little Colorado River Gorge and part of the Navajo Reservation. Grandview Point is considered by many to be best views of the canyon. And you can take a self-guided trail and visit the Tusayan Ruin, a prehistoric pueblo that is over 800 years old and exhibits of Pueblo Indian life at that time. Free admission. Hint: you can enter the Park from the east by traveling north out of Flagstaff toward Page, on HWY 89 N. In this case you may want to return to Phoenix via the South Rim entrance and see some of the sights from the Flagstaff DayTrip.

The Hualapai Tribe opened the glass-bottomed Grand Canyon Skywalk at Grand Canyon West in March 2007. The Skywalk has enjoyed mixed reviews: access is challenging and admission is pricey for large families and those on a budget. The site, actually too far to include in a Phoenix to Canyon day trip, is only accessible by driving 14-miles on dirt road. The fee at $85 per person includes reservation fees, a tour package and admission to the Skywalk—a glass bridge suspended 4,000 ft. above the Colorado River on the very edge of the Grand Canyon. This is not for the faint of heart or acrophobics. But there’s no denying it’s is an incredible engineering feat, and a stroll along it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Daredevils may want to wait a few years until the infrastructure is more favorable to non 4-wheel drive vehicles. Destination Grand Canyon West recommends this route to the Skywalk if starting from the Grand Canyon South Rim Visitors Center (total miles: 242, 4hrs 35mins). Travel south on AZ-64, 56 miles. West on I-40 to Kingman, 116 miles. North on Stockton Hill Road, 42 miles. Right turn (North) on Pierce Ferry Road, 7 miles. Right turn (East) on to Diamond Bar Road, 21 miles. Diamond Bar Road will end at the only entrance to Grand Canyon West, which is the Grand Canyon West Airport. Parking is free.