Standing along the rim of the Grand Canyon, it’s hard not to wonder what the first explorers of the area thought when they discovered the magnificent natural wonder.
Most likely: “Looks like we’ll have to turn around.”
But like their modern-day counterparts, they undoubtedly were spellbound by the mesmerizing vistas, which even modern cameras seem incapable of capturing.
To truly appreciate its splendor, the Grand Canyon must be seen in person, and there’s no better way to go than by setting a course for the open road, and visiting the natural wonder as part of a road trip through the Southwest.
Depending on your itinerary, it’s best to begin in Phoenix. While there are no direct flights from Bradley International Airport, several major airlines offer connecting service including Southwest, American, Delta and United.
If you plan to visit only the Grand Canyon and immediate surrounding area, flying in and out of Phoenix is the best choice.
Otherwise, consider returning from Las Vegas, where Southwest operates nonstop service to and from Hartford.
Between Phoenix and Las Vegas you can chart a visit to Sedona, Grand Canyon National Park, Monument Valley, Lake Powell and Zion National Park.
Visiting them all in a single trip can take anywhere from 10 days to two weeks and covers roughly 900 miles, so you’ll need to prioritize destinations based on time, distance and budget.
Two hours north of Phoenix, the city of Sedona (visitsedona.com), the second most frequented destination in Arizona, draws more than 3 million visitors a year.
There are several ways to get there, but the Red Rock Scenic Byway (Exit 298 off Interstate 17) is a do-not-miss. Designated an All-American Road by the U.S. Department of Transportation, it’s 7 miles of breathtaking scenery and red rock formations, with plenty of spots to pull over.
Sedona’s idyllic, mystical setting has made it a spiritual draw, as well as a scenic one. It’s a mecca for New Age enthusiasts, which accounts for the many businesses offering gem stones, psychic readings, healing and wellness retreats. Sedona is also known as an artists’ colony, with galleries featuring Southwestern and Native American art and jewelry.
But the landscape is the real attraction, and the best way to see it is off-road.
Pink Jeep Tours (pinkadventuretours.com) takes guests on an open-air, rugged adventure aboard a Jeep Wrangler. Lasting about two hours, the tours cost $99 for children and $110 for adults.
If you’re not afraid to do the driving, you can rent an ATV. Sedona ATV & Buggy Rental (atvsedona.com) offers various buggies and off-road vehicles, with cost depending on the number of people and the duration. For a family of four, a half-day rental runs about $350. It’s a thrill to hit the back country and see what you want at your own pace.
It’s also a great way to visit the Honanki ruins (verdevalleyarchaeology.org/Honanki), which were occupied by the Sinagua, Yavapai and Apache Indians during different time periods and date back to A.D. 1100. Accessible only by all-terrain vehicles, with additional hiking required, they are some of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the region.
The Grand Canyon, Arizona
Heading north from Sedona, make sure to take Route 89A to Flagstaff, the route through Oak Creek Canyon. Recognized by Rand McNally as one of the top five scenic drives in America, its winding ascent takes you through incredible forests surrounded by high cliffs and red rocks.
Flagstaff (flagstaffarizona.org), two hours south of the Grand Canyon, is a good place to buy gas, food and any last-minute necessities.
From there, the landscape becomes visibly more barren, with very few places to stop for food or fuel before reaching Grand Canyon National Park (nps.gov/grca/index.htm).
Seven miles outside of Grand Canyon Village, the small town of Tusayan (visitarizona.com/cities/northern/tusayan) offers a limited number of restaurants and places to stay, including reasonably-priced chain hotels.
A handful of historic lodges are within the park, including the Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins and El Tovar Hotel (grandcanyonlodges.com). Both offer unparalleled access and views of the Grand Canyon. They are popular, so reservations should be made months in advance.
The second-most visited national park in the country, the Grand Canyon gets a lot of traffic and congestion, especially in the summer. A road improvement project lasting until next summer is expected to increase both; expect delays and limited parking.
The best way to get around the Grand Canyon is the free South Rim Shuttle Bus (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses.htm), which stops in Tusayan and carries passengers into the park and to many of its most popular destinations.
Bright Angel Bicycle Rentals (bikegrandcanyon.com) offers bike tours around the rim of the canyon, with information on history and local geography and super views along the way.
The 6-mile Hermit Road Tour is family-friendly and lasts three hours. The cost is $62 for adults and for $47 for kids (including bike). Burley Trailers are also available for young children.
While there’s no shortage of things to do in and around the canyon, a hike into it along the Bright Angel Trail (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/BrightAngelTrail.pdf) is a thrilling — and challenging — way to appreciate its vast beauty. The trail is well-maintained, steep and deceiving. Coming back up takes twice as long as going down, and hiking to the bottom and back in a single day is not advisable.
When you return, take a minute to visit the gift shop, perched directly on the rim. The view from its windows is stunning and worth the stop.
Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley (utah.com/monument-valley), a Navajo Tribal Park within the Navajo Nation in Utah, is a decidedly remote detour. Located four hours northeast of Grand Canyon Village, it’s not on the way to anywhere, and there’s not much there. Seriously.
But the dusty, bumpy ride along the 14-mile dirt road through the monuments is unforgettable. Among the most notable are the West and East Mitten Buttes, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Totem Pole and Ear of the Wind. Wild horses can be seen along the way, and locals often set up shop by the road, selling handmade jewelry and other items.
The access fee is $10 per person, or $20 per vehicle (up to four people).
The aptly named View Hotel in Monument Valley is essentially the only place to stay in the area but worth spending $250 for a night there, just for the, ahem, view.
Back on the road and heading west, it takes about three hours to reach Page.
Popular for its proximity to Antelope Canyon (visitarizona.com/uniquely-az/parks-and-monuments/antelope-canyon), only accessible through guided tours, Page is also home to Horseshoe Bend (horseshoebend.com).
Named for its shape, the vista overlooking the Colorado River is easily one of the most photographed sites in the Southwest, if not the U.S. It’s striking.
Parking can be tricky during peak times, and getting there requires a three-quarter-mile hike off Route 89.
The trail to the overlook can be crowded, steep and sandy, but you’ll want to see it, and bring your camera.
Beyond Page’s natural attractions, it’s also home to the Glen Canyon National Recreation area and Lake Powell, the second largest man-made lake in the country (lakepowell.com).
A recreation hotspot, the lake straddles both Utah and Arizona, and is known for its exceptional boating.
While many visitors opt to rent houseboats and vacation on the lake, daily boat rentals are available at several places including Antelope Point Marina, ranging from small power boats to pontoons (antelopepointlakepowell.com).
A boating license is not necessary, and massive Lake Powell, flanked by red rock walls, is a sight to behold.
A boat also is one of the best ways to reach Rainbow Bridge National Monument (nps.gov/rabr/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm), one of the world’s largest natural bridges. You can rent your own, or tours can be booked through Wahweap Marina (lakepowell.com/things-to-do/boat-tours); the all-day tour of the lake and monument costs $122 per adult, $77 for children, plus a park fee of $25.
Zion National Park, Utah
The stretch between Page and Zion National Park (nps.gov/zion/learn/index.htm) takes about four hours, though it’ll probably seem longer.
The payoff is the last part of the trip, along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, a 25-mile stretch that twists through the mountains and through the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel (nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/the-zion-mount-carmel-tunnel.htm), a stunning engineering feat completed in 1930.
The nearby town of Springdale (http://springdaletown.com), a charming enclave surrounded by towering red rocks, offers lodging, shops, cafes and good restaurants.
A free shuttle bus (nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/shuttle-system.htm) ferries passengers along two loops, one that serves the park and one for the town. During the busy months, it’s the best way to get around, especially within the park, which can get congested.
Zion offers some great hiking, including the 4-mile trek along the Angel’s Landing Trail (utah.com/zion-national-park/angels-landing), which rises up nearly 6,000 feet and is filled with steep drop-offs and switchbacks. It’s a difficult five-hour hike — not for novices, children or anyone afraid of heights. But for thrill-seekers who rise to the challenge, the views are spectacular.
The most popular hike in Zion is through the Narrows, a slot canyon with high, cavernous walls that requires navigating through cold running water (mostly shallow but moderately deep in spots) for most of the trek (utah.com/hiking/zion-national-park/the-narrows).
The Zion Adventure Company (zionadventures.com) in Springdale offers all the equipment needed for the hike, including boots, socks and walking sticks, along with friendly advice, and a brief video to help get hikers up to speed.
While the Narrows is family-friendly, kids should be at least 4 feet tall to go on the hike, and hikers need to be aware that there’s no cell service inside the canyon and that flash-flooding is also possible, depending on the season and forecast.
Las Vegas, Nevada
After days of driving and scenery, Sin City is the perfect place to unwind before heading home.
Rife with restaurants, shows and, of course, casinos, there’s plenty to do, because, after all, it’s Vegas.
But road trips are exhausting, so a few days spent poolside might also be in order.
Anything else that happens while in town, stays there. Obviously.