February 26, 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the Grand Canyon’s designation as a national park. Approximately 6 million people visit every year, and over President’s Day weekend, I became one of those millions. My coworker Skylar and I decided to go on another adventure over the 3-day weekend. Read about our first trip together to Albuquerque and the International Balloon Fiesta here.
The intent was to visit was the Grand Canyon, but when in Arizona we couldn’t pass up the chance to also visit Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Antelope Canyon, all (typically) within a 2-hour drive (more on that later).
Though I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a number of countries, I have wondered what I’ve been missing out on here in the States. There are so many National Parks to exploring and I’m excited about the possibility to visit more.
Getting To and Around Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park is primarily accessible from 3 major cities: Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Las Vegas. We opted for Phoenix, which is a 3-hour flight from Kansas City. Allegiant, Southwest, and American service either Phoenix-Mesa Gateway (AZA) or Phoenix-Sky Harbor (PHX) airports nonstop. From Phoenix, the park is only a 3-4 hour drive, whereas it’s about 4-5 hours from Las Vegas. If you aren’t driving to the Grand Canyon, I would highly recommend renting a car. I was able to book a rental car though the airline for a better price than directly through the rental car agency. Though I’m sure there are day tours available to the Canyon from the 3 cities noted above, having a car gives you greater flexibility to explore.
The Grand Canyon (South Rim)
There is a North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Even though they are just across from each other, it takes a whole 4 hours to drive from one rim to the other! The North Rim is only open between mid-May through mid-October due to weather conditions, i.e., snow and ice. Whereas, the South Rim is open all year. We visited the South Rim during our trip in February. As you can see in the photo below, there is still snow in the South Rim at this time of year. (More on Arizona’s weird weather patterns in a moment.)
It costs $35 to enter the National Park in a personal vehicle and is valid for up to 7 days. There is lodging, restaurants, and general stores available in the park in Grand Canyon Village or outside in the nearby town of Tusayan, less than 10-minutes from the park entrance. Lodging in the Village fills up fast, so we opted to stay at The Grand Hotel at the Grand Canyon for our night at the Grand Canyon.
Back to the weird weather patterns in Arizona: In Phoenix, we started the day in the 50s, but as we drove north toward the Grand Canyon the temperature dropped to the low 30s with a wintery mix coming down in various parts of the drive. It was crazy to experience clear skies one minute, only to drive into sleet coming down the next, and back to clear skies again. It was also like that on the drive further north to Page, Arizona later in the weekend.
There are a number of attractions in the South Rim park to visit. The four main sections of the South Rim are the Visitor Center (with Mather Point a few steps away), the Village (where lodging, restaurants, and general stores in the National Park are located), Hermits Rest, and Desert View.
Mather Point & Visitor Center
Mather Point is visible from both the North and South Rim. Although the Visitor Center is located near Mather Point and seems to be a good place to start, I would discourage it. This was by far the most popular and crowded overlook in the park, and in hindsight, it was the most underwhelming view point. It is a good place to park, use the facilities, and catch a free shuttle to other view points.
From the Visitor Center, we hoped on the orange shuttle to explore the west part of the South Rim. The distance between the Visitor Center and the Village is 2.1 miles. Once we fueled up on food at a nearby lodge restaurant and explored some of the shops and art studios, it was off to scope out the Bright Angel Trail. It was a trail that came up over and over again when researching the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. To our disappointment, the trail was still covered in snow and the path was icy and muddy because of the cool temperatures of February. With the sun shinning down, the air felt comfortable, likely in the mid to upper 40s. We carefully walked just a little bit of the trail but didn’t go too far before turning around.
From March 1 to November 30, Hermit Road to Hermits Rest is closed to private vehicles. Since the distance to Hermits Rest from the Village is 7 miles, we decided to catch a shuttle back to the Visitor Center to get the car and drive between the view points along Hermit Road.
As we were driving toward Yavapai Point, there was a car in the road just stopped. It turns out they were looking at some large animal on the side of the road. It wasn’t until we parked that we heard from others that the animal was a mule deer. There were quite a few in the area. They were extremely calm and slow moving, even with many people around staring at them. Later in the park, there was a backup of cars because a herd of 10+ mule deer were taking their sweet time crossing the road. (Why’d the mule deer cross the road? Presumable, to get to the other side.)
Yavapai Point was probably one of my favorite views of the Grand Canyon. It was here along the walking path that I was stunned and overwhelmed by the beauty and the vastness of the Grand Canyon. See the bottom right photo for my real life reaction.
Along Hermit Road, we also made stops at Maricopa Point, The Abyss, and Hermits Rest (the furthest west stop on the road) before heading back to Hopi Point to watch the sunset. Despite a decent cloud coverage that had moved in over the afternoon, many other visitors had gathered at Hopi Point to watch the sunset too. Even with the clouds blocking the sun, it was still a beautiful view and the perfect way to end the day in the Grand Canyon (it’s worth noting at this point the temperatures had dropped back into the 30s for the night).
Desert View Point
We had planned to visit the points along Desert View Road (also Highway 64) on our second day, as we made our way out of the park and onto the city of Page. However, we had gotten snow overnight. The roads in Tusayan hadn’t been cleared but they were cautiously drivable. We were able to get back into the park, but Desert View Road was closed by a park ranger and said it would remain so for the day. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see these sights, but even more unfortunate was having to drive 45 minutes south to Flagstaff, in order to get around the closed road, only to head north to our original destination of Page. The detour added about 2 hours to the already 3 hour drive.
That’s a wrap on the Grand Canyon! I wouldn’t have changed anything about my first trip. However, I can’t wait to go back in the summer and hike down to the Colorado River and camp at the base via the North Rim. A tip to future visitors? Keep an eye out as you drive and walk around the park, some of my favorite spots weren’t specified view points and you never know when you’ll see some mule deer. Now, onto Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona we go…
The great thing about this platform is that I can tell you more of the “behind the scenes” of the amazing photos you see of Horseshoe Bend online. For one, there isn’t just one spot to get the shot below. The river and canyon is so massive you can’t get a bad photo anywhere along the bend.
Through the first part of 2019, note that the parking lot for Horseshoe Bend is under construction. However, there is a public parking lot available 5 minutes from the trailhead. There are buses that shuttle people back and forth for $5 round trip (bring cash or purchase a ticket online). Buses begin running from the parking lot at 10 AM with the last departing Horseshoe Bend at 6 PM. Once the bus drops you off at the Horseshoe Bend trailhead, there’s about a half mile walk before you see the Colorado River.
Like I said earlier, there are rarely any bad views, so keep walking and/or wait patiently if there are people at a particular overlook. We ended up spending more time here than I expected we would (approximately an hour and half total). Because of all the photos online, I thought it was one of those “take the perfect picture, then head on your way” places. As you can see below there several dimensions (and yes, photo ops) to this place.
P.S. I was not actually hanging off the edge in the fifth photo above. You can go right up to the edge of the rock at Horseshoe Bend and it is inherently dangerous. Earlier this year, a teenage girl went missing in the area when visiting with her family; her body was later found hundreds of feet below the outlook. The photo is an optical illusion. Be safe!
Lake Powell is a reservoir of the Colorado River, located just north of Page. The Glen Canyon Dam was visible from our hotel in Page, Sleep Inn & Suites Page at Lake Powell.
After you drive across the dam bridge and around the lake, you momentarily cross over the state border from Arizona into Utah. The area was quiet during our visit in February but is a popular place for water recreation as the temperatures warm up in the summer.
Have you heard of Antelope Canyon? Maybe you haven’t, but does this photo look familiar?
Right on! You may have seen it in a calendar or a stock photo on your computer. It’s a popular slot canyon in Page. Guided tours are required to access and view the canyons. There are actually 2 canyons: upper and lower. Distinctions between the two include:
|Upper Canyon||Lower Canyon|
|– Wider at the bottom and narrow at the top, forming a “A” shape|
– Popular for the iconic sunlight beams that shine down
– Generally, more crowded and more expensive
– 300 feet long
| – Narrow at the bottom and wider at the top, forming a “V” shape|
– Stairs up/down to the canyon
– No light beams
– Less expensive
– Generally, similar view as the Upper Canyon
We made a reservation with Ken’s Tour for the Lower Canyon before our trip, however on the day of our tour all Lower Canyon tours were cancelled due to snow. There was snow in the forecast so it wasn’t surprising to wake up to see snow covered roads, cars, and landscape. However, it was the most snow the city had gotten in some time (I think they said, nearly 10 years). Fortunately, the Upper Canyon hadn’t closed and still had tours running. Since we had arrived early for our tour, we booked it across the street from the Lower Canyon to the Upper Canyon. We learned that cash was required to reserve a spot on the next tour at 8:45 AM, which would have been the only feasible tour that enabled us to leave Page on time to road trip back to Phoenix and catch a flight home. We miraculously made it to an ATM and back an secure the last 2 spots on the tour.
Our luck continued! There were about 50 people on our morning tour so we were broken into smaller groups of 8-10 to fit into open air vans and drive to the Upper Canyon entrance. Our assigned tour guide Abraham had a covered van with heat so we didn’t have to bare the winds and high 20s/low 30s temperature.
On top of having the hook up of a warm van, Abraham also is a photographer which meant during our 1-hour tour, he guided us on what settings to have on our phones and cameras to optimize photos, pointed out precise silhouettes to look for, and how to capture photos of the silhouettes. Use your imagination and check out some of them below.
All in all, it was an amazing trip to Arizona! Getting to see the Grand Canyon was just the tip of the iceberg. It’s impressive what you can accomplish and see in just three days when you plan and put your mind to it.
I’d love to hear about your experiences visiting sights in Arizona and out west! If you’ve been to other National Parks, which ones have been your favorites, and why?