By Marlene V. Battelle
A long weekend in northern Arizona with good friends — what could be better? Not much! It’s the Grand Canyon and more, in the off-season.
Everyone has heard of the Grand Canyon, but in combination with other places of interest in northern Arizona, October or March is a great time to visit. You can avoid the hordes of tourists that invade one of the most-visited National Parks in the U.S. during the summer. Whether the temperatures are in the upper 60s to low 70s during the day and chilly and crisp at night or there happens to be snow on the ground, it is magnificent. The unpredictability of the weather is a small price to pay for nearly having the place to yourself.
You can fly into Flagstaff but Phoenix offers more options and less-pricey flights. It’s only about a two-hour drive to Flagstaff.
When staying in Flagstaff there are numerous choices, but something to keep in mind if you are a light sleeper is to make sure you stay a long way from the train tracks — they are busy and thus noisy. A mid-priced choice is the LaQuinta Inn and Suites at 2015 South Beulah Boulevard, back off the busy highway and not on a major street. It’s well-kept, quiet, and the included breakfast is very good.
From Flagstaff head to the northeast on Highway 89 and visit Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. These two parks share a 35-mile loop road branching off Highway 89, circling through the parks, and rejoining 89. The contrast between parks is significant and the link between them is unusual. Sunset Crater is dedicated to a spectacular act of nature, the eruption of Sunset Volcano in 1064-65, while Wupatki chronicles the ancient people who occupied the nearby area during roughly the same period. The cinder cone of Sunset and impressive lava flows tend to make you feel as if you have stepped into a moonscape. Then you walk through the Wupatki pueblo and it is hard to imagine how the Sinagua people who occupied this arid landscape survived, although the silent remains stand as a testament to their ingenuity. Questions abound concerning their lives and why they essentially disappeared from this area when they did.
Continuing up Highway 89, you come to Cameron, Arizona. Here the Cameron Trading Post is the main draw and there are two very different establishments. One is the typical large tourist store with some very nice things and many inexpensive souvenirs. Then there is the “other” trading post — this is the one with absolutely beautiful native-made goods. A friend commented, “It’s like an art museum with price tags.” This is a place to spend some time, and quite possibly, some money!
Traveling west on Highway 64, you enter Grand Canyon National Park from the east and your first glimpse is from Desert View and the Watchtower, one of the many buildings designed by Mary Colter within the park. The east entrance offers a particularly suitable beginning because the absolute grandeur and increasing “wow” factor is continual from this point. Be sure to stop at the overlooks on the way to Grand Canyon Village.
Even in the off-season, lodging within the park itself is not always readily available. We made reservations several months ahead of time for a March stay and there was only one lodge available — the Yavapai, which turned out to be very pleasant and had many more amenities than are found in the lodges at some national parks. The rooms were large and complete with television, coffee maker, and refrigerator. Set in the woods, it was quiet and felt secluded. There are a variety of places to eat within the park. We chose Bright Angel Café the first evening and had good meals, reasonably priced.
A large supermarket and a post office are located near the lodging office. During the day, take a lunch (there is a snack bar at Hermit’s Rest but it is typical snack bar type food), hop on the shuttle bus, and head out west from the Village along the Canyon rim. The road to Hermit’s Rest is closed to public traffic but the shuttle buses are efficient and an excellent way to view the Canyon. With eight stops on the way out and two on the way back and approximately ten minutes between buses, you can spend as much or as little time as you choose at any of the stops. There is something amazing to see at each one. The Rim Trail links a number of the overlooks so hiking any portion is an option. Total distance from the Village to Hermit’s Rest is eight miles.
Yavapai Point is the perfect place to go and sit on the rim to watch the sun set over the Canyon. We followed the sunset with a dinner at the El Tovar, the historical showpiece hotel of the Village. The service was magnificent, truly attentive without hovering or being intrusive, and the food exceptionally good. I would recommend the Grand Canyon chardonnay as a nice accompaniment to dinner. After dinner, we ventured back out to Yavapai Point to see the most incredible sky full of stars imaginable. One of our group commented, “This rivals the Grand Canyon.” With no man-made lights anywhere near, the vastness and visibility were superb.
In Grand Canyon Village there are many options for things to do: the Bright Angel Lodge History Room (check out the amazing “geologic fireplace”), a bookstore, souvenir shops of all types, ranger-led lectures and tours, and, of course, the mules. Back-country hiking and camping are allowed but you must register at the visitor center. It’s also good to keep in mind that visitors each year have to be rescued from the Canyon and there can be a hefty price tag on mule or helicopter rescues. The warnings and precautions posted everywhere should be heeded. The Canyon is beautiful but unforgiving no matter what time of year.
Two days at the Canyon give you a good overview and who knows? You may be inspired to come back and make the two-day hike or mule trip to Phantom Ranch at the bottom.
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