Touring the monumental Grand Canyon is an excellent trip for the outdoorsy
ANDREW COLLINS | Contributing Writer
The Grand Canyon has been showered with accolades as much as any of America’s many spectacular national parks, yet few who visit this 300-mile-long gorge leave disappointed — it’s one natural attraction that truly lives up to its (considerable) reputation.
If you enjoy the outdoors and want to spend some quality time at the Grand Canyon, consider approaching from the South Rim and staying at one of its lodges, such as the famous and historic El Tovar, with its elegantly rustic rooms and atmospheric, old-fashioned dining room.
Many of the park’s LGBT visitors combine their adventure with either a stay in rollicking Las Vegas, or the groovy New Age town of Sedona. But logistically, it’s best to use Flagstaff (which we recently wrote about) as a base for exploring the Grand Canyon on a daytrip. The town is just 75 minutes via U.S. 180 to the park’s South Rim. This makes it possible to drive up for the day, check out a number of vantage points, embark on one or two short hikes along the rim, explore the visitor centers, and enjoy lunch and perhaps even dinner, while still being able to make it back to Flagstaff by late evening. For many visitors, especially those just passing through northern Arizona, this option makes good sense.
It’s easier to get a room with a true view of the canyon at the modern and extremely comfortable Kachina or Thunderbird Lodges, and next door at the 1935 Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins. For a room inside the park, especially at one of the properties near the canyon rim, reserve as far ahead as possible (up to 13 months in advance). And don’t assume all of the lodges nearest the rim are especially expensive; a standard room with a shared bath at Bright Angel Lodge costs under $100 nightly.
Another good strategy is staying 60 miles due south of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in little Williams, a rustic and friendly slice of Old West Americana conveniently situated along I-40, just 35 miles west of Flagstaff. The town is the terminus of the historic Grand Canyon Railway, and its adjacent historic hotel. Parts of the 297-room property date to 1908, and an on-site pub and café provide sustenance, as well as plenty of character.
You can make the hotel your base camp and visit the Grand Canyon during the day by way of the vintage railway, which uses historic Pullman coaches, as well as a variety of sleek first-class parlor and dome cars; trains leave in the morning and return later that evening, but you can ride the train and spend a night or two there.
Visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon offers tremendous rewards to those who make the considerable extra effort to go. The views are even better (it’s at an elevation of 8,800 feet, nearly 2,000 feet higher than the South Rim), there are less crowds and the ambience is less commercial, but this section of the park is open mid-May through mid-October, weather permitting.
The beautiful drive from Flagstaff takes four to five hours and begins on U.S. 89 and passes through a landscape marked by frequent and dramatic changes in scenery. Along the way, you can make a small side trip to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, a nearly 1,000-year-old volcano — hiking trails loop around but not actually inside the crater. U.S. 89 then curves up around the east side of the Grand Canyon. About 60 miles after passing through historic Cameron Trading Post (a good stop for a casual lunch or to shop for Native American collectibles), you bear left onto U.S. 89A and then cross over a narrow gorge of the Colorado River, called Marble Canyon, which has a small visitor center and makes for a nice roadside break.
You’ll drive alongside Vermilion Cliffs Monument and then up into the Kaibab National Forest, rapidly gaining a few thousand feet in elevation, before turning onto Highway 67 (the North Rim Parkway), which winds 50 miles through stands of evergreens to the North Rim.
The facilities at the North Rim are limited, but there is a wonderfully rustic old hotel, the Grand Canyon Lodge; the dining room inside the lodge is a mesmerizing setting for a meal, whose massive windows afford tremendous canyon views. From the lodge, you can drive to several trails, which lead to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful overlooks in the Southwest.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 23, 2013.