Since moving to Arizona in 1995, we’ve visited the Grand Canyon countless times – usually when out of state visitors came to town. We even had a chance to visit the 2nd most visited National Park prior to moving here. On that trip, we went via private plane leaving from Scottsdale, Arizona. A truly unique way to see this National Treasure. Each time, no matter how you view it, the massive scale of the Canyon never ceases to amaze.
Even after all of these visits over the past 25 years, we never got to witness a sunset at the Canyon. Instead, we’d often make it a day trip from Phoenix – located just over 3 hours north of our home. That changed when we made last minute plans for an overnight stay during Labor Day Weekend.
Our initial plan for the weekend was to visit southern Arizona’s wine country in Sonoita/Elgin, but temperatures were similar to the Valley and hotel rooms were scarce and greatly overpriced. We decided to look at other options and were thrilled to be able to secure a room at the Thunderbird Lodge on the South Rim of the Canyon for about the price of a stay in Sonoita. And, heading north towards elevation should provide cooler temperatures – at least we thought.
The drive up on a late Friday morning was surprisingly painless – especially on a holiday weekend. Coming into Flagstaff, with Humphreys Peak (12,637′) off in the distance, the traffic was non-existent.
One thing that blows me away about driving towards the Canyon is the landscape. About 15 miles outside of one of the World’s Natural Wonders, it’s a barren wasteland and flat as a pancake. It’s hard to believe what lies ahead.
Even arriving at the Canyon at 3:00pm, we breezed right through without even coming to a full stop. Amazing.
Another way to get to the Grand Canyon is via train. The Grand Canyon Railway runs from Williams to Canyon. People can experience a Route 66 town and ride the rails to the Canyon.
What was shocking was the temperature. An Excessive Heat Warning was issued for the Canyon with unseasonably hot temps in the mid-90s as we arrived. At 7,400′ elevation, you don’t expect these temps.
After checking in, we took the short drive to Mather Point – one of the most popular viewing sites in the Park. Many improvements had been made since our last visit. The area now includes a Visitors Center, Amphitheater, Bike Rental Shop and Cafe all within a 5 minute walk to the overlook area and walkable Rim Trail.
It doesn’t matter how many photos I post, the quality of the photos, the lighting, etc. Pictures can’t give you a full appreciation for this awe-inspiring piece of our country. You just have to see it for yourself.
After catching some sites at Mather Point, we stopped by the Market to grab some additional supplies. This place had everything you could possibly want or need during your stay. From souvenirs to steaks and water to wine, this place had it all.
We made a quick stop back to the room to pick up our picnic supplies. From there, we took a short walk along the Rim Trail until we found a picnic table and set up shop for sunset.
While this was a decent spot for sunset, I’d pick a different location next time. Having a picnic table was great, but this wasn’t the best spot to view the canyon in all its glory. Regardless, the magic of Golden Hour is not to be missed as the Canyon lights up in different colors.
It doesn’t take long to go from magical colors to total darkness – so don’t forget to bring a flashlight or use your phone to light the path.
We stopped in the El Tovar Hotel for a night cap. We were lucky to grab a couple of rocking chairs on the expansive porch as we sipped our drinks and watched as mule deer made their way through the property.
Walking back to our room, the moon was bright, but the stars were still abundant. I was able to grab a shot of the Big Dipper – and it seemed like you could reach out and touch it.
The next morning, we planned to walk the Rim Trail the 2 miles back to Mather Point – and the Coffee Bar, but it was simply too hot already with temps in the high 80s by mid morning.
Instead, we opted for the 23 mile drive along Desert View Trail, stopping at all of the lookout points along the way. Each location provided a slightly different vantage point – and helped us to fully appreciate just how “grand” this canyon truly is.
We started the drive at Yavapai Point. It was pretty obvious that today was going to be busier than yesterday. The viewing areas already had several people – speaking many different languages – lined up along the edge.
On the drive out, just past Mather Point, there’s a turnout that provides a great view of Duck Rock.
Further out along Desert View Drive, Grandview Point gives yet another stunning view point.
Walking along the Rim can be terrifying. This isn’t Disney, where everthing is fake and every precaution is made to ensure your safety. This is nature. Literally one step and you’re plummeting to your demise.
Out at Lipan Point, you get a view of Hance Rapid – considered to be the most difficult rapids along the river. The river drops 30 feet through a narrow shoot.
Just downstream from Hance (at the top of the photo above), the river hits “rock bottom”. It’s at that point where the river hits the granite of earth and can’t cut any deeper.
The last point we were able to see was Navajo Point. Since COVID, the Desert View Road is closed past this point – with no access to the iconic Desert View Tower. Off in the distance, the mountains on the left are known as the Vermillion Cliffs, where the groovy “Wave” is located.
Normally, the East Exit to the Canyon is open and it would take you to the historic Cameron Trading Post. Instead, we turned back around and headed back down towards Williams.
We decided to take a quick detour to Seligman, Arizona – another historic town along Route 66. The town tried to make a comeback in 2006 – leveraging their connection to the Disney movie, Cars. It’s told that the animated movie got its inspiration from the area – including the real town of Peach Springs as portrayed in the movie as “Radiator Springs”.
There’s not much to the town, but many of the locations display real cars that were featured in the movie. There are a couple of traditional motels along with the requisite Roadkill Cafe. We decided to grab a late lunch at Delgadillos Snow Cap – a burger and ice cream joint that’s equal parts kitsch, nostalgia and historic.
There’s not much to see or do here, so let’s just say, I’m glad we made this a side trip instead of a destination.
Another advantage to returning home on Saturday? Traffic! On any given Sunday, the return trip down I-17 is always a crap shoot. Accidents are normal and just the crush of traffic alone causes major delays. Instead, it was an easy 2:45 drive back down through Ash Fork and Prescott.
While we didn’t get the sunset shots we’d hoped and the weather wasn’t as cooperative as we’d expected, I look forward to a return trip so we can walk the Rim – and maybe experience a sunrise next time!
Stop wondering! Start wandering!