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  • Candace Ahlfinger

Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon--A Grand Experience

The Grand Canyon

Hikers and art lovers could stay in Sedona, Arizona for a long time with plenty to do, but our trip was leading us to the Grand Canyon with multiple stops along the way. On the way out of Sedona, we stopped at the Indian Market and then the Dairy Queen in Oak Creek Canyon to shop for Native American jewelry. At these places, the craftwork costs less than at some of the large stores and provides direct payment to Native Americans. (If you bought food at the Indian Café and Market or packed a picnic on your own, you can enjoy your meal at the picnic area shortly after the DQ in Coconino National Forest or Slide Rock State Park.) Oak Creek vista provides a scenic overlook and restrooms.

As we drove towards Flagstaff, we were still surrounded by majestic red rocks, but towering Ponderosa Pine trees were added to the landscape. The twisty, winding narrow road through the mountains was beautiful—as long as you do not tend to get carsick.

Elk crossing signs lined the road, so we watched the landscape diligently in hopes of glimpsing them. (The major difference in elk and deer crossing signs seem to be that deer are pictured on their back two legs while elk are shown standing in all four. The elk may be laughing at the deer for expending additional energy just to show off.)

As we entered Flagstaff, snow-topped Mount Humphreys, a 12,633-foot dormant volcano, appeared in the distance as a backdrop for the beautiful scenery. We stopped at the Visitors’ Center/Train Station to get information and begin our self-guided walking tours of Flagstaff. (Visit their website for more information.) We decided to take two tours: the “Historic Downtown Walking Tour” and the “Walk This Talk, A Historic Route 66 Walking Tour.” (Flagstaff also offers tourists an Ale Trail and a Public Art Tour. (Several breweries are along the “Walk This Talk” Tour if you need a break for a drink.)

Flagstaff, Arizona

The “Historic Downtown Walking Tour” took us past multiple historic buildings including the Orpheum Theater which still serves as an entertainment venue. Its building-size mural, The Sound of Flight, is an intriguing piece of art, the largest mural in Arizona, and a great place for a photo op. This walk took us near many restaurants and fast-food spots that are prolific in this town that is home to Northern Arizona University and Coconino Community College. We stopped for a quick bite at Pita Pit before finishing our first walk and beginning our second.

The “Walk This Talk, A Historic Route 66 Walking Tour,” accessed on our phones, had a surprise welcome from Ted Danson, who was from Flagstaff. We learned a great deal about Route 66 including these facts:

  • Route 66 was rerouted through Flagstaff because of traffic issues.

  • The trainyard is still active. Look both ways!

  • Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, gave Route 66 the name of “The Mother Road.”

  • Flagstaff still boasts original motels—a combination of the words “motor” and “hotel.”

  • Flagstaff has NASA connections. Apollo astronauts studied at the Rock Lab where they learned what samples to look for on their moon walks.

After a few hours we were off for more new adventures, the first of which was the fascinating Walnut Canyon National Monument. We had almost decided to bypass this opportunity, but we wanted to see more cliff dwellings. When we arrived, we took the Rim Trail past rebuilt homes of the Native Americans who once inhabited this place. We were disappointed that we were not able to get near the cliff dwellings—until we noticed people on another trail that we had not seen! (Note to self: Always stop at the Visitors Center to learn all there is to do! Park Rangers are so very helpful.)

Walnut Canyon National Monument

We quickly took the Island Trail down to encounter 25 cliff dwelling rooms. The ingenuity and creativity of the Sinagua people can be seen in their homes, heating and cooling methods, and communication means. It was a privilege to visit these ancient homes and try to imagine all they dealt with in accomplishing tasks. The hike down was minimal in comparison to all we learned. (The sign at the top of the trail states, “Going down is option. Climbing back up is mandatory.”)

After this visit, we continued our journey to the Grand Canyon along Route 66 through Williams, Arizona which is known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon and is also on Route 66. (You can catch the Grand Canyon Railway in Williams onboard vintage diesel-powered railcars. However, we decided to drive.)

Since we arrived later in the day, we were fortunate that we did not have to wait in line to enter Grand Canyon National Park. From 10:00 to noon each day, visitors often wait in line up to 2 hours just to get in. As we entered the park on the south rim, we caught sight of some of the many elk that road signs had warned about. (The north rim is closed for winter months. Check the National Park Service website for more information.)

Sunset at the Grand Canyon

I had visited the Grand Canyon before, but I was still left speechless by its grandeur and size, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep. We arrived just in time for sunset which was wonderful. The constantly changing colors as the sun and clouds moved across the sky made the canyon seem different minute to minute. Be prepared though. Nighttime can bring a significant drop in temperatures.

El Tovar Hotel

We stayed inside the park at the El Tovar Hotel in Grand Canyon Village. The historic hotel was built in 1905 and has maintained the same feel and look. The hotel is located on the rim of the canyon which makes it ideal for easy access to hiking. We hurried outside to watch the beautiful sunset over the canyon. (The same clouds that made the sunset magnificent, also made it difficult to stargaze our first night.) We had reservations at the El Tovar Restaurant the two nights we were there. (Reservations are a must.) Dining options were very limited due to Covid, but we were glad that we had not planned to leave the park for dinner because it is very dark.

After eating breakfast in our room the next morning, we walked around the Rim Trail to the Bright Angel Trail which winds its way into the depths of the Grand Canyon., (We had stopped at a grocery store and stocked up on breakfast items.) The downhill path entices hikers into descending further than advisable. After all, every step downward feels like two or three steps upward since the return is all uphill with a steep elevation change. The wide path is in excellent condition and easily accommodates two-way traffic. (Mules also use this path, but we did not see any while we hiked, only obvious by-products assuring us that the mule tours are still in operation.) Obvious checkpoints along the way are marked for easy turnaround.

Grand Canyon

Seeing the canyon from below the rim gives an amazing perspective. The only drawback to the trail is that it stays in one area of the canyon, so unless you go all the way to the bottom—a multi-day hike—the scenery does get a little monotonous. My husband and I went a little past the 1.5 mile marker before turning around. We next took the Rim Trail to the Yavapai Museum of Geology which is on the edge of the canon. Scientists chose this spot for its view. From here they could see examples of all the types of rocks in the canyon.

More of the Grand Canyon

We spent the rest of the day going through the buildings in the village and reading before catching the sunset again. This time there were no clouds, so the sunset was not as picturesque as the night before; however, the star display after dinner at the El Tovar Restaurant was breathtaking.

We were up and off early the next morning to see more of Arizona including the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert.

For our trip from Phoenix, Arizona to Sedona, click here.

To learn about our three-day stay in Sedona, click here.

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