Having a playground of the world in your own backyard is pretty epic.
I’m sure anyone who lives within an hour or two of places like Yosemite National Park, Oahu’s North Shore, or the Swiss Alps can relate: People flock to these attractions from the world over. If you’re one of the lucky ones who live nearby, though, a short drive will have you hiking the trails, snowboarding the slopes, or surfing the waves.
For me, that local treasure is the Grand Canyon. Less than a two-hour drive away from my home in northern Arizona is one of the premier tourist attractions of the U.S., if not the world. Millions have crossed oceans and continents to gaze into the canyon’s dreamy depths.
I, on the other hand, love nothing more than to view the canyon walls from the bottom up. Over the past decade and a half, I’ve taken a half-dozen hikes into the Grand Canyon – twice traversing the 21-mile route from South Rim to North Rim in a single day. Watching the light of the rising sun turn the canyon walls to orange and gold while slowing descending toward the Colorado River is an experience unlike any other. I highly recommend it.
Still, I realized recently that my firm focus on getting to the floor of the canyon may have blinded me to another pure pleasure: Viewing the changing faces of the canyon from the many overlook points along scenic Highway 64.
After a recent Friday-morning visit to Tuba City on the Navajo Reservation, I impulsively decided to return to my home in Prescott, AZ via Highway 64, rather than staying on Highway 89 all the way south to Flagstaff.
The distances are fairly similar, but I usually avoid the Grand Canyon route on Highway 64 for one main reason: Summer tourist traffic through the Grand Canyon National Park. This time, I had plenty of time to spare on my leisurely drive home, and I correctly guessed that traffic would be fairly sparse on an April afternoon. Also, I had purchased an $80 National Parks Pass earlier in the year, so the $30 admission to park wasn’t a concern.
It had been years since I had been east of the Canyon’s South Kaibab Trail parking area at Yaki Point (and even then, my views had been mostly in the early-morning darkness).
So, I decided it was time to refresh my memory on what the rest of the national park has to offer.
The drive on Highway 64 certainly didn’t disappoint. From the Cameron turnoff, the canyon-like terrain begins immediately, with the Little Colorado River. The impressive gorge is visible for miles along the route, before the terrain transitions to the forestland of the Kaibab National Forest.
After entering the national park, the first glimpse of the Grand Canyon is visible from the Desert View Visitor Center area. Featuring the beautiful old Watchtower, Desert View is definitely worth a stop. The 70-foot-high stone tower dates back to 1932, and includes multiple levels from which to admire views of canyon and surrounding terrain. The interior walls are decorated with native-art murals, which glow in the natural light. The open-shaft design features a number of pretty, circular balconies that are accessed by small staircases.
Added bonus of the Watchtower: The structure is startlingly beautiful from countless angles along the canyon’s rim.
The Desert View stop also includes a general store with snacks and souvenirs, as well as a trading post/snack bar and a service station.
After leaving the Watchtower, I drove along the highway, stopping at virtually every viewpoint – Navajo Point, Lipan Point, Moran Point, Grandview Point, and finally, Mather Point.
Rain stopped and started along the way, and misty clouds moved in and out of the canyon. Accustomed to bright, sunny skies at the canyon, I thought the clouds added a stunning dimension to the beautiful tableau.
By the time I reached Mather Point, the sun was setting, adding its own dusky glow to the scene. Simply beautiful.
My little detour reminded me that even in your own backyard, there are features of natural wonders that you can surprise you. Either from the bottom up, or from the top down, the Grand Canyon never fails to deliver!
If you go: To get to the Grand Canyon National Park from the east, take Highway 89 north from Flagstaff for 47 miles to Cameron; and head west on Highway 64 for about 30 miles. Admission into the Grand Canyon is $30 per vehicle.