PHOENIX — The NFL's graphic designers would like you to think that State Farm Stadium is a stone's throw from the Grand Canyon. Perhaps even on the canyon rim itself. It is beauty and grace, the realization of all that is amazing about football, America and Western landscapes. And it's just next door.
It is not. In fact, it's 225 miles, door to door, from the stadium to the park entrance. It's the same distance if you leave from downtown Phoenix. If you're a Chiefs fan, that's like driving to St. Louis from Kansas City. If you're an Eagles fan, it's about the same drive from the Rocky statue to Richmond, Virginia.
Lots of people visit Phoenix and want to visit the Grand Canyon. It's a natural wonder of the world, one of the places that won't disappoint. Until people realize what a schlep it is to get up there. A day trip is a long day trip. It would be better for you to do an overnight. But if you're set on visiting the Grand Canyon in a single day, here's how to do it:
Step 1: Get up early
First, check the weather. The weather in Phoenix is not the weather to the north of us and it can be lovely in Maricopa County and the roads to the park can be snowed in. Dress appropriately. Look up "Grand Canyon, AZ" or "Tusayan" on your weather app of choice.
Assuming the weather's OK, all roads lead to Interstate 17 (there are two ways to get there that don't, but they'll add an extra hour to the trip). The 17 is a perpetual traffic mess. Leave around 5 a.m. A good rule of thumb is that you should leave earlier the further south you hit the 17. If you're way up in north Phoenix, or coming from the West Valley on the Loop 101, you can leave a little later than if you're coming from downtown Phoenix.
Step 2: Don't sideline yourself with side trips
Yes, Sedona is beautiful. No, don't stop there. Eyes on the prize. You're headed north. Also, the exit to Sedona is not Sedona; it's another 15 miles until you get to town. You'll have to content yourself with great scenery. Look to your right once you pass the Sunset Point Rest Area (it's at the top of the really big hill you'll ride up on the 17) and you'll see the Agua Fria National Monument, which is huge and an excellent example of a transitional desert landscape. Look to your left and you'll see the Bradshaw Mountains, which look like they're from a Western movie.
You'll get some decent red rock views on your left a bit further north, after you climb out of the Verde Valley.
Step 3: Use Flagstaff as a service stop
There's no avoiding having to drive through Flagstaff, so get your gas here and maybe stop for a quick bite to eat. This will be your cheapest gas for the rest of the trip. Don't stay too long: You have another 90ish minutes of driving. Yeah, no one tells you that. Onward!
Once you wind through the streets of Flag (no one tells you that about the trip either) and get on U.S. 180, you'll go through some gorgeous Ponderosa pine stands and you'll go up in elevation some more. There are great views of the San Francisco Peaks to your right. Like limitless vistas? This part of the trip is for you.
Step 4: Be prepared for the entrance gate
You've been driving about 3 hours or so by now. You've taken 180 to U.S. 64 and made a right (the convenience store on the right at the T the road has an impressive, if somewhat culturally tone-deaf, souvenir collection). And now you're about to collide with reality: The entrance gate to Grand Canyon National Park.
The earlier you get there, the better off you will be. If you hit the gate around 12 p.m., on a Friday you'll be there for more than hour. You shouldn't wait more than 20 minutes or so if you're there in the morning. And they charge. You're probably driving a rental car, so that'll be $35 regardless of the number of people in it.
Step 5: Park and walk to the Visitor Center
It's another 10 minutes of driving to get to the massive parking lot near the South Rim's visitor center. Lot 1 is the closest to the Visitor Center. Lot 4 is closest to a bathroom. Just in case.
This is a good time to point out that the food at and around Grand Canyon National Park is not very good. You will get less than you pay for. Just accept it and move on.
Step 6: Don't visit Mather Point
You won't follow this step because EVERYONE visits Mather Point. It's the closest observation point to the parking lots, it sticks out like a finger over the canyon. It's stunning. And it's jammed. Unless you get there early in the morning, Mather Point is like a fight against selfie culture. Go ahead and visit it. But we told you.
Here's the pro tip: You'll see a paved sidewalk path as you approach Mather Point. Take it to the right for about 100 yards. The further you get from the point, the fewer crowds you'll see and they disperse very quickly. They also tend to move to the left of Mather Point, towards the (excellent) geology museum.
Spend some time walking along that rim path. Go back to the visitor center, spend some time there. Maybe it's time to venture below the rim.
Step 7: Go (just a little) below the rim
Time to be stern: You will not make it to the Colorado River and back up to the South Rim in a single day. People die trying this. An entire book was written about how people die in the Grand Canyon and a lot of them died doing this. It's an 18-mile round trip. The second half of that round trip is uphill the entire way.
That said, you should go below the rim a little bit. You'll take the Bright Angel Trail, since it's easy to get to and popular. It only takes about 100 steps down the trailhead to be notably below the rim. It's a different world. If you want a decent dayhike, head down to 1-1/2 Mile Rest House. It is 1.5 miles down the trail, has toilets and a place to refill your water bottle.
Some guidelines if you do the hike to 1-1/2 Mile Rest House and back:
- Make sure you take at least a liter of water with you for this short hike.
- Bring some kind of salty snack so you get adequate electrolytes
- Don't do it on an empty stomach.
- Going down is not hard. Going back up is. Assume it will take you twice the amount of time going up as it does going down. If you have asthma, bring an inhaler.
Not a huge fan of that kind of hike? Understood. There's a small arch/tunnel on the trail about a 1/4 mile down that a lot of people will turn around at. Hiking there and back gives you a quick, not-quite-as-strenuous look at the world below the rim.
Step 8: Leaving forces a choice: Prettier or faster
You actually drove the least scenic part of the park if you came in on U.S. 64 via Flagstaff. The road that enters the park from the east parallels the rim and is a much better view with pullouts. So here's the choice: Driving out to the east is prettier but will add an extra hour.
If you do go leave to the east (follow the signs for Cameron) you'll find a bunch of scenic overlooks that are all worth stopping it. One of the magics of the Grand Canyon is that it changes in the light and depending on where you are. This is your route if you like a good meander. Eventually you'll get to Desert View Point, which is scenic and has the last reliable bathrooms for awhile.
If you're hungry on the way back, the Cameron Trading Post in Cameron has been there forever and has excellent Navajo tacos and an excellent collection of hand-woven Navajo rugs. It's become a tour-bus destination, however, so the waits can be long.
About 40 miles outside of Flagstaff, in Gray Mountain, there's an abandoned motel that was painted by five Native American artists a few years ago as part of the Painted Desert Project, an art project on Native lands.
You'll go through the Navajo Nation on your way back to Flagstaff and eventually hit 17 again for the trip back.
Here's how much time we estimate it will take:
- 4 hours to drive up
- 4 hours at the park
- 5 hours to drive back
A 13-hourish day. But a pretty amazing one that exposed you to a lot of Arizona.
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