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The Grand Canyon To Ourselves

After Route 66‘s movable musical feast Neil Sowerby loves living on the edge

Written by . Published on September 16th 2012.

The Grand Canyon To Ourselves

Our epic road trip started with Elvis in Vegas, then took in Utah’s great National Parks and a bohemian chill-out in New Mexico. How to end it in style? Why, with a cruise down Route 66 and a Grand Canyon adventure, of course...

UP in the Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico we sat incongruously in a Bavarian beer garden drinking imported Spaten with a Native American casino boss from Tulsa, Colorado. His in-laws had a condo nearby – “My family get down here often in the summer. It’s only 12 hours from Tulsa.”

“So not 24 then,” I blurted. He chuckled politely. Oh, how inescapable are those great American songs rhapsodising the freedom of the road and the evocative places along the way where love can be found – or lost.

Bavarian Style, Taos Ski CountryBavarian style in Taos Ski Country – "12 hours from Tulsa"

The Gene Pitney classic’s my fave, but I can handle By The Time I Get To Phoenix, say. We could have got to Phoenix if we were to stray south from Route 66, but the plan was to head north from Flagstaff, Arizona in search of the Grand Canyon. Not easy to miss, as it turned out.

We had left New Mexico, skirting Albuquerque, on Interstate Highway 40 – the flat, straight blacktop that was supposed to demote the legendary Route 66 to a mere backroad. But, of course, the much-covered song and the iconic image live on, albeit a mite cheesily.

Altogether now: “If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, the highway that's the best. Get your kicks on Route 66!” When journeyman songwriter Bobby Troup (previous hit Snootie Little Cutie) penned this ditty in 1946 did he ever imagine its future mileage?

In April I had stood on Adams Street, Chicago, in front of the Arts Institute, starting point of the 2,500 mile highway which runs south then west all the way to Los Angeles. Did I ever imagine three months later I’d be rejoining it in a place called Winslow, Arizona. Cue another song, another legend.

Winslow Arizona, Tourist TrapWinslow Arizona, an Eagles tribute site

First track on The Eagles’ eponymous 1972 debut album was Take It Easy. One line,  “Standing on the Corner in Winslow, Arizona” put the town on the map. A girl in a flatbed Ford slows down to take a look at a horny hitchhiker who dreams that her sweet love might save him. I don’t expect it ended well... but a legacy remains.

On the corner of KInsley Avenue and 2nd Street on Route 66 you can pose with a statue of the hitchhiker, backed by a mural of the lusted-after Ford girl... oh and across the road buy a tee-shirt in the gift shop.

Sweet Corn:Blacl Beam Soup At La PosadaSweetcorn and black bean soup at La Posada, Winslow

We decamped to Winslow’s memorial of better times – the Posada Hotel, a wonderfully elegant, restored 1930s hacienda. It was the last great railway hotel built along the Santa Fe line. Freight traffic still thunders past. We lunched in the Turquoise Room restaurant where much-travelled Hartlepool-born chef John Sharpe has won huge acclaim for his interpretations of South Western cuisine and Slow Food. A swirled soup of black bean and corn was simply exquisite. As was Winslow itself, surprisingly – a sleepy, dream America heirloom strip.

Route 66 Legendary VenueLegendary Venue on Route 66 at Flagstaff

Other Route 66 Arizona towns yell their allegiance more stridently. Holbrook boasts a restored 1950s motel called Wigwam Village where you can stay in concrete tepees, while Twister’s diner in Williams is crammed with road memorabilia and a vintage soda fountain. In Flagstaff the Museum Club is a legendary Route 66 roadhouse that has hosted acts such as Willie Nelson. Midweek it had the feel of the taxidermy museum it once was.

Flagstaff Historic Hotel 1Historic hotel in downtown Flagstaff; below, the other side of the tracks

Mainline, Flagstaff

The rest of Flagstaff was a different matter. You can see why it’s regularly voted one of America’s best places to live. The frontier history’s all there downtown, straddling the rail line, but a university presence gives the leafy sprawl a lively, sophisticated feel. The Lowell Observatory – famous for the first sighting of Pluto – is its star attraction (www.lowell.edu). Best of all, Flagstaff has the mountains on its doorstep.

From the balcony of our delightful B&B, Starlight Pines, we looked out on Mount Elden, while 10 miles north lay Arizona’s highest point, 12,633ft Humphreys Peak. We could still see it from our final destination 200 miles to the north – the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Our B%26#38%3BB In FlagstaffStarlight Pines B&B In Flagstaff

That distance is by road, long and winding one. As the crow flies it’s much closer but there’s the little matter of the World’s Greatest Chasm in the way.

The drive took us more than four hours, first along a bleak Highway 89, then on 89A in the sparsely populated area know as the Arizona Strip where members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latterday Saints still defy US law by practising polygamy. There’s obviously little else to occupy your days.

Barmaid At The Lees Ferry LodgeOur teetotal barmaid in the Lees Ferry Lodge

Crossing the Colorado River gorge, a stark beauty returned around Vermilion Cliffs (they are just as it says on the packet) and we stumbled upon an unexpected oasis. The Lees Ferry Lodge is a squat roadside shack with rooms and a restaurant – oh and 100 international bottled beers to choose from, including, bizarrely, heather ale from Scotland. Plus a barmaid, who gave up the booze after one too many Buds in 1990!

The Colorado winds into the Grand Canyon immediately below the South Rim, which attracts the vast bulk of Canyon visitors and their cars. The rugged pioneer instinct in us craved the North Rim, 1,000ft higher, 10 degrees cooler and offering comparative solitude, so we went the extra miles.

Pioneer Cabins At The North RimPioneer log cabins at the North Rim

Little prepares you for what you are to experience as you turn off at Jacob Lake (there is no lake there, oddly) and head towards the Park. We were staying at the Canyon Lodge North Rim in one of their medium-range “Pioneer cabins”. Luxury doesn’t enter the equation; the reason you are roughing it there is their proximity to The Edge.

Canyon LodgeCanyon Lodge, North Rim overlooks the chasm

It was tempting after check-in just to pull up a chair and a margarita and take in the awesome immensity from the perched Lodge terrace, but only minutes away is perhaps the best view of the Canyon – Bright Angel Point.

Perfect Photo OpportunityAngel's Point – perfect photo opportunity. Just don't look down

The half mile paved trail is along a narrow finger of rock, offering switchback views of spires and buttes and side canyons and, 11 miles of fresh air away, the sweeping curtain of the South Rim.

Canyon Wow

Then sunset came upon us and we were overwhelmed by the bewildering beauty of it all. Minute by minute different aspects came into a focus in a riot of ochre and rose and constantly mutating shadows.

In our 2,500 mile road trip we had been thrilled by all manner of geological wonders from the grotesque pink spires of Bryce to the film-familiar mesas of Monument Valley and much in between. But the Grand Canyon is the mile-deep big daddy, its sedimentary layers exposing two billion years of the earth’s history. I still feel dizzy at the memory.

Wildflower Meadoww, North RimWildflower meadow on the Widforss Trail; below, timber rings

Trees, North Rim

It would have been good to take the ultimate path down into the very different microclimate of the Canyon bottom. But the prospect of the vertiginous 14-mile Rim to river North Kabab Trail, via the Roaring Springs waterfall to the Phantom Ranch, was just too daunting for a single day trip.

One alternative might have been to let a mule take the strain. Accompanied mule treks can be booked at the Lodge. They range from simple hour rides to a half-day inner Canyon trip ($80) descending 2,300 ft.

Restaurant In The Grand Canyon LodgeRestaurant in the Grand Canyon Lodge; below, the view from the picture window

View From The Lodge

We had a family birthday to celebrate, so we settled instead on a saddle sore-free picnic ramble along the Widforss Trail to be followed by champagne and dinner (surprisingly good) in the Canyon Lodge’s panoramic dining room.

The Widforss, named after a Swedish/American landscape artist, is a 10-mile track through a constantly changing landscape of deep forest, sporadic Rim’s edge views and almost Alpine flower-filled meadows. Blue skies and vast billowing cloudscapes, seen  through the branches of trees old as time, and only a handful of cagoule-clad intruders upon our immense solitude. Now that’s the way to get your kicks.

To read about the first three legs of Neil Sowerby’s South West States road trip visit
Viva Vegas, Elvis And Us
Rugged Road Tripping In Utah
New Mexico – Adobe Boho And Arabian Nights

Grand Canyon Skywalk.Grand Canyon Skywalk (see the Third Way, below)

Fact file

Getting there:
Virgin Atlantic flies twice a week direct from Manchester to Las Vegas (and daily from London Gatwick to Las Vegas) and is offering return Economy fares from £723 per person. For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770.

We booked our American car hire through Dollar in the UKwww.dollar.co.uk. The most direct road route from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon North Rim (225 miles) is Interstate 15 north to St George, take exit 6 for State Highway 9 towards Hurricane, then via US-89A to Jacobs Lake and Grand Canyon Highway.

Staying there:
Starlight Pines Bed and Breakfast, Flagstaff (www.starlightpinesbb.com) offers rates starting from $139 a night. Tiffany lamps, cute dogs and gourmet breakfasts.
Forever Resorts, Grand Canyon North Rim (www.foreverresorts.com) offers motel rooms from $116 plus tax and cabins from $121 plus tax, per night based on double occupancy. Basic but so handy. http://grandcanyonlodgenorth.com

Eating and drinking there:
Turquoise Lounge, La Posada Hotel, 303 E 2nd Street, Winslow, Arizona. www.laposada.org
Hops on Birch, 22 E Birch Ave, Suite #2 Flagstaff AZ 86001.Amazing craft beer mecca.http://hopsonbirch.com
Criolla Latin Kitchen, 16 N Francisco Street, Flagstaff. Cocktails and small fusion plates. www.criollolatinkitchen.com
Lees Ferry Lodge, Alt 89, Marble Canyon, Arizona.Up to 100 international beers. www.vermilioncliffs.com
Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room (see Staying there). Views surpass the food, which is well sourced. Reservations essential.

For essential tourism information on Arizona visit this link
Grand Canyon National Park www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm
Flagstaff tourism information: http://www.flagstaffarizona.org/

For Taking it Easy in Winslow Arizona www.standinonthecorner.com
Route 66 buffs consult http://www.historic66.com

There’s also a Route 66 Museum (www.tourismkingman.org) in Kingman, Arizona, which boasts the largest stretch of original road.

The Third Way
An alternative to the two Rim experiences (and the various helicopter and plane flights from Las Vegas) is Grand Canyon West just 120 miles east of Vegas. Here the Hualapai Nation have constructed the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway 4,000ft above the Canyon floor. Their latest package offers a new Helicopter Overnight Air Tour from Las Vegas allowing visitors to spend the night in Canyon-facing cabins of the Hualapai Ranch and enjoy a day on the West Rim. The Ranch offers cowboy entertainment and horseback riding, while Hualapai River Runners, the only one-day whitewater raft trip through the Grand Canyon, operates March to October. or full details visit For more details visit www.hualapaitourism.com

Park entrance fees:
National Parks charge an entry fee of $12 an individual or for a car $25, valid for seven days. If you are park-hopping, as we did it makes sense to buy for $80 an America The Beautiful annual pass, which provides entrance and standard amenity fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle. You can buy them at the first park you reach or via www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm

Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T2 Long Stay. Here are all the options:

VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.

Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.

Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.

Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit this link

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