Any road trip through Arizona requires a visit to the great gulch – a stop at the south rim of the Grand Canyon to gawk at the incredible width, depth, breadth and well, grandness of it all.
But any lover of radical rock formations will find many hidden gems beyond this natural wonder. The kicks just off nostalgic Route 66 are definitely worth the detours – buttes, mesas, arches and a rainbow of ever-changing colours.
Head north, through the Navajo and Hopi Nation lands, into Lake Powell and then down the Colorado River, to get some unexpected views of the region’s spectacular red rocks.
Make sure you’re packing lots of food and water, and a shovel in case you get stuck in the sand, and rock on!
A GRAND GAZE
Start in Grand Canyon National Park ( nps.gov/grca) on the south rim. Even if you don’t take the time to hike a mile down to the canyon floor along Bright Angel or Hermit Trail – or ride one of the mules stabled at the top – gazing across the 16-kilometre-wide chasm as the setting sun turns the rocks from red and orange to mauve and fuchsia is a wonder that many have tried to capture in photos and art, but must be experienced.
A prime spot for a sunset cocktail is the private balcony of the Mary Coulter Suite in the historic El Tovar Hotel. (Paul McCartney stayed here for two nights in 2001, but as hotel sales manager Bruce Brossman recalls, when the former Beatle began playing the piano in the mezzanine, other guests complained about the noise and, to protect his cover, employees had to ask him to “please stop.”)Arrive by road or take the Grand Canyon Railway ( thetrain.com) along the 1901 Santa Fe rail line from the funky town of Williams, Ariz., ( williamschamber.com), complete with “gun” fights and cowboy crooners on board.
To leave the national park, head to the east entrance along the East Rim Road, and stop at the stunning Lipan lookout (guides point out that this is where Thelma and Louise tried to fly a convertible in the 1991 movie). Highway 64 takes you back to Highway 89, north of Flagstaff, where you can continue on into the Painted Desert, past Little Colorado Canyon (the inspiration for Wile E. Coyote’s grand descents), to the shared Navajo and Hopi community of Tuba City and Moenkopi.
About 80 kilometres northeast of Tuba City, you’ll find the remote Navajo village of Shonto (translated it means “sunshine springs”). Tucked in a green valley in its own red-rock canyon, there’s an original sandstone trading post where Al Grieve still buys and sells local Navajo split sumac baskets, rugs and turquoise jewellery and you can stay in the guest cabin or “hogan” where, Mr. Grieve says, John Wayne, John Ford and John D. Rockefeller all slept. The rustic eight-sided traditional structure, with its intricately woven domed log roof and low stone walls, is the last of the tourist cabins erected here in the 1930s. Mr. Grieve says he still offers it to overnight guests. navajo-arts.com , 928-672-2320
HOMES AND NATIVE LANDS
The Navajo lands and Hopi lands of northern Arizona are intermingled – Hopi communities are found high on the tops of mesas in the midst of the massive Navajo reservation.