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.
In Tuba City and neighbouring Moenkopi, the land on the right side of Highway 87 is Navajo, the land on the left, including the new Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites, is Hopi. From here, it’s 64 kilometres east to Third Messa, the nearest Hopi villages. Hopi guides such as Evelyn Fredericks will take you into historic Hopi villages and down back roads to see some stunning scenery – from the red and bleached white formations streaked with black layers of coal in Coal Mine Canyon, to the remains of a stone school and the intricate mushroom-like hoodoos of Blue Canyon in Moenkopi Wash. As you head north into the high desert – the altitude about 1,830 metres above Phoenix – and into the Colorado Plateau, there are mountains (remnants of volcanoes) and exposed layers of limestone among the red sandstone carved by time into painted peaks.
While you can visit native communities on your own, certified guides have special knowledge of the area. With venomous snakes, dust storms and flash floods, this desert region can be dangerous if you’re not prepared. You might even have to dig your way out of a sand trap. “As nice as it is today, it’s a very harsh country,” Ms. Fredericks says as we bump along a tooth-rattling washboard road. “Always have a full tank of gas – and take a blanket, a gallon of water and a shovel.” experiencehopi.com
SPECTACULAR GLEN CANYON
A float along the Colorado River below the Glen Canyon Dam near Page, Ariz., (nps.gov/glca) is both serene and striking. The national recreational area – about 130 kilometres north of Tuba City – offers a new view around every bend. Once you forget about the massive wall of concrete (about 4.9 million cubic yards of poured concrete) that holds back the waters of Lake Powell, you can’t beat a sunny day down here on the flat water in Glen Canyon.
The red Navajo Sandstone cliffs rise up 457 metres above the calm, clear river, and the smooth red-stone walls, blackened with magnesium oxide “desert varnish,” make a perfect canvas for the petroglyphs, drawings left by ancestral Puebloans more than 800 years ago.
Fishermen can float this 24 kilometre stretch between the dam and Lee’s Ferry boat launch for trophy trout, while condors float in the updrafts and canyon wrens flit among the rocks. But if you want to really get away from it all, for $25, guide Gary Damron will ferry you, your kayak and camping gear up to one of the rustic riverside campsites – free wilderness accommodation that is completely off the tourist track. Or just take his $60 half-day tour – perhaps the most jaw-dropping view you’ll get of Arizona’s red rocks. raftthecanyon.com
Also in the Glen Canyon recreational area is Horseshoe Bend, site of an oft-photographed 270-degree bend in the Colorado River. Stop on Route 89 (just south of Page and highway marker 545) at the parking lot for the Horseshoe Bend hiking trail. Take the 2.4-kilometre walk up to the windy rim of the canyon for this completely different way to see the red rocks. At sunset, the short hike across the desert is as colourful as the perfectly symmetrical view of this famous sandstone escarpment, almost entirely encircled by the shining, blue-green waters of the meandering river. Limestone or calcite has cemented the layers of Navajo sandstone here and the rocks near the sheer edge are covered in Moqui marbles, little spheres of iron – so step carefully.
FLOAT YOUR BOAT ON LAKE POWELL
Explorer John Wesley Powell was the first to find Glen Canyon a “pure delight,” and now the lake that bears his name delights a modern generation of tourists who visit its 96 sculptured sandstone canyons and more than 3,000 kilometres of shoreline via modern houseboats. Not only is it the most comfortable way to explore the many channels and side canyons, you can travel all the way to Rainbow Bridge, the world’s largest natural rock bridge, and one of more than 80 natural rock arches in the area. Rainbow Bridge is a sacred site for local first nations and a national monument – you’ll find a park ranger there who knows absolutely everything about this most impressive formation. nps.gov/rabr; pagelakepowelltourism.com
Back in Page, hook up with a Navajo guide and explore the magical Antelope Canyon – cool caverns washed into the desert landscape by spring flood waters and sculpted by sandy storms. A dusty drive in the back of an open 4-by-4 takes you to the entrance of these famed slot canyons, where sunlight pours through openings to the sky like tractor beams and the dramatically carved surfaces turn from orange and gold to magenta in the ever-changing light. You must have a guide for this tour – flash floods in these deep desert canyons still occur. In 2006, floods closed the Tribal Park for five months and in 1997, 11 tourists were killed by a flood. A one-hour guided tour is $25, or take the $40 two-hour photo tour – best between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. – to capture the famous interplay between light and mineral. Bring a tripod. antelopecanyon.com; navajonationparks.org
IF YOU GO
Where to eat: The 1905 El Tovar Hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon has the finest dining room in the park and features dishes with an aboriginal twist. Try the prickly pear chicken with jalapeno jack cheese or Navajo taco, beef or vegetarian chili atop a big piece of fry bread with lots of fixings. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 928-638-2631; grandcanyonlodges.com
At the Tuuvi Café, across the highway from the Moenkopi Inn, they serve American and Hopi meals – hamburgers served on fry bread, Tuuvi taco with beans, or hominy stew with roasted green chilies. 928-283-4374
In Williams, Ariz., – the gateway to the Grand Canyon – you'll find the tallest homemade cream pies ever at Pine Country Restaurant. 107 N Grand Canyon Blvd., pinecountryrestaurant.com
Where to sleep: In Tuba City, stay at the new Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites, the first hotel to be built on Hopi tribal land in 50 years. With authentic native art throughout the hotel and evening talks with local elders, it's a way to connect with the Hopi culture. 928-283-4500; experiencehopi.com
In Williams, the Grand Canyon Hotel (built in 1891, it's the oldest hotel in Arizona) has rooms with private bath that start at $70. 928-635-1419; thegrandcanyonhotel.com.
On Lake Powell, rent a posh houseboat and explore with a bunch of your friends. The 75-foot Excursion houseboat with 2,400 square feet of cabin space, an upper deck, a flat-screen TV with tracking satellite, a hot tub and a fireplace, starts at $6,750 (U.S.) for four days. lakepowell.com
Special to The Globe and Mail