An American Classic: The Grand Canyon
With its rich inventory of reasonably priced lodgings and tour facilities, the Grand Canyon is available easily and enjoyably to everyone
To many Americans, this is the supreme travel experience. I have seen grown men and women cry as they caught their first glimpse of it. I have myself been misty-eyed on my tenth visit to it.
A fantastical landscape, unique in the world, an immense chasm carved by the Colorado River, its soaring multicolored walls dazzle the eyes, its immense size brings awe and wonder to visitors from every state and around the world.
Why be left out? You can join in the excitement right now, and I'll show you how to do it - and do it well - on a tight, tight budget.
Rewards for an unpretentious approach
The canyon - 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and a mile deep - lies almost entirely within Grand Canyon National Park, which itself covers more than a million mostly wilderness acres. These are the wide, wide-open spaces of the American West. Can you see it all? Not likely. But you and family or friends can have a lot of good, inexpensive fun trying.
Few vacations anywhere are as rewarding, or affordable, as a national park trip, and Grand Canyon is no exception. You'll find lodging and dining bargains year-round - both inside the park and in nearby communities - and plenty of exciting, easy-on-the-wallet things to do. In summer, a room for two begins at about $60 a night inside the park and less than $50 outside. (Not bad at all for one of the country's most popular vacation destinations, and we'll be providing addresses and phone numbers below.) In winter, the canyon's sometimes snow-blanketed quiet time, the price drops to about $50 in and about $30 out. And these rates don't include a couple of clean and friendly bunk bed hostels, which are even cheaper. A full dinner at the park cafeteria can be enjoyed for under $10.
Once you've taken care of lodging and meals, recreational costs can be minimal - although you might want to splurge on a couple of adventure trips. Hiking, my favorite way to explore the Grand Canyon, is free. Sometimes, though, I just like to sit at the canyon's edge and watch the passing clouds cast dancing shadows on the rocks. This doesn't cost me a penny either. Outside the park, you can stroll the streets of Williams, an Old West town where the local folks stage a free gunfighters' shoot-'em-up for tourists every summer evening at 7 p.m. En route from Phoenix, the gateway to Grand Canyon country, make sure to stop for a look at the ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings of Montezuma Castle National Monument. Entrance fee: $2 per person.
The closest airports to south rim (favorite starting point for most people) with budget-priced flights are in Phoenix, about 220 miles away, and Las Vegas, about 165 miles. Both are served by most major airlines.
While summer is the peak season for accommodations at the relatively cool south rim, car rental prices tend to drop in Phoenix, where heat and humidity make summer the off season. Rent-A-Wreck (800/828-5975) is quoting a weekly summer rate of $143.70 for a compact car with 150 free miles a day. The lot is about 20 minutes by shuttle from the airport. U-Save Auto Rental (602/267-9505) charges $139.95 for a week with unlimited mileage for travel in Arizona only and is a five-minute shuttle ride to the lot. At the airport, Budget (800/527-0700) offers a rate of $173.99 with unlimited mileage.
But if money is tight - or you're traveling solo - consider taking the bus. You don't need a car at the Grand Canyon; in summer, it can be a nuisance because of the shortage of parking spaces. Greyhound (and Amtrak) serve Flagstaff, and during the summer Nava-Hopi Tours (800/892-8687) offers two departures daily from Flagstaff (one at other times) to the south rim. Until October 1, the bus leaves Flagstaff at 7:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. for the two-hour trip. The return from the south rim is at 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. The fare is $14 each way. The Nava-Hopi office is adjacent to the Amtrak Station; it's about a half-mile by foot or taxi from Greyhound. Greyhound's round-trip fare between Phoenix and Flagstaff is $38.
How long should you stay?
Many visitors see the Grand Canyon only on a quick day-trip to the south rim. But to really get to know the place, to experience it, stick around longer - two or three days at least, a week if possible. In practical terms, you'll be getting more for your money because the memories will be lasting ones. As an overnighter, you'll be better able to take advantage of the park's excellent ranger-led educational programs - all of them free. And you will have time to catch a sunrise or sunset, when the canyon's famed colors are most vivid. (At other times of day, the bright Arizona sun often bleaches away the hues.) The $20-per-car park entrance fee, a bargain in itself, is good for seven days.