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
"Stop and let the world go by." This is the savvy advice of Richard Ullmann, a friendly, helpful ranger I met at the visitor center on my last visit. Find a quiet spot, he urged when I asked him about recreational activities, "and ponder life." The beauty and majesty of the canyon seem to nourish this kind of reflection.
Affordable Lodging and Dining
Camping is always cheapest, but only if you own a tent and sleeping bag. Assuming you don't, I've tracked down decent, affordable lodgings and inexpensive places to eat nearby. Summer rates, which are quoted here, are highest; prices drop by as much as 50 percent from early November until about mid-March.
Inside the park
Given my druthers, I'd always opt to stay inside the park for convenience and the beauty of the surroundings. But from spring into fall, lodgings at the south rim tend to book up months in advance. Still, give it a try. To book park accommodations, AmFac Parks & Resorts, 303/297-2757, www.amfac.com.
First choice should be historic 88-room Bright Angel Lodge, the appropriately rustic-looking hub of the south rim. Just a few steps from the canyon's edge, cozy rooms (some with shared bath) go for $44 to $60 a night for two people. A private cabin with bath begins at $70. About a quarter-mile away, 288-room Maswik Lodge is a fine alternative despite its modern motel-like design. Spread over several acres of ponderosa pine forest, Maswik's cabins with bath are $60; large rooms (many with balconies) range from $73 to $113. In winter, the rate for the best rooms at Maswik is just $99 for two (yes, two) nights. A big plus for Maswik is that the park's large and attractive cafeteria is located there. I dined quite well on a heaping plate of baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and canned peas for $6.35. At breakfast, scrambled eggs, toast, and juice came to $3.20. Next to Bright Angel Lodge, the Arizona Steak House is a full-service restaurant. Following a strenuous six-mile hike into the canyon, I was hungry and opted for a hearty "hiker's cut" of prime rib, a huge 12-ounce hunk of juicy tender beef: just under $18, with salad, baked potato, and saut,ed squash.
Outside the park
Although staying beyond the park's borders is less convenient, rooms are much easier to find in the busy season and are often cheaper, as are meals.
Tusayan: Closest to the park is Tusayan, a village-like cluster of eight relatively new motels, cafes, and other tourist facilities located just outside the park's entrance gate - and seven miles south of the south rim. The best buy in the bunch is Rodeway Inn's 231-room Red Feather Lodge (800/538-2345 or 520/638-2414), which boasts a heated outdoor swimming pool. Until October 31, the peak-season rate for a standard room with two queen beds is $82; children 17 and under stay free. In winter, $56. Next-door at the inviting Cafe Tusayan, a full pasta dinner with salad is $8.95. You can stay marginally cheaper in Tusayan ($75 a night in summer) at the 20-room Seven Mile Lodge (520/638-2291). But the modest little motel doesn't take reservations.
Williams and Flagstaff: More distant are the mountain-ringed towns of Williams (60 miles south of the park) and Flagstaff (80 miles south). Even on a busy summer weekend, Flagstaff (information, 800/842-7293), a sprawling city with a couple of seemingly endless motel strips, should be able to come up with a well-priced room at the last minute. "I wouldn't worry too much about that," says Patrick McCabe, manager of a local Super 8 Motel (see below). Book in Flagstaff if you want to explore the gorgeous Red Rock Country of nearby Sedona, the curious Petrified Forest National Park 110 miles to the east, and other northern Arizona attractions.
But I really prefer quiet little Williams (information, 520/635-4061), a turn-of-the-century railroad stop that was the last community on old U.S. Route 66 to be bypassed by the interstate system. Well away from highway hubbub, the town center retains its nineteenth-century Old West character, and the local folks display proverbial small-town friendliness. Williams is so compact, you can walk to almost everything. Plan ahead to catch one of the annual rodeos. A daily tourist train from Williams to the south rim - the Grand Canyon Railway (800/843-8724) - can fill the town's rooms, so reserve in advance. Fare for the train tour is $49.95; $24.95 for ages 16 and under.
Surely every budget hotel (and fast-food) chain is represented in Flagstaff. I've stayed in the heart of town at the 135-room Fairfield Inn by Marriott (520/773-1300), a quality motel with a pool where the peak rate is $79 to $89 ($49.95 in winter) including a substantial continental breakfast. Just up the street, the locally owned Canyon Inn (888/822-6966) charges $59 to $69 ($32.95 in winter) with free coffee but no swimming. On the eastern edge of Flagstaff, a standard room at the Super 8 Motel (888/324-9131) goes for $59 ($39 in winter). Out on South Beulah Blvd. on the west side of town, I recently dined on veal parmigiana ($12) at the Olive Garden, a chain restaurant with a tasty Italian menu. Next to the Super 8, the Village Inn tempts with an old-fashioned meat loaf plate at $5.99.