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

By James T. Yenckel, Friday, Jul 1, 2005, 12:00 AM

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.

Getting there-roads to the Canyon

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.

I first visited the Grand Canyon on a camping trip through the West just after I graduated from college, hiking deep into the inner gorge. I've since ridden a mule to the bottom and spent a week floating its length on a huge whitewater raft. You too should try to get deep inside the canyon, because the sensation there is so different. On the rim, you get vast and distant panoramas; from the bottom looking up, the views become more intimate. You really see the canyon up close. Unfortunately, mule rides to the bottom and raft trips on the Colorado River tend to be pricey. But a couple of less costly options I describe below can give you a satisfying taste of these adventures.

My focus here is on travel to the south rim, the most heavily visited area of the park. Sure, you'll face summer crowds. But this is where the best budget lodgings are found and, as it happens, the views are most spectacular. At 7,000 feet, the south rim's summer temperatures are sunny, dry, and pleasant. The north rim is much quieter, but it is also harder to get to, accommodations are very limited, and winter snows close the entrance road from mid-October to mid-May. On a budget, you're better off staying at the south rim. Save the north rim for a return visit.

And here's how to enjoy it best

Ideally, you've accepted my advice and plan to spend a few days at or near the Grand Canyon. You want to see it and get to know it. Here are some of my favorite, least-expensive ways to do so:

Go for a hike into the canyon. With strong legs and lungs, you can hike all the way to the bottom of the canyon in about half a day on the Bright Angel Trail (9.6 miles) or South Kaibab Trail (7.1 miles). Both end at Phantom Ranch (303/297-2757), a small park lodge on the Colorado River, where a bunk and bedding for overnight hikers go for just $21 a night. A dinner of stew is $16.25; breakfast is $11.50, or bring your own food. Too strenuous? Hike partway into the canyon-perhaps a mile or two. But count on taking twice as long to climb out as you did to descend. No charge for this.

Stroll the rim. A fairly level trail (no hard climbing here) edges the south rim for eight miles from Bright Angel Lodge west to Hermit's Rest, offering new canyon vistas every step of the way. With binoculars you can spot rafters running the rapids far below. No need to go the entire distance. At a half-dozen points, a free bus shuttles back to the trailhead. Surprisingly little-used, the partially paved path makes an inviting escape route from summer crowds.

Ride a mule. The legendary overnight trip by mule to Phantom Ranch (with cabin lodging and meals) costs about $280 per person. Ouch! But day-trips by mule (303/297-2757), descending about halfway into the canyon, cost only about $100 (with box lunch). Still a hefty price, but maybe worth the expense if it's the only way you're going to get into the canyon's depths. Even going just partway, the trip is still a real adventure. You'll be wowing friends with your stories for months. Count this as added value for your money.

Raft the river. No, not on one of those eight-day, $1,700 whitewater trips through the Grand Canyon, though I know firsthand they are great fun. For similarly majestic scenery and plenty of thrills - but without the stiff price-sign on for a half-day or full-day float trip out of Page, Arizona, about 140 miles north of the south rim. These outings are organized by Aramark-Wilderness River Adventures (800/528-6154 or 520/645-3279). Half day, $55 for adults; full day (with picnic lunch), $77; under 12, about $10 less. From the base of Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River splashes across a series of modest rapids as it flows between soaring rock walls toward the Grand Canyon. The float trip, which recently delighted my wife and me, ends at Lees Ferry, the last take-out spot for the next 300 miles.

Learn with the rangers. How did the canyon develop? Join a ranger for an afternoon's geology lesson. It's just one program in a full schedule of free walks, talks, and slide shows offered daily. On a March visit, I was amused by an evening lecture called "Gee, This Place Is Just Like Disneyland." The talk turned out to be a comparison of the two parks. One big difference: the price. Disney busts your budget for fake thrills; you can get the real thing free at the Grand Canyon.

Go backpacking with the experts. For outdoor enthusiasts. The Grand Canyon Field Institute (520/638-2485, www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute), an educational arm of the park, puts together a series of reasonably priced, multiday treks into the backcountry from March into November. Topics include geology, natural history, photography, and wilderness medicine. This is a great way to explore the canyon's little-visited corners. In September, a five-day hike into Havasu Canyon, a hidden retreat of waterfalls and blue-green pools, costs $350. You bring camping gear and food; the institute leads the way. An overnight class in orienteering-finding your way by map and compass-is $95.

"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.

As in Flagstaff, motels are plentiful in Williams. The two listed here hand out coupons for ten percent discounts at nearby restaurants. I particularly like the attractive, well-kept, 34-room Norris Motel (800/341-8000), which is part of the Best Value association of independent inns. The peak rate is $55 a night for one bed; $59 for two beds, and $2 extra for each child. (In winter, $30 to $34.) Coffee, granola bars, and the heated pool and hot tub are complimentary. Up the street, the 20-room Route 66 Inn & Gift Shop (888/786-6956) will rent you a king-bedded room for $45 for one person, $50 for two from May through September ($35 for two in winter). A two-bedroom family unit sleeping four to six people starts at $90 ($60 in winter). Within walking distance of each are two Old West-flavored cafes. The Parker House Restaurant serves up a rainbow trout dinner with salad and potatoes for $8.75. At the Pine Country Restaurant, charmingly decorated with green-and-white-checkered tablecloths, the porkchop dinner is just $6.75.

Two well-kept hostels provide what I've found to be the cheapest decent accommodations in the Grand Canyon area. In funky Old Town Flagstaff, the 52-bed Grand Canyon International Hostel (888/442-2696) charges $16 a night for a bunk bed with linens, a hearty breakfast, and pickup from the Greyhound bus station. Dine cheaply around the corner at the Black Bean Burrito Bar & Salsa - $2.95 for a burrito plate. About ten miles north of Williams, the 34-bed Grand Canyon Red Lake Hostel (800/581-4753) offers spartan bunk rooms at $15 per bed, but the place is surrounded by thousands of acres of gorgeous scenery. Picnic with a lofty mountain view on salads and sandwiches from the deli next door. If you plan to stay more than a night, check with hostel co-owner Joe Petrillo about a discount. "We're flexible," he says. "We cut deals."

For more south rim information, contact Trip Planner, Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023, 520/638-7888. You also can find the Trip Planner on the Web at www.thecanyon.com/nps. Hiking around an Anasazi (ancestors of the modern Hopi) archaeological site on the challenging Nankoweap trail. John Russell/Network Aspen//Charles Lindsey/Graphistock//The watchtower at the south rim (left); Gary Crabbe/Enlightened Images//the stupendous view from the canyon's north rim (right) Cheyenne Rouse//Havasu Falls on the Havasupi Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. Cheyenne Rouse//Rob Atkins/The Image Bank//The sunburned beauty of Vermilion Cliffs: The escarpment ranges over 40 miles. Gary Cralle/The Image Bank