From trappers and explorers, the stories drifted east — stories of a canyon so huge, so awesome, that it seemed the stuff of tall tales. In the era before landscape photography, eyewitness accounts were, quite simply, beyond belief. In time, though, as more travelers saw the canyon for themselves, the legendary rift became undeniably real: this “canyon of canyons” — one of the certifiable wonders of the world — leaves visitors to ponder its haunting depths.
1. San Francisco Peaks
The drive begins in Flagstaff. A cultural oasis complete with museums and a university, Flagstaff also manages to retain a turn-of-the- century frontier flavor in its well-preserved downtown district.
Heading northwest on Rte. 180, the drive winds by the San Francisco Peaks, which are really several mountains in one. The mountain, an inactive volcano, is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. It erupted repeatedly for more than a million years and now embraces a number of peaks with such names as Agassiz, Doyle, and Humphreys.
The mountains have inspired admiration and awe since ancient times.
For a view from on high, take Snow Bowl Road off Rte. 180 to a ski resort chairlift that whisks visitors to an elevation of 11,500 feet on Agassiz Peak. Those so inclined can hike the nine-mile round-trip trail through twisted bristlecone pines to the alpine tundra atop 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, the loftiest point in Arizona.
2. Kaibab National Forest
Traveling northwest, Rte. 180 descends to a drier landscape; piñon pine and juniper give way to the sagebrush flats around Valle. Due north, near Red Butte, a prominent mountain just east of the highway, the route enters Kaibab National Forest and rises again. For a closer look at the forest habitat, take a few minutes to walk the graveled half-mile nature trail at Ten-X Campground, south of Tusayan, where you may spot a mule deer, Abert squirrel, mountain chickadee, or white-breasted nuthatch. For detailed information on the forest flora and fauna found in the area, visit the district ranger’s office in Tusayan. And be aware that Kaibab National Forest is much larger than it may seem at first: another giant section lies north of the Grand Canyon, and still another part of the national forest occupies a huge tract of land west of Flagstaff.