Grand Canyon Loop: From Arizona’s Highest Peak to The Grand Canyon

Route Details Length: About 250 miles. When to go: March to November. Lodging: Make reservations in advance for overnight stays

Marble Canyon
At the eastern border of Grand Canyon National Park stand the titanic, limestone-laden ramparts of Marble Canyon.

Route Details

Length: About 250 miles.

When to go: March to November.

Lodging: Make reservations in advance
for overnight stays at Grand Canyon Village.

Nearby attractions: Meteor Crater,
east of Flagstaff. Museum of Northern Arizona,

Visitor centers: Grand Canyon Village.
Sunset Crater, Walnut Canyon, and Wupatki
national monuments.

Further information: Arizona Office of Tourism, 1100 West Washington, Phoenix,
AZ 85007; tel. 866-298-3312, www.

Star Route

North Rim Parkway
Just 1 out of 10 Grand Canyon
visitors makes it to the North Rim
(10 miles from the South Rim as
the crow flies but 215 miles by car),
and the lack of crowds is part of
its appeal. From Jacob Lake, Rte.
67 (open May to October) travels
south across the Kaibab Plateau
through pine forests and grassy
meadows. After it enters the park,
the road winds through rockier
terrain, culminating at historic
G rand Canyon Lodge, where a
short trail leads to the dazzling
views at Bright Angel Point.

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

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.

3. Grand Canyon Village
The crowd gathered on the edge
as you approach most likely includes
first-time visitors. Tread gently as you near
them, for they’ve just experienced
a telling and powerful moment:
the Grand Canyon
has become a glorious,
three-dimensional reality.
The sheer scale of the chasm
staggers the imagination. One
formation serves as the backdrop
for another all the way to the
North Rim, physically just 10 miles
away, but more than 200 miles by
highway. Three Empire State
Buildings stacked one atop another
would still not span the
height — more than a mile — from
the canyon floor to the rim.

Such is the panorama at Mather
Point as the drive nears Grand
Canyon Village and national park
headquarters. The overlook takes
in many of the canyon’s most
famous features, including Bright
Angel Canyon, sharp-tipped Isis
Temple, and flat-topped Wotan’s
Throne. As you view the expanse
spread before you here, remember
that for all its breadth, it encompasses
only a third of the canyon’s
total length of 277 miles.

Bright Angel Trail, which begins
at Grand Canyon Village, is the
park’s most popular hike; the nine mile
round-trip to Indian Gardens
makes a fine day trip. The famed
Grand Canyon mule rides are an
alternative to hiking, but reservations
must be made far in advance
for this popular adventure — and
bear in mind that for the soreness
your feet are spared, other parts
of your body must pay.

4. Yavapai Point
The museum at Yavapai Point
is the best place to learn about the
deposition and erosion processes
that created the canyon; as a bonus,
the museum’s windows make it a
fine viewpoint during summer
storms and on cold winter days.
On nice days visitors can take an
easy hike on the South Rim Nature
Trail west from the museum
to Hermits Rest.

5. West Rim Drive
West Rim Drive, an eight-mile
road west of Grand Canyon Village,
also ends at Hermits Rest.
The road is closed to private vehicles
during the busy summer
months, but regular shuttle buses
make it easy to visit the drive’s
many overlooks. A memorial here
honors Major John Wesley Powell,
the courageous one-armed Civil
War veteran who led expeditions
down the Colorado River in 1869
and 1871 to survey the river and
take photographs.

As you near the end of the drive,
Pima Point offers views into what
Powell called the “grand, gloomy
depths” of the canyon bottom.
From the rim the Colorado seems
only a narrow creek; in reality, the
river is between 200 and 300 feet
wide, and what appear to be gentle
ripples are in fact wildly roaring
rapids that toss river-runners’ 20-foot rafts about like so many corks
in a whirlpool.

6. Yaki Point
The drive doubles back to Grand
Canyon Village and heads east
on East Rim Drive to Yaki Point.
Prominent in the view here are the
switchbacks of the South Kaibab
Trail, which in 6.3 miles drops
steeply to the Colorado River.
Hiking into the canyon can be an
exhilarating experience, but be sure
to carry plenty of water and allow
adequate time (twice as long to
come back up as you spend going
down). Descending below the rim
is like entering a desert — and the
lower you go in the canyon, the
hotter it gets. In summer, temperatures on the canyon floor often
exceed 105°F.

7. Grandview Point
Trying to choose a favorite view
of the Grand Canyon can prove
as frustrating as counting the stars
in the sky. Every vista, every visit,
reveals something new and extraordinary.
Nonetheless, Grandview is
a favorite of many who know the
park well, with Horseshoe Mesa,
Angels Gate, and Vishnu Temple
among the majestic formations
arrayed below.

8. Moran Point
While you’re admiring the wild
beauty of the Grand Canyon, save
a bit of gratitude for the landscape
painter Thomas Moran, who
stopped here on his travels across
the West in the late 19th century.
Moran’s dramatic paintings played
an important role in persuading
the federal government to preserve
the canyon for all Americans, at
a time when private commercial
development was spreading insidiously
across the South Rim. This
view, named in his honor, looks
west toward the slanted rock layers
and jagged outline of the formation
known as the Sinking Ship.

9. Tusayan Ruin
Nineteenth-century explorers, artists,
and prospectors were not the
first to behold the Grand Canyon’s
marvels. Before them came Spanish
conquistadors, and before them
the Anasazis, who built pueblo
settlements in many places across
the Southwest. The restored Tusayan
ruin, with its rock-walled living
quarters and round ceremonial
kivas, survives as the haunting,
silent testament to a departed
people — ancestors of the Hopi
Indians of today — who farmed and
hunted here some 800 years ago.

10. Lipan Point
In the canyon depths below Lipan
Point, the Colorado River makes a
sinuous S curve as it bends toward
the west. There is much to see above the
rim as well. Mule deer, with their
enormous ears, are often spotted
by the road, while elk, their massive,
stately cousins, are more elusive.

In the nearby ponderosa
pines, look for a large, bushytailed
squirrel with long tufted
ears; this charming and playful
creature embodies a fascinating
lesson in ecology. Over the centuries
squirrels on the North
Rim evolved into a white-tailed
form known as the Kaibab squirrel;
the closely related, dark-tailed
Abert squirrel is found on the
South Rim. Though the two populations
live only a few miles
apart, the impassable gulf of the
Grand Canyon separates them
so completely that they might as
well be on separate continents.

11. Desert View
East Rim Drive saves one of its
finest sights for last: just before
Rte. 64 turns south to leave the
national park, Desert View offers
a vista northward into Marble
Canyon as well as a panorama of
the vast plain known as the Marble
Platform, stretching eastward toward
the Painted Desert. (The
“marble” for which these features
were named is actually limestone.)
The 70-foot-tall Watchtower,
perched precariously on the very
edge of the canyon rim here, was
built in the 1930s. Its rustic rock
design was based on similar round
towers constructed by the Anasazis
hundreds of years ago.

12. Little Colorado River Gorge
Continuing south and east, Rte.
64 descends from the Coconino
Plateau to a broad plain where
vegetation is sparse.
Two overlooks just north of the
highway provide dizzying views
into the Little Colorado River
gorge. Like an old photograph
taken of someone that is now full
grown, the narrow, 1,200-foot
chasm may show how the Grand
Canyon looked as the Colorado
River first began to erode its
bedrock in its youth — millions
of years ago.

13. Wupatki National Monument
The drive joins Rte. 89 at the village
of Cameron, and 20 miles
south a side road leads to Wupatki
National Monument. Indians now
called the Sinaguas (sin agua is
Spanish for “without water”) lived
here some 800 years ago. The
multistoried sandstone and limestone
pueblos they built (one
contains more than 100 rooms)
were home to about 2,000 people.

14. Sunset Crater National Monument
The scenic loop continues south
from Wupatki across the desert,
rising as it approaches the dramatic,
almost otherworldly vision
of Sunset Crater. A little over 900
years ago — only a heartbeat in geologic
time — a series of volcanic
eruptions built this stunning, symmetrical,
black cone of rock, ash,
and cinders in an eruption that
lasted only a few years; its peak
rises 1,000 feet from the ponderosa
pines and lava fields around its
base. The crater took its colorful
name from particles of oxidized
iron and sulfur, which tint its rim
in the fiery “sunset” shades of red
and yellow. While it’s inviting to
climb, prepare for slow progress;
loose cinders slide from underfoot.

15. Walnut Canyon National Monument
At the junction of Rte. 89 and I-40
near Flagstaff, the drive turns east
to Walnut Canyon. In this deep
horseshoe-shaped gorge, the Sinagua
Indians built pueblos under
the ledges of limestone cliffs, sheltered from sun, rain, and snow.
Living in family groups, they grew
corn, beans, and squash on the
canyon rim, gathered wild berries
and walnuts, hunted deer and
rabbits, and traded with surrounding
tribes. The sturdy pueblos
attest to their builders’ skill and
ingenuity. Yet after 150 years in
this idyllic home, the Sinaguas
abandoned the canyon about A.D.
1250. Bones tell us what they ate,
and macaw feathers prove that
their trade routes went as far as ancient Mexico, yet the cause of their final journey is a mystery that may never be solved.

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