Grand Canyon Loop

From trappers and explorers, the stories drifted east — stories of a canyon so huge, so awesome, that it seemed the stuff of tall tales.

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

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.

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.

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.

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, Flagstaff.

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest