Several people have asked me to suggest an itinerary that would cover major parks in the southwestern United States.
As a starter, I suggest if you have limited time and are traveling a long distance just to get there, you should fly into Las Vegas. Frequent and relatively inexpensive flights come from all over the U.S.
Our first trip was in 1981. We went again in 1998 and in 2009. On our first trip, we rented the cheapest vehicle possible. The next two times we requested a four-wheel drive vehicle to have the option to take rougher roads.
Just outside Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam. We marveled at the bridge under construction across the Colorado River in 2009. The bridge is finished, but before you cross from Nevada into Arizona, take the side road down to see the dam.
Known as the Boulder Dam when it was finished in 1936, it was at the time the largest concrete structure in the world. Six companies were involved and finished two years ahead of schedule. Employment peaked in 1934 at over five thousand men. Unfortunately, 112 deaths were attributed to the construction.
It has a volume of three and a quarter million cubic yards, is 1244 feet long, 660 feet wide at the base and forty-five feet wide at the top and is 726.4 feet high. The road across the top was the major highway between the two states until closed in 2010.
There are explanatory signs along the walkways, but there are charges to enter the Visitors Center, for a thirty minute tour of the powerhouse and for a one-hour tour of the visitors center, power house and dam passages. Visit http://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam for more information.
After spending time at the Hoover Dam, I suggest stopping in Williams, AZ for the night before going on to the Grand Canyon. Williams is a little over two hundred miles from Las Vegas. It is just another 60 miles to the Grand Canyon, but if one is looking for a more relaxing trip, Williams is a good stop, and accommodations are less expensive than at the Canyon.
The busiest time of year for both the Dam and the Canyon are between Memorial Day and Labor Day. While we prefer the flexibility that comes travelling without reservations, I suggest hotel/motel/camping reservations in the Grand Canyon unless you are visiting in the winter; even then it would be wise to arrive early.
The Grand Canyon is well known to most people. It certainly is unique and worth a visit. To get the best out of your trip, go to the canyon’s edge in early morning and late afternoon when the shadows are deep and the contrasts sharpest; it is the most beautiful time.
Park at the visitors center and use the free shuttle bus to get around. There is a $25 per vehicle admission fee to the park (annual and special National Park passes are available: www.nps.gov), but there are free ranger programs including guided walks, bicycle rentals and mule rides. It is possible to go by mule to the bottom of the canyon for an overnight stay. It is even possible to take a white-water raft trip from 3 to 21 days through the canyon.
To really appreciate the canyon you should hike into it at least for a day trip — if you are physically fit. But no matter how fit you think you are, hike smart. Learn about the conditions. For example, it gets significantly warmer as you descend, and you need adequate water; the rim is at 7000 feet which also may affect some people. Don’t go hiking unprepared.
We enjoyed looking at the California Condors soaring near Bright Angel Lodge. They have up to a nine and a half foot wingspread.
And while natural conditions are the draw of the canyon, we also enjoyed looking at the rustic architecture designed by Mary Jane Coulter who created five structures on the South Rim as well as the Phantom Ranch near the river: Hopi House, 1905; Hermit’s Rest, 1914, Lookout Studio, 1914; Desert View Watchtower, 1932; and Bright Angel Lodge, 1935. Not only was she unique as an early female architect, she set a standard for all future National Park buildings creating structures that fit both into the natural and historical backgrounds.
Up next, Monument Valley and Mesa Verde