“If you wish to advance into the infinite, explore the finite in all directions.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Grand Canyon Country encompasses northwestern Arizona; it is roughly outlined by I-40 to the south, Hwy. 89 to the east, the Colorado River on the west, and the Utah border at the north. This area contains Grand Canyon National Park, the Kaibab National Forest, and Coconino National Forest. Flagstaff is the largest city in the region, conveniently placed at the junction of I-40 and Hwy. 89. Page is situated at the far north central border of the state, and Williams is located along I-40. Depending on which direction one is coming from, each of these cities is a gateway to the Grand Canyon.
Points of Interest:
Many of our family’s favorite places are located in this part of Northern Arizona. I’ve listed some that can be enjoyed by all ages.
Grand Canyon – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World!
Grand Canyon Caverns – Open to the public for over 74 years, this dry limestone cave is located on Route 66 just west of Seligman. The fascinating history and geology of Grand Canyon Caverns makes for an interesting family field trip. A guide takes you by elevator down 21 stories into the cavern. Prehistoric fossils and the bones of long-extinct animals have been found inside. Geology, natural history, Arizona history and Native Indian aspects are all incorporated into your visit. Facilities include a gift shop, picnic grounds, campground, RV park, motel and convenience store.
Buffalo/Bison – Bison can be found on Raymond Ranch east of Flagstaff, and House Rock, located east of the North Kaibab.
Sunset Crater / Wupatki – A 35-mile-long loop drive passes through a spectacular volcano-scape at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument with cinder cones and lava flows. From there it journeys back in time to ancient Anasazi and Sinagua Indian ruins at Wupatki National Monument. Other Indian ruins in the area include: Walnut Canyon and Montezuma Castle
San Francisco Peaks/Snow Bowl – This is a popular ski area in the winter and in the summer it’s a great place to escape the heat. The Scenic Skyride takes you to an elevation of 11,500 feet for panoramic views atop this extinct volcano. It operates daily from 10 AM to 4 PM from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, weather permitting. The Skyride is FREE on your birthday! Present a valid ID at the counter to receive your complimentary ticket. The San Francisco Peaks are a great place to go hiking through mountain forests and meadows, or climbing to the top of Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 ft. (A long, strenuous hike that’s best for ages 12 and up. Snow stays late and arrives early up there, so the best time to go is in June/July/August, but beware of summer afternoon lightning storms.)
Arboretum at Flagstaff – Explore 200 acres of gardens and natural habitats with over 2,500 plant species representing everything from high desert to alpine tundra. A guided tour of the facility is included in the price of admission. Offered daily at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., these hour-long walks allow guests the opportunity to sample the best The Arboretum has to offer. The arboretum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., April 1 through October 31. Closed during the winter season.
Museum of Northern Arizona – View exhibits relating to the arts, sciences, cultures, and history of the Colorado Plateau. The Old Courtyard features a Life Zone Exhibit, where visitors are introduced to the extraordinary diversity of the Colorado Plateau’s climate. During the spring, summer, and fall, visitors can stroll along the Nature Trail and visit the Amphibian Pond to see local plants and wildlife. The Geology Gallery features geologic models, fossils, mineral specimens, and a life-size skeletal model of Dilophosaurus, a dinosaur found in northern Arizona.
Lava River Cave – This impressive lava tube is located in the Coconino National Forest northwest of Flagstaff. From U.S. Highway 180, take Forest Road 245 west for about three miles, then go south for roughly 1 ½ miles on Forest Road 171, and turn left on FR 171B. This cave was formed within a few hours when an ancient volcano erupted. The cave is almost ¾ of a mile long and never gets above 45 degrees F. In some spots the cave is only about 3 feet high, while in others the ceiling is 30 feet high and shaped like a subway tunnel. There is no admission charge, no tour guides, and no facilities. You’re on your own but there is only one way in and out. Small children will need help scrambling down the boulder pile at the entrance.
Flagstaff – Flagstaff is just 90 minutes southeast of the Grand Canyon. It’s well-established as a gateway to the Grand Canyon South Rim, as well as to other scenic and historic treasures like Wupatki/Sunset Crater National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Sedona, Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, Meteor Crater, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. Keep in mind that Arizona is a rather large state, and Northern Arizona in particular is pretty spread out. So the distances are going to be “far” even if something is “near.” But using Flagstaff as your base, the farthest destination won’t be more than about 100 miles or 2 hours away (and most will be closer than that), and you will see plenty of beautiful scenery along the way. Stock up on snacks and drinks and fill up on gas before you set out, though, because any facilities are few and far between. The surrounding areas are mostly undeveloped Indian Reservations, national parks, and national forests.
Williams – Williams is also known as a “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.” In the early days of tourism, a trip to the Grand Canyon was taken in a wagon or on a stagecoach over bone-jarring roads. Then in 1901 the Grand Canyon spur was added to the railway, allowing visitors to travel to the south rim in comfort. This spur was discontinued in 1968, but today the historic train is back in action transporting tourists from Williams to the Grand Canyon.
Page/Glen Canyon National Recreation Area – There are plenty of things to do in town and out on Lake Powell.
The Grand Canyon has places to stay within the park, but reservations need to be made many months in advance. Additional lodging, as well as campgrounds and RV parks, are available in the Grand Canyon gateway towns of Tusayan, Valle, Williams, Cameron, and Flagstaff. Camping is available for free in the nearby national forests.
If you’re looking for family-friendly lodging with a unique atmosphere, I’d recommend the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff if it fits your budget ($100-150/night). We stayed there one year between Christmas and New Year’s for the kids to play in the snow, and it’s a really nice place. It’s a large hotel but its appearance is more like a cozy inn in the woods. They have spacious grounds with hiking trails, pool, fitness center, and a playground. At night the sidewalks are lit with old-fashioned gas lamps. We saw the guy going around lighting them which was pretty neat. There’s a western-style restaurant, and they also have a large gift shop including a children’s section with lots of good quality southwestern souvenirs. The Little America is centrally located right off I-40 on the east side of Flagstaff, within a convenient driving distance to most of the above places. Most of the other lodgings I can think of in Flagstaff are geared to business travelers or college students (Northern Arizona University is right there). Along I-40 there are the old Route 66 style motels and the truck stops (and inexpensive Motel 6’s). Of course, there may be a small Bed & Breakfast or something that I just don’t know about. Otherwise, there are plenty of places to go camping in the surrounding national forest.