Best Sites of Grand Canyon & Las Vegas – A Trip Report

In August 2009, we made a 5-day trip to Grand Canyon via Las Vegas. Though the two of us can be labeled as seasoned travelers to this area, this was the first time with grandparents and kids. Southwest again scored with the best fares from Oakland to Las Vegas (~$70 one-way inclusive of all taxes). The early morning flight from Oakland landed on time but the Alamo car rental center had shifted to manual operation following a computer glitch. It was two hours before we hit the road but more unbelievable was - per the representatives there – the ETA for the glitch to be contained was close to 48 hours. In this day and age, not having a 24x7 system for a service organization is in itself ridiculous, let alone the down-time of two whole days. Though Alamo had the best deal for a mini-van at less than $45 per day (inclusive of a Costco $20 discount offer), this experience really tested our frugal mindset.

The drive from Las Vegas, NV to Grand Canyon South Rim, AZ can take close to 5 hours and is scenic in its own way and mountain goats are a common sighting en route. Hoover Dam located within an hour is a great stopover for those into engineering marvels. It is an arch-gravity dam situated right at the border of Arizona and Nevada – at the time of its completion in 1936, it was the world’s largest power station. Tours take roughly two hours and the options were:
  1. Power plant tour (Adults - $11, Kids - $9, under 3 – free): A combination of presentations, exhibits, and viewing areas with elevators providing access to the viewing platforms. The tour can be reserved online.
  2. Dam tour ($30, under 8 – not allowed): A guided tour of the facility along with presentations, exhibits, and viewing areas. The tour is available on a first-come basis at the visitor center.
Parking was $7 and visitor center admission with no access to dam or power plant was $8. Summer is extreme and a stopover at the parking lot, a walk through the bridge, along with any tour can be draining especially to the elderly. A frugal option is to steer clear of the tours and take advantage of the several vantage points up the hill once past the dam. The benefit is lesser crowds, great views, and a totally free experience. But having taken the tour before in less challenging climatic conditions, we have to admit they are indeed interesting and informative.

Less than ten miles from the park entrance to the Grand Canyon is the National Geographic Visitor Center. One of the best IMAX movies we have ever seen is presented here – “Grand Canyon IMAX movie” – not surprisingly, it is the most watched IMAX movie ever. The 34-minute movie effectively portrays the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon in a giant screen with stunning visual effects. Regular pricing was $13.34 adults, $10.14 (kids 6-10) – there was a 20% discount when purchasing these tickets in advance online. The visitor center also has an information/ticket center, a gift shop, and a park-rep area where information regarding the park can be gathered and park entrance ticket ($25) purchased. Service can be slow as a single person is responsible for both fielding the questions and issuing of the tickets.

Accommodations inside the park are on the expensive side and needs to be reserved well in advance. Choosing one of the seven lodges inside the park run by Xanterra is the best option. Rooms start at around $70 for a basic cabin but can trend upwards of $150 for an air-conditioned room with a full bathroom. The non A/C rooms at Maswick (below $100) are a good frugal option for families with kids. These rooms were long gone before we were able to reserve, so our only available option was the A/C rooms at Yavapai lodge for around $160 and is a short walk away from the Market plaza (groceries, restaurant, post office, etc). Also, these lodges are very convenient with easy access to the main hiking trails. Nonetheless, many prefer to have the car handy especially for viewing the sunset and the sunrise. A point to note – check the sunrise and sunset timings locally, they could be different from that available online. Deer and elk is a common sight while hiking, especially during early morning and at sunset. We were lucky to have multiple sightings of herds of elk crossing the road the first day of our visit at around 7 PM when darkness was setting in. Though we were not able to identify the genus, the area around the trails is teeming with small birds. To observe the feathered friends, it is vital to keep the eyes skinned and be extremely silent while hiking. Local flora and fauna is always gratifying to the soul.

About three hours South East (180 to Williams and then 40 East) of Grand Canyon Village is the Meteor Crater, the site where a 300,000 tons meteor is believed to have crashed around 50,000 years ago. The site itself is heavily commercialized and privately owned by the Barringer family (Daniel Barringer’s Standard Iron Company owned the area surrounding the crater). The personnel in the facility sport uniforms resembling the national park service uniforms which can be misleading. Meteor Crater facility had a hefty entrance fee ($15 for adults and $8 for kids). It included access to the facility, an optional guided tour covering a portion of the rim, and a museum with the display of a large extra-terrestrial rock. Both our kids had learned about this crater in second grade so it was something they could relate to. The drive around Sedona was the highlight of that detour. The red rocky terrain takes on a resplendent hue in the desert sun and is spectacular. While iron is responsible for the color, it is its variation in availability that puts on the display of all the hues from glowing light orange - to bright red - to dull brown.

A short distance north of Flagstaff on Highway 89 is the entrance to the Sunset Crater Volcano and the Wupatki National Monument ($20 fee per vehicle). This 35-mile detour is a “not to be missed” route. The two main attractions are both awesome, but the landscape you experience on this drive is just majestic. The sheer beauty and the strength of the rough and jagged, jet black lava fields in large expanses – cinder cones formed by extinct volcanoes – the modest view of the Painted Desert is a visual treat. To fully experience what is on offer, allow upwards of three hours. The one-mile long lava flow trail at Sunset Crater is a must to appreciate the dark background landscape of cinder cones dotted with Scarlet Gilia’s (a red flowery plant). The loop road winds through varied landscapes that are unique to the area and the painted hills in the distance serves as a constant reminder of the surrealism. The Sunset Crater itself is closed to climbing as an environmental protection measure, but climbing other cinder cones is allowed. The Visitor Center at Wupatki National Monument also serves as the starting point for the self-guided tour of the Wupatki Pueblo, the largest dwelling in the monument. There are several hiking trails in the monument leading up to other pueblos.

We chose to stay the last night of this getaway in Las Vegas although none of us are into gambling or big ticket events per se. The grandparents and the kids had never been in a Casino before and for them it was a good experience. Outstanding deals in Las Vegas for accommodation is generally easy to come by. Our stay at Las Vegas was less than $40 per room including all taxes. The stay also included free tickets to the tower (Regular price - $15.95 adults, $10 Kids).

Last Updated: 10/2011.

1 comment :

TheWordWire said...

The thing I love best about living in Las Vegas is the fact that there's so much to explore in the region. We've been to the Grand Canyon several times, but have not made the time to stop at the Meteor Crater. Thanks for the tips on other things to do on our next trip east!

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