Five days in May
December 6, 2013 6:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me plan the best trip ever to the Grand Canyon?

I want to surprise my wife for her birthday next year with a trip to the southwest USA, a place she has always wanted to visit. I think the Grand Canyon is probably a solid choice, but I am open to other suggestions. My tentative plan is to visit Sedona as well, based on a friend's recommendation.

I am looking for recommendations for which airport to fly in/out of, places to stay, places to eat, things to do, and timeline suggestions for the whole trip. Some budget tips/pricing would be helpful too because I really don't know what to plan for. We like light hiking, casual good food, peace and quiet, breathtaking scenery, museums and gardens. I'm thinking of this trip more on the "relaxing" side of things than the "adventure" side of things. We will be coming from Atlanta, GA. I think we will probably want to be gone five days (no longer, because we'll be leaving our dogs for the first time.) This will be in early May.

I'm all ears! Any suggestions very much appreciated.
posted by ohsnapdragon to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
No earlier than June. Fly to Vegas. Drive to St. George, Utah. do Zion. Do the North Rim. Do Bryce and Utah 12, if you have time.

Unless you're really putting in the miles hiking, the GC is hard to get into. Sedona is beautiful, but swarming with tourism stuff. St. George ain't great for that, but...Zion.

(if you look at my previous answers - google "notsnot utah" for more in-depth answers. I love the Grand Canyon, but for a first time, do the whole Grand Staircase if you can)
posted by notsnot at 7:30 PM on December 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, good timing. My wife and I went to the Grand Canyon this May. Good time to go. Here's what we did.

Flew into Phoenix and rented a car. Drove straight to the Canyon so it was dark by the time we got there. Day One was a lot of travel. Then we did Day 2 and 3 at the Canyon and left the next morning for Flagstaff. Spent a night there, then a sort of long, looping day seeing various stuff that ended up in Sedona. After a couple days in Sedona we drove back to Phoenix and flew out the next morning.

So, some lessons learned.

At the Grand Canyon, stay in the park if at all possible. (We stayed in Yavapai Lodge). You can stay outside the park - there's a little town called Tusayan right outside, but it's a good 20 minutes getting in and out.

Two full days was about right. First day we explored the village and hiked west along the rim toward Hermit's Rest. Second day we went a little ways down into the canyon in the early morning, but not too far. We were back out well before noon. Then in the afternoon we drove east from the Village and stopped at various points along the rim. Went all the way out to the Watchtower at the East Entrance to the park. I was kind of sorry to leave because it was so beautiful, but I honestly don't know what we would have done with another day there.

You won't be hiking all the way down. It's a two-day thing - they have to rescue a couple hundred people from the canyon every year, and most of them aren't old or weak or sick or anything - they're very fit guys in their 20s who decide they can make it down and back in a day. The only place to stay at the bottom is Phantom Lodge, which is already booked for next year. So go down as far as you feel you need to go, and then go back up. Just going below the rim at all makes you a rarity among visitors. Most never enter the canyon at all.

Only other big tip for the canyon is bring a hat. That sun can be brutal.

Flagstaff was the pleasant surprise for me. We stayed downtown. There are some really nice little B&Bs and restaurants downtown. Other things to see include the Lowell Observatory, and a bunch of old indian ruins. We had been tempted to drive out to see the petrified forest, but our host in Flagstaff talked us out of it. Long, long drive to see what is essentially some rocks. Instead he pointed us at much closer pueblos. Google Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater National Monument, and Wukoki and Wupatki pueblos. Long day but very cool.

Sedona was beautiful as well, but a little too touristy and overbuilt for my taste. But if you do go, DO NOT LEAVE WITHOUT EATING AT ELOTE CAFE. Best Mexican food I have ever had, bar none. If you like shopping, check out Tlaquepacque, a recreation of a Mexican village market with some good restaurants as well.

All in all, we were there slightly longer than you're talking about, but we could easily have cut a day in Sedona, and gone straight to the airport from there instead of spending a night in Scottsdale and flying out the next morning (although that did give us a chance to see Taliesin West, which was Frank Lloyd Wright's summer... place.) Was a good trip. Good luck and have fun!
posted by Naberius at 7:35 PM on December 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Bryce in the very late afternoon heading towards sunset was particularly stunning with that near-horizontal light. If you're down in Kanab, UT (just north of the AZ border heading towards the North Rim), you might want to check out the Rocking V Cafe. I had a great buffalo steak there a few years ago. Also, while you're out there in the middle of nowhere and far away from very bright city lights, make a point to check out the night sky. Having grown up in New England, the first time I encountered a wild west night sky I had trouble recognizing constellations because there were so many more stars than I'd ever seen.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:16 AM on December 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I visited the Grand Canyon, I didn't enjoy staying in Tusayan at all. Mostly because the food options were really limited, and the hotel didn't have room fridges. Staying in the park would probably be much better in terms of character and proximity, but the park food services are pretty terrible as well. (Can you tell my priorities?) Even the meal at El Tovar was lousy.

I agree with rmd1023 - the night sky at the Canyon was amazing!

Despite living in Arizona for many years, I haven't been to Sedona so I can't advise there.

If your wife's tastes run the less-touristy destinations, you could also consider Jerome, Prescott, or Payson.
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:26 AM on December 7, 2013

You'll have noticed that you have a fundamental "north rim/south rim" decision to make. Half us are describing north rim stuff, the others (like me) south rim stuff. They're very different, and incompatible (as there's no bridge across the canyon). Unless you're more into hiking and roughing it than it sounds like you are, I'd stick with the south rim.

Food in the park is more about necessity than art. Mainly a cafeteria across the road from Yavapai. But there are some better options. I thought El Tovar was pretty good for what it was. Try going there for lunch. Easier to get in. Also check out the Arizona Room at the Bright Angel Lodge a few hundred yards down the rim.
posted by Naberius at 7:12 AM on December 7, 2013

Best answer: First I think you should decide right away if you want to be camping/overnight hiking, which it sounds you don't, or if you want to go the hotel route. Either way you'll get to see really great things. If the camping thing is out I would start making reservations immediately upon deciding an itinerary.

I think you have two options. One would be to fly into Phoenix, rent a car, and drive to your destinations (you could save some rather boring drive time each way by flying into Flagstaff). This is going to somewhat limit you on destinations on a 5 day trip as getting to places other than South Rim / Sedona are rather long drives.

I've been to the Grand Canyon a few times, but never hiked in. That takes a lot of preparation to avoid being one of the rescued visitors. So 5 days there is really overkill to me. Sedona I like, but it is touristy (everywhere you go is going to be touristy though). You could easily spend a few days relaxing at a resort in Sedona and a night or two at the rim and have a great time.

For my money, I would go with a different option. Fly into Las Vegas, get car and drive to Southern Utah. There are a cluster of National Parks all relatively close together. I worked at Bryce Canyon NP this summer so I got to see a lot of what the area has to offer. You could work in 2 nights at Zion (IMO the best of all of these parks), one at Bryce and one at North Rim with an extra night to allocate elsewhere or Vegas.

Here are the reasons I think this would be a better option: More variety of scenery than you would see by staying at South Rim the whole time. Zion is really, really amazing and has a nice little town (Springdale) just outside with good food and lots of little shops. Bryce is worth a day for easy hiking on the rim and driving to all of the viewpoints, but in reality there's nothing to do there. The North Rim is just as spectacular as the South, but less congested. If you are not hiking into the canyon, you will pretty much be staring down into an amazingly giant hole in the ground (I always think of Vacation when they finally make it there and Clark Griswald takes in the scenery for all of 5 seconds). So several days at either rim are overkill. Also you could drive through and stay in Kanab, UT on your way to North Rim. Its a cool little town that also has Best Friends Animal Society, which I have volunteered at and is really amazing. Well worth a portion of your day followed by dinner in Kanab.

So if you wanted to do a loop-type trip, you could go Vegas - North Rim (overrnight) - Kanab (overnight) - Bryce Canyon (overnight) - Zion (1-2 nights) - back to Vegas. This leaves you with only 2 long driving days, and lots of different things to see.

Things to be aware of: May can be an iffy weather time. could be rather hot already (80-90 in Zion/Kanab/Vegas) or it could still snow in higher places (Bryce/North Rim). So you will want to plan for anything. Rain is not as likely though. Good hiking boots (not brand new!) even if you don't plan on doing a lot of hiking. The sun will get to you, so hats, sunscreen, etc are good. The elevation may also get you. Bryce's lodge is at 8k feet, north rim even higher. Some people get more easily fatigued or flu-like feeling even at this altitude. Hydrate and rest. Its the desert, drink lots of water, and alternate with sports drinks. If you are out hiking, understand whats around you as far as wildlife. Its rare but people do get scorpion stings, snake bites, etc. If you drink alcohol, plan ahead while in Utah. I met LOTS of people who wanted to buy a bottle of wine on a Sunday. Not happening outside of buying one from a restaurant.

If you will be driving, understand that any roads you will be taking will most likely be well patrolled by police so stick to the speed limit. Along those same lines - Park Rangers are federal cops. They can and will cite you for anything a normal cop would, and more. As others have said, make it a point to stay up late and really get somewhere with no hotel lights and let your eyes adjust for 30 minutes. Few people really do this and they are missing half the point of going to places like these (Bryce tends to be the best for this). There will likely be lots of large tour buses going exactly where you are; avoid these people at all costs. The lodges inside the parks can be nice to stay at, and you're already in the park when you wake up, although the food is usually average. Zion is nice in that Springdale offers some actual good food, and Kanab has the Rocking V mentioned above. If you would like to stay at the lodges in the parks, I recommend making reservations immediately. If you go to Zion, you can easily stay outside the park and take the shuttle in (I highly recommend this). You do want your vehicle for the drive through Zion to the East entrance, a truly not-to-be-missed thing on this planet that you can't get with the shuttle.

All that being said, there's lots to see and do in the area. Feel free to memail me or respond here if you have more questions.
posted by efalk at 1:43 PM on December 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

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