80th birthday in the Grand Canyon-- Which way? April or May?
February 9, 2024 7:12 AM   Subscribe

My dad turns 80 this year, and as a birthday present, we’re going on a 7-8 night trip in April or May to the Grand Canyon. I’m thinking that we will fly there, rent a car, and focus mostly on landscapes and cultural sites. We’ll definitely stay overnight in the Grand Canyon, see sites around Flagstaff, and see Petrified Forest. In this early stage, I'm asking, what general route should we take, and when should we go?

TIMING: We have basically all of April and May available to us. I’d like to avoid Memorial Day weekend, but other than that, we are flexible. Would it be better to go at a certain point during these months?

ROUTES: If we fly in and out of Phoenix, should we go east, then North, then to the Grand Canyon and end with 3ish nights in Flagstaff? Or the other direction? I’ve mocked up two possible routes here and here.

Would it be worth it in this amount of time to fly in to Albuquerque and out of Phoenix (or vice versa)? Or, would that be too much too much to see in too little time? If it would work, which would be the best direction? I’ve mocked up two possible routes here and here.

Because my dad is 80, I’m leaning towards keeping things simpler by staying in Arizona and going east-north-west-south to end with a basecamp in Flagstaff for several nights when he might be getting more tired. He is a good walker and still bikes 10 mile routes, but he does get tired. So, I’m looking for a recommendation that will be a good fit for him.

I've read a lot of previous questions, and they were helpful. I'm hoping for answers specific
these months and route, in light of the older traveler. Thank you for all your help!
posted by TrarNoir to Travel & Transportation around Arizona (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Might be easier, flying to Vegas. You should also investigate the train from Williams.
posted by Rash at 8:07 AM on February 9

If you go when there's a full moon, that would be gorgeous, but it is truly an amazing place any day you can visit. At 80, Dad might enjoy a relaxed pace.
posted by theora55 at 8:20 AM on February 9

Is there a way to share screenshots of your possible routes? On mobile they're showing up as links to an airport.
posted by slidell at 8:31 AM on February 9

we went to GC in april 2023 with my parents who are in their mid-70s. we flew into phoenix, drove to williams, took the train to the GC, spent the day, took the train back to williams. if your dad is at all interested in trains, definitely look into that!

i don't have any other feedback really. but if you do spend time in flagstaff, check out the lowell observatory.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:40 AM on February 9

I did a version of this trip in late April 2022. A few nights in Sedona, then an easy drive to the South rim of the Grand Canyon. There’s plenty to do/see around there (plus Flagstaff is right there as well), so I’d suggest reducing the amount of driving/traveling and just focusing on having an excellent week at the GC (plus petrified forest, Flagstaff, and Sedona). Weather in late April was beautiful, crowds were light, and I was really impressed by the infrastructure and accessibility along the South rim - there is a very well maintained paved trail that goes along the rim plus buses that bring you to different stopping points and can get you back to your car if you get tired. Sedona is beautiful too but was a little more crowded - if you decide to add that onto your trip I recommend making restaurant reservations well in advance.
posted by sleepingwithcats at 8:41 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

I would suggest you don't bother with Page. Nothing up there but the lake, and if you aren't planning to go out on a boat, not very interesting. It's on the way up into Utah, with Escalante NM, (probably not great for an 80 year old), and Bryce Canyon, which is pretty amazing. Canyon de Chelly looks pretty cool, but have never been.
posted by Windopaene at 8:43 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Like I said in the other thread about Phoenix, the drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff is possibly one of the best drives in the US, if you like curvy mountain roads and saguaro cactus, and wide desert vistas. I40 doesn't compare. So IMO you should take that and either drive or take the train to the GC. The south face is very car friendly - drive the whole thing E-W or whatever. Tons of amazing spots to get out and just take it all in.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:50 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Monument Valley is a few hours north of Flagstaff, I think that it is worth seeing. Stunningly beautiful land. We enjoyed a sunrise tour that we found on TripAdvisor.
posted by jennstra at 9:03 AM on February 9 [2 favorites]

We went to the Grand Canyon April 5-10 in 2023. A few of my family members hiked a bit and encountered ice. Those of us who were taking it easier were definitely chilly at times.

Our party included 4 seniors, one of whom had mobility issues. She, and honestly most of us, stuck to the (paved) rim trails. Our route was flying into Phoenix, then renting a car there. We stopped for a hike & lunch in Sedona then a quick browse in downtown Flagstaff, before getting to our hotel at the Canyon, near the South Rim. We also stopped in Flagstaff on our way back from the Canyon to Phoenix, and I think I could have happily enjoyed a night or two there. The area near the Canyon was quite lackluster in terms of food and services.

Because our visit was during effectively winter, certain sites we were considering, including around the North Rim, were not open. That said, the weather was generally clear and bright and gorgeous. We also enjoyed a helicopter ride through the Canyon (this company was wonderful) and a guided tour through Antelope Canyon, which was quite accessible for all in our party.
posted by knile at 9:07 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Consider driving to Flag via Sedona, if you fly into Phoenix. Absolutely gorgeous. Lots of short easy trails if Dad is keen, but it's worth it even from the road.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 12:32 PM on February 9

I went with my family to the Grand Canyon and other touristy spots last April. We flew into Vegas and drove to the GC. We also went to the Painted Desert, Winslow, Two Guns, Hoover Dam and the Petrified Forest.
A couple things:
April at the GC was cold and there was snow in Williams. Go later than April. Make sure you bring water or water bottles. Even though there are shuttles that go between areas in the park, there's a lot of walking.
If you go by car and are on the road between the GC and somewhere else and it's a clear night, pull over and get out of the car. You've got a huge sky and that area is not particularly light polluted. You can see so many stars and the Milky Way.
We looked at flying into other cities besides Vegas. Vegas was the most cost-effective by far.
We stayed in Williams for the GC visit - the hotels in Williams are copious and pretty good. We had breakfast one day at the Fred Harvey buffet one day and it was expensive and honestly, not that good. The next we had breakfast at Anna's Grand Canyon Cafe - much more reasonably priced and very good food.
We looked at buses and helicopters to the GC from Vegas. None were priced particularly well. It was, by far, cheapest to rent a car.
Winslow was something we did just as a "what the heck, why not?" and it was stupid and touristy and fun.
Two Guns is a ghost town and I wish we could have spent more time exploring it.
Loved the petrified forest.

Have fun!
posted by plinth at 12:33 PM on February 9

Remember that we are at 7000ft. It has a lot of impact on energy levels if you aren’t used to it.

Seniors seem to love Little America Hotel in Flagstaff. The restaurant there has good, very straightforward food if they aren’t adventurous but you want something that seems special. Think nice pot roast and fancy mashed potatoes. It isn’t walkable to downtown but I image that driving a short distance is appropriate and walking will be minimal? the rooms are very nice.

If they are a little more adventurous we have multiple James Beard nominated chefs here. Shift and Foret are both excellent. Also recommend Salsa Brava for great family Mexican food. Proper Deli is fantastic.

The gift shop at the Museum of Northern Arizona is fantastic for ethical purchase of local art and jewelry. If you are here during a heritage festival at the museum, it’s worth a stop.

Lowell Observatory is pretty neat - they discovered Pluto there and it’s still an active research location. The big beautiful old telescopes are a part of the tour. The new sun telescope is cool.

The Turquoise Room in Winslow is also high quality for lunch or dinner there.

Petrified Forest is neat but big and desolate. It’s a more challenging park.

The train from Winslow isn’t necessary and can be a bit boring. You do not see the Canyon from the train.

Food at the Canyon is limited. The El Tovar can be nice but if the pipeline is broken it will be sub par. You will need reservations. An alternative is to buy charcuterie at the Village Market in the park and have a picnic on a park bench overlooking the rim somewhere. All views of the Canyon are excellent.

If you like big open drives, exit the east side of the park and go to Cameron Trading Post for Navajo Tacos for lunch. Walk around the gardens there if the flowers are in, it’s a pretty unusual spot. Touristy, but ask the people there about it and make sure you go into the gallery where the real jewelry is.

Wupakti’s visitor area and the adjacent ruins are fairly accessible. The park residences are also historical CCC structures.

Dress warmly - it could be balmy, it could be snowing. Flagstaff got 3 ft of snow this week.
posted by chuke at 9:10 PM on February 9

Best answer: Hi there, Grand Canyon addict here and I’m about to TL;DR this whole thing :)

First things first - good on you for recognizing you should be conscious of just how much you’re packing into the days. There’s wayyyyy too many people who plan out a trip in the area and the itinerary is “we’re gonna go here here and here on day 1, and then here here here and here on day 2” etc… they might get to all those places but they don’t really get to see them and they spend so freaking much time driving.

Timing - I would go for end of April/early May. It can be pretty cold early April. Heck, it can be cold early May but your chances of perfect weather are much better. May 15th is when the North Rim opens and things start getting busier then, because of all the Rim to Rim hikers that have to wait until then to start.

Routes - keep in mind that even though Google Maps gives you driving times, it can be deceptively long out here. On your first day, you’re probably only going to have a few hours to drive if you want to get to a hotel at a decent hour. If you land around noon or so, by the time you get your luggage and do all the rental paperwork etc, you’re probably going to make Holbrook by sunset and that’s about it. You might be better off going to Flagstaff right off the bat and planning the trip around doing Grand Canyon first.

My suggestion to go to Flagstaff would be to take Arizona 87 out of the Phoenix Metro. It will take you to Payson, and through Pine and Strawberry. Then around Happy Jack you turn north on Forest Road 3, which is Lake Mary Road. (Despite the Forest Road designation, it’s paved.) Lake Mary Road will take you into Flagstaff. It takes an hour to an hour and a half longer than taking I-17, but it is just an absolutely beautiful drive. You start out driving through thick saguaro stands, and you climb up past the Matazal mountains, and then after Payson you climb up the Mogollon Rim and you’re in pine forest all the way to Flagstaff. I don’t get to do that route often when I go that way but it’s just so good.

You said you wanted to stay at least a night in Grand Canyon and I heartily encourage this. One thing I will say is book as soon as you possibly can. Things fill up FAST. Bright Angel Lodge would be my first choice. It’s very old and it does feel like it but not really in a bad way, and it’s right on the rim. You can also look at Maswik, Yavapai, and if you’re a big spender, El Tovar. If you can’t get something in the park, look for something in Tusayan that you can cancel if something in the park opens up. It’s great to be able to not have to drive out of the park at night and drive back in at morning.

YOU SHOULD REALLY DO THIS - get up nice and early and around sunrise go to the coffee shop at the Bright Angel Fountain on the back of Bright Angel Lodge (I think it opens at 6 am.) You will be standing outside on the rim when you order, so you are right there. Get coffee, cocoa, or whatever gets your fancy. The coffee isn’t awesome or anything in itself. But it’s not the coffee that’s the good part. Get your hot beverage of choice, and then enjoy it as you watch the early morning sunlight move about the canyon walls. Maybe walk east on the Rim Trail a bit while doing so for different viewpoints, or just sit close to the coffee shop. The park gets busy in a little while, but early in the morning, it’s quiet. I try to do this every time I’m there. There are few better ways to spend a morning, period.

As far as seeing the park - they have a very good shuttle system at the park. Buses run regularly and it’s free. The Red Route goes down Hermit Road and there’s a lot of great viewpoints there, including some where you can see the river. You can hop off at a stop and go sight seeing and then hop back on to go to the next stop. The Hermit Road viewpoints can be great places to see the sunset, just mind the bus schedule because they stop running a half hour after sunset. The Blue Route is kind of the main circulator route. It’ll take you to the grocery store, the campground, Maswik, Bright Angel, and the Visitor Center. Getting off at the visitor center and going to Mather Point and then the Yavapai Geology Museum is a really nice walk with superb views. At the visitor center you can catch the Orange Route, which goes to Pipe Creek Vista, South Kaibab Trailhead and Yaki Point.

On your last day in GC, you can drive east on Arizona 64 aka Desert View Drive. There are several more viewpoints and the Desert View Watchtower. Then you drive out of the park to the east. That’s a nice drive with good sweeping views. The Navajo Nation has parks there where you can see the Little Colorado River Gorge. There is usually an admission charge. While there, there are lots of stands with Navajo crafts and jewelry. You’ll also see these stands in a lot of places on your drive. The Gorge is really neat.

This is where you figure out the rest of the trip to see what works best for you. From there you can head back down to Flagstaff. Along the way, Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments are along US 89. If you want to continue east instead to get a start on the next day, Page has the most lodging options. If you go there, do the tourist thing and go see Horseshoe Bend. Also if you like, you can book a tour of Antelope Canyon. There are also lodging options at Kayenta and Goulding’s at Monument Valley. After Monument Valley, stay on US 163 until you get to 191. It’s a really neat drive and you’ll be expecting to see Road Runner meep-meeting past you :) There’s lodging options in Chinle. Canyon de Chelly is beautiful, and make sure you see it from the road going to Spider Rock. Holbrook and Winslow have lodging options, Holbrook is closer for Petrified Forest/Painted Desert. The Navajo Nation operates the Twin Arrows Casino Hotel west of Winslow so that’s an option for a place to stay as well. Meteor Crater is near there and Flagstaff isn’t far away after that.

If you did decide to do the trip counter clockwise, I’d go to Holbrook for the first night, see Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, go to Chinle, see Canyon de Chelly and stay the night there. From there I would go to Monument Valley, and depending on time go to Flagstaff for the night, or maybe Cameron or Tuba City. Work Grand Canyon in from there.

I don't have you going in and out of Flagstaff like you have on the map, because that means a lot more driving. Instead of a basecamp in Flagstaff, take your days at a leisurely pace and allow yourself plenty of time at destinations. Driving that much extra gets very tiring.

Important notes - carry plenty of water with you. This is the desert, after all. You will be above 5000 feet elevation for much of your trip, and GC is at 7000 feet. Minimize alcohol and stay well hydrated to avoid altitude problems. You should have wide brim hats, long sleeve shirts, and sunscreen. Don’t let the altitude fool you, you can sunburn in a hurry out here. When driving, if you notice the gas tank is below half, fill up at the next station. Don’t put yourself in a bad situation; sometimes gas stations are closed, or payment methods have problems, or whatever myriad issues, and it can be a long way between stations.
posted by azpenguin at 9:12 PM on February 9 [8 favorites]

Sorry, I meant the train out of Williams, not Winslow.
posted by chuke at 9:31 PM on February 9

Best answer: Unless you have something really special to do in Albuquerque I would not recommend flying in there and driving to Phoenix. Very boring drive with no good stops.
posted by MadMadam at 11:41 PM on February 9 [1 favorite]

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