Exploring the Southwest – Sedona to the Grand Canyon

Sedona to the Grand Canyon: A Drive Through the American Southwest

by Bob McCormac

Sedona and the Grand Canyon are both known for their spectacular landscape; Sedona for the red rock formations that dot the Verde Valley, the Grand Canyon for the sheer breathtaking views and vertigo inducing looks over the edge of the Canyon.

If you’re going, probably the best option is to fly into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport from which Sedona is a leisurely two-hour drive away. If your arrival time in Phoenix is early enough in the day and you’re hungry, stop at Matt’s Big Breakfast on North 1st Street. Be warned that if you don’t get there early enough you’ll be faced with a line out the door that can be twenty or more people deep. From breakfast take route I-17 North toward Sedona.

As you travel north there are some places to stop and take in the sights. First up would be the scenic view at Sunset Point rest area; a good place to stretch your legs and take in the view before continuing your journey north. Not too further distant is Montezuma Castle National Monument, off of Exit 289 on I-17; once you exit follow the signs to the park. Marvel at the Sinagua cliff dwellings as you wind your way along the one-third mile path through the park lined with sycamore trees and other native plants. When you’ve completed your tour, hop back on I-17 North toward Sedona. Your next turn will be the Exit for AZ-179 North; this is where the sights begin to hit you in the face as you round every curve in the road.

Montezuma Castle Cliff Dwellings

Montezuma Castle Cliff Dwellings

If you did not purchase a National Parks Pass at the Montezuma Monument, stop at the Red Rock Ranger station on Rt.179 and purchase your National Parks Pass (a Lifetime Senior Pass is only $10 if you qualify).  The Red Rock Ranger District was once known as “Arizona’s Little Hollywood” for all the western movies made there in the 1900s. There will be areas along the way that are fee based as opposed to free.  Unfortunately, the federal National Parks Pass will not gain you entrance to state parks when there is a separate fee.

View from the Red Rock Visitor Center

View from the Red Rock Visitor Center – Bell and Courthouse rocks

Along Rt. 179 there are many places to stop and take in the red rock views of the Verde Valley most are free, others require a pass. Some of these places are just small pull offs along the road (e.g. – Little Horse Trailhead), while others are full-fledged stops with parking lots capable of handling a hundred vehicles or more.

Spaceship and Courthouse Rocks from Midpoint of Bell Rock

Spaceship and Courthouse Rocks from Midpoint of Bell Rock

If you’re feeling tired from your plane ride into Phoenix, drive straight into Sedona and relax at your hotel or a local restaurant. It’s not a problem going back down Rt. 179 to take in the sights you drove past as the distances from Sedona are short and you’re more likely to enjoy the scenery when you’re feeling refreshed.

Signs Entering Sedona at Little Horse Trailhead

Signs Entering Sedona at Little Horse Trailhead

Sedona proper sits at around 4500 feet elevation and has a population of around 11,000 people. Temperatures in the summer run between the mid 80s to mid 90s. Route 179 intersects with Rt. 89A at a roundabout in downtown Sedona and will take you into the heart of the town or out toward more red rock scenery going in the opposite direction. Here again, the distances along Rt. 89A (west or east) are not great and you can easily traverse the road back and forth in a short time.

Looking Southeast from Pinon Pointe in Sedona

Looking Southeast from Pinon Pointe in Sedona

While in the uptown area of Sedona (89A east) there are many local shops and restaurants to take in and you can easily spend an afternoon leisurely strolling from shop to shop. If you want a guided tour of some the more remote sights, try a Pink Jeep Tour and book yourself on one of their half dozen signature tours with a guide. Most of their tours are $85 – $100 per person, and are two – three hours long. Our party decided on the Ancient Ruins tour which took us through Boynton Canyon and to the remote Palatki Sinagua cliff dwelling site.

Petroglyphs at Palatki Ruins

Petroglyphs at Palatki Ruins

Sunset leaving the Palatki Ruins

Sunset leaving the Palatki Ruins

A dining experience not to be missed is the Mesa Grill at the Sedona airport. The Sedona airport sits atop a mesa (a flat plain on top of a mountain) and, the restaurant is about 100 yards off the runway. Don’t worry about the noise as only small planes take off and land at the airport. The restaurant itself offers a varied cuisine with a southwest flair and the views at sunset are amazing. Be sure to call for reservations. If you’re traveling up the road to the airport around sunset, you might want to leave early and pull-off on the road up to watch the sunset before proceeding on to dinner at the Mesa Grill.

If you’re a stargazer, Sedona is the place to be as it is a designated “dark skies” area. Consequently, light pollution from the surrounding town is low and the stars seem much closer than in most suburban areas of the US. The Milky Way is faintly visible as a “cloud band” in the night sky. If you have the right camera, set it on a tripod and take a 20 – 30 second exposure at ISO3200 while the lens is pointed at the cloud band and you’ll come away with a beautiful picture of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way Seen from Pinon Pointe

The Milky Way Seen from Pinon Pointe

On the Way to the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is about a two-hour drive from Sedona if you go directly to the park but, you might want to take a detour on the way and visit Meteor Crater and the town of Winslow.

Self-described as the world’s best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth, Meteor Crater is 37 miles East of Flagstaff and just minutes from Interstate 40 off of Exit 233. Meteor Crater is the result of a collision between a meteor traveling 26,000 miles per hour and Earth approximately 50,000 years ago. The crater is nearly one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep. While the cater appears circular from the rim, seen from above it is actually squared-off. The site has outdoor observation trails, air-conditioned indoor viewing, wide screen movie theater, Interactive Discovery Center, and a unique gift and rock shop. There is also the Astronaut Memorial Park at the Visitor Center that commemorates the training of the Apollo astronauts for their moon landings. An interesting side note, the Crater is actually owned and operated by the Barringer family from Philadelphia and is not a national monument but was designated as a “National Natural Landmark” in 1967.

Meteor Crater from the Crater Rim

Meteor Crater from the Crater Rim

After you conclude your visit to Meteor Crater, Winslow Arizona and the “Standin’ on the Corner Park” is just 18 miles further down Interstate 40. As some of you might remember, the musical band “The Eagles” made Winslow famous with the song “Take It Easy”. The song was written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey (Eagles member) and the second verse “Well I’m standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona, such a fine sight to see; it’s a girl my lord in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.” put Winslow on the map. To capitalize on the famous song, one of town’s founding families donated the land and helped raise money for the “Standin’ on the Corner” experience in Winslow. If you’re a fan of the Eagles, it’s worth the trip to experience it for yourself.

Standing on the Corner in Winslow, AZ.

Standing on the Corner in Winslow, AZ.

The Grand Canyon

Time to return to Interstate 40 and head back toward the Grand Canyon picking up Rt. 89 along the way. The Park sits in the Kaibab National Forest and actually has two distinct locations: North Rim and the South Rim. Both locations offer awe inspiring vistas but the South Rim is the more popular probably because it’s easier to access than the North Rim. The North Rim closes in late October through mid-May due to winter weather conditions. This trip takes us to the South Rim of the Canyon.

To really see the South Rim well you’ll need two days so, reserve a room at one the lodges inside the Park: Yavapi, El Tovar, Thunderbird, Bright Angel, or Maswick. Reservations can be difficult to get during the popular summer season so be sure to start checking at least ten months in advance.

There are two ways to enter the Park at the South Rim: the South entrance and the Desert View entrance. Our group decided on entering the Park using the Desert View entrance via Route 64. There is an admission fee to the Park that is by the car load regardless of the number of people in your party unless you already purchased a Federal National Parks Pass that I previously mentioned. After entering the Park, your first stop is at the Desert View Watchtower which is a modern construction of a Hopi Indian watchtower completed in 1932 and designed by Mary Colter.

Desert View Watchtower

Desert View Watchtower

Make plans to stop at Navajo Point, Lipan Point, Moran Point, and Grandview Point which are west along Desert View Drive after leaving the Desert View Watchtower.

Desert View Watchtower Canyon View

Desert View Watchtower seen from Navajo Point

Moran Point

Moran Point

The main Visitor Center is at Mather Point and is easily the most heavily visited point in the Park. While there is plenty of parking, the lots can become full at any point during the day except early morning. So it may be easier to take a shuttle bus (Kaibab Rim Route) especially around sunset when the overlook is jammed with visitors hoping to catch the setting sun against the Canyon walls.

View at Mather Point Grand Canyon Visitor Center

View at Mather Point Grand Canyon Visitor Center

There are shuttle buses that roam the South Rim using four different loops that make stops every ten to fifteen minutes along each route separately. It’s a very convenient way to see the Canyon and in some cases it is the only way to see certain sections (e.g. – Hermit’s Rest loop) as car traffic is banned in some areas. If you like hiking in general and are generally fit, almost the entire South Rim can be hiked using the rim trails at the top of the Canyon. Many of these are paved but some are dirt trails that can be somewhat rocky at points. To hike the entire rim of the Canyon is about 12.8 miles from Desert View to Hermits Rest. But you can of course hike any distance along the rim you would like starting and stopping at any of the magnificent scenic overlooks.

If you’re in the mood for some adventure, take a mule tour to the bottom of the Canyon and stay at the Phantom Ranch for one or two days. The sure-footed mules take their riders to the bottom of the Canyon using the Bright Angel trailhead for a 10.5 mile descent to the Canyon floor. This is probably not a trip for people that experience vertigo but if you have the stamina it can be an awesome experience (N.B. – riders cannot be heavier than 200 pounds).

The Edge of Vastness at Bright Angel Trailhead

The Edge of Vastness at Bright Angel Trailhead

Milky Way at Bright Angel Trailhead

Milky Way at Bright Angel Trailhead

For the experienced hiker, you can travel to the bottom of the Canyon on foot from one of the trailheads after checking in with Backcountry operations and registering. Wear comfortable but sturdy hiking shoes and take plenty of water. We ran into one gentleman that had hiked to the bottom and back to the top in same day! His journey took him eleven hours that day so this is definitely a trek for the physically fit.

The Hermits Rest loop is a great way to see the western section of the Canyon’s south rim and is only accessible via shuttle bus, walking or bicycle as no personal vehicles are allowed. The total distance of the trail from beginning to end is about seven miles. The shuttle bus tour lasts as little as two hours or as long as you want to stay; our tour lasted almost four hours. The buses run every 10-15 minutes so if you find a particular stop that calls you to stay a little longer it’s not a problem. Bicycle riders can also use the shuttle bus; if you get too tired cycling the loop, put your bike on the front of the bus and hop on to return back to the starting point or get off at any other stop on the loop.

Stops on the Hermit’s Rest loop include: Trailview Overlook, Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, Mojave Point, The Abyss, Monument Creek Vista, Pima Point, and finally Hermits Rest. At Hermits Rest you can find some refreshments to quench your thirst and even a light snack if you’re hungry.

Trailview Overlook

Trailview Overlook

A tour of the Grand Canyon National Park, Sedona, and the American Southwest is an adventure you’ll never forget! Put it on your bucket list of trips to make.

The Abyss

The Abyss

About the Author

Bob McCormacBob McCormac is primarily a landscape and travel photographer from New Jersey in the USA.  Bob spent forty years as an information technology professional before deciding to pursue a long held passion for photography. Bob considers his style as simple and direct; trying not to over complicate the shot while still conveying the feeling.

You can follow Bob at his portfolio site, MAC Photography and on Facebook.

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