For the second year in a row, we found ourselves headed to Arizona on Valentine’s Day. Last year, we spent the long weekend in Scottsdale and Chandler. This year, we decided to spend the weekend at the Grand Canyon for several reasons. Scott had never been there before, and the last time I visited was in 1969. The forecast was calling for record-high temperatures. And, the icing on the cake, admission to the national park was free for the Presidents’ Day weekend.
The reason for the trip was in Phoenix, so we had a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner there and then set out for the Grand Canyon the next morning. We took a quick detour to Williams, Ariz., to visit the Grand Canyon Brewing Company. Unfortunately, it was closed during the off-season, so we walked around the town a bit and decided we definitely want to come back and visit when everything is open.
We stopped in Pancho McGillicuddy’s for a cold beer and were surprised to find that they didn’t serve any of the Grand Canyon Brewing Company’s beers, even though they’re just a couple of blocks apart. They did serve beer from the Historic Brewing Company, though, which is located in Flagstaff. It hit the spot!
In 1984, Williams became the last town to have its section of the historic Route 66 bypassed by Interstate 40, but you can still get your kicks there. The Grand Canyon Railway offers daily trips to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in vintage, diesel-powered trains. You can also visit the new Grand Canyon Winery tasting room, play golf, go horseback riding, choose from many guided tours, hike, bike, fish, camp, canoe and ride ATVs and dirt bikes. It’s my kind of place!
Tusayan and the southern entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park are less than an hour from Williams. We arrived in time to visit the park, get maps and our bearings, and take a short hike to Mather Point before dark. We were not the only ones taking advantage of the beautiful weather and free admission; the park was fairly crowded for February.
We checked into our room at the Grand Hotel, which is about a mile from the southern entrance to the park. There’s a huge stone fireplace in the lobby, a nice gift shop, a Western-themed bar and restaurant, an indoor pool and hot tub. A guest was playing a grand piano. Very impressive! The rooms are comfortable and clean, but not as upscale as the public areas.
I didn’t do much (any) research on Tusayan before the trip, which we only planned three days in advance, so we were a little surprised at how small the town is. Dining choices are limited, but, on the bright side, we could walk to all of them from the hotel. The Grand Canyon Imax was on our agenda for the evening and we had just an hour to spare, so we had dinner at the hotel’s Canyon Star Steakhouse. Our meals were good, although a little pricey. The highlight was a singer performing old Western songs. I’m a sucker for “Home, Home on the Range.”
During the summer when it stays light out later, you can spend a lot of time at the park. That’s not the case in February, so it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s not much to do in Tusayan at night. We made an early night of it so that we could be up bright and early for our day at the park.
You can go east or west along the South Rim from the southern entrance. We spent the day exploring the western side. The paved Rim Trail is 13 miles long, with incredible views and lots of benches to stop and take a break or to just sit and enjoy the scenery. There are several visitor centers and museums where you can find a restroom and a place to refill your water bottles, so it would be a great way to spend the day with a little planning. The trail is relatively flat and portions of it are wheelchair-accessible.
The Trail of Time, which runs along the canyon rim between the Yavapai Museum of Geology and the Verkamps Visitor Center, is 1.3 miles long. It tells the story of the canyon’s geological history with rock samples and educational signage. There weren’t too many people on the trail this time of year, so we were able to stop, read the signs and enjoy the views without getting in anyone’s way. The sunshine and t-shirt-friendly temperatures made it a perfect day for exploring.
The Grand Canyon Village is an activity hub for the South Rim. There are several historical buildings here, including the Hopi House, El Tovar Hotel, Lookout Studio and Kolb Studio. This is also where the Grand Canyon Railway brings passengers from Williams. You can find a convenience store, post office, bank, deli and a large parking lot there where you can access the park’s free shuttle busses.
This is also the place where we got very turned around. If you’ve read more of my travel posts, you’ll know that this is not unusual for us. In our defense, we found the maps and signage to be lacking. We ended up using three maps — the official park map, the one in the newspaper-style winter guide provided at the park’s entrance and an “Oh, Ranger!” guide we received at the Imax Theater — because none of them provided all of the information we wanted. One showed all of the stops, but had no descriptions. The one with the descriptions didn’t have any street names. There are stops listed on the maps that weren’t marked on the road, but we were able to spot them coming back after we’d reached the end of the trail at Hermits Rest.
The Kolb Studio, founded by the photographers Ellsworth and Emery Kolb in 1904, was one of my favorite historical buildings. The exhibit includes photos and footage from their many years living at and exploring the canyon. The El Tovar Hotel first opened its doors in 1905. We took a peek inside the lobby and loved the old lodge feel of it.
That night we walked to Plaza Bonita for dinner, and I finally got to try a Grand Canyon Brewery American Pilsner. I loved it so much that we walked to the grocery store and bought some to bring home. Our meal was delicious. Two thumbs up for Plaza Bonita.
On the last day of the trip, we set out to see the eastern side of the South Rim on our way home. The lack of planning kicked in again, because the Tusayan Museum and Colter’s Watchtower at Desert View don’t open that early. The 12th-century Puebloan ruins are always open, though, and worth a stop.
Overall, it was a wonderful winter weekend getaway and we learned some things that we’ll use when planning our next visit to the Grand Canyon.
Tips for a Grand Canyon vacation: Make Williams your hub so that you have a lot of options for lodging, dining and activities. From there, take the Grand Canyon Railway to the Grand Canyon Village and spend a couple of nights at the El Tovar. You can walk the Rim Trail for miles, take the free shuttles throughout the South Rim and enjoy the sunrise, sunset or both from just outside your room — or from your room if you get a suite with a balcony. Then return to Williams on the train to retrieve your car on the way home. Enjoy! And stay tuned for more Tales From the Empty Nest.