Las Vegas has a lot to offer, especially if you are into partying and gambling. But whenever the sun is setting, coloring the surrounding mountains into a deep red, it makes you wonder what lies behind those hills. East of Vegas. And this is where we were headed next.
This road trip will take you to Antelope Canyon, then south to Flagstaff for a night. The next day explore Grand Canyon and head back to Las Vegas. Some of the best places to visit in the USA all in one trip. Crazy!
But let’s get started
Somewhere in Navajo Land and where Utah and Arizona meet, the Antelope Canyon has come a long way. I am not talking about the millions of years it took to shape this Mars like canyon into the earth, but from when it was first discovered until now. These days thousands of tourists make their way to see either the Lower or Upper Antelope Canyon. And there is a reason for that. Everyday when the sun has just reached the perfect spot in the sky, light beams fall into the canyon and stand like roman columns. Actually the most expensive photograph ever sold depicts exactly this. Take a look at it here, taken in the Upper Antelope Canyon.
First the Logistics
The drive from Las Vegas took us around 4 hours. This trip is best done by car as you will be flexible along the way. It was also the only way to combine all we had planned for this little trip. After leaving Nevada and passing through Utah, the road finally brings you to Arizona. Here the Antelope Canyons await. Try to arrive an hour early before your arranged tour so you can see the stunning Horseshoe Bend first. More about that later.
As spontaneous traveling is always the best, except where you really have to book something, we did the minimum. Book the tour for either one of the two Antelope Canyons, or both if you feel like it and your accommodation near Grand Canyon. I recommend the city of Flagstaff as your base.
Upper Antelope Canyon
The best time to visit is at around 11am in the summer, when the sun stands high and produces those spectacular light beams. If you book the more expensive photographer tour, you will have some minutes of uninterrupted view at each high light in the canyon. The guide will also throw up sand into the light beam for that magical shot. this tour takes around 2.5 hours and will cost you from 109$ to 195$, depending on the time of day and which tour company you choose. Find a selection here: https://
navajonationparks.org/guided- tour-operators/antelope- canyon-tour-operators/
A normal tour during prime time, 10.15AM and 12.30AM, costs between 58$ and 78$, during other times around 45$. Prices for kids below the age of 13 will be around 10$ cheaper. The normal/spectators tour lasts 90 minutes and you will be in a much bigger group. Therefore taking pictures is a different experience as you will be struggling to get it people free. But that is the thrill of cheap backpacking, isn’t it?
Lower Antelope Canyon
That is the one we went to and it is generally regarded as the less spectacular one. Since we made plans last minute and bought the ticket only one day before it was our only option. But ‘less spectacular’ is such an understatement. After comparing pictures online from Upper and seeing Lower with my own eyes, I really cannot choose one over the other. Which ever canyon you end up going to, it will be a stunning experience. But there are actually some pros for the Lower Antelope Canyon. It is usually less crowded and hence also a bit cheaper at 40$ per normal tour, 100$ for photographer tour. Also the Upper Canyon gets too narrow at the end which means you have to turn back. So during your tour you will not only be following a big group of people but the same mass will eventually come in opposite direction again. Whereas the Lower Antelope Canyon runs for around 400m with several easy stairs to climb and a final stair up to solid ground at the end where you emerge from the 37m deep canyon. Our Navajo guide said the best tours are at 4pm and 10pm, when the light falls in at a nice angle. We went at 2pm and still had a great time and fun taking pictures.
This one we actually did before our canyon tour started since we had a full hour to spare thanks to an early start in Las Vegas. After the Colorado River forms in the Rocky Mountains and before it flows through the Grand Canyon, it passes by the city of Page. The gentle curves it forms come to perfection at Horseshoe Bend. It is a popular place to stop before or after a canyon tour so expect fellow travelers taking in the sight with you. I didn’t find it too crowded and the photo opportunities are splendid.
The Road Trip continues
It was now time to get to Flagstaff where I had booked a cheap motel for the night. It was clean and offered a simple breakfast, all for 40$ a night. You will find plenty of similar rooms in the city. The drive from Horseshoe Bend to Flagstaff took about 3 hours, if you go nonstop. But that would be a shame. At first the landscape is very barren and like a desert, dry and rocky. But just half an hour before Flagstaff the Coconino National Forest starts spreading out its green arms. It was such a welcoming change of landscape after 2 and a half hours through the desert that we took the next turn into the forest. The signs lead you to the Sunset Crater where for 20$ you can walk all the way to the crater. But what I found even more amazing was the field of wild flowers in the middle of the forest, The sun was setting behind green hills and a great day on the road came to an end.
This old lumber city lies in a very strategic location. Situated right in the Coconino National Forest, the camping and hiking opportunities attract many outdoor enthusiasts throughout the whole summer. Various concerts and festivals make for a nice atmosphere in the city. A recommended and beautiful drive is south to Sedona or even Prescott on Highway 89A, not the I-17. What we came to this city for, was however the closeness to Grand Canyon. Within one hour you are able to reach the eastern gate.
Leaving the lush surroundings of Flagstaff heading north to Cameron, take a left here and head east. The landscape has turned to a vast rocky bush land, where many Navajo Indians sell original handcrafted goods. Soon the rocks get bigger and you start seeing a bigger and bigger getting canyon. Pay the 35$ at the Gate per vehicle and you have entered Grand Canyon National Park. Our plan was to drive west all the way to Grand Canyon Village and then leave the park going south to Route 66.
The road goes through a forest with short trees, signs for deer announce you have entered a protected national park. From time to time you can glimpse this unbelievably huge canyon to your right. There are many vista spots and I recommend to stop at many of them as each time the view is a bit different. The first one was the Indian Watchtower at Desert View. This 21m high tower overlooks the southern rim of the Grand Canyon and was designed by Mary Colter in 1932, who also designed the Hermits Nest in the park. Enter the tower to find souvenirs, information about the history of it and to climb up to the top for the best view.
After some more stops, you will reach Grand View Point. Another great view awaits and from here you have the first real trail to go all the way down to the Colorado River. The Grand View Trail is a tough one. A day trek can take up to 8 hours, if you decide to go to Cottonwood Creek. Most hikers stop at Coconino Saddle at an altitude of 2000m and hike back up. Note to bring plenty of water and excellent shoes as it is very steep at times, slippery with many rocks requiring large steps. The trail also gets very close to extreme drop offs sometimes.
Finally at Grand Canyon Village, you will find restaurants, shops and restrooms. Most tourists only make it this far coming from the South to take in the view of the massive South Rim. Unfortunately we didn’t see any condors, rangers later told me they are very rare these days. But maybe you are lucky. Send me a photo then, please. We sat down on a nice wall overlooking the Canyon and had our cheap backpackers lunch. What can be better than a picnic in the nature?
It was time to head back and we chose t make it more interesting by driving part of the way on the famous Route 66. After going west on I-40, take a right at Seligman and you will find yourself on this once most important route for people fleeing the Dustbowl. Originally it went for 4000km from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending in Santa Monica, California, before the Interstate system replaced most of it. But whenever you find part of the Historic Route 66, give it a try. Turn the radio to Classic Rock and you will feel real American. Many of the old towns along the way still dwell in the old times and have converted shops into little museums.
At Kingman the road joins I-93 and this great little road trip comes almost to an end. Before you reach Las Vegas, and if there is still time before sunset, make a stop at Hoover Dam. Or if you took your well recommended time at Grand Canyon, come by the next day. The Bureau of Reclamation offers Hoover Dam Powerplant Tours, where you will learn and see all there is about this massive construcion, that has stood for 83 years. More info can be found here: https://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/
But you can also park your car at the before bypass bridge for great views or even walk across the dam yourself.
Again, a beautiful and thrilling road trip leads us to Las Vegas. Big city lights pretend to be stars and as a day in the wilderness ends, the night is just beginning in the city that never sleeps.
Check out my other road trip on how I first came to Las Vegas here: Read more