My parents avoided the crowds and tension of cities, so we rarely traveled to urban areas on family vacations, unless we did the Asian thing and stopped for a college tour. To their immigrant eyes, the wonders of America were not in cities but in the immense protected landscape of the country, unusual in a world where natural resources are regularly depleted, polluted or destroyed.
My parents found great joy in the preservation of natural lands here – 14 percent of the U.S. land mass is safeguarded to some degree, representing an impressive 10 percent of the protected lands in the world. They took us to local and state parks on occasional weekends, but big family vacations were dedicated to the nation’s finest natural wonders – America’s national parks.
So we loaded the station wagon with regularity, leaving suburbia to pay respects to the crown jewels of the land. We marveled at the dramatic waterfalls and cliffs of Yosemite, the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone. We walked in awe among the colossal redwoods of Sequoia National Park, the largest standing since before Christ was born, and drove our car through the massive trunk of a living giant.
On one trip to the hot, marshy Everglades, I waded through a meadow and climbed on a picnic table to photograph an alligator in the water, accidentally stirring up a swarm of mosquitoes in the tall grass. We all sprinted to escape, slamming car doors shut and slapping madly to kill the buzzing, stinging attackers, laughing ruefully at the absurdity of it as my dad drove away.
In the Taoist tradition, ours was the church of nature. You’ve seen this philosophy in Chinese landscape paintings – mountains, waterfalls and countryside, often with a lone figure, miniature in the vastness. Spiritual communion by way of art.
In later years, my parents enjoyed traveling outside the country, but they would always finish their travel report by saying that what we have here is even better.
I spent my pre-parenthood adult life as a Manhattan urbanite, journeying outside the country at every opportunity. So it was with the warmth and pang of childhood nostalgia that I returned to my wonders-of-America roots a few months ago with my mom and my own kids.
It was my mom’s idea to take my older two offspring – one finishing elementary school, one junior high – on a dual-graduation trip to the Grand Canyon over Memorial Day weekend. But for all her great practical knowledge and life wisdom, my mom gets lost in parking lots and would to need help with the endeavor.
My dad had always been the driver and the navigator, his cache of folded maps in the car serving only as backup to the route already captured in his precise engineering mind. Now dad’s job as tour guide and driver was mine.
I may be a slacker cook and photographer, but I’m an obsessive travel planner. If I spend time and money visiting a somewhere, I research the heck out of it.
My perpetual travel goal – maximize exploration and food, minimize crowds and hassle – would be a challenge at the Grand Canyon over Memorial Day weekend, the kickoff to the park’s summer high season.
But we had a surprisingly relaxed trip, thanks to the key decision to bypass the congested South Entrance in favor of the less-traveled East Entrance.
Travelers who fly into Phoenix, as we did, typically drive four hours north through Flagstaff and up US Route 180 to the Grand Canyon’s South Entrance.
Here’s the trick: for the same drive time, you can take US Route 89 north from Flagstaff to Cameron, then to State Route 64 east into the park’s East Entrance.
It’s quiet, peaceful and scenic. And best of all, you can stop for a night, a meal, or just some fun, kitschy shopping at Cameron Trading Post, a trading station for settlers and the native Navajo and Hopi locals since 1916.
Outside the popular South Entrance, the tourist town of Tusayan is largely a motel strip. I love that the only joint in Cameron is this historic place. Like the National Park Service itself, Cameron Trading Post is celebrating its centennial this year.
The clean and comfortable Cameron Trading Post motel surrounds a lush and shady courtyard, an unexpected oasis in the dusty desert.
The family-friendly Cameron Trading Post restaurant, in back of the general store, serves three meals a day, overlooking the scenic gorge of the Little Colorado River and the 105-year old suspension bridge that crosses it.
The signature dish here is the Navajo taco, which starts with a huge, puffy Navajo fry bread – crisp and irresistibly deep fried – topped with beans and ground meat, shredded lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. Fry bread is everywhere in the southwest, originally developed by resourceful Native Americans during government captivity in the mid-1800s when they had to live on limited rations of flour, sugar, salt and lard.
Similar to the fried dough you find at carnivals, Navajo fry bread can be yeasted but traditionally uses baking powder as leavening. Like carnival fried dough, fry bread is often eaten sweet, with powdered sugar or honey. We tried both the sweet version and the fully loaded Navajo taco – hearty and filling.
When you climb the 3000 feet north from Phoenix from Cameron, it gets noticeably cooler, and the cactus disappear from the landscape. But the dry rosy desert terrain remains.
From Cameron to the East Entrance is another 3000-foot climb, in a much shorter drive. The start of the route, a classically pink southwestern landscape, feels exactly like you’re driving through Radiator Springs from Disney’s Cars movie.
(Drivers shouldn’t take photos, but I grabbed one quick on the empty road.)
There was virtually no traffic on the approach to the Grand Canyon, Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend. We didn’t know how lucky we were until we drove out the South Entrance the next day, passing the endless line of cars waiting to enter.
Blink once, and the desert disappears as abruptly as if a new background had been suddenly unrolled. Pink becomes green as you approach the Kaibab National Forest.
At the entrance we discovered another happy bonus of going with my mom: for just $10 she purchased a National Parks Service senior pass, which gives her free admission to 2000 national parks and recreation sites for the rest of her life. For parks like the Grand Canyon, entrance fee is per vehicle, so the four of us all got in with her pass. More reasons to explore America with Mom.
First stop, the 70-foot Desert View Watchtower, completed in 1932 and designed by Mary Colter, one of the few female architects of her day. The Watchtower, inspired by ancient Pueblo watchtowers, is the highest viewing point on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and has spectacular views of the river and canyon below.
The interior design includes copies of petroglyphs from a Pueblo ruin in New Mexico. The originals are now destroyed, but the copied artwork survives here.
Views from the Watchtower. My photos don’t do justice to the enormity of it.
You can hop the fence for a brief hike down to a lower viewing spot. I know it looks sketchy, but there is a trail.
And the photo op is worth it, though the camera cannot capture the absolute vastness of the canyon. It goes on as far as the eye can see. I imagined early explorers coming upon this uncrossable, mythic abyss – no paths, no mules, no water – thinking they might as well just give up and turn around.
The half hour drive from the East Entrance to the Visitor Center is brief, with several scenic overlook stops on the way. The stops got more crowded with cars and people as we neared Grand Canyon Village.
Parking is very limited in Grand Canyon Village; you are highly encouraged to park at the Visitor Center and take the free shuttle buses around to the various trailheads, lodges and facilities.
My mom is in great shape, but a long steep hike wasn’t in the cards. The Rim Trail is a flat walking path that runs along the canyon rim, but all my sources said you don’t get an appreciation for the scale of the canyon until you descend into it.
The South Kaibab trail seemed the best option for a manageable but scenic short hike down from the rim. The descent starts with a gentle switchback, which has the added bonus of shade from the cliff face.
The path is not difficult; only a little slippery in steeper parts due to the loose, dry dirt. Mostly it’s slow going because you’re compelled to stop and take photos of the dramatic views.
Every so often, a lone cactus.
At the end of this path was our destination, nearly a mile down from the rim: the charmingly named Ooh Aah Point. See that smallish dark brown rock down toward the point of the trail?
When you get there, it’s bigger than you think. True that the scale of the canyon can only be fully appreciated from the inside.
Everyone stops for photos here (ooh…ahh), and the friendly crowd gladly exchanges favors taking each other’s pictures. My son, wary of heights, passed on the photo op, but my daughter and I felt completely safe on the wide, flat rocks.
A few weeks later at Ooh Aah point, a 35 year old Florida woman was stepping aside to make room for others to pass, accidentally lost her footing and tragically fell to her death. I shuddered to read this – a sobering reminder that even a small accident in a precarious spot can have serious consequences.
For non-climbers, and people with wheelchairs and strollers, the Rim Trail is an excellent, easy walk, the pavement particularly wide and accessible near the hotels and village. Outside the Bright Angel Lodge is an ice cream shop where you can stop for a scoop to enjoy on your stroll.
This photo is taken on the Rim Trail near the entrance to the popular Bright Angel Trail, convenient for its proximity to the hotels overlooking the rim. Across the way is the landmark El Tovar Hotel, and the dormitory-like, 1960s-era Kachina and Thunderbird Lodges. Off to the right (not pictured) are the rustic cabins of the Bright Angel Lodge, another historic landmark also designed by Mary Colter.
You can imagine Teddy Roosevelt visiting the rustic but old-time elegant El Tovar Hotel, which he did, in the grand early days of leisure travel.
Mary Colter also envisioned this Lookout Studio on the Rim Trail, its unassuming rubble structure designed to blend in with the landscape.
We spent Sunday night inside the park at Kachina Lodge, overlooking the canyon rim. I really wanted to get up to watch sunrise over the canyon, which everyone says is an unforgettable experience. I didn’t want to wake my mom and kids with an alarm, so I set my warmest clothes in the bathroom, ready for a silent sneak away, and plead with my internal clock to wake me at 5:00 a.m. But it didn’t.
On the way back to Phoenix, we detoured off the highway to see the red rocks of Sedona, held sacred by native tribes.
On Memorial Day, the winding road through the lively artistic community of Sedona was packed with cars. But the opportunity to glimpse the steep red canyons and otherworldly rock formations was worth the detour.
Our final stop was a late brunch at the Red Rock Cafe, tucked in a strip mall outside of town. I had to have huevos rancheros for my last Southwestern meal, and we got one cinnamon roll to share. Though it had been billed as “GIANT” on the menu, we still had to laugh when it arrived, the oversized snail shape filling an entire dinner plate. We packed gooey leftovers for the happy plane ride home.
Grand Canyon from the East
- Enjoy a meal, an overnight or a shopping stop at Cameron Trading Post (motel, restaurant, general store and RV park; 466 US-89, Cameron, AZ 86020) – about 4 hours north of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (Interstate 17 north from airport to Flagstaff; then US Route 89 north to Cameron)
- Enter the South Rim through less crowded Grand Canyon East Entrance (30 minutes east of Cameron on State Route 64)
- For $10, visitors 62 years and over can buy a National Parks Senior Pass, which allows lifetime entrance to 2000 national parks and federal recreation sites (free entrance per vehicle or per person, depending on site)
- Stop at Desert View Watchtower and other scenic overlooks on 30 minute drive from East Entrance to Grand Canyon Village and Visitor Center
- Park at Visitor Center and use shuttle buses around Village
- Bus to South Kaibab trail for spectacular and relatively short (just under 1 mile) hike down to Ooh Aah Point (fill water bottle at trailhead; no water on trail)
Hotels overlooking the South Rim (book far in advance for rooms; 30 days in advance for restaurant reservations)
- El Tovar Hotel (premier hotel built in 1905; National Historic Landmark; fine dining restaurant)
- Bright Angel Lodge (rustic cabins; National Historic Landmark)
- Kachina Lodge (dormitory-like; 1960s-era)
- Thunderbird Lodge (dormitory-like; 1960s-era)
- If you are lucky enough to stay inside the park, get up early and bundle up to watch sunrise from the rim – by all accounts (alas, not mine personally) an unforgettable experience
- Red Rock Cafe (brunch/lunch, giant cinnamon rolls; 100 Verde Valley School Rd, Sedona, AZ 86351)