In December, I fulfilled a longtime dream of visiting the Grand Canyon. I didn’t go earlier for three main reasons: 1) I wanted a car; 2) I do not like crowds; and 3) I do not like hot weather. So thus, 1) I had to wait until I was over 25 to avoid the hefty underage car rental surcharges; 2) I went during an off season between December 8 to 10 – the Grand Canyon can be crowded during Thanksgiving and Christmastime; and 3) I went during the cold winter.
One day, I would like to go down into the Grand Canyon and hike it, including going to Havasupai Falls (a recommended 3+ day hike). However, this trip was intended to be a short weekend excursion (fly in Friday, fly out Sunday). Both my partner and I had to work remotely on Friday, which ate up a lot of our trip time.
- Fly into Flagstaff. Unless you can drive to the South Rim in less time, fly into Flagstaff. If we had driven from Phoenix instead, we would have spent our last day driving and not have been able to see Sedona.
- The very small Flagstaff Airport is a one and a half hour drive from the South Rim. We rented a car from the airport and opted to get insurance, but you could probably risk not getting it. We were worried about rocks denting the car, but the roads were paved all along the way and we rarely drove in a landslide area.
- The only airline that services Flagstaff is American Airlines, and first, you have to fly into Phoenix (and, starting mid-2018, Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles).
- Stay at Grand Canyon Village. Since our trip was only for a weekend, we opted to stay close to the park. If you can’t find a place close enough, stay in Flagstaff – the drive is easy and there are more options for lodging. Since we were in the off season, we got a great deal at the Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn, a 15 minute drive to the parking lot of the Grand Canyon South Rim. Since the hotel was pretty empty, we got a free upgrade to a mini-suite!
- Eat at the Coronado Room. We had started our day at 4 in the morning, shuffled onto airplanes and around airports all morning, drove almost 2 hours, and then worked for over 4 hours. We wanted some rest and luxury. The food at the Coronado Room is your standard traveler fare; you’ll likely find the same type of dishes in any hotel restaurant. However, we loved the staff and the wine selection.
- See the stars at the Grand Canyon. Did you know that the Grand Canyon is open 24 hours a day? Even if you arrived at night, you could still take in the scene.
- A vehicle entrance fee is $30 for seven days, with in and out privileges.
- Get a breakfast bagel at RP’s Stage Shop in Grand Canyon Village. This was my favorite restaurant/cafe during the entire trip. They have their own roast for coffee and make all of their food to order. We had breakfast there every day.
- Drive to Antelope Canyon. Make it to the canyon before noon so you can see it lit up. I love orange, so no surprise that I wanted to see a canyon painted with a gradient of orange. We almost decided not to go since Page, AZ was over two hours away, but I’m very glad I did. I’ve seen nothing like it.
- Antelope Canyon belongs to the Navajo Nation, so you have to book a tour to see it. In the off season, just show up – there are tours leaving regularly with little wait time in between. However, in the on season, we’re told the line is 10-15x longer. So … maybe don’t go during the on season. Although a tour group can be a dozen or more people, my group was only four guests and our guide.
- There are two canyons: Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. We only saw Lower because we heard it got more light. A couple on the tour with us who had seen the Upper Canyon before confirmed it.
- A brother and sister duo run the only two tours that allow you access to Antelope Canyon: Ken’s Tours and Dixie Ellis. Both offer similar (if not exact) pricing, and tours that leave within 15 minutes of each other. Unless you buy in advance, just drive into the parking lot with less cars when you arrive. As an older sister, I opted for Dixie Ellis’ tour and learned so much from our guide, including a demo on how the canyon was formed.
- Go to Horseshoe Bend. If I had to do it again, I’d go to Horseshoe Bend first because it looks the best in the morning (or evening) light. However, since we didn’t buy our Dixie Ellis tickets in advance, we were afraid we’d be caught in a long line and seeing Antelope Canyon was a priority.
- Tip: It gets hot in the desert in the afternoon, and we couldn’t hike because we were getting so easily dehydrated and overheated. Walking from the parking lot to the overlook is only 10 minutes, but we had to pause to drink water! Bring plenty of cold water and a hat.
- Catch the sunset at the Grand Canyon. The two hour drive along the East Rim of the Grand Canyon was so peaceful and gorgeous. It was the perfect lead up to our first stop on the South Rim. We originally stopped at Desert View to catch the sunset, but it was crowded and loud, which ruined the mood. We drove instead to Lipan Point, a much smaller stop where we were able to (safely) jump the rail and walk along a cliff. My experience here was why I went to the Grand Canyon. We climbed rocks and sat around for a while. When standing on the rim, focus on any point in the Grand Canyon. Noise will fade away and you will feel the overwhelming peace within its vastness. It is so beautiful.
- Tip: Stay after dark and watch the stars a bit – because it is stunning but also because traffic to the park exit will pile up right after sunset.
- Eat dinner at We Cook Pizza and Pasta. This might be the only place in the area that will serve most dietary restrictions. The service was quick and easy, and you can’t go wrong with a hearty, hot pizza.
- Enjoy a morning at the Grand Canyon. We spent most of the morning walking the easy trails along the South Rim. You’ll eventually end up at Hermits Rest where there is a mini-museum and geological center to learn more about the layers of the Grand Canyon. Walking along the Rim Trail was honestly all I wanted from this trip – each view is breathtaking.
- Drive to Sedona. Since our flight was later that evening, we wanted to play it safe and get closer to Flagstaff. Sedona is only a 40 minute drive from the airport. We ended up in Sedona about four hours before our flight and loved the cozy town with 360 views of red rocks.
- Get a warm drink and pastry at Theia’s, a hip cafe with plenty of seating. It was a perfect place to rest and plan our short tour of Sedona.
- Buy jerky at World of Jerky. The shopkeeper was so friendly and helpful, and you can sample! We ended up buying a pack and nearly finishing it as we sat near a parking lot (everywhere is a vista point!) and took in the views.
- Arrive at the Flagstaff Airport 60 minutes or less before your flight. In the off season, I could have arrived a few minutes before check-in closed. This is likely not a smart idea during an on season. However, there is only one security line and one terminal with a couple vending machines. Outside of the terminal is a small bar and cafe.
- If you go north, stay north. In the winter, the Grand Canyon North Rim is closed but also offers gorgeous views. If you’re going to be in Utah, I recommend spending your time in the North Rim and Page. Save the South Rim for a larger Sedona trip.
- Book flights early. The planes that serve Flagstaff are small and seats fill up quickly. We booked our December flights in August.
- Wear sunscreen. That desert sun is high and hot.
- Have washable shoes. They will get dirty! I actually wore blue rain boots for Antelope Canyon since they were my only high boots. When we walked out the canyon, they were coated in brown dirt.
- Leave the selfie stick at home! Even in the off season, there are dozens of people everywhere you go. They are happy to take a photo of you and likely will ask you to return the favor. I saw so many people perched on the edge of the Horseshoe Bend viewpoint with a selfie stick, leaning further back and back to get the shot. The views are beautiful, but not worth dying for.
When researching this trip, I had a hard time finding a two-day itinerary that didn’t include a 5 AM tour group that shuttled you from Phoenix or Las Vegas. If you wanted to see the Grand Canyon in a limited amount of time, it’s definitely possible to see all you want and not feel rushed. Happy travels!