Nature in All Its Glory

Go to the Grand Canyon for Awe-Inspiring Vistas. Stay for the Architecture.

by Jessica Ritz
Grand The Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its 100th birthday this year. Photo by Sam Lloyd/Unsplash

Three days in the Grand Canyon will feel like a journey to the moon and back. Here's everything to discover (or rediscover) in America's most famous landmark.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona — How does one get to the Grand Canyon? This question sounds kind of ridiculous, given that we're hardly talking about a secret, hidden destination. But until a recent visit, I hadn't given much thought to the logistics involved with seeing the 270-mile-long iconic American natural wonder.

Because 2019 marks the Grand Canyon National Park’s official centennial as a National Park Service site, now is a perfect time to motivate for those of us who tend to under-prioritize our own domestic tourism. Cue the guilt trip feistily delivered by an Australian traveler whom I met in a remote town in Turkey 20 years ago; he delivered a stern lecture about how he wouldn't dare think to leave his own country until he visited Ayer's Rock and other landmarks. Meanwhile, American me was halfway across the world and had never seen the Grand Canyon. It was time to leave my perch in Los Angeles and go.

Day 1: Take the Train to the Canyon

But where? And how to get there? South Rim or North Rim? White water rafting or camping? Um, neither, since I'm a city girl through and through, thankyouverymuch. A trip that combines rail history, architecture, and the heritage of the main draw? That sounds right to me, which meant focusing on Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim and taking the Grand Canyon Railway.

Flagstaff, Arizona, may be closer to the action, but I opted to go round trip from Phoenix because it had better flight options, followed by a drive north that proved a greaet addition to the journey. (For bonus adventure points, take a slight detour through the Red Rock State Park and Sedona.)

As for the marvel of the canyon itself, it calls for a retro experience. Since traffic consumes enough of my day-to-day life in Los Angeles, I wanted to avoid driving and parking headaches at all costs. (There's no better way to create a nature-centric vacation buzzkill.) 

But I was going the other way to the canyon via Williams, Arizona — the train. Williams (population: under 4,000) is rife with Route 66 nostalgia and the self-proclaimed world-famous Sultana Bar, one of the best dive bars I've stepped foot in. If you've seen the Pixar movie Cars, you’ll get the Williams vibe.

Grand Canyon Railway.
Grand Canyon Railway. Photos courtesy of Xanterra Travel Collection.
Grand canyon watch tower.
The watchtower was architect Mary Colter's first design in the Grand Canyon.
grand canyon watch tower.
Look beyond.

Day 2: Around Grand Canyon Village

The Grand Canyon Railway returned to service in 1989 after a dormant period that followed years of service for both tourism and an erstwhile mining industry. Today it makes a daily round-trip run to and from the South Rim, on a 65-mile ride that takes two hours and fifteen minutes and offers multiple class option. (It can run twice during busier seasons.)

Crashing at Grand Canyon Railway Hotel is extra convenient because the hotel will transfer your bags to South Rim hotels operated within Xanterra, the hospitality and travel concessionnaire under contract with the National Park Service. (RV road warriors, they've got you and your pets covered, too.) One feature the train program can stand to do without: historical reenactments that rely on worn-out cowboy tropes and, from what I saw, outdated jokes that overall work against efforts to make tourism in National Park Service sites more inclusive.

The train drops you off at the historic National Historic Landmark station within walking distance of the Grand Canyon Village. And there's another major reason to go the ye olde timey route to understand the time when the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway built this stretch of track and essentially ran the Wild West.

Pioneering architect Mary Colter oversaw the ingeniously eclectic designs of hospitality honcho Fred Harvey's restaurant and hotel empire along the Santa Fe Railway routes through the Southwest to California. Some of her most important and accomplished work can be seen at the Grand Canyon Village, in some instances using local stones and materials to crazy dramatic effect.

El Tovar Hotel, designed by architect Charles Whittlesey and Colter, combined European mountain resort aspirations with outsized American ambitions. This grande dame is supposedly the go-to for celeb guests like former U.S. Presidents, Paul McCartney, and Oprah. For the best I-can't-believe-I'm-sleeping-next-to-the-Grand-Canyon-and-not-in-a-tent style and comfort, however, rooms in the Bright Angel Lodge Cabins are unmatched. A recent renovation has brought its accommodations, some of which start at less than $100 per night, up to the stuff that Sunset magazine Western living cabin dreams are made of, with a mix of painted and stained original woodwork, wool blankets, cozy nooks, and low-slung buildings that are nestled into and ramble through the site. A few steps away, Colter's nearly gravity-defying Lookout Studio clings to the cliffside.

Across from El Tovar, Hopi House is a history-laden Native American-style building that's a meticulously preserved original simulacrum; that's a lot of American architectural and cultural history to unspool in one building. Those who plan well in advance can stay at the bottom of the canyon (accessed via mule, naturally) at Phantom Ranch. Other South Rim options are the Thunderbird and Kachina Lodges, midcentury modern buildings of debatable architectural merit that regardless stand in an unquestionably great location.

With meals at the historic El Tovar and the Harvey House Café at the Bright Angel Lodge dining rooms — complete with their still-in-production custom china patterns — plus the newly opened Arizona Steakhouse following all that hiking, mule riding, and bus touring you'll be doing, you shouldn't spend much time in your room anyway.

Those who want to commune with the Canyon and its ecosystem can sign up for intensive rafting and hiking trips that stretch as long as a couple of weeks. Or there's the city slicker route: My day largely consisted of wandering around the Village and ducking into the El Tovar lounge for a hot chocolate before heading down to the easily accessible Bright Angel Trail for an afternoon solo mild hike. A bus tour with a knowledgeable (and salty) guide involved hitting vista points for sunset photos and oohing and ahhing while she mildly scared us with Grand Canyon cautionary tales.

The lobby at El Tovar.

Day 3: That's a Wrap

After fluffy flapjacks for breakfast and another quick dip into canyon, it was time to head back to Williams. I only spent one night at the mouth of the canyon, and if I could do it again, I would spend two comfortably ensconced in a Bright Angel Lodge larger corner cabin room.

So this advice might sound counterintuitive, but it's true: You should go to the Grand Canyon for the awe-inspiring vistas and spiritual energy — and stay for the architecture.

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