- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — Hopi Point is widely considered to be one of the best spots for seeing the Grand Canyon. Even those who have other favorite overlooks generally say there’s no other place along the far-reaching rim of the canyon where they would rather be during sunset.

Sunset was more than 1-1/2 hours away when we positioned ourselves up against the rail at Hopi Point, but it wasn’t long before shuttle buses unloaded enough tourists to line every inch of the long rail. Sunset was still 45 minutes away, and tourists were backed up in rows so deep that it must have been impossible to see anything except the backs of heads and the sky.

We were glad we had come early and in off-season. Our upfront view of the setting sun’s glow splashing on the layers of rocks in the canyon walls was more than spectacular. We came to the canyon at sunset, sunrise and other times of day. Looking down and across the gigantic chasm at any point along the rim is the sort of experience that is so breathtaking an adequate description is elusive.

What you see is one of the planet’s most dazzling landscapes, a geological masterpiece many millenniums in the making, a wondrous demonstration of the power of erosion. You stand at about 7,000 feet, unless you are on the less-visited North Rim, from 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher. The chasm averages about 10 miles across — about four miles at its narrowest gap and 18 miles at its widest.

The mighty Colorado River, which carved its way through the canyon, lies nearly a mile below and flows 277 miles from the beginning of the canyon to its end. Geologists tell us that the exposed canyon rock tells a tale of nearly 2 billion years of development of the planet, or close to half the time of Earth’s existence.They long thought that the most recent development — the erosive carving by the Colorado — took 6 million years, but a newly released scientific reassessment puts it at 15 million years.

The Paiute Indians of the American Southwest referred to this area as “Kaibab,” which meant “Mountain Lying Down.”The less poetic name “Grand Canyon” was bestowed by the man who in 1869 led the first recorded journey on the Colorado River through the canyon: John Wesley Powell, a gutsy one-armed former Civil War major who loved science and adventure and later began the U.S. Geological Survey.

Calling it “grand” is like calling the Great Wall of China “great,” a peculiarly understated way of communicating its vastness and grandeur

Just as peculiar to us, in retrospect, is that somehow we put off seeing this made-in-America world wonder for so long, first seeing many other great sights that are far away.Don’t make that mistake.

Most visitors spend but a day here; we stayed two.About 90 percent of visitors come to the South Rim area, as we did. You can drive around to the North Rim, but it’s a 215-mile trip.Some say it is even more stunning, but there are more stunning sights along the South Rim than most of us can handle.

Spending two days with accommodations in the national park, we were able to visit the major lookout points along the South Rim.We drove a lot, although we could have taken a free shuttle to many of our favorite spots. We walked some, dined well and left with fantastic memories, including impressive wildlife sightings — a couple of elk and more deer; one big buck casually dined on leaves hanging from a tree next to the sidewalk to our hotel room as we sat just about 10 yards away.

A longer visit than ours and a mule ride or hike down to the Colorado and back yields even more experiences, although the hike can be very strenuous. Of the more than 300 hikers who had to be rescued last year, most were between 18 and 35.There are plenty of long stretches where there are no barriers along sheer drops.Children should be watched carefully.We saw a number of adults foolishly go where signs warned them not to tread.

RED ROCK COUNTRY

Seeing the Grand Canyon is in and of itself more than sufficient reason to visit the “Grand Canyon State,” but we decided to take in a wider view of Arizona while we were in the neighborhood and returned home very happy that we had.

We flew into Phoenix, a place renowned for luxury resorts, but delayed the gratification of resort time until after we had visited the Grand Canyon and the two other major Arizona sights: Sedona and Monument Valley.

From the Phoenix airport, it is about a two-hour drive north to the little city (population 12,000) of Sedona, elevation 4,500 feet in a transition area between the mountains to the north and the desert to the south. USA Weekend once ranked Sedona No. 1 on its list of America’s 10 most beautiful spots, calling it “a place that looks like nowhere else.”

What gives Sedona its special look is the remarkable assortment of red sandstone formations that make beautiful scenes with an orange or red glow at sunset and sunrise.

Like the Grand Canyon, Sedona is a place to visit to be awed by nature, but it also offers great shopping, outstanding resorts, splendid hiking and biking trails, more than 80 art galleries, year-round art festivals and a wide range of accommodations.We spent our days here concentrating on three of the most highly rated vistas.

For a general overview, we drove up Airport Road, which has a couple of turnoffs where you can catch great views of red rock formations in any direction, which makes this location a favorite for watching sunsets and sunrises.Look one way, and far in the distance you can see Mogollon Rim, the end of the Colorado Plateau; look another way — beyond the city homes — for well-known monoliths such as Coffee Pot Rock, Sugar Loaf and Thunder and Doe mountains.

We were more impressed by the views from a turnoff along Schnebly Hill Road, a mile or so out of town at the head ofHuckabee Trail.In one direction is a splendid view of two huge red rocks — the Bench and Merry-Go-Round — and in another is an equally splendid view of rocks with red and white hues — Steamboat Rock, Ship Rock and the Fin.

Our favorite Sedona view is the quintessential favorite — Cathedral Rock as seen from across Oak Creek with a reflection of the red rock in the stream.The rock seems to glow as the sun sinks and the moon rises.

STILL MORE

The drive from Sedona to the south entrance of the Grand Canyon is only about two hours, but it can take considerably longer if, for the first leg of the journey, you take the route that runs through Oak Creek Canyon. It is difficult to resist pulling over every now and then for a more relaxed view of the spectacular scenery. It is one of the most scenic routes in America.

We couldn’t say the same of the nearly four-hour drive onward from the Grand Canyon through barren country to our next destination until just before the end, when we abruptly found ourselves again on one of America’s most scenic routes. We felt as if we were driving into a widescreen Old West movie.What we were looking at and driving into is one of the most recognizable scenes in the world, although few people can tell you where it is or what it is called.

Monument Valley is mostly in Arizona, but it spills over into Utah, covering 30,000 acres in a Navajo tribal park, and is within the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation Reservation in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico.

The sight of its stark buttes rising from the great plains of a dusty desert is the image that best evokes the American West to Americans and the world. It is an image etched indelibly in our minds because, since before World War II, it has served as a backdrop in many of our favorite movies, television shows and print advertisements.

In 1938, Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, who for more than a decade had operated a trading post in the area where they swapped food and supplies in exchange for Navajo silver jewelry and hand-woven Navajo rugs, succeeded in persuading Hollywood director John Ford that the area would make a great movie set.The Gouldings hoped to bring much-needed new revenue to their Navajo friends during the Great Depression.

The first result was the 1939 Ford film “Stagecoach,” the classic Western that made John Wayne a major star.Mr. Ford was so enthralled with the scenery that in its journey, the movie’s stagecoach crisscrossed Monument Valley three times.

Eventually, Mr. Ford filmed nine movies here. In the nearly 70 years since “Stagecoach,” so many other major movies have featured scenes of Monument Valley that it is little wonder nearly everyone is familiar with its look.

Among the films: “Forrest Gump,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Fort Apache,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Back to the Future III,” “How the West Was Won,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Searchers,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “Mission: Impossible II.”

Iconic images of Monument Valley have appeared in lots of other films; on plenty of book, CD and DVD covers; in video games; and as computer-screen wallpaper.Ads include the famous Marlboro Man campaign and one showing a new car atop one of the buttes.

For a small access fee, you can drive on a 17-mile dirt road through a stunning scenic area of the park.Unless the weather is bad, it’s easy and takes two to three hours.

Better yet is to take one of Goulding’s Lodge’s tours led by a Navajo guide. We took its moonlight tour our first evening and then spent the next day on its daylong tour covering both Monument Valley and adjacent Mystery Valley.Both tours were outstanding. You cannot tour Mystery Valley without a Navajo guide.

Many visitors to the area miss it, but they shouldn’t.The Anasazi, ancestors of some of the area’s modern Indian tribes, lived here 2,000 years ago and left behind their cliff dwellings and petroglyphs and pictographs etched on a number of canyon walls.

DAZZLING OASIS

We couldn’t think of a better way to cap off a week of touring Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley than to relax for a couple of days at one of the great resorts for which Arizona is renowned.When it comes to luxurious relaxation in Arizona or anywhere, it’s extremely difficult to surpass the Phoenician at the base of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, just nine miles from the Phoenix airport.

Once you make the turn into its beautifully tree-lined entrance, you have entered a lush oasis that dazzles.This 250-acre resort is palatial.Its 587-room main hotel, long ranked as world-class, has been joined by an even more exclusive 60-room “boutique hotel within a hotel” called the Canyon Suites. All rooms at the resort are extra large and sumptuously furnished.

For golfers, the scenic 27-hole championship course and fine putting greens await. Twelve tennis courts have lights for nighttime playing, and nine swimming pools are scattered throughout the property. The resort spa, called the Centre for Well-Being, offers a wide selection of services for relaxation and rejuvenation in an opulent, sanctuarylike environment.Samples of some of its top-quality spa products are placed in the guest rooms.

This is a good-as-they-get resort in every area — accommodations, service, amenities and cuisine. At Windows on the Green, we enjoyed the finest Southwestern cuisine we have ever tasted. The Terrace, the resort’s traditional American food restaurant, is undergoing a $1 million renovation and debuts next month as Il Terrazzo, an authentic old-country Italian restaurant.

Mary Elaina’s, which serves French cuisine, may be the best restaurant in the state, but it is being upgraded and will open Oct. 1 as J&G; Steakhouse. A year later, a new $40 million, 42,000-square-foot conference facility and ballroom will open.

Much as we savored sitting in a lavish marble lobby, sipping a refreshing beverage while taking in the views or admiring works from the resort’s $25 million art collection, we also enjoyed little luxuries like sampling different flavors and treats at the Cafe and Ice Cream Parlor or strolling around the lovely 2-acre cactus garden. Even the little things here are big treats.

So is Arizona. In a little more than a week visiting the state, we felt we had journeyed through the Old West into the lap of luxury with some great wonders along the trail.

Eat, sleep in Arizona

Considering its isolated location, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality, variety and reasonable cost of the meals served at Goulding’s Lodgein Monument Valley. We loved its Navajo fry bread.

Within the Grand Canyon, the place for fine dining is the rustic and historic El Tovar. Sedona is loaded with fine restaurants — we especially enjoyed Reds at Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa. In Phoenix, any of the restaurants at the Phoenician will impress.

The Phoenician, www.the phoenician.com, 800/888-8234

El Portal, Sedona, Ariz., next door to the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village: www.elportal sedona.com, 800/313-0017

For accommodations within Grand Canyon National Park: www.grandcanyonlodges.com, 888/297-2757

Goulding’s Lodge, Monument Valley, www.gouldings.com, 435/727-3235.

For more information on Arizona, contact the Arizona Office of Tourism, www.Arizona Guide.com or 866/298-3312.


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