The Grand Canyon is one of those mythical destinations that is a must-see at least once in your life. Every time I go to Vegas, I’m tempted to go on a tour. But the 4 am departure and long bus ride convince me otherwise. So finding myself in Phoenix on business, it was a unique opportunity I could pass up. So off I went on a road trip through the desert and mountains, taking in the varied sights along the way.

My Grand Canyon adventure started in Phoenix where I was speaking  at a conference. As soon as the sessions wrapped up, I made the dash to the PHX airport car rental center where I picked up a recent silver Nissan Rogue at the Enterprise car rental counter. The excitement started building as soon as I left town in anticipation of an epic adventure at the Canyon

Happy Travel Tip

If timing is tight, it’s important to note that the airport Car Rental Center is located a little over 2 miles away. You can take the SkyTrain Shuttle service to the center which will set you back about 20 minutes from Terminal 3 and longer from Terminal 4. Plan accordingly.

Minutes later, I was on my way up route 17 in direction of Flagstaff, then on to Williams and ultimately Tusayan, just outside the Park. It was an easy drive despite some roadwork leaving Phoenix. They are expanding the highway 17 from 2 to 4 lanes (the locals feel it was high time). Fortunately, traffic was quite lite for a Friday afternoon, and I managed to move along at a comfortable clip. 

Travel Time May Vary

The total itinerary time from Phoenix to Tusayan is approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes. The speed limit along the way is 65 mph around Phoenix, increasing to 75 mph as you leave the metropolitan area. The roads are well maintained and the surfaces are generally smooth. 

Traffic and travel time are unpredictable due to slow-moving traffic on the many up-hill climbs. You’ll be climbing a total of 6,000 feet of the course of the itinerary and there are plenty of steep hills to climb. You’ll often encounter very slow-moving RVs, and trailers. Slow-moving trucks and semis are forced to pass them, bringing all traffic suddenly to a crawl as speeds often drop to 40 mph or less. Be vigilant and expect sudden braking along the way.

The Vegetation on Route to the Grand Canyon

I couldn’t help but admire the variety of vegetation and terrain along the way. Fields of tall cacti gave way to golden grasslands, followed by scrub vegetation, followed again by pine forests. I learned from my tour guide that the vegetation is strongly influenced by elevation. That’s why it changes frequently along the route from Phoenix.

Leaving Phoenix, I found myself in the heart of the Sonoran Desert where the iconic Saguro Cacti groves border the highway and adjacent hills. You can also see Teddy Bear cholla, Jojoba and other desert plants and shrubs. The Saguro features what looks like spiky hair at the top giving them a punk-like appearance. Above 3,500 feet the cactus can’t survive colder weather, so none can be found.

As I approached the Agua Fria National Monument, the scenery took on a soft golden hue as vast expanses of golden grasslands unfolded in every direction.  According to my research they are composed mainly of Indian Ricegrass, Blue Grama and Sideoats Grama. It’s strikingly beautiful and desolate at the same time.

Scenic Rest Stop at Sunset Point

A few miles south of the Agua Fria, there is a scenic rest stop called Sunset Point Scenic Overlook. Officially it is in the Black Canyon City area. Intrigued by the name, I pull over for a quick pit-stop. The viewing area is located behind the main building. The golden valley spreads out in all directions. I can only imagine the beauty of this scene at sunset.

Spectacular view at the Sunset Point Scenic Overlook. The golden hues of the vegetation are characteristic of this area close to the Aqua Fria National Monument.

As I approached Flagstaff, the terrains and vegetation changed once again. The cooler climate provided by the higher altitude allows the Ponderossa Pine to thrive. These stately trees create a startling contrast with the desert and flatlands further to the south. 

Continuing North from Williams, AZ I entered the Kaibab National Forest southern region where a mix of terrain and vegetation alternate as we approach Tusayan and the Grand Canyon National Park gate. Tusayan stands at 6800 feet of elevation, yet there’s no impression of being atop a mountain. Everything is relatively flat.

Happy Travel Tip

Elevation in Phoenix is at about 1,000 ft. above sea level, so you’ll be climbing about 6,000 feet of altitude to reach the South Rim in Tusayan. Be prepared to experience mild elevation sickness. At a minimum the air is thinner making strenuous effort more difficult. Take it easy and enjoy a relaxed pace as you visit the Canyon.

Although altitude sickness usually starts at 8,000 feet, you may experience mild symptoms including headache, dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue. If you’re there for several days, the symptoms should disappear quickly. Hydration is your best friend. Drink copious amounts of fluids and make use of a hydration pack to replace lost electrolytes. 

Activities on Arrival in Tusayan

I had a narrow window during which to take in the sights. Between mid-afternoon on Friday to the end of day on Saturday. I was on the 9:30 am flight back to Montreal on Sunday morning and wanted to get at least a descent night’s sleep before departure.

Day 1 – Main activities at the Grand Canyon South Rim

View of the Grand Canyon taken at Lipan Point on the South Rim at the Tanner Trailhead.

Leaving Phoenix at 10:45 am, I was able to reach the Grand Canyon by mid-afternoon. I had booked two tours that afternoon. The first was a spectacular helicopter tour from the South Rim by Papillon Tours. The second was a Sunset Hummer Tour with Buck Wild Tours. Both were part of a combo package sold through GetYourGuide Tours (similar to Viator). Turns out both are operated by the same company which was very convenient.

On the left, an ancient Juniper stands at the edge of the South Rim. Though it appears to be dead, it may actually be dormant, awaiting more favorable conditions to regrow. In the distance a partial view of Cape Royal.

My Day 1 Grand Canyon Tours

My first day in the Canyon, actually a half day, was very busy. I’d booked a late afternoon helicopter tour followed by a sunset tour in a tricked out Hummer vehicle. Both were worthwhile experiences and I highly recommend both. These were sold as a combo on the GetYourGuide website but can be purchased separately.

Grand Canyon South Rim Helicopter Tour


Experience the Grand Canyon’s majesty from above with our South Rim helicopter tour through dozens of images and video content. Watch as we soar over breathtaking rock formations in a state-of-the-art Airbus Ecostar 130, capturing unforgettable views of the canyon’s colorful layers.

Buck Wild Grand Canyon Sunset Tour


Follow me as I move through the Grand Canyon National Park, viewing epic scene after scene throughout the south and east rims in our comfortable hummer. Follow our guide as he gave us a glimpse of the history of the Canyon’s early days as a park and attraction and witness scenes of its legendary sunset.

Read the full adventure here

Grandview Point

Spectacular view of the Canyon for Grandview Point, our first stop on Day 1

Yavapai Point

Sunset at Yavapai Point

Viewing the sunset at Yavapai point is a popular attraction. Visitors sit perilously close to the edge of the cliffs.

Desert View Watchtower

Dinner Options are Limited in Tusayan

Sunset watching is strenuous at that altitude ???? and I’d worked up quite an appetite. It was dark when the tour group got back to Tusayan – well after 8 pm. I discovered that there are only a few dining options over and above the classic pizza, burger and chicken spots. Because of my Gluten Intolerance, I wanted something with a little more control over the food in my plate.

Our guide Taylor had only three suggestions – Two steakhouses and a Mexican restaurant:

  • Plaza Bonita – Casual Mexican Dining
  • The Big E Steakhouse and Saloon
  • The Canyon Star Steakhouse & Saloon

Taylor suggested that if I wanted a steak, Canyon Star was a little pricey so I Big E was a better choice.

Here is the full selection of establishments in Tusayan

Big E as in Fail


I opted for the Big E mostly because it was next door to Buck Wild. Not my best decision, I must admit. The ribeye (recommended by Taylor), was overcooked and gristly. The caramelized onions I ordered as a topping were barely cooked and the mushrooms looked like they came from a can. The Cesar salad included croutons despite my Gluten-Free request. And the wine came from a jug. Not worth the price they charged.

On Google, they are listed as $$, but I think $$$ would be more accurate. It is generally wise to double check reviews on Google before choosing a restaurant, no matter the recommendations you might get from a local. Google says Big E earned 3.8 stars, so I guess the burgers and pizza must be okay.

Day 2 – A Full-Day Tour of the Grand Canyon at Ground Level

Canyon Dave Tours

For me Day 2 was all about capturing the Grand Canyon from as many vantage points as possible. So I booked an all-day tour with Canyon Dave Tours. With no preset itinerary and hectic timetable, this tour promised to provide all the flexibility to go with the flow and spend more time where warranted. Our guide Keaton did a wonderful job of filling us in on much of the history of the Canyon, its geological features, the main fauna and flora, and more.

Read the full story here

It was also interesting to visit some of the historic building at the Canyon and learn more about the people who shaped the early days of Canyon and National Park.

What to Wear to the Grand Canyon

Although most tour operators will tell you that a pair of comfortable shoes is all that you need, I found that walking around the edges of the Canyon can be challenging. A lot of the trails and stairs are very rough and worn under the weight of the sheer volume of visitors.

Fortunately, I packed a pair of solid hiking boots which I wore on the second day. I found the difference a great improvement in stability and comfort. The extra adherence from the Vibram soles gave me the confidence to get closer to the edge for some of my shots.

Safety First Around the Edge

It’s important to note that there are very fews vantage points that are equipped with protective guardrails or fences. For the most part, you can walk right up to the edge. Falling is the second most frequent cause of death in the Canyon and according to research, 198 people have died in the Canyon in recent years, 2.5 per year on average.

It’s very distressing to watch some tourists carelessly walking straight up to the edge to get a better view, seemingly unaware of the danger from uneven footing.

The Grand Canyon Geological Marvel

The grand canyon’s characteristic striped motif was caused by the subduction of the continental plates colliding tens of millions of years ago. According to our guide, the pacific plate slid under the Colorado plateau, uplifting the plateau from its initial sea-level position to its current elevation.

The colorful striations of the Canyon walls are formed by layer upon layer of geological formation deposited at the bottom of the ocean over the course of 2 billion years. These layers have been exposed by erosion by the Colorado River over 5 to 6 million years. The extent of the erosion is explained by the steep slope of the Colorado, its volume and the volume of debris it carries.

The exposed stone layers which can be seen include the following: 

  • Kaibab Limestone: The upper-most layer of light gray to tan, forms the rim of the canyon.
  • Toroweap Formation: Pale yellow to white limestone.
  • Coconino Sandstone: Light-colored, often appearing white or pale yellow.
  • Hermit Shale: Deep red to purple, due to iron oxide content.
  • Supai Group: Alternating layers of red sandstone and shale.
  • Redwall Limestone: Massive cliff-forming layer, appearing gray but stained reddish due to iron oxide washing down from above.
  • Muav Limestone: Pale green to gray.
  • Bright Angel Shale: Green and purple-brown layers.
  • Tapeats Sandstone: Dark brown, forming the base of the canyon walls.

While at one of the giftshops, I purchased a colourful bandana imprinted with an illustration of the layers. Not only comfortable, it’s also informative and serves a great reminder of the visit.

Lunch in Grand Canyon Village


Lunch was included in our Tour which was very convenient. We went to the Grand Canyon Village Market & Deli offering a great selection of sandwiches, salads and pizza.

Gluten-free options are limited, but include one the featured items on the Menu: The Pizza. Cooked to order on a conveyor oven (placed on a sheet of parchment paper to avoid cross-contamination), mine was a wonderful combination of spicy sausage and veggies. The sauce was quite delightful. Plus the service was courteous and friendly. Not fine dining, but a nice solid meal.

Wildlife in the Canyon

There are no bears at the Canyon except for the occasional migrating bear passing through. One of the reasons is the habitat. There is no water around the rim and can only be found in the Canyon below and in the pipeline basins constructed by the Park Services.
Elegant Elk are plentiful and can be found lounging among the pines by the roadside in late afternoon and at dusk. We had a close encounter on the first night as a motorist ahead of us slammed on the breaks to take photos of an Elk standing on the side of the road. The Elk found in the park are not native to the area, but were introduced by the Park to replace the indigenous species which was wiped by hunters visiting the Canyon.

Deer are also plentiful though we didn’t see any. These beautiful but dumb creatures are a menace for unsuspecting motorists as they often leap in front of an oncoming vehicle. Beware, particularly at dusk and after sunset.

Birds of prey

Small animals

Back to Phoenix for the Final Night

The day tour wrapped up around 5 pm and I was dropped off back at the hotel where I had checked my luggage. Packed the car, and was off again heading south towards Phoenix. The return was uneventful until I reached Phoenix where a multiple vehicle accident blocked highway 17 for close to a half-hour.

I finally made it to the car rental center close to 8pm, dropped off the Rogue at the Enterprise return area and took a shuttle to the hotel. The return center is easy well marked and easy to find. There are plenty of signs indicating the location. The Center is open 24 hours so there are no worries about missing the return time.

Aloft Phoenix Airport Hotel


As a Marriott Bonvoy member, I tend to prefer staying in one of their properties. Staying as close to the airport is important to minimize the risk of arriving late at the airport and missing your flight. The Aloft is the closest I could find to the terminal. It is a relatively spartan hotel with minimal services. I hadn’t eaten yet and the lunch area was closed.

There was meal service at the bar, but the menu was sparse and contained nothing that was even remotely Gluten-Free. Best to stop somewhere on the way back or go hungry. My supper ended up consisting of a bag of Lays chips and bottled water.

Flying Out of Phoenix on Air Canada

I must say, the hotel airport shuttle service is very convenient. The terminal building is less than 10 minutes away. As luck would have it. that morning, the driver called in sick, so the gentleman who was manning the reception desk call me an Uber at their expense. Great service!

Check-in was a breeze and the United Airlines lounge (shared with Air Canada passengers) was modern, clean and comfortable. It’s a great perk that comes with flying Business.