The Grand Canyon is one of the Earth’s greatest wonders and one of the crown jewels in America’s National Park System. Visiting the Grand Canyon should be part of any traveler’s bucket list. However, visiting the park does take some planning and preparation, especially if you plan on going during the peak tourist season, so Expedia.com asked me to share my insider tips to help you make it your best trip yet.
To get your vacation started, check out all of the Grand Canyon hotel options at Expedia.com.
In the summer and early fall, the Grand Canyon is packed with visitors. That is not a problem in the winter. There were times we were able to be at one of the popular stops along the rim road, and no one else was there with us. It was an amazing experience.
Lower Lodging Prices
An informal survey I conducted online showed winter prices at 30-40% less than summer pricing. If you are a budget traveler, this can be a great saving.
Drive the Roads Yourself
From December to March, the South Rim Grand Canyon shuttle goes offline, and passenger cars are allowed on roads usually off limits. That means you can move at your own pace, and we really enjoyed being able to do this. The roads were snow packed when we visited, so you might need to take care. But the park rangers close the roads if they get too dangerous.
See a View Most People Haven’t
After watching a snow storm roll in, we got to see a dusting of snow on the Grand Canyon. The white against the red canyon was a beautiful contrasting site. The vast majority of the visitors to the Grand Canyon will never see those sights.
We saw a lot of elk. They were everywhere in the Grand Canyon Village, and were pretty cool to see. They were eating low hanging leaves, and just generally milling about.
We also saw quite a few deer as well.
BUT – There are some drawbacks to going in the winter.
It Can Be Cold
My hands froze taking photos of the sunset, and the kids were less willing to hike than they would have been if it were less extreme temperatures.
The North Rim is Closed
The North Rim receives more snow than the South Rim, and is closed for the coldest months of the winter. The East and South Rim are open 365 days a year. The West Rim is also open, but is run by the Hualapai Nation and is run separately from the National Park.
I’ve always had a fascination with the Cold War. I wasn’t alive for the majority of it, but when I was a kid Russia (or the USSR as it was called then, children) still had a lot of mystique. I remember vividly sleeping in the Soviet Space exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History during a school field trip sleepover. I feel asleep looking up at a mock-up of Sputnik. The enchantment didn’t end there. I took Russian language, literature, politics and history classes in college. I still dream often of visiting there and would have named my daughter Anastasia if I hadn’t been vetoed by the husband.
I was eleven when the Berlin Wall fell. I remember one of my friends bought a chunk of it for $100 at Neiman Marcus. The irony of that action wasn’t apparent in my child mind as it is now. Except for that, it was like the Cold War just disappeared. In high school, a friend of mine went to Russia and it didn’t seem all that odd. Ten years before, it would have been unheard of.
When I was looking at things to see in Arizona during our latest trip there, I stumbled upon the Titan Missile Museum about a half hour south of Tucson. I was thrilled! It is one of a kind. While you can stumble upon a Titan missile in a museum here or there, all the other Titan missile silos were destroyed under START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a series of treaties in the early ’90s between Russia and the US reducing ICBM and nuclear weapons in both countries.
There is a similar site in South Dakota (definitely on our to-do list!) with the Minuteman missile managed as a National Historic Site by the NPS. However, the Minuteman missiles were newer and couldn’t have the same 1960’s spy movie feel.
I was to find that at the Titan Missile Museum in spades.
We arrived at the museum on a beautiful Sunday morning in February. The outside of the museum had a little bit of an Air Force nostalgia feel.
Stepping inside the museum, we took a look at the small exhibit and paid our money for the tour. They handed us plastic cards with our tour number on it. We arrived early so that we could be on the first tour of the day. This paid off for us, for when they called the number there were only 7 people on our tour.
The tour started by us watching a video about the site, the Titan missiles, an overview of Cold War security and tour safety. The tallest among us (which did not include me) had to put on hard hats. Apparently, I would slide right under any hard objects that other, normal sized people might hit their heads on.
We then descended underground. There are eight levels in all, but our basic tour didn’t visit all of them. They give more expensive, comprehensive tours at various times through the year, but our visit did not coincide with any of them. I shouldn’t have worried. The basic tour was pretty freaking awesome.
Moving from the control room to viewing the missile, we learned about all the checks and balances built into processes. It was a scary time, and no one trusted their neighbor. They could be a spy! To make sure that nothing was sabotaged, each crew went through a long list of checks to verify everything you could think of each and every shift. Including checking out the bomb.
I recommend you making this stop if you are in Tucson. We didn’t bring the kids along on this one, because they were happily playing with their little cousin. I think that it would be a pretty great history lesson for children 8 and older. Make sure everyone wears good shoes, because you will be going up and down stairs. There is a lift if anyone has trouble with ladders, but we had no problems with any of the minimal physical demands of this tour.
When I was in Europe, it was amazing to me how much history was in every turn. Churches were centuries old and some homes had been used for generations upon generations. That is a very different experience than I have in America. We’re a young country, and our history is young history. Of course, our nation’s history doesn’t begin with the Europeans. The Native Americans were here first, and have rich traditions as old as the ones I observed in Europe. However, a lot of their buildings were created to be temporary and easily moved to fit tribes’ lifestyles.
The exceptions are the cliff dwellers and pueblo builders of the Southwest. We were able to see homes built by both, but by far my favorite stop was Wupatki National Monument. Located somewhat near Flagstaff, it is a great stop between Sedona and the Grand Canyon. It is really two National Park Service sites in one because it is right next door to Sunset Crater Volcano – which is historically significant.
Wupatki means “Tall House” in Hopi, and it really was. The Sinagua pueblo was multi-story and had more than 100 rooms and was first inhabited around 500 AD. After Sunset Crater erupted sometime between 1040 and 1100, the rich soil probably improved the growing potential of the desert soil, and an influx of people brought the number of inhabitants to about 100. But by 1225, the site was completely abandoned – probably the result of another eruption of Sunset Crater.
Today, Wupatki National Monument takes care of several pueblos in the area of varying size and state of ruin. It is amazing to me that these people with no visible water source were able to make a home in such an inhospitable environment. It is a site I highly recommend for all travelers – including families with children. While my kids haven’t started an in-depth study of Native American history, it was very beneficial for them to see a home very different from their own.
If you’ve ever looked at a large cactus, you have probably pondered the question “what does the inside of a cactus look like?” It is hard to look at the spiny, pleated exterior of one and not wonder what is beneath. How does it stand? What does it look like inside? Wonder no longer – I have you covered after our visit to Saguaro National Park in Arizona!
What is in the Inside of a Saguaro Cactus?
In the very center, you will see woody ribs that give the cactus stability. After the Saguaro dies, these woody ribs can be used like regular tree wood for building and crafting. Extra stability is achieved through the Saguaro’s root system. Although it does not extend very far into the ground, the roots fan roughly the same length as the cactus’ height.
Around the woody ribs is the spongy flesh. Here’s where the cactus stores water. Did you know that when a fully grown (40 – 60 foot tall) Saguaro cactus is fully hydrated it can weigh 3200 to 4800 pounds? That’s because of all the retained water in this spongy flesh section!
In the last week I’ve put on a lot of miles and seen many amazing things. The Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, the Very Large Array, and the dunes of white sand desert. I’ve also been polishing off audiobooks and podcasts during the hours I’ve had to sit behind the wheel.
The trip has been satisfying but I’m getting really tired. I wake up, answer some email, get a photo ready for the day, drive several hours, take photos and find a room for the night tired from sitting all day. The thing with driving all day long is that you don’t get much exercise and most of the food options along highways aren’t very good.
Tonight I’m in Carlsbad, New Mexico where I got my oil changed and will take off tomorrow for Carlsbad Caverns. The town seems pretty empty this time of year. The motels are advertising walk-in specials and there are few cars in the parking lots.
From here I have a long drive to Dallas where I’ll be able to work for several days before heading to Florida on November 5. I have thousands of photos and stories to work on during December before I take off again and leave the US in January.
If you are in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area and would like to meet sometime next week let me know. I’ll probably be doing a formal meet up with my friend Scott Kurtz sometime next week in the Dallas area. More details to follow.