It was 2:15am and my alarm was already going off. I had just went to bed merely hours earlier after scrambling to get all my camera gear packed and ready to go. Our American Airlines flight 1765 was scheduled to depart from ORD at 5am. Outside was a bit chilly this morning at a crisp 41F. Wind was blowing at a steady pace of 15mph from the Northwest. And while we couldn’t wait to feel the warm sun on our pasty white Chicagoan faces, we would have to wait just a little bit longer.
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This would be my first time visiting the Grand Canyon state. Amanda and I had a few places on our list to visit as we planned a one-way road trip from Phoenix to Vegas. This would be my third time in Vegas. I had previously went in 2009 and 2017, both for different occasions.
As I sit here writing this in anticipation of our next great adventure, I cant wait for the fun we are about to have. One of our main stops, the Grand Canyon, is somewhere that’s been on the bucket list for quite some time. As one of the most famous landmarks in the world, I can’t wait to explore it and see it in person.
Landing in Phoenix, Arizona
We landed at Phoenix airport about 6:30am on Good Friday, April 19th, 2019. Our flight was around 20 minutes early and gave us a few extra minutes to grab our rental car and hit the road earlier than we planned. We hit the fast-track line at Budget and made our way down the escalators and into the parking garage to pick up our rental car.
To our surprise, a beautiful snow white Dodge Charger SRT Hemi was waiting for us!
My eyes lit up as I looked over to Amanda in disbelief. Her jaw was practically on the floor, she couldn’t believe it either. If you don’t know me by now, I’m a huge car guy. I had picked out a budget savvy and gas saving Hyundai Elantra, but instead, we got this beast. Bad mpg’s or not, I did not care! Smiles per gallon baby!!
Pro Tip: Budget Rent-A-Car was the cheapest car rental service in Phoenix. I opted for the FastPass, which was free, and it was well worth it!
I pulled up the GPS and set our destination for Flagstaff Arizona. We hit a local Starbucks for a quick breakfast and headed out of town. Phoenix was still asleep so it didn’t take us long to leave it in the rear view mirror.
Our first impression of Arizona was a good one and somewhere I could see living. As we were reminding ourselves that the landscape was so different than the suburbs of Chicago; Corn, grass, tree, office building, construction, corn… It’s flat as can be in the Illinois suburbs and there is nothing to look at!
The Arizona desert had cacti, different colors of sand and rock formations, cascading mountains and rolling hills. It was so pretty. We cruised for close to two hours before we hit our first state park of the trip, Red Rock State Park.
Red Rock State Park
We paid the $15 entry fee for two and made our way to the visitor center. We spoke to a park ranger to find the best hiking trails and they gladly pointed them out on a map the park provided. Luckily for us, it wasn’t even noon yet so it was not too hot to hike. It was a perfect 72 degrees out, great for our first hike of the trip.
Note: While hiking boots are not necessary and you can get by with gym shoes, some parts of the hike have loose rocks, gravel, water, etc. I would recommend boots like these here.
We chose a route that led us over a river and through some prairie wet lands. The trail head was not strenuous but it was a good workout. There were some elevation changes and switchbacks with good views of the surrounding red rock. The highlight, and I say this lightly, was seeing Cathedral Rock from a distance. I say “lightly” because it was a good view, but albeit very far away. I would recommend seeing it from someplace else if that’s what you really wanted to see.
Being that it was our first Arizona experience, we were taking in all the sites and sounds. It was very quiet and pleasant and we were enjoying the fresh outdoor air. We were hoping to see some animals, insects, etc, but I think it was already too hot. We noticed only one tiny little lizard scurrying across the jagged rocks.
Overall it was worth the $15 entrance fee to stretch our legs and get our first hike of the trip in the books. We hopped back in the car and continued onward down some back roads to get a better view of Cathedral Rock.
Sedona Arizona was next on our adventure list as we continued up the 405. We arrived early afternoon and had a chance to walk around town and see what it all had to offer. Sedona is a bigger town and we skipped the shopping plazes and department stores to get to the famous Sedona Outlook. The Outlook was a popular place right beside the road that featured a great view of the cascading mountains.
The main area of downtown was quaint, cozy and cute. The brick paver sidewalk and local shops, restaurants and a few tour excursions lined the street. Flower beds, bustling shop owner staff, locals and tourists alike filled the area. It was quite popular at this time of day. If you ever get a chance to stop in Sedona, you will not regret it, it’s beautiful.
We stopped at an indoor-outdoor restaurant called Outlaw Grill. We both ended up eating a pulled pork sandwich with sweet potatoes fries. Most of the time, Amanda and I end up ordering the same thing. Its kind of scary how similar our taste in food is. Ha! The wait was long at Outlaw Grill, but the sandwiches were good. I would give it a 7/10. There may be better places to eat along the strip but this fit the bill at the time.
After some much needed food, we walked around town for a bit longer and enjoyed the spring weather and sunshine. We left Sedona with our stomachs full and a nice base layer tan for the days ahead. Our GPS was set for Flagstaff Arizona which began our next leg of the trip.
Native American Craft Market
We drove and drove for awhile until we saw somewhere where we wanted to stop. The sign promised scenic views and we needed to stretch our legs. The stop was at the Native American Craft Market. We found some unique souvenirs to take home for our travel room. It was a big win in our book to pick up something unique and creative. There was a hand-crafted arrow made from an old oak tree and birds of a feather wrapped in turquoise leather and an arrowhead at the end. Along with the arrow, I picked up a native american made dream catcher for my niece. The stop proved to be worthwhile and the views did not disappoint either, they were amazing.
The craft tables started to close around 5pm and we thought it was best to head out before the sun started to set in a couple of hours. We were now driving through some curvy mountains roads and I let Amanda take over to enjoy the Charger’s V8 Hemi power. I played passenger and watched the trees go by as I enjoyed the cliff-side views. For awhile there we were playing cat and mouse with a Corvette and a Mustang that were following close behind us. I kept reminding Amanda that fast is smooth, smooth is fast. The curvy road and crests made the drive fun but I wanted to make it to Flagstaff in one piece. As she smirked and hit the gas coming out of the corner, you could tell she was having a good time!
The Hemi-powered Charger was a blast to drive. I thoroughly enjoyed getting in the car every time we had to go somewhere. The rumble of the V8, the tone of the exhaust, the smooth power train and the effortless power was a delight. What really surprised me though was the Hemi’s ability to drop to a four cylinder mode and get almost 27 mpg! I thought that was incredible, better than my Subaru WRX I have back home.
Arriving in Flagstaff Arizona
We ended up getting to Flagstaff just before sunset. We thought it would be best to check-in and wash up before heading to town and getting something to eat. I got a chance to fly my DJI Mavic Pro while Amanda was getting ready. There was not a whole lot to see but I did get a couple good shots of the snow-covered mountains in the background of a gorgeous evergreen tree-line.
The drive into town was a quick ten minutes from our hotel and as we briefly passed the famous Route 66, we ended up at Beaver Street Brewery. I had myself a flight of different beers the brewery had crafted and Amanda had a martini, shaken, not stirred. The atmosphere here had a local feel and it was crowded. This is always a good sign! The food coming out looked good but we had a little something else in mind and headed out the door. PIZZA!
We stumbled down the streets of Flagstaff in the opposite direction of our headings, thanks to Mandi. Yes, Mandi, Amanda’s alter ego. The more or less-sometimes-too-intoxicated-knows-everything version of Amanda. Gotta give her credit though for the amount of sheer confidence in leading us in the exact opposite direction. “Killin me Smalls”.
Once we found Pizzicletta, we opened the doors to go inside and were immediately struck by the vibe. The vibe was a hipster, GMO, organic-grass-fed-beef kind of place. Which was cool and something we weren’t accustomed to. The menu was unique as it offered different types of pizza’s with locally sourced vegetables, meat and toppings.
Did I mention it was wood fire too? YES! We each ordered a balsamic salad for our appetizers and split a extra cheese, grilled ham, spinach and red onion pizza. It.was.so.good. Oh my god was it good! I can’t wait to try and make this at home.
“10/10, would recommend!”
After our late dinner, it was time to head back to the hotel and get some rest for our adventures the next day.
We woke up refreshed and revitalized. Our Best Western was in decent condition but could use some renovations. The location and free breakfast is what sold me on it.
We fueled up the Charger at the gas station next to the hotel (again, great location), grabbed some sandwiches from Subway (also next to the hotel) and hit the road around 8am.
National Park Day
Today was National Park Day and if you didn’t read the title already, we are headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Being National Park Day, we saved $35 at the entrance gate. “Sweet” I thought, more money for brews and BBQ. We actually lucked out, as we did not plan our vacation around National Park Day either. Go Team!
As we made our way through the park gates and down the long entrance roads, we scoured the parking lot for a nice place to park Snow White. That’s right, the Charger now has a name, Snow White. As you can imagine it was a very popular day to be at the park. Most of the lot was already full early this morning and people started being creative on their parking selection.
Once we found a legit spot to park, we didn’t want to be towed or ticketed, we figured it would be best to consult a park ranger to learn more about the Grand Canyon and the different routes we could wander. There were so many options and we only had a half day to explore. Spoiler alert, a half day was enough to see what we set out to accomplish. We had options to bike ride, walk, hop on and off buses or a combination of all three. We chose to just walk it out and see how far we could get in 4-6 hours time.
Grand-Slam Adventure at Grand Canyon National Park
From the visitor center we headed Southeast to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Our first impressions at the canyon edge was in-explainable. The view was incredible from every angle. The ridges and the thousands of years of layers made it look like one giant mural.
No wonder why its on the list of natural wonders of the world, it’s breathtaking and something that you must see for yourself. Take the kids, take grandma, take your significant other, it’s for everybody! The paths along the rim are paved, smooth and very gradual for the most part, unlike the hiking trails.
I met a few legit hikers who spent a full eight hours hiking up the canyon from the bottom who started early that morning. I asked the hiker if the climb was worth it, big mistake. The hiker said as he was still catching his breath, “Well…now, yes, but if you asked me fifteen minutes ago, I would’ve said hell no!”. The hikers were camping at the bottom for a couple of nights on the Colorado river and living off of noodles, beans and protein bars. Sounds like fun for somebody, but probably not me!
We could’ve kept heading south on the rim but we wanted to trek out to the West side as well. So, we found the nearest bus stop and waited for the next bus to arrive. The park has a great (bus) shuttle system that allows you to hop on and hop off as you would like. Buses are generally coming around every fifteen to twenty minutes so you are not waiting too long. Hop on a bus if your legs get tired, thats all there is to it. The buses also have room for a couple of bikes if you are traveling with bikes.
Once we arrived back at the visitor area, we indeed headed West along the rim to the next best viewpoint. We were already impressed by the views we had already seen on the East side, but the West side completely surpassed that with the first stop we made. The Grand Canyon looked surreal. It was like a masterpiece. It was so surreal that it looked fake. Like you could reach out and touch the other side of the canyon. But, make no mistake about it, it was a very long way down.
We noticed our feet were starting to feel heavy and decided to stop for our sandwiches that we packed. There is no place I’d rather have lunch then at the top of the Grand Canyon. Things were looking even more promising as the weather took a turn for the better. Gone were the gusty winds and cloudy rain clouds. The sun was shining, the birds chirping and there was only a slight crosswind across our faces.
We were feeling good now and re-fueled so we journeyed on. We walked to Maricopa, Powell and Hopi Point. Along the path we noticed that each step we took; there were numbers on the ground dating the Grand Canyon. It kind of felt like we were apart of history walking along the canyon. Its hard to explain, but it was this feeling of experiencing history in the moment. There is nothing quite like the Grand Canyon in the world. It stretches 227 miles long, one mile deep and averages ten miles wide. As our feet were on the verge of fatigue after 20,000 steps, we started heading back to the car.
Desert View Watch Tower
We hopped back in the Charger and made our way down the scenic road of Desert View Drive. Our last stop at the Grand Canyon was the Desert View watch tower. We walked from the shop to the watch tower, ice cream in hand. It was mid-day now and here we found some of the best views of the canyon. Maybe it was the time or day, maybe it was the cloud cover at that particular moment. I would highly recommend making a stop at here and fit it in your plans. The watchtower itself is pretty neat as you can go inside of it, walk to the top and learn a little more about the history of the region. We left the watchtower feeling that we got more than we bargained for, which was a good thing.
As we left the main visitor center we saw a family of elk! These mammals are enormous in person. They seemed harmless and distracted, so we quickly got out of the car to snap some pictures. Now, this may seem like the beginning of a nightmare as we got trampled to our death…but it wasn’t. The elk family was still far enough away and we were close enough to the car to hop back in if there was any danger. I snapped some pictures, flash off of-course. No animals were harmed in the making of this photo.