IT’S one of the world’s greatest wonders you’ve known about since you were a kid and have seen often on TV and in the movies.
But nothing, simply nothing, prepares you for your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon.
While the figures are mind-boggling – 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and a mile deep – the feelings are something else.
We were getting the best possible bird’s-eye view by taking a helicopter trip (Papillon Helicopters – papillon.com) from the nearby airport and, as we cleared the trees and skimmed over the rim of the canyon, it was a heart-stopping, lump-in-the-throat moment.
The sun was catching the distinctive layers and the mighty Colorado river cut a winding blue swathe through the canyon floor.
Having seen the vista from on high, we couldn’t wait for a closer look by driving into the National Park and taking one of the free buses that shuttle between the key spots.
We were on the South Rim – that’s where 90% of visitors head as the North Rim is another four hours away and is closed by snow for half the year anyway – and the panorama was quite breathtaking.
Amazingly, despite the fact that it was the peak summer season, just minutes along the rim walk from the packed Mather Point viewing area, we found ourselves totally alone.
There wasn’t another soul – nor a fence on the canyon edge – and the only sound was from a few birds calling as they swooped overhead.
We got a final look that night with the expert insight of Buck Wild, who run Hummer tours (buckwildhummertours.com), and the ever-changing nature was shown when a sudden thunderstorm swept in, with lightning flashing and thunder crashing overhead.
With the clouds shrouding the view, we had an extra treat by revisiting and seeing it in a fresh early morning light.
Long, softer shadows spread across the mosaic of colours and, standing atop a rock by the edge, we felt like it was our own private natural wonder.
Thankfully we were close at hand to the comfortable and Grand Canyon Plaza Hotel in right-on-the doorstep Tusayan. The town really is the stay-at place if you want to make the most of your day at the Canyon, or indeed extend your visit.
One little bit of advice. The Canyon is, naturally, very popular, with six million visitors a year, so while being there in the middle of the summer with the attendant crowds didn’t mar things a bit, visiting in April and May or September and October will be quieter but still with great weather.
After the final, farewell look of a lifetime we were off on the 90-minute drive to Flagstaff.
Forget clogged-up, congested commutes – this was motoring as it’s surely meant to be, with mile upon mile of wide open, traffic-free wonder and sensational views stretching into the distance.
First stop on the way was a drive through the Wupatki National Monument and then on to the Sunset Crater volcano.
The jagged mass of a molten lava fields seemed to go on for ever and had an other-worldly look to it as we took one of the wavy trails. That’s very apt as it was here that NASA trained the astronauts that went to the moon. And they also got an up-close look at where they were going from the town’s Lowell Observatory, famous for the discovery of Pluto.
The man on the moon connection is a big deal for Flagstaff, which is marking next year’s 50th anniversary of the 1969 milestone landing with a year-long celebration.
With a population of just 72,000, Flagstaff has that perfect small-town feel. The Historic Downtown area is full of craft shops and bistros, as well as great bars as the town has become a real craft beer Mecca with no fewer than eight microbreweries.
We stopped at the Historic Brewery Company where you can get a taster of the beers in a six-glass flight. With its reclaimed wooden bar from an old house, it had Americana stamped all through it.
And there was history aplenty at the fascinating Museum of Northern Arizona. But, much like the Canyon, Arizona is a massive state and the perfect way to see it was by continuing a great American road trip.
Next week – the rock star of Sedona, and then south to oh-so-special Scottsdale.