Gateways to the Grand Canyon: Places to Stay in Canyon Country

A small museum formerly a gas station with the original pumps and a classic 50s car out front.

Stay outside the park and discover the charm of Williams, Arizona and its Route 66 history. Photo by edudflog licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

Grand Canyon National Park, especially its South Rim, has some of the best accommodations in the entire national park system, but it’s not always possible to get reservations. What’s more, while the park’s lodging rates are audited annually and generally compare favorably to those offered outside the park, it’s possible to find excellent deals at one of several gateway towns around canyon country. Using one of these places as a base for a visit to the canyon makes sense if you’re planning on touring the whole of the canyon lands and not just the park. Besides offering affordable, and even a few luxurious, places to stay and eat, these gateways are often interesting in their own right and deserving of some attention from travelers, especially those interested in the history of this hard and spacious land.

Flagstaff, 79 miles southeast of the park’s main South Rim entrance, was the park’s first gateway town, and it is still in many ways the best. The home of Northern Arizona University is a fun, laid-back college town with a railroad and Route 66 history. In the old days, eastern tourists detrained at Flagstaff and then faced an all-day stagecoach trip across the forest and the plains, just for a glimpse at the canyon and a few nights in a white canvas tent. These days, you just hop in your rental or your family road-trip wagon and take U.S. 180 northwest for about 90 minutes, and there you are. The route is absolutely (with apologies to desert rats who prefer Desert View) the most scenic of all the approaches to the canyon, passing through Coconino National Forest and beneath the San Francisco Peaks, the state’s ruling mountain range.


Cameron

About 50 miles north of Flagstaff along U.S. 89, near the junction with Highway 64 (the route to the park’s east gate), the nearly 100-year-old M Historic Cameron Trading Post and Lodge (800/338-7385, $59–179 d) is only about a 30-minute drive from the Desert View area of the park, a good place to start your tour. Starting from the East entrance, you’ll see the canyon gradually becoming grand. Before you reach the park, the Little Colorado River drops some 2,000 feet through the arid, scrubby land, cutting through gray rock to create the Little Colorado Gorge on its way to its union with the big river. Stop here and get a barrier-free glimpse at this lesser chasm to prime yourself for what is to come. There are usually plenty of booths set up selling Navajo arts and crafts and a lot of touristy souvenirs at two developed pullouts along the road.

The Cameron Lodge is a charming and affordable place to stay, and it is a perfect base for a visit to the Grand Canyon, Indian country, and the Arizona Strip. It has a good restaurant, a Native American art gallery, a visitors center, a huge “trading post” gift shop, and an RV park. A small grocery store sells food and other staples if you don’t want to eat at the restaurant, which serves American and Mexican favorites and, of course, huge heaping Navajo tacos, lamb stew, and other local fare. The guest rooms are decorated with a Southwestern Native American style and are very clean and comfortable, some with views of the Little Colorado River and the old 1911 suspension bridge that spans the stream just outside the lodge. There are single-bed rooms, rooms with two beds, and a few suites that are perfect for families. The stone-and-wood buildings and the garden patio, laid out with stacked sandstone bricks with picnic tables and red-stone walkways below the open-corridor guest rooms, create a cozy, history-soaked setting and make the lodge memorable. The vast, empty red plains of the Navajo Reservation spread out all around and create a lonely, isolated atmosphere, especially at night; but the guest rooms have TVs with cable and free wireless Internet, so you can be connected and entertained even way out here.

If you’re visiting in winter, the lodge drops its prices significantly during this less-crowded season. In January–February, you can get one of the single-bed guest rooms for about $59 d.


Williams

This small historic town along I‑40, which used to be Route 66, surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest, is the closest interstate town to Highway 64, and thus has branded itself “The Gateway to the Grand Canyon.” It has been around since 1874 and was the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by the interstate, in 1984. As a result, and because of resurgence over the last few decades owing to the rebirth of the Grand Canyon Railway, Williams, with about 3,000 full-time residents, has a good bit of small-town charm—the entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s worth a stop and an hour or two of strolling, and there are a few good restaurants. It’s only about an hour’s drive to the South Rim from Williams, so many consider it a convenient base for exploring the region. The drive is not as scenic as either Highway 64 from Cameron or U.S. 180 from Flagstaff. This is the place to stay if you plan to take the Grand Canyon Railway to the South Rim, which is a highly recommended way of reaching the canyon. It’s fun, it cuts down on traffic and emissions within the park, and you’ll get exercise walking along the rim or renting a bike and cruising the park with the wind in your face.

Information and Services

Stop at the Williams–Kaibab National Forest Visitors Center (200 W. Railway Ave., 928/635-1418 or 800/863-0546, 8 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily summer, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily fall–winter) for information about Williams, the Grand Canyon, and camping and hiking in the Kaibab National Forest.

Sights in Williams

On a walk through the Williams Historic Business District you’ll see how a typical pioneer Southwestern mountain town might have looked from territorial days until the interstate came and the railroad died. Williams wasn’t bypassed by I‑40 until the 1980s, so many of its old buildings still stand and have been put to use as cafés, boutiques, B&Bs, and gift shops. Walk around and look at the old buildings, shop for Native American and Old West knickknacks, pioneer-era memorabilia, and Route 66 souvenirs you don’t need, and maybe stop for a beer, cocktail, or a cup of coffee at an old-school small-town saloon or a dressedup café.

The 250-acre district is bounded on the north by Railroad Avenue, on the south by Grant Avenue, and on the east and west by 1st and 4th Streets, respectively. The district has 44 buildings dating from 1875–1949, and an array of Route 66–era business signs and midcentury commercial architecture worth a few snapshots. Old Route 66 is variously termed Bill Williams Avenue, Grand Canyon Avenue, and Railroad Avenue, and splits into parallel one-way streets through the historic downtown before meeting up to the west and east.

Shopping in Williams

There’s a gathering of boutiques and gift shops in Williams’s quaint historic downtown area, bounded Railroad and Grant Avenues and 1st and 4th Streets.

The Turquoise Tepee (114 W. Rte. 66, 928/635-4709, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) has been selling top-shelf Native American arts and crafts, Western wear, and regional souvenirs for four generations. There’s a lot to see in this store. The same goes for Native America (117 E. Rte. 66, 928/635-4600, 8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily summer, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily winter), a Native American–owned shop with Hopi and Navajo arts and crafts.

Recreation in Williams

The alpine ski runs at the Arizona Snowbowl in the San Francisco Peaks are only a quick hour’s drive from downtown Williams, so it’s easy to overlook the more modest Elk Ridge Ski and Outdoor Recreation Area (Ski Run Rd., 928/814-5038 or 928/814-5027, 8 a.m.–10 p.m. daily winter, adults $20–30, children $15–23) in the Kaibab National Forest near town. More laid-back and kid-friendly than the big mountains to the north, Elk Ridge allows skiing, snowboarding, and tubing whenever there’s snow to slide on.

Events in Williams

In mid-August, perfectly preserved classic cars and low-hung Harleys crowd Williams’s narrow downtown streets for the Cool Country Cruise-In (928/635-1418), a celebration of the town’s prominent place along the Mother Road. The two-day festival features a car show, vendors, live music, and the Miss Route 66 Pageant.

Northland kids wait all year for the Grand Canyon Railway’s celebration of author Chris Van Allsburg’s classic holiday story The Polar Express. The always sold-out Polar Express and Mountain Village Holiday (800/848- 3511, departures 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily mid-Nov.–early Jan., adults $29, ages 2–15 $19) features a one-hour nighttime pajama-party train ride, complete with gives each kid some individual attention and a free jingle-bell like the one in the famous book. On the return trip, everybody sings Christmas carols, while the younger tykes generally fall asleep. Needless to say, this annual event is very popular with kids and their families from all over northern Arizona, and tickets generally sell out as early as August.

Accommodations in Williams

Williams has some of the most affordable independent accommodations in the Grand Canyon region as well as several chain hotels.

It’s difficult to find a better deal than the clean and basic El Rancho Motel (617 E. Rte. 66, 928/635-2552 or 800/228-2370, $35–73 d), an independently owned motel on Route 66 with few frills besides comfort, friendliness, and a heated seasonal pool. The Canyon Country Inn (442 W. Rte. 66, 928/635-2349, $39–85 d) is a basic and affordable place to stay, with continental breakfast and highspeed Internet included. The Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (235 N. Grand Canyon Blvd., 928/635-4010, $89–179 d) stands now where Williams’s old Harvey House once stood. It has a heated indoor pool, two restaurants, a lounge, a hot tub, a workout room, and a huge gift shop. The hotel serves riders on the Grand Canyon Railway and offers the most upscale accommodations in Williams.

The original Grand Canyon Hotel (145 W. Rte. 66, 928/635-1419, $25–125) opened in 1891, even before the railroad arrived and made Grand Canyon tourism something not just the rich could do. New owners refurbished and reopened the charming old redbrick hotel in Williams’s historic downtown in 2005, and now it’s a very affordable, friendly place to stay with a lot of character and a bit of an international flavor, probably owing to its backpacker dorm ($25). Some of the most distinctive and affordable accommodations in the region include the Spartan single-bed guest rooms with shared baths ($40) and individually named and eclectically decorated double rooms with private baths ($70).

The Red Garter Bed & Bakery (137 W. Railroad Ave., 928/635-1484, $120–145) makes much of its original and longtime use as a bordello (which didn’t finally close, as in many similar places throughout Arizona’s rural regions, until the 1940s), where unlucky women, ever euphemized as “soiled doves,” served the town’s lonely, uncouth miners, lumberjacks, railway workers, and cowboys from rooms called “cribs.” The 1897 frontier-Victorian stone building, with its wide arching entranceway, has been beautifully restored with a lot of authentic charm without skimping on the comforts—like big brass beds along with delightful, homemade baked goods, juice, and coffee in the morning. Famously, this place is haunted by some poor unquiet, regretful soul, so you might want to bring your night-light along.

The Lodge on Route 66 (200 E. Rte. 66, 877/563-4366, $79–179) has stylish, newly renovated guest rooms with sleep-inducing pillow-top mattresses; it also has a few very civilized tworoom suites with kitchenettes, dining areas, and fireplaces—perfect for a family that’s not necessarily on a budget. The motor court–style grounds, right along Route 66, of course, have a romantic cabana with comfortable seats and an outdoor fireplace.

If you want to get away from Route 66 and into the pine forests around Williams, check out the three-story FireLight Bed and Breakfast (175 W. Mead Ave., 928/635-0200, $160–250), which rents four eminently comfortable guest rooms, each named and inspired by English counties. They also have delicious breakfasts, a pool table, a cool old juke box, and antique bar-style shuffleboard game that may just keep you from exploring the pinelands and sitting out under the dark, star-laden skies.

RV Camping

The Canyon Motel & RV Park (1900 E. Rodeo Dr./Rte. 66, 928/635-9371 or 800/482-3955, 30-amp RV site $39–46, 50-amp RV site $34–43 Mar.–Oct., 30-amp RV site $28–37, 50-amp RV site $31– 40 Nov.–Feb., hotel $59–169 Mar.–May, $69– 169 June–Oct., $45–169 Nov.–Dec., $39–159 Jan.–Feb., plus $2 resort fee per night) inhabits 13 beautiful acres along the road to the Grand Canyon, with the ponderosa pines and long green sweeps of open prairie typical of Arizona’s high country. Bill Williams Mountain towers over the charming property. Near the railway, as everything is in Williams, the RV park has two cozy repurposed railcars for rent as well as a few regular motel rooms. The RV park has 47 sites, each with cable TV, Wi-Fi, and the usual amenities. There’s an indoor pool and a rec center with a kitchen, outdoor barbecue grills, and much more. The real attraction here is the land itself and all those bright stars you’ll see crowding the dark rural sky come nightfall.

Part of the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel complex, the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park (601 W. Franklin Ave., 800/843-8724, 50-amp RV site $42) has 124 spaces and can accommodate even the very largest mansion-on-wheels. Each space has cable TV and Wi-Fi, and there’s a shower and laundry facility. You can join in a horseshoe game, play volleyball, use the pool and jetted tub in the hotel next door, or sit around the fire pit with a few fellow vagabonds. A smart way to visit the Grand Canyon is to leave your RV at the park and take the Grand Canyon Railway to the South Rim.

While many other places to stay in the area accommodate RV parking, it’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure.

Food in Williams

A northland institution with some of the best steaks in the region, Rod’s Steak House (301 E. Rte. 66, 928/635-2671, 11 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon.– Sat., $11.50–35) has been operating at the same site for more than 50 years. The food is excellent, the staff are friendly and professional, and the menus are shaped like steers. The Pine Country Restaurant (107 N. Grand Canyon Blvd., 928/635-9718, 5:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m. daily, $5–10) is a family-style place that serves good food and homemade pies. Check out the beautiful paintings of the Grand Canyon on the walls. Twisters ’50s Soda Fountain and Route 66 Café (417 E. Rte. 66, 928/635-0266, 8 a.m.–close daily, $5–10) has 1950s music and decor and delicious diner-style food, including memorable root-beer floats. Even if you’re not hungry, check out the gift shop selling all kinds of road-culture memorabilia.

You’ll find comforting Mexican and Southwestern food at Pancho McGillicuddy’s (141 Railroad Ave., 928/635-4150, 11 a.m.– 10 p.m. daily, $10–17). They serve satisfying burritos, enchiladas, and Navajo tacos, carne asada, New York strip, and fish-and-chips in an 1893 building that used to be the rowdy Cabinet Saloon, on Williams’s territorial-era stretch of iniquity known as Saloon Row. They mix a decent margarita, but beer is the drink of choice in this high-country burg. Cruiser’s Route 66 Bar & Grill (233 W. Rte. 66, 928/635-2445, 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Fri.–Sun., $6–20) offers a diverse menu, with superior barbecue ribs, burgers, fajitas, pulled-pork sandwiches, and homemade chili.

The vegetarian’s best bet this side of downtown Flagstaff is the Dara Thai Café (145 W. Rte. 66, 928/635-2201, 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat., $3.50–10), an agreeable little spot in the Grand Canyon Hotel. They serve a variety of fresh and flavorful Thai favorites and offer quite a few meat-free dishes.


Tusayan

Just outside Grand Canyon National Park’s south gate, along Highway 64, Tusayan is a collection of hotels, restaurants, and gift shops that has grown side-by-side with the park for nearly a century. The village makes a decent, close-by base for a visit to the park, especially if you can’t get reservations at any of the in-park lodges. Although there are a few inexpensive chain hotels here, a stay in Tusayan isn’t generally cheaper than lodging in the park; there are many more places to eat here than inside the park, but nonetheless the culinary scene is relatively bleak.

Sights in Tusayan

Tusayan is perhaps best known as the home of the National Geographic Grand Canyon Visitors Center (Hwy. 64, 928/638-2468, 8:30 a.m.– 8:30 p.m. daily Mar.–Oct., 10:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily Nov.–Feb., over age 10 $12.50, ages 6–10 $9.50, under age 6 free), which has been a popular first stop for park visitors since the 1980s. Truth be told, even with the recent addition of the corporate logo–clad Grand Canyon Base Camp #1, an interactive display of canyon history, lore, and science, the center wouldn’t be worth a stop if not for its IMAX Theater. The colossal screen shows the 35-minute movie Grand Canyon—The Hidden Secrets every hour. The most popular IMAX film ever—reportedly some 40 million people have seen it—the movie is quite thrilling, affording glimpses of the canyon’s more remote corners that feel like real time, if not reality. If you can afford the admission price, this is a fun way to learn about what you’re about to see in the park. If you’re going budget, skip it and drive a few miles north, where you’re likely to forget about both movies and money while staring dumbfounded into that gorge.

Accommodations in Tusayan

Most of Tusayan’s accommodations are of the chain variety, and though they are generally clean and comfortable, few of them have any character to speak of and most of them are rather overpriced for what you get. Staying in either Flagstaff or Williams is a better choice if you’re looking for an independent hotel or motel with some local color, and you can definitely find better deals in those gateways.

Before you reach Tusayan you’ll pass through Valle, a tiny spot along Highway 64, where you’ll find one of the better deals in the whole canyon region. The Red Lake Campground and Hostel (8850 N. Hwy. 64, 800/581-4753, $15 pp), where you can rent a bed in a shared room, is a basic but reasonably comfortable place sitting alone on the grasslands; it has shared baths with showers, a common room with a kitchen and a TV, and an RV park ($20) with hookups. If you’re going superbudget, you can’t beat this place, and it’s only about 45 minutes from the park’s south gate. The Red Feather Lodge (Hwy. 64, 928/638- 2414, $69–159), though more basic than some of the other places in Tusayan, is a comfortable, affordable place to stay with a pool, a hot tub, and clean guest rooms.

The Grand Hotel (Hwy. 64, 928/638-3333, $99–199 d), resembling a kind of Western-themed ski lodge, has very clean and comfortable guest rooms, a pool, a hot tub, a fitness center, and a beautiful lobby featuring a Starbucks coffee kiosk. The Best Western Grand Canyon Squire Inn (Hwy. 64, 928/638-2681, $75–195 d) has a fitness center, a pool and spa, a salon, a game room, and myriad other amenities—so many that it may be difficult to get out of the hotel to enjoy the natural sights.

Food in Tusayan

Nobody would go to Tusayan specifically to eat, but it makes for a decent emergency stop if you’re dying of hunger. One exception: We Cook Pizza would be good in any town, and it is a bright spot in this rather drab and chainhappy commercial parasite of the national park. A lot of tour buses stop in Tusayan, so you may find yourself crowded into waiting for a table at some places, especially during the summer high season. Better to eat in the park, or in Flagstaff or Williams, both of which have many charming and delicious local restaurants worth seeking out. It’s only about an hour’s drive to either, so you might be better off having a small snack and skipping Tusayan altogether.

One of the better places in Tusayan is the Canyon Star Restaurant (Hwy. 64, 928/638- 3333, 7–10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, $10–25) inside the Grand Hotel, which serves Southwestern food, steaks, and ribs and features a saloon in which you can belly up to the bar on top of an old mule saddle (it’s not that comfortable). The Coronado Room (Hwy. 64, 928/638- 2681, 5–10 p.m. daily, $15–28) inside the Grand Canyon Squire Inn serves tasty steaks, seafood, Mexican-inspired dishes, and pasta.

If you’re craving pizza after a long day exploring the canyon, try We Cook Pizza & Pasta (Hwy. 64, 928/638-2278, 11 a.m.– 10 p.m. daily Mar.–Oct., 11 a.m.–8 p.m. daily Nov.–Feb., $7–15) for an excellent, high-piled pizza pie. It calls you just as you enter Tusayan coming from the park. The pizza, served in slices or whole pies, is top-notch, and they have a big salad bar with all the fixings, plus beer and wine.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon California Road Trip.

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