… and a splash of rafts. Where do you find such an array of adventure options? In your rebranded backyard now known as the Grand Circle
Phoenix. Albuquerque. Santa Fe. Aspen. Route 66. National parks and monuments, mountains and deserts and pine forests, caves and caverns, canyon country and stunning red rocks. Astounding gorges that stretch for miles. Formations that look like taped and tightly wound mummies swathed in vermilion, or like dollops of cinnamon gelato with streaks of cream — some massive beyond belief, others delicate beyond description.
I visit them often enough to imagine that I know the Great Southwest. But when someone told me that these cities and sights define the circumference of the “Grand Circle,” you could have knocked me over with a biscochito (that would be New Mexico’s official state cookie). Tourism bureaus hit on the designation several years ago (check out grandcircle.org for a dizzying overview), embracing portions of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada by drawing a bull's-eye ring targeting much of the quintessential Southwest. Arguably, you find San Diego and Los Angeles in the Southwest, but not the imponderable scale and intense concentration of colors, geological marvels, and spectacular vistas that characterize the Grand Circle.
Where to start? Park that automobile — along with any linear, directional notions of north, south, east, west — and the idea of motoring from one motel to the next between diversions. The Grand Circle isn’t a route through the Southwest, but rather a spotlight on it, and it encompasses a variety of travel methods and adventures. Whether you’re a railroad buff, a whitewater fiend or a devoted hiker, options abound for sampling the sights of the Grand Circle. Here’s just a sampling of what the circle has to offer.
By Rail: On track for good times
Amtrak’s California Zephyr and Southwest Chief connect Grand Circle locations, with the Zephyr covering the northern region (Provo, Green River, Grand Junction) and the Chief joining Williams Junction (the Grand Canyon), Flagstaff, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe (amtrak.com, 800-USARAIL). With your eyes on the scenery instead of the road, you can enjoy nature’s show undistracted.
Many visitors take their first bold step leaving Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport and boarding the adjacent surface light rail (valleymetro.org/metrolightrail) that carries them to the Arts and Cultural Districts and Downtown. If they want to check into a hotel before going farther, the Crowne Plaza and the Aloft sit across the street from the airport station. Trains also perform wonders for Albuquerque and Santa Fe, linking the two major population centers by means of the Rail Runner Express (riometro.org, 1-866-795-7245) through ancient pueblo land to Santa Fe’s Plaza, museums and galleries; invest less than $10 for a pleasant and visually rewarding roundtrip.
Excursion trains, a leisurely non-commuter version of rail, chug here and there through the Grand Circle — think spacious seating, rhythmic swaying, and the occasional hang-onto-your-beverage jostle. Sedona’s Verde Canyon Railroad winds through buttes, ravines and gatherings of wildlife; the narrow-gauge, steam-operated Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad near Santa Fe transports passengers while imparting the atmosphere of the Old West; the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to the old Silverton mining town affords a lovely escape into the Rockies; and the restored vintage cars of Grand Canyon Railway (thetrain.com, 1-800-843-8724) add comfort, luxury, and a choice of six classes of service, some with observation domes, to the 130 miles between Williams and the South Rim (with everything from mock hold-ups staged by pistol-packing mounted desperadoes to winter Polar Express journeys to storytelling, carols, hot chocolate, gifts, reindeer, Santa, and the “North Pole”). Williams preserves the nostalgia of Route 66 with its soda fountain, diners, and quirky lodgings. At the opposite end of the expedition lies one of the oldest standing wooden train depots in the United States.
By Water: Boating on Mars
Writing about the Grand Canyon, professor, soldier, scientist, and explorer John Wesley Powell said, “The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite … forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.” Powell led the first recorded expedition through the canyon in 1869, by raft.
Rafting has come a long way since then, ranging from “no-rapids” pontoon boat tours from Tusayan around Horseshoe Bend to Lee’s Ferry, all three in northern Arizona, to the considerably more ambitious itineraries of a week or more. To the east out of Bluff, Utah, rafting opportunities last from one to eight days on the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, with stops to see rock art, ruins, and animals. Moab in eastern Utah yields everything from white water thrills to the four-day, three-night Musical Raft Trip on the Colorado beginning with the signature Grotto Concert. This year’s Moab Music Festival of chamber music, jazz, and other concerts precedes it September 3-14 (moabmusicfest.org, 435-259-7003).
Less strenuous than white water, Lake Powell in Page, Arizona, offers calm warm water, sheer twisting canyons, inlets with beaches, almost surreal scenery, and 2,000 miles of shoreline — more than the Western coast of the continental United States. Rent a houseboat at the Antelope Point Marina (lakepowellhouseboating.com, 800-255-5561) and laze into the ideal speeds of “slow” and “still”; hop onto a guided cruise; use the ferry that runs April through October between the Halls Crossing and Bullfrog marinas and cuts 130 road miles to 3.2 across the water; relax on a one-day float trip that starts below the Glen Canyon Dam; scan the skies for peregrine falcons soaring above that dive 200-feet vertically to seize their prey; or eat at Latitude 37, the world’s largest floating restaurant. The Rainbow Bridge Cruise from Lake Powell Resort travels 100 miles round-trip to Forbidding Canyon, featuring a magnificent natural arch that Native American nations consider sacred.
Ride, slip, slide and fly
Jeeps do a fine and famously hair-raising job of negotiating rough terrain. Whether approaching the crimson and scarlet striated formations of Sedona in the heart of Arizona, or scaling slivers of craggy earth not much wider than a four-wheeler in awe-inspiring Moab, they climb, buck over rocks, bump and bang to deliver a memorable bang for the buck. When the temperature turns frosty, Aspen and Telluride in Colorado, and the northern sector of the Grand Circle, spill over with inviting slopes, snowboarding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skiing, and ski resorts. Ziplines have cropped up all over, including at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort in Utah and over treetops in Durango, Colorado (and, as you know, high over the heads of tourists on Fremont Street).
Strolling plays a role among modes of locomotion throughout the Grand Circle, in plazas, museums, and certainly at Santa Fe’s many huge events such as July’s traditional folk art Spanish Market (spanishcolonial.org), August’s 100,000-plus buyers and craftspeople Indian Market (swaia.org), and September’s Labor Day weekend Fiestas de Santa Fe held annually since 1712.
But — train, plane, raft, houseboat, jeep, snowboard, ski, zipline, stroll — inevitably you will hike. On the one-mile Lava Flow Trail at Sunset Crater National Monument northeast of Flagstaff in Arizona, get up close and personal to solidified formerly molten magma. At Petrified Forest National Park, trek on short maintained trails or through backcountry among fossilized logs that date to 225 million years ago. Descend by foot into the exquisitely chiseled flame-orange spires of Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah on the Rim Trail, Under-the-Rim Trail, and Navajo Loop Trail, and meander at the bases of the towering Watchmen, Court of the Patriarchs, Great White Throne, and Angel’s Landing peaks of Zion National Park a little to the west of Bryce. Zion’s Emerald Pools Trail suits all levels of experience, and its mile-long Riverside Walk beckons with little elevation change and a predominantly hard surface.
Or get yourself to the precarious overlook at Horseshoe Bend, outside of Page, Arizona, to see the Colorado River curve majestically 1,000 feet below (careful — no guardrails here!). Or seek out the Grand Canyon’s innermost mysteries on bracing trails, but don’t attempt to reach the river and return in one day, and remember that backcountry camping requires a permit (nps.gov).
For a mega-challenge, consider November’s Dunesday Xtreme team triathlon at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park near Kanab, Utah (visitsouthernutah.com). Last year’s involved running, sandboarding, and fat-biking through six miles of sand “or snow” – warned organizers – “depending on the weather.” Participants went by the name of “Dunatics.”
Taken as a whole, the entire Grand Circle exceeds the limits of any one vacation. Perhaps that’s what the affiliated destinations had in mind when they joined forces. You’ll amble up, hungry and eager, to an overwhelming buffet — only to realize that you can’t load everything onto your plate at once. You’ll have to keep coming back.
what to know, how to go, and where to explore
The Rail Runner Express
links Albuquerque and Santa Fe, zipping through ancient pueblo land to Santa Fe’s Plaza, museums, and galleries (riometro.org; 1-866-795-7245).
The Grand Canyon Railway
adds comfort, luxury, and a choice of six classes of service, some with domed observation cars and, in the winter, the Polar Express (1-800-843-8724; thetrain.com).
If you fly over the Grand Canyon, figure on smoother air early in the morning.
Moab by moonlight
The four-day, three-night Musical Raft Trip on the Colorado begins with the signature Grotto Concert, this year September 14-17 (moabmusicfest.org, 435-259-7003).
Lake Powell perks: http://www.grandcircle.org
Houseboats are available for rent year-round (lakepowell.com; 888-896-3829), and the ferry that runs April through October between the Halls Crossing and Bullfrog marinas cuts 130 road miles to 3.2 across the water (lakepowell.com/ferry-service.aspx; 435-684-3088).
The peregrine falcon
frequents the Lake Powell area. The crow-sized raptors can dive 200 mph straight down to seize their prey.
When it’s dry, you can slide on it. When it’s wet, you can slip on it. Either can hurt.
Grand Canyon Camping
Camping anywhere in the park other than North and South Rim developed campgrounds requires a permit issued by the Backcountry Information Center. (nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit).
The Grand Circle
Visit the Grand Circle’s website at www.grandcircle.org).