It was our last weekend in Las Vegas when I decided it would be a good idea to make the three-hour trip to the see the Grand Canyon. Afterall, we had been there for four months and I knew there was probably no other trip to Vegas where we would devote an entire day to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
In order to stay on budget while experiencing the great American family road trip to see Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon (think the Griswold family in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”), I decided to drive it instead of jumping on a crowded tour bus or paying the high price of taking a helicopter tour, although that was my first choice! (Check out more photos from my trip!)
The first stop on the journey to the Grand Canyon is Hoover Dam, only 25 miles outside Las Vegas. The Hoover Dam, which impounds the Colorado River, was completed in 1936 and generates hydroelectric power to power parts of Nevada, Arizona and California. Named after the 31st president of the United States, the Hoover Dam is a destination for over 1 million travelers each year who set out to explore the West in their station wagons and fifth-wheels.
Details: Before you cross over the dam on the Nevada side, take a left into the parking garage ($7) for access to the dam, gift shop, museum, visitor’s center and concessions. If you don’t want to pay for parking, you can drive across the dam and park for free on the Arizona side. However, it’s quite the hike down to the dam so paying to park closer in the shade is worth keeping you from hiking in the summer heat. (Temperatures reached 114 degrees the day I went!)
Seeing the Dam: If you’re crunched for time, you can walk across the top of the dam for a view from the top. I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the construction until I walked across the dam and hung my head over the concrete side! If you have more time scheduled to see the dam, you can take a two-hour tour of the dam that puts you inside the power plant for a behind-the-scenes look at the 1,244 ft. x 726 ft. wall of concrete. I suggest seeing the Hoover Dam before you go to the Grand Canyon. Leave Las Vegas early (and fill up with gas!) to make sure you have enough time to make all of your stops.
Total tour cost: $11
Directions from Las Vegas: Take US-93 S toward Phoenix. Until the four-lane Hoover Dam Bypass is completed later this year, the crowded, two-lane Hoover Dam is the main roadway to the Grand Canyon and to Phoenix, Az., from Las Vegas. Small, winding roads through the canyons can lead to traffic congestion on the weekends. (I learned that the hard way!) Once the bypass is complete, the dam will be closed to crossing traffic.
Once you cross the Hoover Dam, you have another two-hour drive before you get to the Grand Canyon. The drive to the Grand Canyon West, home of the Skywalk and one of the many locations visitors have access to the canyon, can only be described as desolate. When you stray off US-93 (also your last stop for gas), you enter the closest thing that I’ve ever seen to a ghost town.
Cattle freely wander through town and graze on desert shrubs, and fields of Joshua trees cover the barren landscape. There are buildings and even small, rundown homes, but only a handful of businesses and hardly no one to be seen. And if that’s not strange enough, a 10-mile-long dusty dirt road (with conditions comparable to the unkempt roads of the African bush) winds you through forsaken canyons until the road dead ends at the Grand Canyon West visitor’s center.
But once you get your first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, the hours of driving and miles of dirt road are soon forgotten. The size of the canyon was incomprehensible until I finally saw the depth and the steep canyon walls in person! And even then, the scale of the canyon was still intimidating. The name is an understatement; this thing is massive.
Details: Once at the visitor’s center, you can buy a ticket that gives you access to the lookout points for stunning views of the Grand Canyon and access to the Skywalk, perhaps the main attraction that brings tourists to Grand Canyon West. A shuttle runs every 30 minutes and will pick you up from the visitor’s center and drop you off at the multiple viewpoints.
Seeing the Grand Canyon: Once you exit the shuttle on the first stop, you have the free reign to take photos and get dangerously close to the edge of the canyon. There are no guard rails on the edge so take extreme caution when approaching the ledge for photos. (An average of three people fall into the canyon every year!) Here you can also walk across the famous Skywalk, a horseshoe-shaped glass walkway that hangs 4,ooo feet over the canyon floor. Built in 2007, the Skywalk gives you a clear view to the bottom and is the latest and possibly the most popular attraction at the Grand Canyon.
You can also experience the Native American culture as the Hualapai Tribe perform traditional dances nearby Native American dwellings. Handmade crafts and jewelry are also on site for purchase. Once you’ve explored the first stop on the tour, the shuttle bus, which picks up every 15 minutes, takes you to the second stop, Guano Point, offering a 360 degree view of the 277-mile long canyon, and then on to the visitor’s center.
Total tour cost (including access to the Skywalk): $86.81
Directions from Las Vegas: Take US-93 toward Phoenix (32 miles); Cross the Hoover Dam and continue south on US-93 (40 miles); Turn left at Pierce Ferry Road (28 miles); Turn right at Diamond Bar Road (21 miles); Diamond Bar Road ends at the entrance of Grand Canyon West. (Using GPS to get to the Grand Canyon? Enter your destination as the Grand Canyon West Airport, which is located next to the visitor’s center.)