Destination: Southwest USA.
Itinerary: Phoenix/Scottsdale (1 night) – Winslow (1 night) – Canyon de Chelly (1 night) – Monument Valley (2 nights) – Grand Canyon (2 nights) – Las Vegas (1 night) – Los Angeles (4 nights).
Duration: 13 days
Approx cost: £2000, including accommodation, flights and car hire. *Note that this included our first night’s hotel at a discounted rate*.
Accommodation standard: Mid-range and luxury.
This is a really fabulous honeymoon itinerary that takes you through some of the most fabulous and iconic landscapes in the USA. If you’re concerned about driving abroad, it makes for a great introduction – until you get close to Vegas, the roads are largely single- and double-lane highways, where you’ll often struggle to see another car for hours on end. Driving in LA isn’t for the faint-hearted – five-lane freeways are standard for getting around as quickly as possible – but once you get to grips with it it’s a lot easier. The great thing about this itinerary is how easily customisable it is. We chose to end in LA in order to spend a few days with family – an alternative would be to skip LA and end in Vegas, adding on a few days perhaps to explore Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Utah.
We flew into Phoenix but chose to stay in the adjacent city of Scottsdale (the boundaries between the two are pretty blurred to the casual visitor). As we were only in the city for one night, we wanted somewhere central, comfortable and not-too-pricey, and The Saguaro fit the bill perfectly (stay tuned for a full review shortly). Scottsdale wasn’t really our cup of tea – most of the shops in Old Town Scottsdale are rather tacky and touristy, and the shopping area beyond this felt a little bland, but it was fun to wander around, and we had some great food – including an ice-cream sundae at the charmingly old-fashioned Sugar Bowl before we set off on the road.
The drive from Scottsdale to Winslow was fabulous, taking us through a landscape that seemed to constantly change – initially we drove through cacti-studded desert hills, then dense pine forests where ice lined the side of the road, before finally emerging into barren desert, where tumbleweed actually did blow across the road. Winslow itself is fairly unremarkable apart from two things – it’s mentioned in the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy”, and it’s home to a fabulous old railway hotel, La Posada. It was for the latter – and to break up an otherwise long journey – that we chose to stop here for the night, and the historic hotel made a great, and quirky, place to stop. There’s not really anything to do in the town itself, so we were glad to have arrived fairly late, and the hotel’s restaurant is justifiably famous for serving up some of the best cuisine in the region (come back soon for the full review for more details).
The next day, we headed north into the dusty Navajo Nation, which was a really interesting drive, again through some fabulous scenery. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at a little Navajo diner, which though basic was a great opportunity to experience another side of America – it felt pretty unusual to walk into a place where everyone was speaking a different language to us, and the towns that we encountered on this part of the drive were so different to anything we saw outside of the Navajo Nation (which we didn’t actually exit until we reached the Grand Canyon National Park a few days later), with poverty a lot more apparent. Our destination was Chinle – a service town with little more than fast food restaurants and gas stations – but as the jumping off point for exploring the Canyon de Chelly, it’s well worth a stop. Here, we stayed at the Holiday Inn – it was pretty bog-standard, but fine for a night, and there wasn’t a huge amount of choice in town – plus, it benefitted from being mere moments from the entrance to the Canyon de Chelly.
The Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de Shay) was undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip – we first visited just before sunrise, and the pale light on the rocks was really beautiful. There are two self-drive routes you can take; one around the north rim, and one around the south, which is the one we chose. Along the way, there are lots of viewpoints to stop at – it’s hard to really get a sense of just how big the canyon is at first, but once you realise that you’ve been driving for a while and still not reached the other side it suddenly hits you. Our favourite view was the one from Spider Rock Overlook, which is the last one you can stop at on the south rim. There’s only one possible hike into the canyon (the Canyon has huge symbolic significance to the Navajo, so your only other option beyond the drives and the hike is to go on an organised tour) – the fabulous White House Trail. We did this the next morning, and it was well worth it. The descent into the canyon feels rather treacherous at times, with the path carved into the rock, which drops sheerly to one side of you, but the views are outstanding and it’s unbeatable for getting a sense of the Canyon itself. Once at the bottom, you can walk on to view the White House Ruin, an abandoned dwelling left by the Ancestral Puebloans.
From the Canyon de Chelly we headed off on one of our most stunning drives, heading northwest across desert grassland to Monument Valley, the plains often broken by canyons and mesas. Monument Valley has long been on my list of “must-see” places, and I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t live up to expectation. But I needn’t have worried. Walking into our hotel, The View Hotel (the only hotel in the park itself), absolutely took my breath away – right in front of the glass-windowed lobby stood the three most iconic sights of the valley – the Mittens and Merrick Butte. Every room in the hotel boasts a private balcony looking out onto this iconic view (come back for a full review soon), and it’s no exaggeration to say that every time we looked outside it took our breath away.
Like the Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley has immense spiritual significance, so to get really up close you do need to take a tour. Once we arrived, however, we decided not to do this – our first afternoon, we were very happy soaking up the views from the hotel (the landscape is especially sublime just before sunset). The next day, we headed off after breakfast on the only hiking trail that you can do without a guide – the 3.3-mile Wildcat Trail. This is a very easy, but absolutely fabulous, trail, which circles around the Left Mitten. Being able to walk among the Mittens, in such an amazing landscape was truly amazing, and really enabled us to get a sense of the enormity and the peacefulness of the valley. Without a doubt, this walk was one of our favourite things from the whole trip. In the afternoon, we did a self-drive (the only one you can do here) on the unpaved road through the valley, which was incredibly bumpy (you can do it in a regular car, but if you have a 4×4 it’d be much more comfortable!) but worth it for the views, and for seeing more of the amazing formations in the valley – which is much much bigger than the pictures you normally see of it would have you believe.
We were sad to leave Monument Valley after two nights (which I would say was the perfect amount of time to soak up and explore the valley), but the Grand Canyon awaited. After spending a few days in the Navajo Nation, the Grand Canyon was initially quite a shock – for a start, there were a lot of tourists here, compared to what we had experienced elsewhere (and this was in low season!). Secondly, facilities in the tourist centres – even in the park – were a lot more sophisticated, and it was nice to be able to pick up a paper and have more choice for food (and for booze to be available – the Navajo Nation is dry). It’s possible to stay in the park as there are a number of hotels of varying standards here, but we left booking too late, so opted to stay just a mile south of the South Entrance in the tourist town of Tusayan. The town itself is little more than a strip of restaurants and hotels, but it was fine for a couple of nights (at the Best Western), and we appreciated being so close to the park entrance.
The thing with the Grand Canyon is that it’s so huge that it’s hard to really get a true sense of it at first – and certainly to get a sense of its vastness. As at the Canyon de Chelly, we spent a fair amount of time driving along the South Rim (the North Rim was closed at the time of year we were there) and getting out to soak up the views. But again, the best thing we did was a hike down into the canyon. There’s a number of hikes you can do, but after being recommended it at the visitor’s centre, we headed off on the South Kaibab Trail. This was very steep (and rather slippery in places, due to the dust and gravel) and so quite hard going at times (more for seeming rather precarious than anything else), but the views were amazing, and once we’d made it to Cedar Ridge (after 1.5 miles), and were able to enjoy the stupendous views, we were really glad that we’d chosen it. Before arriving at the canyon, I had no real sense of whether you could do short half-day hikes, so I was really pleased that we were able to – though I would recommend making sure you have some decent walking shoes with a good grip.
The next day, we headed off to Las Vegas (with a brief stop to check out the rather impressive Hoover Dam) – quite a contrast after the places we’d spent the last week in. Here, we stayed at the The Venetian (full review to follow), which we thought was great – it was exactly the kind of over-the-top experience you’d want from Vegas, with gondolas sailing down the fake (indoor) canals, huge rooms and the sense of it being more a destination than a hotel. We were just there for one night, and didn’t fancy gambling, but we easily lost a few hours wandering up and down the strip, taking in all the crazy hotels – which included the pirate-boat show at Treasure Island, the huge fountains at the Bellagio, and versions of Paris and New York. Las Vegas is everything you expect it to be – over-the-top, camp, and seedy, and to be honest it wasn’t my cup of tea at all, but I was really glad to have experienced it once, and it made a great addition to our road trip.
From Vegas, it was a long, pretty dull drive to Los Angeles – this was undoubtedly the least scenic stretch of the road – where we were heading to see my grandfather. Having been to LA countless times, we did very few of the usual touristy things on this trip, so if you want a full run-down of what to see and do here, head over to our full destination guide here.
Need to know:
Airport: We flew into Phoenix Sky Harbor, which is served by regular direct flights from London Heathrow by British Airways, and out of Los Angeles International, which is served by multiple daily direct flights to London by BA, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand and numerous US carriers.
Car hire: We hired our car through Car Hire 3000, who we found to offer the most competitive rates. Note that there is sometimes a fee imposed for one way drives between two different states, but this does not apply between Arizona and California.
When to go: Summer can be incredibly hot in the desert, and winters can be very cold – spring and autumn are the best times to visit, but there’s really not a bad time to go. We visited in mid November and had fabulous weather – days were warm and sunny (though we generally needed a light jacket) and evenings were cool – in the Grand Canyon, the evenings were very cold, and we were glad to have our winter coats with us.
Costs: Generally, things are cheaper than in the UK – especially petrol – but in LA and Las Vegas you can expect to pay the same, if not more, as you would at home.
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