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A woman gazes out over plummeting canyon walls from an outcrop above Horseshoe Bend. Photo by Haley Gray.

Why the Ten-Hour Drive to Northern Arizona is Totally Worth It

Fall is a perfect time to explore this stunningly beautiful part of the Grand Canyon State.

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Colorado’s sunny summer days—and all the river trips and camping excursions that go with them—are coming to an end for the year. We’ll let you in on a little tip, though: There’s an easy way to extend the season. As our mountain air begins to grow cold and leaves turn, the oppressive heat in Arizona becomes bearable, making it an ideal destination for outdoor exploration. To help you make the most of your trip to Northern Arizona, we put together this guide of the region’s best adventures. 

Horseshoe Bend: Earth, Water, Air

On its 1,450 mile journey from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains to  the Gulf of California, the Colorado River does some pretty spectacular things. It’s the width of three football fields in some places, eight stories deep in others, and sometimes wide, slow, and shallow. But one of its best tricks is the wide swoop it makes around a tower of craggy rock just outside of Page, Arizona. Known as Horseshoe Bend, this segment of the river curls around a jutting podium of Navajo Sandstone. Visitors can choose to be awed by the feature from the river, from the jagged edges at the top of the canyon (that’s where you’ll get that quintessential Horseshoe Bend shot), or from a birds-eye perspective—i.e., in a helicopter— well above the ground.

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Horseshoe Bend. Photo by Michaela Cohen-Fuentes.

Earth: From the busy parking lot off of U.S. 89, you’ll walk about 20 minutes down a sandy trail to the bend. Shoes with good tread are a must. The plateau overlooking the canyon is dolloped with sandstone boulders, so you’ll have an opportunity to scramble around and take in the awesome sight from different vantage points. There are no guard rails anywhere, just the craggy edge of the plummeting canyon walls. Be careful. Take your time enjoying the view, after all, it was more than 200 million years in the making.

Water: From the emerald green waters of the meandering Colorado, your experience of Horseshoe Bend will be a humbling, neck-craning view of the iron-red canyon walls as they climb toward the blue sky above you. For some some, there’s no other way to do it. Options include guided tours on a zero-effort (and zero-emissions!) motorized raft ($107), or, for the exercise-inclined, a traditional guided raft tour ($87). Experienced rafters and kayakers who’d prefer the intimacy of a self-guided trip can hire backhauling services, if need be, from Colorado River Discovery for $28/person and $24/boat. You’ll also need to pay the $25 vehicle fee and/or the $12 individual permit fee at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area kiosk at Lee’s Ferry. Hidden Canyon Kayaks ($45) and Lake Powell Paddleboards ($30) both rent kayaks by the day, as well. Some options include a convenient dry box (think about your camera). 

Air: Aerial site-seeing company Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters boasts a variety of packages to suit tastes and budget. Soaring above the Bend will set you back a minimum of $149 (for 10-15 minutes of helicopter ride). For closer to $300, you can fly over all Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, Grand Staircase, and land for about 20 minutes on top of Tower Butte, a geological oddity rising 5,000 feet above sea level in the heart of the northern Arizona desert.

Take a Load Off (or Don’t) at Lake Powell

A truck loads a speed boat into Lake Powell from the shore of Wahweap Bay, a short drive from Glen Canyon Dam. Photo by Haley Gray.

There are parties-a-plenty on the shores of Lake Powell in the spring and into the summer. But once fall rolls around, crowds tend to disperse. The lake is still temperate through the end of September and into October, so this is a nice time to enjoy the glittering water and its backdrop of amorphous rock formations. About twenty minutes from Horseshoe Bend, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers plenty of ways to enjoy the waters.

With so many rock formations to ogle opposite the Wahweap shore, kayaking or paddleboarding is a great way to enjoy the water. Find rentals at Lake Powell Kayaks and Paddleboards.

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If speed is your need, find jet ski rentals at H2O Zone; you’ll have to transport the watercraft yourself to any of three nearby Lake Powell launch points (see here for Wahweap options or Antelope Point). Invert Sports in Page, Arizona offers jet skis as well as speed boat rentals perfect for tubing, water skiing, and wake boarding (all also available for rent), and offers delivery service to the lake.

Ask your rental associate about current water conditions and the best ways to weave through the mammoth rock formations and craggy canyon walls.

And don’t forget out favorite Lake Powell pastime: pulling a camping chair into the shallow waters to catch the sunset with a cold beer in hand.

Antelope Canyon

The painterly walls of Antelope Canyon appear soothing in their gently sweeping walls, belying the chaotic canyon-forming process of water swirling forcefully over stone. Photo by Anna Irene, Flickr via Creative Commons.

As if sculpted with soft clay and painted by a thick brush, the grooved walls of Antelope Canyon sweep and whirl into organic forms that rise from the cool, sandy floor to the heat-soaked ground above. Light splashes through the slot canyon’s walls in beams that change with the hour of the day, illuminating ever-new angles and catching the light of yet other minerals laid into the rock walls, changing their hue.

You can only visit the canyon on a guided tour, which are all operated by the Navajo Nation, the keepers of the canyon. Options include tours of either the upper or lower canyon, the former will spare you climbing up and down stairs. Devoted shutterbugs might like to pay extra for a photography tour, in which guides assist in best practices for catching the otherworldly light of the canyon and will allow time enough to get the perfect shot. For the rest of us, photos can be snapped on the regular tour, but tourists are ushered through at various intervals to prevent bottlenecking. Tour prices start around $40 and climb above $100 for photographer tours. We highly recommend you make a reservation at least one day in advance for the first the tour of the next day; you’ll spare yourself the biggest crowds and catch the most magical light. Be sure to arrive 30 minutes early to check in (the line can be long) and meet your guide. Find it by of U.S. 98, about fifteen minutes southeast of Page.

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Where to Stay

Photo courtesy of Aramark – Lake Powell Resort

Under the Stars: Our favorite place to stay is right on the shore of Lake Powell at Wahweap Bay. There, Lone Rock Beach Primitive Camping sites offer no amenities (you’ll need to pack in water and anything else you need or want. There are flush toilets a short walk from the camping area.) You’ll be driving right onto the beach, so four-wheel drive and a good sense for off-roading are recommended for enjoying this spot. For a fee of $14 per night per vehicle, you can sleep under a clear sky of twinkling stars and wake up to a vista of shimmering water and towering rock. 

For the full river-trip experience, a series of primitive backcountry sites are available along the Colorado River, accessible only by water. You should only take this journey on if you’re fully prepared. Sites do not require a fee or permit and are first-come, first-serve, but river entrance and vehicle fees do apply. You’ll need to pay your river use fee at Lee’s Ferry.

No matter where you pitch your tent, remember to pack out everything you pack in and leave any archeological objects you come across (including etchings on rock faces) entirely undisturbed.

Amenities, Please: If fluffed pillows and a hot shower are what you seek, Page, Arizona is packed with options. The Lake Powell Resort off Lakeshore Drive is not far from the water and offers a range of rooms and suites. Heading north on U.S. 89, turn right onto Lakeshore Drive just past the Glen Canyon Dam. The Best Western off Ridgeview Avenue in Page is a more budget-friendly option, but still has lake views. For the full Powell experience, you may consider renting a houseboat. Rates start at about $2,000 for up to six people for four days, and run all the way up to more than $10,000 for a few days on a 75 foot-boat that can sleep 16. Just north of the Utah border, Dreamkatcher’s Bed & Breakfast offers a quiet, homey place to stay with sprawling desert views. It’s about a 25-minute drive from Horseshoe Bend and 15 minutes from Whaweap Bay.

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