Tag: Southwest

Top Ten Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon

Top Ten Tips for Visiting the Grand Canyon

America has some amazing natural wonders and the National Park system does a great job of preserving them for us to enjoy. Here are ten essential tips for visiting the Grand Canyon National Park.


1. Plan ahead for lodging

Do plan way in advance and stay at one of the park lodges.  (They fill up early, so it’s essential to get reservations as far out in advance as possible.) The only other hotels nearby are going to be ridiculously expensive and lacking in amenities (a 2-star hotel for a 4-star price). The park lodges are less expensive, provide shuttle service around the park, and have a wide variety of restaurants either on site or nearby.

2. Allow (just) enough time

Don’t plan to be there more than a day or so.  You can see all of the majesty and nature that the Grand Canyon has to offer in one day.  You just don’t need more time than that, unless you’re planning to do some serious hiking or exploration.

3. Save money on meals

Don’t eat outside of the park.  The restaurants in the hotel area just south of the park are mediocre at best and ridiculously expensive.  If you must eat at a restaurant outside the park, I recommend Wendy’s or McDonalds (which will still be more expensive than they are elsewhere in the US).

4. Water is your friend

Do stay hydrated.  The Arizona air can leech every bit of moisture out of you, even if you aren’t sweating away in the sun.  Keep a refillable bottle of water with you and/or stop to buy beverages often.

5. Limit photo-taking…

I cannot stress this one enough: Don’t go overboard with picture-taking.  I have approximately 450 photos from the Grand Canyon.  Most of them fail to capture the vastness and beauty of it.  Many are barely distinguishable from the others.

… except, perhaps, at sunset

tips for visiting the Grand Canyon - take photos at sunset

Do take pictures at sunset.  The lighting is better and the colors more vibrant.  You can even book a relatively inexpensive “Sunset Tour” that will take you to various lookout points by bus at the right time for awesome photos. 

6. Catch the bus

Do utilize the park’s shuttle service.  It is fast, free, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get an entertaining driver who will share some tips about seeing the park.

7. Broaden your horizons

Do take time to look at more than just the canyon/rocks.  There are California condors, ravens, and mule deer throughout the park. There is also a Tusayan Museum and Ruin that sheds light on the Native Americans who once called that area home. And do check out the Desert View Watchtower.  It’s an amazing, beautiful building.

grand canyon national park desert view watchtower

8. Keep the kids busy

If you have school age children, do have them complete the Junior Ranger program.  It’s free, and it will keep them from getting bored by having them attend a ranger-led program, write their observations, draw pictures, and create poems. You can pick up the Junior Ranger activity booklet at the visitor’s center, and return it there when they have completed the activities.

9. Hike wisely

If you’re hiking down into the canyon, don’t do it on a whim and don’t underestimate the distance or time you will travel.  We saw a chilling poster in one of the visitor centers about an athletic young woman, age 24, who had run in the Boston Marathon, but died on a hike into the canyon.  Why?  She under-calculated the length of her hike, and didn’t carry enough water with her.

10. Get the back story

If you venture into to the money-sucking town south of the canyon, do see the IMAX movie about the canyon and its explorers.  You’ll be impressed with the one-armed Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell, who was responsible for mapping most of the canyon. His story is remarkable!


I hope that you will find these tips helpful in planning your Grand Canyon visit. Let me know what works for you and what doesn’t in the comments below!

Top ten tips for visiting the Grand Canyon - Pinterest graphic
The Prettiest 5 Miles in Texas

The Prettiest 5 Miles in Texas

Try this experiment. Tell random people that you are going to San Antonio at some point in the future. With very few exceptions, the most frequent reaction you will receive is a breathless gasp followed by “Oh, you have to go to the Riverwalk!” Not the Alamo, AKA the birthplace of Texas. The Riverwalk: shopping and dining mecca.

I thought it was a bit ridiculous when I kept running into that reaction from everyone. But then I actually went and I could completely understand why. Where else might you walk freely through a city, unperturbed by cars and noise, and happen upon a waterfall?

San Antonio Riverwalk 1A.jpg

Or perhaps you’re into art. How about some mosaics?

San Antonio Riverwalk 3.jpg

Or maybe architecture is your thing.

San Antonio Riverwalk 2

Bottom line, the Riverwalk is probably the prettiest 5 miles in Texas. We would go see the sights, but we always kept coming back to the Riverwalk for its imagined solitude and relaxing ambiance.

There are plenty of restaurants along the Riverwalk, and stores too, but the best way to enjoy it is to stroll along and do a little people-watching. Take in the scenery, listen to the water, and enjoy the fact that the noise and traffic are out of sight, out of mind.

San Antonio Riverwalk 5

The Riverwalk is located one floor below street level in downtown San Antonio, Texas.

Out of Africa Wildlife Park – Camp Verde, AZ

Out of Africa Wildlife Park – Camp Verde, AZ

I love to go to zoos and other places where visitors can get an up close look at animals they might not otherwise see. When we were looking for things to do in Arizona, I happened upon the Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde and almost immediately added it to our list of must-see places. After all, they had tigers, which are my very favorite.

Our first stop upon entering was a short safari ride. We were given carrot sticks to feed to the giraffes as we boarded a converted school bus. Giraffes were the first stop, and they were waiting for us!  As soon as the bus stopped they came over, eager for their treats. Everyone stuck their carrot stick out the window, and we watched, fascinated, as their extremely long prehensile tongues came out, wrapped around the carrot stick, and carried it back to their mouth.  Chomp, chomp, chomp, repeat.

I have no idea what this woman was thinking, but I was almost too horrified to take the picture:

And that’s just the TIP of its tongue!

The big draw at the park was the Tiger Splash Show, where you can see Bengal and Siberian tigers interact in a predator-and-play relationship, romping and splashing in a large pool as they play with their caretakers and various colorful toys. It’s a lot like playing with your average house cat – dangle a toy in front of them, shake it a little bit, and watch them pounce. The big difference here is that there is a pool of water, which the tabby wouldn’t dream of entering, and the cat in this case could kill you.

It was such a unique experience, watching the handlers play with this massive tiger.  And make no mistake, he is a fearsome creature:


I don’t have any action shots of the Tiger Splash show because I was just too fascinated to try and watch it through my camera view finder. It was at turns funny (when  you realize that your pet acts exactly the same way), scary (oh my gosh be careful!), and awe-inspiring (there is a tremendous amount of power in the tiger’s body).

After the show, you could pay a small fee to feed a tiger a hunk of meat (on a stick, through a fence, at a respectable distance).


We saw all sorts of animals at Out of Africa. There was a white tiger, lions, zebras, rhinos. and more. I highly recommend this as a family outing.

BARGAIN ALERT:  Visit during your birthday month and your admission will be free, according to their website’s FAQs.

Out of Africa Wildlife Park is located at 3505 W. SR-260, Camp Verde, AZ 86322   Telephone 928-567-2840.  The park is open 9:30 am – 5:00 pm, 363 days per year (closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas). Onsite parking is included with your admission.  

The Petrified Forest

The Petrified Forest

Petrified Forest National Park is known for its fossils, especially of fallen trees that lived about 225 million years ago. At that time, northeastern Arizona was a low plain flanked by mountains to the south and a sea to the west. Water flowing across the plain from the highlands deposited inorganic sediment and organic matter, including trees that had fallen into the water. Although most organic matter decays rapidly or is eaten by other organisms, some is buried so quickly that it remains intact and may become fossilized. Thus, the Petrified Forest was born.

petrified wood 5

petrified wood 1.JPG

We were told when we entered the park that under no circumstances were we to take any petrified wood from the park, and that our vehicle could be searched. Posted signs reinforced that message. However, despite the multiple warnings, it is estimated that 12 tons of petrified wood are stolen from the park each year. This was nowhere more obvious than at the Crystal Forest section of the park. The petrified wood there is known for brilliant colors and beautiful crystals. But honestly, we saw very little of that. Most had been vandalized or stolen.

petrified wood 6.JPG

(There are many places to buy pieces of petrified wood in the area surrounding the park. So if you’re interested in having a piece as a souvenir, stop there. We found that not only do they offer pieces of wood in a wide variety of sizes, they also offer other souvenir items. And they were willing to bargain with us on the price.)

The park has a wonderful Junior Ranger program for children that sends them on a scavenger hunt for information about the park. Once completed, they show their answers to a Visitors Center employee, take the Junior Ranger oath, and get a Junior Ranger patch.

The Petrified Forest National Park is located at 1 Park Road, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028. Telephone 928-524-6228. It is open daily but hours vary according to season. Visiting the park can easily be combined with a trip to the adjacent Painted Desert as well.

Remember the Alamo!

Remember the Alamo!

The Battle of the Alamo, which gave birth to the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo!” took place in 1836. But battles have taken place at historic sites all over our country.  Why remember the Alamo?

alamo 1

Here’s the timeline of events from 1836:

February 23 – Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his army arrived at San Antonio to put down the frontier rebellion. The rebels withdrew across the San Antonio River into the safety of the old fortified mission known as the Alamo.

alamo window 2

March 2 – the provisional Texas government declares independence from Mexico.  Because this was the early nineteenth century, however, news did not travel fast. The 200 rebels at the Alamo (including Davy Crockett and James Bowie) stayed in place, waiting for help. Also inside the Alamo were several women and children. The youngest was 15 months old.

March 6 – In the hours before dawn, Mexican troops rushed the Alamo, breaching the north wall and flooding into the compound. The defenders made a last stand in the old church, so the battle centered on that building. It lasted 90 minutes. Only one adult male survived the bloody battle.

April 21 – Texian General Sam Houston noticed that the Mexican general had split his forces and backed himself into a corner. Houston seized the opportunity and attacked, surprising the larger Mexican force. In a bloody, 18 minute battle, Texian forces defeated the Mexican troops, captured Santa Anna and achieved independence to the cries of “Remember the Alamo!”

May 14 – The Treaty of Velasco was signed and the revolution was over. The Republic of Texas began in earnest.

After two sieges and a bloody battle, many buildings in the Alamo mission compound were damaged, burnt or pockmarked by heavy cannonade. The Mexican Army maintained control of San Antonio until May 1836. The soldiers of the Mexican garrison received orders to demolish the Alamo before they withdrew. They knocked down some of the outer walls of the compound, including the log wall known as Crockett’s Palisade, so it could not be easily refortified by the Texians.


When we visited the Alamo, we were – dare I say it? – not very impressed. It’s an interesting site, but I think its historical significance might be more meaningful to someone who has a connection with Texas. There was something about the savage war with Mexico and the struggle for statehood that just didn’t resound with us, perhaps because we hail from one of the original 13 colonies. Your mileage may very.

The Alamo is located at 300 Alamo Plaza, San Antonio, Texas  78205.  Telephone 210-225-1391.  It is open for visitors daily from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Tortilla Flat, AZ – Population: 6

Tortilla Flat, AZ – Population: 6

Once upon a time, there was an Apache Trail stagecoach stop at Tortilla Flat, Arizona. Located in the Tonto National Forest, the town is now just a remnant of what the old west was like.

The welcome sign at Tortilla Flat, AZ

Originally a camping ground for the prospectors who searched for gold in the Superstition Mountains in the mid-to-late 19th century, Tortilla Flat was later a freight camp for the construction of Theodore Roosevelt Dam.  Nowadays, the population of Tortilla Flat isn’t even enough to form a baseball team.  There are only six residents in the town.

As you might imagine with a town that small, there isn’t a whole lot to do and see. There is the Superstition Saloon and Restaurant, whose bar stools are made from real saddles, and the ladies room stalls are comical.

stall door

The unique “wallpaper” is made from real dollar bills from visitors all around the world.  It’s interesting to see how some people decorated their dollar bill and what was written on all of them.

dollars 2

dollars 1

Tortilla Flat is a nice diversion in between other activities.  Stop by and check it out!

To get to Tortilla Flat from the Phoenix area:

  • Take US 60 East (Superstition Freeway), to Apache Junction
  • Take the Idaho exit and go north to State Route 88.
  • Take a right on SR 88 and travel 18 miles northeast to Tortilla Flat.  The town is located 2 miles past Canyon Lake

Telephone 480-984-1776.


Up, up and away… in Sedona AZ

Up, up and away… in Sedona AZ

When we travel, I am all about experiences. Not just seeing things (which I also love), but doing things. Preferably things that we would not even think about doing at home.

So, while in Arizona, of course we went for a hot air balloon ride!  As with the London Eye, I was a little nervous because I do have a fear of heights, and this would be wide open. But I’m happy to say that it was slow and steady, and didn’t make me nervous at all once our flight was underway.

in flight 1

We flew with Northern Lights Balloon Expeditions in Sedona, AZ. Our pilot was very friendly and knowledgeable and has been flying hot air balloons for a long time. (This went a long way toward calming my nerves, too.) There were five balloons going up together that morning, and each balloon held about six people.

We were picked up at our hotel very early (it was still dark) and rode to the launch place. Then there was a good deal of waiting as the balloons were unfolded, hooked up, and inflated. Then we climbed into the basket and took off.

Flight is controlled by a propane tank that is also in the basket. If we wanted the balloon to go higher, the pilot would fire up the burner. To go lower, he would turn it off.

Once we were up and the landscape became miniaturized, he told us about the area – local animals (some of which we saw while in flight), notable buildings, and the history of the area. While I am not a big fan of the landscape in Arizona, the view was pretty amazing.

view from above 10

After we had been up in the air a while and seen many sights, our pilot began looking for a place to land. He communicated our position to his on-the-ground partner, who began the drive to meet us. We started to descend, slowly. Here’s a shot of another balloon in our party making its landing.

view from above 2

Once we had all landed, we enjoyed a traditional champagne toast. Legend has it that early French balloonists carried champagne to appease angry or frightened spectators at the landing site. The toast goes like this:

The winds have welcomed you with softness

The sun has blessed you with its warm hands

You have flown so high and so well

That God has joined you in your laughter

and set you gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.

Northern Lights Balloon Expeditions operates out of Sedona, Arizona.  Reservations are recommended.  Telephone 1-800 230-6222.

Meteor Crater, AZ

Meteor Crater, AZ

After spending three days of looking at the biggest hole in the ground I’ve ever seen (aka the Grand Canyon), we went to go look at a different hole in the ground. The big difference was that this one was made by a meteor. And it’s said to be the best preserved meteorite crater on Earth.

It is about 3,900 feet in diameter, some 570 feet deep, and is surrounded by a rim that rises 148 feet above the surrounding plains. Scientists believe that the crater was created about 50,000 years ago.


The object that created the crater was a nickel-iron meteorite about 150 feet across. The speed of the impact is believed to have been 8-12 miles per second (28,800 – 43,200 miles per hour). The meteorite was mostly vaporized upon impact, leaving little remains in the crater. Some pieces have been found, however, including this one that was on display at the visitor center.


The Visitor Center at the crater has some interesting interactive exhibits that kids will especially enjoy, including one that allows you to make your own crater by varying different aspects of the meteor and the area where it lands. Naturally, it became a family competition to see who could make the biggest virtual crater.

The Meteor Crater is located 18 miles west of Winslow AZ, about 5 miles from I-40’s exit 233. The visitor’s center is open daily, with hours that vary by season.  Check their web site for hours and admission prices.

The Painted Desert

The Painted Desert

When we finally got out of the Grand Canyon, we headed over to see the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert.  There’s more red rock in Arizona than you can shake a stick at, but the Painted Desert has a surprising range of colors, even including a lavender-mauve.

painted desert 3

The place got its name from the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado on his 1540 quest to find the Seven Cities of Cibola. Struck by the variety of colors in the area as they passed through, they named the area “El Desierto Pintado” – The Painted Desert.

I’ll try to keep the geology lesson short.  The rocks are made of layers of siltstone, mudstone, and shale, and they contain iron and manganese compounds which provide the various colors.

painted desert 9

Much of the Painted Desert is located within the Petrified Forest National Park, where motorized travel is limited. But there are large areas visible from the roadways (these shots were all taken from the road).  The park also offers hiking routes into the colored hills. Do not stray too far, however, as the Painted Desert continues north into the Navajo Nation, where off-road travel is by permit only.

painted desert 6

The Painted Desert is located in the Four Corners area running from near the east end of the Grand Canyon National Park southeast into the Petrified Forest National Park. It is most easily accessed in the north portion of The Petrified Forest National Park.  The park is located at 1 Park Road, Petrified Forest, AZ 86028.  Telephone 928-524-6228.  Hours vary by season; check website for details.

Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winter Home

Taliesin West: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winter Home

While in Arizona, we decided to check out the Frank Lloyd Wright estate called Taliesin West. I’m not an architecture junkie, but I was impressed with how the building and gardens were so well-suited to the natural landscape around them.


Of course, that was no accident. Frank Lloyd Wright once said:

“Arizona needs its own architecture… Arizona’s long, low, sweeping lines, uptilting planes. Surface patterned after such abstraction in line and color as find ‘realism’ in the patterns of the rattlesnake, the Gila monster, the chameleon, and the saguaro, or staghorn – or is it the other way around—are inspiration enough.”

The walls were made of local desert rocks, because Wright favored using the materials readily available rather than those that must be shipped in.


Every part of Taliesin West bears Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal touch, because he not only lived there for part of the year, he also worked and taught there. He constantly changed and improved on his design. All of the furniture and decorations were designed by Wright and the majority were built by his apprentices.


Taliesin West is located at 12345 N. Taliesin Drive, Scottsdale AZ, 85258.  Telephone 480-627-5340.  Hours vary by season, so check the web site or call when planning your visit.