National Parks Host Holiday Celebrations

The holiday season is a wonderful time to visit North America’s national parks which offer cooler temps, lighter crowds, and a peaceful serenity that comes during this relatively quiet time of year

The holiday season is a special time for the National Park Service. Many parks across the U.S. and Canada offer unique holiday programs and events that simply can’t be experienced at any other time of year. Chances are, there’s something exciting happening in a park near you!

Whether you’re seeking family-friendly entertainment and a visit from Santa, rousing celebrations featuring time-honored traditions, or a tranquil getaway that allows you to further immerse yourself in the beauty of nature, these national parks make the perfect destination for your holiday getaway.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Hop aboard the Polar Express to Grand Canyon National Park 

Fans of the man in the red suit can ride the rails for a different Santa-themed adventure taking visitors from Williams, Arizona to Grand Canyon National Park. Kids and kids-at-heart will flip for the Grand Canyon Railway’s Polar Express which runs from mid-November through the end of the year. Travelers will have the honor of mingling with Santa and his reindeer before heading back to Williams with a keepsake present in hand. It’s a popular journey that fills up fast, so making reservations for this experience is a must.

El Tovar Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s El Tovar Hotel which first opened in 1905 also gets in on the festivities with a massive tree, Santa hat-adorned taxidermy, and extravagant holiday wreaths spilling out of the century-old lobby. Don’t expect to leave without a full stomach. They’re always famous for their French onion soup but they also have specialty offerings like turkey that are unique to the holidays. The hotel also hosts a New Year’s Eve dinner each year (reservations required).

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Savor a traditional holiday atmosphere at Banff National Park

Canada is known for its long winters and the short summer season means heavy crowds in Banff National Park during warm weather. But a visit during the snowy season offers a Narnia-like wonderland with fewer tourists.

From carols to candles, cookies, and cocoa, the holiday season is full of robust rituals passed on from generation to generation. And at Alberta’s Banff National Park you can honor treasured traditions in an awe-inspiring snow-covered setting.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Events held throughout the season include European-style Christmas markets filled with handcrafted wares and delicious treats, a delectable hot chocolate trail through Banff and Lake Louise, and a live Christmas story told through illuminated puppets, dazzling sculptures, and clever sound effects at the park’s Cascade of Time Garden. 

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Come January you can enjoy the Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition at frozen Lake Louise. Here, delicate and beautiful ice sculptures take shape as they’re carefully carved by skilled artists. Grab a drink from the onsite ice bar then stroll through a literal ice castle as you view the creations.

3. A Smoky Mountain Christmas

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular of all the national parks in the United States. And if you’re looking for unspoiled natural beauty, it’s arguably the best place to visit in the Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But during the holiday season, the best things to do in the Smoky Mountains involve getting into the mountain towns and soaking in a different type of scenery. Some of the best views in the Smoky Mountains in winter aren’t of nature at all but of the Christmas cheer that seems to abound throughout the region. Christmas in the Smoky Mountains involves small-town parades, Christmas trains, Christmas lights, holiday craft markets, snow skiing and tubing, and a big heaping serving of music and theater.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether you choose to visit North Carolina, Tennessee, or both, a Smoky Mountain Christmas offers plenty of opportunities to get festive. Christmas in Gatlinburg gets magical at SkyLift Park with its beloved Lights over Gatlinburg event running from mid-November to the end of January. The entire park is bedecked with lights and trees including a 30-foot, multi-colored Christmas tree and a 300-foot tunnel of Christmas lights.

Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Christmas in Pigeon Forge is all about the Winterfest Celebration which fills the town with Christmas light displays, holiday parades, trolley tours, and Christmas shows. The Winterfest Celebration spans several popular places to visit in the Smoky Mountains including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Seek out songbirds at Zion National Park (and beyond)

Each December, natural areas throughout the country take part in the longest-running citizen science survey in the world during the Christmas Bird Count. This century-old, far-reaching effort allows bird watchers and avian enthusiasts to join in the efforts to identify, count, and record the bird population as part of what’s considered to be the most significant citizen-based conservation effort. 

The events at Zion and Bryce Canyon allow participants to join with family and friends to conduct their count throughout a designated zone within the park. Those who can’t make it to Utah for this endeavor can locate a Christmas Bird Count event at nearby national and state parks throughout the holiday season by visiting the National Audubon Society’s website.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Attend an epic winter festival in Bryce Canyon National Park

The iconic red rock spires that fill the landscape in Bryce Canyon National Park look even more ethereal when coated with a dusting of white snow. Visitors can delight in full-moon snowshoe adventures and Saturday astronomy programs at this certified Dark Sky Park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So, beloved, is this stunning destination come wintertime that it plays host to a kid-friendly Winter Festival each President’s Day weekend. Here you can attend a variety of themed events including cross-country ski tours, archery clinics, morning yoga, crafts and cookie decorating for kids, and more.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Go warmish weather sledding through White Sands National Park

If the thought of braving below-freezing temps for some winter fun frightens you, consider a getaway to White Sands National Park. With daytime highs hovering in the 50- to 60-degree Fahrenheit range, New Mexico winters offer a more palatable climate for sledding and creating snow angels—minus the snow. Glistening white sand tricks the eye into believing that the scenery is a true winter wonderland and the park’s hills are so popular for sliding down that plastic snow saucers can be purchased or rented at the White Sands visitor center.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Carlsbad Caverns National Park brings back history-inspired Rock of Ages tour

For six nights in December, Carlsbad Caverns National Park offers visitors an opportunity to experience special guided tours with staff in historical costumes. The tour times are 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2-3, 9-10, and 16-17. The cost is $55 per person and reservations are required.

The tradition, brought back in 2000, gives visitors a chance to meet some of the men and women, so to speak, who helped weave the fabric of the national park. Park staff dressed in historical costumes guide visitors on a lantern-lit tour of the front half of the Big Room at the caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tour will feature a re-creation of the historic Rock of Ages Ceremony which was regularly conducted in the Big Room during the 1930s and ’40s. During this portion of the tour, visitors will experience a blackout, being immersed in total darkness as a mysterious voice fills the cavern, singing the hymn Rock of Ages.

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

The Ultimate Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Grand doesn’t really even begin to describe it

No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the Grand Canyon, standing at the rim’s edge for the first time takes your breath away—especially if you’re there at sunset as the fading light paints shades of rose, violet, and gold onto the ancient rocks. There will never be a photograph captured of the Grand Canyon that can adequately describe its depth, breadth, and true beauty.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The canyon walls have stories that we will never hear and a history that our eyes will never behold. But if you stand and watch long enough, you’ll start to appreciate the vastness as its depths open up as each emerging shadow moves across its void. It is perhaps for those reasons that it has earned a rare spot among the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and why everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is about 1-mile deep and 10 miles wide, measuring 277 miles in length, and it holds more than 10,000 years of history in that space (millions if you really want to get technical). There are endless ways to experience it depending on what the body and mind are looking for and one’s level of endurance. The Grand Canyon is not “one place” but a desert wilderness with many areas to explore—North Rim, South Rim, and West Rim (outside of Grand Canyon National Park); the Village of Supai and Kaibab National Forest—there are different stories to seek out and to create in each of them. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a well–known film lampoon of the family vacation, Chevy Chase stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon, nods his head in approval, and leaves. Visitors in real life tend to linger a bit longer—but not much. They emerge from cars or tour buses on the South Rim to peer out and take a selfie. Sometimes, they stay for a picnic or to have lunch at one of the rim lodges. Then they’re gone, the once-in-a-lifetime visit checked off their bucket list. According to Grand Canyon National Park officials, the average visit to this Arizona attraction lasts just two hours.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon can be a disappointment. Viewed from the top near one of the visitors’ parking lots, the fissured network of buttes and desert plateaus that make up one of the world’s largest river gorges can appear almost like a two-dimensional painting. More than one spectator has called it overrated.

But for those who take the first steps to descend below the canyon rim, something magical happens. Despite all the beautiful parks and places to discover on Earth, they’ll decide this is the place they must return to, again and again.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When hikers step through the canvas of pastel pink, orange, grey, and deep blue, they become part of the landscape. Down foot trails gouged from the side of rock cliffs, the view expands to 360 degrees and the canyon takes on dimensions and distances that can’t quite be imagined. Only the condors and ravens seem to have mastered the terrain. A vast world like this leaves plenty of room for the mind to wander, to gaze, and to rest.

First, let’s take a quick look at the two most visited locations: the North and South Rims.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Rim is visited less frequently than the South Rim for a variety of reasons—it is more remote and difficult to get to than the busy South Rim, it is further removed from major population centers, it maintains a short season (May 15–October 15) because of its heavy snow and higher elevation (about 8,000 feet; 9,200 feet at the highest point), and it offers fewer easy access points to peer into the valley of views than its southern counterpart does.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you plan to visit the Grand Canyon just once in your life, you’ll want it to be the South Rim, first to get a load of the views that drew awareness to the area in the first place. They really are spectacular. If you’ve already seen the South Rim, a visit to the northern side is where you can find solitude in backcountry camping and hiking and unique sites to photograph such as the Cape Royal viewpoint.  

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The South Rim is the best-known area of the park and is the passageway to iconic viewpoints such as Yavapai and Mather Points, both of which often serve up to many the first views of the colorful gorge as it is located just a short walk from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. At night, catch the sunset at Hopi Point and Mojave Point, two of the most popular places in the park to drink in the pink sky. Near to all of them are iconic lodges, located just steps from the canyon rim. The panoramic views in this area seem to stretch on endlessly and visitor amenities abound including shops, restaurants, free shuttle access to iconic viewpoints, trail access, historical sites, exhibits—and the list goes on and on. 

El, Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You will find everything you need for a Grand Canyon adventure in Grand Canyon Village. This historic village has excellent shopping for all the hiking and camping gear you need, as well as authentic American Indian crafts and plenty of canyon souvenirs. The village also has stellar lodging options and a top-rated walking tour. Highlights of the tour include Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar Hotel, Buckey O’Neill Cabin, Hopi House, Lookout Studio, and Kolb Studio.

Hopi House, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Begin your Grand Canyon tour at the visitor center—especially if you have limited time. Here you can pick up a copy of the self-guided walking tour brochure for in-depth information on the canyon and its history. Park rangers can help design an itinerary to make the most of your visit, suggest hikes to suit your fitness level, and recommend the best viewpoints for sunset and/or sunrise.

Grand Canyon Railway Depot, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll also learn how Grand Canyon Village grew up around the Santa Fe Railroad starting in 1901. Stop by the rustic Grand Canyon Railway Depot which welcomes Grand Canyon Railway passengers to the village. One fun way to arrive at the South Rim is via the Grand Canyon Railway which runs from the historic town of Williams into the heart of the park allowing for a half-day of exploring before returning in the afternoon.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many activities in the Village including helicopter tours, horseback rides, scenic train rides, and mule trips. Do you remember the Brady Bunch adventure when Mike, Cindy, and the clan ventured down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule? This is an actual thing! But, why a mule? They’re more sure-footed than horses. From the South Rim, you can ride a mule to the Colorado River and spend a night or two at Phantom Ranch or take a shorter two-hour ride along the rim. Book as far in advance as possible to guarantee yourself a spot.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, of course, the hiking can’t be beaten. Some of the best hikes include Bright Angel Trail, South Kaibab Trail, Hermit Trail, and Rim Trail. The simplest walk is the Rim Trail which stretches for 13—mostly flat—miles along the top of the South Rim. Much of it is paved and wheelchair-accessible and you can enter and leave the path at any viewpoint. Backcountry permits are not required for day hikes, but—with the exception of Phantom Ranch—they are if you plan to spend the night.

If your fitness allows, try to hike at least part of the way into the Grand Canyon; you’ll get a completely different perspective than you do from the top. The most popular South Rim trail into the canyon is the Bright Angel Trail which is well maintained and offers some shade along the way. Another good option is the South Kaibab Trail—it is a little steeper and has less shade but boasts slightly more dramatic views if you’re only doing part of the trail. While both of these trails go all the way to the bottom you can easily transform each of them into a day hike by turning around at one of the mile markers and going back the way you came.

Shuttle transport, Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For visitors who aren’t up for a hike into the canyon, a shuttle transports visitors along the rim of the canyon, stopping at many breathtaking vantage points. You can also enjoy the views directly from Grand Canyon Village and enjoy lunch at one of the village’s restaurants: Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, or Maswik Lodge.

Part of the Grand Canyon but outside of the National Park is Hualapai Tribe’s Grand Canyon West. Walk the glass panels on the Skywalk. Soar over the canyon in a helicopter or on a zipline. Float down the Colorado River on a river tour. Take in the epic views at Guano Point and Eagle Point. And, you can stay on-site at the Cabins at Grand Canyon West.

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fact Box

Size: 1,218,375 acres

Date Established: February 26, 1919 (established as Grand Canyon National Monument on January 11, 1908)

Location: Northwestern Arizona

Park Elevation: South Rim, 7,000 feet; North Rim, 8,000 feet

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weather: Though open 365 days a year, Grand Canyon weather can present a few extremes. While the South Rim is warm in the summer, it’s also very busy and the temperature on the canyon floor can reach over 100 degrees. Spring and fall can be pleasant, but unpredictable.

How the park got its name: According to research by award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, the park got its name from a one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor named John Wesley Powell who declared it the “Grandest of Canyons” after rafting the length of the Colorado River in 1869, after which the name stuck. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Iconic site in the park: Mather Point, just steps from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center is often the first view that visitors have of the park. Just after gathering the info needed in order to better plan their stay, visitors can step out onto a narrow railed overlook to take in some of the most extensive views that the canyon has to offer, including Yavapai Point and the Bright Angel Trail stretching down to the bottom of the canyon. From here you can also catch a glimpse of the mighty Colorado River. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big adventure: There are two popular rim-to-rim hikes for adventurous souls yearning to gaze 4,000 feet skyward from the base of the Colorado River that bisects the canyon. The rim-to-river-to-rim hike starts at the South Rim—the most popular route being down the South Kaibab Trail (7 miles) and up the Bright Angel Trail (about 10 miles.) The true rim-to-rim hike starts on the Bright Angel Trail at the North Rim, descending to the bottom of the canyon for stays at the Phantom Ranch or the Bright Angel Campground, ascending the Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. This adventure covers 24 miles and takes about 3 days. 

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Designations: UNESCO World Heritage Site on October 26, 1979

Recreational visits in 2019: 5,974,411

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098

Entrance Fees: $35/vehicle (valid for 7 days); all federal land passes accepted

Camping Fee: $18/night

Grand Canyon South Rim © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt on the Grand Canyon in 1908

Best Places for RV Travel this August

It’s time for the final hurrah of summer with peak sunshine

Like the preceding month, August is also named after another real person—Augustus, who was the first emperor of Rome and also the nephew of Julius Caesar. The month was originally supposed to be the sixth month, not the eighth, and was called Sextillis to reflect that.

Eleven Range Outlook, Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunny days and warm weather are the norm and here are our top places to enjoy them.

What does your ideal summer look like: Hiking in a national park? Soaking up the sun on a white-sand beach? Enjoying outdoor activities in a state park? Whatever your dream summer RV trip, one of these destinations will fit the bill.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in MayJune, and July. Also check out our recommendations from August 2019.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

California

From northern redwood forests to the High Sierra, the wild Big Sur coast to the expansive southern desert, you’re never very far from the next adventure in California. It’s a state with fabled drives—Highway 1 on the coast, 101 through the redwoods, 395 beneath the eastern Sierra—and national parks that need no introduction. But with 280 state parks and 18 national forests, the state has almost endless portals into wild country that suits pretty much anyone’s outdoor inclinations.

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico

Artists, photographers, and moviemakers are crazy about New Mexico and the amazing quality of light which is why just naming the state conjures such familiar images for most of us. You know: huge, empty red-rock landscapes with big sunny skies and UFOs arrive on a regular schedule. But there’s more here, of course, including the dramatic Sangre de Cristo Range—the southernmost stretch of the Rockies—and ancient ruins of disappeared cultures. Whether you’re exploring high desert broken by mangled badlands, notching up trophy parks like Carlsbad Caverns, or diving deep into the 34 state parks or five national forests, you always feel you’re discovering something in New Mexico.

Penticton Channrl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Float the Channel

August is the perfect month to go for a float down the Penticton (British Columbia) Channel. This quintessential Penticton bucket-list activity is fun for the whole family. Cool off in this gorgeous heat with your favorite floatie and friends as you enjoy a leisurely ride down the 4½-mile long channel. You can fill up your own flotation device or rent one from Coyote Cruises. They also provide shuttle transport back to the starting point. They also have some awesome new rental floaties and even some party floats for larger groups.

Menno-Hof Amish/Mennonite Information Center, Shipshewana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shipshewana, Indiana

The Shipshewana area is celebrated for being home to the third largest Amish community in the United States, for having the Midwest’s largest flea market, and for its reputation of hand-crafted wares. Enjoy buggy rides, visit an Amish working dairy farm, and experience delicious Amish cooking in beautiful Northern Indiana-Amish/Mennonite Country.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

Weathered and windswept, Badlands is a desolate yet phenomenal sight. Its layers of sedimentary rocks date back millions of years, resulting in an ancient, fossil-rich landscape of ridges, buttes, and canyons. Saber-toothed cats may no longer roam but the mixed-grass prairies support numerous animals including white-tailed deer and coyotes. Catch a glimpse from one of the easy boardwalk trails.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Board the Grand Canyon Railway

You don’t have to be a train buff: One of the world’s great rail journeys is the Grand Canyon Railway. Departing from the historic Arizona town of Williams, it chugs each morning on a 65-mile journey north to Grand Canyon National Park. On the two-hour trip you’ll wind your way over Arizona’s 5,000-foot-high Colorado Plateau passing the red buttes, prairies, and pinyon pines of the high desert along its scenic route. Performers in authentic Wild West costumes bring the past alive with onboard (and, yes) touristy) entertainment. Passengers will have time to explore the South Rim and check out two century-old train depots before returning in the early evening.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

Absolutely Best Road Trip from LA to the Grand Canyon

This road trips goes from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park to Prescott to Williams to the Grand Canyon to Mojave National Preserve and back to LA

The open road is calling and few road trips are as awe-inspiring as a drive from Southern California to the Grand Canyon if you know how to do it right. From the otherworldliness of Joshua Tree National Park to the mountain biking, hiking, and golfing hub of Prescott to historic Route 66 in Williams and the vastness of the Grand Canyon; a road trip through the deserts, mesas, and forests of California and Arizona is hard to beat.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As communities re-open after their COVID-19-related closures, keep in mind that some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for the destinations you plan to visit.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start in LA

Begin your adventure in Tinseltown known for its movie stars, palm trees, beaches, and surf. Take in the Hollywood sign, meander around Manhattan Beach, or head to Malibu to see what stars may come out to play.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 1: Joshua Tree National Park

Created as a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994, Joshua Tree National Park has long held a mystical quality. A haven for artists, rock climbers, musicians, and adventurers alike, Joshua Tree has long been a sought after destination for those seeking enlightenment and adventure in the desert.

Courthouse Plaza, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 2: Prescott

A Western history lover’s sweet spot, mile-high Prescott is home to more than 700 homes and businesses listed in the National Register of Historic Places as well as museums that tell their stories. Stroll along Whiskey Row where the old saloons thrive alongside shops, galleries, eateries, and antique venues.

Sharlot Hall Museum, Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Outdoor and nature enthusiasts are equally well served in Prescott. Set amidst the Ponderosa Pines of Prescott National Forest, the western town offers more than 400 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. Paddle on any of four pristine lakes in the area and enjoy a picnic lunch before getting back on the road.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 3: Williams

This northern Arizona town is located on the last stretch of Route 66 to be by-passed by Interstate 40. Historic highway memorabilia are featured in kitschy shops and restaurants. Old timey western shoot outs are staged in the middle of Main Street on weekends. And bear, bison, and wolves roam in Bearzona, a nearby, drive-through animal park.

Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The colorful town of 3,000 residents is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway where visitors can hop aboard lovingly restored rail cars and be entertained by musicians and the antics of cowboy characters as the train traverses the scenic, high-desert plateau between the historic depot and the grandest canyon of them all.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop 4: The Grand Canyon

Whether you drive to the Grand Canyon or arrive via the Grand Canyon Railway, you’ll soon understand why it’s a treasured wonder of the world. Carved by the mighty Colorado, the multi-hued rock walls revealing millions of years of geologic history descend a mile deep and stretch for 277 miles.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To understand about the Park’s colorful story, the Grand Canyon Historic Village is an important stop. You’ll find many National Historic Landmarks including the iconic El Tovar hotel, shops, and art galleries within the canyon-side village.

El Tovar, Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: A free shuttle bus operates on the South Rim.

Stop 5: Mojave National Preserve

On your return to LA, stop and become overwhelmed by the vastness of Mojave National Preserve. Established in 1994, Mojave National Preserve is home to such wonders as the Kelso Dunes, the Marl Mountains, and the Cima Dome, as well as volcanic formations such as Hole-in-the-Wall and the Cinder Cone Lava Beds.

Mojave National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.

—Major John Wesley Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons

Grand Canyon RV Park: Road Trip Heaven

Perfectly placed adjacent to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and within walking distance of the Route 66 historic district

Some of the happiest travelers are the ones who never leave home. Why? Because they take their home with them in the form of an RV!

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Each year hundreds of thousands of these dedicated RV travelers map out their personalized Great American Road Trip and push a pin into one of the world’s great destinations, the Grand Canyon. As they wrap up their driving day, they find a great place to spend the night at the 5-star Grand Canyon Railway RV Park. But it’s not just the park’s many amenities that attract RV travelers. It’s the location, location … and history.

Historic Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route 66 once stretched uninterrupted from Chicago to Los Angeles. Over time, however, it lost ground to the interstate system until, on October 13, 1984, I-40 bypassed the final, stubborn section of Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. Having outlasted every other mile of America’s Mother Road, Williams retained a retro-hip 1950s vibe highlighted by kitsch signage, neon lights, and cool diners—an absolute must-do for road trippers.

Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perfectly placed adjacent to the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel and within walking distance of the Route 66 historic district, the highest rated and only all-paved RV park in the Williams area offers three levels of options, from pull-through sites to buddy spaces to back-ins. Each full-service site is equipped with 50-amp utility services and is large enough to accommodate big rigs.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And while the Tin Can Tourists who once traveled Route 66 would have been astounded to receive a Western Union telegram at their campsite, today’s guests can stay as connected (or as disconnected) as they wish, with free Wi-Fi as well as high definition digital TV. Other amenities include coin-operated laundry machines, updated shower facilities, a community picnic area with gas grills and fire pit, and access to the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and hot tub.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guests of the RV Park and Railway Hotel enjoy an extra perk for their traveling pets, namely the animal equivalent of a luxury vacation. The Grand Canyon Railway’s Pet Resort is one of the area’s most comfortable and modern facilities where dogs and cats, both small and large, enjoy abundant indoor space for lazing about. This is especially useful since they must be leashed at all times at the Grand Canyon South Rim and are not permitted on trails below the rim, on park buses, or in park lodging (service animals are exempt).

Aboard the Grand Canyon Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But from their base in 28 clean, cool kennels at the pet resort, dogs will enjoy individual playtime in the outdoor exercise yard and dog run. Kitties, too, can enjoy a dog’s life in 16 sun-filled cat condos overlooking the basketball and volleyball courts. From atop their private sitting ledge, felines savor the setting as they take a catnap.

En route to the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For both people and pets, the location and amenities of the Grand Canyon Railway RV Park is about as good as it gets — a welcome adjunct to the railway itself.

Arriving at the Grand Canyon Train Depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers on one of America’s most picturesque train journeys. Departing each morning from the station beside the RV Park, the train chugs north out of Williams for a ride up and over the massive Colorado Plateau. At just over two hours, the journey gives RV travelers the chance to take a 65-mile shortcut and leave the driving to the engineer. It’s a perfect way to arrive at Grand Canyon National Park rested and relaxed without worrying about navigating an RV through the twists, turns, and often dense traffic that concentrates at the park’s south entrance.

Departing the train at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And it’s all made easier by a quiet night, modern conveniences, and the perfect location of Grand Canyon RV Park.

Worth Pondering…

The Grand Canyon…

Do nothing to mar its grandeur…

Keep it for our children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Williams: Gateway to the Grand Canyon & Much More

Cowboy shootouts. A bear and bison park. Historic Route 66. Welcome to unexpected fun in this gateway to the Grand Canyon

The opium dens, bordellos, and other landmarks of Williams, Arizona’s, rough-and-tumble past are long gone. But some kinder, gentler vestiges of this town’s Wild West era remain. And that’s fortunate for Grand Canyon-bound visitors seeking a fun, full-service spot as a base before and after a trip to the canyon’s South Rim, 56 miles north.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town of 3,000 residents, considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon, is also home to the Grand Canyon Railway, an excursion train that traverses the scenic, high-desert plateau between a historic depot and the canyon.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even if you’ve been to Williams before, you might not be aware of these surprising facts and how they can enhance the visitor experience.

On the Right Track

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon Railway takes passengers on one of America’s most picturesque train journeys. Departing each morning from the station beside the RV Park, the train chugs north out of Williams for a ride up and over the massive Colorado Plateau.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At just over two hours, the journey gives RV travelers the chance to take a 65-mile shortcut and leave the driving to the engineer. It’s a perfect way to arrive at Grand Canyon National Park rested and relaxed without worrying about navigating an RV through the twists, turns, and often dense traffic that concentrates at the park’s south entrance.

Get Your Kicks On Route 66

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams boasts the final stretch of Route 66 to be bypassed by Interstate 40 (on October 13, 1984). The original “super-highway,” as Route 66 was known in 1926, spanned more than 2,300 miles from Chicago to Long Beach, California and opened up the West to road travel. (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 singer Bobby Troup marked the day Route 66 was bypassed, October 13, 1984, by plunking out the 1946 tune on a piano in the middle of America’s most iconic byway—called “The Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the town’s Main Street is a National Historic District. Its storefronts house curio shops, an old-fashioned soda fountain, and classic diners and motels, which preserve a bygone era.

Shootouts On Main Street

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a nightly shoot-out downtown at 7:00 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day in which classic Old West “outlaws,” the Cataract Creek Gang, get killed (civic boosters prefer the term “plugged”) as hundreds of “witnesses” (i.e., visitors) look on. The costumed bad guys—cowboy hats, spurs, and all—bounce back and come back the next day to perform their evil deeds again. And get plugged again.

See the Forest and the Trees

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williams is surrounded by the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest. You can explore the Kaibab National Forest’s 1,100 miles of U.S. Forest Service roads via mountain bike, all-terrain vehicle, or four-wheel drive. Elevations range from about 3,000 feet to 10,418 feet on top of Kendrick Mountain. Hikers can explore more than 300 miles of trails, some along the rims of the Grand Canyon.

Where the Wild Things Are

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bearizona Wildlife Park on the eastern outskirts of Williams is a rare spot where you can see bears, bison, wolves, and other North American critters, seemingly wandering free in the 160-acre facility. Guests view them from the comfort (and safety) of their cars through three miles of Ponderosa pine forest in the drive-through park.

Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A separate 20-acre walking area set up like a more conventional zoo is home to otters, beavers, porcupines, and more. The park also features a Bearizona Barnyard petting zoo, a special exhibit of “kindergarten” bears not old enough for the adult enclosure, and a high-country raptors show of hawks, owls, falcons, and other birds of prey.

Fill ‘Er Up

Remember when gas station attendants wore jumpsuits? Remember when there were gas station attendants?

Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum (101 E. Route 66) does. The cheerful red and white vintage building contains car-culture memorabilia harking back to another era. It’s open daily in summer.

Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort in Williams, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.

—Major John Wesley Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons

Making a Grand Trip Grander

The Grand Canyon’s fantastic landscape turns a train trip into a fascinating geology lesson

Since 1901 the Grand Canyon Railway has enchanted millions of people from around the world. From its yester-years of transporting ore to present-day journeys to the canyon with authentic characters that bring the Old West to life, the story of the railway is almost as dramatic as the spectacular surroundings.

The Grand Canyon Railway made its first journey in 1901 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon Railway made its first journey to the Grand Canyon on September 17, 1901. And since that time, notable passengers to ride the Grand Canyon Railway include Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, William Howard Taft, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clark Gable, Jimmy Durante, Doris Day, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates.

The Grand Canyon Railway pulls out of the station in Williams © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we boarded the Grand Canyon Railway and rolled out of the historic town of Williams, we were traveling across the bottom of what was once a prehistoric sea. We also traveled across the peak of a huge mountain—all at the same time.

On board entertainment © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The shallow sea that once covered Arizona dried up at the end of the Pre-Cambrian Era billions of years ago, but the soft curves of the seabed are still distinct atop the 1,152-square-mile Kaibab Plateau which is a only a fraction of the 130,000-square-mile Colorado Plateau it rests upon.

Grand Canyon Railway station at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To the rhythm of the steady and hypnotizing click-clack of the historic train, the dramatic landscape became a mesmerizing sight. It commanded our attention throughout the 65-mile journey to the Grand Canyon Village where even more spectacular wonders awaited.

Grand Canyon Railway station at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But for now, on a trip that lasts just over two hours, we looked outside our window and peeked into the past as we witnessed billions of years of geological evolution caused by erosion, volcanoes, weathering, and tectonic uplifts. The show began as we departed the depot in Williams and traveled across the deposits of dozens of now-extinct volcanic cones that erupted from roughly 15 million to just a few thousand years ago. It is the accumulated ash, cinders, and hardened lava thrown across the ground that created the land on which we traveled.

Grand Canyon Railway station at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not long into the northbound trip, we looked to the right and saw the largest volcano of all in the range of the San Francisco Peaks, outlined on the broad plain roughly 30 miles east of the tracks. Like Washington’s Mount St. Helens, the summit here—estimated to once have exceeded 15,000 feet—was reduced to 12,633 feet after a high-pressure eruption blasted the peak from the top of the now-extinct volcano.

Grand Canyon Railway station at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the scenery is already larger than life, the grandeur of this world is magnified when viewed from the comfort of the Grand Canyon Railway’s parlor cars, observation cars, and historic Pullman coaches. Incredibly, the magnificent drama of the Colorado and Kaibab plateaus heightens when you roll into the station at the Grand Canyon Village. As volcanoes were creating new land, rivers were washing it away to create one of the Natural Wonders of the World.

Grand Canyon Railway station at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s no better way to make a grand trip grander than on the historic train to the Grand Canyon. Like us, you’ll travel over 120 round-trip miles through beautiful northern Arizona while being entertained by historical cowboy characters and strolling musicians. Spend several nights in Williams next door to the train depot at the Grand Canyon Railway RV Resort.

Grand Canyon Railway station at the Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estimated to be between 1.7 million and 2 billion years old, the canyon floor is roughly half as old as the planet itself! And, that is something worth contemplating as the train pulls into the Grand Canyon Village.

Grand Canyon Railway station is a short walk to the rim of the Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself.

—Major John Wesley Powell, Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons