Arizona: From the Old West to the Lap of Luxury

BY Fred J. Eckert TIMEFebruary 19, 2020 PRINT

Hopi Point is widely considered to be one of the best spots from which to view the Grand Canyon. Even those who have different favorite overlook sites generally agree that there’s no other place along the far-reaching rim of the Grand Canyon where they’d rather be during sunset.

Sunset was more than an hour and a half away when we positioned ourselves up against the rail at Hopi Point. But it wasn’t very long before shuttle bus after shuttle bus unloaded enough tourists to fill in every inch along the long rail. By the time sunset was still 45 minutes away, tourists were backed up in deep rows from which it must have been next to impossible to get a view of much more than the back of heads and the sky.

Moonlight over Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona. Cathedral Rock is the quintessential Sedona Red Rock Country image. (Fred J. Eckert)

We were glad we came early, glad we came during off-season, and just plain glad we came. Our up-front panoramic view of the setting sun’s glow splashing upon the layers of rocks of the canyon was more than merely spectacular.

If you enjoy viewing nature’s greatest displays, it’s hard to match a front-row view of the Grand Canyon at any time of day. We made a point of viewing it at sunset, at sunrise, and during different times of daylight.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon, a must-see destination. (Shutterstock)

Looking down and across the gigantic chasm at any point along the rim of the Grand Canyon is the sort of experience that truly is breathtaking and nearly impossible to suitably describe. What you see before you is, in the view of many, the planet’s most dazzling landscape—a geological masterpiece many millennia in the making, a mind-bogglingly wondrous demonstration of the power of erosion.

Hopi Point is one of the most popular lookout posts along the Grand Canyon, especially at sunset. (Fred J. Eckert)

You stand at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, unless you are over along the much less visited North Rim, in which case you’d be anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher up. You look out over a chasm that averages about 10 miles across, about 4 miles at its narrowest gap, and 18 miles at its widest.

The mighty Colorado River that carved its way through the canyon lies nearly a mile below and flows 277 miles from the beginning of the canyon to its end. Geologists tell us that the exposed rock of the canyon tells a tale of nearly two billion years’ development of the planet or close to half the time of Earth’s existence. They long thought that the most “recent” development, the erosive carving by the Colorado River, took 6 million years but a newly released scientific re-assessment puts it at 15 million years.

At lookout points along the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, you stand at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, looking out over a chasm that averages about 10 miles across. (Fred J. Eckert)

The Paiute Indians of the American Southwest referred to this area as “Kaibab,” which means Mountain Lying Down. The less poetic name “Grand Canyon” was bestowed by the man who in 1869 led the first recorded journey on the Colorado River through the canyon—a gutsy one-armed former Civil War major who loved science and adventure, John Wesley Powell, who later founded the U.S. Geological Survey.

Calling it “grand” is like calling the Great Wall of China “great”—a peculiarly understated way to communicate that no other even comes close.

Just as peculiar to my wife and me, in retrospect, is the fact that somehow we put off seeing this made-in-America world wonder for so long, first seeing so many other great sights that are so far, far away. That’s a mistake you shouldn’t make. The Grand Canyon is a destination that should be at the top of the list.

You can experience some impressive wildlife sightings while visiting the Grand Canyon, such as this big buck. (Fred J. Eckert)

Most visitors spend but a day here; we stayed two. Nearly all visitors—roughly 90 percent of them—visit the South Rim area, as we did. You can drive around to the North Rim—but it’s a 215-mile trip! Some say it is even more stunning, but there are more stunning sights than most of us can handle along the South Rim.

By spending two days and by staying at accommodations within the park we were able to see views from pretty much every major lookout point along the South Rim. We drove a lot (how we wished we could have taken a free shuttle to many of our favorite spots), walked some, dined well, and brought away with us some fantastic memories. Those memories include some impressive wildlife sightings—a couple of elk and a good number of deer, including one big buck who casually dined on leaves hanging from a tree next to the sidewalk to our hotel room as we sat only about 10 yards away.

It’s easy to see why they call the Sedona area “Red Rock Country.” (Fred J. Eckert)

You can experience even better Grand Canyon views than we did if you opt for a longer visit and perhaps take a mule ride or hike down to the Colorado and back. Hiking here can be very strenuous. Of the more than 300 hikers who had to be rescued the previous year the overwhelming majority of them were in the 18–35 age range. There are plenty of long stretches where land abuts the mile-drop off without any barrier. Children should be carefully watched. We saw a number of adults foolishly tread where signs warned them not to.

Red Rock Country

Seeing the Grand Canyon is in and of itself more than sufficient reason to visit “The Grand Canyon State” but we decided to take in a wider view of Arizona while we were in the neighborhood and returned home very happy that we did.

We flew into the state capital city of Phoenix, a place renowned for its luxury resorts, but delayed the gratification of resort time until after we visited the Grand Canyon and the two other major Arizona sights we had decided upon—Sedona and Monument Valley.

From the Phoenix airport it is not much more than a two-hour drive north to the little city of Sedona (pop. 12,000) situated at an elevation of 4,500 feet in a transition area between the mountains to the north and the desert to the south. It’s a spot USA WEEKEND once ranked as No. 1 in its list of America’s 10 most beautiful spots, calling it “a place that looks like nowhere else.”

What gives Sedona its very special look is the remarkable assortment of red sandstone formations in and around it, strikingly beautiful backdrop scenes of magnificent rocks that often seem to emit an orange or red glow at sunset and sunrise.

A cactus at the base of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale on the grounds of one of America’s leading resorts, The Phoenician. (Fred J. Eckert)

Like the Grand Canyon, Sedona is a place to visit to be awed by nature’s beauty. But it also offers great shopping, outstanding resorts, splendid hiking and biking trails, more than 80 art galleries, year-round art festivals, and a wide range of accommodations. We spent a couple of days here concentrating on seeing in considerable detail three of the most highly rated vistas.

To get a general overview we drove up Airport Road, which has a couple of turn-offs where you can catch great red rock formation views in any direction, and makes this location a favorite for viewing both sunsets and sunrises. Look one way and far off in the distance you can see the Mogollon Rim, the southern end of the Colorado Plateau. Looking another way and off beyond city homes you can see such well-known monoliths as Coffee Pot Rock, Sugar Loaf, and Thunder and Doe Mountains.

Much as we liked those views we were even more impressed by the views from a turnoff along Schnebly Hill Road only about a mile or so out of town at the trailhead of Huckaby Trail. In one direction is a splendid view of two huge red rocks—The Bench and Merry-Go-Round—and in another is an equally splendid view of rocks with both red and white hues—Steamboat Rock, Ship Rock, and The Fin.

Our favorite Sedona view is the quintessential one that is just about everyone’s favorite—Cathedral Rock viewed from across nearby Oak Creek with the red rock reflecting in the stream. As the sun goes down and the moon rises, the rock seems to glow.

Cacti against the setting sun is a scene evocative of Arizona. (Fred J. Eckert)

Still More Stunning Scenery

The drive from Sedona to the south entrance of the Grand Canyon is only about two hours, but it can take considerably longer if for the first leg of the journey you take the route that runs through Oak Creek Canyon, because it’s too difficult to resist pulling over every now and then for a more relaxed view of the spectacular scenery. It’s one of the most scenic routes in America.

We couldn’t say the same of the nearly four-hour drive onward from the Grand Canyon through the barren country to our next destination—until right near the end. Then abruptly we found ourselves once again on one of America’s most scenic routes.

Mystery Valley, adjacent to Monument Valley, is a place of strange red rock formations and a scattering of desert plants. (Fred J. Eckert)

It was quite a sensation. We felt like we were driving into a wide-screen movie about the Old West. What we were looking at and driving into is one of the most recognizable scenes in the world, although few people can tell you where it is located or what it is called.

Monument Valley, largely in Arizona but spilling over into Utah, spreads over 30,000 acres in a Navajo Tribal Park within the Navajo Nation Reservation that covers 27,000 square miles in northeast Arizona, southeast Utah, and northwest New Mexico.

Sunset at Monument Valley. (Fred J. Eckert)

The image of its stark buttes rising from the great plains of a dusty desert is the image that best evokes the “American West” to Americans and to the world. It is an image etched indelibly in our minds because since before World War II it has served as a backdrop in so many favorite movies and television and print advertisements.

In 1938, Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, who had for more than a decade operated a trading post in the area where they swapped food and supplies in exchange for Navajo silver jewelry and Navajo hand-woven rugs, succeeded in persuading Hollywood director John Ford that the area would make a great movie set. The Gouldings hoped to bring much-needed new revenue to their Navajo friends during that Depression Era period.

A Navajo woman gives a demonstration of traditional weaving for tourists taking a tour of Monument Valley. (Fred J. Eckert)

The first result was the 1939 John Ford film “Stagecoach,” the classic western that made John Wayne a major star. Ford was so enthralled with the scenery here that in its journey, the movie’s stagecoach crisscrossed Monument Valley three times. Eventually Ford filmed nine movies here. In the decades since “Stagecoach” so many other major movies have featured scenes of Monument Valley that it is little wonder nearly everyone is familiar with its look.

Among them: “Forrest Gump,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Fort Apache,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Back to the Future III,” “How the West Was Won,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Searchers,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” and “Mission: Impossible II.”

Cathedral Rock in Sedona
Cathedral Rock, Sedona. (Shutterstock)

Iconic images of Monument Valley have appeared in lots of other films and on plenty of covers of books, CDs and DVDs, and in video games and computer screen wallpaper. Ads in which you may have seen it include the famous “Marlboro Man” campaign and one showing a new car atop one of its buttes.

For a small access fee, you can drive through a stunningly scenic area of the park on a 17-mile dirt road. Unless the weather is bad, it’s easy and takes between two to three hours. A better idea is to take one of Goulding Lodge’s tours, led by a Navajo guide. We did their moonlight tour our first evening and then spent the next day on their day-long tour that covers both Monument Valley and adjacent Mystery Valley. Both tours were outstanding. You cannot tour Mystery Valley without a Navajo guide. Many visitors to the area miss it—don’t. The Anasazi, ancestors of some of the area’s modern Indian tribes, lived here 2,000 years ago and you will see Anasazi cliff dwellings and petroglyphs and pictographs etched on a number of canyon walls.

This rock with an arch is one of the best known scenes in Mystery Valley. (Fred J. Eckert)

A Lush Oasis That Dazzles

We couldn’t think of a better way to cap off a week of touring Sedona, the Grand Canyon, and Monument Valley than to just relax for a couple of days at one of the great resorts for which Arizona is renowned. And when it comes to luxurious relaxation in Arizona—or anywhere—it’s extremely difficult to surpass The Phoenician, located at the base of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, only nine miles from the Phoenix airport.

Petroglyphs and pictographs are etched on a number of canyon walls in Mystery Valley, adjacent to Monument Valley. (Fred J. Eckert)

Once you make the turn into its beautifully tree-lined entrance drive you have entered a lush oasis that dazzles. This 250-acre resort property is the very definition of extraordinary. Its 585-room main hotel, long ranked as world-class, is complemented by a 60-room even more exclusive “boutique resort within a resort” called The Canyon Suites. All rooms at the resort are extra large and warmly appointed. The entire property recently completed an extensive, three-year transformation, the largest in its 31-year history. Virtually every part of the resort has been touched, creating a more contemporary, approachable luxury.

Monument Valley at sunrise
Driving into Monument Valley at sunrise. (Shutterstock)

Want to golf? A redesigned 18-hole course with expansive desert and city views awaits. Tennis, anyone? The brand-new Phoenician Athletic Club features seven tennis courts and two pickleball courts, along with a 4,600-square foot fitness center. Seven swimming pools are scattered throughout the property. The new Phoenician Spa features one of them, on its roof, in addition to a couple’s suite, a post-treatment Quiet Relaxation Room, nail salon, and Drybar.

This is a good-as-they-get resort in every area—accommodations, service, amenities, and cuisine. New restaurants include Mowry & Cotton, with modern American offerings prepared using the bold cooking techniques of fire, coal, and smoke; and The Phoenician Tavern, located at the golf clubhouse and serving upscale pub favorites. J&G Steakhouse, located on the fifth floor with some of the best views in the Valley, also received a refresh in summer 2018. Much as we savored sitting in the picturesque Thirsty Camel lounge, named a 2019 World’s Best Hotel Bar by Forbes Travel Guide, we also enjoyed such little luxuries as sampling signature pastries at The Marketplace, or strolling around the lovely two-acre Cactus Garden. Even the little things here are big treats.

So is Arizona. In just over a week of visiting The Grand Canyon State, we felt we had journeyed through the Old West and to the lap of luxury and experienced some truly great wonders along the trail.

If You Go

Information: For more info, see

Accommodations:  The very best place to stay in Arizona is The Phoenician. In Sedona, check out El Portal, a superb small inn with the feel of a 200-year-old hacienda with each beautiful room differently configured and decorated and featuring 18-inch thick adobe walls, located next to the delightful Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. For a range of accommodations within Grand Canyon National Park, check out Grand Canyon Lodges. In Monument Valley the place to stay is Goulding’s.

Dining: Especially considering its isolated location, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality, variety, and reasonable cost of the meals served at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley. We loved their Navajo fry bread—put honey on it and it tastes just like that wonderful Mexican dessert, sopapilla. Within the Grand Canyon the place for fine dining is the rustic and historic El Tovar; Sedona is loaded with fine restaurants; we especially enjoyed Reds at Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa. And in Phoenix the restaurants at The Phoenician are superb.

Travel tip for peace of mind:  Especially when you travel to remote spots, think of this: If you ever had to be medically evacuated, it could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Many plans that claim they cover this fall far short.  We cover ourselves against this with membership in MedjetAssist, which takes effect anytime we are more than 150 miles from home. Surprisingly, two-thirds of their medical evacuations occur in the United States.

Travel Guides: As is so often the case, the best travel guide for Arizona is Fodor’s “Arizona.”

Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents.

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