There are two direct routes from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon, both of which run approximately 80-90 miles, so we decided to take one route to the canyon and the other on our return home. This allows for not only a change is scenery, but also an opportunity to drive along the eastern end of the south rim, something that is missed if you do not venture beyond the Grand Canyon Village and the views accessible via their shuttle bus system.
Heading north out of Flagstaff on Hwy 180, you will traverse the high altitude region (approximately 7,000 ft. elevation) through the ponderosa pines. As you settle into the mid-lands, you will probably be struck as we were by the change in scenery and landscape as it is high desert with junipers and tumble weeds. Along this stretch of the road, we did see a small herd of antelope that seemed quite startled when we stopped the car to take some photos.
Continuing on, you eventually reach the small town of Tusayan. Here there are a number of motels, restaurants and gas/convenience stores. (By the way, gas here was $.40/gallon more than down in Flagstaff.) Also located in Tusayan is the National Geographic Grand Canyon Visitors Center that is the home of their Grand Canyon IMAX theatre. Be advised, they are not affiliated with the US Park Service or the Grand Canyon National Park. Located a couple of miles before the main park entrance, you can buy park admissions here if you want to. That won't help you to avoid the potential for lines at the park entrance, so I'm not sure why one should bother.
Before arriving at the park entrance, be sure to stop at the photo op Grand Canyon National Park turnout to take pictures to document your visit!
Once you have paid your entrance fee (or shown your US Parks Annual Pass) you will proceed into the park with an option to proceed towards the Grand Canyon Village (west) or to the Desert View area (east). We would recommend the village option saving the east choice for your departure route.
As you head into the park there is a parking lot at the main visitors’ center which also serves as a shuttle bus stop for the "village/blue" bus line. This is Mather Point, which is probably the most viewed area of the Grand Canyon simply because it is what you reach first when entering from the south entrance at Tusayan.
When you depart the Grand Canyon National Park, head east on Hwy64 which will take you past some lovely overlooks including the one at Watchtower. There is an east entrance to the park, with an admissions booth and a photo op sign as well, so you can do your visit in reverse order if you so choose. For us, however, we wanted to see and photograph the east end of the rim on our departure rather than entering.
Heading out Hwy 64, you will eventually reach Hwy 89 that goes south into Flagstaff. Along the way on Hwy 64, you will pass through the Navaho Indian Reservation and travel along the Little Colorado River. The red rock cliffs and canyons are beautiful but photo spots to stop are very limited, so take it all in with your mind's photographic imagery.
Highways 64 and 89 intersect in the small village of Cameron. Here you can pick up a bite to eat or fill up your gas tank. There are also several Native American outposts where you can stop in to shop for jewelry, pottery and other gifts.
For us, the drive to and from the Grand Canyon is as much a part of the tour as the canyon itself . . . so enjoy the ride!