Last week, I went out to Arizona for a work trip (conference) but took an extra three days to explore northern Arizona. For the past few years, I've been itching to see Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon and both did not disappoint!
Getting to Page, Arizona
To get to Page, Arizona is not an easy feat from the East Coast. There are no direct flights, so if coming from NYC (or other major East Coast cities), your best bet is to fly directly to Phoenix as early as possible and then rent a car and drive 4 hours to Page. This was quite a long trip and I am SUPER glad I took the first flight out at 6:30 am from JFK as the rest of the day did not go quite as planned...
Due to my early flight, that meant I also had to be up at 3:30 am to get to JFK by 5 am from Manhattan. I can never sleep well whenever I take an early morning flight (the anticipation of waking up/not missing the alarm) so I was pretty sleep deprived by the time we landed in Phoenix (about a 5 hour flight direct). We landed at 9 am Phoenix time though, but by the time I got my car rental and left the airport, it was almost 10:45 am. The first thing I did was drive to the nearest Walmart about 15 min. away to stock up on water and snacks for the road, then I hit up the infamous West Coast burger and fries franchise In and Out for lunch and by noon, I was on the road.
It's generally a very straight drive from Phoenix to Page and though the speed limit was like 75 mph, you're going uphill most of the time (northern Arizona like Sedona, which is on the way, is at a higher elevation which means it's also cooler). My car rental didn't have strong pick up speed even though it was an SUV so I wish I was flying faster but I was just going about 75-80 mph max. (not that you should be speeding but I usually like to think +10 over the speed limit is okay and most were going way faster than me!). Anyway, about an hour into my drive, I GOT A FLAT TIRE!!!!!
I've never gotten a flat tire on my own...This was also the second time ever in life renting and driving alone. Thank goodness the woman at my Enterprise car rental had asked me if I wanted roadside assistance before I drove off the rental lot! Usually to keep costs down I turned down all the car insurances/packages, etc. But when she asked if I wanted roadside assistance (which is only like $6.99/day and basically a tow truck will come help with any car issues) I had a bad foreboding feeling and got it just in case.
I was also lucky the flat tire happened early on during the drive. Between Phoenix and Page, there is basically nothing but mountains and desert road (although when you pass thru Flagstaff there is civilization). I was a mile away from a gas station so I pulled off the highway and called for help when I was at the gas station (which was in a safe area, thankfully). Took about an hour for the tow truck guy to come and he was able to change my tire in about 5-10 min. So I didn't know this before and will share this to others who may not as well. When you get a flat tire:
- you cannot drive more than 50 mph on a spare tire
- you cannot drive more than 50-100 miles with a spare tire on
I did not know this! In my mind (before I found out) I thought I was gonna just be driving the car around with a spare. Anyway, so I found out I needed to switch out my car at the nearest Enterprise so off to Flagstaff I went (driving oh so slow at 50 mph while everyone else was whizzing by). Luckily it was within 50 miles of where I was. So I get to the Flagstaff Enterprise rental at the airport (no direct flights from NYC, otherwise I would've tried to fly into Flagstaff to cut driving time!), and the guy tells me he has no cars to give me!!!! It's about 3:30 pm at this point and I'm hungry, sleep deprived, and generally cranky from the whole tire situation. Plus everything closes by 6 pm (like the rental car office and the garage) so I was feeling nervous. And I forgot to mention earlier that my car was pretty new (only 5K miles on it!). So the car rental guy called the local garage who had the exact tire I needed to replace so he sent me over there to switch it out. It was about a mile away, and when I got there, I see how busy they are and not feeling happy about having to deal with all this (I didn't have to pay for the tire though). The mechanics there were really nice though and took care of me, within 45 minutes they switched out the tires (they said they couldn't repair the flat, the tire melted too much! It was quite hot on the road). So by the time I got back on the highway again, it was close to 5 pm and I still had 2.5 hours to drive!
At this point, I start to race against the sun. As I head north, there are less and less cars on the road, and zero services. Ok, not COMPLETELY zero, thank God there was ONE service area about 1.5 hours from Page. It's in Cameron, Arizona and it's near the Navajo Trading Post. There is also a Conoco gas station there but it's pretty deserted so it feels a bit sketch. I initially saw the gas station first and wanted to pull in and use the bathroom but it didn't feel safe to me (lack of people) so I drove down the road further to the Burger King and used their facilities instead (more people and definitely a tourist bus stop area I believe). Otherwise, there was NOTHING to stop at between Flagstaff and Page. I was feeling nervous too--what if I somehow popped another tire??? The tow truck guy told me flats happen often on the highway from all the traffic/debris from trucks. Anyway, at this point in the day with light fading, I was not feeling great driving solo but I was thankful I started my day early.
For GPS, I was using good old Google Maps, and I knew that at some point, it was taking me off the major highway of route 89. To get to my hotel, it took me onto Coppermine Road which is like a highway road except it's one lane in both directions and less cars!!! However, on my return trip, I was glad my GPS took me on Coppermine Road north because I came back south on US route 89 and saw that it is a HUGE incline up on one segment of the road whereas Coppermine Road was flat the whole way. The difference in length between the two is only 5 miles and while 89 is a more commercial road, I guess I'm glad I was on Coppermine.
So, long story short, I got to my hotel RIGHT at dusk and I was thrilled I made it but had zero energy for anything else and basically went straight to bed. Not sure if I would ever put myself in a situation like that again! I mean, everything turned out fine but I didn't like how I felt uneasy driving solo so remotely and without much energy.
Hotel in Page
I stayed at La Quinta Inn Suites, which was great. Feels like a new hotel and the staff is super friendly. My rate $135 USD included breakfast too but I never ate it (I opted for nearby McDonald's to save time after I finished seeing Horseshoe Bend). I highly recommend as an affordable and central place to stay. It's less than a 10 min. drive to Horseshoe Bend and most restaurants, about 15 min. away from Antelope Canyon.
My initial plan was to see Horseshoe Bend the afternoon I arrived. Since that obviously didn't happen, I got up at the crack of dawn (5 am) to see it at sunrise (which was at 5:30 am in mid-April). I am SO glad I did!!!! Most people recommend seeing it at sunrise and after seeing it, I understand why. The bend faces East, so as the sun rises, you see the colors of the canyon change. If you see if any other time of day like afternoon the face of the canyon will be in shadow of the sun.
It's also completely safe to see/do on your own. When I arrived in the parking lot, there were about 10 cars there too. It wasn't too cold, about low 50s, and it wasn't windy yet. It got windier as the morning went on. FYI, it just gets really windy in northern Arizona! On my drive from Page to Sedona, the winds were so forceful I could feel the car waver thru it!
The walk from the parking lot to the overlook is easy--you walk uphill in sandy terrain and then downhill, all less than a mile. The path is wide and easy to follow.
There are zero barriers so as you approach the canyon, just be careful and watch where you step. And don't let young kids run around too freely! There were less than 10 people when I arrived at sunrise (mostly pro photographers who had their tripods set up!) on a Thursday morning. I'm glad I did this early because when I left in the afternoon the parking lot looked quite full. I stayed here for about an hour, just watching the colors of everything change from muted colors to bright vivid ones as the sun came up. I'm also glad I came earlier as the higher the sun rose, more flies seem to flit about and we also heard the waking sounds of far away coyotes! Overall, despite my horrendous travel the day before, the views here were beautiful and worth the trek out from Phoenix.
Another thing to know--the time out here can get confusing!!! Because parts of this area are close to Utah, your cell phone signal might show Mountain time, instead of Pacific time. Depending on the time of year, this matters. In this case, I was visiting in April, after Daylight Savings Time is in effect, and I knew that Arizona was on Pacific time but while I was in Horseshoe Bend/Antelope Canyon, my phone would show time an hour ahead. So be careful! When I left Horseshoe Bend, it was about 6:30 am Pacific time (although my phone said 7:30 am, but my car's time was correct so I would refer to that if I got confused) and instead of catching breakfast at the hotel, I went to McDonald's which is very close and got drive thru and ate at the parking lot. The reason why I did that was because I needed to be at Upper Canyon to make a walk-in rsvp at 8 am and then I needed to be in Lower Canyon by 8:10 am to check in for my tour. And I wanted to make sure I had time to digest/use the bathroom before I went to either one! So I just ate as fast as I could, got back to the hotel by 7 am, rested for about 30 min., then headed back out around 7:45 am.
So about booking tours for Lower Canyon/Upper Canyon. I read a lot about this and based on my experience:
- Definitely visit both. Do Lower Canyon first (which is longer and more interesting to see) and do Upper Canyon at prime time (which is 11 am or noon, depending on the time of year you go).
- You do NOT need a rsvp for Upper Canyon! Everyone tells you you need one but you don't! Even my hotel receptionist at check in! On Trip Advisor I read mixed things about making a rsvp. And yes, you do need to if you choose to use one of the big touristy upper canyon operators. If you go with Antelope Navajo Tours, you can totally just show up and sign up for an 11 am or noon slot. However, when you look on their website, you don't see this option at ALL which is why it's confusing (I guess they purposely don't post it). My friend had done the same a couple of years ago so it doesn't seem like anything has changed. I showed up at 8 am and only 3 other people were in front of me (they have two lines, one for walk-ins and the other for online rsvps).
- For Lower Canyon, I used Ken's Lower Canyon tours and I'm so glad I did. They were fun and well organized and definitely get on the first tour ASAP! This you can (and should) rsvp in advance. I got on the 8:20 am tour (I booked for 8:40 but they let me change it since they had room). Both Navajo and Ken's tours are LITERALLY across the road from each other (two minute drive, if even that) so if you plan this right you can hit both. First, hit Upper at 8 am when they open to sign up for the 11 am or 12 pm tour and then sail over to check in for the early Lower Canyon tour. Hold onto your ticket for Lower Canyon so you don't have to re-pay the $8 permit fee for the park when you do the Upper Canyon tour later.
- Another reason why you want to do Lower Antelope as early as possible is because (according to my guide at least) it looks best early in the morning and it's less people. When I was signing up for the Upper Canyon tour, the lady said I might not make it back in time if I did the Lower first because the day before, there was so much congestion that people got backed up for 2-3 hours! I can see how this happens if you start the Lower Tour later like 9 am. You might not make it for the 11 am Upper. I did Lower at 8:20 am and by the time we entered the canyon, the line in grew super long so being an early bird pays off! I finished Lower Canyon by 9:30 am, plenty of time to catch the 11 am and better safe than sorry!
Lower Antelope Canyon
As I mentioned earlier, Ken's Lower Canyon tour ($25 USD) was great. It's next to another one (Dixie) so make sure you drive into the right lot. They own this part of the canyon so when the gov't shuts down, they're still operating (unlike National Park Services). I loved the guide we had--they probably train all the guides the same. They know where to take ALL the best pictures and they're quick too! Each guide gets about 6-10 people to bring in and they have multiple guides for all the time slots. They were so friendly and efficient.
Lower Antelope Canyon is a different experience than Upper. It's about a mile walk through roundtrip and involved climbing ladders (nothing no can handle unless you're in some way physically disabled, in my opinion) but it wasn't strenuous. They do tell you that flash floods are possible and if they throw out ropes into the canyon, you best scramble up on them! The day I went was clear as day though (with some winds) so definitely watch the forecasts.
Going earlier in the day is better so you don't get backed up by all the various tourist groups that eventually trek/angle for space for pictures. Again, I loved our guide because he was efficient and assisted us with telling us where to take pictures and sometimes would take pictures for us that you would never realize is an amazing shot!
I have a million pictures from the tour but the above are some of my favorites. I finished the tour within an hour and liked it more than Upper as there was more to see and felt more exciting climbing up/down and going through narrow crevices.
Upper Antelope Canyon
Upper Antelope Canyon is a different experience. It's a much shorter walk than Lower, and you have to ride out on a jeep with a tour company to get to the entrance. It's also a flat, in/out walk into the canyon. The whole experience takes about an hour as well due to the 3 mile drive (one way) to the canyon and back. It sounds like it would be a quick drive but it's not because they're driving on sand. Depending on the level of wind, you should prepare yourself for getting covered in sand and you might want to bring a scarf to help cover your mouth/nose from the dust!
As I mentioned earlier, I went with Antelope Navajo Tours. Don't bother trying to call them. I called them several times before my trip and only ONE time (the first time I called actually), someone picked up. Anyway, you can book a rsvp online on their website but they do NOT let you rsvp for the popular times of 11 am or noon, but it is TOTALLY available if you go as a walk-in. You can sign up for the professional photo tour if you have fancy cameras ($120) but the guided one hour tour ($48) is sufficient. By the way, all my pics were taken with my iPhone 7 (I am too lazy to invest in fancy equipment!).
When you show up to sign up, it looks very make shift (compared to Ken's Lower tours, which has an actual building). There's basically some tables and benches set up underneath shade but otherwise don't expect any type of facility here!
I was lucky and got on an 11 am tour with an organized tour group who was using them as well. Since I was solo, they just stuck me on with them and we were the first to arrive at the canyon (amongst all the groups that were going at the same time) so it wasn't as crowded when I went with this group since we were among the first to arrive for that time slot.
Got lucky and saw some some beams in the canyon (which only appear in the middle of the day) but to see the ULTIMATE sun beams, it's better to be there at 12:30 pm (for April at least).
To Eat in Page
After I finished the Upper Canyon tour, it was about 1:15 pm and I was starving! So I headed over to El Tapatio which is in the center of town and an authentic family-run Mexican restaurant. The food was delicious!!! I had the carne asada, which is skirt steak with rice and beans and it sounds simple but it was amazing! Super juicy and flavorful. I wish I could've eaten here more than once but I basically left Page to drive down to Sedona after I ate.
Before I drove off though, I did stop by Glen Canyon Dam to have a look. I wanted to go down to see Lake Powell too but since I was spending the next two nights in Sedona, I just wanted to get to Sedona ASAP (2.5 hour drive from Page).
Overall I had a wonderful time cramming everything in one morning in Page and highly recommend visiting!