While 90 percent of visitors approach the Grand Canyon from the south, a better and less crowded approach follows US-89 and Hwy-64, climbing up from the Navajo Nation deserts onto the Kaibab Plateau. The views are amazing in any direction—north across the desiccated Colorado Plateau, east across the colorful Painted Desert, west to the forests of the Kaibab Plateau, or south to the angular San Francisco Peaks, including 12,663-foot Mount Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona.
This route is somewhat longer than the US-180 route to the Grand Canyon, but in most other ways it’s far superior—not least because it gives access to a huge variety of scenery and historic sites. The first of these, 12 miles north of Flagstaff and 4 miles east of US-89, is Sunset Crater, a 1,000-foot-tall black basalt cone tinged with streaks of oranges and reds and capped by a sulfur-yellow rim—hence the name, which was bestowed by explorer John Wesley Powell in 1892. You can hike through the lava field that surrounds the cone, but the cone itself is off limits.
Sunset Crater marks the start of a scenic loop that winds around for some 30 miles through neighboring Wupatki National Monument (928/679-2365, daily, $5). The monument protects the remains of a prehistoric Native American community, thought to have been ancestors of the Hopi, who lived here between AD 1100 and 1225 and now inhabit the broad mesas rising to the northeast. Hundreds of ruins—most in very fine condition—are spread over the 35,000-acre monument. The largest ruin, 100-room Tall House, stands near a ceremonial amphitheater and a very rare ball court, which may indicate a link with the Mayan cultures of Central America.
Back on US-89, 20 miles north of the north entrance to Wupatki, the crossroads settlement of Cameron stands at the junction with Hwy-64, which heads up (and up) to the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. A mile north of the Hwy-64 junction, along the south bank of the Little Colorado River is historic Cameron Trading Post (800/338-7385, $70-110), which includes a motel and an RV park. It stands next to an equally historic one-lane suspension bridge, built in 1911 (and now carrying an oil pipeline). Cameron makes a good alternative to Tusayan, in case all the Grand Canyon’s in-park accommodations are full.
From Cameron, Hwy-64 runs west along the Little Colorado River Gorge, which Hopi cosmology considers to be the place where man emerged into the present world. This deep canyon leads into the much larger Grand Canyon, while Hwy-64 climbs up the plateau for 30 miles to the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Your first overlook is a desert view, where the photogenic 1930s Watchtower gives a great taste of the canyon from the highest point on the South Rim.