What is the Arizona Strip? No, it is not a type of poker game or a nude club. It is a small (only roughly the size of Wales) but fascinating part of the state of Arizona. Cut off from the rest of state, by the mighty Colorado and its famous canyon, it is not just a marketing gimmick. It is a distinctive region, physically separated from its mother state and it has more physical and cultural connections with the neighbouring Utah, including a sizeable Mormon population, than with the mother state. And it was from Utah that we entered the strip. We were heading directly to its (and in fact the whole state’s) biggest attraction, the Grand Canyon.
It must be one of the most popular attractions in the whole USA and I did visit it during my first visit across the pond, good 12 years ago. This time we decided to skip the overcrowded south rim and head to the much less visited north rim. I know it sounds strange that place as huge as Grand Canyon National Park can get crowded but it is worth remembering that most of its millions of visitors access it only in a few places, majority of them at the south rim which offers, among other things, an IMAX cinema and a shopping mall.
That leaves the north rim (with only a tenth of the overall park visitors) relatively unspoiled. There are few reasons for that but the most important is the fact that it is higher than the south rim and experiences much harsher winters, including heavy snowfall which closes it for many months every year. It is also much more remote and difficult to reach, especially from the major population centres like Phoenix, Las Vegas or southern California. All that only made it more attractive for us.
The Arizona Strip is spectacular even before reaching the canyon. Its northern part is dominated by the Vermillion Cliffs which is a massive sandstone cliff formation stretching along most of the strip and is visible for miles. Its stunning colours (especially the intense red) are most spectacular in the mornings and before sunset.
But the last hour or so drive towards the canyon is a bit of a surprise as it involves driving through the dense coniferous forests and some alpine meadows. All of that is of course an effect of the high altitude, roughly around 8500 feet (2500m) above the sea level. Only after walking, literally, to its edge does the canyon finally reveal itself.
And it is one of the sights which you can’t get bored of, which you can’t describe and which you won’t forget. What else can I say?
The best way of experiencing the canyon environment is to hike down. We chose the North Kaibab trail which extends all the way to the river 14 miles (22km) away and 6000 feet (1800 meters) below. Of course due to the time constrains (also a common sense and a lack of suicidal thoughts) we only hiked a small part of it. As we started in the afternoon we only reached Supai Tunnel located just 2 miles away but still more than 1400 feet (500 meters) below the rim. The round-trip took us a bit more that two hours and even if we didn’t reach third of the canyon total depth we could still notice changes in geological layers as well as in climatic and plant zones. It is definitely worth hiking down, even just to the first overlook (Cocoino Overlook ,which is less than 1.5 mile round-trip from the rim), to experience this amazing place. However stunning views from the top are it is simply something different down there.
As I mentioned, services at the north rim are limited so for the night we had to backtrack all the way to Kanab in Utah (but just across the Arizona border). There we stayed in of the most overpriced hotels I have ever stayed in the US. For a dated room and lukewarm water we paid more then $120, double what, a few days later, we paid for a suite in Luxor in Vegas! Unfortunately it was Saturday and everything else was booked solid. To add to the insult Kanab is a bit of tourist dump full of tour buses on their way to the canyon and you can’t even get a bloody drink.
Luckily the following day started gloriously with bright sunshine and a light breeze. We entered the Arizona strip again and headed towards Page, about 100 miles to the east. Our drive from Kaibab to Page was simply perfect. On Sunday morning the highway was almost empty, the sky was blue and most of the way the spectacular Vermillion Cliffs were just few miles to the north. In fact the only tricky bit of the drive was trying to keep eyes on the road as my head constantly kept turning left (north) to look at the fantastic rock formations with its spectacular colours.
And then, when you think it just can’t get any better, amazing dark blue colour appears on the horizon. It seems completely out of place in this region so dominated by hundreds of shades of red, yellow or grey. This deep blue meant only one thing, Lake Powell, the second largest man-made reservoir in the US. Before descending to the Glen Canyon Dam (which holds the lake), and the town of Page, it is worth stopping at the viewing point just north of the highway which offers amazing vistas of the lake. It is like nothing you can see in Europe. The surrounding landscape is bone dry and rocky while the deep blue lake fills hundreds of small side slot canyons creating a real maze of narrow bays. That means that Lake Powell has astonishingly long shoreline of 1900 miles (over 3000km!). Even the small part of the lake visible from the viewing point looks truly spectacular.
The Glen Canyon Dam itself is a stunning feat of engineering. There are of course environmental concerns, (some seriously question the sense of building it in the first place, some even want it to be demolished) but it is an impressive and , in a way, beautiful structure. If you like concrete (like I do) it is difficult to see anywhere more of it in one place.
At the dam there is visitor center offering dam tours, displays about the history of its construction as well as some technical trivia and viewing platforms. But the best view of the dam is from the Rainbow Bridge spanning the Colorado River just below the dam. The bridge is a delicate steel arch stretching between the walls of the canyon but without any supports inside the canyon itself and it matches the dam and the surrounding landscape perfectly.
The town of Page (which started in 1957 as a camp for workers building the dam) doesn’t really match the beauty of the landscape or the spectacular engineering of the dam and you can safely bypass it altogether if you don’t need gas or food. However just 4 miles out of town there is one more attraction I would like to mention here, the Horseshoe Bend. It is a spectacular meander of the Colorado River which features on many posters and in many books about the western US along with shots of Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon or Arches. The bend is visible from the 300 meters tall vertical cliffs which are accessible by a 1/2 mile hike from the parking lot on US Hwy 89. It was really hot during our visit (even if that was beginning of October) but the hike is well worth any effort as the view is breathtaking, for me on par with the Grand Canyon.
The Arizona Strip is often neglected by visitors to the Grand Canyon state which is a shame. It might be understandable for folks with limited time but I would strongly recommend trying to squeeze it into your itinerary, maybe at a cost of skipping the overcrowded south rim.
You won’t be disappointed.