Road trip to the Grand Canyon to experience its hidden gems

Add some Native cultures, volcanic awesomeness, and Route 66 kitsch to your Grand Canyon trip

  • 9
  • 03:43
  • 153 mi
  • $19
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Created by Kampgrounds of America - February 26th 2019

Many people make the mistake of squeezing a visit to the Grand Canyon into a day trip. While the park is an essential destination on any bucket list, the surface of the park's awesomeness is barely scratched by a trip to a visitor center or scenic overlook. A road trip around the Flagstaff area really lets you learn about the geology, native cultures, and recent history of the entire Grand Canyon region. You'll gain a new appreciation for the fabled icon as you see and learn more about this part of Arizona, and camping out lets you make the most of the natural beauty here.

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Start your trip by learning about the native history of the Grand Canyon area. Wupatki National Monument shows that the Grand Canyon area flourished around the 11th century. Many small settlement sites from Ancient Pueblo Peoples such as the Cohonina, Kayenta Anasazi, and Sinagua are scattered across the National Monument. The name "Wupatki" means "tall house" in the Hopi language, and refers to a multistory pueblo dwelling built by the Sinagua. It has over 100 rooms and was the largest structure for 50 miles. The first evidence of settlement in the Wupatki area dates to around 500 CE. Researchers believe that the population in the area peaked with about 85-100 people in 1182, and that the region was abandoned around 1225. Call to reserve a spot on a small, guided hike or explore the pueblos on your own. The area is still very much alive and Native Peoples continue to care for it today. The Hopi believe the people who lived and died here remain as spiritual guardians, and various Hopi clans make trips here to better understand their culture and history. When visiting, remember to be respectful.

Nearby Sunset Crater Volcano actually played a role in fostering the growth of settlements at Wupatki. The volcano erupted somewhere between 1040 and 1100 CE, covering the area in volcanic ash that helped agricultural societies grow crops. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument protects the extinct Sunset Crater Volcano, a 1,120-foot-high cinder cone. It's a part of the larger San Francisco volcanic field, which you can learn more about at the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument's visitor center, which has a museum about the volcano. Though hiking to the summit is no longer allowed, there's a mile-long, self-guided hike, the Lava Flow Trail around the base of the cinder cone. It runs alongside the Bonito Lava Flow, where you can see the remains of a forest that was leveled by the flow. You can also hike the Lenox Crater Trail to experience what it's like to summit a cinder cone.

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Flagstaff, AZ

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There are many reasons for travelers to stay at the Flagstaff KOA. In addition to spacious Tent Sites and RV Sites (some of which have patios), the Flagstaff KOA has Camping Cabins, gorgeous Deluxe Cabins, and even Teepees for rent. The campground offers amenities such as banana bicycle rentals, barrel train rides, a jumping pillow, a game room, a playground, and a full calendar of fun events during the summer months. Coffee in the mornings is complimentary, and you can grab a full breakfast at their onsite cafe. The KOA can also arrange tours to Sedona or the Grand Canyon for an extra fee. Plus, the Flagstaff KOA is eco-friendly, with full on-site recycling, water reclaiming for landscaping, and wind turbines.

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Flagstaff, AZ

Get back to nature and experience the rich geological features of the American Southwest first-hand at the Lava River Cave. Located about 14 miles from Flagstaff in the Coconino National Forest, this lava tube is a unique natural feature. Lava tubes occur when the top and sides of a lava flow cool and harden as the rest empties out. This tube was formed roughly 700,000 years ago when a lava flow erupted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie. The waves on the ground are evidence of the last trickles of the lava flow, and the stone icicles from the top were formed when a final blast of volcanic heat partially re-melted some of the hardened lava. Lava River Cave is about a mile long and can be reached from the road by a four-mile one-way hike. When you visit, remember to bring two or three sources of light (backups are essential, in case your primary source fails), sturdy hiking shoes, and layers of clothes, since it's about 42 degrees inside the cave⁠—even during the summer months.

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Another great campground option is the Williams / Exit 167 / Circle Pines KOA Holiday. Grab supplies from the onsite store and rent a bbq to have a cookout before retiring to your Tent Site, RV Site, or Deluxe or Camping Cabin. This KOA also offers a teepee for rent, which comes furnished with a queen sized bed for your comfort. Additionally, the campground boasts an indoor pool with a hot tub and sauna, mini golf, hay rides, a jumping pillow and even a go-kart track. Rent a bike to explore, or book a tour through the KOA. But you won't need to go too far from the campsite to find awesome hiking or hours of fun, especially with all of the wonderful extras available here.

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Williams, AZ

Since this custom road trip takes you close to old Route 66, grab a bite to eat at Rod's Steak House, a true site of old-school cool. It's been serving delicious American grub to road-weary travelers since 1946. The first thing you'll notice is the awesome retro neon outside. Inside, you'll see that the menu is simple, made up of fried appetizers and various cuts of steak, but it's the kind of perfection that is best not messed with. Go classic with fried beef livers and a prime rib au jus, all served on adorable cow-themed plates. And remember: save room for dessert!

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Williams, AZ

Bearizona is a quirky, drive-through wildlife park in Williams, Arizona that's worth a visit, if only for the kitsch factor. There's a three-mile road that winds through 160 acres of Ponderosa Pine-covered land, which houses all kinds of animals from across North America. Along the drive, keep your eyes peeled for elk, wolves, deer, bears, bison, and sheep. In addition to a petting zoo and a nocturnal animal exhibit, there's also a walk-through area, Fort Bearizona, which allows you to get up-close views of some the park's smaller animals. There are loads of "Keeper Chats" and trailside encounters in this part of the park, which add to the experience. Bearizona also offers a guided bus tour of the drive-through portion; Guides on these tours offer treats to some of the animals to ensure up-close sightings and great photo ops. Pro tip: The animals are most active in the morning and later in the afternoon.

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Williams, AZ

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The closest KOA to the Grand Canyon is the Grand Canyon / Williams KOA. They feature a full-service tour concierge to help you make the most of your Grand Canyon/Northern Arizona trip. Campers can also cool off at the pool, sip a gourmet cup of java at the fireside coffee bar, and pick up last-minute souvenirs at the huge onsite gift shop. You can even buy bags of dirt for use at the on-site Rough Riders Mining Company's sluice. Hunt for real arrowheads, gemstones, fool's gold, and more. And at the end of a long day, rest up in your tent or RV, or in a Deluxe Cabin, Camping Cabin, or Glamping Tent.

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Grand Canyon Village, AZ

Finally, end your road trip at the Grand Canyon National Park. Though the canyon is only eight miles across, it's a 215-mile drive to get from the South Rim to the North Rim. The route is one of the best ways to fully experience the Grand Canyon though. The popular South Rim offers Yavapai Point, Grandview Point, and Moran Point, as well as the historic Desert View Watchtower. The North Rim is less crowded, and offers Bright Angel Point, among other notable overlooks. Hikes are another great way to really get a feel for how massive and special the Grand Canyon is. Various trails offer views of natural springs, piney forests, and, of course, the canyon. Bright Angel and South Kaibob Trails are popular and less strenuous, and the North Rim's North Kaibob Trail is also a nice out-and-back hike.

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There's so much more to a Grand Canyon road trip than just the Grand Canyon. See volcanoes, explore important Native American sites, camp out under the stars, and enjoy a piece of Route 66 history as you make your way to the pinnacle of the trip: the canyon itself. The Grand Canyon won't disappoint, but neither will the adventure to the park.

Kampgrounds of America

Behind the Yellow Sign at KOA, we combine the great outdoors with great service. We offer modern sites, facilities and amenities designed to meet the needs of every kind of camper. And with 500+ campgrounds across North America, it’s easy to find an amazing place for camping fun!