Why would the cast of "Fiddler on the Roof" enjoy a trip to the Grand Canyon? Two words: sunrise, sunset.
Tevye isn't usually singing there, but thousands of visitors to this awe-inspiring location nonetheless pry themselves out of bed early in the morning to see first light bring the canyon walls to life, and again line the edge of the sheer rock cliffs as twilight paints an equally spectacular color palette.
Visitors to the canyon face an array of choices. Travel in busy summer or beautiful - but snowy - winter? Ride the mules down into the canyon or view the steep ridges comfortably from the rim? Stay in a luxurious and historic hotel, or pitch a tent? South Rim or North Rim? The answer to all these questions is that it doesn't really matter, because the canyon has more than enough charms to please most any visitor.
For travelers arriving by tour bus at the Canyon View Information Plaza, it's a short stroll to nearby Mather Point and its panoramic views. The mix of languages in this multicultural crowd - not to mention the number of cameras aimed at the rock walls - is a reminder of the canyon's international landmark status. As the National Park Service brochure boasts, "Nowhere else is such a dazzling variety of colorful rock layers, impressive buttes and shadowed side canyons revealed in such a dramatic chasm."
The oldest rocks in the canyon date back an estimated 1.84 billion years, though the canyon itself was formed by erosion a mere five million to six million years ago. A stay of only one or two nights might therefore seem insulting to Mother Nature, but it's enough time to check out the highlights.
The canyon stretches some 277 miles in length, but most visitors to the popular South Rim concentrate within about 10 miles of Grand Canyon Village, a collection of lodges, restaurants and shops. Free shuttle buses travel to scenic points to minimize traffic jams, and the Rim Trail offers sufficient challenge for travelers who favor sneakers over hiking boots.
Why trek to more than one overlook? Because just when you think you've seen the most spectacular view ever, a new and even more amazing vista awaits just around the next curve. Even standing in one spot, the changing light and passing clouds reveal new textures throughout the day.
The El Tovar hotel, built in 1905, is the top-of-the-line lodging at the canyon. (It was good enough for Albert Einstein!) Neighboring Thunderbird and Kachina Lodges offer a motel feel for a more modest fee, and all are just steps from the canyon rim. Dining options include a cafeteria and a family restaurant, but don't miss dinner at the El Tovar dining room, where reservations are accepted months in advance.
Two hours south of the Grand Canyon, travelers in Arizona encounter another geologic spectacle: the famous red rocks of Sedona. Instead of standing on a canyon rim looking down, you start at the bottom and gaze up at massive rock formations that have been naturally carved into intricate shapes.
Many of the buttes and monoliths are so distinctive that they've acquired names, including Coffeepot Rock, Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock. There's no Rock of Ages, but the Jewish community of Sedona occupies a new building full of activities and, of course, a panoramic view.
The journey to Sedona south from Flagstaff is impressive in its own right. Driving through Oak Creek Canyon begins with a view of sheer rock walls descending into a forest. A new vista unfolds around every bend in the road leading to the first tantalizing glimpse of the red rocks.
Lone Ranger? Plenty Available!
Do stop at the Forest Service office for a $5 permit required for some of the scenic parking areas around town -– and some very friendly guidance from the rangers about the best viewing spots. And do stock up on the bottled water you'll need in this bone-dry climate.
To enjoy some tall tales along with the tall rocks, sign up for one of the omnipresent Jeep tours. While you cling dearly to your seat on the safe but bouncy ride, the guides - some dressed in cowboy garb - will share their recollections of encounters with rattlesnakes and advise you which cactus fruits are edible, and which will poison you.
Almost any turn off Sedona's main street, Route 89A, will lead to delightful views. Highlights include Upper Red Rock Loop Road; a visit to Chapel of the Holy Cross, a modern church built into the rocks; and a trip to the Airport Mesa at sunset for a panoramic view of the town. But arrive early - the parking lot fills to overflowing as the dramatic moment draws near.
Sedona is also known for its art galleries, its new age "vortexes" and dozens of fine restaurants. Southwestern specialties are abundant and a few, such as Heartline Cafe, add an assortment of fish and vegetarian dishes.
Many tourist-oriented businesses are clustered in "Uptown" Sedona. Hotels in this area offer convenience, but not much peace and quiet while the lodgings in West Sedona offer a more sedate, if a bit suburban, ambience