Las Vegas - Grand Canyon
If you’re on vacation in Las Vegas, chances are you’ve considered making a trip to the Grand Canyon. The canyon is surprisingly close to the city – only about 200 miles away, in fact – but unless you’re willing to hire a private helicopter, the journey will take a minimum of five hours to complete. Your best option would be to travel by road.
- Lake Mead
- Hoover Dam
- Keepers of the Wild Nature Park
- Kaibab National Forest
But why rush it? After all, a road trip here will take you through some of the most beautiful parks, forests, and towns in the American West. Prepare yourself for the journey of a lifetime as you cruise across the red sandstone formations and relentless heat of the Mojave Desert. Here are some of our favorite stops on the way!
Things to know before you go on your Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon Road Trip
The shortest road distance from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon is about 280 miles, and driving should take between four and five hours. However, since our aim is to appreciate the journey as much as the destination, we envision a two-week-long trip that covers around 500 miles by road.
Most of the landscape on the way is going to be semiarid and, unless you’re traveling in the winter, the weather is going to be fairly hot. Be sure to take sunscreen, water cans, and rehydration salts in addition to camping gear and the other essentials. You may not have noticed the heat while busy in Vegas’ entertainment complexes, but the dusty road won’t let you forget!
Places to see on the scenic route from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon
1. Lake Mead
This stop is a bit out of the way, considering that it’s east (rather than south) of Las Vegas, but we definitely think it’s worth the detour. In terms of the total volume of water, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States and offers a whole host of water activities to the venturesome adventurer, including swimming, boating, water skiing, kayaking, and canoeing. The Lake Mead National Recreation Area is where you’ll want to set up a base first.
It’s not just the water that draws tourists to Lake Mead though; the surrounding scenery is absolutely gorgeous too. Picture towering mountains, plateaus, and beautiful desert vegetation. Come evening, pick up a hiking trail. A good one to start with is the Historic Railroad Trail, which takes you where the area’s trains once went. Once you reach the end of your hike, feel free to set up camp in the wilderness.
2. Hoover Dam
Once you double back the way you came, head to Hoover Dam, the architectural marvel that formed Lake Mead. The dam was built during the Great Depression in a gorge called the Black Canyon. For nearly a hundred years, it has harnessed the natural force of the Colorado River to produce invaluable hydroelectric power for the states of California, Nevada, and Arizona.
Vehicles aren’t allowed to drive all the way across the dam but you can take your car until about halfway. To learn about the history of the dam, take a guided tour by the US Bureau of Reclamation. In the process, you will visit different areas of the dam and understand what makes this power plant so vital to the country’s economy.
In 1775, while hunting for treasure in the New World, Spanish explorers came across a canyon in Nevada that they suspected had a vast gold deposit. 80 years later, they were proven right. In the late 1850s, the El Dorado Canyon became notorious for being the site of the Techatticup Mine, a historical landmark that you can visit when you drive through the ghost town of Nelson.
In the 1970s, a flash flood destroyed the main town. Since then, Nelson has been used solely for tourism. Visitors are allowed to take photographs in three designated barns but almost the entire town is open for exploration. As you walk past vintage cars, rusted bicycles, farmyards, and memorabilia from the past, you might find yourself thinking of the Pixar film Cars. We’re not sure whether Nelson was an inspiration for the fictional Radiator Springs, but we do know the former has featured in a number of Hollywood films.
Further down the US-93 lies Chloride, another ghost town. Like Nelson, Chloride was once a mining town, with its primary output being silver ore. It was operational right until 1945 when most of its miners abandoned it to fight in the Second World War. Today only 20 of its houses are occupied, and tourism has become its primary source of business.
When you walk through Chloride, you’ll notice lots of junk art – sculptures of birds, people, and so on. Be sure to visit the town’s post office, which happens to be the oldest operational one in Arizona. Other than that, you might be lucky enough to catch a mock gunfight in the streets.
A few miles outside the town, you’ll find the Murals of Chloride, a collection of paintings on rock formations. These were created by Roy Purcell in 1966. If you want to look at some art by the area’s Native peoples, go hiking in search of petroglyphs!
Route 66, one of the oldest highways in the US, runs through this part of Arizona and its longest stretch lies within the borders of Kingman. Once a mining town, Kingman is now not only a stopping point on the way to the Grand Canyon but also a magnet for history buffs. It has not one, but four museums that you should definitely visit.
At the Route 66 Museum, learn about the history of the famous highway through displays of stamps, life-size figurines, and old electric cars. At the Kingman Railroad Museum, look at miniature models of old trains. The Bonelli House, which was built in 1915, tells you everything you need to know about everyday life in Kingman a hundred years ago. For a broad overview of the history of Northwest Arizona, head to the Mohave Museum of History and Arts. It showcases artifacts from both the Native peoples as well as European settlers.
6. Keepers of the Wild Nature Park
Your next stop will be at the Keepers of the Wild Nature Park, near Valentine. The park, which rescues and shelters exotic animals that have suffered abuse in the entertainment industry, was started by Johnathan Kraft, a former magician from Las Vegas. Ever since he stopped using big cats in his performances, Kraft has been trying to raise awareness on cruelty to animals, and Keepers of the Wild is his main project.
The park is now home to over 50 species of animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, wolves, coyotes, and capybaras. On the Guided Safari Tour, you will have the opportunity to learn each animal’s story. We guarantee you’ll want to spend at least a day bonding with the rehabilitated wildlife here.
Williams, also on Route 66, is a town that feels straight out of the old Wild West, especially because of the rustic style of its shops and motels. A large number of travelers come here for the Grand Canyon Railway, which has trains that go right up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Maybe you could take the train on the return trip!
The other tourist attractions in the town are the Bearizona Wildlife Park, a nature reserve that you can explore either from the safety of your own car or via walkways; the Route 66 Zipline, which offers a 1400-feet-long flight over the Grand Canyon Boulevard; and Pete’s Route 66 Gas Station Museum, with its small but informative exhibits on Route 66 travel culture.
Drive east from Williams, and you’ll reach Flagstaff, the seat of Coconino County. The town makes an excellent base from which to tour the San Francisco Peaks, in particular Humphrey’s Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona. However, even if you’re not planning on traveling that far out, there’s quite a lot to do here.
Within the town, visit the Museum of Northern Arizona to explore both the indigenous as well as the natural history of the surrounding landscape. At the Walnut Canyon National Monument, 10 miles outside Flagstaff, are cliff dwellings once inhabited by the Pueblo people. Another archaeological site associated with Native history is the Wupatki National Monument, which includes a set of excavations near the Painted Desert.
South of Flagstaff is Sedona, sequestered within the Coconino National Forest. While driving here, you’ll notice some deep-ochre rock formations in the distance. These are the famous Red Rocks, and they get their color from a form of iron oxide called hematite. Perhaps their looming presence is part of the reason Sedona is considered a haven for spirituality.
Once you get to the main town, visit the medieval-esque Chapel of the Holy Cross, a majestic building apparently designed to remind you of the physical vastness of creation. You won’t easily forget the sense of grandeur you experience when you look out its massive windows! Afterward, go on a short hike in the wilderness. We’d suggest the Devil’s Bridge Trail, which takes you over a gigantic rock arch, or the Boynton Canyon Trail, which ends in a gorge with ancient petroglyphs on the walls.
10. Kaibab National Forest
Last but not least, head to the Kaibab National Forest, a nature reserve that spans 1.6 million acres, is home to species such as the coyote, pronghorn, and mule deer, and has some of the best hiking trails in the state. Follow the Sycamore Rim Trail, known for its unspoiled ponds, canyons, and streams. If you are an experienced rock climber, you may even have a chance to test your skills en route.
If you’re traveling with a large group, you may prefer to rent a cabin rather than camp. The Spring Valley Cabin and Hull Cabin are both good options with interesting history and excellent views of the scenery. When you finally convince yourself to get back on the road, you won’t have to travel very far, because the Grand Canyon is just an hour from the entry to the forest.