Arizona is famously known as the “Grand Canyon State.” However, there are other natural wonders to explore beyond the famous National Park. My friend Krystina and I wanted to see some more Northern Arizona landmarks; among our list of destinations were Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. We locked in the trip for the Spring of 2013.
So, Friday evening Krystina and I loaded our bags into her Jetta and drove from Phoenix to Flagstaff—a distance of 120 miles (193 km). The trip to Flagstaff takes about 2 hours with no stops. The drive is primarily uphill, and climbs 5,800 feet (1767 m) in elevation. Starting from Flagstaff gave us a jump start on the next day.
We awoke on Saturday morning to the cool air and smell of pine trees. Rested and ready to begin our day of adventure, we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel before heading out. We left Flagstaff around 8:30 A.M., heading north on US Highway 89.
We made our first pit stop in Cameron, Arizona – a small tourist stop about an hour outside of Flagstaff. Here you can find Native American art and crafts for sale alongside a trading post, motel, post office, and gas station. You can also see Tanner’s Crossing Bridge. This historic suspension bridge was built in 1911. Of course, I took time to walk around this magnificent piece of architecture and snap a few photos. While the bridge is closed to public access, it is still standing, showing how impressive engineering was over 100 years ago.
After a brief stop, we were ready to continue on our journey. However, we couldn’t take the most direct route into Page. Two months before our trip, in February 2013, a landslide caused catastrophic damage to US Highway 89, approximately 25 miles south of Page. The state highway department closed a 23-mile (37 km) section of the highway from Bitter Springs to Page until repairs could be done.
The detour around this closure was to take US Highway 160 to SR 98. This route added about 45 miles and 20 extra minutes of driving time, taking us through Tuba City.
Side note: As a temporary solution, the highway department worked with the Navajo Nation to upgrade a 44-mile dirt road called Navajo Route 20 to a paved road. The three-month project cost $35 million and opened to drivers in August 2013. Navajo Route 20 was temporarily designated as US 89T until repairs could be made. Fixing the damaged road took two years and cost $25 million dollars. The closed section of US 89 reopened to normal use in March of 2015.
It was around noon when Krystina and I arrived at the parking area for Lower Antelope Canyon.
Antelope Canyon is a set of narrow slot canyons in Northern Arizona. It was created by flowing water eroding the soft sandstone over hundreds of years. There are two separate canyons, named Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon.
The Upper Canyon is considered to be more scenic due to its beams of light during the summer months, and it is the most accessible of the two. We chose to do Lower Antelope Canyon not only because of slightly lower admission costs but also in hopes that it would be less busy.
Antelope Canyon is located on the Navajo Nation, and a Navajo guide leads all visitor groups. From the parking area, the guide leads you down into what looks like a large crack in the ground. Barely wide enough for a person, the narrow path descends and becomes a slot canyon.
Exploring Lower Antelope Canyon requires climbing several sets of metal stairs which are both narrow and steep.
We spent about 90 minutes in the canyon taking photos and marveling at the colors and patterns in the sandstone. The ground was a soft, fine sand that was light in color.
Portions of the canyon are very narrow, only wide enough for a single person to fit through in some spaces. Looking up from the canyon, only a thin ribbon of sky was visible.
I found it very challenging to get good photos of the canyon. Tripods were permitted at the time of our visit in 2013 but are no longer allowed as of 2019. The shadows were too dark and the highlights were too bright. Though I had a digital camera with full manual controls, I wasn’t satisfied with how most of my pictures came out.
Glen Canyon Dam
From Lower Antelope Canyon, it is only a short drive to the Glen Canyon Dam overlook in Page. Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. It is one of several large dams built to control the flow of the Colorado River. At 710 feet (220 m) in height, it is comparable to Hoover Dam (completed 1936) which stands 726 feet (221.4 m) in height. Both dams are concrete arch-gravity dams built in narrow canyons, though I would say that Hoover Dam, with its deco styling, is the more beautiful of the two.
The Glen Canyon Dam Bridge is another impressive feat of mid-century engineering. The bridge spans 1,271 feet (387 m) over Glen Canyon and its deck is 700 feet (210 m) above the river. It was the highest arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1959. It remains one of the highest bridges in the U.S. to this day, more than 60 years since its completion.
After the Dam, we were ready to eat! Krystina and I found a restaurant called Slacker’s in Page, and we enjoyed some great burgers. After thoroughly enjoying our burgers, we were ready for the day’s final stop: Horseshoe Bend.
The mighty Colorado River is the largest and most important river in the American West. From its starting point in Colorado to the Gulf of California in Mexico, the river flows for 1,450 miles (2,330 km) through seven states.
A unique formation created from the river’s path is Horseshoe Bend, located 4 miles (6.4 km) south of Page, Arizona. The rock has eroded through the soft Navajo Sandstone over millions of years, creating a tall cliff to observe a natural bend in the river.
Horseshoe Bend was once a relatively obscure destination, attracting around 40,000 visitors annually in 2009. However, this unique point has grown tremendously in popularity, with more than 2 million visitors annually by 2019. Both an article in the Wall Street Journal and park officials agree that Instagram is the main reason why people have been flocking to this natural attraction in record numbers. The popular photo-sharing app has users seeking unique backdrops to take selfies, drawing crowds to once-quiet parks and attractions.
While I may be guilty of this trend myself, I must point out that I did not join Instagram until 2015 (two years after this trip). My friend and I had always wanted to visit Horseshoe Bend as enthusiasts of our home state, not to brag about our trip on social media.
At the time of our visit in 2013, Horseshoe Bend was not as busy as it is today. The walk from the dusty, unpaved parking area to the edge of the rim was just over a mile long. During our visit, Horseshoe Bend was not handicap accessible—the unpaved dirt path to the viewpoint was filled with rocks and boulders. There was no safety railing at the edge to protect a person from falling 1,000 feet (304 m) to their doom.
Since our visit several years ago, the park service has installed new vault toilets, improved the trail, and built an observation point that includes a safety railing.
Unfortunately, I did not get a postcard-worthy shot of the bend as I did not have a good wide-angle lens for my camera. (I bought an actual wide-angle lens a few years later).
After Horseshoe Bend, we drove back to Flagstaff using the detour route through Tuba City.
Cow Springs, AZ
On the way back to Flagstaff, we passed by the Cow Springs Trading Post along U.S. Route 160. The abandoned ruins of an old Standard Oil Company gas station are left here to wither and fade in the sun. The site is little more than a poured concrete foundation littered with debris and graffiti. One block wall and a stone fireplace were still standing, along with a large sign that was very weathered and faded from age.
When we returned to Flagstaff, we grabbed dinner. Afterward, we returned to our hotel room for the night, excited to review our photos and rest up for our final day of exploring.
The following morning we ate breakfast at the hotel, then set out for the final day of our Northern Arizona adventure. Krystina and I planned to visit a few more abandoned roadside attractions before driving back home to Phoenix.
Our first stop was Twin Arrows, an abandoned gas station, cafe and trading post which is about 30 minutes (30 miles) east of Flagstaff. The old trading post dates back to the 1940s, when it was built as the Canyon Padre Trading Post. The Twin Arrows name comes from the pair of 25-foot tall (7.6 m) giant arrows that draw the attention of passing motorists.
The store, diner, gift shop and service station closed in 1995 and has been abandoned since then. The diner building is notable for its Art Deco style architecture, popular in the 1920s-1940s.
Two Guns, AZ
Ten minutes beyond Twin Arrows are the ruins of Two Guns, a Western themed attraction with a Kampground of America (KOA) campground. The old A-frame office building is in complete disrepair and had been vandalized over the years since it closed.
Listening to the wind blowing through the office building, devoid of its windows and doors, was eerie. In the time since our visit, the KOA building has been burned and demolished by vandalism.
Another derelict attraction at Two Guns is the old “Mountain Lions” building which dates back to 1925. You can read more about this attraction and its colorful history on the ADOT Blog in their post: Two Guns’ sordid history off I-40.
As we were heading East on Interstate 40 towards Flagstaff from Twin Arrows and Two Guns, we had one last stop on our list.
The 1946 song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” originally written by Bobby Troup, has been covered many times over the years. In this song, one line says, “Don’t forget Winona.” Winona is a very small settlement about 13 miles east of Flagstaff—the town is so tiny and so close to a larger city that it is easy to forget about Winona.
However, Winona is home to the Walnut Creek bridge—an old steel truss bridge from 1924. According to the National Park Service, this bridge is a rare surviving example of the original Route 66 infrastructure. They have a writeup on the Winona bridge if you are interested to learn more. The bridge was part of the Route 66 alignment from 1926 through 1947.
The bridge is no longer open to vehicles but is accessible to pedestrians. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. We made a quick stop to see the bridge and snap a few photos. It doesn’t take long to see, but it’s a wonderful artifact for Route 66 enthusiasts.
Our weekend adventure centered around Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend came to an end as we left Winona and headed back to Phoenix. If you are looking for a unique trek across Northern Arizona that includes scenic vistas, historic sites and off-the-beaten-path attractions, I’d recommend this route!