If you are headed for Interstates 40 or 55 and traveling through AL and/or MS on AL 78, look out for signs for Appalachian Project Corridor X. They are blue signs, kind of like an alternate route sign. This brand new road will ultimately be designated as Interstate 22, but obviously that has not yet happened. The road is an Interstate by any other name: the brand new parts are 6 lane nicely graded blacktop, older portions are still 4 lane and concrete in places, but it has very light traffic, and avoids all the small town slowdowns that 78 used to pass through. I only used it from Birmingham up to Memphis, it may start somewhere south and east of Birmingham.
Interstate 40 is pretty quiet for the most part. After Memphis it’s predominantly used only by semis. The only major cities it really passes through are Little Rock, Amarillo, Albuquerque and for those heading to Grand Canyon, Flagstaff. None had particularly bad traffic, though the obvious increase in car/suv traffic is the first sign of approaching civilization, the inevitable reduction in speed limit follows shortly after. The only major roadworks I encountered were: Memphis on the I240/I55/I40 section (seems like they’ve been working on that since I used to travel this area frequently in 1999!), and New Mexico, both just after entering the state from the east, and also on the western side of Albuquerque and again around the Show low and Grants area.
To give you an idea of gas price comparison, I paid anywhere from $1.63 to $2.39. The high end was Arizona, but the $2.39 was much higher than most I saw (but I hadn’t been paying attention and had no choice!) a couple miles further west the gas was at least 20c cheaper. The lowest price was in Oklahoma. In between, AL around $1.85, MS/AR $1.75, TX $1.90. OK and NM seemed to have the longest distances between gas station exits, but I confess I wasn’t always paying attention if I didn’t need gas.
(The remainder of this message is specific to anyone traveling to Grand Canyon).
Leaving I40 for the Grand Canyon in Flagstaff at exit 201 the gas was around $2.10. Surprisingly, considering the road north is so remote, the cheapest gas I saw all day was around mile marker 500 on 89 where there was an Express gas station at $2.05 (only applicable to North Rim travelers), gas prices around the South Rim exit from my route (at Cameron) were around $2.10.
For supplies other than gas there is a Walmart just off Exit 195. It is not a super Walmart, but does have a decent grocery store, Basha’s in the same plaza. If you are a big “books on CD” fan when on long journeys, there is a Cracker Barrel restaurant just off exit 198. For those that don’t know of Cracker Barrel’s book service, you can buy a book on CD at any Cracker Barrel, then return it back to any other Cracker Barrel for the original purchase price, less $3.49c rental for each week you have had the CD. I love the books on tape, especially on long trips like this where radio stations tend to disappear and the only choices are hard core country or religious stations. If you are a fan, or decide to try it, the Cracker Barrel at exit 189 is the last you will pass, so you will need to return any rentals there, or you’re stuck with them.
Once on Az 89 the terrain and roads change dramatically. You will reach an elevation of 7000+ just north of Flagstaff, then slowly descend again over the next 100 miles to below 4000’ as you drive on a 2 lane highway with frequent passing lanes. The road passes through the painted desert and is quite a starkly beautiful landscape which passes Mt Humphries, then parallels the red Echo cliffs. The entire plateau is tilted from east to west. If you are even slightly interested in geology it is a lesson in rock layers, textures and colors. Even if you’re not interested, it is humbling just to appreciate how much earth has eroded away to allow you to be driving in this high plateau desert.
South Rim folks will leave Az89 at Az62, there are gas stations and convenience stores/gift shops at the intersection. It has been several years since I drove that route, but recall it being a generally 55mph 2 lane highway at least as far at the Park entrance at Desert View. Desert View is worth a quick stop, you can climb the tower, and there are some good views down into the Canyon over the Tanner Flats area. You can actually see the Colorado River from here, a much better view than from the main area of South Rim.
(the remainder applies to NRs only.)
After an hour or so of driving generally north, the road turns back to the east, and shortly after, highway 89A splits off to the left. It is signposted Lees Ferry and Grand Canyon North Rim. Don’t miss the turn, or you’re in for a long detour! Immediately after turning you can see to the right the road you just turned off, highway 89, ascending Echo Cliffs, about 2/3 of the way up, then disappearing through a large canyon to the other side. Highway 89A continues to lose elevation as it parallels the Echo cliffs and heads towards the Vermillion Cliffs. You have entered the Colorado River Valley. To your left, between the road and the distant Vermillion cliffs is the unseen Marble Canyon Gorge, and the mighty Colorado River. It is a strange feeling to know that this massive cleft exists there, but remains unseen. Also along this road, in the far distance and to the left of the Vermilion Cliffs you will start to see glimpses of a darker range: your first view of North Rim. As you descend through the 4000’ mark (Arizona very handily marks the 1000’ elevations, as well as some other significant elevations) you will be approaching Marble Canyon. The large square fronted butte visible behind the elevation marker is Cathedral Butte. It clearly resembles a fortress or large church, but if you are ever lucky enough to see it in the late afternoon light you will experience its full majesty, and know why I specifically point it out.
Continuing to descend you will encounter a 35mph speed limit. At this point, barely 1 1/10th of a mile from the chasm that is the start of the Grand Canyon, you will finally get a glimpse into its depths and, as you cross the Navajo Bridge, a flash of the green Colorado River below. This is the only crossing you will make of the Colorado (contrary to popular belief, there is no road bridge between the two visitor facilities at North and South Rim). It is the only bridge for 400 miles downstream. The next crossing is over Hoover (Boulder) Dam. In the 1920’s when it was built it was the only crossing for 600 miles, but there is now an additional crossing at Glen Canyon Dam 20 miles upstream in Page.
There are parking areas at both ends of Navajo bridge, and I highly recommend a stop to look down at the river below. In hiking circles we call walking the entire length a (tongue in cheek) Rim to Rim, because you do in fact walk across the inner gorge from one rim to the other. If you have no intention of hiking the considerably more arduous 22 miles from North Rim to South Rim this summer you might want to do it here, just so you can brag on it when you get home! The parking area on the North (far) end has a visitor center. If you haven’t already stopped to do so, this might be a good place to pick up information brochures about the area. The old Navajo road bridge is now a footbridge, and a great vantage point for viewing the river and the cliffs and buttes beyond. If you are lucky you may see a rafting party starting out on their downriver trip, if you are also sharp-eyed, you may also see a Condor or two roosting in the cliffs immediately around the bridge, or soaring overhead.
The bridge is about 500’ long, and 500’ above the river. You cannot access the river below from the bridge, but for those feeling really adventuresome, if you wish to dip your toes in the Colorado, after finishing at the bridge take the first right turn to Lees Ferry. It is about a 7 mile road trip, and there is an honor system day fee payable at an auto pay station. I didn’t stop there this time, but if I recall it is somewhere between $3 and $7. At the end of the road is the boat launch area, and parking. You can walk right down into the river here, as well as a couple of other places in the mile before the boat ramp. If there has been a recent rain the river will likely be brown and muddy looking at the Navajo bridge, but should still be clear at the boat ramp because the first heavy silt contributor to the Colorado after Glen Canyon Dam (15 miles upstream) is the Paria river which you cross about 1 mile downstream of the boat ramp. There is also a campground here if you want a cheap alternative to spend the night. I slept there a couple years ago in my car (it was too windy to even set up my tent!) I think it was $10. Yhere was water, and bathrooms, but no electric hookups.
After Navajo bridge there are 3 motels, restaurants and Gas Stations. The gas was around $2.25 at all 3 stations. Marble Canyon Lodge is right next to the bridge and the Lees Ferry turnoff. The motel is reasonably clean and comfortable, the food typical diner style. The lodge fills up pretty good with fisherman and rafters at certain times of the year, so if you want to stop you might want to look up the number and call in advance. There is a gift shop at Marble Canyon Lodge, free wi-fi, and this was the last point that I got a cell phone signal (AT&T). So if you have loved ones that you want to call to let them know you’re (almost) there, now is the time to do it. Continuing to the east on 89A, five miles or so futher is the Lees Ferry Fisherman’s Lodge. I’ve never stayed here, but have eaten here, the food is more restaurant style, and was pretty good last time I ate here. They also have the largest collection of beers in north AZ (if you are planning to stay the night or have a designated driver). Another 5 or so miles further is the Cliff Dwellers Lodge. Their claim to fame, other than the balanced rock attraction and “dwelling” (a tourist attraction built in the 30’s I believe) is their gourmet restaurant. The food is delicious, if a little pricey, but the service can be VERY slow if they are busy and just quite slow at other times. My personal favorite is the Ahi tuna salad with wasabi dressing…mmmmm.
Continuing on 89A you’ll notice you’re heading back to the east, this time paralleling the Vermillion Cliffs on your left, and in the distance to the left the Echo Cliffs and the (unseen) road you descended into Marble Canyon on. In between you and that road is the Colorado. The difference from this side is that you can occasionally see the edge of the river canyon. The small creeks and washes you cross all lead down into the Colorado, they will probably all be dry, but when they flood they move vast quantities of mud and rocks down to the Colorado, and and some have some decent size rapids at their confluences. Directly in front of you, but still some distance away is the dark green, forested North Rim.
As the road turns north again and straightens you are now in House Rock Valley. Enjoy this nice straight road across the plateau, it is the last straight you’ll see for a while. As you near the end of the valley the road begins to ascend again and finally has no place to go but up. The next 1000’ or so of up is achieved in a series of hairpin turns in a 35mph speed zone. After the first couple of bends there is a scenic overview that looks back down over House Rock Valley and the road you just traveled. It’s worth a few minutes stop before continuing up into the Kaibab forest.
From here the road is windy, and continues to gain elevation up to almost 8000’ at Jacob Lake. There is a gas station ($2.25), store and restaurant/bakery at Jacob Lake, and it is where you will turn left onto highway 67 for the remainder of the drive out to North Rim. Most of the drive is at 35-45 mph and winding.
For this particular journey I was continuing past Jacob Lake and on to Fredonia, so I’ll include some of that info for those coming from the opposite direction. From Jacob lake the road descends quite rapidly back down to the plateau. The road is winding, but the speed limit is generally 55. At around 6500’ there is a scenic overlook back down over the plateau, and out to the North Rim. Again, this is worth a quick stop.
Beyond the overlook, or approaching it if you’re driving from St George or Kanab is a long straight drive across the plateau. The last town you will pass through is Fredonia. I only passed on gas station on the outskirts of town, but the gas was $2.10. Fredonia is not a big town, but does have a couple of motels, restaurants, etc.
I will be heading in to St George sometime in the next couple of weeks, and probably also to Kanab, and will update this post with any other information after those trips.
Weather wise, right now the roads are cleared all the way up to 8000’, there are still some large snow patches on the north facing slopes in the forest above 6000’ but nothing at all on the roadsides. The roads were completely dry, no snowmelt running across, no icy looking patches, etc. It was sunny and windy all day (the wind is constant here) and temps probably in the low 50s.
I hope this is useful to anyone heading this way for the first time, and as excited about it as I was on my first trip here, and on this journey too. Obviously, gas prices will likely change before you make your trip, but if you compare them to what you are seeing locally now, you will have an idea what to expect as you travel. Please feel free to contact me if you have any specific questions I might be able to answer.
I have one last thing to add, on behalf of myself and my fellow RVers. You will doubtless encounter at least one, and possibly many on your trip from Flagstaff, or St George, maybe even me! The speed limits on the long straight stretches of these roads are generally 55 and 65. From my personal experience today, it is almost impossible to drive a big square box at those speeds in the unpredictable gusty wind conditions on the plateau. The majority of the roads, though 2 lane have either frequent passing lanes, or long straight stretches where large slow moving vehicles can safely be passed. Please be nice to us slow, boxy, heavy types. A little patience can go a long way to getting everyone to their destination safely, and just remember, the person driving that rig may be your new co-worker and friend (they may also be the only person you know with a microwave and a fridge!!) Be courteous and be safe.
HUGS - Janette