Trying to get your head around the Grand Circle tour can be a bit like trying to get your arms around a grand piano—impossible. Portions of five states (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada) fall within its boundaries, not to mention 20 scenic byways, 11 national parks, 16 national monuments, and 45 state parks. You simply cannot see all that the Grand Circle has to offer on a weekend road trip or even a two-week vacation.
But, the Grand Circle hasn't always been so, well, grand.
Although its history is a bit hazy by some accounts, the Grand Circle evolved out of an itinerary offered by Utah Parks Company that bussed Union Pacific Railroad passengers on a circular tour of Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon national parks, as well as Cedars Break National Monument from the 1920s to 1972.
Re-creating this route takes you to the heart of the Grand Circle and serves as a great introduction to some of the most scenic landscapes of the Southwest.
The Utah Parks Company based its tours out of Cedar City, Utah, and took visitors to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but the South Rim has advantages over its northern counterpart. From Phoenix, the South Rim is roughly three hours closer. Plus, it has more lodging, dining, and recreational options. The downside is the crowds, but tour experts agree if you hike five minutes into the canyon, venturing beyond the major overlooks and Grand Canyon Village, the crowds all but disappear.
It takes at least two days to truly appreciate the canyon. Depending on the time of day and the lighting, the colors shift from purple to pink to orange across its 18-mile expanse and into the deepest crevices 1 mile below. Every time you look at it, you see something new.
Mule rides and river rafting offer a different perspective, but they need to be scheduled well in advance. Instead, explore by bike, four-wheel through the surrounding Kanab National Forest, or soar overhead on a narrated airplane tour.
Although not part of the original itinerary (after all, Lake Powell and its nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline didn't exist before the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963), Lake Powell is well worth a visit today. Take U.S. Highway 89 instead of U.S. Highway 89A to Page. The city was created to house workers during the dam's construction.
You can take a boat tour of the sparkling blue water-filled canyons that make up Lake Powell—96 of those canyons are named. Be sure to explore Rainbow Bridge Canyon, where you'll find the largest natural bridge in the world.
While in Page, tour the 25-foot-wide (at its crest) Glen Canyon Dam, or hire a Navajo guide to take you into Upper Antelope Canyon, the much-photographed, red-walled canyon nearby. For another iconic shot, just south of Page, on U.S. 89, hike three-quarters of a mile for a view of Horseshoe Bend.