Visiting Oatman, Az, Walnut Canyon National Monument, the Grand Canyon National Park and Lava River Cave, Flagstaff, Az
With two grandsons getting bigger by the minute, I expect that at ages 12 and 8 they’ll be heading off to college in another few weeks. At least it will seem that way to me. Children grow up fast. But Grandchildren? Grandchildren grow faster than lightning. So, in an effort to make what memories I still have the time to make, I decided that it was time for us to take a family vacation. By that I mean all of us – myself and Doc, daughter Amy, son-in-law Bill and grandsons Caleb and Michael. We hopped on a plane and flew to the #1 family destination in America – Las Vegas. Well okay, not really. I mean we did fly to Las Vegas. But only as a cheap route to get to our real destination – Arizona and the Grand Canyon.
Arriving in Las Vegas we headed straight to Hertz and rented a van big enough to carry the six of us and all of our luggage. Without stopping to so much as drop a quarter into a single slot, we headed south to the Hoover Dam. Amy and I had just visited the dam the month before on our Girl’s trip to Las Vegas so we weren’t that interested in seeing it again but we wanted all the boys to at least get a look at this marvel of engineering. We walked out onto the dam and spent a brief amount of time looking at the view of Lake Mead and then we hurried on our way.
A 2 ½ hour drive from Las Vegas on Rt. 93 followed by a long trek over a gravel and dirt road, the historic route 66, took us to Oatman, Arizona, a place I knew the boys would enjoy. Oatman, Arizona was once an old gold mining town and this relic of the old west refuses to die. It’s an old ghost town that is still alive with merchants who have moved into ramshackled buildings that haven’t seen a can of paint in 100+ years. They sell souvenirs, gifts and antiques. There are gold mine tours and regularly scheduled gunfights in the streets. Wild burros, the descendents of those used by the miners and turned loose when the golden heyday ended, wander the streets and wooden sidewalks happy to have a young boy or two stop to scratch them behind the ear.
The Oatman Hotel where we headed for lunch, was not what I expected from a “historic hotel” as they describe themselves. Yes, this place is “historic” alright. Historic as in old and lucky to be still standing! It looks as if someone bought a building that had been abandoned for a hundred years and set up shop without making any improvements at all! Oh wait! Yes! I think that’s what they did! But all of the buildings in Oatman look that way and that is a part of its charm. The formica topped tables were chipped and the chairs were beat up and crooked, something my Grandmother would have thrown into the junk pile back in the 60’s.
After walking around town all morning I felt like I needed to wash my hands before lunch and I found that the bathroom was just as much a mess as the rest of the place. I think the sink cabinet they installed must have been sitting outside in the rain behind some old miner’s shack for at least 25 years.
The food was good though and reasonably priced. The two guys singing were fun to listen to (they were the same guys that did the gun show on the street). The waitress was snappy in a good sort of way and all in all she made our lunch extra special. The Oatman Hotel was definately a fun and memorable visit for all of us. If you’re a “germophobe” though, you probably shouldn’t be in Oatman at all.
Our room for the next two nights was at the Little America Hotel in Flagstaff I’m surprised that there are even a few bad reviews of this place because I thought it was wonderful. The rooms had new, updated, lovely decor, and were spotlessly clean and comfortable. For $98 a night, I don’t know what more anyone could expect. Even though it sits at the freeway exit (which was convenient), the grounds are lovely and all the buildings and the pool are surrounded by tall pines giving it a secluded feeling. Doc and I had a King size room which was huge and included a sofa, coffee table, chairs, large screen TV, table and chairs, etc. The buffet breakfast for about $13 was wonderful. The food very hot, fresh and delicious especially the cheese danish which was the best I’ve ever had. The pool/pool area was huge, clean and the water was warm. The hot tub was perfect–hot but not too hot. The staff was friendly and check-in/check-out was a breeze. The only downside was that there is no elevator and we were on the second floor. Next time, I’d ask for a room on ground level just to make life easier. Look at their website. All of the pictures are accurate. I’d stay here again anytime I’m in Flagstaff.
The next day was the big event. It was the 4th of July and we were heading to the Grand Canyon. Doc, Amy and I had been here before but we’d only been to the north rim. The Grand Canyon would be a new experience for Bill and the boys and the southern rim view would be new to us all. From Flagstaff it took about an 1 ½ hours to reach the park entrance. It costs $25 per vehicle to enter and the pass is good for 7 days. Doc bought a senior pass a few years ago for $10 that is good for life. It never really saves us any money though, because we always feel guilty about using it and make a donation as big or bigger than the posted entrance fee. With all the recent funding cuts, our national parks can use all the donations they can get.
We drove along the Desert View Drive stopping at each of the views. There’s no way to describe the beauty. And no way to understand the vastness of the canyon unless you’ve seen it for yourself. We took lots of pictures but pictures of the Grand Canyon are really only good for someone who has been there and can expand the size of the picture in their mind.
Back in Flagstaff we had dinner at the Beaver Street Brewery. This was a good family place since they served simple meals like hamburgers for the kids but for Doc and I they had a great pizza menu. We ordered a pizza called the El Gordo with several different cheeses, bacon, ham, sausage, peppers, and a cilantro chili pesto. It was different than the norm and very good.
After dinner we asked the waitress where we could find fireworks. It was the 4th of July and over the years we had seen 4th of July fireworks in numerous cities including Chicago and Bar Harbor, Maine. Fireworks are apparently, not very popular in Arizona. We’d been asking people all day and no one knew of any. Finally, our waitress said she thought we could see them in the parking lot of a local mall. At 8:30, leaving a sleepy Doc at the hotel to watch a ball game on the TV, Amy, Bill, the boys and I headed off to find the mall. We arrived to find a parking lot jam packed with cars. We drove around until we found a place to park facing the field behind the mall which we thought would give us a decent view. As it began to get dark, more and more people poured into the parking lot. We knew it would be a long time getting out once the show was over.
Finally it was dark and time for the fireworks to begin. We all looked up into the night sky, expecting a big boom and showering of sparks in red, blue, white or green. Instead, we heard a small “pop.” We looked around. “Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.” Green and blue balls shot up about 15 feet from the ground. Amy and I looked at each other in disbelief. These were fireworks? For the next 20 minutes we sat with hundreds of others and watched the sort of amateur backyard fireworks displays that my Dad used to set off whenever he bought one of those backyard assortment packages from a fireworks store across the state line. We laughed about it all the way back to the hotel and will always remember Flagstaff for their “fireworks” (or lack thereof).
Our final day of sightseeing took us to Walnut Canyon National Monument It was only about 15 minutes from our hotel and a fantastic treasure. We ranged in age from 8 to 70 and no one had any problems making the hike. From the visitors center we walked down stairs which took us out onto a peninsula of sorts. Usually, in order to see cliff dwellings you have to view them from below or climb a ladder up into them. What I didn’t understand from any of the pre-trip literature was that the stairs/path takes you right along the cliff where the dwellings are located. You aren’t at the bottom of the canyon looking up or on top of the mesa looking across at a dwelling high on the next cliff. You are right there, halfway up the cliff, walking the same path the ancients would have walked to get from one cliff dwelling to the next. You can enter the cliff dwellings and look out into the canyon, seeing the same view and neighboring ruins that the ancient people would have seen from their doorways. We took our time, and spent about 2 hours lingering and imagining what it must have been like to live in these dark, rock houses as we explored one after the other. There is a second hike that is supposed to take about a half hour but we didn’t do that one as it was very, very hot (even though we wisely chose to go there in the morning before the real heat of the day)
After lunch, we followed some internet directions I’d printed off and headed well into the woods down some unpaved forest service roads in the Coconino National Forest. We traveled over bumps and through deep potholes filled with the previous evening’s rain. We drove on and on until Doc and Bill started to fret and fear that we might never find our way out again. Amy and I grinned silently. We loved this sort of thing.
Eventually, after much complaining and suggestions that we should “just turn around before it’s too late” we finally found Lava River Cave. There are no amenities here. There is just a parking lot and a cave in the woods. Amy had prepared by buying headlamps and flashlights and bringing hooded sweatshirts for the boys. Getting down into the cave would be a chore. You have to climb down over piles of large rocks. Once inside, the cave was,, of course, engulfed in total blackness. Doc and Bill were both staring at the entrance with skepticism as Amy, Caleb and Michael began climbing down into the black hole. I was anxious to follow, but halfway down I worried that I’d twist an ankle or fall. I stopped and sat down on a boulder. Bill took the plunge and followed Amy and the kids. Doc sat down beside me to wait for them to return. It turns out that the entry is the hardest part. Had I kept going I’d have probably been fine. But hindsight…
Doc and I climbed out of the cave mouth. We waited and waited. A few other people came along and entered the cave. We wandered through the gorgeous surrounding woods. It was at least 1 ½ hours before we heard Michael returning, crying and screaming at the top of his lungs! He’d hated the dark and was not happy to have scraped his knee. He was followed by Caleb who was grinning ear to ear. A few minutes later, Amy and Bill emerged. Bill being battered and bruised, needing a first aid kit, and Amy looking like she’d had the time of her life. To say that our outing to Lava River Cave had mixed reviews – well, let’s just say that it will continue to be a family controversy for decades to come!