Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, and the Grand Canyon

Published: March 18th 2013
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Dawn wanted to take the kids on a big trip before Dimitri goes off to college and spring break was the perfect time to do that. She had in mind the Grand Canyon so I investigated various itineraries and it turns out that flying in to Las Vegas, renting a car, and then driving to the Grand Canyon with a stop at Hoover Dam made the most sense from both a financial and quality of experience standpoint.

Spirit Airlines had the best fares but, as it turns out, they charge $50 a bag even for carry-ons if they don’t fit under the seat. The flight was late leaving Houston on Sunday and the airline didn’t provide any explanations so Spirit did not get off on the right foot with us.

We got into McCarran Airport in Las Vegas about 7:30pm so by the time we got the car and out of the airport I thought it was best to just do a quick driving tour of the strip and downtown before we went to the Tropicana and checked in because I knew once we got into our rooms we would be too tired to venture out.

I booked just one night at the Tropicana since we were spending the next night at the Grand Canyon. The hotel has been nicely renovated and it’s actually called the “New” Tropicana. I used to book all the hotel rooms. Las Vegas hotels are surprisingly inexpensive, at least on Expedia.

We hit the road early heading east on Highway 93/95/515 and stopped at the Hoover Dam which is just 30 miles from Las Vegas. We took the Power Plant tour and walked around a bit on our own. The tour is well worth the time, about an hour, and price, $11. But, be aware, you can’t take in any outside food. We had four granola bars confiscated at the security checkpoint. You can carry a pocket knife onto a plane but you can’t bring a granola bar into the Hoover Dam. Go figure.

To my surprise the road that goes over the Dam does not continue much past that anymore. Now there is a bypass bridge called Memorial Bridge, completed in 2010, which you take to go on to points beyond the Dam. It’s an impressive structure itself and is positioned well above the dam to provide a great view of the Dam if you walk up there. The parking garage on the west side of the Dam is the most convenient place to park.

We continued on our way towards our next stop which was Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk which is a glass walkway jutting out over the canyon. You take Pierce Ferry road off of Highway 93.

Warning: About 15 miles of the 49 miles from Hwy 93 to the Skywalk is a dirt/gravel road which you travel at about 20 to 25 miles per hour so the total drive time is about 90 minutes. When you get there you have to park and take a shuttle to the site. Cost for the shuttle and the Skywalk is $75 per person. I wish I could tell you whether or not I felt like it was worth it but when we discovered the cost we chose not to do it. Fortunately, there is a nice gift shop and small restaurant there as well so we didn’t feel like the trip was a total waste.

Continuing on to the Grand Canyon we headed back down the gravel road and Pierce Ferry Road and found a short-cut to Kingman by using Stockton Hill Road which saved us a good amount of time compared to going all the way back to 93 on Pierce Ferry. In Kingman you get on Interstate 40. At that point we noticed an “In-n-Out” Burger stand and decided that we must stop there on the way back.

The drive on I-40 went quickly since the speed limit is 75. You turn off I-40 onto Highway 64 going north and travel about 53 miles to the town of Tusayan. Since it was dark when we got there we just went straight to the Holiday-Inn Express that I had booked on

The drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon takes about four and a half hours, that is, without the detour to the Skywalk. It is a beautiful drive and definitely part of the adventure of going to the Canyon.

We went out for dinner in Tusayan at Sophie’s’ Mexican Restaurant after being ignored for five minutes at Canyon Pizza. We wished we had tried another place though as Sophie’s was overpriced and of poor quality.

Tuesday morning we headed into the Park which costs $25 per car. We headed to the Visitors Center to learn what we should do during our planned 3 or 4 hour visit. The Park rangers inside were very helpful. That along with a Park newspaper allowed us to easily plan our stay.

We started out walking to Mather Point which is very close to the Visitors Center. The views are spectacular all along the path that runs quite a long distance on the South Rim and Mather Point was a great spot for my mandatory handstand picture.

The weather was ideal with a little chill in the air but lots of sun to keep it warm enough to enjoy the walk.

Next we walked west to Yavapai Point where there is also a small geology museum. Along the way we saw some elk sitting quietly not more than 100 feet from the path. There was quite a crowd but it was not so large as to diminish our enjoyment of the experience. There was plenty of opportunity to offer picture taking assistance to couples who were taking pictures of each other. One Japanese couple strangely enough spoke enough Spanish for us to converse a little.

After we had had enough walking and snowball throwing we got into the car and headed to Desert View. There is a watchtower built in 1932 right on the edge of the canyon with spectacular views very different from what you see near the Visitors Center. There are also many great views to be had from the many Points along the way. It is well worth the 25 mile drive. There is also a nice gift shop and a gas station.

The watchtower itself is an attraction being a National Historic Landmark. Architect Mary Colter used the art of the local tribes to place murals on the interior walls. The first floor is a gift shop while a narrow staircase spirals up along the inside of the exterior wall and provides great views of the surrounding area through small windows as you ascend. The Painted Desert on the other side of the Canyon to the north and snow covered peaks to the south are easily seen.

By then it was time for us to head back to Las Vegas so now with a full tank of gas we were prepared for the four and half hour trip. Traveling down highway 64 we stopped for a bathroom break at a Texaco gas station and found an impromptu craft sale going on by some of the locals. There we found the best jewelry at the best prices we had seen.

We were hungry but we just had to wait until we got to In-n-Out Burger in Kingman to eat. It was worth the wait.

When we got back to Vegas we checked in at Treasure Island and were pleasantly surprised. I guess since I had been spending so much money on they gave me a free upgrade at the hotel resulting in both our rooms being suites. SWEET! Each room was two to three times normal size and had two bathrooms, one with a large shower and the other with a Jacuzzi tub. We all very much enjoyed our respective suites.

That night we wanted a good meal so we used the coupons the hotel gave us for their buffet. It was outstanding but still a bit pricey for a Las Vegas buffet. It came to $77 before tip for the four of us and left us wondering if we should have just gone to the pizzeria in the hotel.

After retiring to our rooms we started hearing loud noises outside. As it turns out we had a great view of the outside show that was going on in front of the hotel complete with huge balls of fire and fireworks.

The next day we had a wonderful breakfast at the hotel restaurant by the pool, Kahunaville. Once again we used coupons the hotel gave us and had a fabulous breakfast for about $40.

We then set out to walk the strip. Next door is the Mirage but it was too early for the volcano show. Next up heading south on the west side of the strip is Caesar’s Palace. They’ve added on some shops since I had been there last. It’s all about opulence in Caesar’s. All the big name brands have stores there but surprisingly we found a shop with very inexpensive sunglasses and hats which we needed in the bright sun. You really feel the intensity of the sun because of the dry air and relatively high elevation (2,000 ft.). Even though it was only about 70 degrees at the time it felt warmer in the sun.

After walking through Caesar’s Palace we went next door to the Bellagio. The attraction there is the massive choreographed fountains in front, but once again it was too early in the day for that. Another attraction is the glass artwork in the ceiling of the lobby which consists of a collage of 2,000 brightly colored hand-blown glass flowers.

Another attraction at the Bellagio is the Conservatory and Botanical Gardens which includes a butterfly exhibit. This is a great place for pictures because of the beautiful display of brightly colored flowers.

After that it was time for a break so we went across the street to the Paris Hotel and Casino and had some refreshments in the restaurant of the Eiffel Tower replica. From there you get a great view of the Bellagio so it would be a great place to watch the fountains. While there looking out on the strip we wondered why the second biggest feature of the Paris Hotel was a hot air balloon. It wasn’t until we got back to Houston that I learned quite accidentally while watching Jeopardy that the hot air balloon was invented in France.

After our respite we continued on walking now on the east side of the strip heading north back towards Treasure Island where our car awaited us. There’s plenty of shopping along this stretch and some of the older hotels including the Flamingo and Harrah’s.

But our next stop wasn’t until we got to The Venetian which includes canals and gondola rides and spectacular architecture designed to look like San Marco Square in Venice.

We made use of the overhead walkway to get back to Treasure Island and our car and then drove down to our final hotel of our trip, The Excalibur. We all crowded into one room since we weren’t actually spending the night, only using it to rest before and after the Cirque du Soleil show, Ka, which was at 7pm at the MGM Grand.

After snoozing a bit we headed out for the show but not before stopping in New York New York for a little pizza. The inside of New York New York is meant to look somewhat like the streets of New York with some small restaurants and shops along the pathways through the casino. Dessert was a peanut butter and chocolate covered apple.

The theater for Cirque du Soleil in MGM is way in the back so even though it was just across the street it was actually quite a hike to get to the theater. It’s a large and impressive theater with no bad seats. The show was amazing as all Cirque shows are but Ka was very different from all the other ones I’ve seen. There was very little gymnastics in this one but also much more of a story line.

The star of the show is the stage itself. Each scene of the story played out by the acrobats was choreographed in a way that made use of a stage that could rise up and down, turn in any direction and angle itself in any direction including completely vertical! The visual effects are stunning and if you think you might be tired of the usual Cirque show this is a good one to see because it is so different from the others.

After the show we went shopping a bit. Just north of the MGM Grand are the Coke and M&M stores. On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a little ice cream in New York New York. Then we went up to the room in The Excalibur for as much sleep as we could get before leaving for the airport and our 1:30am flight back to Houston.

It was a great trip that we will never forget.

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18th March 2013

I had a great time on your wonderfully written journey. Thanks for making fond memories with my family. The pictures are wonderful but the memories will be treasured forever.

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