A Vegan's Survival Guide to the Grand Canyon
 

A trip to the Grand Canyon is the quintessential American vacation and with the advent of Instagram, tourism to this natural wonder has reached peak popularity. That being said, this locale is still pretty off-the-grid and despite the ever-growing interest in plant-based living, it can feel like a challenge to find vegan options at even the most popular national parks. If you know where to look, however, the options are plentiful and dare I say, downright tasty. On my husband’s and my recent road trip around Arizona, we hit up the Grand Canyon and did your homework for you, smoking out the best vegan options the park has to offer. So if you’re headed there soon, here are my tips, tricks, and of course, where to find the best vegan eats on your way to the park and during your stay.

Going on a Southwest road trip? Make sure to check out my posts on Page, Arizona (home to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend) and Sedona to get a blow-by-blow itinerary on what to see, eat, and do at these stops as well.

GETTING THERE

Justin and I flew into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) after work the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, arriving around 9 pm. If you’re renting a car, like us (which you'll certainly have to do unless your're doing a bus tour), it's notable that it takes 15 or so minutes by shuttle bus transfer from the main terminal to the rental car facility. This may seem like an insignificant period of time, but when you’re planning on waking up at 3 am to see the sunrise at the Grand Canyon and you still have about four hours of driving ahead of you, every second counts.

The 15 minutes on the shuttle bus was nothing in comparison to the wait for our rental car. I had booked a deal through Hotwire with Advantage, a small rental car company; so small in fact, that they had literally ran out of cars for the busy holiday weekend and had to wait to rent out cars to individual patrons as cars were returned, one-by-one, by other customers. We had to wait in line for over an hour to get our car, so if you’re on as tight of a schedule as we were, it may be in your best interest to book through one of the bigger companies (note, too, that Advantage has strict mileage limitations on any Arizona state resident- a fact that, at the time of this writing,was not disclosed through some third party sites).

My advice? Fly in earlier than we did (maybe around 3:30 pm or so) and give yourself at least a couple of hours to explore Phoenix, from its fun bars (I really wanted to check out the upscale tiki cocktail bar, Undertow) to its bustling vegan scene (you gotta fuel up for all that hiking tomorrow, right?). For dinner, I'd recommend hitting up Green New American Vegetarian Restaurant (2022 N 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85006; 11 am-9 pm Monday through Saturday), conveniently located about ten minutes north of the airport.

When we stopped in for lunch on our way flying back home, I was beyond excited to try some of the comfort food offerings on this all-plant based menu, like the big WAC, Green’s answer to a certain McDonalds stalwart and a spicy buffalo chicken po’ boy. In a trendy, industrial space, a fast-casual environment, and tattooed clientele, Green New American is definitely the place to get your fill of hipness prior to departing to some of the more rustic sites on your trip.

To start, we ordered up animal style fries (thin, crispy fries, smothered in cheese, onions, and Thousand Island sauce)- one of those completely decadent, but oh-so-worth-the-worth-the-calories type dishes (you're going to burn it all off tomorrow anyway, right?). As a main, we ordered the “BFF”, an indulgent sandwich with deliciously crispy fried chicken patty, topped with fresh sautéed jalapenos, melty cheddar, creamy avocado, and a hint of ranch, with a side fried brussels sports (my mouth is watering just thinking about these savory bites). To healthy up our lunch a bit, we rounded out the meal with a “Sesame Dragon” rice bowl, topped with fresh veggies glazed with a spicy garlic ginger sauce, fresh tamari, and crisp scallions. While every single dish was great, the standout of the meal was definitely the meaty BFF, a cacophony of different textures (meaty chicken, creamy avocado, and a pillowy bun) and the brussel sprouts, crispy and crunchy on the outside, but tenderly juicy inside.

Once you're done fueling up on carbs, you can meander next door to Greens New American’s sister eatery, Nami (2014 N 7th St, Phoenix, AZ 85006; 7 am-9:30 pm), an all vegan dessert and coffee spot. The bright and colorful shop, with plant-filled corners would be a great place to have a late afternoon coffee (or ice cream) date.

We split a Tsoynami, a Blizzard-like concoction that you pick your own mix-ins for, ranging from Fruity Pebbles to marshmallow fluff. We picked a Butterfinger one, a cup of crunchy, peanuty goodness amongst the sweet, creamy vanilla base. Pick up a coffee to caffeine up for the long drive ahead and a Tsoynami to share and drive the rest of the way to your pre-Grand Canyon resting spot.

Heading from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, we stayed in a relatively cheap Motel 6 in Williams, Arizona (which still cost over $100), around three hours north of Phoenix and approximately an hour away from the park. I would have preferred to stay closer to the park itself (such as in the small town of Tusayan), but by the time I had looked at accommodations (probably three to four months ahead of time), all that was left was SUPER expensive Airbnbs and hotels (think $300 and up) or literal vacant campsites that were more expensive than the typical Airbnbs I stay in (around $75-100). So protip- if you’re headed to the Grand Canyon, book your accommodations as far in advance as possible, especially if you’re headed there on a holiday weekend, like we did.

We had no problems (besides epic tiredness) driving from the airport to our hotel, but it’s worth noting that I saw several TripAdvisor reviews cautioning against driving on Arizona’s long stretches of highways at night, both due to the constantly changing curves and elevation and the roaming wildlife (anything from elk to bears). If you’re not used to driving on twisty roads or are unaccustomed to avoiding deer and the like while driving, it’s definitely advisable to save this drive for the daytime (plus, if you make the drive during nighttime, you'll miss all the stunning scenery and giant saguaro cactus forests that litter the landscape).

Another tip- make sure to download and locally store "offline maps" of the area on the Google Maps app to your phone prior to starting the drive. A lot of the stretches of highway along Arizona get spotty or no cell signal and although the drive from Phoenix is pretty much a straight shoot, getting lost in the remote desert landscape sounds like a not great way to kick off your time in the Grand Canyon.  Be sure to bring along a phone mount for your rental car so you can easily use Google Maps and a music player hands-free (check out my post for the Southwest road trip packing essentials here). 

DOING IT RIGHT: SUNRISE AT THE GRAND CANYON

Despite having rolled into our hotel room a little after midnight, Justin and I still got up at about 3:30 am to make the rest of the drive and catch the sunrise over the Grand Canyon. Along the route, there was an enormous sixteen mile detour that had us 1. get completely lost for about half an hour, that eventually left us on someone’s private property on off-roading terrain with our very non-off-roading-equipped sedan (mega protip- DO NOT DO THIS!!!) and 2. miss the actual sunrise. If seeing the sun traverse the horizon is super important to you, build in PLENTY of time for stuff like this to come up.

I had long heard that the best place along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was Yaki’s Point, but to get there, you basically need to take a 25 minute shuttle from the visitor’s center (which pre-6 am only departs every 30 minutes). To save on time, we instead decided to check out Yavapai Point, which you can drive right up to (with plentiful parking in the morning)- I’m sure Yaki’s Point is gorgeous, but I will never, ever forget the sunrise views at Yavapai Point. While there were a few people there, it wasn’t the zoo that I’ve heard Mather Point (the viewpoint near the Visitor’s Center) can be.

BREAKFAST

After we got our fill of unimaginable natural beauty, we drove our rumbling tummies to the Visitor’s Center to pick up breakfast.  When researching the trip, I had been so excited to find Bright Angel Bicycles and Cafe at Mather’s Point (10 S Entrance Rd, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023; 7 AM-5 PM daily), which specifically mentions its vegan options on its website. With its early opening hours of 6 am during the busy summer months, it was the perfect place to pick up breakfast. While their options are somewhat limited, they have an awesome veggie wrap with a substantial side of creamy hummus for your dipping pleasure or, if you’re more of a sweet breakfast fan, good ol’ PB & J is also available. Throw in a coffee the size of your head (with soy and almond milk available!) and you’ll be good and fueled up for exploring all the canyon has to offer.

TAKE A HIKE: SOUTH KEIBAB TRAIL

Having sufficiently met our daily hummus quota, we took the Orange line shuttle (which runs from 4:30 AM to an hour after sunset) to the South Kaibab trailhead, the start of one of the most famous hikes the South Rim has to offer. While you can hike the trail all the way down to the bottom of the canyon to Phantom Ranch, we chose to make the three mile round trip trek (some 1140 feet down into the canyon) to Cedar Ridge. Make sure you bring a refillable water bottle and fill up at the trailhead- there is no water available along the route. I highly recommend doing this trail early in the morning- despite its popularity, it was relatively uncrowded; the donkey poo that litters the trail will not have a chance to start baking in the sun yet (gross but 100% true) and more importantly, most of your descent will be made in the cool shade (a rarity for trails in the park). The steep trail is a pretty awesome cardio workout, but so long as you’re in reasonably good shape, the trail is definitely doable, especially with all the stops you’ll be taking to gape at the awe-inspiring scenery. Taking this trail to Cedar Ridge a really good option for a day hike in the steamy summer months; taking plenty of photography breaks, it took us about two and a half hours to complete the trail.

WHERE TO GRAB LUNCH AND DINNER (AND MAYBE EVEN A BEER)

We had worked up quite an appetite during our hike and set out to find us some lunch over near Yavapai Lodge. I thought I had read somewhere that the veggie burger at the Canyon Village Market and Deli (1 Mather Business Center, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023; 7 AM-9 PM daily) was vegan, but upon asking the worker there, alas, the patty contained eggs. While the deli portion of the building was a vegan bust, the Market was a treasure trove of culinary packaged delights (Pizza! Ice cream! Cheese! Fresh produce!), so if you’re staying onsite at the park at accommodations with a kitchen, this is definitely worth a stop!

We decided to stop in at Yavapai Lodge to try our luck and alas, we struck gold at the Yavapai Lodge Restaurant (11 Yavapai Lodge Rd, Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023; 6 AM-10 PM daily). Vegan options were clearly marked on the menu and the gentleman who helped us order was knowledgeable and helpful about what items were or could be made vegan. We wound up splitting a grilled portobello and hummus sandwich, with crunchy roasted veggies and fresh lettuce and tomatoes with a side of fries; a bowl of super hearty chili; and a garden salad topped with grilled veggies and zesty balsamic vinaigrette. For being essentially a glorified cafeteria, this spot also has an awesome beer selection, with about a dozen or so locally brewed beers on tap.

While it was closed during our lunch, the Yavapai Tavern (which opens at 3 pm) would also be a great option, where you can sip on a flight of microbrews and chow down on a locally-made vegan burger (I’m imagining up a plant-based version of the tavern’s “Arizona” burger, featuring avocado, pico de gallo, and fried jalapenos).


ON YOUR WAY OUT:

There is SO much to see and do in Arizona and with only three days for our whole Arizona road trip, we had to make our time at the Grand Canyon a bit shorter than I would have preferred. With our limited frame in mind, we started, right after lunch, making the two-hour drive  to Page, Arizona along the Rim Road, stopping at viewpoints, like the appropriately name Grandview Point overlook, along the way. By this time of the day (1:30 pm or so), we were headed against traffic and I realized just how happy I was we had gotten there so early- cars were skulking around parking lots vulturing for any available spot; lines for the shuttle buses were impossibly long; and when we left the entrance gate, we passed a line of cars that literally had to be over a mile long (with only two admission booths open). If I have one piece of advice for you about the Grand Canyon, it would be to get here early (sunrise, perhaps?) and enjoy the magnificent park before the heat and the crowds descend.

If you’re heading north of the park, like we were, there are plenty of viewpoints and American Indian artisanal shops to stop off at along your drive. A spot that’s especially worth a stop is at the Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook, which is a little over 9 miles west of the park’s exit on SR 64. There are several vendors selling pottery, rugs, and jewelry here and if you make the half-mile hike on out to the overlook, you’ll pretty much have a solo viewing experience of a stunningly deep canyon, with gorgeously hued walls. Best of all, if you’re a drone enthusiast, we were able to fly a drone over this canyon without restrictions (drones are strictly prohibited over any national parkland)!

I cannot explain how insanely beautiful the drive to Page is, with crazy Mars/Dr. Seuss candy-colored rock formations scattered to the horizon. Regardless of which direction you're heading (whether down to Phoenix or north to places like Vegas or Page), turn on some good tunes, blast the AC, and cruise across the magnificent landscape.


That does it for our time in the Grand Canyon- have you ever been? Any great hiking spots we should check out on our next trip (which can’t come soon enough!)? Let me know below!