Whitehorse Lake Kaibab ForestToday is the day: I’ll see the Grand Canyon for the first time. Can’t wait. I left Chicago at 5:15 a.m. Sunday for the first leg of my trip. In Phoenix, I met up with five other travel writers and our host, Mike Finney of the Arizona Office of Tourism.

We drove for miles through the Sonoran dessert (marked by the existence of the saguaro cactus, the stately green cacti with the raised arms that characterize the Arizona dessert). As we climbed to ever higher elevations, the saguaro gave way to the Ponderosa pine, the evergreens with the long, soft needles that populate the higher ground as you head north near Flagstaff.

Our first stop was in Kaibab (pronound ky-bab) National Forest, the 1.5-million-plus acre forest that surrounds the Grand Canyon. I certainly hadn’t left the Midwest to come to Arizona in search of fall colors, but we were wowed by the brilliant gold of the aspen trees against the backdrop of the deep green ponderosas.

If you head into the forest, rent a rugged 4X4. Some of the roads are paved, but the ones that will bring you closest to the four fishing lakes are not. Our van rattled across the bumpy gravel roads.

Kaibab offers camping, but not the kind I might consider. Even the sites that can be reserved near the water have no hookups and the toilet facilities are brick outhouses. No showers.

Williams Mayor John MooreFrom Kaibab, we headed into charming Williams, which has trademarked the phrase “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.”  This town makes two claims to tourism fame: It is on the Mother Road, Route 66, and it is the home base for the Grand Canyon Railway.

It has a third claim, but one that hasn’t been trademarked (yet): cowboy mayor, John Moore. He came to Williams by way of Missouri and Chicago, but now walks the walk. He sports a Stetson hat, cowboy boots and showed up at dinner with a pistol on his hip (they do things like that in Arizona). Moore also owns the entertainment company that stages a daily cowboy shoot-out in Williams.