PAGE — It’s a puzzling trip, a first journey through Page, Arizona.
There appears to be no pattern to the gas stations and fast-food franchises and strip malls scattered between residential areas. Nor is there a sense of downtown.
Why, then, is there a plethora of mid-priced hotels representing every Tom, Dick and Marriott of the chain world? Why do so many have “No vacancy” signs and tour buses parked outside?
The answer isn’t in the small northern Arizona town, but what’s around it. Lake Powell. Glen Canyon Dam. Horseshoe Bend. Antelope Canyon. The Vermilion Cliffs.
Welcome to Page, fine purveyors of easy access to scenery perfect for any bucket list.
Easy access to top attractions
From Lake Powell on Page’s front steps to Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon’s slot canyons, Page is near landscapes that have launched a million Instagram feeds.
Some of the country’s most stunning scenery is no more than three hours away, from Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the graceful stone towers of Monument Valley.
And that’s just in Arizona. To the north is Utah’s otherworldly landscapes of Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
Fifty years ago, you couldn’t blame those who built Page for thinking no one would come. Now it receives tourists making once-in-a-lifetime journeys from France or Germany or Japan.
“The town depends 100 percent on tourism,” Page native Paul Campbell said. “Without a doubt.”
Growing up with Glen Canyon Dam
During a 30-plus-year career as a sheriff’s deputy, Campbell witnessed his hometown’s transformation from blue-collar burg to international destination.
Growing up, he and his friends used Glen Canyon Dam as a playground, playing hide-and-seek amid its multilevel, 55-degree concrete corridors.
Today he’s one of the dam’s tour guides, greeting visitors from Arizona to China. He can’t help but think of the past when he watches tourists pass through a highly sensitive metal detector to gain entrance to his childhood playground.
Page is far removed from the small town of his memories.
“It was small enough that everybody knew one another,” he said. “Now we’re getting people from everywhere. I never saw that coming.”
Page was founded in 1957 as a necessity. Trailers and temporary homes lined dirt roads were carved into an inhospitable desert, built for those constructing Glen Canyon Dam. In the 1970s, workers from the nearby Navajo Generating Station power plant settled in.
Location is everything
Page likely would have remained a small, generally overlooked town if not for three things:
Location, location, location.
A few decades ago, fairy-tale photo spreads of deep canyons and lofty stone towers in newspapers and magazines lured people to northern Arizona.
Today, social media helps power Page’s tourism industry, City Manager Crystal Dyches said. More than 3 million visitors come to take advantage of the town’s proximity to natural wonders.
“We’re at the center of some of the most amazing scenery in the country,” Dyches said. “When people see the photos, they want to see it for themselves.”
Visitors keep business booming
Tour buses are a routine sight in front of hotels and restaurants, or parked overnight outside strip malls and grocery stores.
If not for the constant parade of buses, Lisa Byrd never would have opened Gone West Family Restaurant. She knew success was guaranteed if she could tap into that market.
On typical summer days, Gone West hosts six to seven buses filled with wide-eyed tourists from Europe or Asia, keeping the kitchen busy morning to night. Even in winter, Byrd said, she gets one or two tour groups a day.
“The groups are vital,” she said. “I wouldn’t be in business otherwise.”
‘We’re a pretty great drive-through’
At least four times a year, she meets with tour operators to spread the good word about Page. It’s true the town doesn’t boast the architectural or historical amenities of other tourism-based towns, but where else can you wake up, climb aboard a bus and be among scenic wonders before lunch?
“Most people see us as just a drive-through to other places,” Byrd said. “But I think we’re a pretty great drive-through.”
Summer demand is such that budget hotels can command prices of $150 or more a night. Rooms at mid-priced chains go for $220-$260.
That few people come to Page to see Page is not lost on Dyches.
“We’re working hard on improving downtown,” she said. “We also want to build on our hotels and restaurants to expand on our capabilities.”
Even if such improvements aren’t forthcoming for years, Page’s fortunate location virtually guarantees tourism success.
As dam tour guide Paul Campbell noted, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than skilled.
“It just so happened they built Page in a great spot,” he said. “The scenery isn’t going anywhere, so people are always going to come.”
Things to do near Page
Even those who spend a week on the water, exploring via pleasure craft by day and spending nights in a houseboat, won’t have enough time to see everything Lake Powell has to offer.
The largest man-made lake in North America hugs steep red-rock walls as it flows into a myriad of maze-like side canyons.
No need to stay on the water to enjoy it. The Lake Powell Resorts and Marina offers rooms and suites not far from the water’s edge.
You may also take any number of boat tours or rent any number of craft, from one- or two-person jet skis to powerboats and pontoon boats.
There’s also plenty of fishing and hiking.
Located just 3 miles south of Page, Horseshoe Bend is often is overrun with visitors clamoring to see where the Colorado River has sculpted a scenic goblet-shaped gorge.
The parking lot often is full before noon as tourists trek about a half-mile over a sandy ridge to the unprotected ledges of Horseshoe Bend.
The National Park Service is in the midst of an improvement project that’s added a viewing deck, and an accessible path is under construction. There also are plans to expand and pave the parking lot, though it’s unsure when funding will be available.
To guarantee your chance to see this dramatic site, arrive early or reserve a seat on an hourly shuttle run by Horseshoe Bend Tours in Page. Call 435-275-4594 or visit horseshoebendtours.com. The shuttle is $30, $20 for ages 6-11.
Several Page-based companies conduct tours of the picturesque slot canyons that Mother Nature seemingly carved for Instagram notoriety.
Tours are offered daily into Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. There are general walking tours and specialized photography tours. The tours are wildly popular so you’ll want to make reservations.
Book a midday tour if you’re determined to see the shafts of light spiking down to the canyon floor. But don’t be rule out a morning or afternoon tour — the way the light changes can be quite dramatic.
Each morning, dozens of adventurers arrive at Lees Ferry to start either a private of commercial raft trip down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon.
It’s a unique place where cliffs recede and allow easy access to a waterway that is jealously guarded by a rugged landscape. Used for centuries as a crossing by local inhabitants, Lees Ferry was founded in the early 1870s when Mormon settlers established a ferry.
While popular with rafters, Lees Ferry also draws fishing enthusiasts as well as kayakers who play the gentle waters eastward toward Glen Canyon Dam.