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Long Drives

A Grand Plan

Phoenix to Grand Canyon National Park in a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

August 2011

A downside to growing up in Generation X is that I'm old enough to remember when a visually stunning natural landscape could be only that -- naturally produced -- but young enough to be in the target audience for all the special-effects wizardry movie directors can conjure.

Maybe that's why looking out over the Grand Canyon from the South Rim on my first visit was so disorienting. The scenic backdrop in the movie "Avatar" is astonishingly realistic, but you know it was created by digital-effects programmers. That makes disbelief more suspendable when a blue alien rides a four-winged lizard across the screen in 3-D.

The Grand Canyon is real -- created from 17 million years of Colorado River erosion -- but on such a mind-bendingly colossal scale that it looks like something out of one of James Cameron's supercomputer hard drives. Perched on a Pima Point Lookout rock outcropping at sunrise, we were separated from the 6,000-foot drop to the river -- and the 18 miles across to the North Rim -- by nothing more than a sense of self-preservation. I snapped a camera-phone picture of my brother standing on the edge, but the hole behind him is so vast that it fades into a pinkish blur. It's something you have to see for yourself, live, not on a postcard -- or on TiVo.

long drives

To do just that, we plotted a three-day spring golf trip in Arizona from Phoenix through Sedona and Flagstaff to the Canyon in the new (and appropriately named) Jeep Grand Cherokee. Chrysler started from scratch -- almost -- for the 2011 version, keeping nothing from the previous iteration of the 18-year-old model except the badge on the hood and serious off-road chops. What it did borrow was some of what little fruit was born from the failed merger with Mercedes. The flagship Jeep rides like a true luxury SUV because it's directly related to one under the skin: the $55,000 Mercedes ML midsize ute.

The result is a Grand Cherokee that is wider, longer and more elegant than the aging version it replaces. Like many of this first wave of new Chryslers released since the Fiat takeover in 2009, the Grand Cherokee got a substantial interior upgrade -- to something befitting an SUV that's going to play in the $40,000 range. Cheap plastic has been replaced by soft-touch materials and leather, and the navigation interface is elegant and easy to use.

It might be an insult to a dedicated Jeepophile to say the Grand Cherokee rides like a Mercedes during on-road duty, but it does. The solid axles in the old version gave it a truckish ride, but the new Grand Cherokee has four-wheel independent suspension. We merged from the glass-blacktopped SR 179 to Sedona onto the choppier roads up and around the red rocks with virtually no change in ride quality. For purists, the standard four-wheel-drive system is capable of handling virtually any off-road challenge, but dedicated rock-hoppers can spring for the $43,000 Overland model, which has an adjustable air-suspension system that can raise the truck almost three inches on its springs.

Sedona is known for its striking sandstone formations -- which burn red and orange at sunrise and sunset -- and New Age "vortex spiritualism," but there's more to do than snap pictures of the scenery and get your auras read. The Sedona Golf Resort carpets foothills at the base of Red Rock State Park, in the village of Oak Creek seven miles south of Sedona proper.

Gary Panks' 6,646-yard layout continuously reminds you of just where you are, triangulating the most spectacular rock formations so they frame many of your approach shots. The 210-yard 10th hole, with imposing Cathedral Rock behind the green, is considered the signature hole, but I preferred the next one for its less in-your-face challenges. Only 341 downhill yards from the white tees, the 11th hole can be had with a driver, but the awkward downhill finesse wedge over a wash protecting the front of the green is reminiscent of Augusta National's 15th -- except for the red dirt and sagebrush.

long drives

To get to Flagstaff -- and the Grand Canyon -- we avoided the interstate and followed Route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon and 30 miles of sheer canyon faces, rushing roadside waterfalls and hairpin turns. After a bowl of short-rib chili and two rounds of Big Rapid Red Ale at the Beaver Street Brewery in old-town Flagstaff, we turned in early so we could make the 75-mile drive to the Grand Canyon in time to see the sun rise.

The next morning, in 20 minutes, the increasing light steadily turned the undefined expanse below into an all-natural, high-definition show. And sunglasses are the only equipment you need.

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