Except for time spent in the military, I've lived all 69 of my years in Orange County.

I was born, raised, educated and married here, and pursued a career, raised a family and retired here as well.

But I'd never before visited the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, even though it is just 400 miles to our northeast. I remedied that situation last week.

I've flown over the canyon numerous times at 36,000 feet, but that doesn't qualify as an official visit. I figure one's feet must actually touch terra firma to constitute a visitation.

I'd been multiple times to stunning Waimea Canyon on the Garden Isle of Kauai, but never to the Grand Canyon. I'd hiked the magnificent Jungfrau Region of Switzerland. The Grand Canyon? Uh uh. I'd snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. I'd explored the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, carved into the rose-hued Dead Sea stone of southern Jordan. But never the Grand Canyon.

Why? I'm not sure. Maybe it was too close to home to be exotic. How condescending on my part.

My wife, Hedy, and I began our journey with a perfunctory seven-hour drive from Costa Mesa to Scottsdale, Ariz. We took Interstate 10 to Blythe, then crossed the Colorado River into Arizona. We made a beeline for Scottsdale and spent the night with our friends, Nancy and Lee.

The following morning we headed north on Interstate 17. Traveling with Nancy and Lee in a two-car caravan, we exited 17 at Highway 179 and made a stop at the spectacular artist's sanctuary — and Western movie setting — Sedona, in Red Rock Country.

The breathtaking 1.8-million-acre Coconino National Forest surrounds Sedona and features seven distinct wilderness areas. The city's antique shops, art galleries and restaurants beckon, but the impressive red rock formations are without equal.

Sedona is awe-inspiring.

We continued up 17 to Flagstaff, near the 12,637-foot dormant volcano, Humphreys Peak, and turned west on Interstate 40 (the famous Route 66, on which my family journeyed from Barstow to Chicago in 1961). We found accommodations in charming Williams, a burg of 3,500.

We stayed the night, then climbed aboard the Grand Canyon Railway's 9:30 a.m. express for the national park. The 63-mile trip over high plateau country took slightly more than two hours. We checked in for a two-night, three-day stay at the Maswik Lodge at South Rim Village.

The village is 7,000 feet above sea level and 5,000 feet (almost one mile) above the canyon floor. Daytime temperatures last week were pleasant, in the low 70s.

We rubbed elbows with tourists from around the world and utilized the convenient free shuttle bus system to visit shops, visitor centers and popular lookout points. We stopped at a dozen viewpoints spanning 10 miles from east to west along the south rim.

At each viewpoint, we'd venture several hundred yards east and west to gain additional perspectives. As trite as it may sound, each of the dozens and dozens of perspectives was unique. All vistas change dramatically with weather, time of day and time of year.

Our favorite spot was Mohave Point, which provides viewers with stunning sunsets and dramatic views of the Colorado River. Powell Point, named for Maj. John Wesley Powell, who made trips down the Colorado in 1869 and again beginning in 1871, is a mile east of Mohave Point and offers spectacular vistas.

Other outstanding viewpoints include Yaki Point, Pipe Creek Vista, Mather Point, Yavapai Point, Trailview Overlook, Hopi Point, The Abyss, Monument Creek Vista, Pima Point and Hermits Rest.

Not to be missed is the little stone Yavapai Museum of Geology and Observation Station, which provides outstanding views of the canyon through plate-glass windows. It also has a 3-D tabletop map of the canyon and a gift shop.

We dined at El Tovar Hotel, which exudes an old European charm, and at Bright Angel Restaurant. We browsed the Kolb and Lookout studios, as well as Hopi House, a crafts site built in 1905 by renowned architect Mary Colter.

The Grand Canyon now easily tops our list of one-of-a-kind travel destinations.

JIM CARNETT, who lives in Costa Mesa, worked for Orange Coast College for 37 years.