Bluff, Utah the second time around – Part 1

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Bluff, Utah is an unassuming, sparsely populated little town in the southeastern corner of Utah.  Although seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it’s surrounded by opportunities for adventure.  Along with John and Pam, and Dave and Sue, we totally agree this is a place worthy of repeat visits.  Not that we wouldn’t happily meet up with these fine folks anywhere in the U.S., or beyond!

John and Pam’s coach on the left, then Beluga and finally Betsy lined up at Cadillac Ranch RV Park

San Juan Hill

When we arrived in Bluff, our friends were waiting and ready to take us, the “jeepless travelers” for a ride along a narrow, sandy and rocky road to the San Juan Hills.  They had been on this trip before, but because they are such thoughtful and nice friends they offered to share this fun trek with us – or perhaps it was another not-so-subtle hint that we simply must get ourselves a Jeep?

Upon our arrival we were reminded how incredibly tough and determined the Mormon pioneers who passed through this area were.  Hole in the Rock tells the story of their crossing of the Colorado River, and this, the last obstacle as they climbed over what they called San Juan Hill.  It’s a tale of faith and tenacity, all in answer to God’s calling.

San Juan Hill

We retraced the amazing path the pioneers traveled in 1879 – with wagons full of belongings!

Lewis was our leader and very proficient at “herding humans”

When the pioneers finally reached the top, they carved their thanks to God into the rock, as pointed our by our red-shirted historian

San Juan Hill

“Here’s a wagon track,” says Dave.  “There’s one over here, too,” says John.  “Help me find a track, Lewis,” says Steve.  And Lewis asks “What are my crazy friends doing on top of this cliff?”

San Juan Hill

The wagon wheel ruts remain on the rocks almost 140 years later – incredible!

Can you spot Sue exploring near the trailhead way down there?

Lewis searches for mom as some cowboys ride through the area

From below the route taken by the pioneers’ wagons is clearly visible

Remains of the Barton Trading Post

The Rincone

The Rincon

Steve and John contemplate the remains of a waterwheel platform, circa 1880

140 year old logs

River House Ruins

Just half a mile or so further down the “road” we stopped to check out a stabilized ruin by the San Juan River, appropriately called River House Ruins.  It was occupied by Ancestral Puebloans between AD900 and the late 1200’s.

Ancient ruins under assault by modern machines

River House Ruins

These ruins are inaccessible to most people, therefore in pretty good condition

Soot marks indicate a kitchen area

River House Ruin

The River House Ruin is also known as The Snake House, due to a huge snake pictograph on the back wall

Pottery fragments were everywhere

Three men and a dog having a serious discussion

The scenery in the area

Multi-hued rocks

San Juan River

Do you see the feathered cliff dweller I spotted?

Another way of visiting the ruins – bring your own horse!

Homeward bound after yet another awesome trek

If not for our friends, we could not have enjoyed this wonderful place – thank you!


Next up:  More Bluff explorations


Betatakin Ruins – Navajo National Monument, AZ

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We’d heard about Betatakin Ruins, an ancient ancestral Puebloan settlement, from Eric and Laurel who had hiked it a couple of years ago.  Reading her post about the guided hike piqued our interest in the tightly-protected ruins.  Fortunately we were able to work this great hike into our plans as we passed through the area again on our way to Monument Valley.

Off we went early one morning, thinking we’d just drive around to explore the monument, since ranger-guided hikes were not scheduled to begin until May (according to their website).

Location of Navajo National Monument

As usual we stopped at the visitor center upon our arrival, and I was happy to learn there would be a guided hike due to the large number of people who had requested one that morning.  Ranger guide Jimmy Black was rounded up to take the group into the canyon just a few minutes after we arrived – how’s that for perfect timing!

Instead of describing our experience, I urge you to read Laurel’s excellent account of the hike.  We had the same guide, the same strenuous hike 3 miles out and back, and the same ruins as our destination.  The only difference was that Laurel and Eric had hiked it in the fall, while we were here for a springtime trek.

Betatakin Canyon

Navajo National Monument is off the beaten path, uncrowded and quiet.  It protects three cliff dwellings which contain some of the best ruins on the Colorado Plateau.  Betatakin and Keet Seel (a 17-mile hike) are seasonally open to the public, while Inscription House has been closed due to its fragility.

Betatakin Ruin

Nestled in Betatakin canyon is a relict Aspen tree forest

Steps, steps, steps – around 800 of them!

Betatakin Ruins

In an alcove on the canyon floor, Jimmy described how Navajo traditions are important in ceremonies and rituals

Betatakin ruins

Gambel Oak trees screen the ruins

In Navajo Betatakin means “House built on a ledge,” while Hopi’s call it Talastima, meaning “place of the blue corn tassels”

Betatakin Ruin

The westernmost structures were under the immense south-facing sandstone arch

Betatakin was constructed of sandstone, mud, mortar and wood

The 125-room cliff dwelling consisted of rooms used for food storage, living and ceremonies

Notice the intact roof ladders and earthen roofs


Jimmy used his laser pointer to highlight several petroglyphs

Betatakin was built between 1267 and 1286 in an enormous alcove measuring 452′ high and 370′ across

As is common for cliff dwellings, the site was built in the deep alcove of a south-facing canyon wall

Jimmy described the patterns weaved into baskets used for religious ceremonies and traditional weddings.  Each basket has a distinct pattern of representation.


The overlook on the edge of the canyon used to view the ruins – hiking down to them was a way better experience!

Passing through a thicket of sumac branches, used in basket weaving

Walking across Aspen woodland

What went down had to go back up – way up!

Betatakin Ruin

The last person out was responsible for locking the gate

Looking down at a small section of the stairway

Catching our breath after climbing those steps

We were tired when we reached the top of the mesa.  The hike down and up was strenuous, as advertised.  That’s why Jimmy had made sure at the beginning that nobody had any hip, knee, heart or respiratory problems, or recent surgery.  He did a great job of gauging the right speed for the group and when to stop for rest.

It was a tough hike, but the Betatakin Ruins were totally worth the effort!

Navajo National Monument protects a landscape of water-carved canyons that housed Ancestral Puebloan people for several centuries


Next up:  Bluff, Utah – the second time around


Into the Heart of the Valley of the Monuments – AZ/Utah Border

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Totem Pole

We first saw the incredible formations in Monument Valley during our drive through the area on highway 163 a couple of years ago.  At that time I was reminded of the amazing scenery of many western movies and photos from the distant past.  I only had time for a few photos during that passage, but we vowed to spend more time here and did just that during the last week of March this year.

Monument Valley was destined to be a hidden natural treasure, enjoyed by only a few intrepid travelers venturing into this area wilderness.  But we learned that thanks to Harry and Leone “Mike”  Goulding, it was transformed into an icon of the American west.  During our stay at Goulding’s RV Park, our eyes were opened to how it became a popular place to stay and play for Hollywood stars and many other folks passing through.

Harry Goulding posed at John Ford’s Point in the late twenties

And the story goes …

In the early 1920’s, Harry, a sheep trader and Leone (nicknamed “Mike”) came to Monument Valley looking for a business opportunity.  They were very fortunate to buy a substantial plot of land when the Paiute Indian Reservation relocated and many acres became available for sale.

The Gouldings immediately set up Goulding’s Trading Post at the base of Big Rock Door Mesa, while befriending and conducting business with the local Navajo people who accepted them.  Unfortunately, when the great depression hit the Navajo Reservation suffered immensely.

Harry and Mike went to Hollywood to show pictures of the beautiful valley to director John Ford.  They convinced him that Monument Valley was perfect for his next movie, and in less than a month Ford began shooting “Stagecoach”, which starred John Wayne.  Nine more Ford films were shot here, which not only helped the Navajo with much-needed money, but also opened to the world the stunning red rock formations standing tall in the middle of the desert.

Gouldings- the hub at Monument Valley

Many decades later, Goulding’s Lodge consists of a lodge, cabins, museum, restaurant and an RV campground.  Goulding’s businesses have grown and changed hands through the years as Monument Valley has continued as a backdrop for many movies and television shows and ads, as well as a popular tourist destination.

Goulding’s Lodge was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 for its importance to the local area.

New Goulding’s lodges and cabins at the foot of Rock Canyon

This iconic stretch of land is in the heart of the Navajo Indian Nation, and home to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which spans the Utah/Arizona border.  The Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation manages the park valley, not the National Park Service.

The valley viewed from the windmill formations

To see what is beyond the walls of the monuments, several tours are offered by various Navajo operators located near the visitor center.  We opted for an all-day tour offered by Goulding Tours, which took us down not only the rugged 17-mile loop of Monument Valley to view the famous monuments, but also the restricted backcountry and Mystery Valley, amazing areas far away from public access.

All bundled and layered up this bright early morning!

Most areas here are off limits unless you are with a Navajo guide, and our guide Larry took us into several restricted areas.  He told many stories about Navajo culture and history during our excursion.

Our first stop was at a hogan, which was a primary traditional dwelling of the Navajo people, although today it is used for ceremonial purposes.

The entry to a hogan always faces east to welcome the rising sun for good wealth and fortune


The roof is constructed by criss-crossing Cedar tree sections.  No nails are used, and the exterior is covered with mud for structural strength and as a barrier against the elements

Inside the hogan, a grandma demonstrated the Navajo technique for processing raw wool fleece from sheep into a weaving yarn and ultimately looming it into a beautiful rug.  What’s amazing is there are no patterns to follow and the design comes completely from the weaver’s imagination.  She also showed us how blue corn is ground and some basket weaving techniques.

Grandma does not speak English so Larry interpreted for us the yarn weaving and rug making techniques

I was attracted to the beautiful jewelry as she ground corn

We continued our sandy and dusty excursion, as Larry narrated through a speaker system that was set up in the back of the vehicle.

Our open-air tour vehicle

When we were on top of a hill he related the story of how in 1863 the Navajo people were mistreated and forcibly removed from their ancestral land to begin The Long Walk of 425 miles from Fort Defiance, AZ to Fort Sumner, NM where they were exiled.  This year marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Navajo Treaty of 1868 between the Navajo and the United States government, which gave them the freedom to return home after four years of internment.

Larry showed us the area where uranium was used to be mined

For the next 29 miles we were led into Mystery Valley’s side-box canyons, visiting much of the valley’s secluded natural arches and windows.  There’s also an abundance of concealed and undisturbed Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and pictographs in this area.

Skull Arch

View from the right eye of the Skull Arch

We just had to pose on top of Honeymoon Arch, which got its name from the small “honeymoon suite” ruins located inside it

Honeymoon Suite Ruins

There was lots of this – short and strenuous hikes up and down slick rocks to rewarding views

Undisturbed House of Many Hands

Pictographs and petroglyphs

At the top left are the many hands which gave name to these ruins

While Larry prepared lunch we checked out more ruins and petroglyphs within the huge box canyon:

These unnamed ruins were reduced to rubble

Large goat petroglyphs

Soaring cliffs within a box canyon – our beautiful lunch spot

After lunch Larry drove us deep into the backcountry, where he continued his narration of the valley’s history, geography, culture and lore.  As we passed clusters of Navajo communities, he mentioned that 30% of Navajo people have no electricity and no running water.  Income is derived from tourism and sales of handmade trinkets, jewelry, and beautiful intricate rugs.

Clusters of Navajo families can be seen scattered across the valley

Monument Valley

In some places we saw hogans alongside modern homes and cars

It was common to see cows and horses roaming along our route

A Navajo Indian coming home from shepherding

Big Hogan

The Big Hogan arch is like an amphitheater

Big Hogan

Inside the Big Hogan Arch Larry performed a Navajo ceremonial chant

After his chant we were asked to lie down on our backs along the rock wall, and to look up at the arch to see the eye and beak of an eagle:

Big Hogan

Can you discern the eagle’s head and eyes?

This lone tree blended well with the surrounding cliffs

Erosion has caused some interesting patterns here

For perspective note our tour vehicle under the Eye of the Sun arch

Running goats at the base of Eye of the Sun Arch

Large sand dunes are the result of monument erosion

The Valley

Finally we were in the shadows of the amazing rock statues, the monuments that Harry and Mike introduced to the world.  Our tour’s final stretch was over the rugged 17-mile loop that is open to the public.  Larry pointed out places where famous scenes from movies, TV shows and commercials had been filmed over the years.

The dusty and rugged 17-mile loop can be driven by folks in their own vehicles

Monument Valley

Scene from the 1939 movie “Stagecoach”

Monument Valley

The valley that made John Wayne exclaim, “So this is where God put the west.”

John Ford's point

A resident cowboy poses for tourist’s tips at John Ford’s Point, mimicking a scene from the 2013 movie “Lone Ranger”

Monument Valley

Totem Pole and Yei Bichei rise from the valley’s dusty landscape

Totem Pole

Clint Eastwood stood on top of the 450′ tall Totem Pole in the movie “Eiger Sanction”

Monument Valley

North Window framing the King’s Throne and Brigham’s Tomb buttes

West Mitten Butte – that sliver of rock appears to be God looking down at the valley

We were completely covered with orange sand at the end of our bumpy, dusty ride, but through Larry we had learned a lot about the Navajo Indians and what exists behind the Navajo Nation wall.  This all-day tour is the only way to see the heart of the valley of the Monuments!

Monument Valley

Larry and our tour ride

Native Americans’ name for Monument Valley translates to “the sand that lights up the valley,” and below you can see why:

Monument Valley

Moonrise over Sentinel Mesa

Peace, says the Big Indian Chief

Steve’s enjoys his daily sunrise view from our dining area window

This formation is King on the Throne, but Larry says it’s John Wayne sitting on a toilet 🙂

Monument Valle

West and East Mitten buttes, note the tourists below for perspective

Golden hour

Shadows form on the King’s Throne as the sun gets low in the horizon

Forest Gump Hill

Betsy and Steve pose at Forest Gump Hill


Next up:  Hiking the Betatakin Ruins



Rainbow Bridge National Monument – Page, AZ

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A place we missed exploring during our last visit to Page, Arizona was “Nonnezoshe”, meaning “rainbow turned to stone.”  We were lucky to get a boat tour reservation in late March during this visit, as these tours usually start after April 1st.  Access to Rainbow Bridge is made via a 2+ hour boat tour departing from Wahweap Marina to Forbidding Canyon, followed by a 30-minute walk to the bridge.  The only other ways to get there are either to rent your own boat or make a 14+ mile (one way) hike around Navajo Mountain.  Although a bit pricey, the boat tour is a great way to spend a day enjoying a relaxing boat ride as you get a unique perspective of the gorgeous geology along the way.

The morning boat ride was chilly as we left the marina

As the boat cruised along 50 miles of beautiful Lake Powell, we were immediately awestruck with the canyon scenery.  It was a narrated tour that included information about local geology.  We gazed at countless soaring red rock cliffs, solitary buttes, mesas and orange beaches that we had only glimpsed during our hike of the Page Rimview Trail a few days previously.  Although the glens (lush and green growth along the river and side canyons) for which the canyon was named are now deep beneath the lake, the formations that remain above the surface of the water create a truly spectacular scenery.

Cathedral Rock is the formation we had seen from our campsite at a different angle

A fisherman is dwarfed by gigantic cliffs

Gunsight Butte looked like a lighthouse from our campsite

There are limitless photographic opportunities along the shorelines

Padre Bay

A rented boat looks like a toy against a soaring cliff

Petrified sand dunes

As we neared our destination the boat wound back and forth in narrowing Forbidding Canyon:

Anticipation built as we entered Forbidding Canyon

This dock is the end of the line for boat traffic

Look at that!  Oh, look over there! Wow, that’s awesome over there, too!

Once the boat was docked we were the first two off for the 1.5-mile walk up the canyon.  The distance changes as the water level varies, and it took us about 30 minutes on this day.  The natural bridge is tucked back among a rugged, isolated canyon at the base of Navajo Mountain.

We were lucky to be first off the boat!

Filled with anticipation, we finally rounded a bend and saw part of the bridge soaring in a huge arc.  At that moment we understood why it is named Rainbow Bridge. It looked just like a rainbow carved into the Navajo Sandstone, with 10,000’+ snow-dusted Navajo Mountain in the background.

This was a teaser as we rounded one of the last corners – wow!

The immense bridge is 290′ tall and 275′ wide, the largest in the world according to the tour brochure

Two plaques were attached to the canyon wall to commemorate Piutes NasJah Begay and Jim Mike, who first guided white men to Nonnezoshi in August 1909.  President Howard Taft designated Rainbow Bridge and 160 acres around it as a national monument one year later.

A view up the canyon from the “back” (south) side of the bridge

Rainbow Bridge

Another view from the “back” side

Fascinating wind action on the sandstone

A fossilized dinosaur track

It was time to walk back to the boat after only 30 minutes of frantic photography.

The captain and crew wait to welcome us back

The cruise back gave us yet another perspective of the canyon scenery and the amazing erosional features sculpted by wind, water and freezing.  Another round of wows!

Can you spot the campers on the beach?

Tower Butte is a landmark that can be seen from highway 89, and from Betsy’s windows

It was a long trip, but totally worth it.  Visiting Rainbow Bridge was surely one of the highlights of our week-long visit to Page!

Everyone was mellow and satisfied on the return trip

Our stay at Wahweap RV and Campground was a blast, with friends staying all around us.  In the campground were Dave and Sue at site C24, and Dave and Faye at C10 (we were in D41).  The ever-adventurous Al and Ingrid were boondocking at nearby Lone Rock and joined in the festivities.  It was a fun gathering as we swapped stories about our time here and discussed where our paths will cross again as we fan out across the country.  Parting is such sweet sorrow!

This may be our third visit to Page, but certainly not the last!


Next up:  Into the heart of  Monument Valley


A Photogenic Playground – Page, AZ

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When we first camped in Page, Arizona in Spring 2016, we had a great time and vowed to return.  That visit was filled with outdoor activities, but several hidden wonderlands remained unexplored in this photogenic playground.  I published two posts on our first visit; Exploring by Land and Water and Banded Hills.  Page was briefly our home base again last summer when we caught the wave on the slopes of Coyote Buttes in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.

We were happy to spend another week here at the beginning of our northward migration. We never tire of looking at the beautiful colors and contours of the Colorado River and Lake Powell, which constantly beseech me to grab my camera.  So, my adventurous readers, be prepared for a photographic journey!

Looking north toward Glen Canyon Dam and some upscale homes at Page Golf Course

Throughout the day, the gorgeous formations change colors as shadows slip in and out of the canyons.  It’s a natural beauty that creates amazing and ever-changing swirls and patterns.  Can you tell we just love it here? 🙂

Orange colored beach

Sunset at lone rock, viewed from our campground

View from our dining area window

Harris Sparrow

A Harris Sparrow, rare in this area, came by our feeder a few times

So what did we do on our third time through?  Lots!

Hiking the Rimview Trail

The 10-mile Page Rimview Loop Trail winds around Manson Mesa, on which the city of Page was built.  It offers a panorama of water, rock formations, and mountains.  As we walked along the rim we feasted our eyes on sweeping views of the City of Page, the Vermillion Cliffs, Lake Powell, the Kaparowitz Plateau, Navajo Mountain and the surrounding high desert.

Lake Powell

The river that is Lake Powell

The Kaparowitz Plateau and rock formations

 Navajo Generating Station

The Navajo Power Generating Station is the largest coal-fired electric plant in Arizona

Looking southwest at Vermillion Cliffs

Is the color of the rocks salmon or peach or coral?

The Colorado River flows through that deep canyon

Tower Butte with Navajo Mountain in the distant background

Glen Canyon Dam Tour

Steve signs up for dam tours whenever we get near one.  Not available last time due to construction, so we got on the first tour of the day this time.  Dams are always controversial, as human needs must be balanced against environmental issues.  Such was the case here when this dam was planned in the 50’s, and those concerns remain today.

Glen Canyon Dam and bridge viewed from the south

We were closely watched by guards during this tour

Glen Canyon Bridge

Looking up the Glen Canyon Bridge from 500 feet below

There’s always seepage where a dam connects to the canyon wall

Inside the dam, eight generators provide power for over 2 million homes

Looking up at the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, 500′ above

The states that benefit from Colorado River water management

After the dam tour, we explored the vibrant desert and ancient sand dunes along the east end of the dam.  Climbing and walking around these less-visited areas gave us a chance to admire the diverse colors and patterns of the sandstone there.

Ancient sand blown in swirls and frozen in time

The sun hit it right to give the rocks a vibrant orange glow

Along the Hanging Garden Trail

Ferns growing out of the rocks

Seemingly limitless climbing opportunities abound in the Page area

Yes dear, I’m coming back down now!

Water Holes Canyon

One of the allures of the Page area are the slot canyons.  The super-popular (and pricey) ones are the two Antelope Canyon tours, which had already astounded us on our previous visit (click here for photos).  This time we opted for the lesser-known Water Holes Canyon, where a less expensive $12 per person permit from the Navajo Parks office was required.  It allowed us to hike on our own without a guide, which may not be the case much longer because word is getting out about this fantastic place.

The opening into Water Holes Canyon

And what better way to enhance a canyon hike than to do it with friends?  Since Dave and Faye and Al and Ingrid were also camped in Page, we were all set for an expedition of bloggers/photographers.  Several hours of goofing off and laughter ensued, and oh yeah, we actually got in a decent hike too!

If you’re ever in the area and physically up for it, TAKE THIS HIKE!  We all started early and had the beautiful canyon to ourselves for much of the hike.  I have to say the beauty of this trek is comparable to the rushed and crowded Antelope Canyon Tours but at a much more reasonable price.

With each other’s help and some canyoneering skills, we were able to meet the challenges of multiple ladders and tight scrambling spots throughout the canyon.  What a blast we had!

Ingrid demonstrates her butt-scooting canyoneering technique as the judges look on

Can you spot Ingrid?

Steve is tired of always having the spotlight on him 😉

This trail was like a journey to a magical place, with its twisting passageways leading off into natural narrows.  As always, the light changed during our hike to create new displays of color, light and shadow.  It was a wow!

Al and Faye posed while their spouses/photographers shared photography tips

Dave and Ingrid sharing camera tricks

The boys hid in a crack to surprise us, but we caught them.  Nice try!

It’s a tight squeeze there

Details, details…ancient sand frozen in time…

And the happy faces say it all!

Faye, Dave, Ingrid, Steve and Al


Next up:  And the adventures in Page continue…




A Tale of two train tours – Arizona

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In addition to airplanes and cars, Steve also loves trains and riding on them.  And I have no complaints about them either!  During one of our travel planning sessions he noticed that our route would take us near two popular train excursions; one on the Verde Canyon Railway near Cottonwood, AZ and the other on the Grand Canyon Railway.  One was all about the journey, while the other had an unforgettable destination.

Verde Canyon Railroad – it’s all about the journey!

First we hopped aboard the Verde Canyon Railroad in Clarkdale,  just a few miles from our campsite at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Steve wanted to travel in style so he booked First Class passage (no kids allowed!).  The ride is a four hour, 40-mile round trip on a heritage railroad running between Clarkdale and Perkinsville, into Arizona’s most scenic wilderness of Verde Canyon.

The moment we stepped into the vintage car we felt transported back to a time of luxurious and leisurely train travel, especially when champagne was served upon boarding.  That was a sign of great things to come as we sat back to relax and enjoy the ride.

It was a narrated trip, which made it interesting to learn about the history of the railroad that was built in the late 1880’s to supplement mining in the Mingus Mountains.  Mining has since ceased there, but the railroad endured and has become a wonderful excursion into the wilderness.

Engine 1510, Verde Canyon Railroad

Built in 1953, engines 1510 and 1512 are the muscle of the Verde Canyon Railroad

Under new ownership, today’s train is transporting us modern tourists into the isolated, rugged backcountry that originally challenged early pioneers.  We marveled at the pristine scenery only accessible through this tour.

Here are the highlights of this unforgettable experience:

Sinagua Cliff Dwellings

With Verde Valley being an aboriginal melting pot, it was not surprising to spot Sinagua cliff dwellings

Verde River

The railroad twists and turns along the Verde River

A narrator was available on the outdoor viewing platform to point out various formations and facts

A Bald Eagle makes its home here

We passed through a curved 680′ long man-made tunnel – everyone yelled in there!

The scenery was amazing as we passed through “Little Grand Canyon”

Perkinsville, where scenes from “How the West Was Won” were filmed in 1960, was the end of the line.  Then the engines moved to the other end of the train and back we went!

Just as we began our return trip the clouds gave way to the afternoon sun

Despite the mostly overcast sky we enjoyed the trip immensely and thought a summer or fall trip would offer another perspective.  This journey through remote and protected areas gave us a glimpse of what life might have been like during the railroad’s heyday, and it was a wonderful foray into the wilderness.

Grand Canyon Railway- this one’s about the destination!

We purposely went 40 miles out of our way to camp in Williams, Arizona just so we could ride the Grand Canyon Railway, one of Steve’s long-time bucket list items.

Again, we booked first-class dome car seats – hey, we’re only going to do this once!

A happy passenger with a big smile

In 1901 the first locomotive took passengers from Williams to the Grand Canyon, thanks to William Owen “Buckey” O’ Neill.  It’s heyday lasted until the advent of cars, and by 1968 train travel here died and the town of Williams struggled.

It wasn’t until 1989 when Max, a crop duster pilot, and his wife Thelma revived the railway system.  Their vision paid off, and here we were en route to the Grand Canyon aboard a fully restored vintage passenger car.  They say the west was won not by cowboys or cavalry but by the iron horse, and the people with visions of grandeur made it happen.

The train departed from the Williams Depot for a two-hour journey that covered 65 miles across high desert with endless vistas:

San Francisco Peak taken through our window, hence a bit blurred

We rode in a full-length dome car called the Mary Colter

Enjoying our drinks in the lower-level lounge

We had 3.5 hours to check out our destination, the Grand Canyon.  Not nearly enough time for a complete exploration, but fortunately this was our second visit.  There’s plenty to see and do at Grand Canyon National Park, and this time we walked the Trail of Time which was new to us since our last visit more than a decade ago.

After lunch we walked the trail to Yavapai Point and the Geology Museum.  I would have loved to stay longer at the museum, but this trip did not afford enough time to go through all of the displays and read about the geological story of the canyon.

The walking trail was lined with actual rock samples collected from all 70+ geologic layers of the canyon

So we learned about the geological history of the canyon through displays as we strolled along the South Rim, while taking in the timeless expansive vistas.  The 4-mile round trip walk took us 2 1/2 hours, with many photos taken along the way.

Here are some glimpses of the 277-mile long, one-mile deep canyon that covers a total of 1,900 square miles – the natural wonder that is the Grand Canyon:

Capturing the spectacular colors of the rock layers here is best done at sunrise or sunset, but this time I had to make do at midday 😦

This recently cut tree looks like an octopus ready to plunge below

Looking down at Bright Angel Trail that leads to the canyon floor

See those tourists on the edge?

Our two train tours were filled with railroad history and beautiful scenery.  It’s a way to see places that you can’t by other means, and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it!


Next up:  Page, a Photogenic Playground


Ancient Ruins and Happy Hikes – Verde Valley, AZ

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With the Sonoran Desert in our rearview mirror, we settled in for a week in the Verde Valley at Cottonwood, midway between the cold high country and the desert floor of Arizona.  Several small towns (Jerome, Sedona, Clarkdale and Cottonwood, to name a few) in the valley have a quaint character and richness in history.  The valley is named after the Verde River, which winds its way through those communities and provides all sorts of recreational opportunities including fishing, birding, wine tasting, history and outdoor activities.  This was our second visit here, and this time we focused on three historic sites containing ancient ruins.

Like others we’ve visited, these ruins gave us a rare glimpse into the lives of human beings who lived in the valley under far different circumstances than those we enjoy today.

Verde Valley

Verde Valley taken from Highway 17

Verde River

The Verde River winds through several valley communities

Ancient ruins can be found throughout Arizona, but some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings are here in Verde Valley.  These ruins were left by Hohokam and Sinaguan natives, followed by Apaches and Yavapai Tribes, and finally by early European settlers.  It’s believed that they flourished in the valley hundreds of years ago.  Three of these ancient ruins are in close enough proximity to each other that they can be visited in one day.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Just up the road from our campsite in Cottonwood, the town of Clarkdale holds remnants of a Sinaguan pueblo built 800 years ago, known as Tuzigoot (meaning “crooked water” in Apache).  Archaeologists have discovered the probable order in which Tuzigoot’s rooms were built, beginning as a small cluster lived in by some 50 people.  The Sinagua were peaceful village dwellers who arrived in the valley about 900 AD, with an eventual community of over 200 residing there until about 1400.

The village crowns the summit of a long ridge.  The remains were reconstructed in 1933

We noticed that there were no doors and learned that the inhabitants accessed rooms from a roof opening with a ladder to the floor

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Dating back to 1150, the “Castle A” dwellings hug a cliff 100′ above the ground and consist of an imposing five-story apartment-like building with about 45 rooms.  A little bit further along the cliff is another five story 20-room dwelling dating to between 1100 and 1300.  Historians believe Sinaguan farmers chose this spot due to the reliable water supply in nearby Beaver Creek.

A high rise condominium in ancient times

Close up of a remarkable dwelling – can you imagine yourself living here?

A diorama of how people may have lived in the dwellings

Ancient high rise condominium – balcony views for all!

While strolling along the trail we wondered what life may have been like here.  It must have taken enormous effort just to get water from the creek up to the cliff.  Imagine life with no electricity or running water, but what a view!

Whitebark Arizona Sycamores lined the cliff. The roof of the castle is still supported by sycamore beams, 700 years after construction

Early tourists were allowed to climb to the castle by way of ladders

What we were not prepared for was how busy this monument would be, even at opening time on a Tuesday morning!

Montezuma Well

We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the huge and clear waters at Montezuma Well, and its origins and history fascinated us.  It was only recently in 2011 that its origins were confirmed.  It is a naturally occurring spring in the middle of the desert, a result of the trickling of snowmelt water that came from the Mogollon Rim some 10,000 years ago.  It has percolated slowly down through hundreds of feet of rock, draining drop by drop through the path of least resistance all the way to the well.

Montezuma Well

1.5 million gallons of water emerge each day from an underground spring

When the water reached the valley, it was obstructed by a vertical wall of volcanic basalt that forced it to the surface.  As it was pushed upward it eroded an underground cavern which eventually collapsed and created the limestone sinkhole we saw.

See the cliff dwellings?

More dwellings along the waterline of the well and 1891 Ad for photos!

The water is replenished with 5.7 million liters each day.  The water level remains constant, as cracks on the side of the well allow it to flow through the outer wall.

Montezuma Well

A prehistoric canal is evidence of early farmers channeling water from the well to irrigate acres of produce

Actual prehistoric canal diverts water for agriculture

Throughout the valley, pueblos and villages can be seen on cliffs, in caves and along the river.  The land was farmed until about 1400, when all of the tribes vanished.  There have been various reasons postulated as to the reason for the mass exodus, but no one knows for sure.

Below are links to other ancient cliff dwellings in Arizona we have visited:

Cliff dwellers at Canyon de Chelley

Overhang cliff dwellers at Walnut Canyon

Hitting Trails

Our home base was a return to Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, where convenient access to good trails was one of the reasons we returned.  We tackled two hikes, the 8 mile Lime Kiln/Thumper Loop combination and the 8.4 mile Bones Trail Loop.  Both were good moderate treks with lots of scenic views.

The Red Tailed Hawk campground area – Betsy’s ‘hood for a week

Dead Horse Ranch

The lagoon at Dead Horse Ranch State Park

The town of Jerome can be seen up high on the mountain, with Clarkdale in the foothills

The red rocks of Sedona in the distance

The grasses were almost as tall as me!

We were very happy that we crossed paths with Hans and Lisa during our stay, and they invited us on a hike in Sedona. They know a thing or two about scenic hikes in Sedona, and we enjoyed our last hike with them here a couple of years ago.  Also along on this hike was their friend Linda from Portland, OR.  Off we went on an 8.5 mile loop around Cathedral Rock for a fun, scenic and enjoyable hike!

Hipline Trail

Lisa, Hans, Linda and Steve

Hike leaders, Hans and Steve

Short people need a push now and then!

Our lunch perch with a view

We had views of Cathedral Rock from every direction

Lots of company on this trail, and Linda enjoyed taking action shots

Bloggers and photographers – Here’s my pic of Linda taking a pic of Lisa taking a pic of our hike leaders!  The guys just shook their heads…

Thank you Linda for this snap, It was great meeting you!

Looking back down at the trail still warm from our passing

Happy photographer, Linda’s first time in Sedona

Spot the tour helicopter – they were frequent flyers

Arizona Sycamore forest

Just a slice of the red rock county of Sedona

Our thanks to Linda for this capture!



Next up:  A Tale of Two Train Tours


Final days in the Sonoran Desert- AZ

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Our winter stay in the Sonoran Desert this year began in January and seemed to just fly by. After my birding excursions at Patagonia, we returned to Tucson recently to wrap up a few appointments, hike with friends and socialize before beginning our slow migration north.

Mount Lemmon was dusted with snow when we returned to Tucson at the beginning of March

While setting up camp we heard the military ‘birds” overhead, giving us a free air show that went on for the entire weekend.  I attempted to get good photos of them flying in formation as they flew right over the highly-populated city.  We learned that nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Arizona Air National Guard were practicing maneuvers, and it looked to us like they were doing a great job!  It was fun to watch, but the noise did get a bit old after a while.

I wouldn’t want to be the enemy and see this coming at me!

They even practiced some large explosions on the ground

We got a show of our own, as Betsy received her annual professional wash and power wax:

This team seems to have a lot of supervisors

Something we like to do when friends visit us here is show off our favorite cactus, the awesome saguaro.  When Mike and Jeanie came to town we drove over Gates Pass and into Saguaro National Park (west).

At Gates Pass overlooking Saguaro National Park

Jeanie and I tested our new “Peak Finder” app by pointing our iPhones at the mountain peaks.  It identified them just like the plaque in front of us!

We made a stop at Old Tucson Studios, which remains an active filming location for Western-themed movies, television, cable shows and commercials – also dubbed “Hollywood in the Desert.”  Here is my post about our first visit in 2016.

Old Tucson Studios

Gunfight on the street

This is a fun stop if you’re into old Westerns (Steve is a big Gunsmoke fan)

On another day when Steve was getting some work done on the car I joined John and Pam on their last hike at Tucson Mountain Park.  A nice thing that happened on this particular hike was that they named a crested saguaro after me! (little pleasures 🙂  Are they the coolest or what?

John urged us up to a nice spot for a lunch break

The Mona Liza Crested Saguaro!

Knowing we won’t be here again for a couple of years, we tucked in two more hikes – one on Star Pass Trail and the other on Ventana Canyon Trail.  Following recent rains, the desert had awakened.  The saguaros were plump, the ocotillos were budding and the rest of the desert plants perked up ready for spring.  Happily, we had the trails mostly to ourselves as we enjoyed the quiet scenery and said goodbye to our thorny friends.

And he says I’m a ham!

A saguaro forest basking in the morning sunshine

View of Tucson from the top of the ridge along Ventana Canyon Trail

We spent our last evening in Tucson with Gay and Joe of good-times rollin.  They prepared delicious beef fajitas, which Joe and Steve cooked while exchanging notes about their cancer journeys.  We were so happy to hear that Joe is now cancer free!

Beef fajitas – yum!

About 164 miles north of Tucson is the small town of Black Canyon City, our last stop before exiting the Sonoran Desert.  It’s where the Sonoran Desert transitions to the coniferous Arizona mountain forests at higher elevations.  This was a revisit for us, as we had discovered a couple of nice hikes here a couple of years ago.

We were excited to meet up with the Wandering Camels once again for a fun hike.  Dave and Faye joined us for our swan song hike in the Sonoran Desert.  It’s always a hoot hiking with this great couple whom we have trekked with in southern Utah and Banff National Park.

A hike with Dave and Faye is always fun!

New River

Dave caught us bidding goodbye to the saguaros

But we were itching to move on, even if it meant missing the desert in bloom and the flowering saguaros.  We experienced it last year, enjoying a whole different desert during the spring and summer months.

Just for smiles 🙂

We spent so much time hanging around the saguaros that I imagined personalities for some of them.  What do you think?

Dave and I created a “human” saguaro



Next up:  So much to do around Cottonwood!