One Day, Two Incredible Canyons! – Northern Arizona

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Leaving Flagstaff at 7,000′ elevation, we knew Betsy would get a good workout on the way to our next destination at Jacob Lake.  Following US89, we climbed steadily and then continued onto US89A for a drop to 4,000′.  Finally, we climbed back up onto Kaibab Plateau and followed the curvy road to Jacob Lake, at 7,921′.  Lots of ups and downs, but what scenery along the way!  We were so captivated by the gorgeous views at Marble Canyon that we vowed to go back with the car after getting settled in. Continue reading

Visiting Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano – Flagstaff, AZ

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Continuing the drive north, Betsy climbed to Flagstaff to our next campground along highway 89.  We had  breezed through Flagstaff several times in the past; on our way to Page to the north, Williams to the west, the Meteor Crater to the east and to the red rocks of Sedona to the south.  Now it was time to hang out for a few days.

Not far from Flagstaff and within easy driving distance of each other are three National Monuments of great historical significance:  Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument and Walnut Canyon National Monument.  We had previously visited the cliff dwellings constructed by the Sinagua from about 1100 to 1250 CE at Walnut Canyon N.M., so we’d seen that one and my post is here.

Now it was time to visit the other two!

The snow-capped San Francisco Peaks greeted us at Flagstaff

We’d initially reserved four days at J&H RV Park, but shortened it to two because we wanted to squeeze in a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon near Jacob Lake, our new next stop.  But that’s a story for an upcoming post 🙂

Fortunately the two monuments we planned to visit can be driven in a loop along National Forest 545 loop road.  We started at the furthest one away, Wupatki National Monument.

The greeter at the pueblo – a Collared Lizard – seemed happy to see us!

There are six remains of masonry pueblos within this monument, and we stopped at two of them that dot the landscape – Wupatki Pueblo and Wukoki.  They preserve the most obvious evidence of human life in what is a beautiful volcanic landscape, telling of the 1100’s when pueblo peoples came together to build a large farming community.

Located just behind the Visitor Center, Wupatki Pueblo was thought to have been the heart of a thriving community and landmark, gathering place and ceremonial center.

Wupatki Pueblo rises four stories above the landscape and consisted of over 100 rooms

Depiction of a gathering for a harvest celebration, based on historical accounts and archeological evidence

With a self-guided pamphlet in hand we toured the pueblo, stopping at each numbered spot to learn about the daily life of the people that lived here.  We saw the amazing architectural design that incorporated the shape of natural rock outcrops.  The handcrafted slabs of sandstone stacked with adobe mortar was masonry par excellence.  The skills of the builders certainly have been proven through the test of time, as the structure has lasted about 900 years.

Masonry melded into existing rocks

It was remarkable to learn that this land, so dry and hot, had supported a large farming community.  It’s believed that the eruption at nearby Sunset Crater improved the agricultural potential here, as the moisture-conserving cinders helped prevent rapid evaporation.

The pinkish color on the volcanic hillside are clusters of feathery-tailed Apache Plume fruit

We continued our drive a few miles from Wupatki Pueblo to Wukoki Ruins, which in the distance resembled a castle looming in the middle of nowhere:

Back view of Wukoki standing tall in a vast landscape

Wukoki, the modern Hopi word for “Big House”, was said to once be home to two or three prehistoric Indian families.  Judging from the types of artifacts found during excavation, the inhabitants were believed to have been of the Kayenta Anasazi culture.

The structure is three stories high and positioned atop a Moenkopi sandstone outcrop, which afforded the occupants a commanding view of the surrounding terrain:

For 900 years, the Wukoki tower withstood wind, rain, and blistering sun

View from a small window

These doorways were obviously meant for short people!

Over the years, the ruins within Wutpaki National Monument have been reinforced to stabilize certain areas, ensuring the safety of us curious modern visitors.  Each time we visit a pueblo or ancient ruins, we think about how simple and yet how complex those people were.  Living successfully in a region of such scarce resources and climate extremes is something we can’t fathom.

 

Continuing the loop road between Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, we noticed a definite change in environment from desert to mountain:

Loop road with Painted Desert on the horizon

Sunset Crater is a 1000′ high cinder cone that was created where open parks and forest had been previously.  It was formed by a volcanic eruption less than 1,000 years ago, when the colorful glow from the oxidized cinders that fell onto the rim reminded people of a sunset – leading to the volcano’s name.

Sunset Crater today with its bright-rimmed cone

We followed a trail that looped across the base of Sunset Crater Volcano.  It gave a good account of the unique environment created by a volcano, and was like walking along a sculptured garden of extraordinary shapes and forms.  We saw the remains of several twisted Ponderosa Pines:

Cinder dunes were created during the eruption

What does this dead tree remind you of?

Solidified lava grooved from scraping against harder rock as it exited the volcano

The eruption of Sunset Crater was so powerful that it created more than 600 hills and mountains in what is now known as the San Francisco volcanic field.

Snow-capped San Francisco covered in clouds

We enjoyed our short visit and history lessons here, and recommend it to anyone passing through the area.

Another lovely couple was on hand to bid us goodbye!

 

Next up:  One Day, Two Incredible Canyons!



 

Some Excellent Mountain Hiking – Prescott, AZ

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Prescott and Prescott Valley are surrounded by breathtaking landscapes, complete with granite mountains.  We tackled three hikes while here; Granite Mountain Trail #261, Granite Mountain Hotshots Trail and Woodchute Trail. Continue reading

Travel Plan Reveal, Fun With Friends in Prescott, AZ

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Leaving behind the lush Sonoran Desert around Wickenburg was a bit melancholy, but we wanted to move on before the weather really heated up.  We were finally on our northward trajectory, after figuring out where we’d spend our summer and fall this year. Continue reading

The incredible Sonoran Desert in bloom – Arizona

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Palo Verde flower

“WOW!” was the first word that came out of my mouth as we approached Tucson on I-10 from the east.  We were looking at a sea of yellow as the Palo Verde blooms had virtually exploded!  This was our “nth” visit here, the unofficial home base where we’d spent several winters and one long hot summer.  During most of those visits we’d seen a lot of brown and dark olive colors, and some uniformly lush green.  But this time it was yellow all around!

The Sonoran Desert in springtime, after an unusually wet winter

The weather Gods were finally with us during our two-week May visit, the coolest in more than 40 years according to the National Weather Service.  The locals also confirmed the desert would be more colorful longer this year, and they couldn’t remember a more intense and widespread Palo Verde bloom.  It looked like our timing was good!

The Palo Verde is Arizona’s state tree

Palo Verde is Spanish for “green stick”

Our priority on this visit was doctor appointments, everything from cancer follow-ups to eye and dental inspections.  Fortunately we both continue to have eyes and teeth, and no cancer!

While driving around we couldn’t help but notice the vibrant colors along every road, hillside, wash and just about everywhere else:

We managed to hike two trails: the Cactus Forest Trail at Saguaro National Park-east and the Douglas Spring Trail at a nearby city park.  During both outings we were awestruck by how lush, colorful and vibrant the desert was:

A Cholla cactus bloom brought red highlights to the landscape

The desert was awash with yellow and splashed with red from Ocotillo blooms.  Hints of pink to light yellow from Prickly Pear flowers, and deep red or bright yellow Cholla blooms added to the mix:

Red Ocotillo blooms added brilliance to the scenery

The usually drab Chollas and Prickly Pears were bursting with color:

Not to be outdone, the stately Saguaros were sporting green crowns on their heads, bulbous nubs blooming into beautiful flowers.  They usually start to wake up in mid-May, but a large number were already showing off their milky white blooms that are Arizona’s state’s flower:

A single Saguaro can produce as many as 100 flowers in a season, with each lasting only one day.  They usually open at night and close soon after the sun starts to beat on them:

This Sonoran Desert beauty was sporting white headdresses

All doctors gave us two thumbs up, with extra happiness about two years cancer-free for Steve.  Even Betsy got a full bath to remove filth carried many miles from Texas.  A great visit all around!

Oh, Steve (a habit copied from one of our fellow RVers, you know who you are!) 🙂

Wickenburg, Arizona

We moved on to Wickenburg, 60 miles northwest of Phoenix, to explore it as a possible place to settle down one day.  We placed it near the top of our list after driving around, hiking, talking to locals and looking into real estate prices.  It met most of our requirements and we intend to come back to take another look later this year.

We consulted several pioneers who were milling around downtown.  They seemed to be frozen in time, but each had a story to tell via audio stations:

With the Sonoran Desert as a backdrop, the surrounding mountains keep residents close to nature with access to numerous hiking trails.  We tackled two of them during our stay;  Vulture Peak and Sophies Flat.

At an elevation of 3,660′, Vulture Peak is the highest point in the Vulture Mountains

We had hiked Vulture Peak in 2015, but Steve wanted to give it another try.  It’s only four miles out and back, but the last half going up is a strenuous climb up a steep hillside on loose rocks.  We ran into a terrible gnat invasion this time which pretty much spoiled the hike, but Steve was happy that he made it without the exhaustion he experienced the first time around.

Dozens of gnats seemed to like our hiking pants

Assessing the challenge ahead

Scrambling through a rocky gully

Made it to the saddle!

He attempted the summit, but a rock wall and no available ropes stopped him 😦

The view from the mountain’s saddle is worth some scrambling

Sophies Flat Trail was a fairly easy 7-mile trek through washes, over hills and around Red Top Peak.  It was another scenic desert hike with yellow remaining the dominant color:

Soap Yuccas were in bloom too

Wickenburg in the distance

The Teddy Bear Cholla blooms were waning

Barrel Cactus showed some buds

Our lucky day, we spotted not one but two venomous Gila Monsters along the trail.  One of them hissed at me!

The Palo Verde put on a spectacular show, turning the desert a gorgeous yellow-gold.  We were delighted to be here during a special spring brought on by the unseasonably cold and wet winter that several of our RV friends had endured.  Simply breathtaking!

 

Next up:  Summer plans revealed, more hikes and meet-ups with friends!



 

In search of the elusive Elegant Trogon – Chiricahua Mountains, AZ

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We are dedicating this post to Bob Gauvreau, a dear friend of ours who passed away recently.  We’ve enjoyed many good times with Bob and Dee Dee over the past few years. They prompted us to camp at Rusty’s RV Ranch, one of their favorite campgrounds where we stayed during this unexpected search for the elusive Elegant Trogon.

When you’re searching for an elusive bird and not finding it, there can be some frustration.  But when you’re in a place that’s known to harbor that bird the anticipation is heightened.  And that’s what happened as we checked in at Rusty’s RV Ranch and Rusty handed me a map of things to do and see in the area.  My ears really perked up when she said the Elegant Trogon had recently been spotted just down the road at the Chiricahua Mountains! Continue reading

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

Betatakin

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.

Betatakin

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

Hogan

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