Week 2: July 11-17- The Four Corners
We started our second week by heading southwest from Colorado, straight for the Four Corners region. In the next seven days, we explored Native American sites in Arizona and Utah, and saw perhaps the most iconic of National Parks: the Grand Canyon.
Mesa Verde National Park
Established in 1906 to protect ancient Pueblo sites, Mesa Verde National Park encompasses 52,485 acres with 4,300 archaeological and cultural sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. It is the largest archeological preserve in the southwest.
We toured Cliff Palace, the largest dwelling in the park, with 150 rooms and 23 kivas (circular, ceremonial rooms.) Cliff Palace was in use from approximately 1080-1200 AD, when it was abandoned due to drought. Approximately 100 people would have lived here at a time.
Cliff Palace was constructed under an alcove, to provide shade on blistering summer days and shelter from rain, wind, and snow (yes, the desert gets snow. And below zero temperatures.)
Walking through the structures of Cliff Palace, we imagined how these people's lives might have been. This was a unique park, valued for its historical and cultural value. It's easy to think that all national parks have to protect "nature" or have to look a certain way, with tall mountains or epic canyons. But it's important to remember that the NPS protects archaeological and cultural sites too.
Four Corners National Monument (NM, AZ, CO, UT)
This was a quick stop, but it is cool to say we were in four places at once! New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, & Colorado all touch here.
Although this is considered Navajo land, and there is an entrance fee paid to the Navajo Nation, it is a National Monument and part of the NPS system.
The night of July 12, we stayed in the Utah town of Mexican Hat (so-named for the rock formation that looks like a man wearing a sombrero.) In the morning, we drove through Monument Valley, a region on the Arizona-Utah border that is part of the Navajo Nation.
We watched the formidable, looming sandstone towers rise up from twenty miles away. We cut through the heart of this iconic valley, surrounded by red rock and vast desert. Everything looked simultaneously bleached and burnt. Twin forces of eradication.
Along a 17 mile scenic drive, you may recognize classic shots like the ones above from Western movies, which were often filmed in the area.
The valley certainly left an impression. Imposing, inescapable, impermeable. Neither pictures no words can do justice to the contrast of jaybird sky and dusty, red earth.
Navajo National Monument
As we continued southwest, another Navajo site that we visited was Navajo National Monument, near Shonto, Arizona.
Navajo National Monument, established in 1909, preserves three ancestral Puebloan sites: Betatakin and Keet Seel, which are available for guided tours, and Inscription House, which is closed to the public. Like at Mesa Verde, ancestral Pueblo peoples built villages tucked into the natural sandstone alcoves of canyons.
These villages date from AD 1250 to 1300, so they are later than Mesa Verde, but they are larger. Betatakin is 560 feet deep! Unfortunately, we got there too late in the day to do the guided tours (they leave early in the morning to beat the heat, since they are 5+ mile hikes!)
However, we did a quick overlook trail to look down at Betatakin. Had we gone on the tour, we would have seen original architectural elements like roof beams, masonry walls, rock art, and hand and foot holds.
We did, however, see dinosaur footprints!
While not part of the NPS system, this slot canyon near Page, Arizona is famous, and for good reason. The two canyons, upper and lower, are two of the most photogenic places in the Southwest.
Flash flooding is responsible for these gorgeous rock formations. This area of Arizona (also part of the Navajo Nation) experiences a monsoon season. Over the years, rushing water carved out narrow passageways and eroded them away, making the slot canyon. It is not visible from above ground. You could easily walk by and not know what lies beneath!
The corridors are now totally smoothed out and allow easy passage. Guided tours take you through these wave-like formations. It really feels like you are flowing through the rock.
Flooding still occurs. Our guide told us about a few fatal floods, and said that the late summer months often cancel tours if a storm is expected.
The word for Upper Canyon in Navajo is "Tsé bighánílíní," which means “the place where water runs through rocks."
Lower Canyon is "Hazdistazí," meaning “Spiral Rock Arches.” We toured the Lower Canyon, since it was supposed to be more beautiful and also less crowded (since more stairs are required, and the passageways more narrow.) It did not disappoint.
The half-mile tour allowed us one hour to work our way through the canyon. The sand on canyon floor was beach-soft, and the temperature was at least ten degrees cooler than the cooked surface above us (it was forecast to be 100 in Page that day.)
Orange rock cooled by blue shadows, smoothed by water and wind. Our guide pointed out unusual formations, like the Lady in the Wind, or The Wave (which was actually a Windows screensaver!)
Grand Canyon National Park
On July 14, we made it to an American icon: The Grand Canyon. Many have tried to describe it, to capture it. But no words or recorded images that can do it justice. Nevertheless, here are some fun facts!
The Grand Canyon became a national park in 1919, but of course it is much, much older than that. The canyon itself is six million years old, but the rocks contained in its layers are as old as 1.84 billion years, but are generally around 270 million years.
In terms of dimensions, the canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide on average, and one mile deep.
The Colorado River, at the bottom of the canyon, is at an elevation of 2,200 feet. Its average width is 300 feet, and its average depth is 40 feet. The Colorado River is 1,450-miles long, beginning
in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and emptying into the Gulf of California. And only 277 of those miles are in the Grand Canyon!
There are two places from which to explore the canyon: the North and South Rims. The hike across the canyon from South Rim to North Rim is 21 miles...but driving from the South Rim to the North Rim requires a five-hour drive of 220 miles. We only had 3 days/2 nights, and decided to stay on the North Rim, rather than the more popular South Rim, for several reasons.
- Fewer people. Only 10% of visitors go to the North Rim. Smaller crowd=more enjoyment. Pro tip: book in advance! I made reservations for July in early March, but you can reserve as early as January.
- Cooler temps. The North Rim is at an elevation of 8,000 feet, while the average elevation of the south rim is around 6,800 feet. That extra elevation means cooler temperatures. We enjoyed daytime highs in the high 70s/low 80s, rather than high 80s like at the South Rim.
- Location to Utah/other places on our trip. Since we were coming from the Four Corners and planned to continue into Southern Utah, the North Rim's close proximity (1.5 hour drive) from Utah made more sense than the almost 5 hour drive from the South Rim, down in Arizona near Flagstaff
On our first morning, we hiked part of the North Kaibab Trail, which is the only trail into the inner canyon from the North Rim. The NPS site says:
"The North Kaibab Trail is the least visited but most difficult of the three maintained trails at Grand Canyon National Park. Almost a thousand feet higher at the trailhead than South Rim trails, hikers on the North Kaibab Trail pass through every ecosystem to be found between Canada and Mexico."
If you hiked halfway, you would reach Cottonwood Campground in 6.8 miles. If you continued and completed the entire trail, you would reach Bright Angel Campground (right next to the Colorado River) after a 14 mile one way hike. Considering the temperature at the canyon floor was 112 degrees when we were there, there was no way we wanted to attempt anything like this. Instead, we elected to do a simple, 3.4 mile roundtrip hike to Supai Tunnel, stopping at Coconino Overlook along the way. From the North Kaibab trailhead, at 8241 feet, we descended 1441 feet to Supai Tunnel, elevation 6800 ft .
That was easy enough. It's the return hike up that kills you. For trips down into the canyon and camping at Cottonwood where most people camp, NPS recommends 2-3 days (one day down, one day to enjoy, one day to return.) We were perfectly happy with our short and sweet (but still strenuous) trip.
It was a gorgeous hike, revealing a surprising amount of vegetation. We did see several groups of hikers huffing their way up from the bottom (we started at 7:00 am. The return hikers had started between 3:30-4:00 am to beat the heat!) We also stopped for a half hour to allow a team of packmules to pass. The only way to get supplies into the canyon is by mule, backpack, or helicopter.
The next day, we did a ten-mile roundtrip hike to Widfross Point. The trail was almost entirely flat and was relatively easy foot travel through covered forests and open meadows.
The trail's length keeps the crowds away, and the reward for a 4.5 hour hike is breathtaking.
We did share the view with three other people for a few moments, but they soon packed up and we had it all to ourselves. We didn't expect to get such solitude at one of the most famous places in the country. A real treat. The canyon seemed to echo on and on, painted layers reverberating into the horizon.
We also enjoyed some less physically intense, but still beautiful, moments, like sunrise and sunset from the North Rim Lodge. There are no names for the colors that come alive in these times of dawn and dusk. Some combination of mauve, amber, garnet, and slate, all pulsing together.
Week 3: July 18-24, Racking up the Parks
It was time to explore some of Utah's parks. Utah has five national Parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef, in southern Utah, plus Arches and Canyonlands near Moab, in the northwestern corner of the state. We hit the triple crown of Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef before heading straight north to Idaho and Montana, where we saw extinct volcanoes and glaciers!
Zion National Park
We had high hopes for Zion. Unfortunately, the crowds were so overwhelming that we didn't get much of an opportunity to see the park. We had to park in the nearby town, take a (free) shuttle into the park, then get on the park's own shuttle service.
We stood in labyrinthian lines, were crammed onto the buses with hordes of other people, trying to peek at the sights while basically following an assembly line around the park.
We hiked a quick one mile loop to the lower Emerald Pools Trail, but it was pretty dried up from the summer heat. We did cool off in the Virgin River and enjoyed the views from the riverbed.
The scenic drive on the way out of the park was also excellent, making us wish we could have actually seen those dramatic canyons and cliffs. Zion was physically stunning, no doubt about it.
We had planned to spend a half day there, but, feeling rushed and like we couldn't appreciate its charms, we spent only two hours there. Lesson learned: it would be better to visit this park in the shoulder season, April-May or September-October, when fewer tourists are there and when the temperatures are more pleasant. Zion also seems like an excellent place to backcountry camp and explore, but given the temperatures and crowds, it was just not our day.
Bryce Canyon National Park
After Zion's insanity, we headed toward Bryce Canyon, camping in the Dixie National Forest near Red Canyon. We set up camp and went for a short half hour hike around 7 pm to unwind. We got a taste of the red rock formations that we would see the next day at Bryce.
Bryce Canyon blew us away and absolutely made up for the disappointment at Zion. Bryce Canyon, which is actually a natural amphitheater rather than a canyon, sits high on the Colorado Plateau (which extends in Utah) at 8,000 feet.
The park is named after Ebenezer Bryce, a rancher who lived in the area in the 1870s. When showing the canyon to visitors, he is rumored to have said, "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow." Indeed.
Established in 1928, Bryce is home to clusters of geological formations called “hoodoos.” These tall, thin spires of rock rise up in repetitive patterns of red and white. They are formed by alternating processes of freezing and thawing, which make the water or ice in the rocks contract and expand, breaking the rocks off into skinny, antennae-like chunks.
Stormy blue-black skies threatened to unleash, but the clouds cleared for our morning adventure. We took the Navajo Loop Trail to explore. It was like being on another planet.
We were able to walk among, under, and through the hoodoos. After our four mile hike, we also did a scenic drive to more overlooks. We couldn't get enough of these weird, spindly shapes. Bryce is certainly unique among Utah's parks. We wished we could have camped there, but we had to ramble on.
Capitol Reef National Park
Our third and final Utah park was Capitol Reef, only two hours from Bryce. Established in 1971, Capitol Reef's geology dates back to 65 million years. It is home to the "Waterpocket Fold,” a warp in the Earth’s crust, and was also at one time under an ancient, shallow sea. It is named for a feature that looks like the US Capitol Dome, plus “reef” meaning, “barrier to travel.”
Capitol Reef is more of a backcountry park, with miles of unpaved roads leading to multi-day hikes. But we were able to enjoy some neat amenities...like the all-you-can-pick fruit orchards, $1/pound! The orchard was right next to our campground, and we loaded up on two pounds of apricots. Strangely, this desert area received abundant rainfall, and the orchards are always plentiful. We even got homemade pies, made with fruit right from the orchards, from a little bakery in the park.
Capitol Reef was the exact opposite of Zion. Very few people, with plenty of open campsites. Easy, no-traffic roads. Our morning hike was cool under cloud cover and blessed with solitude. We chose to hike to the popular Hickman Natural Bridge, and only encountered on person (who was leaving) on our way in.
Hickman Bridge is actually a misnomer. Natural bridges form over water, while natural arches form over land. Still, water is an essential, and forceful, part of this ecosystem.
We enjoyed the peace of Capitol Reef and left mid-morning to head to Park City, where a hot shower, laundry, and the company of a friend awaited us! Thank you Jillian!
Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho
While in Park City, we made a semi-spontaneous decision to change our next few days' plan. We elected to head into Idaho, “The Gem State,” which we had not intended to see, to visit Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. It would be an extra six hours, but as we learned, when you're out west, your sense of what constitutes a long drive begins to shift.
The Monument and Preserve encompass three major lava fields, which fall along the Great Rift of Idaho.
Craters of the Moon was spooky and unique. It was a sinister, wind-whipped land (we experienced 30 mph "gusts" on top of an extinct cinder cone.) Hills of ash and rock are strewn everywhere. Everything is either black or grey, monochromatic.
We also descended into a cave hollowed by lava flows millions of years ago. Certainly an experience!
On the return, we walked over ribbons of long-cooled lava beds. On the hottest of summer days, the beds can reach 170 degrees, so you definitely can't walk at certain times.
From Craters of the Moon, we intended to head over the border into Wyoming for a two night stay in an old Forest Service cabin in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. As we drove toward Idaho Falls, talking over our itinerary and musing about other parks, we realized we were only 8 hours from Glacier National Park, far north in Montana near the Canadian border.
It didn't take much convincing for us to bail on the cabin in favor of seeing one of the most epic parks in the West, and one that we wouldn't have been able to see had we not put ourselves in Idaho.
Roadtrips are supposed to allow breathing room for error, change, and spontaneity. We followed this instinct and drove another few hours than we had planned, crossing the border into Montana, “Big Sky,” and pulling into a free campsite in East Creek Campground of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. We rose early, at 5 am, to get started on our long drive.
Glacier National Park, Montana
The road to Glacier was long, but once we got there, we were slack-jawed the whole time. This was a true wilderness park, where you could get lost in miles of tree cover, wander over long-frozen glacial snowpack, and absorb one of the most remote places in the lower 48. Since we had detoured, we only had two days here, but they were packed with beauty. Interestingly, the park shares a border with Canada, extending into Waterton National Park. We were only 20 miles from the border.
We camped at Avalanche Creek and hiked to the nearby Avalanche Lake. It was easy to see why it is one of the most popular trails in the park.
Waterfalls trickle down to the lake, which is the richest blue-green color we had seen yet. The bowl-shaped lake looked almost tropical, its waters were so clear and aquamarine.
The trail itself was also quite beautiful, winding through a pine and spruce forest. There were plenty of people, but we were able to set our own pace.
Plus, we saw a mama grizzly and her two cubs! From quite a safe distance, over a ravine. We stood there watching, with about 30 other people. We were too far to get a picture, but it was still a thrill to see.
We also saw a mountain goat and a young elk. Glacier is a great wildlife park, and even has two endangered species (the grizzly, and the Canadian Lynx.)
The Going-to-the-Sun Road is the only one that crosses the park. It is considered one of the most scenic roads in America, and we couldn't agree more. We drove about 20 miles on the road to the highest point, Logan Pass, a jumping off point for most of the park's hikes. You can hike among actual glaciers, but there is a catch...
In the 1880s, there were 259 recorded glaciers, but today there are only 25. Scientists predict the total loss of glaciers by the end of this decade, 2020.
We hiked the Hidden Lake trail early in the morning, and with all the fog, it truly was hidden. It was a gorgeous hike, over fields of snow, with distant glimpses of blue mountains. Even though we couldn't see the lake (nor could we hike down to it...due to bear activity) it was still a good jaunt.
Detouring to Glacier was absolutely worth it. The park had, arguably, the best mountain scenery of our trip. It was surreal to have experienced such contradictory terrains in only seven days: from the deserts and canyons of Utah, to the alpine, snowy caps of Montana. It was quite a week!