My wife, Helen, and I celebrated our status as new Arizona residents by taking a 5-day, 1,300-mile mini vacation in order to feast ourselves on some of Mother Nature’s most scenic southwest canyons, buttes, mesas, monoliths, rocks and monuments without going to the Grand Canyon or Sedona.
We started our journey on Sunday, June 13, and headed for Globe, a mining town so named because of a globe-shaped piece of almost pure silver found in the area in 1870. Several miles later, we were treated to a 30-minute drive through picturesque, 2,000-feet-deep Salt River Canyon. Here the colorful sedimentary rock layers are visible from the road for miles.
Then it was on to Show Low, elevation 6,500 feet, where Tucson Desert Rats like we’ve just become can escape the summer heat. Here you can bask under 100-foot-tall pine trees or fish for feisty trout in the pristine streams in the area, but this was not our destination for the day.
Our goal was the southern entrance—Rainbow Forest—of Petrified Forest National Park. And words can not describe the thrill of seeing so many brilliantly colored, petrified logs strewn over this first stop of what is a 93,533 acre park.
About 225 million years ago, these logs we could touch and see close up were giant trees clinging to an eroding riverbank before falling into a fast-moving stream that carried them to wet, swampy lowlands. They were finally submerged in water and buried under volcanic ash sediments rich in silica before time and Nature’s handiwork did its magic. Silica replaced the wood until the logs were virtually turned into stone, with iron oxide and other minerals staining the silica to produce rainbow colors.
We spent two hours exploring Agate Bridge, Giant Logs, Jasper Forest, and the Tepees, just four stops in the Park before seamlessly entering the Painted Desert, an area of badlands saturated with hauntingly seductive hues of pink, purple, red, beige and white. Here the soft, top layer of desert earth is thoroughly eroded from mineralized water flows and mineral deposits which create a surreal landscape.
Here we spent the night at a Mary Colter designed Hotel, La Posada, and we enjoyed a delightful Rick-Bayless-like dinner experience in the Turquoise Room. The hotel was constructed in 1929 in the style of an 1869 Spanish hacienda and built to entice railroad travelers to discover the virtues of rural northern Arizona. It features stone floors, glass murals, spacious-well-designed outdoor gardens and feel-good, primitive Mexican art painted freehand directly on the stucco walls. We stayed in the Frank Sinatra room, although we limited our conversation as the walls were pretty darn thin. I won’t repeat what Helen said she heard from the young married couple renting the room next to ours.
Our breakfast at the Turquoise Room was one of the best we’ve ever had, although a bit pricey. And it served us well on our short drive to Meteor Crater. It wasn’t a stop we planned for, but we were told too many times not to miss it, so we decided to squeeze it in. And it made the highlight list on this mini vacation.
Over 50,000 years ago, a meteor estimated to be 150 feet across and weighing several hundred thousand tons slammed into this area less than thirty miles from Winslow with such force—26,000 miles per hour—it created a crater 700 feet deep and 4,000 feet across. While time and matter has filled in half of the original crater, it’s still an impressive awe-inspiring hole. And the large-screen theater presentation of “Collision and Impacts” is an eye opener to how vulnerable our earth is to meteors and asteroids—the most likely cause for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
With this awe experience to occupy us, we drove to Canyon de Chelly (da Shay) National Monument. We had been there before, taken onto the Canyon floor in open-air trucks by Navaho guides, but we wanted to explore this unique, mystical area on our own. Located on a Navaho Reservation 3 miles east of Chinle, it covers 83,849 acres. And while the 26-mile-long Canyon with its well-weathered red sandstone 1,000-foot walls and ominous Spider Rock is unlike any we’ve ever seen. The fact that you can explore and see up close the abandoned homes and pictographs on the Canyon walls of Indian civilizations as far back as 2500 B.C. make this a special place. We stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge, although I’d opt for more modern accommodations on our next visit.
During our stay, we had the pleasure of seeing two large jack rabbits with their Bugs Bunny ears and long back legs. And, we had to wait several delightful minutes stopped on a major two-lane highway as we watched three dogs herd a flock of 30 sheep across the road. This happened as we exited Chinle early in the morning. One dog led the flock and two dogs held up the rear with no human help. It was quite a sight.
Our next stop was Bluff, Utah with some of the most unusual buttes and mesas along the way. Bluff lies in the shadow of the Navaho Twins, two massive sandstone turrets towering over the valley of the San Juan River. And if you should want to play Blind Man’s Bluff, this is not the area to do it. The impressive display of large rocks of all shapes and sizes everywhere would make for a very unstable environment if you were unable to see.
I would like to digress a bit as Helen and I got into a pretty giddy mood while we were in Bluff. She started it by telling me that she thought it would be pretty good stuff if I would “go in the buff in Bluff.” I responded by saying that I had “a nuff of that guff in Bluff” and “could be a bit gruff if I had to go in the buff.” And for about ten minutes we entertained ourselves with the endless possibilities of rhyming “Bluff.” Oh well, I guess that’s what happy old people can do to entertain themselves from time to time.
On a more serious note, if you want to begin a journey to see and explore the crème de le crème of giant rock monoliths, bright red sandstone buttes and mesas, you must start the journey from Bluff and head south on highway 163.
You will know you are someplace special, unlike anything or anywhere you have ever been, as you drive to Mexican Hat. This is truly magical southwest landscape. Interestingly, people stop along the way, but a camera cannot capture what their eyes and senses see and feel.
As you slowly work your way to Monument Valley you are awestruck. You have seen this scenery on the big screen before and your mind’s eye will see John Wayne riding a stage coach around the rugged, red rock monoliths that jut high up into the blue, big blue sky around you.
Monument Valley Navaho Tribal Park is the ultimate icon for the great southwest, covering several thousand square miles within the Navaho Indian Reservation. The Park contains Mystery Valley, where isolated monoliths of red sandstone tower as much as 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Anywhere you stop to walk on this hallowed ground of ever moving sand dunes is a spiritual experience. Some feel the power and majesty of God or gods in their presence. I personally was energized from a healthy high.
We stopped several times, got out of the car, and inhaled the dry, clean, invigorating, high-desert air, pinching ourselves to be so fortunate to be here in this hauntingly beautiful place. On our drive out of Monument Valley, we were treated to constant, eye-popping changes in the landscape around us while we were driving to our next destination – Page, Arizona – and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Our plan was to stay two nights at the Lake Powell Resort’s Wahweap Lodge and Marina. But before arriving there, we passed in front of impressive Glen Canyon Dam—a dam that helps create more shoreline for its Lake Powell than the combined states of California, Oregon, and Washington.
Words cannot describe the post-card views from the Lodge of this gerrymandered, massive blue-green reservoir with an endless variety of shadowy yellow-white buttes and mesas guarding the shoreline of Lake Powell. Quite a sight!
We had confirmed reservations for a 6-hour boat ride early the next day to Rainbow Bridge and a 3-hour dinner cruise on Lake Powell. This was per the advice of our Ridge Four neighbors, Dan & Kathy Foster. But for now, it was time for a gourmet lunch and a glass or two of good wine. (No alcohol can be sold or served on an Indian Reservation, and we were wineless for 36 hours.) And, we treated ourselves to a two-hour nap before exploring the area around the Lodge.
The weather changed during the night, and on the morning of our first boat ride it was hot and muggy. However, we were able to find seats on the top deck of the boat, which also gave us a birds-eye view of key landmarks on our journey to Rainbow Bridge. An informative, professional narration of the history and geology of the area made the two-plus hour ride go by quickly. The last thirty minutes was negotiated through a scenic hard rock fjord. When we finally docked, the captain told us how to approach the massive, largest-of-its-kind-in-the-whole-wide-world sandstone bridge, which he explained was on a well-marked, one-mile trail.
As we started our hike, nothing in the surrounding landscape suggested the kind of phenomenon we were about to encounter. A quarter-mile into the zigzag walk, we saw the edge of Rainbow Bridge. And then it was gone. However, we kept moving forward. When we did seize our first full view of the natural bridge, it took my breath away.
I was not prepared for the powerful feelings, a spiritual awareness if you will, that engulfed me. While it’s probably not the best way to compare, it was a feeling similar to when our kids, Keith and Kim, were born. I was energized, alive, alert, and grateful—a very special time in my life!
We enjoyed our dinner cruise on a very elegant yacht, and our hostess made us feel like royalty. Wine was extra and not too expensive. My salmon dinner was good, although Helen’s meat entrée was over-cooked. But it was definitely a memorable, romantic evening in a drop-dead gorgeous setting.
On Thursday, June 18, the fifth day of our mini vacation, we drove from Page to Flagstaff—a very scenic drive, stopped to shop at the Phoenix Ikea, and arrived home in Tucson at 1:00 pm.