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Arizona’s Northern Attractions

Author: lynncarol
Date of Trip: October 2012


In October of 2012, my husband (Lynn) and I spent several weeks in Arizona. After seven days at Sedona with extended family, it was time for just the two of us to move on. I had accommodations tonight in Cliff Dwellers Lodge at Marble Canyon, approximately 172 miles north. En route, however, we planned to visit both Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments just northeast of Flagstaff. (Bypassed earlier in the week when everyone headed for an overnight at Grand Canyon).

Sunset Crater is the youngest of a number of volcanoes in the area, last erupting around 900 years ago. Barely past the park entrance, the first dramatic examples of lava flows and cinder fields could be seen. Although visitors are no longer allowed to ascend to the crater itself, there are a number of other trails to explore, one of which led us straight up a steep hill to an overlook of the area. Even more interesting, a one-mile loop at the base of the 1000 ft. high crater meandered through areas of large volcanic rock and debris, spatter cones, coarsely ground cinders and a few twisted ponderosa pines. Little else grew in this still desolate landscape, with the exception of the occasional yellow flowering bushes or the delicate pink Apache plume grasses.

Only eighteen miles away was Wupatki National Monument preserving a number of scattered ruins. These pueblos were built in the 12th and 13th century by the Sinagua and Anasazi Indians who migrated to this arid desert after Sunset Crater’s eruption left their farmlands covered with ash. By 1300 A.D. all dwellings had been abandoned, a result of a prolonged drought.

The Visitor Center offered shaded outdoor seating where we gobbled down our picnic lunch. Not many other tourists were around and a short stroll led us to the main complex, containing approximately 100 rooms as well as ball courts. Only a two-mile drive away, the towered structure of Wukuki Pueblo perched atop a large block of isolated sandstone. What really appealed to us about these ruins was their accessibility. Visitors were allowed within a few feet of the main complex and actually could go inside Wukuki.

Leaving Wupatki, we drove through colorful stretches of the Painted Desert with its smears of yellow sands, red rocks and green sagebrush, arriving two hours later at our overnight destination, Cliff Dwellers Lodge. (Actually more like a roadside motel for fishing enthusiasts). I had chosen the place not for its proximity to the Colorado River but because it nestled right up against Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. In the afternoon sunlight, the cliffs’ glowing red pigments certainly justified their name. Beautiful! But what I really liked were the huge boulders scattered not only around the base of the precipices but in some cases, hundreds of yards away. Products of cliff erosion, they resembled a giant’s game of tiddlywinks.

Another nice surprise: The cooler weather in northern Arizona. Finally! While in the area, we decided to also check out nearby Lees Ferry, the “put-in-spot” for fishing boats and many of the Colorado River rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. In fact, a large group of rafters were in the process of casting off for their 18-day excursion downriver. (Not my idea of fun)!

Dinner at the motel’s restaurant outdoor-seating was notable for two bats that kept sweeping through the dining area. Oh and I forgot the couple nearby evicted after becoming verbally abusive when management ‘cut them off’ after their third drink. Oh well, our fish dinner was tasty.

On our way again. First destination: Antelope Canyon, the most famous of all slot canyons located on Navaho lands near the town of Page. We arrived in plenty of time for their ten o’clock tour where, in groups of fourteen, folks were loaded onto flat-bed trucks and driven to the site. Luckily, I got to sit up front with the driver/guide, a sweet young Navaho woman.

Thanks to internet feedback, I was expecting throngs of visitors (especially as this was a holiday weekend) but nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience. Numerous bunches of tourists were herded through a dark canyon so narrow (typically three feet in width) that little sunlight could enter. Everyone had to return the same way they came in, which impacted the space even more. Worst of all, camera enthusiasts were setting up their tripods within these limited passageways. Fortunately, our guide used my camera to illustrate spots for the best photo opts, so we came away with some great pictures. But Lynn and I spent most of our time trying to avoid tripping over someone (or something) in the dim light. Only rarely could we appreciate those wonderful swirling columns of colorful sandstone our camera subsequently revealed. Over lunch at Burger King, we agreed: Glad to have seen it, but no desire to return…ever!

Next attraction: Horseshoe Bend, located just south of Page. A half-mile sandy pathway from the parking lot led to a rocky rim. One thousand feet below us the emerald-green Colorado River made a wide horse-shoe-shaped sweep around a sandstone escarpment. Nice! Despite the absence of guardrails, Lynn overcame his trepidation about heights to join me on an overhang affording a incredible view of this natural wonder.

We would be staying the next two nights at the Marriott Page and after checking in, decided to take a practice run over to Wahweap Marina, the departure point for our boat-tour tomorrow morning of Glen Canyon. This gorgeous area ‘drowned’ when the Colorado River was dammed in the mid-sixties to create Lake Powell Reservoir.

That task completed, we headed back to our hotel-room for our wine, complimented by chocolate-chip cookies from the front desk. Dinner that evening was Italian, at the nearby Stromboli Restaurant. Another good (and very reasonable) meal.

Despite a requested 5:30 wake-up call that never came, we managed to make our 7:00 a.m. boat reservations. (Thanks to Lynn’s paranoia, our personal alarm-clock was also set). I had signed us up for a two-hour boat ride to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest natural bridge, by all accounts quite amazing. Including the 1 ½ hours allotted at the site, the entire excursion would take almost five hours.

With close to 70 tourists onboard, the vessel was almost at full capacity and, since the morning air was chilly, Lynn and I chose to grab a seat on the lower (and enclosed) deck. The next few hours flew by as the scenery was spectacular with colorful canyon peaks, spires and buttes rising out of deep blue waters. Eventually, entering a narrow cove, the boat inched its way to a landing dock. We had positioned ourselves well and were amongst the first off the boat. A brisk ¾ mile hike brought us to Rainbow Bridge. Salmon-colored and streaked with red oxide, it was so grandiose that words fail me and walking beneath such a magnificent structure, I could actually feel my pulse accelerating. The majority of tourists remained on the other side of the bridge and later a crew member pointed out of a small sign (which I swear we never saw) restricting access to our trail. Oh well, we certainly weren’t the only ‘trespassers’ and I don’t regret our actions one bit!

Returning to Page by one, we stopped at Subways for lunch, tracked down an ATM and headed back to the hotel where Lynn’s complaint to the manager about our missing wake-up phone call resulted in free breakfast chits for tomorrow.

With reservations for the 3:30 tour of the dam, we zipped off to Lake Powell’s Carl Hayden Visitor Center where a tour-guide corralled our group of twelve. A very informative hour followed as we were led out onto the dam’s crest and eventually (via a long elevator ride) brought to the generator room near its base. We learned the structure is 710 feet high with a thickness ranging from 25 to 300 ft., top to bottom. This dam has created the second largest reservoir in the USA and is a major supplier of water and power to cities as far south as San Diego. Wow. I had no idea.

Back at the hotel, we completed a couple of laundry loads, before driving to the restaurant, Bonkers, just in time for their early-bird special accompanied by a great salad bar.

Thanks to our free chits, Lynn and I enjoyed our first hot breakfast feast of the entire trip. Several tour-bus groups were also hitting the buffet, but we were faster and snagged the last remaining table. Today’s destination? Monument Valley via a detour en route to visit Navaho National Monument. Despite the two-lane road, an absence of traffic combined with great visibility allowed us to make excellent time.

Navaho National Monument is famous for the ancient ruins of Betatakin which fill a vast curved niche in the cliffs. Only problem: They are located on cliffs across the valley from the Visitor Center. Only in summer, can visitors accompany a ranger on the 7 mile hike to the site, although the heat that time of year must be really intense. Fortunately, today was pleasant and a powerful telescope available at the overlook brought the ruins into much closer focus. Otherwise it would have not been worth that detour.

After a quick stop in Kayenta for lunch, it was on to Monument Valley. Here we had a choice: Take the 17 mile unpaved road on our own, or utilize one of the many Navaho-owned jeep tours. With vivid memories of that unpaved road to the Palatki ruins in Sedona, the choice was easy: No more risks to our rental car. We elected to splurge and take a three-hour private tour as it also included access to sites off-limits to most tourists. Our Navaho guide had grown up in the valley and knew it well.

This was a place totally unique with crimson mesas and buttes rising in splendid isolation across a barren landscape of sand. The afternoon sun illuminated these towering structures and cast long shadows along the desert floor. We loved it! Our jeep left the ‘beaten track’ and we were treated to some amazing sights, including pictographs of long-horn sheep as well as rock formations carved by nature into arches and windows or contorted to resemble various creatures. Our favorite was the ‘Big Hogan,’ a large cavern with a perfect circular opening to the sky in its rocky ceiling. Nobody else was around as our guide pulled out his homemade flute and played the most haunting melody. (OK, maybe a bit hokey, but it still brought tears to my eyes).

Tour completed, we checked into the View Hotel, the only accommodations actually within Monument Valley. Expensive and difficult to get reservations, but totally worth it! All rooms overlook the Valley’s most photographed formations, the two Mittens and Merrick Butte. Their transformations of colors in the setting sun transfixed us as we sipped wine on our balcony. Dinner that evening at the View’s restaurant was quite tasty: Navaho stew for me and buffalo short-ribs for Lynn. All accompanied by fried bread flavored with juniper berries. Yummy!

After admiring the famous formations silhouetted against an absolutely gorgeous sunrise, we headed to the restaurant for breakfast. Apparently, so did everyone else: The place was mobbed.

Although the crowds at breakfast impacted our plan to quickly eat and run, the secondary road from Monument Valley to Chinle consisted of long straight stretches of well-maintained tarmack. Passing the few other cars was a breeze and, making up earlier lost time, we reached our destination well before lunch. I had reservations for a tour of nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument tomorrow, but arriving so early, maybe we could switch it for today. Luckily, they were able to accommodate us for a 1:00 tour, which left plenty of time to get lunch.

Off-road access into the canyon requires utilization of an authorized Navaho guide. Through internet recommendations, I had selected Antelope House Tour Company and Ben, the owner, met us at the Visitor Center. Canyon de Chelly is his ancestral home…he had been born here 73 years ago and still lived in one of the remaining private homes on site.

Ben proved to be an excellent guide and made sure we saw all major attractions during our 3-hour jeep tour. This was one of the ‘greenest’ canyons we’d seen so far in Arizona as the deep roots of willow and cottonwood trees allow them to thrive along the now-dry riverbed. There is a lot of history here, with 900 year-old pueblos and numerous ancient pictographs. The place has seen its share of tragic events, including a massacre of women and children by the Spanish in the early 1800s. Sixty years later, skirmishes in the canyon with Kit Carson’s troops ultimately resulted in the surrender of the entire Navaho nation and their enforced 300 mile ‘long walk’ to New Mexico.

We took a short break at Ben’s complex which he shared with his daughter and grandson. Although scenic (his home abutted ancient ruins and was shaded by large cottonwoods) it must be a hard existence: No electricity or sewage system and all water is trucked in. His daughter sold foodstuffs and souvenirs while the grandson peddled petrified wood. How could I resist?

Our overnight accommodations were at the Best Western in Chinle. Their adjoining restaurant served one of the tastiest chicken gumbo soups I’ve eaten while Lynn enjoyed his pork loin. We even managed to stay awake until after nine… finally acclimated to western time.

Moving that Canyon de Chelly tour from today to yesterday, freed up time to visit Petrified National Forest, a 223 mile drive south. Having seen Utah’s Petrified Forest State Park years ago, I was expecting something similar. Wrong! This park was spread over 27 miles and contained vastly more specimens, including intact logs. The Visitor Center’s movie provided historical background and the front-desk volunteer mapped out her favorite hikes for us.

She was spot-on with her suggestions. Lynn and I were the only hikers on one-mile Blue Mesa loop trail which meandered down into the ‘Blue Badlands’ an area of massive teepees of tiered multicolored rock, interspersed with chunks of petrified wood. Who knew wood could evolve into so many different variations of colored stone? We were particularly enamored of our close-up exposure to the badlands. (If those in the Dakotas look anything like this, a future visit is definitely in order).

Unfortunately, for the first time since leaving home, the skies were overcast with rain and snow (at higher elevations) predicted for tonight. Just as we returned to our car, a light drizzle began but, thankfully, all precipitation ceased before our next stop, Crystal Forest. Many more visitors were on this easy, level ¾ mile trail and the petrified logs were larger and even more impressive than those in Blue Mesa. For sheer size of specimens, however, the Giant Log trail located in close proximity to their museum, took the prize. Most impressive! Leaving the park several hours later, we were both filled with enthusiasm for this unique environment.

After a quick stop for lunch in Holbrook, we arrived at Winslow by early afternoon. Iconic Route 66 runs right through the town as do a number of railroad lines. In fact, we would be staying tonight at the last great railroad hotel, La Posada, designed in the early thirties by Mary Coulton. No expense was spared and numerous luminaries, presidents and movie-stars graced the rooms of La Posada. However, the Great Depression took its toll and the hotel never really prospered. In 1961 the place was gutted to serve as offices for the Santa Fe Railroad. Thirty-two years later the railway announced plans to dispose of the property entirely. Luckily, in 1997 a private citizen, Allan Affeldt purchased the place and has devoted himself to restoring it to its former glory.

Built to resemble a grand hacienda, this was quite the hotel and obviously a popular destination. (Lynn overheard several potential guests being turned away at the front desk). Crammed to capacity with southwestern antiques, crafts and artwork, there were gardens with statuary as well as an outdoor seating area for guests to watch numerous trains pass in close proximity. My favorite part? A fabulous restaurant where I had a delicious smoked salmon salad and the best soup ever! Unfortunately, we had to eat early (and quickly) as Lynn insisted on returning to our room for the six o’clock televised Vice-Presidential debates.

Walls must have been really thick we barely heard any train noise overnight. However, it did rain and temperatures plummeted, forcing us to delay our morning departure for one hour after folks at the front desk mentioned icy conditions in Flagstaff. Once out on Interstate 40-West, dark skies predominated, occasionally embellished with rainbows. On several occasions, rain pounded the desert only miles away, but we skirted through relatively unscathed and all roads were now clear of ice. At Flagstaff, new snow draped the mountain-tops, but the sun was peeking out when we arrived in Phoenix. Lucky!

Downtown traffic was not bad and after returning our rental car at the airport, we caught the Radisson’s shuttle to their hotel. Our luck continued to hold and even at noon, a room was available for occupancy. Utilizing the hotel’s business center, I printed out boarding passes for tomorrow’s flight and then we walked several blocks to a Ruby Tuesdays for lunch.

The shuttle driver had recommended dinner at the nearby “Chinese Complex” so Lynn and I strolled down to check it out. The gated complex was huge, but obviously the man had not been there recently: Both restaurants were vacant with foreclosure notices on the doors. In fact, the only thing thriving in the area was a giant supermarket that catered exclusively to Asian cuisines. We spent an enjoyable hour examining their wares of octopus, squid and other exotic delicacies. Still, this meant Ruby Tuesdays again for dinner.

Our last morning, with a 9:30 departure, we caught the 6:20 a.m. shuttle to the airport. There were no lines anywhere although the TA guard told us “mobs were expected to arrive shortly”. Our direct flight went smoothly and we were home before five. It was a great trip!

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