Petrified Forest National Park (AZ)


Petrified wood is a mysterious byproduct of geological processes. A petrified log looks just like wood on the outside but is usually a jumble of colorful quartz on the inside. How did this come to be?

Here too in Petrified Forest National Park is the Painted Desert, the name given to the “badlands” whose outrageous colors layer the eroded slopes in the northern part of the park. It’s hard to describe the impact that this riot of colors has on your traditional notions of landscapes. The Painted Desert actually extends beyond the park, reaching as far as the Grand Canyon and the northern part of Arizona, like a giant horseshoe. The intensity of the pastel colors changes depending on the time of day; the most breathtaking canvas is reserved for sunrise and sunset.

Painted Desert

Painted Desert

The biggest log specimens are found in the Giant Logs trail at the park’s southern end, including “Old Faithful,” 9½ feet in diameter. Old Faithful is a good example of permineralized wood (see Geology Notes). Here we came across a collared lizard who was happy to pose for all the photographers.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

A few miles up the road is the Crystal Forest whose floor is still strewn with petrified fragments and sections of logs, even after years of specimen collecting by thoughtless tourists.

Crystal Forest is still littered with petrified wood and fragments

Crystal Forest is still littered with petrified wood and fragments

The eeriest trail in the park is Blue Mesa where the highly eroded hillsides of blue and gray bentonite clay gives the impression of an alien landscape. Here you can also see petrified wood in rubble piles where they fell from eroding hillsides.

Blue Mesa

Blue Mesa

Since taking specimens from the national park is illegal, you can purchase petrified wood at the many rock shops in the area. These stores presumably get their stock from private land. You can see them along Interstate 40. In Holbrook, where we stayed, Rainbow Rock Shop on Navajo Blvd has two dinosaur models made out of cement and reinforcing bars. There are piles of petrified wood all over the place, including some really nice, polished specimens displayed inside.

Petrified Forest was the last place we visited in the Southwest before returning home.

Geology notes: The geologic layer that is prominently exposed in the park is the Chinle formation. It is probably the easiest formation to identify in the Southwest because of its highly friable, typically sloping sides that result from its composition of siltstone, mudstone and claystone, and because of its characteristic layers of pastel colors. When exposed to wind and rain, it erodes rapidly to form sloping hills and narrow gullies. It is in this layer that petrified wood is typically found. Because Chinle erodes rapidly, new petrified wood is exposed all the time.

Over 200 million years ago, ancient conifers were buried by sediment and volcanic ash. This phenomenon must have been sudden because entire trees were buried and subsequently petrified. This graveyard is devoid of oxygen to hasten the decay of the wood. Then quickly, petrification begins. In some cases, the minerals in the water filled up the very cells of the plant, thereby preserving the very structure of the wood. This process is called permineralization. In most cases, however, large-scale replacement of organic matter took place where very little, if none of the plant’s original structure remained.

Hubbell Trading Post (Ganado, AZ)


Hubbell Trading Post entrance

In 1864, the first group of Navajo was forced from their land by the U.S. government into an internment camp at Bosque Redondo, NM, followed by several other forced migrations. Four years later, they were allowed to return to their homeland in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, but not before the Navajo’s traditional way of life had by then been destroyed. The return home is now known as the Long Walk of the Navajo. Trading became the most important form of survival. In exchange for supplies outside the reservation, the Navajo exchanged rugs, jewelry, pottery and baskets. One of these trading posts was owned by John Lorenzo Hubbell.

In 1967, the Hubbell family sold the post to the National Park Service. The Hubbell Trading Post had been designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and, to this day, continues trading with the Navajo under the auspices of a non-profit organization.

The original building still stands. Inside, there are rooms that are still stocked with dry and canned goods and groceries as well as Navajo arts and crafts, all of which is for sale or trade.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (AZ)


Spider Rock

Spider Rock, where Spider Woman taught the Navajos the art of weaving, towers 800 feet above the canyon floor. Many television commercials were filmed here, notably ones with cars precariously parked on top. It’s arguably the most spectacular physical feature of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, one best appreciated by driving to the overlook along South Rim drive.

While Canyon de Chelly provides plenty of geologic interest , visitors mostly come here to see the impressive cliff dwellings, especially the complex known as White House ruins. If they didn’t know it already, visitors will come away knowing that people still live here. Like Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly is located on Navajo land and is occupied and farmed by Navajo families. The National Park Service has a presence here, but only performs an administrative function within the national monument boundary.

Vistas of the spectacular valleys are only possible on the rim drives. The North Rim Drive affords views of ruins along Canyon del Muerto. The South Rim Drive, which we took, follows Canyon de Chelly. Ruins, including White House, can be seen from the overlooks. The Spider Rock Overlook is the terminus of this drive. While the rim roads, both North and South, are open to the public, the valley floor may only be explored on Navajo-led tours or in a private 4WD vehicle if accompanied by a park ranger or Navajo guide. Even hikes require a guide (except the one down to White House Ruins from the overlook).

White House ruins

We took a half-day tour organized through the historic Thunderbird Lodge. Our guide has been leading tours for 40 years, but has been preparing for retirement. The guide maneuvered our transport vehicle — an old converted flatbed truck, definitely not 4WD — over washes, mud flats and parts of the stream that meanders through the valley. We thought we were stuck in mud early in the tour, but he got us out pretty skillfully.

Guided tour through the valley

The guide pointed out some petroglyphs and ruins left by those he termed the “ancient ones,” talked about the fact that Navajos still live here, including the family to which he was born, and the origin of the Navajos. Regarding this last point, the guide pointed out that Navajos are related to the Athabascan peoples who populate the Pacific coast and not to the neighboring Puebloans, like the Hopi and Zuni. An interesting story he told us involved a Chinese man who took one of his tours and found that each could understand words in the other’s native tongue, a possible clue that the Northwest coast Indians originally came from Asia.

On the tour, we were able to spend a little time at White House Ruins, the most photographed place in Canyon de Chelly, before heading back to the lodge.

White Ruins up close

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Monument Valley Tribal Park (AZ)


These sandstone monuments that tower above the flat, arid desert are almost clichés of Southwest travel. Ever since John Ford popularized Monument Valley in his films, it seems everyone has come to regard this area with its unique sandstone buttes as iconic symbols of the frontier West.

Monument Valley is on Navajo reservation land. As such, travel and conduct within the area are subject to Navajo law. While visitors are welcome, it may surprise some to know that Monument Valley continues to be inhabited by Navajo families. This is apparent on any guided tour or on the Valley Drive. After paying an entrance fee, you can take the free-of-charge, self-guided 17-mile Valley Drive. Straying off this road is strictly prohibited.

The Hogan

To see portions off the public access road, you have to take a tour led by one of many Navajo-owned companies. We took the one from the visitors center parking lot. (There are others originating from the town of Kayenta, approximately 30 miles south, and Goulding’s Lodge just outside the park.) As with any guided tour, its value depends largely on the guide. Ours was satisfactory, but he did sing for us a traditional Navajo song inside a rock formation called the Big Hogan (left). It resembles a gigantic traditional Navajo home, called a hogan, with a hole in the “roof” and the “door” facing the east. Meant to amuse tourists I’m sure, whimsical rock formations, like “Snoopy,” “The Mohawk” and “Sleeping Dragon,” were also pointed out.

After the tour ended, we had a lunch of Navajo tacos at the visitors center restaurant. We were seated on the covered veranda which has a wonderful view of the valley.

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Valley of the Gods (AZ)


After leaving Natural Bridges National Monument, we had to descend the spectacular and cliff-hugging Moki Dugway, down almost 2000 ft, in order to get to Mexican Hat, where we stayed the night. The dugway was carved out of the cliffs for uranium-mining trucks back in 1958 to get from the mine at Fry Canyon to the mill in Mexican Hat. As you descend the series of sharp gravel switchbacks, you get a good look at the Valley of the Gods below, which looks a lot like Monument Valley.

We took the unimproved dirt and gravel drive that wends its way through the Valley of the Gods to get a closer look at the spectacular buttes. Storm clouds overhead, the first we encountered on our trip, gave this isolated, sparsely travelled road a foreboding atmosphere.

If Monument Valley’s iconic symbolism is not important or tourist crowds an irritation, you might find Valley of the Gods just the ticket. You can wander around here to your heart’s content.

Natural Bridges National Monument (UT)


Sipapu Bridge

Sipapu Bridge

Many travelers going through the Southwest skip Natural Bridges National Monument because it’s tucked out of the way and maybe because the small park features only three natural stone bridges. But a visit is well worth the time.

Bridges are rock spans that are carved out by a river. They typically form where a river meanders and undercuts the base of a fin that eventually collapses. This is in contrast to a natural arch, which does not require the agency of a river to create it.

To get good views of the bridges, you need to hike down the canyons to the river beds. The trails are generally very steep, easier to get down than returning. The main road (Bridge View Drive) lies on the mesa composed of Cedar Mesa sandstone. We were able to reach the base of all three bridges in one day.

Sipapu Bridge is the largest of the three bridges and second largest in the world. The trail requires negotiating steep sections, bridges, ladders and some stairs. This is decidedly the toughest bridge trail hike. But, the effort is worth it. Once you reach the bridge, its size overwhelms. An even greater experience is to walk directly underneath it and look up, something we couldn’t do at Landscape Bridge in Arches National Park. Sipapu is 220 feet high, 268 feet across, and 31 feet wide.

Kachina Bridge is the youngest bridge as evidenced by the relatively small size of its opening (or the relative thickness of the span). In 1992, 4,000 tons of rock fell from underneath. The rubble can still be seen below. The bridge rises 210 feet high, is 204 feet across and 44 feet wide.

Kachina Bridge

Kachina Bridge

Owachomo Bridge is thought to be the oldest bridge. One sign of this is the relative thinness of the span (see below). The bridge is 106 feet high, 180 feet across, and 27 feet wide.

Owachomo Bridge

Owachomo Bridge

An additional attraction is that Natural Bridges is a certified dark-sky park which means that there is no light pollution to prevent your being able to see the Milky Way in all its splendor. It’s unfortunate that even in small towns, we are unable to make out the vastness of our galaxy and wonder about our place in the  universe.

Hovenweep National Monument (UT)


Hovenweep Castle

Hovenweep Castle

Not too far from Mesa Verde is a complex of ancient communities that was built at the headwaters of box canyons and situated in a remote area stretching across both Colorado and Utah—Hovenweep National Monument. We set aside a few hours to visit the monument en route to Blanding. We would have been able to spend more time here were it not for bogus directions by our GPS unit that led us to a back road far from the park entrance. While our Garmin guided us flawlessly throughout most of our trip, the lesson is not to rely solely on technology. After backtracking through Cortez, we got to Hovenweep the old-fashioned way — using a map.

With little time left in the day, the ranger at the visitors’ center recommended that we visit the Holly group of towers. But, to get there, with ranger-provided directions in hand, we had to find the correct unimproved road off Route 10 and drive in over 8 miles of rutted, washboarded dirt road to reach the trailhead.

Much of what remains in Hovenweep National Monument are multi-storied towers, similar to those on display at Mesa Verde. Like all ancient ruins throughout the Southwest, their placement on sites normally unsuitable for habitation puzzles archaeologists. They speculate that they served defensive purposes based on the small sizes of their windows (almost like peepholes) and tight entry portals. A curious architectural variation here is that many towers have a “D”-shaped cross-section for reasons unknown. It seems logical that because these complexes were built next to seeps or natural springs in this generally arid environment, it would be reason enough to defend them against competitors at a time when an extended drought plagued the region.

A few towers were built on the most inexplicable foundations, such as on top of huge boulders or irregular rock slabs. Boulder House is one example. In fact, one tower was erected on an immense boulder that probably fell eons ago.

Structure built on top of fallen boulder

Structure built on top of fallen boulder

The trail connects to the one featuring the Horseshoe and Hackberry groups. The Twin Towers are notable for their elaborate masonry and respective shapes, one like a “D” and the other an oval.

Twin Towers constructed in different shapes

Twin Towers constructed in different shapes

Of all the beautiful flora we saw in the wild, the most spectacular had to be the claret cup cactus (also known as the hedgehog cactus). It is the most photographed cactus in the Southwest for its splendid scarlet color that can easily be spotted along the trails. Hummingbirds, primary pollinators of the claret cup, get their heads covered with pollen when reaching the nectar deep inside the flower. The finest example we came across was here in Hovenweep, a single cluster that immediately caught our eye. Since the flowers only last for a few days, we were lucky to have seen a few.

Claret cup cactus

Claret cup cactus