South Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon (AZ)


It’s been over 30 years since we’d been to the Grand Canyon, much too long to stay away from perhaps Earth’s greatest geologic wonder. We made a last-minute decision to come here, only three days before, after we altered our itinerary to go back home in order to avoid dust storms in central Arizona. Granted, spending only a day and a half doesn’t nearly do the canyon justice, but based on the short stay, we vowed to come back and stay longer. For our sakes, it will have to be before another 30 years go by.

The crowds are as big as ever. Though the worst time of year for congestion are the peak summer months, even now in October there are hordes of people. It is a destination site for people from all over the world.

Ooh Ah Point, South Kaibab Trail

Ooh Ah Point, South Kaibab Trail

All we had time for was one good hike. We took a half-day hike down the South Kaibab Trail as far as Cedar Ridge, about 1.7 miles from the rim. Although the temperature was only 70 degrees, at high altitude it felt more intense, especially on the climb back up to the trailhead. We could only imagine how much more of a gasser it would be in the summer when temperatures soar to around 90-100 degrees. It turns out that the South Kaibab Trail is the shortest distance to Phantom Ranch down by the Colorado River. For some reason, most people take the Bright Angel Trail, so we suspect that track may be more gradual.

Cedar Ridge overlook

Cedar Ridge overlook

The canyon is such a wonderful laboratory for studying the earth’s geologic history. All the sandstone layers that are laid bare reach as far back as 2 billion years.

Ancient juniper

Ancient juniper

It still is a cause for wonder how the Grand Canyon came to be. The Colorado River is the current candidate for sculpting the immense canyons. And yet, when you marvel at the gaping chasm before you, estimated to have been carved out over “only” 6 million years, you still have to wonder if there was something else, some shattering event that gave it a push-start, as yet undiscovered by scientists. There are rogue geologists who believe the canyon is much older, a result of two ancient rivers that predated the current Colorado.

The climb back to the rim

The climb back to the rim

Meteor Crater (AZ)


Fifty thousand years ago, a meteor slammed into what is now Arizona. The size of the meteor is estimated to have been 50m across and released energy equal to a 10-megaton bomb. Today, the crater is about 550 feet deep and 2.5 miles in circumference.

We visited the impact site, called Meteor Crater, scientifically known as Barringer Crater and located southwest of Winslow. It is considered to be the finest preserved impact site in the world, most others having been eroded by time and weather. The crater is on privately-owned land. There are observation points along the northern end where there is also an interesting museum. Holsinger Meteorite, the largest discovered fragment of the meteor and weighing half a ton, is on display.

Holsinger meteorite

Though not the largest crater on Earth by far, it was humbling to survey the result of the impact. What animal life existed at the time, dominated by large mammals, was obviously obliterated. It is thought that no humans lived in the area concurrently.

The Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon trained here. There is a scaled model of an astronaut holding the flag in the center of the crater.

Hopi Villages (Arizona)


One of my biggest apprehensions as a tourist is—being viewed as a tourist. Not that there is anything I can do about it. You kind of stick out, so to speak, whether it’s the backpack, camera, REI clothes, synthetic zippered-khaki pants, even shorts in certain parts of the world, anything that pegs you as being different from the locals. Economically speaking, many people rely on tourism for their livelihood. It’s the classic dichotomy: you are the income and the intruder, a necessary evil.

And so it was that my wife and I went to visit a Hopi village, one of the oldest pueblos in the Southwest, a community of people living high atop a mesa in a remote part of northern Arizona. Many families still live there in modest homes. The drive to the top was over a dirt road. Rather than just roaming around unescorted, guided tours are provided that can be arranged at the community center.

Hopi pueblo, probably Walpi - NARA - 523645

Hopi pueblo, probably Walpi – NARA – 523645 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went on a guided tour of Sichomovi and Walpi, the latter one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the United States and where there is no electricity or water. Besides a rehearsed explanation of Hopi culture and life, one that sounded like it had been given many times before, there were stops at tables where artists were selling kachina dolls and pottery, most of them exquisite—and beyond our means. So here we were, tourists, upon whom the artists’ livelihood depended. We felt guilty each time we were invited to look at an artist’s wares, only to decline a purchase after each was gracious enough to talk about the symbolism of his/her artwork.

After the tour, we were free to walk around. On our way to the car, a grandmotherly woman was standing outside her home and invited us in. I knew we were in trouble. She showed us her crafts for sale. It took all our will power to thank her and not buy anything.

The sun was intense at this high altitude, even though the temperature was only about 80 degrees. I’m not sure how I felt about the visit. This was our first visit to a pueblo, and it was informative. The guilt-trip that was gnawing at me was self-imposed, of course. Was it better not to have come at all? No, of course not.

No photography is allowed in this (and many other) Indian pueblos, so there are no pictures I can share.

Down below the mesa, we had a Hopi lunch at the Hopi Cultural Center, a lamb stew and a pinto bean stew, each with hominy, served with blue corn frybread.

Little Painted Desert County Park (Winslow, AZ)


Like its sibling to the south (the Painted Desert in Petrified Forest National Park), the Little Painted Desert showcases the same pastel-striped, eroded hillsides that characterize the eerie badlands topography, as if great, colored layers of powdered chalk had been laid on top of each other. The attraction is part of a county park in Navajo County, 15 miles north of Winslow (AZ) on Hwy 87. There are hiking trails and picnic tables, but no camping facilities.

On our way to the Hopi Pueblo, we made a brief stop to gaze at these colorful hills, the likes of which we’ve seen in other parts of the Southwest, as well as in South Dakota. They are very distinctive owing not only to their colors but to petrified wood which is typically found in these layers of the geologic Chinle Formation, dating to Triassic times.

This area is a free alternative to the national park for seeing badlands scenery. If you can time it, take photographs of these hills at sunset when the colors take on deeper tones and contrast increases.

Turquoise Room, La Posada Inn (Winslow, AZ)


Along the long I-40 stretch that cuts through the middle of the Southwest, there aren’t too many notable places to have a nice meal. Lots of little places with good, even great food, but not a sit-down dining experience, complete with ambience, good service and fresh ingredients, with a great cocktail or two thrown in for good measure.

To some food writers, the Turquoise Room at the La Posada Inn in Winslow is regarded as the best restaurant in the Southwest. We’re not ready to make such a claim, our regional experiences so far being extremely limited, but much of this enthusiasm might have to do with its location seemingly in the middle of nowhere, its elegant yet casual Southwest motif, and the fact that it isn’t the typical “joint” that is hugely popular along the Route 66 corridor.

Lunchtime is a terrific way to sample many of TR’s signature dishes at reduced prices. At just past 3 p.m., we had no problem getting immediately seated either, generally a greater challenge at normal dinner hours.

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Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument (AZ)


If a volcano were erupting in my backyard, spewing lava and ash, I might be tempted to move away. This is precisely what the ancient Puebloan peoples did when Sunset Volcano erupted in the 11th century. It has done so several times since then in a span of 50 years. The monument is a grim reminder that an eruption is likely again.

Sunset is no longer active. What remains is an almost perfect cinder cone, a thousand feet high, surrounded by enormous lava fields, which comprise the national monument. Sunset is only one of many volcanoes in proximity north of Flagstaff that is known as the San Francisco volcanic field. There is no longer a trail to the volcano rim, but one does wind through the lava field (called the Lava Flow Trail). Vegetation struggles to grow back, including stands of Ponderosa pines, a few of which have grotesquely twisted trunks from severe lack of water and high winds. Walking through any lava field is like a stroll through an alien landscape. Fortunately, the trail is developed and well-maintained.

Lava Flow Trail is an easy loop

Contorted Ponderosa pine

Apache Plume

Wupatki National Monument (AZ)


An hour north of Flagstaff lies Wupatki National Monument. From Page, it was a leisurely hour and a half drive to the entrance. There are some 800 ruins within the monument, a staggering number even if you expected a large settlement. Only a few are open to the public. The largest and most impressive, Wupatki Pueblo, is close to the visitors’ center and easily accessible by a short paved path. There are over 100 rooms in the structure, constructed of flat Moenkopi sandstone rocks that have a characteristic reddish color.

There is even a large “ball court” that anthropologists feel suggest an influence from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

Ball court

There are curious “blowholes” throughout Wupatki whose ancient uses remain a mystery. Scientists explain that they are openings (or “cracks”) in the surface to underground sandstone chambers, possibly caused by earthquakes or shifting, that suck air in or blow it out, depending on outside temperatures. You could say that the earth is breathing.

Wupatki is linked to Sunset Crater by a loop road off Highway 89. It is generally thought that the ancients were driven from the Sunset Crater area, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation and therefore more verdant, when the crater exploded in the 11th century, and forced to settle in the more inhospitable Wupatki area to the north.

Surprise Canyon (AZ)


surprise-canyon
Three years ago, we took the Antelope Canyon tour. As memorable as that tour was, hordes of tourists drawn by the fame of the canyon arrived from all over the world. To make matters worse, everyone was herded through the narrow passageways in numbers so thick that visions of being alone were delusions instead. Photographers were not allowed to bring tripods on the standard tours, but I discovered that by paying a bit more for a photographers’ tour, you got special dispensation.

In researching other tour opportunities in this area only a few weeks ago, I noticed that one company provided a Humvee tour to Canyon X that promised a relatively crowd-free experience to Surprise Canyon. The canyon would rival the beauty of the more famous slot canyon. As it turned out, only one other couple (from the UK) joined our tour on a day that was almost cloud-free, fortunate because of the downpour in the area only the day before. Getting to the canyon was half the fun; the Hummer negotiated rocky terrain, slick rock and sandy stretches, at one point tilting at what seemed like a pitch of 45°. Itself, the canyon is not very long. Nor was there any noticeable place with a hole in the rocks above to showcase a dramatic shaft of light for which Antelope Canyon is famous, maybe because the skies were somewhat cloudy. But the iridescent glow of the pinkish-orange sandstone was on full display. In retrospect, Antelope is the more spectacular because of its size and diversity but the crowds there can be quite the test. For experiencing a little of what these types of slot canyons offer, Surprise will fit the bill nicely.

Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River (Page, AZ)


One of the most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping overlooks in the entire Southwest is the one that is a thousand feet above Horseshoe Bend, a meander of the Colorado River. Though it is spectacular at any time of day, the morning and late afternoon sun shows it to best dramatic effect.

The signpost to the parking lot can be easy to miss right off Highway 89. From the lot, there is a short hike of less than a mile over sandstone and a short sandy path to reach the overlook. It was unsettling (for me, at least) to stand at the cliff’s edge and peer down to the river. But, what a view!

Photographer’s tip: for the best time to capture the scene, my choice would be the late afternoon, although one cannot improve upon this particular sunrise shot. Photographers should be sure to take a wide-angle lens to capture the entire bend. I used a setting of 12mm on my Canon EF-S variable wide-angle lens, which would call for a 20mm standard focal length.

Dinner at the Rainbow Room (Wahweap, AZ)


What more can you say when, after many hours on the Rainbow Bridge tour, you end the day with satisfying snacks and drinks? The last thing I felt like doing was cooking at the campsite. Rainbow Room, part of the Lake Powell Resort, had a nice menu, including a number of small plates, which we enjoyed, as much for tasty nibbles and drinks as the convenience and relaxation.

Rainbow Room
Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas
Wahweap Marina
100 Lake Shore Drive, Page, AZ 86040
888.896.3829