Surprise Canyon (AZ)

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

Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Utah)

The last time we were in Page back in 2008, we decided against visiting Rainbow Bridge because it seemed pricey just to look at a natural bridge, even if a spectacular one. Ever since, I wondered if we’d missed an opportunity, not knowing if we’d ever return to Page. As luck would have it, we did come back, and this time we were going to go, as much to see this natural wonder as take the cruise on beautiful Lake Powell.

It is easily accessible by boat tours on Lake Powell. Although the monument itself is located in Utah, the tour’s starting point is Page in Arizona. Tours also originate from Bullfrog Marina in the northeastern part of the lake in Utah. We took the half-day cruise from Page.

It took two hours to reach Rainbow Bridge. Once we got near, the boat slowed down and maneuvered into a small canyon, one of countless others along the lakeshore. It’s an entirely different sensation to move through these canyons on boat instead of on foot. The burnt orange walls glide past.

Side canyon

Because the water level of Lake Powell has been receding, what used to be just a short walk to the monument’s base from the boat landing now is about a mile away. In one sense, it’s more dramatic when the entire span of Rainbow Bridge suddenly appears as you round the final bend in the hiking trail.

Rainbow Bridge
At the monument site itself, there was a very entertaining park ranger who had no end of fascinating stories and facts to tell. We could’ve listened to him for hours. Imagine a natural rock bridge almost as high as the Empire State Building. Imagine too that it is the largest natural bridge in the world, standing at 290 feet tall and 275 feet across. This is Rainbow Bridge.

Rainbow Bridge

The story of its creation is the part of the story of the entire Colorado Plateau. Here, a stream undercut a fin of Navajo sandstone and started the process of bridge-building through water erosion. Eventually, like all such bridges, Rainbow will collapse as other bridges are being created.

The weather had been overcast almost the entire day, with forecasts of heavy rains. As we were returning to the boat from the monument, an epic rainstorm opened up. All around us were deafening claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightning. The rain was so heavy that we got to experience something rarely seen on tours, ephemeral waterfalls by the dozens, cascading down the sandstone mesa tops, some so voluminous that they were spewing out like hydrants and some so choked with red earth that they were rusty in color.

While we were away from the campsite, that same rainstorm practically blew our tent away. Luckily for us, a neighbor was good enough to re-stake everything and gather our camp chairs that had blown away. We learned from another couple at dinner that their 4WD slot canyon tour was visited by a tremendous hailstorm that covered the ground in several inches of white.

The tour lasted about 5 hours in total. A long day, to be sure, but worth the experience of the monument and the thrilling storm afterward.

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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