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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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.

Antelope Canyon (Page, AZ)

No trip to the Southwest would be complete without a visit to perhaps the most beautiful (and over-hyped) slot canyon in the world: Antelope Canyon. The breathtaking photographs are everywhere, in travel magazines, on the internet, and virtually anywhere you come across the subject of Southwest travel: narrow sandstone slots flanked by radiant walls of orange, gold and pink, and illuminated from above by brilliant shafts of sunlight.

This attraction is located just outside Page, Arizona. Because it’s located on Navajo land, you must purchase a tour from one of many Navajo-owned companies, all located along Lake Powell Boulevard in Page. The one we picked had a tour tailored specifically for photographers. Some internet bulletin board users have complained that the photography-centered tour is too structured: tourists shuttled from one place to the next, told where to take your shots, and never given much time to wander on one’s own. Still, you are taken to the prime spots. Guides know from experience what photographers want. I heard no complaints from anyone on our tour. In essence, you have to decide what you want with limited time (and money). Still, I am disappointed that you can’t experience the canyon without running into hordes of people.

A photographers' tour is geared to camera hounds

A photographers’ tour is geared to camera hounds

One of the benefits provided by Chief Tsosie (and possibly other guides who lead similar tours) is that he takes you to the photogenic spots and clears the areas of people so that your shots are not “spoiled” by human subjects, a practice that likely irks people on other tours. Another bonus for taking a photographers’ tour is that you can take along a tripod, which is prohibited on other tour types.

We arrived at the canyon around noon, after riding for about a half hour in an open-air Jeep over a rough, dry wash. Immediately upon entering, we were overwhelmed by the brilliant orange and pink colors for which Antelope is famous. With the sun directly overhead, the glow and reflections were otherworldly. It’s as if the entire walls were bathed in orange light. There were several places where a single shaft of sunlight beamed through a hole overhead, like a powerful floodlight was shining from above (top photo).

Although I brought along a tripod on this vacation, unfortunately I had the mounting bracket from another unit, rendering my tripod useless. I have to live with several blurry shots that fortunately are augmented by much better ones.

You can appreciate that Antelope Canyon is one of nature’s grand displays, one that will likely never be experienced anywhere else.

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Glen Canyon Dam (Page, AZ)

Fraught with controversy from the beginning, the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was undertaken to provide a cheap source of hydroelectric power and to regulate the flow of water to downstream areas of the Southwest that needed a more consistent supply during drought years. Even to this day, there are environmental impact studies to gauge the effect of the dam on riparian environments downstream and the accumulation of vast amounts of sediment behind the dam that may be rendered eventually inoperable if dredging is not undertaken in the near future.

We took the Glen Canyon Dam tour where we found out more about the dam’s engineering and economic benefits and the role it played in the creation of Page as a workers’ town. We learned, for example, that the creation of Lake Powell, the vast reservoir created by the dam, has transformed the economy of the area and introduced recreational opportunities, mainly house boating and water skiing, where none existed before, good or bad. It took an astounding 18 years to fill the reservoir after the dam was completed.

Glen Canyon Bridge

Glen Canyon Bridge

Wire Pass (Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs)

The Southwest is famous for its slot canyons, narrow passageways carved out of sandstone by the erosive power of fast, flowing water. These canyons typically have very high, vertical walls, making them shadowy and dark for most of the day. They become illuminated to the floor only when the sun is directly overhead. Some passages can be very tight; claustrophobes will probably feel pretty uncomfortable. The most famous slot canyon in the Southwest is the Antelope Canyon in Arizona, which we visited later.

Our first experience with a slot canyon was Wire Pass in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument south of Zion. We had a hard time locating the access road. Luckily, we came across the Paria BLM office beyond the turnoff and were given directions. The unimproved dirt access road, washboarded and rutted its entire length of over 8 miles, led to the trailhead. The first mile of the trail was pretty unimpressive (boring) over dry scrubland. Eventually, the canyon entrance came into view. Entering the slot is like going into another world. Suddenly, you’re enclosed by high rock walls; the effect is like nothing you’ve experienced before.

Early in the hike, we nearly turned back because the path dropped steeply over a high boulder that didn’t seem to have a way of climbing back up when we peered over the edge. But, as luck would have it, a hiker was making her way back and climbed the rock using smaller rocks that were tucked under the rim.

Since we got there in mid-afternoon, the canyon walls were displayed in somber, purplish tones. Where the sun struck the walls higher up or in wider clearances, the beautiful orange and red tints glowed brilliantly.

Petroglyphs at Wire Pass

Petroglyphs at Wire Pass

Wire Pass eventually opened up to a large, open wash that connected to Buckskin Gulch a half mile further ahead. We turned back at the junction, since we needed to get to Page (Arizona) later in the afternoon. On the cliff faces at the junction, we saw our first Indian petroglyphs.

Many hikers who want to hike Buckskin Gulch take the Wire Pass hike to forgo the beginning, relatively uninteresting portion of Buckskin, the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest. At the junction, one is free to continue southeast to the Paria River.

Crossroads at Buckskin Gulch

Crossroads at Buckskin Gulch

The Wire Pass trailhead is also the starting point for the permit-required hike into the spectacular sandstone area called The Wave, which we didn’t have time to do. The effect of parallel score lines over smooth, orange rolling rock has to be spectacular. This really should be on our to-do list for the next time.

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