Bandelier National Monument (NM)

The Las Conchas Fire of 2011 was the largest in New Mexico history. It eventually burned 150,000 acres and threatened Los Alamos, home of the Los Alamos National Lab. We in the West have become accustomed, almost inured to hearing about forest fires like this. Every year, their ranges, frequencies and intensities seem to grow, a possible consequence of global warming.

Little did we know that the Las Conchas Fire caused the closure until a few days ago of Bandelier National Monument, where we were headed. The fire began in June and burned much of the monument as well as acreage around it, though the ancient ruins and visitors center were thankfully spared. Heroic effort was expended by park staff and the Los Alamos fire department to save artifacts and protect the ruins and the park offices. Fortunately, the fire was contained and did no further damage. Most of the watersheds had been destroyed. One of the rangers told us that a recent storm caused a 15-foot wall of water to roar down the canyon, leaving mud and debris in its wake.

As we approached Bandelier, there were signs along the road that no vehicles would be allowed entry in the park. Only shuttles from White Rock would take visitors back and forth. We parked our car in town and took the free transportation. Along the way, we got to view the spectacular Frijoles Canyon. On arrival at the visitors center, we were surprised to learn that the park had only been open for three days. We considered ourselves lucky that we hadn’t come all this way, only to be turned back.

Much of the park is still closed (and will remain so indefinitely until vegetation grows back), but the main loop through the ancient ruins had been re-opened. The large-scale, traditionally circular ruins of Tyuonyi are impressive enough, but the network of altered caves (cavates), carved into the soft volcanic tuff cliffs that tower over the canyon, is unique among ancient Puebloan dwellings. The natural gas pockets left behind when the tuff rained down and hardened were enlarged by ancient humans, many of them interconnected by passageways, and possibly used for habitation or storage. They reminded me of the underground network of rooms, also carved out of tuff (tufa), in Orvieto, Italy. Ladders are provided for park visitors to climb into a few of them, some of which were tall enough for the ancient Puebloans to stand up in. Hiking paths beyond the main loop were closed because of the fire.

Our next stop was Los Alamos.

Tuff cliffs

Tuff cliffs

Tuff spires with Tyuonyi ruins in the background

Tuff spires with Tyuonyi ruins in the background

Ladder to room

Ladder to room

Entering a room

Entering a room

Tyuonyi ruins

Tyuonyi ruins

Lava Central: El Malpais National Monument (NM)

Lava, lava, everywhere. New Mexico might as well be called the Volcano State for all the young, exposed and hardened lava flows that are virtually everywhere. I had always thought that Oregon and Washington laid claim to the largest lava flows ever to have happened on the continent, but New Mexico is not lacking in that regard. One of the best ways to get a close look is the Acoma-Zuni Trail, part of El Malpais National Monument.

Hiking on the lava flows of Acoma-Zuni Trail is a formidable challenge. First of all, it’s a treacherous and strenuous walk over jagged lava rock. More importantly, over its 7.5-mile distance, you could easily get lost if not for the many cairns that have been erected over the landscape. It’s a wonder how ancient Puebloans navigated between Zuni and Acoma for over a thousand years. Aside from memorizing the landscape or using cairns, how did they do it without modern-day footwear? Our ambition today was to do a little exploring of the landscape, venturing only about a half mile in before returning to the parking spot. The trail is part of a vast volcanic field in New Mexico, formed over a period of 100,000 years. The trailheads are located along Highways 53 and 117 at either end. The latest eruption occurred only 3,000 years ago during what is called the McCartys lava flow, the youngest in the state. Much of the national monument and the conservation area around it showcase the volcanic field, including El Calderon, the monument’s most prominent cinder cone; rugged lava flows and tubes; and many other spatter and cinder cones, all surrounded by massive sandstone pillars and mesas.

From the eastern trailhead (Highway 117), the first half mile was quite easy—a sandy footpath past piñon pines. Eventually, we reached the rugged lava field, relatively young geologically speaking at 3,000 years old. Without our durable hiking boots, any other kind of footwear would have gotten shredded in no time. The terrain is very uneven, requiring much climbing up and down. Following park brochure advice, once we reached one cairn, we looked for the next before continuing on. The lava flows were very impressive, especially the pahoehoe kind with its ripply patterns.

Pahoehoe lava flow

After a certain point, we decided to go back and “retrace” our steps. This was harder than it sounds because nothing looked familiar. We just pointed ourselves in the opposite direction and eventually found the original dirt trail that led back to the car.

Not far from the Zuni-Acoma Trail stands the largest natural arch in New Mexico, La Ventana. A short trail leads up to this natural feature, but you can only look at it from a distance at trail’s end. In contrast to the young lava flows, the towering sandstone cliffs, of which La Ventana is a part, are 200 millions years old.


El Morro National Monument (NM): Graffiti Memorialized?

As we drove east along Hwy 53 past Gallup toward El Malpais, the terrain was pretty unremarkable with little to pique our interest until a massive mesa came into view. Travelers in previous centuries surely would have been drawn to it. The area has been made into El Morro National Monument for reasons explained below.

It’s easy to assume that graffiti in modern urban settings is a contemporary form of expression or blight, depending on your point-of-view. But archaeologists have been quick to point out that defacing has been going on for a very long time, as early as ancient Egypt. “I wuz here” is expressed in many tongues—scribbled, gouged, etched or spray-painted on any flat surface. What is unusual is for a national monument to be created to preserve it. This is not entirely true, of course, because the real importance of El Morro rock to history is the deep pool of water at its base that weary travelers have used as a reliable source for drinking water through the centuries.

After a drink of water, apparently bewitched by a potion befitting a writer’s muse, the temptation must have been too great to memorialize oneself on the sheer, vertical sandstone wall in the middle of nowhere in Cibola County, New Mexico, with inscriptions scratched out by the hands of ancient Indians, Spanish conquistadores and American cavalry and settlers who passed through. There are a staggering 2,000 engravings, which is the reason the bluff is called Inscription Rock. Ah yes, INSCRIPTION, a euphemism for graffiti, if there ever was one. It’s ironic that no contemporary contributor is allowed to deface said wall (as of 1903 when the park was established), lest they raise the hackles of rangers for scrawling GRAFFITI on the Zuni sandstone monument. The Park Service nowadays does all it can to preserve these inscriptions for posterity, which would actually be quite funny if at least one of them had something untoward to say, like “your mother wears combat boots.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, blathering from an era that would write something like that in the first place.

The historical significance of these inscriptions is quite remarkable really. It’s as if all the souls who have passed through signed your yearbook so that you can at some point in the future look back and wonder who they were. The oldest ones are ancient Puebloan petroglyphs, notably one of a herd of bighorn sheep. Such artwork is found throughout the southwest.


The Spaniards who came afterward, in the 17th-19th centuries, they who conquered and subjugated the native peoples, simply recorded their names, dates of passage and occasionally, the purpose of their missions. The oldest was chiseled in 1605. Another, written by General de Vargas, simply states: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

The American inscriptions are those of the cavalry and settlers in the nineteenth century, who simply left behind their names and passage dates, including some that were carved out in exquisite script. All these are to be found in a half-mile loop that begins at the visitor center.


No visitor, it seems, is particularly interested in the waterhole anymore.

El Morro waterhole

El Morro waterhole

Since we arrived in the late afternoon after having visited the Zuni pueblo, we only had time for the inscription trail before the park would close for the day. For that reason, we weren’t able to take the trail to the top of the mesa where Ancestral Puebloan ruins are to be found.

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.

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.

Cedar Breaks National Monument (UT)

Indian paintbrush

Situated in the middle of Dixie National Forest, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a testament to the forces of uplift and erosion. It shares the visual splendor of Bryce Canyon National Park not too far away, but it stands 2,000 ft higher in elevation at over a breathtaking 10,000 ft above sea level. Although both places were linked at one time, a gigantic fault separated them millions of years ago. Hiking at this altitude, even over mild elevation changes, is an exercise in breathing labor. Along certain sections, we were forced to stop, huffing and puffing, to catch our breath almost every 20 steps or so. If you haven’t acclimatized over a few days, you could suffer headaches and nausea.

From the rim trail, the only established one in the monument, you can get spectacular views, not only from the viewpoints but along the trail as well, of the hoodoos, fins, columns and spires in variegated pastel colors that are the hallmark of these unique formations.

Juniper roots itself over rock


John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (OR)

Painted Hills Unit

One of the most visually striking areas in the Pacific Northwest is one that looks strangely Southwestern. In the arid deserts of eastern Oregon, there are formations that are as unusual as anything in Arizona. John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is also a mother lode for fossils from the Cenozoic era when ancient mammals (including dogs, cats, camels, horses, giant sloths and rhinos) roamed the area. Several catastrophic events, volcanic eruptions from the ancestral Cascades, buried these mammals alive under enormous layers of ash, going back as much as 40mya. To this day, after heavy rains, fossils are continually being exposed and studied by vertebrate paleontologists at a field station at the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, also serving as the visitor center.

John Day is in a remote part of Oregon. There are small towns nearby, but the closest large city is Bend, almost a two-hour drive away. The three units of John Day are not contiguous. In fact, they are separated by many miles, so that a visit to all three in a single day will be a challenge, especially if you, like us, have accommodations in Bend.

The most startling unit is the Painted Hills (top photo), highly eroded layers of claystones of golds, yellows, reds and blacks. About 3 miles square, the area has a badlands appearance that appears more spectacular the further away you view it. Though the hike to the end of the Overlook Trail gave us an impressive view of these hills, a more panoramic vista was even more so from the Carroll Rim Trail, further away. One puzzle is that a layer of a specific color does not continue across to adjacent hills, as it would if it were uninterrupted.

Nearby, the Painted Cove Trail, 0.25-mile long, consists of a boardwalk that gets you up close to the red, lavender and gold claystones. From interpretive panels along the way, you learn that bentonite clay expands greatly when wet and becomes very sticky, contracts when drying out to form its popcorn-textured appearance. In sections that were not boarded, saturated mud clung tenaciously to our hiking boots until we jet-sprayed it off when we got home.

Painted Cove Trail

Popcorn-like bentonite clay

The Sheep Rock unit provided another kind of experience. The Blue Basin Trail showcases blue-greenish gray hills, highly eroded and containing many fossil specimens deposited over a 40-million-year span. There are a few fossils displayed along the trail, encased in plastic capsules exactly where they were found.

Most of John Day’s fossils are found in the blue-green hills, such as along Blue Basin Trail.

Since it was late in the afternoon, we failed to make it to the Clarno Unit, the oldest at John Day at between 35-50 million years. Fossilized plant life discovered here indicates that this used to be an evergreen tropical forest. Proto-mammals roamed here, too, many of which have no descendants today. We drove back to Bend in time for dinner.

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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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.