I left Cortez, Colorado on a cloudy and rainy morning, and headed west into the desert of Southern Utah.
My first stop of the day was going to be the scenic, yet unpaved and very rough drive through the Valley of the Gods. As I was ready to turn on to the road, I saw the dark clouds to the west, and decided to see if the storm coming in would blow over first, as the information board at the beginning of drive warned against driving the road in any kind of rain. I was treated to scenic views of the valley from the highway. As it turned out, I never ended up being able to make the drive on this trip.
I drove on to Goosenecks State Park. The San Juan River, over the course of thousands of years, meandered in a way to leave large mesas on both sides of it’s course. It is both scenic and geologically fascinating.
I scrambled up the Moki Dungway, a stretch of Utah Highway 261 that is unpaved and features a series of switchbacks and steep grades, some as much as 11%.
In 2003, I’d been captivated by the view from Muley Point, which was a short drive from the top of the Moki Dungway. I’d hoped to recreate a picture I’d taken up there 12 years earlier, one with the goosenecks and Monument Valley in the background. The dark clouds I’d noticed earlier were practically on top of me now, so I hurried up and got my photo before quickly descending the unpaved switchbacks of the highway before the rain started and trapped me at the top.
I’d barely made it to the bottom of the mesa when the skies opened up. I was glad I wasn’t driving the Valley of the Gods when it happened as the storm was intense, and I’m sure the road flooded in many places.
I waited out the storm in the tiny town of Mexican Hat. I took the opportunity to order a ‘Navajo Taco’, which consisted of Navajo Fry Bread (similar to an Elephant ear without the sugar), topped with lettuce, cheese, beans, and tomatoes. Sadly, it sounded better than it actually was, and the beans were quite watery and dominated the whole dish.
The storms passed within an hour, and I spent a steamy afternoon driving around among the iconic formations of the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley Tribal Park. The park is certainly worth all of the publicity it receives and is well worth the steep $25 admission fee to enter, but the condition of the unpaved road around the park made me wish I’d ponied up a little more cash and gone the guided tour route. (I had the same feeling in 2003. A more in depth post about the park is coming.)
The final stop of the day was another one of the National Park units I’d missed on my previous trips, Navajo National Monument. The monument preserves three ancestral Puebloan dwellings located on the floor of some very dramatic, high elevation canyons.
I chose to do the trail that overlooked Betatakin canyon and ruin of the same name. It was getting late in the day, and honestly, I was pretty sure I wasn’t in good enough shape to hike the 3+ miles to the ruin deep in the canyon below. The one mile hike to the viewpoint overlooking the ruin was easy enough going out, as it was gently downhill the whole way, but it made the hike back up more difficult.
I made it to my evening destination of Page, Arizona as another storm rolled through. I’d intended to camp that night, but after seeing how the water ran through the campground, I made the decision to get a hotel, even though it is one of the most expensive places in Arizona for hotels.
The storm passed through, and stayed mostly north of the town, which set up perfect condition for a unique sunset. I hiked down to the nearby overlook for the Glen Canyon Dam as the sun set across the mesas to the west.
The next morning, I drove out to the Wahweap Overlook- which takes in the panorama north of Page, including the mad-made Lake Powell and the Wahweap Marina, one of the most popular recreation spots in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
I’d stayed in Page the previous night so I could be ready in the morning for my tour of Antelope Canyon, one of the Southwest’s most iconic sights. This famous slot canyon, made mostly of Navajo Sandstone the has been carved by hundreds of years of flash floods, is seen in pictures and is recognizable from the orange color of the sandstone and beams of light that are featured.
Antelope Canyon is one of the biggest tourist draws in the Navajo Nation for good reason. I had made my reservation over a month in advance, and all the tours on the day I visited were sold out. I’ll have a more detailed post on my Antelope Canyon experience later, but I was glad I’d done it, but I certainly wouldn’t do it again.
From Antelope Canyon, I was off to a much larger canyon to the southwest, the most famous of canyons, Grand Canyon National Park.
I spent two days camping in Mather Campground on the South Rim, a perfect location for catching the Park Service’s shuttle buses. The shuttle system implemented by the National Park Service to alleviate traffic from the park’s over 2 million visitors. I’ve used these shuttle previously in Yosemite and Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks and found them to be efficient and well-designed.
Both days I spent in the Grand Canyon were amazing. I’d visited the Grand Canyon back in 1983 when I was 11, and had loved it, but when I visited on my 2003 Out West trip, I’d really only enjoyed the helicopter flight I’d taken over the canyon. The highlights of this visit were photographing both sunset and sunrise over the canyon. During the low light at these times of day, the canyon takes on a completely different character.
I also really enjoyed camping- something I’d done too little of on my previous couple of trips. After the Grand Canyon, it was back south into ‘civilization’ before heading west toward the Pacific….