Our planning for this trip began with a list, compiled by Sandie, of places in Arizona, Utah or Nevada that we had not previously visited. We’d been to the Grand Canyon, of course, plus the so-called ‘Big Five’ national parks of Utah (Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands). But as there are so many wonderful sights to see, we decided to focus on the lesser-known places.
Ian took Sandie’s list and created an itinerary, working out the best route to cover them all. But we did not stick to the itinerary very closely. Inevitably, while criss-crossing Utah and Arizona, we passed close to places we’d been before, and in some cases we could not resist the temptation to revisit. Also, we spotted places that were not on the list, but seemed worth a visit. A large measure of serendipity was involved!
Below we mention some of the marvellous places we visited in our first few days in Arizona and Utah. We must stress, however, that even these do not tell the whole story. The scenic wonders of this region are not confined to national parks, national monuments or state parks. You can find fantastic scenery surrounding towns, or even just along the road when travelling from one goal to the next. So we can only attempt to give a brief description of a few highlights.
You will see that there is a theme running through the places mentioned in this blog. Most of them relate to dwellings, often cliff dwellings, of people who lived hundreds of years ago. This was not planned; indeed, only two of the places were on our original list. But as we were passing – pure serendipity again!
A place in the sun
Our first stop in Arizona was the Tonto National Monument (NM). Here houses were built into the cliffs; you walk up a steep path to reach them. The surrounding countryside, dotted with huge Saguaro cacti, was at least as fascinating as the ruined dwellings.
Montezuma’s Castle NM is not a castle, and has nothing to do with Montezuma. Having been at Tonto the previous day, we wondered if it was worth seeing more cliff dwellings, but the answer was definitely yes. At Montezuma you are not allowed to walk up to the dwellings, but you follow a flat paved path which gives you superb scenic views from down below. You can also go to Montezuma’s Well a few miles away – not a well, but a large spring-fed circular pond where the local people got their water.
Tuzigoot NM has yet more prehistoric dwellings, but here they are not built into a cliff, rather set out as a pueblo on a flat piece of land.
Sucked in by Sedona
Our guidebook is very scathing about Sedona, partly because of its ‘new age’ emphasis. On the other hand, it rightly states that the city is in an incredibly beautiful setting. We did not intend to stay there, but thought it would be interesting to drive through and maybe stop briefly for a drink or an ice cream. It was late afternoon, and after leaving Sedona we set off as planned to camp in Oak Creek Canyon. However, we stopped at a viewpoint, and then decided to follow a footpath which led down to a creek. At the bottom, we were taken aback to see a fairy (complete with wings) perched on a rock in the creek and being photographed. Was this a hallucination? Or connected with Sedona’s interest in the supernatural?
It transpired that the two campgrounds in Oak Creek Canyon were both closed (due, we believe, to a recent forest fire) so we had no alternative but to return to Sedona and find a motel. We began to think the city would not allow us to escape. But we enjoyed our evening pre-dinner stroll through the town, looking in shop windows and (we confess) laughing at signs advertising ‘angelic channelling’ and the like.
Our motel had information about the surrounding area which interested us. So the next morning, we drove outside the city and did three short walks among the stunning deep red rocks. We returned to the city to have lunch and take daylight photos of the statues lining the main street. We finally left Sedona about 24 hours after arriving for a quick drink stop.
More places in the sun
Walnut Canyon NM was the first place we visited which was actually on Sandie’s original ‘must see’ list. Here we walked down into a canyon to see homes created underneath impressive overhangs.
Then it was on to Wupatki NM. We were not sure that we wanted to see yet more native American dwellings, but as we were passing – well, more or less – we decided we might as well. And we were very glad we did. Within the park there are ruins in different locations, but the most impressive was Wukoki Pueblo: not a cliff dwelling, but a castle-like structure of red rock, standing all by itself.
We had no idea what there was at Navajo NM: we stopped there only because the map showed it had a campground, and we needed somewhere to stay. We discovered it has a beautiful red rock canyon, and in one large arch there are (guess what?) more cliff dwellings. We walked to the viewpoint opposite in the evening and again in the morning, but the sun was not shining on them either time – according to the ranger we spoke to, this happens only in winter.
Hovenweep NM is quite isolated: we drove several miles to find it, and got lost trying to get back to the main road. But there are many prehistoric buildings of different types dotted just above or inside a canyon, and we enjoyed our walk around the rim to see them all.
Finally, we did a short walk through Mule Canyon, to see some cliff dwellings known as the ‘House on Fire’. When we got there, we could see why. The overhang is striated in such a way that it really looks like flames leaping up above the houses. It would look even more like fire if the sun was shining directly on the rocks, but we are not sure when (or if) this happens.