Monday, December 28, 2015

I is for Iron Cookware

A few years ago, Cristi got a cast-iron skillet as a gift.  About that time, Brennan and I were part of a Scout troop that did a lot of dutch oven cooking.  I was amazed at how good the meals were out of that thing!  Those scouts cooked everything from mountain man hash to roast to stew to cobbler!  Since that time, our family has jumped in with both feet.  We've added a small 1-person cast-iron skillet and our own dutch oven.  We usually take one of the skillets with us on every road trip (since we cook a lot of our meals on the road because of Lauren's food restrictions) and both a skillet and dutch oven on camping trips. (Alas, we don't take either on backpacking trips!)

My cast iron collection, including a lid lifter and lid holder for the dutch oven
The beauty of cast iron cookware is three-fold:

1)  It's tough to get stuff to stick, which means that your food doesn't burn easily, although this applies primarily to gas and camp stoves.  Electric stoves are more problematic since the skillet sits directly on the heat source and turning the heat down doesn't immediately remove the heat like it does with gas stoves.  Thus, controlling the heat is more art than science. 

2)  That leads me to the second point:  Cast iron is extremely easy to clean.  Simply put hot water in the skillet/dutch oven and let it sit for a few minutes, then scrape it using a scraper, scrub brush, or metal sponge (Note: Do NOT use an SOS pad, and try to avoid using soap because the cleaner will actually soak into the iron).  If you're in the backcountry and don't have ready access to a good scrubber, never fear: you can use dry sand as an abrasive to get all the food off the iron.

3)  Finally, they're extremely easy to maintain.  They'll outlast you if well cared for.  Simply wipe it out with a paper towel, then pour a spot of oil in it and rub it in with another paper towel.  This treatment keeps it from rusting and keeps it well seasoned. For dutch ovens, rub oil on the inside of the lid as well and store with a paper towel folded up between the rim and the lid to keep the lid from sealing onto the bowl.

For those not familiar with them, dutch ovens can be used to cook anything you would cook in your oven at home.  You control the temperature by the number of charcoal briquettes above and below.  The ratio is generally 2 briquettes on top to every one on the bottom because heat rises.  For example, for a 12-inch dutch oven at 375 degrees, place 9 on the bottom and 18 on the top.  I recommend purchasing a dutch oven cookbook at the same time you buy your dutch oven so you'll have recipes to try as well as a temperature chart.

Red Beans & Rice -- a staple at our house
We made chili on our last campout -- incredibly easy in the dutch oven.
We also made cinnamon roll pancake on our last campout.  It worked incredibly well with no sticking!
We have so fallen in love with our cast iron cookware that we have scrapped every other skillet in the house.  No other skillet cooks as well or cleans up as easily.  And that's especially important when camping and cleaning conditions are more primitive or you want to spend more time enjoying nature than cleaning up your dishes.

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=

Monday, December 21, 2015

H is for Hiking Stoves

I mentioned in a previous post that on my first backpacking trip, we really didn't eat very well.  A big part of that was not having a suitable stove.  I have since learned that having a good stove is one of the four most important purchases for enjoyable backpacking (the others being a backpack, sleeping bag, and shelter).  I have also learned there are a wide variety that fit a variety of preferences and conditions.  Below is a quick overview of the different types and why you may consider one over the other.

Canister Stoves

By far, my favorite is the canister stove, which uses an isobutane fuel mixture in a metal canister that can be bought in different sizes.  I like these best because they are very small and lightweight.  Even after adding a pot, the total weight and bulk is less than most traditional backpacking stoves.

MSR Microrocket Canister Stove
Canister work great in almost any scenario except for cold temperatures and high elevations.  I have used mine successfully at 6000 feet, but it takes longer to boil water (which translates into more fuel usage).  I have only heard two downsides to these types of stove:  First, the canisters stay with you through the entire hike even when used up since you have to pack out your trash.  Proponents of other stove types complain of this added bulk since liquid fuel could be packed in a collapsible bottle that gets smaller as fuel is used.  In reality, though, it's not a big problem unless you're on a very long trip (longer than a week) and require multiple canisters or using your stove for a large group in which case, the extra canister(s) can be distributed among group members.  Second, many canister stoves have poor-to-average flow control, meaning the flame seems either very high or very low.  Thus, if you like cooking gourmet meals in a pot or almost anything in a skillet, it takes a lot of attention to keep it cooking and keep it from burning.  Anything soupy (even if it's not "soup", just on the liquidy side, which many hikers prefer because of ease of cleanup) will do okay, though.

A specialized version of the canister stove is the Jetboil Flash, which is a canister stove in a completely self-contained unit that holds the stove and the fuel inside a 1-liter cooking pot that doubles as a drinking cup.

In reality, the cooking pot really isn't useful for cooking, although it theoretically could be.  It's much more useful to just boil water in, which works for me because I prefer dehydrated meals where you just add water.  It does however, come with an attachment that you can use to place a frying pan or larger pot on.  We have even used our Jetboil with the frying pan on several picnics to have hot sandwiches or hot dogs.

Alcohol Stoves

An ultra-lightweight option is the alcohol stove.  They are about the cheapest stove option, and they are very easy to DIY out of a cat food can or a Coke can (Andrew Skurka gives directions on how to make one here).  You do have to carry a separate bottle of denatured alcohol, but overall, the weight is much less than any other type of backpacking stove.

That said, there are some significant downsides.  First, there's no way to put out the fire once started; you just have to let the alcohol burn up.  Second, there is zero flow control; the flame burns at one level, and it's dependent on the configuration of the flame holes on the side.  Third, stability can be problematic in the field if there's not any level ground around.  Finally, like canister stoves, alcohol stoves don't do well at high altitudes and/or low temperatures.  The combination of all those issues has kept me from jumping to this option despite the low weight and bulk.  Still, many people swear by them, so if you're adventurous and you're on a budget or ultralight is important to you, give it a try.

White Gas Stoves

White Gas stoves, like the MSR Whisperlite International were the standard for backpacking stoves for years.  These stoves work well in any environment and are really the best option for high altitudes and low temperatures.  They use liquid white gas that is available at most outdoor retailers.  Many can also use kerosene or unleaded gasoline, although they tend to clog the stove over time.


On the downside, these stoves cost a little more than canister stoves, are a little bit heavier, require occasional maintenance, and can require some babying and finesse to get them started.  Again, these downsides have kept me from purchasing one of these when my canister stove has performed well under every condition I've put it through.  Living in Colorado now, however, and wanting to do some backpacking through the mountains, I'm rethinking that decision.

Bottom Line

If you're considering a backpacking stove and are looking for a good all-around product for a reasonable price, I highly recommend a canister stove.  If you're on a budget but the stove is holding you back from eating well in the backcountry, give the DIY aclohol stove a try.  And, if you're looking for a stove to use in alpine conditions, a white gas stove is your best bet.

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=

Monday, December 14, 2015

G is for Backpacking the Grand Canyon

Partway down the South Kaibab Trail, admiring the indescribably magnificent view and imagining what it might be like to be even farther in.
A little over three years ago, I sat excited, almost beside myself, as I listened to our Scout troop's Senior Patrol Leader say he wanted to set a goal of the troop hiking the Grand Canyon by the end of the year and then planned out the dates we would hike in preparation for that momentous event.  I had more experience backpacking than anyone else in the troop, so I was chosen as the adult leader to guide the planning and preparation.  This was going to be the best hike ever!  To make a long story short, though, we had a relatively small window of availability during one of the peak seasons, and we weren't able to get a permit, so we opted for a 50-mile jaunt along the Mogollon Rim (that's a whole other story!).  Just two months after that, I landed in Afghanistan for a year, and I knew the sun was beginning to set on my opportunity to mark this huge accomplishment off my bucket list.

Finally, as my time in Afghanistan drew to a close, my two older kids, my hiking partner, Doc, and I all made plans for an April hike.  Our intent was to do a rim-to-rim hike, starting at the North Rim and exiting out the South Rim, but, alas, the North Rim doesn't open until May, and our calendars wouldn't allow for a May trip.  We looked at several other options and finally settled on a route that would expose us to as much terrain as possible while maximizing our opportunities for water along the way.  We started our five-day trip at the South Kaibab Trailhead, hiked down to Bright Angel Campground at the Colorado River, then halfway up the North Rim to Cottonwood Campground.  We then hiked back to Bright Angel Campground to spend another night, up the Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden Campground the fourth day, and out on the fifth day.

After eating lunch in Flagstaff, we made the hour-and-a-half drive to the South Rim.  We stopped at the Visitor Center for souvenirs, took a few minutes to drive around Grand Canyon Village to get oriented, then headed to our campsite.  We were a bit concerned about the weather that night:  It snowed the night before and was supposed to get down below freezing that night.  We brought sleeping bag liners and heavy clothes that we intended to leave on the rim, though, and we stayed plenty warm.  Striking camp and cooking breakfast the next morning, though, was cold!

We got a late start at the South Kaibab Trailhead, taking our first steps down into the canyon about 10:00.  We were immediately impressed with the views, and it seemed every turn in the trail brought even more incredible views!  Along the way, we met a German couple who had been touring the US, and their culminating adventure was backpacking the Grand Canyon.  We stopped for lunch at Cedar Point, 1.5 miles in to our 7-mile hike for the day, where we took advantage of the toilets available.  While standing in line for my turn, I saw a squirrel.  The lady beside me made the comment, "Aww, they're so cute!  If I had some food with me, I'd give it to him!"  I held my tongue but thought, "Yes, and it's people like you that have led to squirrels in the Grand Canyon not only unafraid of humans but aggressive to boot."  It was lunchtime, so I found the only shade available on the backside of the bathroom, and we ate.  The German couple also joined us, and we exchanged stories, Addison and I having lived in Germany.  We also found out they would be camping at Bright Angel with us that night.

Halfway down the South Kaibab Trail
We finally got our first view of the Colorado River at Skeleton Point, 3 miles in, which got us excited; we could finally see our destination!  That turned out to be a mixed blessing, though, because it seemed for a while that we were getting no closer.  We enjoyed the middle portion of the South Kaibab Trail because of its slight grade as we traversed the Tonto plateau mid-way down, but the final push down to the river was a grueling and seemingly endless set of switchbacks.  I cannot describe the elation of being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon for the very first time and crossing the Colorado River.  This was a dream come true!

Shortly before crossing the Colorado River for the first time.  The tunnel on the bottom right heads to the bridge.
Bright Angel Campground is just a short walk past the river and sits right beside Bright Angel Creek.  Since we got a late start, we were one of the last ones into camp that afternoon and campsites were limited.  We weren't able to get one beside the creek, but we were fortunately able to find one big enough for our four tarps.  Our German friends came over and asked if they could use our stove to heat up their dinner, and we gladly obliged.  It turns out they had been carrying a 32-oz Chef Boy Ar-Dee anvil for the last 7 miles!

Our campsite at Bright Angel Campground the first night
Bright Angel Creek that flowed beside the campground
The next day, we headed up the North Kaibab Trail past Phantom Ranch, which is a primitive inn (think hostel) that serves real food and has bunkhouses.  Legend had it that the drinks and candy bars tasted pretty good after a long hike, so we vowed to stop by there on our way back to Bright Angel the next day.  We could no longer see the Colorado River, but we followed Bright Angel Creek through a beautiful slot canyon for about 3 miles.  Not long after the terrain opened up and we had lunch, we came upon a fork with one direction pointing toward Ribbon Falls via bridge.  We wanted to stop, but it wasn't clear which way was correct.  The lower route seemed to head over to the falls, and the route the sign pointed to went up an extremely steep grade.  I offered to run ahead and finally saw a bridge in view.  By then, the group was tired because our legs were aching from the long, steep downhill the day before, so we decided we didn't want to stop after all and made plans to stop on our way back the next day. 

Slot Canyon just north of Bright Angel Campground
The North Kaibab Trail after leaving the slot canyon
We finally pulled into Cottonwood Campground early afternoon, hot and tired.  The temperature in the inner canyon was about 90 degrees, and Cottonwood offered very little shade.  We chose our campsite and cooled our feet in the cold Bright Angel Creek.  After about an hour of rest, Addison, Brennan, and I decided we wanted to hike farther up the North Kaibab Trail -- 1) To say we had been closer to the North Rim, and 2) To get a view of the Roaring Springs falls.  We talked briefly along the way about going farther than the falls, but next to the turn-off to the falls, there was a placard that showed the elevation change along the North Kaibab Trail, and the trail grade went from a nice steady uphill to near-vertical at the point of that sign.  So we decided we had gone far enough and headed back to camp!  We didn't even set up tarps that night, opting to cowboy camp under the stars.

Brennan dipping his feet in Bright Angel Creek at Cottonwood Campground
On the way to Roaring Springs
Roaring Springs Falls
The next morning, we struck camp and headed back to Bright Angel Campground, thinking about our stop at Ribbon Falls and the candy bar and Gatorade we'd have at Phantom Ranch.  Our legs were still extremely stiff from the first day, so forward progress took significant determination of will.  We arrived at Ribbon Falls and dropped our packs a short distance but out of sight from the splash pool at the base of the falls.  Another hiker that had been here before mentioned that the two holes at the base of the falls actually connected, and you could crawl through one hole, down the tunnel, and out the other.  Next thing I know, Addison cried, "YOLO", and headed off into the water.  Now, understand that the water is cold because, after all, the water is generated from snowmelt.  Nevertheless, Addison trooped out there, stood under the falls, and headed down into the tunnel, coming out the other side.  You could clearly tell she was rethinking her decision at that point!

Addison at Ribbon Falls
Coming out of the tunnel
Doc headed back to the packs as Brennan and I waited for Addison to change back into dry clothes.  When we got back to the packs, he pointed at a squirrel and said, "There's the culprit!  He's the one responsible."  When I asked him what he was talking about, he said that a squirrel was chewing into Brennan's pack when he walked up.  Apparently that was his second course, though, because not only had he chewed into Brennan's pack and eaten part of his lunch, he had chewed into Addison's pack and chewed through her bladder tube and part of her Oreos for lunch dessert.  With over five miles still to go that day, we were very concerned about the bladder tube since it was another hot day.  As our only alternative, we emptied her bladder into the 1-liter water bottle she was carrying.

That afternoon, we pulled into Phantom Ranch, practically drooling with anticipation for that candy bar and Gatorade.  We were sorely disappointed.  They only had a couple of varieties of candy bars and no Gatorade -- either lemonade or tea.  Not what we were longing for, but we made do.  After a nice rest, we walked the quarter mile back to Bright Angel Campground and claimed our site, this time one of the first to arrive.  We put our food and other smellables in the ammo can and our packs on the pack poles and headed down to the Colorado River.  I wanted to say I had filtered water out of the Colorado River, and I was amazed at how clear the water was.  I've never seen clearer water from any source!

On the bank of the Colorado River
We headed back to camp and saw a squirrel up on the pack pole.  He had literally undone the zipper on Doc's pack and had gotten into some trail food he had forgotten about.  That was it.  We declared war on the Grand Canyon squirrel colony!  We began throwing rocks at every squirrel we encountered, starting with the perp on the pack pole (PETA folks, you can rest assured that no squirrels were harmed in the making of this adventure as we had bad aim and didn't hit a single one).  That evening, we tackled the bladder tube to see if we could repair it.  I intended to cut out the chewed portion and then duct-tape it back together, but Doc had other ideas (he's a rocket engineer -- literally!).  We took two paperclips out of his emergency repair kit and straightened them then put them alongside the two cut tube pieces to create a splint of sorts and duct-taped it together.  The idea was to keep it from bending so that the seam in the tubing wouldn't separate.  Then we took twine and wrapped it around the tape to help the tape bind to the plastic tubing even better.  It amazingly lasted through the rest of the trip with no signs of any leaks!

With a hint of sadness, the next morning, we began the journey out of the canyon.  Our destination was Indian Garden Campground that night, our last night in the canyon.  We crossed the river, and the Bright Angel Trail hugged the river for about a mile and a half.  The views were spectacular, and we were sad when the trail finally turned inward, although the rest of the trail did not disappoint.  It seemed every day brought new views to marvel at.  Our hike was only 4.5 miles that day, so we pulled into Indian Garden at lunchtime and chose a premium spot with lots of shade.  Indian Garden was by far the best campground because it was not only shady but each campsite also contained a pavilion to rest and eat under.

Bright Angel Trail toward Indian Garden.  We had just hiked that portion of the trail you see.
We rested for a while after lunch, playing cards, when a squirrel approached me.  Having declared war on the little rodents, I threw a rock at him.  Would you believe the little sucker came back at me within inches of my foot?  We all wondered if he was thinking of attacking!  I stretched out to kick him, but common sense prevailed, and the squirrel retreated...for a few minutes.  There was more target practice to be had later.  Grand Canyon squirrels:  Alone and unafraid.

After our card game, we took the 1.5-mile hike out to Plateau Point -- the edge of the mid-level Tonto plateau for another good view of the canyon.  Once again, we were amazed at yet another gorgeous view of the canyon.  I guess you never really get tired of it.

The inner canyon from Plateau Point
The last day we left early because Brennan wanted to make it back to Williams for lunch at the Route 66 Diner in town.  It really was bittersweet coming back above the rim.  We were glad to have accomplished our objective and ready to see our families but sad to be leaving incredible beauty behind.

On our way out of Indian Garden Campground the last day
Back at the South Rim

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=

Monday, December 7, 2015

F is also for First Aid Kits

One of the Ten Essentials for any hiking trip, whether out for the day or a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, is a first-aid kit. You probably would want one for car camping trips as well, especially if you're going somewhere more remote or have plans for high adventure outings during the days. We even take one on long road trips because you just never know when you might need one.

But what to put in it? Especially when backpacking, balancing weight and bulk against being prepared is an art-science mix, but here are a few tips:

1)  Don't take anything you don't know how to use.  I mean, it's not like you're going to be reading the medical journal out on the trail to figure it out, right? If you are reading the medical journal, we need to go back to the weight and bulk discussion. Maybe a cast-iron Dutch oven would be more enjoyable for the weight.

2)  Consider the most likely scenarios.  How likely are you to need a tourniquet or to do surgery vs cut your finger or have a headache?  Do you need latex gloves if you're hiking with just your family?  This is admittedly tough for me, because my Scout instincts toward preparedness tend to outweigh my desire to cut ounces.  Note that you probably will want to take more if you are traveling with a group vs just 1-2 other people.

3)  What conditions are you going to face for your specific trip?  You probably don't need poison ivy cream if you're hiking in the desert.  Or, if you're already taking bug repellent, you don't need miniature blister packs.  Conversely, if you are traveling with someone known for allergic reactions, make sure they (or you) take Epi-Pens, and bring along some Benadryl as an additional precaution. 

4)  Don't take more of a particular item than you're likely to need.  For instance, while you should take some Motrin, you don't need an entire bottle.  I recommend keeping it down to about 2 per day and storing it in a small ziplock bag, labeled appropriately.  In fact, consider buying a box of small ziplock bags or buying sealed individual-use pouches of first-aid items from retailers like REI.

Miniature Medicine Bags to Cut Down on Weight and Bulk
For all that talk about what not to bring, what should you bring?  There are some basic non-negotiables:

- Band-aids -- Different sizes are great, distributed across the likelihood of needing them
- Motrin -- Works great for both pain management and anti-inflammation
- Tylenol -- Only if you (or one of your traveling partners) has something against Motrin for pain management (since there's no need for duplication)
- Tums/Pepto Bismol Tablets
- Immodium -- You'll definitely appreciate it if you're out on the trail and get the runs
- Antibiotic Ointment -- Needed for cuts
- Burn Cream -- This can be difficult to find, but you can usually pick up small blister packs at outdoor retailers, like REI
- Gauze (2-inch Roll) -- Better than gauze pads because you can roll off what you need
- Medical Tape -- Use to tape gauze on
- Moleskin -- It is quite likely someone will get a blister
- Leukotape -- It's incredibly sticky and works wonderfully to hold moleskin in place.  Consider also using it to tape gauze in place in lieu of medical tape

A few other things to give serious consideration to:
- Alcohol Pads
- Hydrocortisone
- Heat Pack
- Cold Pack
- Emergency Electrolyte Mix

Below are a couple of pictures of my first-aid kit.  I originally purchased this kit in the camping/hiking section at Wal-Mart.  As I mentioned, I tend to go a little heavier to ensure that I'm prepared for the possible-but-unlikely as well as the probable.  My kids have similar but smaller commercially-purchased kits, but many hikers opt for a quart-sized ziplock bag for their first-aid kit. 

My Hiking First-Aid Kit (iPhone shown for size comparison)
Additionally, as I mentioned at the beginning, we also take a first-aid kit when we travel.  We converted an unused toolbox into one that we can grab and go to be used on the road if/when needed, or, if not, I always have my hiking kit in the car.  After all, you want to be prepared, right?

Our Large Travel First-Aid Kit

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=

F is for Four Corners

We moved to Tucson in the summer of 2012, our first assignment truly west of the Mississippi River, so I was immediately excited about all there was to see "out west". One trip we took while living there was to the Grand Canyon and Four Corners.  If you enjoy drinking in the amazing artistry of creation, the Four Corners area has plenty:  Monument Valley, sandstone arches, a snaking gorge carved by the San Juan River, ancient cliff dwellings, towering narrow slot canyons, the largest collection of hoodoos in the world, the only place where four states meet in a single place...The list just goes on and on!

Along our drive to the Grand Canyon
Since there is so much to see in the area, I packed in the attractions.  Unlike my first European trip plan, however, the sites were all in relative proximity, and the pace was quite comfortable. 

We stopped first at the Grand Canyon because it was on the way and is an obvious must-see for everyone.  You can see the Grand Canyon from either the north rim or the south rim.  We chose the north rim because it is much greener and sees only 10% of the visitors the south rim sees.  When I announced that, Cristi proclaimed that was where she wanted to go.  It was indeed green -- quite a change from the brown Tucson landscape.  It's also a thousand feet higher, so is slightly cooler, which is nice in the heat of summer. 

We got there late afternoon, had a picnic dinner (it was actually here that our dehydrated meal pictures were taken), and then started down the North Kaibab Trail for a short hike.  We were hoping to make it to the Supai Tunnel, but we didn't quite make it because the trail was more strenuous than a couple of our family were prepared for.  In fact, if you're hiking the North Kaibab Trail, the vast majority of the elevation change down to the river is in the half of the trail closest to the rim; it's not a linear descent.  We got some beautiful pictures as we approached dusk, but we were disappointed that we couldn't see the Colorado River.  I found out later that the North Kaibab Trail follows a side canyon and hikers are unable to see the Colorado River until they actually get to it.  Alternatively, the trail does follow Bright Angel Creek for about 2/3 of the 14-mile descent.

We spent the night at a quaint (yet quite tiny!) cabin in the Kaibab National Forest that night and feverishly searched the park brochure for a point from which we could get some good views of the inner canyon as well as the river.  We finally found the road to Point Imperial and Cape Royal, and we were not disappointed.  The views were breathtaking!

View of the Inner Canyon from Cape Royal
On a side note, I found out later why the South Rim is so much more popular, and it's because the views of the canyon itself are much better.  You don't have to try hard to get a good view, and if you start down on either the South Kaibab Trail or the Bright Angel Trail, the views just keep getting better the farther in you go.  There is also an entire Grand Canyon Village at the south rim to deal with the masses.  It's like a miniature town!

We finished our drive to Point Imperial and Cape Royal around lunchtime and headed for Bluff, Utah, where we would set up base camp for our Four Corners attractions. About halfway to Bluff, we stopped in Tuba City, Arizona because I had heard there were dinosaur tracks out in the middle of the desert.  In actuality, this could hardly be called "an attraction".  Instead, we pulled up to a roadside stand manned by Native Americans selling handmade souvenirs.  When we asked about the dinosaur tracks, they were happy to give us a tour for a donation and led by a young girl of about 12.  The tracks themselves were convincing enough as overgrown bird or reptile tracks in petrified mud, but when I asked how she knew they were dinosaur tracks, I was told, "The dinosaurs left their tracks in the mud millions of years ago, and we can still see their tracks, so we know they were dinosaurs."  Aha.  Question answered.

Dinosaur Tracks in Tuba City
We arrived at Bluff about dinner time and checked in.  We rented a house through Recapture Lodge that was on the outskirts.  It sat on 18 acres, backed up to a beautiful mesa and the San Juan River, contained 3 bedrooms with 5 beds, as well as a full kitchen and washer/dryer, all for an extremely reasonable price.

The View from Our Rental House in Bluff, UT
 The next day, we drove to Monument Valley in the morning, about an hour away, back in Arizona.  We shopped for souvenirs at the Visitor Center, then made the 17-mile scenic drive through the park, awed at each successive butte that thrust magnificently and unexpectedly out of the barren ground and imagining how each got its name -- such as Elephant Butte and The Three Sisters.  We even named one Razorback Butte.  Afterward, we had a picnic lunch overlooking the Left and Right Mittens and Merrick Butte.

Lunch at Monument Valley
Our only planned stop for the afternoon was to Goosenecks State Park, which was not far off the highway headed back to Bluff.  A few years previously, I had seen a beautiful picture of the gorge the San Juan River cut through the desert and put it on my bucket list.  It was stunning to see in person, but the overlook site was the extent of the park.

Goosenecks State Park in Utah
With more time left in the day than I anticipated, we called an audible and headed for Natural Bridges National Monument since we had seen the sign for it on our way to Goosenecks.  The road was long and straight through a barren plain -- that is, until it reached a mesa it needed to go over.  As we approached, we saw signs continually warning us of a very curvy road with hairpin turns and speed limits as low as 15 mph.  We didn't quite realize what we were getting ourselves into until we were literally climbing the side of the mesa!  Now, mind you, this is different from curvy roads going up mountains because mountains have slopes.  Mesas are cuboids -- with vertical sides.  Partway up, I glanced out the window and wondered what that giant black rectangle was that looked like a ginormous iPad.  As we got closer, my family informed me that was the bottom of an overturned car.  Guess that one didn't make it.

The Road Up the Side of the Mesa
A short distance after the scariest road ever, we arrived at Natural Bridges.  The park has three sandstone natural bridges formed from intermittent river activity across centuries, although the canyons are dry now.  We took the loop road through the park, stopping at several of the overlooks to see the bridges.  Near one of the bridges, there are also ruins of an ancient Pueblo cliff-dwelling community.  Those that want a more up-close-and-personal view can hike down to each of the bridges or take the loop trail hike that traverses all three. 

Kachina Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument
Having now checked "climb a mesa" off our bucket list, we took a different route back to Bluff.  We fixed dinner and enjoyed a family game together.

Family Game Time after a Hard Day of Sightseeing
Our fourth day, we headed north to Arches National Park. Arches is a wonderland of naturally-formed sandstone arches.  In fact, there are over 2000 of them!  We drove the park road, stopping at several of the pullouts to view these amazing phenomena.  The park was crowded that day, so traffic was slow and parking was slim, but we were able to take in all of the major sites.  We stood in the North Window, walked to the Double Arch and out to a viewpoint for the Delicate Arch.  The massive Balanced Rock demanded our attention as we ate our picnic lunch nearby.  At the far end of the park, as the sun was beginning to fall, we admired the Fiery Furnace, a colorful set of hoodoos crowded together within a single area and the Devil's Garden with its massive fins that inspired part of the Ornament Valley landscape in Cars

Double Arch
Fins at Devil's Garden
On day 5, we checked out of our house in Bluff and drove to Four Corners.  I had heard that there wasn't really much there to see, but I was shocked at how it really was out in the middle of nowhere on tribal land.  Although it was "upgraded" several years ago, the monument consists only of a brass plate indicating the intersection of the four states (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico), embedded in a granite courtyard and surrounded by stalls of Native Americans selling handmade and geologic souvenirs.  I was frankly both surprised at how little was there and disappointed that what little was there was wholly a tourist trap.  Still, it's cool to say you've stood in four states at once, and we had fun taking pictures on the monument.

The Four Corners Monument
From there, we drove on to Mesa Verde National Park and checked into the National Park's Lodge, where we spent the night.  Mesa Verde contains the largest and best preserved collection of Puebloan cliff-dweller ruins in the US.  The park preserves an astonishing 600 cliff dwellings, but only a handful are available to tour -- some by ranger-led tour only and others via self-guided tour.  We toured three of the main sites:  the ranger-led Cliff Palace and Balcony House sites and the self-guided Spruce House.  Whether ranger-led or self-guided, you can walk right up to the ancient structures and climb down into remarkably well-preserved kivas (underground stone ceremonial meeting rooms).  It's almost as if you've stepped back in time!  On the two ranger-led tours, we climbed several ladders, including one 32-foot ladder, and crawled through a 12-foot tunnel.  The kids loved it! 

Ranger-Led Tour of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park
The 32-Foot Ladder at Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park
The only state we didn't visit for a Four Corners attraction was New Mexico.  I would have loved to see the political, religious and cultural center of the Pueblo people at Chaco Culture National Historical Park or a 900-year-old Pueblo Great House with over 900 rooms that boasts its original timber at Aztec Ruins National Monument (especially since I need to cross NPS sites off my bucket list, right?), but, alas, we ran out of time.  So, if you want to plan a trip to the Four Corners area -- one I highly recommend -- plan to settle in for several days to a week.  I promise you'll have life-long memories (and some pretty good photos, too) of some of the best nature has to offer!

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=