Monday, December 7, 2015

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!

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  1. I'm not sure if I'm overexcited or heartbroken. We were considering looping around to Four Corners this summer...but with so much to do there, we may have to wait and do another trip another year.

    1. If you were going to loop through there, I would recommend the Four Corners Monument (just to say you'd been there) and either Mesa Verde or Monument Valley. You could always pick up the rest when you head down to see the Grand Canyon...

  2. I still haven't been to this location and not sure with my health issue (cannot go up in elevation) if I will ever get to go...but I love seeing your pictures.

  3. My oldest son would love to see the dinosaur tracks. What an amazing area. That one is still on my list to see.
    Blessings, Dawn