Brace yourselves - it's a long one!
So, Thursday 12th May we left New Mexico and drove into Arizona (all this within the Navajo Nation area… which does have quite a different feel to other parts of the country). In this north-eastern corner of Arizona h posted a birthday card to a teenage cousin at the post office in Teec Nos Pos and then about fifteen minutes later we were back in New Mexico again as we entered the Four Corners Monument site (Four Corners marks the point where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado meet… and the entrance gate is just in NM). We paid our few dollars and then entertained ourselves immensely running around and posing for photos (“here’s h in Utah and Colorado”, “here’s Mark playing twister in 4 states at once” etc.). We were not alone – other people were playing similar games of course. We ate a picnic in the blazing sun, perused the many stalls selling Native American jewellery (we have lots of people to buy gifts for!) and generally enjoyed the Four Corners experience. There’s not much to see in some ways but somehow it’s still a lot of fun and impressive in its emptiness. Then we drove for about ten minutes through Colorado (it’s just the way the road bends – no offence Colorado but we haven’t time for everywhere) and finally, that day, we crossed the border (again) into Utah.
Once in Utah proper we drove through some beautiful rocky scenery before arriving at our stop for the night – Bluff. Our first meeting with Bluff was the very impressive Twin Rocks (and great Twin Rocks Café). We had a drink, took photos and then drove on into the little town to find our motel (Kokopelli – a fairly minimal establishment but clean, quiet and friendly… and look up Kokopelli… good stories…). For such a small place there’s plenty to do in Bluff (even if you’re not going off hiking or river-rafting, as many other visitors were). I visited a great rough’n’ready artist’s place (here) while the others took it easy and rested up. Then later on we all wandered the dusty streets a little, took in Bluff Fort which is a mostly recreated cabin village to commemorate the Mormon settlers who founded the town in 1880 after a pretty amazing (and long!) journey that literally took them through the rocks round about. The Fort is free to enter and the whole place is developed and staffed by volunteers from what we could see. There is always an awkwardness in this day and age surrounding places that celebrate the European expansion in North America (well, there is for people who care about such things) but this little place seemed to be doing its best to just remember some history and not blow one band of people’s trumpet too loudly over the sound of another’s (but of course we could be wrong). Bluff’s a bonny place too (close to the San Juan river) and we very much enjoyed the rocky views (those red rocks reminding us of the cliffs of Auchmithie in Angus, Scotland in some ways). As Bluff is quite a stopping point for tourists there were a few places to eat and we ended up in a very entertaining steakhouse/BBQ kind of a place (lots of cowboy décor, free bandana with every meal, huge apple pie…). What with all the fresh air we slept well and weren’t even too disturbed next morning by all the archaeologists, hikers and river-rafters as they set off for their various country adventures. A little later than some of these travellers we drove parallel to the San Juan river for a while – stopping along the way to look at petroglyphs and the river and the amazing Goosenecks scenic view (all in Utah still). Our Four Corners and Utah photos are here:
At about lunchtime that day we got to the Monument Valley area (pretty much at the Utah/Arizona border). First we visited the Goulding’s Lodge and its small museum – founder Harry Goulding was one of the key figures who got movie directors like John Ford to come and use Monument Valley area as a location for westerns. Though it started small in the 1920s the Goulding development is now pretty big (tours, hotel, shops, restaurant) but we just visited the little (free) museum with all its John Wayne memorabilia (we know a big JW fan!). The museum also features Navajo history videos (one had h in tears) and a general celebration of the area and its people. After this we drove down to the shiny new Monument Valley visitor centre (all run by the Navajo Nation) and once again we ate a picnic in what felt to us like strong sunshine (though the locals said it was “just quite a nice day”). We considered our options for visiting the Valley itself (driving it, taking a jeep tour…) but in the end we decided to take this opportunity to try an older form of transport. Want to know what we did in the beautiful, beautiful place that is Monument Valley (even with the large numbers of tourists that flock to it it’s still very impressive)? Evidence in the slideshow below (towards the end):
After Monument Valley we were hot and tired and set off down the road south-west. We did stop at Kayenta – just to see how a Burger King can make itself socially useful (the one in Kayenta has a display about Navajo Codetalkers from the Second World War). It plays unusual Burger King background music too... but then we were still deep in the Navajo Nation area and why should everywhere be the same even in this corporate world? We had an ice-cream, read the boards and then drove on to our stop for the night in Tuba City.
We’d booked a night in the Moenkopi hotel in Tuba City, Arizona (good reviews online – how much have we been seeking tips and advice from fellow travellers!) and though it was a little more expensive than some of our bargain nights it really was enjoyable. The hotel is run by the local Hopi Nation (a Nation within the Navajo Nation, geographically speaking) and features all kinds of lovely little touches in its design (down to the local products available in the bathrooms). It is basically a good, modern hotel (great pool, helpful staff, slightly surreal breakfast in the connected and brand new Denny’s next door) but there is a little more to it as well – a real sense of pride that it is locally run. It was a good stop.
One surprise at this point though… we were expecting to change time zones as we left Arizona (and Mountain Time) but when we got to the Tuba City hotel they had two clocks up at reception (one with the label ‘Arizona time’ …eh?). Apparently part of Arizona doesn’t put its clocks forward at the summertime change (though the Navajo Nation does…) and so part of the state ends up being more like Pacific than Mountain time. Confused? We were (and h is fairly obsessed with the whole time-change thing). It did mean we were up early enough to beat the breakfast queue though… we were still on Mountain time! At least I think we were…
After said breakfast it was time to get on with seeing one of the USA’s tourist jewels… so we drove further south and west, left the Navajo Nation and entered the Grand Canyon National Park (see excellent photo of ranger who took our $25 on entry). We drove in from the east so saw the Little Colorado views first and then, once in the Park, went along Desert View Drive, stopping at many of the viewpoints along the way. Our first view of the Grand one was from Desert View with its really striking Watchtower (one of my favourite parts of the Canyon Park – well designed, with great Native American artwork, very attractive). The snack bar nearby was not quite so attractive but we had a good natter with some Wiltshire travellers there (that’s Wiltshire, England) and then got back in the car to seek more views. We stopped at the Tusayan Ruin and Museum (quite a lot of information on the people who lived by the Canyon a couple of thousand years ago) and then we stopped at Grandview Point with all its information on past copper mining in the Canyon and the first hotels there built for early 20th Century tourists. We also stopped at the main visitor centre (very chilled – not nearly as much flogging of helicopter tours and so on as we’d expected… in fact none at all really… quite a relief) and there we looked out at the Mather Point (complete with its marker to all the Native American peoples who “call the Grand Canyon home”… this latter largely ignored by visitors as they rush to the viewpoints of course... hard to compete with the big view).
By this time it was something like check-in time so we moved on to the area of the “Grand Canyon Village” where the lodges/hotels are all located. We’d booked fairly last minute but had still managed to get a reasonably priced room in the cheapest lodge (no views and furthest from the Canyon… but still only a five minute walk from the rim so absolutely fine for us). In fact the Maswik Lodge was quiet and spacious and had a really easy-going and not over-priced cafeteria so it suited us really well. It was fascinating talking to all the staff too (people from all over the States and all over the world). Most of the staff seemed to live in employee accommodation close to the lodges and I’m sure that especially for the younger ones this is no end of fun (very reminiscent of Euro-Disney in that regard).
After a quick cafeteria dinner we walked down to the rim to find the obligatory sunset-viewing-spot. The free shuttle buses were busy ferrying people to the favourite places for maximum viewing but it was a pretty cloudy evening and we were really not in the mood for crowded buses and jostling crowds (there were people from every corner of the world). Instead we found a nice friendly spot at the Lookout Studio and sat and watched the rocks and the sky… and the people watching the rocks and the sky. We didn’t see the kind of sunsets they make postcards of but it was pretty atmospheric and enjoyable all the same. We were the last ones to leave the Lookout Spot… and it was nice to be alone with the view for a little while.
The next day (Sunday 15th) dawned sunny and windy and we checked out and then set off to walk along the rim a little (heading west). Again we decided against the crowded buses and just wandered as far as seemed suitable in the heat. From up on the rim path you get a good view of all the people heading off down into the Canyon on paths like the popular Bright Angel Trail but none of the routes down are suitable for children from what we could see and even if they had been they are all big hikes and not to be taken lightly. Even the mule trips down take ages and we’d had our animal encounter in Monument Valley the day before (without constant slopes!) and didn’t feel the need for any more. Really we were more than happy to look down at the Canyon… and across it. It’s strange how it looks… almost unreal… completely like a painting (and at times a bit of a cheesey one, if you know what I mean). We did really enjoy the visit but I don’t think I’d call it one of the highlights of the trip or anything. It’s almost too much in some ways… beyond appreciation, perhaps. Or maybe we’re just weird.
One thing we didn’t know about Grand Canyon was that uranium had been mined at there (as well as copper) and not that long ago. Our walk passed close to the site of this activity and there was an information board about how they are trying to tidy up and get rid of any potential hazards on this section of the rim. Interesting, very interesting… and not much about it in the guidebooks.
One thing we very much enjoyed was watching the Navajo dancers we saw up by the South Rim Hopi House on Sunday lunchtime after our walk (there are lots of organised, and free, activities all around the park all the time). Despite the hefty gales the family of dancers did a great job (in some fine outfits) and it was a really special experience to watch them. H wanted to go and join in it looked such fun (and, apart from the impossible hoop dance, fairly doable even for newcomers). We had hoped to catch a Park Ranger-led activity too (there are lots of nature/geology/history talks and walks) but that didn’t quite work out (plus it was really hot in the sun…) so instead we packed up and set off south. I suppose some people would find it hard to tear themselves away from those great rim views of the Canyon but somehow we didn’t feel that way. It was a good stop but it didn’t outshine the rest of the country for us or anything. Far from it.
On the way down the road we passed the place where they show the National Geographic IMAX movie of the Canyon and as we hadn’t taken the helicopter-over-the-beast option we decided to give this (much cheaper) flyover a try. It was OK but not particularly amazing (plus it was full of hot and slightly grumpy senior coach tours) and it mainly concentrated on people who have explored the Canyon (lots of shots of wild Colorado river activity – not nearly enough flying over the Canyon for my taste). We did however see an elk really close up when we pulled into the IMAX car park (very exciting). After that our GC trip really was over though and photos of this section of the tour are below (Mark took loads of the Canyon of course… as everyone does… we’ve tried to pick our favourites):
After Grand Canyon we drove south and then west and then crossed from Interstate 40 to the old Route 66 just east of our stop for the night – Seligman, Arizona. This little stretch of the 66 was everything it should be – we moved at a good speed, there was a huge freight train running along beside us and there was good blues music playing on the radio (finally – something other than Phil Collins and Bon Jovi!). Seligman was a treat too – small and full of old car art and smart bikers and friendly waitresses. We had a great dinner (at Westside Lilo’s) and even managed to sleep well (despite our old-school motel being practically alongside the railtracks). We liked Lilo’s so much we went back for breakfast (one of our best breakfasts on the road). Funny how it’s often the unassuming little stops that are the most fun.
On Monday 16th it was time to leave Arizona (not far from that west coast now!). We drove back on the Interstate as far as Kingman and then up the quiet, moody 93 towards Nevada (some of the time we could even see the Silver State on the other side of the Colorado river). We left Arizona at something like lunchtime… and we were a little sad about it as we’d had a really great series of adventures there (and that with not even seeing the southern sections). Arizona is much more than just the Grand Canyon state, it really is - more a grand state all round.
Photos of Seligman and the rest of our Arizona ride are here:
That was a long post! Next time Nevada (though of course we've left there already and are heading for LA today...).