I think I know how Moses felt. You know the part of the story where he’s wandering in the desert for forty years? That’s exactly how I felt last week. And yeah, yeah, I know… it’s only been two months since we were in San Diego, but if you consider we spent the 2.5 months prior to San Diego in the desert environments of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California, I think you’ll agree with me that I’m basically Moses.
Don’t get me wrong, we loved our time in the desert, but when the mercury starts pushing into the high 90’s, it can get pretty tough – especially when you’re living in a poorly insulated motorhome that has fourteen windows – one of which is about 8 feet wide. During the summer, when the desert sun is blazing all day, it’s basically a greenhouse, and when you can’t park under a shady tree, it’s nearly impossible to keep it cool – even with two big air conditioners. When traveling through extreme environments, we typically try to move on before the weather turns, but this time we stayed just a tad too long and it really started to get uncomfortable. Plus, I think Moses would agree that all the dust and grit and sand that comes with living in a desert environment can get a bit tiresome.
Anyway, fast forward to now and we are in glorious Colorado where we’ve been able to take advantage of some incredible hikes, drive through spectacular mountain scenery, and where we haven’t had to deal with any dust or grit in our house. We’ve so enjoyed having access to this totally different environment that I kinda want to jump right to it. Indeed, other things being equal, I might write two or three detailed posts about the end of our time roaming through the desert, but as Moses himself used to say “Let’s move this shit along already.”
So, get ready for a whirlwind desert wrap-up and next week will be all mountain towns, snow capped peaks, crystal clear alpine lakes, and trees, trees, trees!!!!
After leaving Page, we made a quick two night stop in Monument Valley. This iconic spot was high on our travel bucket list, so we were excited to check it out. The monuments are all located on Navajo land, so there’s an entrance fee into the park for private cars. However, if you are in your own car, there are certain sections of the park you are not permitted to drive to. Therefore, visitors looking for a more in depth experience can take a guided tour with a licensed tour guide.
Our tour was about three and a half hours long and took us by all the major viewing areas as well as to the harder to reach spots. One of the most popular overlooks is John Ford Point. Ford was a movie director in the 1940’s and 50’s who used Monument Valley as the backdrop for numerous films. This particular promontory was one of his favorites and was named in his honor (his films brought a lot of money and interest to the area). Today, for a couple bucks, tourists can get their picture taken on what I hope is a very difficult-to-spook horse.
As we drove around, our guide pointed out many famous filming locations. Everything from National Lampoon’s Vacation to Forrest Gump to an ALPO dog food commercial was filmed in this area, and he was happy to show us all the famous spots. We also learned a bit about the culture, storytelling, music, and art of the Navajo people who have called the valley home for centuries.
Additionally, the tour took us inside a “hogan” – which is a traditional Navajo home made of wood beams and covered in mud. Inside, we met a Navajo woman who showed us how they spin yarn from sheep’s wool and how they make the colorful traditional rugs and blankets for which they are known. She also showed us how to spot a knock-off. Love me some good fraud detection!
The monuments were imposing from any angle, but they became even more striking as the sun began to set. As we made our way back toward the front entrance, we snapped some final photos and wondered how cool this place would look with a dusting of snow (which they do get during the winter…)
Valley of the Gods
Valley of the Gods is 30 miles north of Monument Valley near the town of Mexican Hat and features similar rock formations to its larger, more famous cousin. There’s a 17 mile road that runs through the center which offers a fun drive and impressive views.
With no entrance fee, no required tour guides, and very few people (it is BLM land), it’s a nice place to take a low key afternoon drive.
We saw some smaller campers apparently set up to boondock, but no marked trailheads, so I don’t think there are a lot of hiking options.
When you get to the western end of the Valley of the Gods drive, you can easily jump on the Moki Dugway, which is a really fun switchback road.
The road, which is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the state, is not recommended for large vehicles and, given the very steep drop offs and lack of guardrails, if you’re not a fan of heights, I wouldn’t recommend it. Otherwise, it’s fun to hug the mountain as you drive up to the summit.
At the top of the climb, you can see all the way across the valley below and, on a clear day, you can see Monument Valley.
Keep driving and you can take a gravel road to Muley Point, a spot that overlooks Goosenecks State Park. Here, the San Juan River meanders through in tight curves to create the canyons. While not quite as colorful as some of the other canyons in Arizona and Utah, it is no less dramatic.
Natural Bridges National Monument
We’d seen pictures of Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah, but it had not been particularly high on our must-see list. I think it’s just another place that’s hard to capture in a photograph because when we actually got there, we loved it.
The park, located about 60 miles from Bluff, Utah, is very small – featuring a 9 mile paved loop road with a couple overlooks and hikes to the three sandstone bridges found in the park. The bridges have been formed by water erosion, both from the continuous flow of the passing river and the massive flash floods that are common to the area.
Sipapu Bridge (also pictured above) is 220 feet high and 268 feet wide.
You can hike to the base of it on an adventurous trail which includes steep inclines requiring the use of bars and ladders to descend into the canyon.
Owachomo Bridge, the oldest and most fragile in the park, stands 106 feet tall and 180 feet wide. The folks at the park have no idea how long it will survive. While it is no longer subject to erosion from passing streams, it continues to degrade each year as a result of frost erosion. Depending on the rate of erosion, the bridge could survive many decades, or it might collapse within a couple years.
Cortez and Four Corners
After spending nearly a week in Bluff, Utah (population: hardly anyone), we moved on to Cortez, Colorado. This little town is right near Four Corners and, quite unexpectedly, we really liked it. Because the town is a popular stopping point for road trips through the Four Corners area, the main street had a lot of your typical touristy commercial stuff – chain hotels, Walmarts, and fast food places, but if you look, you can find some real gems. We had dinner twice at Mirch Masala, a tiny family owned Indian restaurant that was just terrific.
We checked out the local brewery and European butcher and loved both. The folks at the stores and restaurants could not have been friendlier or more helpful. There were lots of little independent shops and cool murals drawn on the sides of the buildings. It was just a nice convenient spot to land for a week.
Since we were reasonably close, we drove out to Four Corners to stand on the purported intersection of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah…
We definitely weren’t the only one who felt the need for this photo…
Everyone was very good-natured and dutifully took the photo of the people standing in front of them.
The other huge draw near Cortez is Mesa Verde National Park. This park protects one of the largest archaeological areas in the country.
A couple miles north of the park is the town of Dolores which houses the Anasazi Heritage Center. We actually visited this museum before heading to Mesa Verde and felt it was beneficial for understanding much of what we saw in the park. The museum not only has a large, well organized exhibit about the people who called this region home for hundreds of years, but also offers interesting exhibits about the process of finding, recovering, dating, and preserving these priceless relics and archaeological sites. The museum is well worth your time if you’re visiting Mesa Verde.
A highlight of visiting the park itself is taking a tour of one of the incredible cliff dwellings. For 600 years prior to the 1190’s, the Ancestral Puebloans lived in partially underground homes called pit houses, and farmed the tops of the mesas. In the late 1190’s, they progressed to building these sturdy dwellings in the alcoves beneath the cliffs of the mountains. The structures ranged from single rooms to ornate villages built to house 100 or more people. The cliff dwellings offered better protection from the extreme conditions common to the area and served as villages for entire communities. The fact that the structures are still standing, 700 years after they were abandoned in the late 1200’s, is testament to just how well they were constructed.
The tours of the various cliff dwellings are just $5.00 per person and are well worth the time. There are three cliff dwelling tours, Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. We toured Long House because the max number of visitors was lower than the other tours. (Seriously. That was our only criteria. “Less people than the other tours? Perfect! Sign us up!”)
This is Long House from the front. The structure walls originally went all the way to the top of the cliff, so everyone living inside was completely protected from the elements.
Inside the alcove we saw the fireplace used for warmth and cooking, areas where crops were dried, processed, and preserved, places where water from a seeping spring was collected, and spaces for individual living and community ceremonies.
Our Ranger-led tour taught us not only about the history of the structures, but about the culture of the people who lived here and various theories about why they eventually left.
After our tour, we drove around to the overlooks for some of the other cliff dwellings. Here’s one that has been preserved but which cannot be visited by tourists…. The reason why might become obvious when you ask yourself how tourists would get into the structure:
(The natives used to climb from the top of the mesa – where they farmed crops all day – down into the cliff dwellings….)
This dwelling boasted a five story apartment building still standing 700 years later….
The one thing we didn’t get to do while visiting Mesa Verde was hike. It was so hot (and, more importantly, we are so unwilling to get out of bed early) that we did not take advantage of the many trails in the park. The unrelenting heat had a big impact on our visit and, more critically, the larger region.
Fire in Four Corners – Then and Now
So far, other than one very unexpected tornado in the middle of New Orleans, we’ve managed to avoid extreme weather. But, after almost two years on the road, we’ve suddenly found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a dangerous weather situation. While visiting Cortez, multiple wildfires started burning in the surrounding areas. This region has been bone dry for months and fires are not uncommon, but they are much earlier this year. The biggest one currently burning is the 416 fire which started near Durango – about 60 miles from Cortez. That fire has claimed over 35,000 acres so far. Closer to Cortez is the Burro Fire – currently listed at about 3700 acres. This was the view of the smoke from that fire during our visit to the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Wildfires have been a common occurrence in this part of the west for years. Indeed, driving through Mesa Verde we saw numerous areas that have suffered massive fires. The fires’ starting points are marked with plaques going all the way back to the 1920s.
The Long House ruins are located in an area that was absolutely devastated by a wildfire in 2000. As our Ranger explained, this is not the type of forest that needs fire to stay healthy, so, 18 years later, this section of the park is still terribly depressing. Fortunately, the firefighters were able to keep the fire away from the Long house ruins and the fire actually helped to uncover many more ruins which are now being studied.
Either way, it was hard not to feel a little sad seeing these decimated forests and learning it will be many decades more before they come back.
Time for Change
And with that half-assed summary of the end of our time in the desert, I am now officially ready to move on to the magical mountains of Colorado.
I know you don’t care, but ask yourself: What would Moses think if he saw this out his car/horse window after wandering in the desert for forty years (or 4.5 months, whichever the case may be….)??
Where we stayed:
Goulding’s RV Campground, Monument Valley
Cadillac Ranch RV Park, Bluff, Utah
Sundance RV Park, Cortez, Colorado