Our destination for our first day on the road was Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in Flagstaff, Arizona. We made camp among the pine trees in the middle of a volcanic cinder field.
The eruptions would have blanketed the area with black cinders and even lava. Imagine the havoc this would have played on the lives of the Ancient Puebloan people who lived in the surrounding area now called the Wupatki National Monument.
In the morning, we explored the ruins left behind when the Ancient Puebloans abandoned this area. One ruin, Wukoki Pueblo, is a small ruin built on a rock outcropping in the middle of a wash.
The main ruins of Wupatki Pueblo contain about 100 rooms. These ruins also contain a ball court made of masonry. Other ball courts of the Hohokam people were made of rocks. The location of this court makes it the most northerly-found ball court in the United States.
These dwellings were built around the same time (the 1100’s) as the pueblos at Old Oraibi and Walpi on the Hopi mesas in Arizona and Acoma (Sky City) in New Mexico. These three pueblos continue to exist as communities, where the dwellings at Wupatki are now just abandoned ruins.
After leaving Wupatki, and on our way to the Grand Canyon, we stopped off at a viewpoint on the Navajo Indian Reservation to gaze at a canyon formed by the Little Colorado. If the Grand Canyon weren’t just down the road, people would be flocking to see the beauty of the Little Colorado. It was very impressive.
But the Grand Canyon is the GRAND CANYON! It is unsurpassed in grandeur and size. This is part of the reason why it was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. Over millions of years the Colorado River has carved an immense chasm in the Colorado Plateau and the exposed layers of strata tell the story of how the land was formed.
These canyons have been home to many different people over the years including the Ancient Puebloans and the Tusayan. The Hualapai and the Supai are the current inhabitants.
The day that we visited, the Forest Service was allowing a naturally occurring fire to burn on the north rim of the canyon. They were allowing it to burn because it has been shown that past fire suppression tactics have not allowed the forests to survive naturally. Because fire does occur naturally in the wild, sometimes it is beneficial to the forest to let it burn. However, this obscured the normal ninety-mile views. While we could still see across the canyon, the view was hazy. But it did make for a very beautiful sunset! We set our chairs on the rim of the canyon and watched the sky and the cliffs turn orange all around us. What a beautiful way to end the day.
A new day and a new adventure. We continued northeast and once again on to the Navajo Indian Reservation to Navajo National Monument. The main draw of this National Monument is the Ranger-led hikes to two major ruins, Betatakin and Keet Seel. Unfortunately for us, the hikes had been halted for the season five days earlier. We had to be content with a one-mile hike to an overlook of Betatakin and viewing it through our Bushnell PermaView binoculars.
Our picnic lunch (with Betatakin as the backdrop) behind us, we continued on our way to the location of the first of the many adventures we plan to have on this expedition. After taking a series of back roads across the Reservation, we arrived at Starting Water Wash. This is to be our first opportunity to hike a slot canyon.
Starting Water Wash is a tributary of Upper Kaibito Creek. It flows unremarkably for many miles across the Kaibito Plateau before forming a very spectacular slot canyon near the junction with the main creek.
Part of the excitement of exploring slot canyons is the danger of flash floods. Several years ago a group of hikers were drowned when they were caught unaware by a flash flood. It is possible for a flood to happen if it should rain just a few miles away. In the desert, the sky can be clear above you, yet raining nearby.
We hiked the narrows for an hour or so, until the sky began to fill with clouds. As we exited the wash, it began to lightly rain. Luckily there was no storm and we were able to hike further into the wash the next morning. It was awe-inspiring to see tree trunks wedged between the walls, as high as twenty feet above the ground. Many times we had to turn sideways to continue on as the walls narrowed to as little as two feet apart.
Our next destination is the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. President Bill Clinton formally created this Monument in 1996. It encompasses nearly 1.9 million acres. Think of it as a big triangle with the tips being Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.
Our path took us across the Glen Canyon Dam, well, actually across the bridge directly in front of the dam. The Dam is 710 feet high and when the lake was filled, the water flooded the canyons along this part of the Colorado River for 186 miles upstream!
The bridge we crossed is about 15 miles north of the historic Colorado River crossing of Lee’s Ferry. Lee’s Ferry was the only river crossing in the region from 1872 until the construction of the Navajo Bridge in 1929.
We made camp about 5 miles into the Grand Staircase on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Paria River (pronounced pa-ree-ah). It was nearly sundown so we only got a glimpse of the terrific views waiting for daylight. What a sunrise! As we waited for our coffee to boil we were treated to a view that stretched from the Paria River at our feet to the Vermillion Cliffs, 50 miles away. When we looked down at our feet, we discovered that we were camped atop a fossilized reef of oyster shells. We climbed around the rocks and fossils exploring the clumps of shell fossils.
We then continued our way through the Monument on unpaved roads, being ever wary for flash floods. Fortunately our way was never blocked by water, although we had to negotiate through many washes and over the runoff. One of the roads in the Monument is the Hole in the Rock Road. This 60-mile- long, dead-end road is the same route that pioneering Mormons took in 1879-80. When the pioneers reached the cliffs of Glen Canyon with their wagons, they were not to be deterred from reaching their destination. They blasted and hammered their way down the cliff, creating a route wide enough to lower their wagons to the floor of the canyon.
We also hiked up the Lower Calf Creek to view a set of life size human-like pictographs created by the Fremont Indians a thousand years ago. There were ruins for us to explore at Anasazi State Park and more petroglyphs to find at Capitol Reef National Park. Anasazi is the older term that many people used before they used the term Ancient Puebloans. Anasazi is a Navajo term meaning ancient ones, or more correctly ancient enemies. The current Hopi and the Rio Grande Pueblo residents prefer the term Ancient Puebloans.