Today’s direction was west. We drove about two hours on I-40 to the Petrified Forest National Park. The most striking thing about the drive was how flat and empty the landscape was. Most of the trip is along a perfectly flat plateau with only two towns of any size visible from the road – Winslow and Holbrook. Outside of those towns, some of the land is Navaho reservation land, and some was commercial cattle grazing land.

As we got closer to the park, the tourist trade picked up. Although we didn’t see any signs to top yesterdays ‘friendly Indians’ billboards, we still had more than once chance to purchase jewelry, knick-knacks, and t-shirts. We wound up stopping at Jim Grey’s Petrified Wood Company, where I bought some small cacti and some jewelry made of polished petrified wood. We aren’t exactly sure how I’m going to get my new cacti collection home, but I’m sure a plan will come to us before Sunday.

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Other than that bit of shopping, we went directly to the park’s south entrance. It was colder than anticipated (which seems to be the standard for this trip) so we opted to picnic in the car. Although the weather was a little cold for sitting and eating, it was perfect for hiking. We started out by walking the ‘Long Logs’ trail loop past Old Faithful – the largest petrified wood sample in the park. Interestingly, Old Faithful had been cemented back together after a lightening strike in the 1950’s.

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Our next short hike was through ‘Crystal Forest’ a few miles further up the park road. The crystals – mostly amethyst – are long gone from the petrified wood in the park, but it was still a neat walk. The snow melt had left the desert trails uncharacteristically wet and muddy, which made it slightly easier to picture the hot and humid Jurassic world these trees must have grown in.

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We also saw Agate Bridge, which is a very large petrified log which spans a small gully. The work of the concrete loving 1950’s conversationalists is apparent here as well as at Old Faithful – the span is held in place with large concrete slabs. The materials provided by the Park Service are almost apologetic about all the concrete – they continually reiterate the current philosophy of allowing ‘natural forces that create unusual features to continue’.

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There were more ruins to be seen at our next stop in the park, Puerco Pueblo. The ruins were interesting, although smaller than yesterday’s. The really fascinating part of this stop, however, were the petroglyphs. The drawings were amazingly preserved. My favorite was of a very large bird that appears (to my remarkably inexperienced eye) to be eating a very small person. I’m not sure was the message was, but it has lasted 800 years in that stone.

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As we drove north up the park loop, the piles of petrified wood gave way to huge sandstone outcroppings, with distinctively colored layers. The road climbed up to Kachina Point, where we parked and walked along the Rim Trail for a little ways. The view from the rim is impressive – we even picked out the mountain peaks we’d left behind in Flagstaff this morning. The desert is bare of vegetation, but the sandstone (I think it’s sandstone) is layered with reds, browns, and bluish grays.

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Our drive back to Flagstaff was uneventful, but capped by an amazingly good dinner at the Cottage Place restaurant. We’ve mostly been packing lunches and eating in, but this was a notable exception. Tomorrow, it’s back to Phoenix, and from there, home.

The rest of today’s photos can be seen here.

Less Grand Than Anticipated

This morning, we headed north up route 89 bright and early.  Our original plan was to head straight for the Grand Canyon, but we decided to take a small detour and see Sunset Crater and the Wupatki ruins.  Both parks are just off route 89, along a 35 mile loop of park roads.  We debated, worried about losing time at the Grand Canyon, but in the end, we pulled off the road and headed for Sunset Crater.

Sunset Crater is a dormant cinder cone volcano that last erupted sometime in the 1200s.  We were ready for disappointment, since the park ranger took great joy in telling us that we would be allowed to see the crater (it’s been closed to hikers since the 1970s) and it was bitterly cold and windy.  However, our first steps out of the car and onto the trail brought us alongside a lava field with giant extrusions, like so much black toothpaste had just hardened at the trailside one day.  We followed the short loop – about a mile hike – and saw some amazing lava fields and entire mountain faces black with volcanic ash.  As we got back in the car and drove north along the loop, we were treated to amazing views of several lava fields and a far off view of the Painted Desert.

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About 20 miles further up the loop (past some of the most amazing scenery so far), we pulled off at the Wupakti ruins.  The ruins at Wupakti are very different from our trip to Montezuma’s Castle – these are free standing dwellings rather than cliff dwellings.  The biggest ruin at Wupakti was partially reconstructed in the 1930’s, so it’s possible to get a real picture of how the village might have looked a thousand years ago.  The ranger pointed out that reconstruction wasn’t entirely a good thing – the site has been drastically altered, gravesites have been disturbed, and people viewing the reconstructed site can be fooled into thinking we know much more about the past than we do.  Despite all this, there was something eerie about sitting on the stone wall behind the ruins, imaging the women who once sat there and ground corn.  The reconstructed ruins made the whole thing very real for me.

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Due to our morning’s detour, we reached the eastern entrance of the canyon around noon.  We had our best views of the canyon here, since the crowds were so much thinner.  As we drove along the canyon, the traffic became thicker.  By the time we reached Grand Canyon Village, the parking lots were full and it felt more like a carnival than a natural wonder.  We did get some great views near the eastern entrance, and we had a nice walk along rim trail just past Grand Canyon Village, but in the end, I think I’ve been far more impressed by the red rocks of Sedona, the cacti of the Sonoran desert, or the lava fields of Sunset Crater than by the Grand Canyon.

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We finished up our evening at the Lowell Observatory back in Flagstaff.  We had a great view of Saturn through the 24” telescope and saw some amazing stars while we waited our turn.  The skies out here are so much darker than at home.  I’ve never seen Orion’s belt or the Seven Sisters with the naked eye before.  Stargazing in the telescope line was far more exciting than my quick view of Saturn through the scope!

All of today’s pictures can be seen here.

Northward!

639When we left Phoenix this morning, our first stop was Montezuma’s Castle. The name is misleading, since it isn’t a castle, and has nothing to do with Montezuma, but it was a neat stop, nonetheless. I had never seen a cliff dwelling before, so I was especially impressed. The interior of this dwelling is closed to the public (looking at the cliff face, I’m not exactly sure how it was once open to the public), but they had an excellent volunteer docent at the base of the cliff who showed us artifacts and models of the interior. He has been inside a number of times and had some fantastic stories about exploring the rooms inside. He also had some colorful stories about his attempts to rid his garden of javelina. There was a short hike from the castle down to Beaver Creek, which was the first natural running water I’ve seen in Arizona.659

We left I-17 shortly after that to head for Sedona. My disappointment in leaving my saguaro behind lessened as we got higher up and began to see the red rock formations around Sedona. Some of the mountains look as if someone took a knife and cut the tops off cleanly – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Sedona is surrounded by these red stone cliffs and pine forested mountains on all four sides. I even took pictures while we were filling up the gas tank and wondered how anyone ever gets anything done, living in such an amazing landscape.

665Sedona was fun to walk around – lots of art galleries and touristy shopping. The bookstore we wanted to check out was closed, but the Heartline Cafe was open for lunch, and a little chocolate shop down the street provided chocolate covered pretzels. 685

From Sedona, we headed up Oak Creek Canyon to Flagstaff. Rather than going back to highway 17, you can follow route 89A along the base of the canyon, and then up a series of switchbacks to the rim. Even in this dry season, Oak Creek was running, and we stopped to walk short distances along it several times. The further into the canyon we got, the deeper the snow became. At the overlook at the rim of the canyon, the drifts were two or three feet, even though the temperature was in the upper 40’s. 629633705

We reached Flagstaff in time for a quiet dinner in our room. Tomorrow, we tackle the Grand Canyon!

You can see all of today’s photo’s here.

Tucson, Arizona

We started our first morning of vacation on our own in Tucson bright and early, thanks to my talent for waking up exactly when my east-coast alarm clock would be going off. This is not entirely a bad thing, since we’ve been able to see some amazing early morning light, and this morning was no exception.

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Our drive took us through Gates Pass and up to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, just west of Tucson. It was still fairly early, and the light was behind us, making the mountains breath-taking. The photos we took were on the way back, so the light isn’t as impressive, but it was still worth looking at.

One of the most impressive things about the drive to the museum and the museum grounds are the saguaro cacti. I’ve seen pictures, of course, but I hadn’t really understood how impressive a 10 foot cactus that is hundreds of years old could be. I also hadn’t really pictured the density. Out in this part of the Tucson mountains, the saguaro grow fairly thickly all the way up the summits. They don’t begin to grow arms until after they are seventy years old, so some of these must have been impressively old.

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The museum itself was all it had been promised to be. Everyone who heard we were going to Tucson suggested the desert museum and everyone was right. We started out by buying hats (a necessity for the sun on such an amazing day) and watching a falcon show. We saw some amazing displays of gardening with native plants and some really well planned animal habitats. The almost free-range javelina were really interesting, although the tips on keeping them out of your garden may not come in handy any time too soon. The hummingbird aviary was also impressive – the hummingbirds here are so different from the insect-looking ones on the east cost.

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After spending most of the day at the museum, we made a quick trip out to the Colossal Cave, on the southeast side of Tucson. The drive was pretty, but the cave was a little disappointing. It is a dry limestone cave, which means it’s no longer ‘growing’ (a man on our tour group was never quite convinced that the naturalist wasn’t referring to some kind of mold when she talked about growing caves and was quite pleased that this one had stopped). I’ve never been in a wet cave, but Nathan tells me the colors are far more spectacular. Nevertheless, is was impressive to be six stories below the surface in entirely natural caverns. We also stopped quickly at the park’s tortoise enclosure, but sadly, like those at the desert museum, the tortoises were still hibernating.

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We had dinner back in Tucson, at the La Parilla Suiza. Dinner was delicious, but most notable for me were the oranges growing in the parking lot. That’s how I know I’m far from home. Tonight, we head on the Phoenix, and by tomorrow night we’ll be in Flagstaff. I’m excited to see the Grand Canyon but sorry to be leaving the saguaro behind.

You can see all of our pictures from today here.