Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Free Things to Do in the Four Corners: NE Arizona and NW New Mexico

For more free things to do, check out the blog posts for Colorado and Utah.

Hoodoos, petrified logs, bizarre geologic formations.
Spend a day exploring Bisti Wilderness, New Mexico.
Three of the Four Corners belong mostly to the Navajo Nation: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Both Arizona and New Mexico have sites that are known for the presence of Ancestral Puebloan ruins: Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay") in Arizona and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Canyon de Chelly is located on Navajo land and Navajo people still live and farm in the Canyon. A tour of the Canyon floor, led by Navajo guides, will cost money, but the road which loops around the Canyon offers spectacular views of cliff-dweller ruins and beautiful rock formations. There are overlooks from both the north and the south rims. The history of the Navajos in Canyon de Chelly is both fascinating and sad. When Kit Carson was charged with "rounding up" all Navajos and leading them on the Long Walk to what was almost a concentration camp in Texas, some Navajos were able to avoid being captured and continue living in this area using their knowledge of the land. I recommend reading up on the history of this area in conjunction with your visit. Knowledge of past events will enrich your experience visiting the Canyon.

Going further west, you can't miss the Glen Canyon Dam and beautiful Lake Powell. The visitor's center in Page offers an amazing view of this massive dam and the lake it formed. Lake Powell, in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, is such an unusual body of water, with innumerable small fingers and tiny crevices to explore. You can pay for tours or houseboats, or you can bring your own kayak and explore independently.

Closer to the Arizona corner, lies Shiprock, the Navajo town and the rock formation. Although the formation was named because of it's similarity to a large sailing ship, the Native Americans see it differently--as the spread wing of an eagle with the rest of the bird underground. You can drive up to Shiprock, but the most intriguing view (featured on a National Geographic Magazine cover) is from a road which heads over the Lukachukai Mountain pass (towards the north rim of Canyon de Chelly). Shiprock is actually a volcanic vent and there is a ridge of shorter volcanic vents terminating at the larger formation. Including the ridge of vents in your photo of Shiprock gives a wonderful perspective shot.

In New Mexico, Chaco Canyon National Monument has a small fee to enter, so, although it is definitely worth exploring, it can't be included here. However, west of Chaco, just south of Bloomfield is a bizarre lunar landscape--Bisti Wilderness. From the parking area, some walking is required to get to the incredible hoodoos, petrified logs, and mounds of the strangest rock formations. You can climb all over these to find geologic treasures and really stretch your imagination with your camera. No facilities at this desert wonderland, so bring food and water for hours of exploration.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Free Things to Do in the Four Corners: Southeast Utah

For more free things to do in the Four Corners, see the prior post about southwest Colorado and the upcoming post about Arizona and New Mexico.

Monument Valley is hard to beat for beautiful landscapes and rock formations. However, just a short drive from there is totally free Valley of the Gods, an 18 mile drive (high clearance vehicle!) that weaves through incredible massive rocks. You can freely hike and climb on these rocks, in contrast to Monument Valley. For those less adventurous, just bring your camera because the sights from your car are worth the drive.

While in southeast Utah, stop at Sand Island Recreation Area, just west of Bluff and take a look at a long wall of petroglyphs--ancient rock art. As you approach the panel, you will begin to discern the faded remnants of the oldest carvings beneath the more recent ones, including the notorious Kokopelli. This is a long panel and much more complex than the more famous Newspaper Rock in Canyonlands National Park. Sand Island is a boat launch area for the San Juan River if you bring your own kayak or canoe.

Near one end of the Valley of the Gods drive is the bottom entrance to Moki Dugway. In the days of extensive uranium mining, the Dugway was constructed as a faster way to get ore trucks down the cliff to processing plants. Attempt this drive only if you have a short vehicle (no RVs or trailers!) and are not afraid of heights. It is a narrow road of switchbacks with no edge protection! The view of the desert floor from the top is phenomenal and you can see the wreckage of some trucks that did not make it down below.

The panoramic landscape at sunset from Muley Point overlook affords great 
photographic opportunities. A desert view from Muley Point, southeast Utah
Muley Point is accessed at the top of the Dugway for another wide expansive view of the desert below, including the formations of Monument Valley. If you have an RV or tent, you can camp at Muley Point.

For those of us who cannot drive the Dugway, the Goosenecks of the San Juan is a State Park nearby with beautiful cutaway views of the layers in the desert rock carved by the twisting San Juan River. It is a great photo op (with outhouses) and you may camp there too.

Although not completely without risk of spending money, Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff has the most spectacular collection of Navajo baskets. They also have other types of fine Native American art, including Navajo rugs, jewelry, etc. It is a convenient and good place to eat too, but you have to pay for that. The baskets are a wonder to behold, for free, as long as you don't have to own one.

Goulding's Trading Post Museum is located at Goulding's Lodge, but open to the public. It is not really free because they do ask for a donation. However the donation goes to support education of local Navajo, so I am including it here anyway. The museum celebrates the role of trading posts in the past because Goulding's was one of them and as such was instrumental in bringing goods to the Native Americans and providing an exchange of cultures in the midst of a Navajo reservation. Gouldings also served as the place for John Ford to produce many of the Old West movies, starring John Wayne amid the landscapes of Monument Valley, located across the road from Gouldings. Memorabilia from the movie-making days are also found in the Museum. If you like John Wayne movies, this is a must see!

Southern Utah has some of the most incredible landscapes in the world. Even outside of a National Park or Monument (and there are plenty of them), the views are surprising and strikingly beautiful. As you cross Comb Ridge in your vehicle, the land changes dramatically. Just try to keep your eyes on the road! There are many canyons, gulches and arroyos harboring Ancestral Puebloan ruins which are not on most any map. You can explore the backroads, Butler Wash, Cedar Mesa and many, many more and find your own hidden treasure--rock art, artifacts, remnants of ancient structures, in addition to the natural beauty. Please be aware that, unless you own the land, all artifacts, including pottery sherds and arrowheads, may NOT be removed from the premises, including federal land. This is considered stealing and people are prosecuted for doing this, so don't even think about it.

There is much to enjoy in the Four Corners, from your vehicle, or on foot. And as long as you come prepared with food and water, there are so many places to wander with no fees, I feel I haven't even scratched the surface in these posts.