The ruins of Wupatki are sitting between the mountains filled with ponderosa pines and the Painted Desert. Its ancient buildings dot the arid landscape of rocky terrain and light green, low vegetation.
The deserts in the Southwest US have been home to many ancient people. The ruins around the state of Arizona, as well as Utah and New Mexico still stand as quiet reminders of their culture and way of life. Walking through them I realize how resilient we are as a species. Before modern amenities mankind was able to survive this harsh environment. Not only survive, but build civilizations in it.
The buildings of Wupatki National Monument
A few of the ruins of this past are part of Wupatki National Monument. To reach them, drive on the road that goes through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
Before walking through the ruins, stop at the Wupatki Visitor Center. Here, you have an opportunity to learn about the Ancient Pueblo people who built these structures, pick up a brochure, even talk to a ranger if you have any questions.
The trail through Wupatki Pueblo starts at the visitor center and takes you through the largest of the ruins in the area. During this 1/2 mile walk, you have the opportunity to check out the largest structure, the “Tall House”, which originally had about 100 rooms.
You can walk through the remains of some of the rooms, then make your way towards the open kiva. To fully experience the place, take a few minutes and sit inside the kiva, the ancient community center.
As you walk past it towards the farthest structure, stop at the volcanic blow hole, and feel the air coming through it. Finally go through the ball court at the end of the trail.
Visit the Other Sites in the Park
Back on the road, don’t drive off the park yet. Go towards Sunset Crater and take the short road leading up to Wukoki ruins. Though visible from the parking lot, it is worth walking up to and around the structure.
Go back to the main road and stop at Citadel and Nalahiku ruins. They are both on the same short trail. You first come to Nalahiku, then the trail gets steeper going up to the Citadel ruins, though it’s worth the climb for the perfect view of the surrounding desert.
Once you pass the parking lot for Nalahiku and Citadel, stop on the other side of the road for a short visit to Lomaki and Box Canyon ruins. They are both at the end of the same short trail, overlooking a few small canyons where the ancients used to farm corn, squash and beans (crops collectively called the three sisters), as well as cotton.
One of my favorite spots for hiking is the Sonoran Desert Preserve and Cave Butte Recreation Area, just North of town. Of course, I only hike in the winter, and when I do, it always amazes me how green our desert is.
While in the summer months I keep dreaming and planning of moving away from Phoenix, when winter comes, I forget all of those plans. There is no better place to enjoy the outdoors in the winter than in my own backyard, so to speak. It helps that I don’t ski and was never a good ice skater, so I don’t miss the winter activities. And definitely don’t miss the cold. When temperatures get down to the 60s or 70s, it is cold enough for me. And it is the perfect time to take a hike.
There are more hiking trails within the city limits of Phoenix than any other place I know. I have a few favorites, some of them because they are close, others can take me away from the city even while I am in the middle of it.
Desert Vista Trailhead
This particular weekend I decided to join my husband on a hike on the Desert Vista Trail, in the Sonoran Reserve and going through the Cave Butte Recreation Area. Located in the Northernmost part of the city, the vistas take me from a view of the city to an area that feels hundreds of miles away, with no sign of civilization. In less than three miles.
Since I am out of shape, I prefer not to hike up the mountains in the area. If you’re in search for a long hike, you can walk up to ten miles in this preserve. For me, at least now, it was enough to hike about three miles, with little elevation gain.
We drive to the Desert Vista Trailhead, which is not far from our home. From there, we have a few choices of trails, from easy to moderate to very difficult. They all start at the same spot and we set off, deciding for the next step at the different divergent trailheads.
I end up hiking the Desert Wren Trail, a moderate, but mostly flat and wide trail that connects a few shorter ones.
Even for Short Hikes, I Grab A Waterbottle
For short hikes, I prefer not to take my Camelpak. However, I fill one of my water bottles. It is still the desert, after all, even if temperatures are perfect. Humidity is very low, so it is very easy to get dehydrated.
We don’t have plastic water bottles in our house, and I stay away from them. I also tell my kids and everyone I encounter to do the same. It is easy enough to buy a reusable water bottle and remember to fill it up. Yes, I know, tap water is not the greatest in our city, so we have a water purifier system installed, in addition to a smaller filter that we use for drinking water. In the long run, any of these filters pay for themselves, if you count the amount of water bottles you would buy otherwise. Especially if you live in the desert. Not to mention your impact on the environment.
Although it is winter and I don’t need it as much as at other times the year, I grab my insulated water bottle. This way, I don’t even need to add ice.
Hiking on the Desert Wren Trail
The beginning of the trail seems the most strenuous, since it is climbing on a steep angle. We are on the Hawk Nest Trail here, but soon take the Desert Tortoise Trail and the Valle Verde Trail before connecting with the Desert Wren Trail.
After the first moderate climb, the trail evens out, and I have a great view of the city below. On a good day, it looks nice. Most of the time, we see the smog that is settled on the city. We always notice that the area we live in is relatively clear. I don’t know for how long. But in these pockets of wilderness, the air is clean. When we are out here, we can escape the pollution for a short time.
As I continue on the trail, the city disappears. Instead, I enjoy the green desert surrounding me.
The teddy bear cholla looks cute and fuzzy in the morning light. I feel an urge to touch it and if I didn’t know better, I would. It is still a cactus variety. Those cute fuzzies would hurt if stuck in my fingers, which they would. And they are hard to remove. Since I know this, I resist the urge. I take a few photos of them instead.
Giant saguaros surround me. They are the symbol of our desert, and we have plenty of them in this area. In some places it reminds me of Saguaro National Monument. Since it finally rained recently, they look healthy and green. Some have many arms, twisted and pointing in all different directions, but most are younger and only have a few of them.
I still enjoy walking through this landscape, twenty-some years after I fell in love with it. I’m still amazed of the hardiness of this environment, where so many species of plants and animals live. They adapted to some of the harshest environments on the planet, surviving without water for months. then as soon as they get some rain, they look happy and healthy.
Back to Town
The trail eventually takes me back to the neighborhood it started in. I walk above some of the homes, and I think I might like to live in one of them. I’d like to be able to walk out into the wild every day, without the need for a car ride, to wake up looking in my backyard and seeing the desert, instead of other homes. But I realize that I like my privacy too much for that. Anyone on the trail could look down into my back yard, and they would, because it is the way the trail goes. Still. The homes are in a great spot, right under the trail.
I encounter more hikers on this last stretch of the trail. While a few of them are locals, I realize that most are snowbirds, retirees who live here seasonally, in the winters. They get the best of both worlds, perfect weather year round. I think it is what we want to do when we get older. Not a bad nickname, either. My ancestors were nomads, I could be one, too. At least migratory, like the birds.
As I get back to the car, I realize that I feel great. The crisp air, great desert vistas, and the hike itself gets me ready for the rest of the day. It’s just another beautiful day in the desert, reminding me why I live here in the first place. I didn’t go out-of-town for a change, and didn’t feel the need for it.
When everywhere else is cold and grey and people enjoy being inside, we, desert dwellers, finally venture outdoors. It is the best time to visit Phoenix, when weather is perfect, the sky is still blue, and being outside is a pleasure.
Since everyone knows this, the city’s population quadruples this time of the year. Not only we get a lot of visitors, but we also have “snowbirds”, retirees who spend the winter here.
What do you do in the middle of the desert in the winter? Most of us go outdoors, and enjoy hiking of biking.
We have lots of trails to choose from in nature preserves in and around the city. We can even find ourselves alone in the desert on some of them.
For those who seek different attractions, the city offers options to enjoy the outdoors.
Visit the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve
Located in Northwest Phoenix, the Deer Valley Preserve is an indoors/outdoors museum. It showcasing ancient left by the Hohokam and the Patayan in this area. It is rarely visited, even by residents, so you’ll have a chance to be alone among petroglyphs, some of them 7,000 years old.
Start your visit at the indoors muesum, to learn about the ancients who left them behind. Then head outside and walk among the huge boulders filled with petroglyphs.
Take a Hike in South Mountain Park
To see more petroglyphs, head over to the other side of the city, to South Mountain Park. The largest nature preserve/park within city limits in the US, South Mountain Park is worth a full day to explore. Look for petroglyphs on the trails. But even if you don’t find many, enjoy the outdoors in the greenest desert of the country, with great views of the city below.
Learn About the Ancients at Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Site
The museum preserves and showcases ancient buildings, a garden and ball court. Stop in the indoor exhibit to learn more about the ancient people who made their home in the desert before air conditioning.
Head outdoors to check out the remains of their civilization. They knew how to build a home to use the natural conditions for heating and cooling it. Also known as the canal makers, you’ll see one of the canals they dug in ancient times, still in use today. They built most of the canals in Phoenix still in use today, thousands of years ago.
Walk Through the Desert Botanical Garden
To understand the desert around you, you might want to learn about the native plants surrounding you. The best place to do this is the Desert Botanical Garden. You’ve seen it in the garden of the Hohokam, but you’ll understand better the concept of gardening in the desert. You’ll also learn about all the native species of plants in the Sonoran Desert.
The Botanical Garden is committed to the conservation of the biodiversity of the deserts of North America. They are especially concerned and working with the Southwest region. Leader and coordinator of the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance, it cares for the desert preserves around Phoenix.
Enjoy the Outdoors at the Phoenix Zoo
Another conservation site, the Phoenix Zoo showcases animals from all around the world.
While you visit, notice how the animals are cared for. They all have large habitats, but the staff goes beyond it. They go out of their way to assure that the animals live as close as possible to how they would in the wild.
The conservation program at the Phoenix Zoo helps to preserve diversity in nature. They have a breed and release program for some of the most endangered species. One of their special project is the black-footed ferret. You’re not going to see any of them in exhibits though. They are susceptible to human illnesses, and the stress of being on exhibit would also harm them. Still, when you visit the other exhibits, you know that you are helping with rehabilitation of endangered species.
Encounter Animals at the Wildlife World Zoo
Another zoo, on the West side of the city, the Wildlife World Zoo offers a different type of experience. This one has Arizona’s largest number of exotic and endangered animals.
The Wildlife World Zoo is also dedicated to helping species survivals as well. In particular, they work hard for rhino conservation. They also award money, support, and staff to other organizations that work for wildlife conservation.
Learn About Local Wildlife at the Southwest Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
If you care about local wildlife and conservation, the Southwest Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is the one of the best place to visit. You do need a vehicle that handles dirt roads, since to reach the Center you’ll have to drive through a few miles of dirt road. You also need to register for a tour in advance, since they don’t have regular opening hours.
They don’t have animals from all over the world. What this Center is doing instead, is rescuing desert animals that got injured, or displaced in any way. Most of their animals get rehabilitated and able to live in the wild. Those are their temporary residents.
But, a few of the animals they rescue cannot be returned to the wild. They become permanent residents and you can visit them, or even “adopt” them. My daughter adopted Leonardo, the Jaguar/leopard, because she was moved to tears by his story.
The Center also helps with the rehabilitation of the Mexican wolves and returning them into the wild.
Try to go on a tour later in the day. If you are there at dusk, you’ll be able to listen to the wolves howling. They really howl in harmony, you wouldn’t believe it unless you heard it. It is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard.
Last time I visited it my now-21-year old son was still in elementary school, his sister in preschool. Living in the desert ourselves, we didn’t feel the need to revisit for a long time. But my youngest daughter has never been there, and I wanted her to see it.
The Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical garden comprised. To get there, we drove through Saguaro National Monument. I wanted to stop, but in mid-November it was still too hot this year to hike the trails. Even though we didn’t hit any trails, driving through the highest concentration of saguaro cacti through the park was a treat.
Aquarium at the Desert Museum
As soon as we entered the Desert Museum, my daughter took off towards the aquarium. Yes, aquarium in the desert. I didn’t remember it being here, but it makes sense. We do have water in the desert, and most people wouldn’t expect it. Added in 2013, long after my latest visit, it is set up to teach out-of-state visitors (and locals, though we should know this) about life in the rivers of the Sonoran Desert, including the Colorado, and life in the Sea of Cortez. Without these bodies of water, the Sonoran Desert would not be known as the “greenest desert”. Following our daughter, we walked through two exhibits, one highlighting life in the freshwater rivers, the other one in the Sea of Cortez.
Walking on the Trail
Out on the trail it was warm, so we were trying to find shade as soon as possible. We walked out towards the pollinator gardens, with bats, bees and butterflies. Since it was daytime, we didn’t see any bats, but bees and butterflies fluttered and buzzed around us. I learned that female bees don’t sting, something I never knew in my fifty years of life, even though at some point my dad owned a beehive while I was growing up. You learn something new every day.
Walking towards the hummingbird aviary, I noticed a docent with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, giving a presentation. We stopped for a few minutes to listen, and admire the bird.
We spent some time in the hummingbird aviary, trying to follow some of the tiny birds. Yes, we have lots of them in our backyard, but we still wanted to see them here, as well. I did notice one with deep purple colors that I haven’t seen before. We were able to see them close by at times, if we stood still for a few minutes. No luck taking photos of them though, they are much too fast for that.
The Organ Pipe – Cactus
We walked through a desert garden, where I pointed out an organ pipe cactus to my daughter.
“Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “We have one in our front yard.”
“No way, it doesn’t even look close,” she answered.
“This one is probably a few hundred years old”, I said. “Ours is only about twenty.”
As she looked closer, she did notice the resemblance.
“Could ours get this big?” she asked. “It would take over the whole front yard.”
It probably would. As I stopped to read what they say about my cactus, I realized why I see bats in and around our house sometimes at night. It is a night-blooming cactus. Although I have not seen its flower in bloom yet, my son told me that last year, when he came home very late, that he did see one of the flowers open. It is beautiful, but only opens for the night pollinators, the bats.
Back on the Trail
Back on the trail we walked through the riparian corridor and stopped to admire the bighorn sheep in their enclosure. The underwater viewing center offered shade and a fun way to see the river otter and beaver up close in their element. The beaver was very active, and we stopped to watch him from the outside as well, standing under the shade of some trees.
We bypassed the cactus garden, because, well, we pretty much live in a cactus garden, and it was still too hot to hang out outside. Instead, we took a beeline to the cat canyon. The bobcat and the ocelot were sleeping, or resting, but the grey fox was walking around her enclosure, and I was able to stand there and watch her for a while. The porcupine was sleeping right by the window, easy to see. My daughter remembered seeing one in the wild, in Banff National Park a few years ago. They live in both environments.
Though we originally planned to walk through the Desert Loop Trail, we didn’t do it this time. It was sunny and still too warm to walk the half-mile with no shade in sight. We live in the desert, after all, we see it every day. But for out-of-state visitors, it is a great hike. Especially on a cooler day. Normally it cools down enough by this time of the year, but global warming must be real, we haven’t seen real fall/winter weather yet.
Blue Heron in the Desert?
In the Desert Grassland Exhibit I admired the great blue heron, standing by the water, and grooming herself. Her neck is so long and so flexible, she seemed to turn her head all the way around. The prairie dogs here are bigger than those in the Phoenix Zoo, and they are fun to watch. A few turkey vultures and black vultures added to the diversity in this exhibit.
My Visit with the Mountain Lion
The Mountain Woodland was the highlight of our visit. I noticed the mountain lion. She is one of the most beautiful creatures I can imagine. As it was still hot, she just sat in the shade under a rock, grooming herself and lazily looking at the visitors, and me, as well. She looked so much like my kitty at home, I wanted to pet her. Of course, she’s much bigger and I doubt she would have enjoyed me petting her. We walked around and looked at her through the glass, from the other side of her enclosure, she was closer to the window.
They have a beautiful Mexican Wolf in this exhibit, as well. It is an endangered species and I know that the Southwest Wildlife Center in Phoenix helps with its captive breeding program. So far, the program seems to be successful and these wolves are slowly reintroduced to the mountains of the Southwest. Their howl is one of the most beautiful music I ever heard.
Earth Science Center
Before leaving, we walked through the artificial cave in the Earth Science Center. It was a great place to get away from the sun and fun to explore it. but the real deal was waiting for us later on, when we visited Kartchner Caverns at the end of the trip.
With temperatures finally dropping, Phoenix becomes a paradise for hikers. You wouldn’t expect that from a huge city, home to over four and a half million people. Yet, we have hikes for people of all abilities. Huge areas of the desert are left untouched and protected within the city’s limits. One of them, South Mountain, is the largest preserve in the US in an urban area.
Within 41,000 acres of park preserves, Phoenix has more than 200 trails to enjoy. Though it is not only inadvisable but even dangerous to go out on any of these trails in the summer, in the winter they are the perfect place to be.
Easy Hikes for Families with Young Kids, or Those Who Are Not Ready for Anything Strenuous
You’ll find some of the easiest hikes in and around Papago Park, in the center of Phoenix. Each trail within the park is fit for children of all ages, and people of all abilities. One of the most popular hike here is the hole-in-the rock trail. It offers and easy walk around this known Phoenix spot. Kids and adults alike have enjoy looking at the city through the hole in the rock.
The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is another spot for easy hikes. The trails run along the Rio Salado Riverbed, and offer a glimpse into the riparian habitat of the desert. You will find that the desert can be very green, full of life, especially along riverbeds.
Many of the Sonoran Preserve Trails offer easy walks through beautiful desert vistas. Most of them start at the Apache Wash Trailhead.
The Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix offers plenty of short and easy hiking trails. Enjoy the desert vegetation and wildlife that you will most likely see on any of these trails. You can even walk through a riparian area, if you take the trail to the pond off Tatum Boulevard.
You’ll find one easy trail in the North Mountain Park as well, the interpretive loop of the Penny Howe Barrier Free Trail.
For A Little More Serious Hikers the City Offers Many Moderate Difficulty Trails
Most of the trails in South Mountain Park are of moderate difficulty, still fit for most hikers. You’ll find beautiful scenery, gorgeous views and lots of petroglyphs on any of them.
North Mountain Park also offers miles of trails with moderate difficulty. On some you’ll hike up a few buttes, on others walk with some elevation gain through the valley between the peaks.
The trails in Dreamy Draw and Piestewa Peak are also fit for hikers of all abilities, and offer only a bit of a challenge. Hiking through the are you will most likely encounter desert wildlife, including coyotes and jackrabbits.
All the trails in Lookout and Shadow Mountains, areas known only to locals, are in this category.
Most of the trails in the Sonoran Desert Preserve that start at the Desert Hills trail head, are also moderately difficult. They take you through beautiful desert areas.
For the Serious Hiker, Phoenix Offers a Few Difficult to Extremely Difficult Trails
Th best known trails within the city limits also happen to be the most difficult ones. I am talking about the two trails that summit Camelback Mountain.
Echo Canyon Trail is the city’s most famous hiking destination, known to hiking enthusiasts all over the world. Though challenging, not only for its elevation gain, but the rocky terrain and exposure, since there is no shade on it, most Phoenicians hiked it at least once. Why do we live here, if not for this challenge, after all? Even if you don’t summit, the views from the trail are exquisite.
If you want to summit Camelback Mountain from the other side, the Cholla Trail is also spectacular, and just as difficult. Although at the bottom it does have an easy part. So if you want to hike within Camelback Mountain’s boundaries, but want an easy walk, start on this side, and turn around when it is too much.
With So Many Trails, There Is No Excuse to Stay Inside When the Weather is Finally Nice
When the temperatures drop, Phoenicians usually hit the trails. The summer months, with temperatures over 100 degrees, are so long, we usually can’t wait to get outside.
As soon as we do, we are rewarded with beautiful desert vistas and a variety of trails to choose from. Yes, we might live in the city, but we can get lost in the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert within a few minutes of stepping on a trail. This is what makes living here worth it. And this is what attracts so many visitors here in the winter months.
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe, with a total loss of words. No pictures, no video recordings can ever prepare you for the first glimpse of it.
The rock layers, each a different color, as you look deeper into it takes your breath away. It stretches on for miles and you can see all the way to the other side, the sheer size of it leaving you speechless. It seems impossible to fathom that a river carved it all. Here, in the desert of Northern Arizona, the rocks leave a valuable geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on Earth.
Although it seems to stretch as far as you can see, looking at it from the top you don’t realize that it consists of thousands of miles of smaller canyons, mesas, volcanoes and a web of drainage that connects the Grand Canyon to the rest of the world. It all seems totally inaccessible.
Then you see the trails that lead into the depths of it, and you feel like you need to walk on them it, at least for a short distance, to feel like you are part of this wonder of the world. You hike a few steps on the closest trail you see, most likely the Bright Angel Trail. Quickly realize that it is descending so fast, it will be hard to get back out of it. So, you turn around and promise yourself that you will make it to the bottom one day. Just not today.
If you want to hike down to the bottom, you can find a few trails, as well as mules to carry your packs. You might want to stay overnight, in the camp ground on the bottom. But for now, just enjoy the scenery from the top, eye level with the birds.
The Grand Canyon Is Home to Indigenous People
The human history in and around the Grand Canyon stretches back at least 13000 years.
The Hopi, one of the tribes who still lives in the proximity, consider it sacred ground. For them, one of the points in the bottom of the canyon, is their ancestral home, their place of origin.
The Hualapai and Havasupai have inhabited the South side of the Canyon. The Havasupai still live on the bottom of the Canyon, far from civilization, since there is no road to their village, only an eight-mile long trail. You do have to hike there, if you want to visit them. They consider themselves the guardians of the sacred ground of the Grand Canyon system.
The Southern Paiute inhabited the North side of the Canyon and for them it is also holy land.
The Zuni have their place of origin in the depths of the Canyon a well.
The Navajos and the Western Apaches also inhabit the area, though they have arrived a bit more recently, but still hundreds of years before the Spaniards.
For all of these tribes, who have lived here for centuries, the canyon is sacred land, in one way or another. If you catch a glimpse of it, you will understand why.
You Are In a National Park
Given its beauty, geological and historical significance, you would have thought that the Grand Canyon was the first National Park in the US. It wasn’t so easy though. The first bill to establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park was indeed introduced in 1882. However, it took until 1919 (February 26th) to actually designate it as such. Miners opposed the bill, since they wanted to get to the copper, zinc and silver at the bottom. Developers wanted to build a railroad on the bottom of the Canyon, so they fought against the bill as well.
All is well if it ends well. After much debate, we have one of the natural wonders of the world designated as a National Park and as such, protected from developers. For now at least. Or so it seems.
My Visits Over the Years
The first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, I was visiting it as an out-of-state tourist, over twenty years ago. While it seemed a bit crowded, we were able to enjoy it. Now we live so close to it, we can see it multiple times a year if we want to. And we have seen too much development around it.
Now, there are moments when I get to the South Rim, to the Visitor Center and I want to run. There are so many people, I cannot get to the Canyon for a glimpse. But if you take some time, you can still get away from the crowds and have a moment to enjoy your surroundings. The view itself never loses its magic.
But you do have to walk to enjoy it. If nothing more, just walk the rim trail. Even on the busiest day, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of it. Take a break at each of the educational stops, and learn about the ages and consistency of the rocks that make up the Canyon.
Sure, you can take the shuttle. In fact, if you can’t walk, do take the shuttle instead of driving. Free to ride, it runs on compressed gas, so it doesn’t pollute like your car would.
But I always felt that we would miss something if we just rode the shuttle and stopped at each overlook. We dragged our kids, even when they were young, on the rim walk. They have complained at times, but overall, they had a better time. On our last visit, we would have missed the deer grazing by the trail, if we didn’t walk.
The park has seen too much development in the past two decades. A brand-new town was built just outside of the park’s boundaries, by the South Rim. Other than hotels and other amenities, it offers helicopter tours, and an I-Max movie theater so see the Canyon if you can’t make it a few more miles into the park. The problem is, the helicopter tours, and all sorts of other tourist traps are hurting the environment in the Canyon. If we want to keep it for the next generations, we need to take better care of it.
This natural wonder is fragile, and its National Park status protects it. But just outside the boundaries things are getting too built up. If everything that is proposed at this time happens, it will turn into an amusement park, instead of the National Park. I hope it won’t happen.
If You Go
Expect big crowds if you go, no matter the season. It is the worst during the summer, but it might still be crowded in November, even on weekdays. Try to walk in the morning, if possible.
No matter how crowded it gets, if you walk the rim trail, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of the it. Better yet, you can walk down a few meters either on the Bright Angel Trail or the Kaibab trail. You don’t need to go to the bottom to enjoy the feel of being in the Canyon.
You can take the shuttle at a few different points through the trail, if you get too tired or the desert sun gets to you. Please remember to carry water and wear a hat if you walk any distance.
As spectacular as the South Rim is, our favorite side is the North Rim, mainly because it is more remote. That’s where the historic Grand Canyon Lodge is, and you can stay in small cabins in the forest surrounding the rim. To visit that side, you need to make reservation well ahead.
Hope you get to go and see this Wonder of the World. Enjoy your time there, if you do.
This post is shared onThe Weekly Postcard Blog Link-up
If you’ve ever heard of Montezuma, you’re wondering what in the world I am talking about. Wasn’t he the legendary Aztec king? Didn’t the Aztecs live in today’s Mexico? You are right, Montezuma has never set foot in the land that is now Arizona.
Yet, there is a National Monument not far from Phoenix, Arizona, named after him. Back in the 1860s its first visitors were miners and soldiers. Coming upon the “castle, they thought that Montezuma’s people built it, so they named it after him. People make mistakes. The name stuck, and now we have Montezuma Castle National Monument in the high deserts of Arizona.
Who Built Montezuma’s Castle?
Well, if it wasn’t Montezuma or his people, who built it? Long before the known Aztec king was born, indigenous people of the desert built this place in the surrounding rocks. In this particular spot, they built a five-story dwelling. The Spanish called these people Sinagua, meaning “without water”. They lived in a harsh environment that seemed to have no water.
Although the structure is not a castle in the traditional sense of the world, it is spectacular in its own right. It housed most likely an entire village, between 600 and 1100 people.
Take a Walk in the Park
The walk in this particular National Park is short and paved all the way around. It takes you on a winding path in the shadows of sycamore threes.
The cliff dwelling is its major attraction, but the walk itself is pleasant. In the winter months you can even enjoy the river that runs through the area, passed an ancient embankment.
Since it is off the highway I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff, the park is an easy stop. It offers a welcome rest on the way to the pine-filled mountains of northern Arizona.
For us, it is one of the easiest and more spectacular place to bring our out-of-state visitors. Even before seeing the Grand Canyon, we impress them with our beautiful state.
Aspens are some of my favorite trees in the autumn. Living in the desert, surrounded by cacti, I don’t get to see autumn colors in my backyard. However, not far from us we have some of the best sites for aspens, in the mountains around Flagstaff, Arizona.
Our Yearly Pilgrimage
Every year since we live here, we make it a point to go up to Flagstaff during the first few weeks of October. It is usually when the leaves peak.
We can enjoy fall in all its beauty, and it only takes a day trip. We usually watch the watching the “leaf-o-meter” to find the best time to go, then we take off for Kachina Peaks. About two hours later the bright yellow leaves of the aspens greet us.
Pine trees, as well as aspens fill the mountains around Flagstaff. Lower, in town, we can spot a few maple trees, but the biggest attraction at this elevation are still the aspens.
Every year is a bit different, though.
Last year it rained, which made it even more wonderful for us. I know it sounds odd to most people, but for us desert dwellers, rain is a real treat, especially in October.
I’ve always been fascinated by aspens. Their white and smooth bark, and their bright green/bright yellow in autumn leaves makes them unique among trees.
I grew up watching old Russian movies, which inevitably had a few scenes set in aspen forests. In fact, most of what I remember of all of those movies were different characters walking through aspen forests and talking. They could be lovers, politicians, good guys, villains, no matter what, they all ended up in one of those forests at some point.
Later on, when I visited Russia, I understood. We were driving through Belorussia (White Russia), among miles upon miles of aspen forests. Aspens were on both sides of the road, and nothing else. We seemed to be in the middle of this forest forever, looking through the while barks. I felt like I was in one of the movies I grew up watching. It was the most beautiful part of that country, my favorite moments there.
The Oldest Aspen Growth
Turns out that the oldest aspen colony is not even in Russia, but right in our back yard, in Utah. It has a name, Pando, and it’s around 80,000 years old. I learned about all that later.
Pando is an aspen clone colony in the Fishlake National Forest in Utah. I haven’t been there yet, it is on my list of places to visit. Pando is over one hundred acres large and has about 47,000 individual aspens. But wha tis really mind-boggling is its age. Where was Earth 80,000 years ago? Younger clone colonies are still between at 5,000-10,000 years.
Interesting Facts I Learned About Aspens
A few years ago I sat through a ranger talk at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The topic was aspens. I learned a few amazing facts there, and later on I researched a bit more. These trees are even more amazing than I ever imagined.
So how is it possible for an aspen colony to be 80,000 years old? No other tree can be quite as old as that. Aspens, as young as they seem, might be ancient. No, not the individual trees, it is their root system that is virtually immortal.
Aspens rarely grow from seeds. Most of them sprout from their roots, much like a potato plant, and some even clone themselves.
The cloning is the most amazing part of this process. It means that new trees grow from the lateral roots of another tree. So even when an individual aspen dies (they don’t live more than about 150 years), the rest of the colony is still alive while new ones sprouts from the same root. The clones are identical, but differ from aspens that belong to another set of clones.
This explains the fact that aspens turn color at different rates at the same elevation, even in the same forest. We notice patches that turn color the same time, but others next to them, don’t. The patches with the same color are clones. Clones might be less than an acre or up to one hundred acres large.
Aspens Survive Forest Fires
Because of their ability to clone, aspens are able to survive forest fires. Not the individual trees, they burn just like the rest of them.
Did you ever notice that after a forest fire aspens are the first trees to grow? Their roots are safe from the fire underground, and as soon as the fire is over, new clones shoot up towards the sky from them. Talk about survival of the species.
Locket Meadow, Our Old Favorite
Years ago we used to go up to a place called Locket Meadow to see the aspens. It is the best place to see large colonies of aspens. It could only be reached by a four-wheel drive, on a very narrow dirt road on the side of the mountain. Along the way we enjoyed beautiful views of Sunset Crater. Up in the wilderness, the trails go for miles among aspens and pines.
We no longer have an SUV, but that isn’t the main reason we changed the place we visit this time of the year. A huge forest fire destroyed much of the side of the mountain where the dirt road goes up and it is just too sad to drive through the devastation until we reach Locket Meadow. We haven’t been on the dirt roads that we used to love so much since. I’m guessing though that in time we will see more aspens on the side of the mountain where it used to be covered by pine trees. Then slowly the pines will grow back, as well. It will take a very long time, though.
Trails Around Snow Bowl
So now we just go up towards Snow Bowl and stop along the way. Our favorite place has become the area by the ski slope. There are a few aspens growths there, each with a different shade of yellow.
A few of the trails start at the parking lot. The aspen loop is an easy one-mile walk through a smaller aspen growth.
For a real treat we cross an open grassy area, and enjoy being in the middle of a larger aspen colony, with barely discernible trails crisscrossing it.
Sometimes the leaves fall earlier on one side, covering the ground under our feet, while across the ski slope, they might be only starting to turn yellow.
Another Year, Another Autumn Trip
We always have a wonderful day up among the aspens, enjoying not only the beauty of these amazing trees in autumn but cooler weather, clouds and rain. I can’t wait to get back.
I feel very fortunate that we are able to do this as a family tradition.