A Quick Stop at Montezuma Castle in Arizona

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.

A Glimpse of the Montezuma's Castle Wall through the Sycamore Trees on the Path - photo by Győző Egyed
A Glimpse of the Montezuma’s Castle Wall through the Sycamore Trees on the Path – photo by Győző Egyed
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.

 

11 Reasons to Visit a National Park

A National Park or Nature Preserve is one of the best places to visit, no matter where you live.

In the US, an area designated as National Park has either scenic, scientific, cultural or historical significance.  It is the same in other countries, though they may be called Nature Preserves instead of National Parks.

Crater Lake NP
Crater Lake National Park (c) Jeff Fromm

Designating an area as a National Park or Nature Preserve protects it from future development. We preserve some of the most beautiful, and most fragile ecosystems or historical sites for the enjoyment of future generations.  In this day in age when everywhere I look, I see unending development, I find hope when I step in a National Park.

Why should you visit national parks and preserves, you might ask.  I’m glad you asked. I’m dying to give you a list.

1. Animal Encounters in a National Park

Most of us live in cities, where we rarely see wild animals, or any kind of animals unless we have pets. But in a national park, no matter when you go, you will almost always see at least a few animals who share the park with you.

Elk on the side of the road in Grand Canyon NP
Elk on the side of the road in Grand Canyon NP

We see deer in most parks we visit, just about every time we go. During one of our visits to the Grand Canyon National Park, we saw an elk grazing by the road.

By far the most animals we encountered in one trip was in Banff National Park.  We even saw a grizzly bear, right by the road. According to the park ranger, who was on the premise, to make sure people leave the bear alone and no one gets hurt, it was a “teenage bear” wandering off away from his mother.

Grizzly Bear in Banff National Park, Canada
Grizzly Bear in Banff National Park, Canada. (c) Leanne Fromm

I got pretty close to a porcupine, following my youngest daughter, on the shore of Lake Louise.

Porcupine in Banff National Park, Canada
Porcupine in Banff National Park, Canada

During the week we spent there, we had daily encounters with bighorn sheep.

Bighorn Sheep in Banff National Park, Canada
Bighorn Sheep in Banff National Park, Canada
You Might Even See Endangered Species

As we were driving out of Sunset Crater Volcano National Park, my daughter Karen suddenly exclaimed:

“It’s a pronghorn sheep! Wow! I can’t believe I’m seeing it! It is an endangered species!”

I caught a glimpse when I looked over, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

“Maybe it is a deer.”

“No, Mom. I know what I saw. It was a pronghorn sheep. I know my animals.”

She does.  She plans to become a wildlife conservationist, she’s been studying wild animals in zoo camp ever summer, and that’s all she reads about. Yes, I did believe her.

Luckily, a few feet ahead we had an opportunity to stop at a pull-out.  The two animals were fairly far from us by then, but we got the binoculars out, and we worked the zoom on the camera.

Pronghorn sheep in the meadow
Pronghorn sheep in the meadow.

She was right, of course.  We saw a couple of pronghorn sheep grazing in the meadow just outside Sunset Crater.  The female was following the male, and they were moving in our direction.

We spent a good half hour watching them, as they made their way in our direction.  Eventually they walked farther into the distance in disappeared from our view in the tall grass.  Understanding that we were watching endangered animals made us enjoy the encounter even more.

2. Learn About Different Ecosystems

Each National park protects a different, most of the times, very fragile ecosystem.  The visitor centers are great places to stop and learn about them, then it is a treat to walk on the trails and experience what you have learned.

What is an ecosystem, you might ask. You’ll learn the answer and a lot more in any Visitor Center of a National Park.  A very short answer: an ecosystem is a community of all living things (plants, animals, organisms) and their environment (soil, rocks, sun, weather, atmosphere) in a given area, interacting with each other.

Each National Park protects an ecosystem, some of them very different from each other. You’ll find forest, desert, grasslands, aquatic (both freshwater and marine) ecosystems within the National Parks.

3. Understand Earth’s Formation and Geology

How do canyons, rock formations, mountains form? Instead of reading about it, you can see the answer for yourselves when you visit a National Park like the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Sunset Crater or Crater Lake.

Walking the rim trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon gives you a glimpse of how the different layers of rocks formed the Earth’s surface.  The exposed rocks themselves are a visible geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on our Earth. For a great learning experience, stop at each level on the interpretive trail, and read about the layers at different levels.

Grand Canyon NP
Grand Canyon NP

In Bryce Canyon you understand a newer geology.  You see, how the soft rocks, like sandstone are eroded, forming exquisite natural sculptures, named hoodoos.  You also gain an understanding of how the same formations get eroded over time, forming a lower whole.

Bryce Canyon NP
Bryce Canyon NP

Visiting Sunset Crater, or Mt St. Helen’s gives you a glimpse of the volcanic activity that form mountains.

In Sunset Crater you have the opportunity to walk on lava rocks or sand, and marvel at the way that new vegetation grows, new forests form.

Sunset Crater National Monument
Sunset Crater

At Mt. St Helen we witnessed an eruption a few years ago.  As we entered the park’s Visitor Center, we noticed a note saying: “Contrary to general belief, Mt St Helen is erupting right now.”  As we watched in the distance, we could see smoke coming off the mountain top, and we watched the seismograph record small earthquakes.

4. Learn About and Understand Human History

The first National Park set aside to preserve “the works of men” was Mesa Verde.  Walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization gives you a better understanding of mankind, of the way our ancestors lived in different environments.

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park

Chaco is another great example of this kind of park in the US, as well as Aztec, Wupatki and a lot of others scattered through the Southwest and beyond.

Chaco National Park
Chaco National Park

5. Unplug from Electronics

The lodges in the national parks don’t have televisions.  In most places within the parks you won’t have cell connection either, or it will be very poor.  The wi-fi works sometimes, but you can’t count on it either all the time in all of the parks.

This gives you a great opportunity to connect with your family or companions.  You might want to read a book, draw sketches or write in a journal.  Clear you mind from the constant buzz of electronics.

6. Teach the Next Generation About their Heritage and the Importance of Keeping Our Environment Clean and Protected

The Junior Ranger program for kids is a great way to get the younger generation involved in preserving the environment around them, and learning about it all, as well as about history. They enjoy getting a badge after completing the booklet and learning answers to questions they might not know they had.

As Junior Rangers, they lead the way in cleaning up the pristine forests.

Years ago I hiked up to a pristine lake in Washington (State) with my oldest two kids who were preschoolers at the time.  They were still new to the Junior Ranger program, just got their badge in Mount Rainier National Park. We took it slow and made it to the top of the mountain.  On the way, they picked up every single gum wrapper, plastic bag, tiny piece of paper, and anything human-made that did not belong in the forest.  Let me just say, my backpack became a garbage bag by the time we got back to the parking lot.

We felt good, they felt good, and knew that they made a difference, however small.  They must have saved at least one bird or animal that might have ingested some of the wrappers or plastic pieces.

7. Enjoy Nature Around You – Go camping in a National Park

You can camp in virtually every National Park, and enjoy the surroundings.

One of our favorite spots to camp is in Sunset Crater National Park, in the Lava Bonito Campground.  We use a tent, but the campground is designed to be both tent and winnebago-friendly with hookups.

No matter how you do it, camping in a National Park brings you closer to nature, giving you a better understanding of your surroundings.

The best part of camping in any National Park? The night sky.

8. Learn About Astronomy

Far from the light pollution of cities, the parks feature some of the best night sky views on the planet.  Many times we got up in the middle of the night to look at the Milky Way outside our tent.  We see it so clearly, I understand why my ancestors called it the Road of Warriors (Hadak Útja) or why the Ancient Maya called it the Celestial Monster.

It is hard to fathom our place in the Universe, but watching the clear skies in a National Park, we understand it all, we see it with our own eyes.

Chaco National Park, for example, has an observatory, to enjoy the night sky and understand its significance. The campground in Chaco is right by an alcove of ancient ruins.

In Bryce, one of the exhibits in the Visitor Center compares the night sky in cities, smaller towns and the park.  After understanding the difference, you’ll want to go outside in the middle of the night to see it all.

9. Improve your Health

In a National Park you will have to hike at least.  Even the shortest walks will improve your health, since you are outside, in nature, far from pollutants of the cities.

You will improve your mental health by doing the outdoors activities in the Parks. Researchers established a link between outdoor activities and decrease of depression, and stress-related illnesses.

10. Protect and Support Your National Parks

The National Park System celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2016.  But the first National Park was established well before that day.  Do you know which park was the first?

Yellowstone became a National Park on March 1st, 1872. By the time the Park Service was established in 1916, the “Organic Act” that President Woodrow Wilson signed was protecting 35 established National Parks.  Today, we have over 400 parks, protecting and preserving different landscapes.

They offer us a glimpse into the beauty of our environment, a place to see wildlife and experience nature first hand.  In our day-to-day stressful lives they offer an oasis of calm and relaxation, a way to unwind and remember what really matters.

Make it a point to visit a National Park next time you have a chance.  In addition to learning a lot, you’ll know that you are contributing to protecting the environment.

11. Find Your Own Reason

Every one of us has a personal reason above and beyond the obvious.  Find your own.

Many parks offer horseback rides on their trails, if it is something you like to do. You can even ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon if you’d like that experience.

If you are a rock climber, you’ll find opportunities to climb in some parks, Zion among them.

You can ride your bicycle in most parks.  At the Grand Canyon, and most other parks, you can rent a bike as well, if you didn’t want to cart around your own.

I’m sure you can come up with many more reasons to visit a National Park if you think about it.  No matter the reason you end up there, you’ll always have a great time in any of them.

 

Bryce Canyon National Park – Hiking through Hoodoos

One of our latest weekend trip took us to Bryce Canyon National Park.  It has been over ten years since our last visit, but the landscape and the park hasn’t changed.

Although geologically speaking, hoodoos, the rock formations that Bryce Canyon is famous for, don’t last long, one lifetime in human years doesn’t make a difference in their shape.

<img src="brycecanyon.jpg" alt="Bryce Canyon National Park, wandererwrites.com"/>

What Are Hoodoos?

Tall, skinny spires of rock, hoodoos seem like tall totem poles, carved by nature.  At Bryce Canyon, they range from 5 to 150 ft tall, and come in all shapes and widths.

<img src="hoodoos.jpg" alt="Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park "/>

I see hoodoos as children of a parent rock, slowly parting from the whole family and becoming their own beautiful, separate selves. The “family” that supports them, the rock formation that forms them is called the Claron Formation in Bryce. This rock was “born” 30 or 40 million years ago in an ancient lake.

<img src="hoodooformations.jpg" alt="hoodoo formations in Bryce Canyon NP "/>

As a natural process of aging, hoodoos are formed by different weathering processes.  The extreme temperatures on the plateau cause a freezing then thawing process to repeat more often than other places.

The melting snow seeps into the cracks of the limestone, then it freezes, which makes it expand. (Yes, water expands when freezing. If you need to see the process, freeze water in a plastic bottle, and watch what happens.) In the case of the limestone, this freeze/thaw process causes cracks to appear. This process is called frost wedging.

<img src="brycecanyon.jpg" alt="view from trail at Bryce, wandererwrites.com"/>

Then rain, sun and wind slowly erodes the rocks and separates the hoodoos from their parent rock.

Of course, the same process that forms hoodoos, will eventually erode them, too.  We don’t see the difference since the erosion happens at the rate of 2-4 feet every 100 years. But in another few million years they won’t exist as they are now.

We are the lucky ones who get to enjoy them.

<img src="brycehoodoos.jpg" alt="hoodoos sunset Bryce, wandererwrites.com"/>

Hiking to the Bottom of Bryce Canyon

While my husband decided to walk down and into the canyon on the most strenuous (but most spectacular) trail, my daughter and I took the easier, more traveled one.  I usually choose the less traveled path, but sometimes, when I am out of shape, I don’t mind easy.

<img src="queensgardentrail.jpg" alt="hiking the Queen's Garden's Trail in Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

In the morning, to catch the best light, we set off from the Sunrise Point on the Queen’s Garden Trail.  It was pleasant, an easy hike (of course, it was downhill), though slightly crowded. The short trail got down to the Queen’s Garden.  Queen Victoria, that is.

<img src="trail.jpg" alt="tunnel on the trail in Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

 

“Why would they name that rock formation Queen Victoria?” asked Karen.  “She’s never even been here.”

Yes, I know.  I guess whoever named the rock has seen the queen and felt that it resembled her, looking over her garden of other hoodoos. It took me a while to see the resemblance, but I finally got it while sitting in the shade of a tree in front of it.

<img src="queensgarden.jpg" alt="Queen Victoria and her garden, bottom of Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

 

Instead of returning the way we came, we walked through the canyon for about a mile, and took the Navajo Loop Trail back up, through the Wall Street formation.

<img src="bottomofBryceCanyon.jpg" alt= "hiking on the bottom of Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

Given the fact that it was sunny and hot by midday, when we got there, Wall Street was the highlight of this particular hike for me.  We spent a fair amount of time in the shade of the tall rocks surrounding us.

<img src="wallstreetbryce.jpg" alt= "walking wall street at Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

 

Of course I was a slow turtle going up the steep switchbacks, but I made it.     It was worth it, every step of the way both down, and up.

The Overlooks

When we first arrived the day before, we drove to the Southernmost edge of the park, and stopped at Rainbow Point.  The easy hike on the Bristlecone Loop, through a pine forest took to Yovimpa Point, offered a far view into the Four Corners area.

<img src="rainbowpointview.jpg" alt= "View from Rainbow Point Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

We stopped at the Natural Bridge overlook, where we enjoyed the view of the arch.

<img src="naturalbridgebryce.jpg" alt= "Natural Bridge Overlook Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

After we settled in the lodge, we walked the rim trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points, with a great view of the amphitheater below.

<img src="rimtrailbryce.jpg" alt= "Rim trail Sunset Point Bryce Canyon, wandererwrites.com"/>

 

Now, after a relatively long hike, we were on the shuttle to Bryce point, with an overlook of one of the most scenic vistas of the whole amphitheater. Different view, different perspective. The Peekaboo trail, a harder hike into the canyon, starts there, but I left it for another time.

<img src="brycepointview.jpg" alt= "Bryce Point View, wandererwrites.com"/>

Before leaving the park, we stopped at the Fairyland Canyon overlook. One of the most strenuous, but also most spectacular trail starts here, about eight miles long with an elevation gain of over 1100 feet. In comparison, the combination of two trails that I did was a little over 3 miles long and an elevation gain of about 600 feet.  I thought that was high. Of course, I left without hiking the Fairyland trail.  I need to train for that, if I ever want to make it.

Chaco Canyon – In the Footsteps of the Ancient Ones

As I walk through the ancient structures in Chaco Canyon, I think of the people who once called them home. It is hard to imagine them surviving in the harsh desert, let alone thriving.  Yet, they built a civilization here, lived and died here for a few centuries, before moving on to a slightly more hospitable land. They left behind their ceremonial center and homes, for our present-day archaeologists to study and the ret of us to wonder about them.

Chaco Culture National Park is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the Southwestern US,  and it is also a World Heritage site. It preserve structures built centuries ago, witness to human history.

Chaco.
Watching the road and the surrounding high desert through a window of a Chacoan structure

Getting There

Visiting Chaco is always an adventure. We drive through the high desert in the Navajo Reservation. Most of the area seems deserted, and we have the opportunity to enjoy the colors of the desert. The surrounding rocks form a swirl of color, from deep reds through coral, yellow and even green. Still, as beautiful as the landscape is, it doesn’t seem possible to support life.
 
Yet, again and again, we notice tiny one-track roads leading off towards nowhere that we can see. An occasional hogan stands witness that people live here.
 
We almost miss the dirt road leading to Chaco.  We’ve been there so many time, yet it is always hard to remember where exactly the turn-off is.  
The dirt road seems deserted, as we expected. After a few minutes of driving we notice other cars ahead of us.
“We are not the only ones going to Chaco today,” I comment.
Although the road continues to a small Navajo settlement, we know these are not locals. These are cars, in good shapes, not barely-held-together trucks that locals drive.
Chaco is getting more visitors. It is a long weekend, so it is not a total surprise. Still, I am sure it won’t get crowded, like most other National Parks.

The Site

 
As we enter the site, we stop at the Visitor Center. We show our National Park’s pass, and decide against taking another brochure, we know the site well by now.  Not quite ready to get back in the car, we check the newest exhibits.
 
The sun is blinding as we step out from the visitor center. I forgot how bright it is here, with no shade other than the structures. Still, far from being hot, it is comfortable to walk.
 
We decide to take the short walk to Una Vida.  It is a first, we haven’t done it before. On top of a small hill, though far from impressive, the site offers a great view of the surrounding area.
 
Leaving the parking lot, we set of on the nine-mile loop trail that goes through the real Chaco.
 
After about a mile we stop at our first big house, Hungo Pavi. This set of ruins consisted of over 100 rooms, some of it reaching four stories height. We walk through it, stopping in the shade of its back wall.  The kids are way ahead of us, but we stop at the great kiva, or ceremonial center.
 Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito
Our next stop is the parking lot for both Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito.  We usually spend a lot of time here, and this time is no exception.
 
We walk over to Chetro Ketl first. Not quite as large as Pueblo Bonito, it is still impressive. Its most distinctive feature is the elevated kiva, different from the other ones in Chaco.  We walk through and around it, then make our way to Pueblo Bonito.

 

Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco
The elevated kiva at Chetro Ketl
Instead of walking back to the car, we take the petroglyph trail between the two ruins.  We walk slow, trying to look at each petroglyphs on the wall by the trail.  Some are clear, but others are so eroded, we can barely tell they are there. 
A few minutes later we reach Pueblo Bonito, the highlight of the site. With over 650 rooms and 35 kivas, it is the most impressive structure in the park.  Since it is pleasant still outside, we walk outside through the kivas first. As it starts getting warmer, we head inside the larger structure.
 
Inside Pueblo Bonito, Chaco
Room Inside Pueblo Bonito
As I walk through the rooms, I remember my kids, playing hide and-seek here when they were younger. The doorways through the interconnected rooms were the perfect size for them.

A Hike to the Mesa Top

At the far side of the loop, we stop again.  This parking lot leads to back country trails, and it is the first time I decide that I want to go to the top of the mesa.  The kids are much older now, I don’t worry about them, and I am ready to explore something new.
 
We sign up at the trail head and put the papers in our car window.   Klin-Ketso, another great house, is a short half-mile walk on the trail.  We explore the site, and find the trail that leads to the top of the mesa.
 
The most fun part of the trail goes through a narrow passage, between two tall rocks. Huffing and puffing, I slow down as I climb the rocks. I am out of shape, but I don’t want to admit it. I decide to blame it on the heat, and pretend to stop in the shade of the two rocks to cool down, not to catch my breath.
Chaco
The “wind tunnel” on the trail to the mesa top.
 
“Mom, do you need help?” I hear my daughter. “I’ll carry your water bottle and your camera if you want,” she offers.  She was way ahead of me.
 
I appreciate the offer, but I have a feeling that helping me is not the only reason she ran back. She admits that she enjoys going up and down the narrow wind-tunnel. At age ten, she’s a mountain goat, loves to run on rocks, where most people only stumble.
We make it to the overlook of Pueblo Bonito.  From up here, the site looks even more impressive.  We can see its distinctive D-shape, and its straight wall in South-North direction.  
Before heading back, we sit down and enjoy the view for a long time. 
Chaco - Pueblo Bonito
View of Pueblo Bonito from the mesa top

Casa Rinconada, the Great Kiva

The sun is setting by the time we stop at Casa Rinconada, the great kiva.  Isolated from other structures, it is the largest kiva in Chaco Canyon, with a diameter of 64 feet.  The short walk to it takes us through barren land. No structures, no trees, only small bushes add a little green to the area.
The kiva is spectacular, standing alone in the sunset. We spend some time sitting around it, as we imagine the ceremonies that took place in it centuries ago.

The People of Chaco

As I sit at the side of the great kiva, I look around the landscape.  Across the road, the structures look beautiful in the sunset.  It is quiet now, most visitors left already, I only spot a tiny hare running across the field not far from us. The canyon is quiet, deserted.
 
It is hard to imagine the place filled with people, living their lives.  They held ceremonies in the great kiva only at certain times of the year.  But the other structures housed people living day-to-day lives, in this harsh environment.  
 
Yet, they did.  The canyon was home to ancient people long before the first structures were built. The first evidence of people living here date back 4000 years. Yet, they didn’t build anything lasting until 400-500 AD, when they erected the he first pit houses. Around the end of this period they started building more centralized structures.  
 
The biggest transformation happened around the 9th century though. The great houses, like Pueblo Bonito, started to emerge.  This is so distinctive to Chaco, archaeologists call it the Chacoan Phenomenon. The population of the area designed the area as a whole, a city or ceremonial center, or both. 

Who Were the Chacoans?

Archaeologists call people who lived here the Chacoan Anasazi. They were part of an ancient Puebloan civilization.
 
After the first great houses, the Chacoans built more for the next 250 years. They traded with other cultures around the Southwest and the Mesoamericas. They built dams, canals and a road system.  
 
Evidence suggest that very few people lived here full time. But Chaco became the center of the world for many more. Most of them traveled here on a pilgrimage during certain times of the year, for special events. 
 
But by 1150 Chaco was starting to loose its importance as a regional center. 
 
There are many theories as why this happened. A lot of factors came in consideration. Drought was one of them. Overpopulation, depletion of the natural resources is probably more important.

Where Did They Go?

The Chacoans didn’t disappear.  Many clans moved to other sites. They settled along the Hopi Mesas, Mesa Verde region, the Zuni Mountains, Mount Taylor and the Chuska Mountains, and along the Rio Grande
 
Hopi clans trace their ancestry to Chaco. Pueblo people from Acoma, Zuni, Zia, Laguna, and others have traditions and stories that talk about their clans migrating from Chaco.  The Navajo also trace the origins of some of their clans back to Chaco. 
 
All these nations consider Chaco sacred. 

Back to the Present

Standing in the middle of this deserted city, the canyon is so still, I can hear the leaves rustling in the breeze. The walls of Pueblo Bonito glow red in the setting sun.

The deserted structures stand witness to an ancient burst of human activity.  Chaco tells part of the story of human history, with its good and bad parts.

We have a long way to go to get back to civilization, so we need to leave. I know we will be back. Every time we come, we find something new, or we see the same in a different light.


Further reading:

Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, text by Michael Strutin; Photography by George H. H. Huey. Published by the Western National Parks Association, Tucson, AZ