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.
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.
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.
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.
Hoodoos are formed by different weathering processes. The extreme temperatures on the plateau cause freezing followed by thawing. This process gets repeated more often here than in 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We stopped at the Natural Bridge overlook, where we enjoyed the view of the arch.
After we settled in the lodge, we walked the rim trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points, with a great view of the amphitheater below.
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.
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.
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 isone 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, text by Michael Strutin; Photography by George H. H. Huey. Published by the Western National Parks Association, Tucson, AZ