Sunday, November 24, 2013

Turning the Page

On the Road Again, Day 19:  Page, AZ to Flagstaff, AZ

After being boxed into Page by a weather system for the last couple of days, we finally broke out of the hotel today and headed south.  Though our original plans called for going north into Utah, the weather there has been so dicey and their forecast so fraught with winter storm warnings and such, we decided to follow the way of migrating birds and go south.

Warmer weather toward the Equator, right?  Well, not exactly.  We left Page, which historically has an average of 2 snow days (totaling 3.4") per year (guess the last four days were an aberration) and drove to Flagstaff.  At an elevation of 7,000 feet, Flagstaff accumulates an average of 104 inches of snow annually on about 34 days of snow.**  Needless to say, we encountered some snow on our journey today.

When we left the hotel around 9 a.m., a mix of icy rain and snow was falling, as it has for the last three days.  Since a stretch of US-89 collapsed in February and has yet to be repaired, we headed south on Indian Route 20, a previously gravel road that the Navajo Nation had tried to get paved for the last 40 years.  With the 40-mile detour necessitated by the damage on 89, suddenly the 28 miles of Indian-20 that was unpaved was asphalted in 79 days, involving lots of overtime, and greatly improving lives for school bus drivers, tractor trailer operators, and others who had previously been mired axle-deep in the soft gravel section of roadway.

As usual, the temperature dropped and frozen precipitation increased as we gained elevation making our way south on the plateau.  The highest point we reached on what is now signed US-89T (temporary?) was a little over 6,000 feet.  By that time, the temperature was at 31° (down from 37° when we left Page), but precipitation had diminished to almost nothing and visibility had improved significantly.

Along that stretch, we were still in the Navajo Nation, but saw only a few isolated homes, no settlements along the entire section from just outside Page until we reached the tiny crossroads labeled The Gap, where the road rejoined US-89.  Though we had seen deep snow cover along the roadside at higher elevations, by the time we were back on 89, the shoulders and nearby mesas were snow-free.

In Cameron, we stopped at the historic Cameron Trading Post to track down a letterbox before continuing south to a couple of National Park Service locations—Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano.  At the ruins of the Wupatki Pueblo, we saw a multi-level, high-rise structure which once had about 100 rooms.  The local area provided materials ideal for the construction of freestanding masonry walls.

Wupatki Pueblo Ruins
Sandstone slabs, limestone blocks and chuncks of basalt set with a clay-based mortar created sturdy buildings that remain at least partially intact after more than 700 years.  This structure was built during the 1100s when Puebloan people came together in this area to erect a vast farming community.  But then the nearby Sunset Volcano erupted, and by 1250 A.D., the ancient pueblos stood empty as the farmers moved on and established new homes elsewhere.

We experienced our high temp of the day (39°) at the visitor center for this monument.  Within 15 minutes, we had climbed some 1,000 feet in elevation, and snow was falling.  But there were letterboxes to be found, so we couldn't let any adverse meteorological conditions deter us.

Searching for the letterbox
We donned our rain gear and our fabulous Neo overshoes, and off we went in search of hidden treasure.  This one was relatively easy, though one we found later in deeper snow was more of a challenge.  Thanks to the rather large rock under which it was hidden, we were able to track it down in spite of the thick coating of white stuff.

Continuing around the loop road which goes through both NPS sites, we came to Sunset Crater Volcano, which was largely hidden in snow and cloud cover today.

A valiant effort, but the sun did not break through.
Driving the final 15 miles or so into Flagstaff, we continued in light snow, checking into the hotel by 5 p.m. and having dinner at the next-door Coco's Bakery & Restaurant, a Far West chain featuring fresh ingredients and generous, flavorful dishes.

Tomorrow, we'll move south to Phoenix, where we should encounter some warmer temperatures, and visit the state capitol.

**The last time we drove thorough Flagstaff, in 1995, we got stuck on I-40 for several hours in a snowstorm waiting for the uprighting of two tractor trailers that had jackknifed and overturned.

More Photos from Today

Black volcanic soil near Sunset Crater Volcano
Suspension bridge over Little Colorado River at Cameron
Some of the widely varying rock formations roadside along US-89
Snow falling near Sunset Volcano
That bold spot of blue sky had no chance.
Trees wearing snowy decoration
Wupatki scene

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Playing the Slots

On the Road Again, Day 16:  Page, AZ

One of the signature experiences around the isolated town of Page (pop. 7,316) is visiting a slot canyon.  Slots are formed in arid areas when flash floods propel water through soft rock, such as the Navajo sandstone south of Lake Powell, cutting a narrow canyon.  Slot canyons are significantly deeper than they are wide, and in this area they are usually very photogenic with layers of red and orange sandstone formed in swirls and waves over many millions of years.

No, thanks!  (photo from TripAdvisor)
Though a slot canyon hike was on our list of things to do while we were in Page, our first sighting of one of the tour vehicles gave us pause.  Travel out into the sandy desert—with temperatures in the 40s—jostling on the open back of a pickup truck on a bench?  Not likely.  The slot canyons began to lose their luster until, while searching for a letterbox in town, we came across a business called Slot Canyon Hummer Adventures.  OK, that's what we're talking about.  As it turned out, there was much more to like about this tour company than their closed vehicles equipped with seatbelts.

Around Page, all the slot canyons are on Navajo land.  Most of the Navajo tour operators take hikers to Lower or Upper Antelope Canyons in groups of 20 or so on the back of 4WD trucks similar to the one above.  Since all these tour operators pack hikers into the same canyons, nightmare stories are common of visitors being crowded in a slot canyon with upwards of 200 people pressed by tour guides to take their photos and keep moving.

Matt explains how flash floods form slot canyons.
The Hummer tour company operates tours in a different set of canyons, thanks to an exclusive agreement with a local Navajo landowner.  Never do they take more than 10 visitors to the same canyon simultaneously.  And since we were in the off-season, our tour consisted of just the two of us and our very knowledgeable and congenial guide Matt.  Yes, we paid a bit more ($105 vs. $35), but the variation in the cost was disproportionate to the overwhelmingly better experience.

About seven miles outside of Page, Matt guided the Hummer onto a sandy dirt track on private property.  After a mile or so on this primitive road, the Hummer came into its own as it climbed sand hills and crawled up rocks, taking us another mile into the desert landscape to a spot where even the Hummer could go no farther.  A short 150-yard hike through a natural trail took us to the entrance of what tour operators call the Secret Canyon.  As we walked, the enthusiastic Matt identified various desert plants we were passing and explained how each was traditionally used by the Navajo—for food, medicine, construction, crafts.

Matt leads the way
For the next two hours, Matt educated us on meteorology, geology, botany, zoology, and—much to our surprise—photography.  A native of south Florida, Matt clearly loves the Arizona desert, where he has spent the last 15 years.  He spent high school summers hiking and off-roading in the area and is thrilled to be doing the same as an occupation.

Thanks, Matt
In his experiences leading canyon tours for professional photographers, Matt has picked up quite a store of knowledge about how to best capture the light and color that makes these slot canyons so striking.   Guiding three or four tours seven days a week during the busy season, he has seen virtually every camera tourists typically carry and can quickly demonstrate to guests the best settings on their own cameras to help them take home photographic treasures from their canyon adventure.  And, of course, he knows all the best spots and angles for photos in this canyon.  To get a great photo of his guests, he will even "chimney climb" (scale the canyon walls by alternating between toe holds on opposite walls) to get to the right spot.

The beauty of the Secret Canyon
After this exhilarating hike, we returned to Page and enjoyed a delicious lunch at The Cut Bistro, a food truck highly recommended on Trip Advisor, and tracked down across the street from the high school by Matt, whose friend Liam happens to be the chef.  With only a loose menu to choose from, we asked about a vegetarian option.  Liam whipped up some stir fried tofu and veggies in a peanut sauce, wrapped them in a pita, and we devoured them in short order.

Definitely not your average roach coach
Once sated, we took off with our Matt map of the Page area.  After we returned from our canyon hike, our passionate guide had eagerly shared his recommendations of the best local places to visit.  Our first stop was the Hanging Garden trail near the Lake Powell Dam.  A half-mile hike through striking red rock topography took us to an impossibly fertile garden hidden in an alcove under the mesa top, high above Lake Powell.

Hanging Garden
Even in late November, maidenhair ferns were thriving, thanks to a seep spring that pulls in rare rain water and slowly feeds it out to these surprising desert inhabitants. Tracks left by four-legged visitors suggest that animals enjoy this oasis as well as the plants.  The elevated location also offered fantastic panoramic views.

Scenery near Hanging Garden
As we finished our hike back to the car, rain began falling, foiling our plan to make the hike to the famous Horshoe Bend of the Colorado River.  That may not matter.  With the uncertainty of what the winter storm the Weather Channel is calling Boreas will do to our plans to head to Utah tomorrow, we may be in Page a little longer and have another opportunity to check out Horseshoe Bend.

More Photos from Today

Secret Canyon

Trail to Hanging Garden

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