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Arizona's Northern Attractions

Author: lynncarol (More Trip Reviews by lynncarol)
Date of Trip: October 2012


In October of 2012, my husband (Lynn) and I spent several weeks in Arizona. After seven days at Sedona with extended family, it was time for just the two of us to move on. I had accommodations tonight in Cliff Dwellers Lodge at Marble Canyon, approximately 172 miles north. En route, however, we planned to visit both Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments just northeast of Flagstaff. (Bypassed earlier in the week when everyone headed for an overnight at Grand Canyon).

Sunset Crater is the youngest of a number of volcanoes in the area, last erupting around 900 years ago. Barely past the park entrance, the first dramatic examples of lava flows and cinder fields could be seen. Although visitors are no longer allowed to ascend to the crater itself, there are a number of other trails to explore, one of which led us straight up a steep hill to an overlook of the area. Even more interesting, a one-mile loop at the base of the 1000 ft. high crater meandered through areas of large volcanic rock and debris, spatter cones, coarsely ground cinders and a few twisted ponderosa pines. Little else grew in this still desolate landscape, with the exception of the occasional yellow flowering bushes or the delicate pink Apache plume grasses.

Only eighteen miles away was Wupatki National Monument preserving a number of scattered ruins. These pueblos were built in the 12th and 13th century by the Sinagua and Anasazi Indians who migrated to this arid desert after Sunset Crater’s eruption left their farmlands covered with ash. By 1300 A.D. all dwellings had been abandoned, a result of a prolonged drought.

The Visitor Center offered shaded outdoor seating where we gobbled down our picnic lunch. Not many other tourists were around and a short stroll led us to the main complex, containing approximately 100 rooms as well as ball courts. Only a two-mile drive away, the towered structure of Wukuki Pueblo perched atop a large block of isolated sandstone. What really appealed to us about these ruins was their accessibility. Visitors were allowed within a few feet of the main complex and actually could go inside Wukuki.

Leaving Wupatki, we drove through colorful stretches of the Painted Desert with its smears of yellow sands, red rocks and green sagebrush, arriving two hours later at our overnight destination, Cliff Dwellers Lodge. (Actually more like a roadside motel for fishing enthusiasts). I had chosen the place not for its proximity to the Colorado River but because it nestled right up against Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. In the afternoon sunlight, the cliffs’ glowing red pigments certainly justified their name. Beautiful! But what I really liked were the huge boulders scattered not only around the base of the precipices but in some cases, hundreds of yards away. Products of cliff erosion, they resembled a giant’s game of tiddlywinks.

Another nice surprise: The cooler weather in northern Arizona. Finally! While in the area, we decided to also check out nearby Lees Ferry, the “put-in-spot” for fishing boats and many of the Colorado River rafting trips through the Grand Canyon. In fact, a large group of rafters were in the process of casting off for their 18-day excursion downriver. (Not my idea of fun)!

Dinner at the motel’s restaurant outdoor-seating was notable for two bats that kept sweeping through the dining area. Oh and I forgot the couple nearby evicted after becoming verbally abusive when management ‘cut them off’ after their third drink. Oh well, our fish dinner was tasty.

On our way again. First destination: Antelope Canyon, the most famous of all slot canyons located on Navaho lands near the town of Page. We arrived in plenty of time for their ten o’clock tour where, in groups of fourteen, folks were loaded onto flat-bed trucks and driven to the site. Luckily, I got to sit up front with the driver/guide, a sweet young Navaho woman.

Thanks to internet feedback, I was expecting throngs of visitors (especially as this was a holiday weekend) but nothing could have prepared me for the actual experience. Numerous bunches of tourists were herded through a dark canyon so narrow (typically three feet in width) that little sunlight could enter. Everyone had to return the same way they came in, which impacted the space even more. Worst of all, camera enthusiasts were setting up their tripods within these limited passageways. Fortunately, our guide used my camera to illustrate spots for the best photo opts, so we came away with some great pictures. But Lynn and I spent most of our time trying to avoid tripping over someone (or something) in the dim light. Only rarely could we appreciate those wonderful swirling columns of colorful sandstone our camera subsequently revealed. Over lunch at Burger King, we agreed: Glad to have seen it, but no desire to return…ever!

Next attraction: Horseshoe Bend, located just south of Page. A half-mile sandy pathway from the parking lot led to a rocky rim. One thousand feet below us the emerald-green Colorado River made a wide horse-shoe-shaped sweep around a sandstone escarpment. Nice! Despite the absence of guardrails, Lynn overcame his trepidation about heights to join me on an overhang affording a incredible view of this natural wonder.

We would be staying the next two nights at the Marriott Page and after checking in, decided to take a practice run over to Wahweap Marina, the departure point for our boat-tour tomorrow morning of Glen Canyon. This gorgeous area ‘drowned’ when the Colorado River was dammed in the mid-sixties to create Lake Powell Reservoir.

That task completed, we headed back to our hotel-room for our wine, complimented by chocolate-chip cookies from the front desk. Dinner that evening was Italian, at the nearby Stromboli Restaurant. Another good (and very reasonable) meal.

Despite a requested 5:30 wake-up call that never came, we managed to make our 7:00 a.m. boat reservations. (Thanks to Lynn’s paranoia, our personal alarm-clock was also set). I had signed us up for a two-hour boat ride to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest natural bridge, by all accounts quite amazing. Including the 1 ½ hours allotted at the site, the entire excursion would take almost five hours.

With close to 70 tourists onboard, the vessel was almost at full capacity and, since the morning air was chilly, Lynn and I chose to grab a seat on the lower (and enclosed) deck. The next few hours flew by as the scenery was spectacular with colorful canyon peaks, spires and buttes rising out of deep blue waters. Eventually, entering a narrow cove, the boat inched its way to a landing dock. We had positioned ourselves well and were amongst the first off the boat. A brisk ¾ mile hike brought us to Rainbow Bridge. Salmon-colored and streaked with red oxide, it was so grandiose that words fail me and walking beneath such a magnificent structure, I could actually feel my pulse accelerating. The majority of tourists remained on the other side of the bridge and later a crew member pointed out of a small sign (which I swear we never saw) restricting access to our trail. Oh well, we certainly weren’t the only ‘trespassers’ and I don’t regret our actions one bit!

Returning to Page by one, we stopped at Subways for lunch, tracked down an ATM and headed back to the hotel where Lynn’s complaint to the manager about our missing wake-up phone call resulted in free breakfast chits for tomorrow.

With reservations for the 3:30 tour of the dam, we zipped off to Lake Powell’s Carl Hayden Visitor Center where a tour-guide corralled our group of twelve. A very informative hour followed as we were led out onto the dam’s crest and eventually (via a long elevator ride) brought to the generator room near its base. We learned the structure is 710 feet high with a thickness ranging from 25 to 300 ft., top to bottom. This dam has created the second largest reservoir in the USA and is a major supplier of water and power to cities as far south as San Diego. Wow. I had no idea.

Back at the hotel, we completed a couple of laundry loads, before driving to the restaurant, Bonkers, just in time for their early-bird special accompanied by a great salad bar.

Thanks to our free chits, Lynn and I enjoyed our first hot breakfast feast of the entire trip. Several tour-bus groups were also hitting the buffet, but we were faster and snagged the last remaining table. Today’s destination? Monument Valley via a detour en route to visit Navaho National Monument. Despite the two-lane road, an absence of traffic combined with great visibility allowed us to make excellent time.

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