Four Corners

Four Corners is a really strange name for a geographical region. It comes from the point where the borders of four states (Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico) meet. Even in a country with such crazy, straight line, borders like the US it is a unique place. There is a monument (about which I write later) but it is not the only, or even the biggest, attraction of this region. And, as there is no strict definition of the region, I will allow myself to stretch it a bit.

I entered the San Luis Valley from the east, crossing the spectacular Sangre de Cristo Mountains at the 9413 feet high La Veta pass. My first destination was the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, the newest park in the whole National Park system. Established in 2004, it protects the tallest sand dunes in North America (rising up to 750 feet from the base). Driving north on Colorado Hwy 150, the dunes are clearly visible rising from the expansive and flat valley floor. The best view can be seen around sunset, when it’s easy to understand where the name of Sangre de Cristo Mountains (blood of Christ) came from. It is a fantastic view with the red mountains as a background to the dunes. Simply begging for you to take out your camera.

Pinyon Flats Campground has 88 sites, some with simply amazing views over the dune field. I highly recommend spending a night there but be ready for low temperatures. During my visit, sometime in the middle of May, it was freezing cold. Take something better than the flimsy, cheap tent I bought. Still, the view of the stars over the dunes was fantastic and well worth all of the chill.

The park itself is rather small, perfect for a short visit. Some trails offer possibility of hiking high into the mountains but the biggest draw are the dunes themselves. Following day, like most of the visitors, I decided to hike the High Dune. There are no official trails on the dunes so you can choose your way as you please. The task of getting on top looked fairly easy as it was just 650 feet climb from the parking lot. Boy, how wrong that perception was. In fact, it took me more than an hour of hard climbing to get to the top. Every three steps up were followed by sliding two steps down. Add strong chilly wind and elevation well over 8000 feet and you get the picture. The excellent view from the High Dune extend to all of San Louis Valley, as far as San Juan Mountains to the west and it definitely justifies the struggle to get there. Coming down took surprisingly little time, maybe as little as 15 minutes.

From the San Louis Valley I continued driving west on US Hwy 160 which crosses the San Juan Mountains at the 10857 feet (3309m) Wolf Creek Pass. All I can tell you is that I definitely wouldn’t like to drive it in winter. West of the pass it was long winding route before reaching my next major destination, the Mesa Verde National Park, which was established to protect one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the world. I arrived in the evening and the campground location at over 7800 feet meant another freezing night. Why do I always choose the coldest locations for camping? Never mind.

The Anasazi (or politicly more correctly called Ancestral Puebloans) inhabited the area anywhere between 550 to 1300 AD and left plenty of buildings, ruins and artefacts. There are various theories why they left (or why did they choose this region in the first place) but no one knows for sure. The biggest draw to the park are large cliff dwellings built under the overhands of the canyon walls. They are one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. It is hard to imagine how these people managed to construct them in 12th century (when the most impressive structures were build).

The largest dwelling is quite appropriately called the Cliff Palace. It contains 150 rooms and 23 kivas which are round sunken rooms used for ceremonies. According to archaeologists the site was of high administrative and ceremonial importance. Looking at this amazing complex you don’t have to be a scientist to realize its importance. It can be visited during an one hour ranger led tour which is well worth of the hassle of booking at the visitor centre. The ranger who led my tour was absolutely fantastic. Knowledgeable, passionate, patient. The hour passed like it was 15 minutes or less. Getting into the palace involves descending some rocky steps but it’s nothing comparing with another dwelling I visited, the Balcony House.

With only 40 rooms it is smaller than the Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House or some other less known structures, but it is nonetheless still well worth visiting, and getting there is part of the fun. You will navigate a narrow tunnel and over 30 foot tall wooden ladders built in accordance to an ancient designs. The ladders are flexible to support greater weight but that provide for some extra excitement when few people try climbing them at the same time.

To see a reconstructed ceremonial kiva (including roof) you have to visit yet another structure, the Spruce Tree House. Fortunately to visit this large complex it is not necessary to join any tour and it is just a short walk away from the park museum.

There are plenty of other sites in the canyons as well as on top of the mesa but I didn’t really have time for more exploration. I only stopped at the few sites along the Mesa Top Loop (including the Sun Temple) and left the park. After spending a night in the town of Cortez I was about to turn around and start heading back east when I changed my plans. While studying my map and eating doughnut at the same time I realized how close I was to one of the most iconic places in the US, the Monument Valley. At only 120 miles away, it was something I simply couldn’t resist, even if weather was far from perfect.

But before that there was one more point which, as a geographer, I simply couldn’t skip. The four corners itself. The monument marking it, run by the Navajo Nation, is rather kitschy concrete plaza surrounded by the flag poles and stands selling Native American gifts, magnets, T-shirts etc. The whole thing has a bit sorry look and feel, especially on a cloudy day. But the exact spot where the four states meet is marked by the official BLM marker and it is perfect photo opportunity for any map and geography geek. Before you ask, yes. I did take pictures. I even asked some Japanese tourist to take a picture of myself seating on top of the marker. Sometimes the small boy inside me clearly takes over.

From the four corners point I drove Utah Hwy 162 and then the US Hwy 163 towards the Monument Valley. Even on a cloudy, and at times rainy, day it was a truly spectacular drive. In fact the heavy, dark clouds contrasted in a fantastic way with the bright colourful rocks of Utah. Distant rains and sometimes fog added to the magical experience. I’m sure the landscape is equally stunning on a sunny day but I was loving every minute of these varying conditions.

Once on US Hwy 163 west of Mexican Hat, the Monument Valley comes fully into view. And what a view it is. Rocky buttes and mesas rise from bleak high desert plains. They are absolutely stunning geological formations. This stretch of road is probably one of the most photographed and most iconic corners of America. It features in countless movies, mostly westerns but also road movies like Easy Rider or Thelma & Louise. There is no way of denying that many people have seen the place before coming there, myself included. However, it doesn’t make it even a little bit less spectacular or interesting.

During my visit the weather changed dozen of times and I experienced rain, sand storm, sunshine, everything in the space of no more than 2-3 hours and no more than 50 miles. It was crazy but brilliant. Unfortunately at some point weather got really bad and I had to abandon plans for closer exploration of the monument. But it was still memorable experience and well worth every single extra mile to get there.

After small town of Keyenta I finally turned east. It was time to start going back toward Dallas. The whole region is very sparsely populated. For example for over 100 miles from Keyenta to town of Shiprock in New Mexico there is nothing really on the way. Apart from the amazing desert landscapes I mean. I love such lonely drives. Empty road, good music, desert until horizon, all that simply makes me smile. One of the most prominent points along the way is rocky outcrop called the Shiprock. It is visible from as far as Mesa Verde NP and it’s easy to understand why it was sacred place for the Navajo people. Unfortunately there is no paved road leading to the rock itself and after recent storms I didn’t want to risk driving there in my rental sedan. Well, maybe next time.

After passing suburban mess of Farmington and surroundings I drove another long and empty stretch of the road, the US Hwy 550 towards the Santa Fe. With sun setting behind me, country music blasting from the radio and empty wide tarmac ahead it was another good afternoon. As you are probably aware by now, I really love driving in America.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the USA. It was officially established as a capital of Nueavo Mexico, then province of New Spain, in 1610. The city is full of historic buildings. One of them, the Palace of the Governors, is in fact the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. For centuries it was seat of government and today it is home to a very good museum displaying the history of New Mexico. It is an absolutely fascinating place, well worth a few hours visit. What I found especially interesting, were the artefacts which original Spanish settlers brought with them from the old world. Imagine how long and hard journey it had to be for them in the 16th or 17th century. Seeing their limited possessions it makes you think how determined they had to be to undertake such long and ardours journey into the unknown. My visit in the palace was especially interesting as I joined a tour led by an absolutely passionate volunteer. I can’t remember her name but she was a local teacher. Our tour should take about an hour but over two hours later, when I had to leave, it was still going on. She was fantastic.

Another important historic building of Santa Fe is the San Miguel Chapel which, built around the same time as the Palace of the Governors, is the oldest church in the continental USA. The church has been repaired and rebuilt numerous times over the years but its original adobe walls are still largely intact. I didn’t get inside of it but instead I did visit the Loretto Chapel, known for its unusual, helix shaped, spiral wooden staircase. It’s difficult to believe how such elegant and delicate structure could ever be built. Even now, with the help of modern computer modelling, it would be a difficult task.

The heart of the city is the historic plaza, right in front of the Palace of the Governors. Surrounded by many historic buildings this leafy square is nowadays the place where most tourists start their visit. It is also prime destination for shopping and eating as many of the buildings surrounding it are home to art galleries, jewellery shops and restaurants. The Plaza is a nice place to hang around and enjoy a sunny day, even if for me it has a bit too much of the touristy feel.

Apart from visiting the historic monuments the best way of experiencing Santa Fa is walking aimlessly through its narrow streets, as every other corner offers great photo opportunity. This is largely due to legislation imposing a unified building style. From the beginning of 20th century local government started introducing rules requiring structures in the historic downtown to be constructed in the Spanish Pueblo Revival style. I have to say it worked fairly well. Sometimes it looks a bit Disney-ish (for example the drive through ATM in pueblo style) but overall it’s much nicer than the average US town of its size.

From Santa Fe I continued heading east, towards the Texas panhandle, leaving the four corners region (however stretched for the purpose of this story). I found the region to possess an immense, though sometimes harsh, beauty. Obviously there are some major and well known attractions, but for me one of the best aspect of this road trip was simply moving across the land of the colourful rocks and the big open sky (even if it was cloudy for most of my visit).

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