Tag Archives: Utah

Heart of the American Southwest

Lush Monument ValleyThis part of the country is as iconic as it gets. Probably most people on the planet have seen images of it either in books or in countless movies, especially the classic westerns. You must have seen them too.

I had visited this region just a few years ago so it was interesting to be back.

You might ask why come back? Well, it is a bit complicated. First, I wanted to show my girlfriend (who is an archaeologist) some of the sites associated with the ancient American cultures, namely the Ancestral Puebloans’ ruins in Mesa Verde National Park. But I also like to come back to some places in general. Somehow while revisiting a particular location I do notice more things. I guess the reason for that is the fact that when you arrive at some very exciting destination for the first time it is easy to be overwhelmed and distracted. It is simply too difficult to take it all in. Somehow, a repeated visit is usually less frenetic, calmer, and it simply lets you notice more. It also allows you to see things in different conditions, for example in different weather.

And that’s precisely what I experienced when we arrived at the famous Monument Valley. Two years ago during my previous trip the weather conditions were challenging, to say the least. It was rainy, it was windy and visibility was not too great. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, I still loved every moment of the experience, it was just different. This year the weather was perfect. Warm, but not too hot, with beautiful sunshine. We also managed to arrive at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park at the perfect time of day, in the late afternoon not too long before the sunset.Monument Valley

The park is run by the Navajo Nation and welcomes you with an absolutely enormous visitor centre, containing restaurants, gift shops, hotel and a small museum. Don’t linger there too long as it is not really that interesting and it is overrun by tourists from all the tour buses which you will pass on your way there. Give them a wide berth and head straight for the trail. There are viewing terraces right next to the visitor centre but they are full of people with sophisticated cameras mounted on enormous tripods who are trying to take the perfect shot. Hardly any of them walk off the pavement so you will most likely have the trail to yourself. The Wildcat Trail is the only self-guided trail in the park and it runs for 3.2 miles around the West Mitten Butte at approximately 5400 feet elevation. It may take anywhere from 1.5 to 2.0 hours to walk the whole loop. We only walked part of it but it still allowed us to experience the changing vistas as well as get close to the desert environment. And we only saw one more couple on the entire walk. I would highly recommend this hike.

There is a scenic drive but it requires navigating some seriously rough dirt road which is not recommended for regular cars. It is also a definite no-no for any rental vehicle like ours. Alternatively you can experience the park with a native guides, either in 4×4 or on horseback.

From the park we headed north along the US Hwy163, precisely the route I drove in 2011, just the opposite way. It is a truly spectacular drive, one of the American classics, and we drove it at the absolute best time of the day, just before the sunset.Classic Vista

We were thinking about spending the night in some cheap motel in the town of Cortez (another place I have visited before) which is a convenient base for the Mesa Verde. We were still quite a few miles away from it when we spotted the bright lights of the Ute Mountain Casino. As we were getting tired after a long and exciting day we decided to check it out. And it was a great idea.

Ute Mountain CasinoI have to say that the place was one of the best deals during our whole trip. We paid only about $50 for a spacious and nicely appointed room. From my experience similar rooms in non-casino locations would cost probably twice as much, if not more. Once we made ourselves comfy in our room we immediately went back to reception and extended our stay for another night. Basically we decided to make the Ute casino our base and to come back the following night, after visiting the Mesa Verde National Park.

This is one of the parks which concentrates more on historical sights than on the natural ones. I mean the landscape is still spectacular but the real draw here are the ruins of ancient settlements in the canyons rather than cliffs or the canyons themselves. Our itinerary closely resembled my own one from two years previously. We joined the ranger led tours of the Cliff Palace and the Balcony House, precisely as I did two years previously. You can read more about it in my old blog entry here.Balcony House

However here I have to complain about the quality of the guides/rangers. It was nowhere near to those I experienced in 2011. Back then I was really impressed with the eloquent, funny, lively and knowledgeable old rangers. This year we got two university students which were in fact only part time rangers for the summer. Don’t take me wrong, they were lovely but as guides they were hopeless. I don’t want to boast but I have a feeling that I could have run this tour better if I had read a chapter or two from some basic history book. They provided very little information but they were also really unprofessional. They couldn’t control the time and pace of their tours, spending too much time getting stuck in some, not really important, place while trying to catch up later and speeding way too much along the really interesting and impressive bits. At some point I thought I was going to say something but I didn’t want to be rude. I was reminded of why I don’t like guided tours in general. They can be a real hit or miss. Unfortunately in Mesa Verde it is the only way to see the best sites.

Canyon De ChellyAfter a second night in our favourite Ute Mountain Casino, Hotel & Resort we headed south towards the Canyon the Chelly. By now the US government was in total shut-down and the national parks were closed. However we were hoping that Canyon de Chelly National Monument will be open as it is run by the National Park Service but owned by the Navajo Nation. And we were lucky. The visitor centre was indeed closed but the scenic rim drives (which are also access roads for the Navajo families living inside the park) were open. Even better, the only public trail which leads down to the canyon floor was also open. It is called the White House Trail and it descends 600 feet (200m) from the parking area to the White House Ruins. It is a great walk which runs next to some steep drop-offs where it has been carved into the sandstone. If you are afraid of heights, beware! The trail also passes through two fairly short tunnels. Views from the trail are spectacular and the natural sculpturing of the sandstone is also unique and fun to look at.

The bottom of the canyon has quite lush vegetation, even at the end of a long summer. It is due to underground water flowing there even when the river bed is bone dry, like during our visit. Normally the area around the ruins is quite crowded with all the Navajo-run tours as well as Navajo sellers offering their jewellery and other wares. However when we got there it was all quiet and empty. During our stay only one 4×4 arrived with one noisy family. Luckily they took a few pictures and disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. Perfect. I can safely say that Canyon de Chelly was definitely one of the highlights of our trip across the American Southwest.Canyon de Chelly White House Ruins

It is fascinating region well worth repeated visits. It doesn’t matter if it is your first, or second, or even tenth visit, I’m sure you will have fun and find some new fascinating angles to the sites you know as well as discover plenty of new stuff. Places like that are the perfect answer for all those folks who ask me if I’m not getting bored after travelling to the US so much. How can I get bored? Are you kidding me?

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).


Utah is an amazing destination for people who like the outdoor fun. My trip there started actually in the urban jungle of the metropolitan Los Angeles. It is simple much cheaper to fly there than anywhere in Utah itself.

It was all great until I left the car rental company depot at the airport. The first moments of driving on the notorious LA freeway network can be intimidating, frightening but also exiting in the same time. It takes a moment or two to get used to drivers totally ignoring the road rules, indicators or speed limits. And all this on roads with 12 or more lanes of bumper to bumper traffic with cars going well over 80mph, overtaking on the inside and on the outside, changing lanes just inches in front of you and so on. The only way to survive, is to behave in the same way. Fortunately it comes easier than you might imagine. It was Friday before the long memorial weekend, when half of the Americans travel somewhere, so the situation was particularly bad. Fortunately my local friend, using highlighter pen and a road atlas of California, showed me a route which avoided the main highways and went through the local desert roads instead. Thanks to him, in just a few hours, I was able to move from the densely populated metropolis to the open desert landscapes. In one and half day I blasted through deserted parts of California, Nevada, some short stretch of Arizona and arrived to southern Utah.

And what a great state it is. I started exploring it from the Zion National Park. The main attraction there is a canyon which the river Virgin carved through the multicoloured sandstone formations. I won’t be describing all the geological details here. First because it is boring for most of the people, and second because I forgot the details of my geology classes a long time ago. But even if you can’t say the difference between the sandstone and the granite you will still be stunned by all the wonders of Zion. There are plenty of good hikes for everyone. For the lazy or not very healthy ones I recommend the Riverside Walk which is no more demanding than a stroll in the London’s famous Hyde Park but offers close contact with the narrow section of the canyon. Unfortunately it also offers close contact with the hordes of tourists. Fortunately, there are some short but steep hikes leading away from the crowd, like for example Weeping Rock Trail.

If you are fit and don’t have agoraphobia I strongly recommend the Angels Landing Trail. It is a steep and strenuous walk where you gain 1500 feet of elevation in the distance of 2.5 miles. First you fight the many switchbacks which you think will never end and then you arrive to the best part of the trail. The last few hundred feet of it are formed by chains, steps cut into the rocks, and ridges as narrow as three feet. I love this sort of trails offering extra adrenalin. Views from the top are well worth all the efforts, but remember to take plenty of water (not available anywhere on the trail), sunscreen and start early. Zion NP is quite low and can get unbearably hot during the midday.

The cheapest form of accommodation around is camping, which also allows you the closest contact with nature. Try to get your spot early. Park campgrounds fill up quickly and you might end up like me, camping somewhere on the public lands out of the park, which is OK, except for the fact there are no facilities.

Zion NP is one of the most popular parks in the National Parks system and because it is also one of the smaller ones, it can get very crowded. Fortunately it is also the only park in the US which bans individual cars (at least in the summer season) and offers public transport instead. Anyway try to avoid weekends.

The next great national park of my trip was the Bryce Canyon. It is just a short (about two hours) drive from Zion NP but the landscape there is completely different. Bryce lies at 8000-9000 feet above the sea level, which places it over 3000 feet higher than Zion, and makes it a much cooler park covered in large parts by the pine forests. Like in Zion, the main attractions of the Bryce Canyon NP are the geological formations. These are called Hoodoos, a kind of rock pinnacles formed by specific erosion processes. Again, lets skip the detailed geology classes (as you know my memory by now). They form landscapes which looks like from the fairy tales. It is all the most impressive around sunrise or sunset, when the long shades and warm sunlight form a magical atmosphere. I recommend to hike down to the formations early in the morning using the combined Navajo and Queen’s Garden loops. It brings you close to hoodoos, slot canyons (some of them just few feet wide but over 100 feet deep) and other less known wonders. Beware that even if the trail is not difficult (combined ascent and descent of just 800 feet) due to the high elevation you will get tired much quicker than you might think and hope. Morning light is the best for taking pictures. In the afternoon you can drive the rim drive, stopping at the various viewpoints to admire the whole park. Unfortunately camping in Bryce means freezing cold at night. It was one of the reasons I got up early enough to see the sunrise. It was simply too cold to sleep. Again, this is all due to the high elevation. Even if the days are warm a and sunny the nights will get very cold very quickly.

West of Bryce Canyon is located one of the best drives I have ever done, the Utah Hwy12. Designated a one of the US Scenic Byways, the road turns and twists through the amazing landscape for well over 100 miles . It is a geology wonder, continuously unfolding in front of your car. I wanted to stop every few hundred yards to take yet another picture but eventually the batteries in my camera ran flat which let me just simply to enjoy the drive. In my opinion this road is as good as the famous Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California. But getting to my next destination also involved driving some pretty boring, flat and straight roads while staring at desolated landscapes. Sometimes for hours. Thank God for the satellite radio. It was getting dark and I really wanted to get to Green River to find some cheap motel (after few days of camping, including freezing night at Bryce, I really felt I deserved a normal bed). Fortunately I could easily drive 90-100mph as the road looked like a 40 miles long runaway, completely straight, wide and empty. Did I mention I love driving?

Green River would be absolutely not worth writing about. Just another cluster of gas stations, motels and fast food restaurants with population scattered around. Community which survives thanks to the interstate highway. Somehow I like this sort of places (for a short time of course), where everyone and everything is on the way to somewhere else. It is something you can’t find in Europe, it is part of the American road culture.

But lets move on. The following day I arrived to Arches. It is another small and compact national park but also another one full of geological wonders. Main attractions there are the rock arches formed by complicated erosion processes in the Navajo sandstone. What might strike you first is how red everything is. Rocks are red, sand is red, a bit of soil you can find there is red. Even the tarmac on the park road is red. It contrasts with the few green patches of vegetation. This is a real desert park. Once I got out of the air-conditioned car I felt even my eyeballs drying, so don’t forget to carry plenty of water. The most popular hike in the Arches NP is the one to the famous and picturesque Delicate Arch. It is only 1.5 mile long with less than 500 feet elevation gain but don’t underestimate it. Most of it goes on slippery slick rock, there is no shade on the way, no water, and it gets incredibly hot, even hotter than in Zion. The arch itself is amazing. Many people seen it on pictures or on TV screen but nothing compares to the real thing. I got there about an hour or so before the sunset and many people were already waiting with anticipation, like before some important sport event. Clouds obscured the sunset itself but the changing light made the time I spent there a really magical experience. There are of course other walks in the park, a few good ones are around the Devils Garden area. It let people explore features other than the arches (rock spines, ribs, enormous boulders, in other words: the rocky labyrinth).

There is just one small campground in the park itself but there are plenty of camping opportunities on the BLM lands alongside the Utah Hwy 128 which follows the Colorado river just outside the park boundaries. Most of these sites don’t have showers but they do have the pit toilets. If someone prefers luxuries of the standard bed, town of Moab (also just a few miles outside the park) offers plenty of options. It is a small, attractive, friendly, and a bit funky community dominated by young people in a search of outdoor fun (mostly mountain biking). Not a typical small Utah town and it is a stark contrast with the Green River.

Close to Arches NP and Moab lays Canyonlands NP. This is an absolutely enormous park, made of three districts separated by canyons at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. To move from one district to the another you have to drive hundreds of miles. I visited just a small section of the park but even that involved long driving and great vistas. There are a few short trails, but this is really a destination for serious explorers, who have much more time than I had. Anyway, it is still worth visiting just to peep into the enormous labyrinth of canyons from the few viewpoints alongside the park roads. It is also much, much emptier than any of the parks I visited before.

From reading this you might think Utah is all about deserts. Nothing more wrong. Most Europeans don’t realise how big and diverse most of the states are. At the end, Utah is larger than Britain. I realised it when after few days of exploring southern Utah geological paradise I decided to go north and visit Salt Lake City (it was on the way to Wyoming anyway). It was another long but spectacular drive. Gradually the landscape got less desert-like and more alpine scenery started dominating. Just before the Salt Lake City road navigates the mountain passes, almost like in the Switzerland. One thing stays constant: the low density of population. It means that arriving to SLC feels like coming to a great metropolis, which is of course wrong. It is a mid size US city with pleasant downtown and great location at the foothills of the Wasatch Range. It is nice placde indeed (especially after a week camping in the deserts) but you can’t really call it a metropolis.

I skipped the greatest attraction in the city, the Temple Square, heart of the Mormon religion, and went to visit the state capitol instead. It is free and quite interesting. Some of the paintings and sculptures inside somehow are similar to the socrealistic art of the former eastern block. Look at some of the titles: “Immigration & Settlement” or “Science & Technology”, not exactly how Van Gogh or Monet would call their works. Fits more into the Kremlin collection doesn’t it? And how about marble and granite toilets? How cool is that? You can visit the building pretty much on your own, no one even checks your bags, or join tour led by nice retired volunteers. You can also buy a Utah fridge magnet from the capitol store. Only in America.

But it was time for me to move on. Wyoming, another state larger than life, was waiting. I’ll write about it next time.