Hiking In The Grand Canyon & Discovering More Of Arizona…
After completing the John Muir Trail and enjoying a few days of rest in Lone Pine, we were eager to get back to some hiking, albeit this time with a ‘day pack’.
So we agreed what better way to start our road trip than by heading to Arizona and spending some time exploring one of America’s most famous National Parks – ‘The Grand Canyon’.
Enjoying an incredible view inside the Grand Canyon from ‘Plateau Point’.
After our eventful morning cleaning sick off the front of the hire car (a lovely present left by someone staying in the second floor of our Palmdale motel), we were on our way to Grand Canyon’s South Rim by way of a 450 mile or so ‘scenic’ drive through Arizona along the I40. (Interstate driving is never particularly scenic, but as it was my first proper day getting used to the car, it was a good, steady road to help master the left-hand drive once again!)
Keen to test out our new tent and try some of our other newly purchased car-camping goodies, we decided to break up the drive by staying at a KOA (Kampground of America) at Kingman, a small town en route that was roughly halfway. We arrived around 5pm, performed the usual registration requirements, then set to work unpacking the car and putting up the tent.
To our sheer dismay, we discovered our newly purchased Coleman tent to be without any poles or pegs. On closer inspection, Wayne found the inside was littered with debris. But hey, there was also a ‘freebie’ torch inside the tent pocket! It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the tent had been used by someone then returned, minus the vital poles. (Pegs weren’t so important as we already had some). Luckily, we had back-up in the form of our faithful backpacking tent, as the next Target store we would pass was at Flagstaff, the main city outside of the Grand Canyon about 200 miles away. So we had to make do that first night with our good old Tarptent and hope that Target would exchange our ‘used goods’ the following day. (Which they did without hesitation).
By the time we reached the Grand Canyon we were more than ready for a walk, so we decided to stay 4 nights at the Mather Campground for $18 a night. (This is for a standard campsite with picnic table and fire ring. There are no electrical hook-ups. Showers are $2 extra provided at the Canyon Village).
Even standing right in front of it, the sheer size of the Grand Canyon is hard to comprehend.
The Grand Canyon is carved by the mighty Colorado River.
Settling in to our new campsite with our new cooking gear!
Making up for the lack of alcoholic beverages on the John Muir Trail!
Carved by the mighty Colorado River for over five million years, the Grand Canyon, 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep, is one of America’s greatest spectacles of erosion and geological processes. With almost 5 million visitors descending on the South Rim each year, it’s undoubtedly one of the USA’s most popular national parks.
One of the most photographed places in the world!
Even after everything we experienced on the John Muir Trail it was an equally spectacular view!
Because of it’s remote location 10 miles across the canyon from the South Rim, the North Rim receives much less visitors. But despite being less accessible, it still has around 10% of tourists stopping by. An interesting fact we discovered, having been congratulated for our ‘achievement’ by an American hiker (yes, some Americans can get out of their car) is that out of the entire number of visitors to both the north and south rims, only around 5% of people actually hike below the canyon rim. The majority of tourists choose to take the shuttle bus to various view points along the rim and are perfectly happy with seeing the Grand Canyon from above.
‘The Grand Canyon Desert View Watch Tower’ on the South Rim provides a great view from above the canyon.
Having already hiked below the rim along Bright Angel Trail to ‘Plateau Point’ three years ago, we are proud to be part of that 5% and decided that we’d like to do the hike again. This time around we were feeling much fitter and of course, we now own better cameras.
Setting off early morning from the ‘Bright Angel Trailhead’.
Hi ho, hi ho, down into the canyon we go!
We felt much stronger and fitter having completed the John Muir Trail just a few days beforehand.
Light as a feather with just a ‘day pack’!
Hiking below the canyon rim on the Bright Angel Trail.
‘Trail bandit’ alert!
Diverting off the Bright Angel trail to ‘Plateau Point’.
‘Plateau Point’ provides a fantastic view of the mighty Colorado River.
After leaving the Grand Canyon our plan was to drive east to New Mexico as we had a set date to be in Albuquerque. Our route leaving Arizona happened to take us past the ‘Petrified Forest National Park’, a national park that we’d never heard of before until Wayne looked at our invaluable ‘road atlas’ to work out this section of the drive. So having paid $80 for the ‘American Beautiful Pass’ allowing us free entry into all federal owned lands (e.g. National Parks, Monuments and Recreation areas) we decided to check out the park and stop by the Visitor Centre to find out what’s so special about ‘petrified wood’.
We couldn’t miss the turning to the National Park road with this enormous sign. Obviously we were thankful of the ‘clean restrooms’!
The Petrified Forest National Park. A completely new place for us to explore!
Like myself, if you’re not too sure, ‘petrified wood’ is literally trees which lived over 200 million years ago that have become fossilised. This happens when plant material is buried by sediment and protected from decay by oxygen and organisms. Then, groundwater rich in dissolved solids flows through the sediment replacing the original plant material with silica, calcite, pyrite or another inorganic material such as opal. The result is a fossil of the original woody material that often exhibits preserved details of the bark, wood and cellular structures.
A giant piece of petrified wood that has undergone the process described above.
Petrified wood in general is extremely rare.
What makes this national park unique is that hundreds of exquisitely colourful petrified logs literally litter the landscape. Petrified wood is extremely rare but is found in abundance in this part of Arizona. It’s a federal offence to collect or remove any petrified wood from the national park. (This is strictly enforced using vehicle inspections and a whistle-blower system whereby visitors can report any thefts they witness).
Petrified wood is strewn across this Arizonan landscape.
But it’s fair game on private land. We saw numerous rock shops in nearby communities selling fantastic pieces of the stuff, albeit you’d need to take out a second mortgage to afford it as they were mega bucks!
After looking at the ‘Giant Logs’ at the back of the Visitor Centre and walking around the ‘Crystal Forest’ (there’s only so many pieces of petrified wood you can ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at after all), we ventured onto a 28-mile scenic drive through the park.
The park road overlooks ‘The Tepees’ – land forms with distinctive colour banding that shows the ancient layers of sediments deposited by the Triassic River system. Another view point we stopped by was ‘Newspaper Rock’, an overlook where you can just about see a number of petroglyphs etched into stone.
Zooming in to the petroglyphs on ‘Newspaper Rock’.
Towards the northern end of the park there is another Visitor Centre in the area known as ‘The Painted Desert’. As well as its striking palette of colour, the soft, sedimentary rock is known to contain millions of fossils.
A panorama of ‘The Painted Desert’.
Another claim to fame is that it’s the only national park to have the historic ‘Route 66’ pass through the middle of it – so of course we had to stop to take a photo!
The iconic ‘Route 66’ passes through this national park.
After our impromptu visit to the Petrified Forest National Park, we looked for somewhere nearby to camp. Homolovi State Park was perfect for a one-nighter, complete with showers and electricity for $25. There are several puebloan ruins and short walking trails within the park but as we arrived just before sunset we didn’t have time to explore them.
Setting off early next morning, we continued on our journey into New Mexico. We didn’t return to Arizona until a month or so later when we decided to visit Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which is just across the stateline from Utah.
Recreating the iconic image of the three, vast, sandstone buttes in Monument Valley.
On the way to Monument Valley we passed the little town of ‘Mexican Hat’, famous for its curious rock formation that looks remarkably like a sombrero.
‘Mexican Hat’ – Wayne thinks that the rock needs painting to turn it into a proper American tourist attraction!
Monument Valley is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation so we had to pay a $20 entrance fee, (which is valid for four days). We only planned on staying for 1 night and wanted to camp in the tribal park itself so that we could get sunset and sunrise over the three most famous buttes.
Our camp spot in the Navajo Nation Monument Valley Tribal Park. It doesn’t get much better than this!
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon to find the park teeming with tourists of the ‘organised coach tour’ variety and commented we hadn’t seen a place so busy since The Grand Canyon. The visitor centre and gift shop was a hive of activity as people clambered to get their photograph with John Wayne. (I’d already done this in Lone Pine!) There is a list for visitors detailing the numerous ‘westerns’ that have been filmed in Monument Valley or have used the location as the backdrop for particular scenes. ‘Forrest Gump’ was listed, although I can’t remember Monument Valley in that movie. Maybe he just ran on past! (I’ll just have to watch it again!)
After buying a postcard, we set off on the 17 mile scenic drive through the park, stopping at various viewpoints to take photos. The weather was perfect with bright sunshine and blue skies, making the red rock formations appear even redder.
A perfect day for it!
Venturing out on the 17 mile scenic drive through the park.
Posing at one of the various viewpoints in the park.
The Navajo Nation flag.
We couldn’t believe our luck when we went to inquire about a campsite. Having read in the Lonely Planet ‘Western USA’ guide book not to expect too much, that camping was literally a spot in a car park – we were pleasantly surprised to find that there a had been a whole upgrade of facilities. (Which have only been open the last four months). This includes new restrooms, complete with the cleanest showers we’ve experienced on the entire road trip, wi-fi, and best of all, campsites are facing right onto the three famous buttes, which afforded us perfect unobstructed views for sunset and sunrise. All for the princely sum of $20. You can’t get much better than that!
A sultry sunset from our camp spot.
The change in colour was incredible.
Enjoying fiery skies whilst walking amongst the sand dunes.
An early alarm call for sunrise.
Possibly the best Monday morning wake-up ever!
The only downside was that during the night our tent took a battering from heavy winds and we woke up to what looked like half of the Arizona desert inside it!
From Monument Valley, our plan was to head back into Utah to visit both Bryce and Zion National Parks. Our route took us through the city of Page, where after hearing an advert on the local radio, we just had to stop at the Mandarin Gourmet Chinese for a buffet lunch. (Well recommended with all-you-can-eat for less than $10 per person!) Yes we were still on an excessive eating mission with our ‘hiker hunger’ persisting!
Feeling that we were going to explode any minute, we decided to camp within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and visit Horseshoe Bend, another iconic landmark. We realised it wasn’t the best place to go late afternoon ready for sunset. We were in the wrong position so couldn’t avoid sun flares, but Wayne managed to capture the river in all its glory.
The famous ‘Horseshoe Bend’ on the outskirts of Page.
This is the closest to the edge I would dare go!
Arizona certainly has a lot to offer in terms of the great outdoors and contains a number of iconic places that you may recognise from the movies. We had lots of fond memories and several hundred more photographs as we bid farewell to the ‘Grand Canyon State’ and got ready to head into Utah.
We hope our updates are giving you lots more ideas if you’re planning your own road trip in the USA. Be sure to visit TrekSnappy again soon to check out our next update which comes from ‘New Mexico’…