It is very difficult to live a life of normalcy when your soul is made for adventure. Now that David and I had had a taste of the open road, we craved it more than ever. So, a mere five months after returning from Colorado, we were preparing for our next exploit!
We had first discussed the idea of the Southwest while we were in the mountains, spurred by the beautiful plateaus and rock formations we saw in the flatlands. I also discovered that David had never actually seen the desert and, more importantly, had never been to the Grand Canyon! Now this further highlights how much of my past vacations I took for granted, as I had never really thought about the fact that there are lots of people who go their entire lives without ever seeing any of the seven natural wonders of the world. I had seen it once at least, over a decade ago, and I can still recall the wonder I had felt.
At this time, we also had a new fascination for national parks. We already had them all on our list of places to visit, but David had recently bought a board game called Parks. We played it often and had learned a lot from it, so we were even more excited by the idea of them! And my poor, sheltered David had never been to a national park either! (He has seen the St. Louis arch a long time ago, but it wasn’t a national park back then, so he doesn’t count it.)
So, it was settled. Our next trip would be to the southwestern desert region, hitting as many national parks as we could along the way, with the Grand Canyon being our central focus. Now…how to plan it? Our last trip had taken a week and it hadn’t been nearly long enough. So, this time, we would take two weeks. In Colorado, we had every minute planned and scheduled accordingly: the flight, the rental car, our hotel…it had been a very structured time schedule. However, both of us were intrigued by the idea of a spontaneous road trip so we wondered…what if we didn’t plan anything at all? Just a vague idea of our route?
Thoroughly excited by our own daring, we focused only on planning out the budget portion. We decided it would save on hotel stays if we camped part of the time, so we borrowed a tent and prepared several totes of camping supplies to accompany us. We packed a large cooler of groceries to sit in the back seat so we wouldn’t eat out as much. And I took a risk and volunteered by own car to be our trusty travel vessel. Originally, we were going to rent a car, but this would put us on that time schedule we were trying to avoid, as well as putting a hefty dent in our budget. Now, neither of us had what I would call a “healthy” car, but my reliable Chevy Impala, well over 200,000 miles, was still kicking. Plus, she had made a journey like this in travels past. If this trip proved to be the end of her, I could think of no better way for my ole girl to go out.
We waited for February, as it was the off season for us both, meaning we wouldn’t have those pesky work schedules to plan around. It was the coldest, iciest time of year in Missouri, making it the perfect time to escape to the desert. (Plus, if we were going to camp in the desert, I needed to do so during a time of year when I wouldn’t die of heat stroke.) And, with taxes freshly filed for the year, it gave us a cushion in the bank account.
The night before, my car was packed with suitcases and camping equipment. My sister was on hand to be my house-sitter and feed my cat while I was away. I had a replacement car in the works in case mine didn’t make it home. Everything was set and prepped with an open road plan ahead. We were ready for our Southwest road trip!
February 8th – Search for the Sun
David stayed the night at my apartment so we could make the most of our early morning departure the following day. Getting on the road before dawn would allow us to skip the traffic, as well as the monotonous view of Missouri that we knew all too well. However, the weather that morning made us think we might not be leaving at all.
The Branson area had already been through its fair share of ice storms that week, but there was much more (and much worse) headed our way. As it was well below freezing at 4am that morning, with no hope of it rising much throughout the day, there was still a decent layer of ice covering the parking lot. My car was not going to move far and, because my lot was on a hill, one wrong slide and it would go all the way to the bottom. We would be stuck before we had even started. So, we sprinkled some ice salt all around my car (we had very little left) and let it sit.
While we waited, we had a quick breakfast of leftovers and chiseled ice off my windshield. Then we slowly attempted our first objective of this road trip…getting out of the parking lot! I was afraid to move my car quite yet, but I had seen the ice storm coming on the radar. We were on a time crunch now. If we didn’t get out, we might be stuck in Missouri for several days. So, with teeth clenched and muscles tensed, we eased our way off the hill and made it to the highway with minimal spinning of my tires. (It helped a lot that David had just put four brand new tires on my car about a month before!)
Neither of us had slept well, mostly due to excitement, but that on top of our cold, icy delay to the morning made us both crankier than we prefer to be when starting an adventure. However, the main roads had been well-treated, so once we were out and rolling, we were able to relax a little. The first couple of hours were a blur of darkness as we yawned and rubbed our eyes. There was no sunrise to lift our mood; just a cold, gray day with more winter weather in the air.
As we headed west on I-40, we eventually crossed into Oklahoma. We perked up a little, finally getting the sense that we were going somewhere at least. We woke up enough to have some music playing and David took a photo here and there. But it was still a quiet start. And there wasn’t a whole lot of Oklahoma to catch our attention. Just gray skies and frosty fields filled with hay and cows.
The last time we had traveled out of state, it had been by plane. Within an hour, we had been in a noticeably different world. But after such a slow start to this trip, we were having a lot of trouble shaking the Midwest dreariness, which dampened our adventure vibes. To top it off, it was spitting ice on us again. We had to stop frequently to clean off the windshield wipers as they got clogged up very quickly.
About halfway through the morning, we passed a Visitor Center for Oklahoma. There had just been one exit from the interstate to it, but I hadn’t seen it in time. However, I had seen a large, pretty state sign and thought that keeping track of our state visits with pictures of their state sign would be a cute idea. Plus, David had to pee so we thought this might be a good opportunity to stop and stretch our legs. So, we took an exit into the small town, thinking we could just loop back around to the Visitor’s Center without conflict. We were wrong.
The curse of Oklahoma, we discovered, was that if you dared to leave I-40, you would pay the price. Quite literally. $3-$8 to be exact, depending on which direction you had come from. The state is literally full of toll booths that force you to pay just to enter their stupid towns. I understand the concept of toll roads, and have encountered them before, but this seemed a bit overkill. And, as I had never been behind the wheel when encountering a toll booth, I wasn’t quite sure how it worked. When I explained that to the old broad running the booth, she quite rudely told be how “obvious” it was that I didn’t know what I was doing.
Now, I was embarrassed and angry. I paid the stupid fee (travel tip: always keep spare quarters and cash with you for instances like these! They did not accept cards!) and we drove into town. Only to find out the entire thing was literally fenced in. And the Visitor’s Center was on the other side of the fence. We drove around a little, thinking there was surely an access point somewhere. But there wasn’t. At this point, I was fed up and didn’t want a picture of the state sign anymore. We found a gas station for David to use the restroom, then made a beeline back to the interstate. Because I am petty, I threw my nastiest look at the rude tollbooth woman.
All in all, we decided we did not like the state of Oklahoma very much. To be fair, the circumstances were not in our favor in any way, and we did not have the time to devote to exploring all the little things that make this state loved by its residents. I’m sure we will come back one day and give this state another chance…but because we are butthurt about it, that probably won’t happen for a good long while. (Also, their stoplights are weird. Who has horizontal stoplights?)
From then on, we kept our heads down and pressed on through the ice storm. We gritted out teeth and paid our tolls as we went (the other tollbooth operators we met were much nicer than the first one), and we made sure not to stray from I-40, fearful of having to pay for it again. We ate lunch meat and peanut butter crackers from our cooler to save on time and money. The only time we stopped was when we had to pull off and knock ice chunks off my car. (The wind had blown the ice into some interesting formations that clung to my mirrors, so that was mildly entertaining.)
By the time we got to the western half of the state, the toll booths were starting to thin out and no longer plagued us. The ice storm was starting to let up as well. Our moods were beginning to lighten and, quite belatedly, our sense of adventure began to stir at last! We also began seeing giant wind turbines looming in the fog around us, which earned several excited shrieks from David each time he saw one. He is fascinated by wind turbines!
Finally, after almost twelve hours of gray nothingness, our only souvenirs from Oklahoma being toll booth tickets, there was light on the horizon. Literally! By around 5pm, we were approaching the Texas state line and, up ahead, we could see a sliver of gold and pink in the west where the sun was trying to shine. Half an hour later, there was nothing but blue skies and sunshine! There was no hint of an ice storm here.
The Texas Visitor Center was our next stopping point, allowing us a bathroom break and a driver switch. It was a cute, modern building with sprawling views of grassy hills all around, not a tree in sight! Those golden hills faded to blue in the far distance and made for some gorgeous photos. We also took some time to chisel some ice off my poor car. It was almost two inches thick in some places. (The chunk of ice I removed from my Chevy logo kept its shape, which I found amusing.)
However, more than anything else, we took time to soak in the sunlight. Even before dreary Oklahoma, we had been deprived of sunshine for almost a week, trapped in the cold winter weather of the Midwest. It was still cold and windy here…but we had found the sun at last. (Much to the envy of our Missouri folk when we sent them pictures!)
For the next hour or so, we found enjoyment beneath the enormous sky as the hills began to flatten out into farmland, stretching away on both sides further than our eyes could see. The sun was sinking lower and lower, painting the sky with brilliant colors as we drove towards it. We also discovered that Texas is chalk-full of wind turbines! Dozens of them were lined up along the skyline, an army of wind-energy turned to black silhouettes against the sunset. They towered above us, making it slightly intimidating to drive through them, but all of it together provided the most peaceful setting we had encountered since leaving home.
Night had fallen by the time we reached our stopping point. Amarillo was a small city right in the middle of the Texas panhandle. It worked well for what we needed and was also the home of the Big Texan Steak Ranch. It was on our checklist to eat at an authentic Texan steakhouse while passing through and this one seemed perfect!
Thankfully, it was located on a less busy street, making it easy to access and park. And it was almost impossible to miss. It was definitely big…and a bit garish, in my opinion. The whole building was bright yellow. A statue of a dinosaur wearing cowboy boots and riding fireworks is a taste of the architecture that can be found here. And the inside was exactly how I imagined: cow hides, cowboy hats, and mounted heads of every antlered game animal imaginable covered every spare inch of wall space. Definitely very Texan.
This steakhouse is notorious for its 72-ounce steak challenge. The competitor has an hour to eat a 72-ounce steak and all the sides that come with it. If they succeed, the meal is completely free! As hungry as David and I were, we knew we weren’t that hungry, although it was fun to watch the individuals who were taking the challenge. We settled with an average-sized steak dinner and just breathed in the atmosphere. It was definitely a fun and interesting place, even if it was a bit much to take in.
By the time we were finished, it was late enough we didn’t want to drive too far. Lucky for us, there was a hotel associated with the Bix Texan Steak Ranch that was literally on the other side of the parking lot! So, we moved the car and got a decently priced room! (Only around $70!) It was a cute, small, saloon-style building and our room was in the bright pink portion labeled “Longhorn Hotel”.
The first thing I noticed about the room was the heavy use of wood paneling as interior design. And the fire alarm on the ceiling very clearly had no batteries in it. It wasn’t the nicest place we have ever stayed, and I did have a few recommendations for them, but since it was clean and cheap, I didn’t have it in me to complain. After a very long and frustrating day, all that mattered was that we were warm and fed in a new state!
February 9th – Into the Flatlands
The next morning, we were packed and loaded at a decent time, ready to get back on the road. Unfortunately, the winter storm had caught up to us overnight. The sunny 50-degree Texas we had driven into had been replaced by another icy, drizzly, 19-degree morning. But, our traveling mood had kicked in by now, so we didn’t let it disappoint us.
We stayed off the interstate long enough to find a gas station and then pulled off into a cemetery to get some photos, per my request. This particular cemetery was beautiful and the ice that encased the trees gave them a blue sparkle. It reminded me of an enchanted forest! And, to really complete the Texan accent, there was even a lone coyote trotting through the gravestones.
Afterwards we grabbed some McDonalds for breakfast (McGriddles and an iced coffee have become my go-to road trip breakfast…it’s a guilty pleasure.) Then, we were on the interstate for a short distance until we reached the first attraction on our list, and the reason we had aimed for Amarillo in the first place…Cadillac Ranch!
When David had first mentioned his interest in going here, I had no idea what it even was. I don’t know what I expected it to be but…what I saw, wasn’t it. There was no big museum or heavily trafficked tourist attraction. And it certainly wasn’t an actual ranch of any kind. It was a very, very simple, very quiet bare spot in the middle of a field with half a dozen thickly graffitied Cadillac cars of varying years half-buried in the dirt.
The owner of the ranch had some ideology here of immortalizing the history of Cadillac evolution, I think. And the graffiti was actually highly encouraged! If we had had some spray paint at the time, we would have partaken. As it was, we just enjoyed looking at this strange art piece in the middle of a barren Texas field, with nothing but snow and meadowlarks for miles. It was certainly an interesting attraction!
However, it was also frigid and, after we had spent about fifteen minutes out there, we moved on so the next couple walking up the path could enjoy it on their own as well. Hobbling through the cold seemed like it took longer than it should have (distance is tricky when the landscape is so devoid of any structure or shape) but we got back to the car and made a quick pit stop at the little Cadillac Ranch gift shop. Then we were headed west once more!
The dim grayness of the sky followed us for a bit, but there was no precipitation, so that was nice. And the land around us seemed to stretch on f-o-r-e-v-e-r. Miles and miles of pure nothingness. For David, such a sight was hard to comprehend. Honestly, I don’t think I would ever be able to handle living somewhere like this. I think all that emptiness would drive me crazy after a short time.
However, the clouds were beginning to break up again as we drove west and, in less than an hour, we were back under blue skies. The bright yellow signs of New Mexico were ahead and, after crossing the border into our next state, we were bewildered to see how quickly the temperature rose. We stopped at the Visitor Center, beneath warm sunlight, for bathroom breaks and a picture of the state sign. I also read a plaque posted here saying we were near the historic marker of llano Estacado, a massive plateau that rose above the red-earth lowlands and is one of the flattest places in the entire country. And, as we took off again, it was very easy to believe.
The landscape turned from flat, barren field to scrubland with the occasional hill or distant mountain to break up the monotony. The soil was much sandier and most of the photos we got here (all of them basically identical) looked like true “Wild West” scenes from an old-time western movie! And without any tall foliage to serve as a windbreak, it blew quite fiercely! We continually saw signs along the highway warning of dust storms and high wind areas. Although this was a startling concept for us, thankfully, we did not have too much of an issue with either one.
We found great amusement in the fact that we were thirty minutes outside of 19-degree Texas and were now sitting at a toasty 68 degrees! (We kept sending temperature updates to our frigid friends and family still trapped in the Midwest Deep Freeze at home. Yes, we are terrible human beings.) We also got a good laugh out of another curiosity we noticed…there aren’t many guardrails in New Mexico, as there isn’t much need for them. Yet, every single one that we did see was badly damaged from someone running into it! Literally, every single one. Maybe someone in New Mexico has a personal grudge against guardrails? No idea what was up with that.
Apart from that, the next several hours of our day looked a lot like this: flat nothingness. Flat nothingness. Flat. Flat. Oh, look! A mesa! Aaaand flat. Flat. A few hills. A distant mountain range. Flat. Starting to get a little grassier…
For two folks from the Midwest, we thought we knew flat. But this was a whole new level of flatness we had not really appreciated before. There was something somewhat tedious to it, but also fascinating, trying to fathom that much emptiness. However, there was still plenty of enjoyment to be had! We munched on our cooler food and the road trip vibes of our music were on point! And we still had our sight-seeing moments.
At one point, David pointed out a herd of pronghorn that were right beside the road. It happened so fast, and was pointed out so casually, that I didn’t stir from my stupor in time, or we would have certainly stopped for pictures! There was also a moment further down the road when we had to pull over to fix some loose tape that was flapping on my car (at the time, my passenger side window was being held up by duct tape. It’s an old car…) and while we were out and about in the vicious wind, David saw his first authentic tumbleweed blowing down the empty street! He wanted to bring it home with us but, as it was very large, I gently convinced him to let the tumbleweed go on about its day.
We switched drivers every couple of hours and hit up gas stations as we came to them, as they are few and far in between in the southwest. Route 66 was running alongside us most of this time, but we didn’t get to actually drive on it much. It was a narrow, rough road that didn’t look the easiest to navigate with the wind as it was. Plus, it had a tendency to cut through downtown of the big cities, which was a hard “no” for us. However, it is on our bucket list to ride the entire route from Chicago to Los Angeles one day. Preferably by motorcycle!
The whole drive was fairly quiet and relaxed. The landscape changed slowly, with the occasional mesa, a few sharp hills, some distant red rock formations, and lots of scrub brush. It was the beautiful, picturesque scene taken from every western movie I’ve ever watched! The only time the drive got tense was when we passed through Albuquerque, as it was a large and bustling city, dropped in the middle of the desert. However, it was so unique to the traditional city skylines, we didn’t mind the experience. The color palette here was so bright, as the structures are predominantly sandstone.
Every now and then, we would see an interesting sign or billboard pointing to a historic marker or natural oddity that sounded enjoyable to explore, but this trip was predominantly focused on national parks. We were trying not to hold ourselves to a time schedule, but if we had no structure at all, we would never get far, so there was quite a bit we passed by. But it all will go on the list for next time!
Finally, after a full day of travel straight through the middle of New Mexico, we were nearing the western border. We passed through a beautiful red rock canyon that seemed to serve as the gateway into Arizona and immediately on the other side was a large roadside stop for Navajo artifacts.
All throughout New Mexico, there were just as many billboards advertising “Navajo-made” merchandise as there were scrub bushes. But now that we were in a different state, we had a feeling of accomplishment and decided we could afford to make at least one stop. We were making good time, after all.
The Tee Pee Trading Post, in the shape of an actual tee-pee, looked really cool! However, it was closed. Just behind it, however, was the Yellow Horse Trading Post and Village. This consisted of several low-setting, rundown buildings that sat side by side in an uneven row. These were tucked along the base of a towering red cliff that blocked out the sun. One of the ridges of this cliff was adorned with animal statues which was kind of cool, but also a bit startling. It wouldn’t be my first choice to stop at, as it looked pretty sketchy, but after being cooped up in the car all day, I was willing to be a little reckless. And I’m glad I was!
We picked one of the little shops at random and I was very pleasantly surprised. The inside was very clean and organized with tables and racks full of gorgeous clothes, bags, jewelry, weapons, and assorted decorations all made by the local Navajo. The two young Navajo men who were running it were incredibly friendly and welcoming. Just a stellar example of how not to judge a book by its cover!
We shopped for a while, David being drawn to the ponchos and bags while I contemplated the handmade bows and arrows. In the end, I settled on a beautiful white beadwork necklace as my souvenir. And when I got to the car, David surprised me with a beadwork hummingbird! The craftsmanship was amazing and I named him Phoenix, on account of his fiery colors! He now rides with me everywhere I go, hanging from my rearview mirror.
As the sun was setting, we tried to cover a bit more ground. We were very close to our first national park at this point, Petrified Forest, and wanted to stay the night somewhere nearby so it could be the first thing we did the next day. A little research told us that there was only one hotel between us and the park, a Days Inn in Chambers, AZ. We were on the road to it, so we held our course and started looking for an exit to a town or even a small city.
To our surprise, Chambers did not appear to be anything more than the hotel itself, with a small diner and a gas station attached. It sat all by itself, in the middle of nowhere, just off I-40. Maybe there was more of a town further down the road? It was hard to tell. But we took advantage of this quiet, lonely place to get checked in and settled. I was again, pleasantly surprised! Our room was much larger than I had anticipated, and it was very comfortable.
I had only a minor fright when I thought someone was trying to break into our room, but it was just a group of construction workers that had the wrong room number. I was still a bit uneasy though, because I am just a ridiculously nervous person that way. But we made use of the mini fridge and microwave to prepare a hot supper from our cooler food and my nerves were calmed by the quiet comfort of the night as we prepared for more adventure the following day!
February 10th – David’s First National Park
The next morning, we took a tentative peak outside the window and were thrilled to see that the winter weather had not caught us this time! It was still sunny and (relatively) warm. We loaded the car and decided to take advantage of the diner attached to the hotel because A) we were ready for some food that didn’t come out of a plastic bag, B) staying at the hotel got you a discount, and C) it was the only place to eat for many miles.
It was the postcard of road-stop diners! Clean, homey, maybe a bit shabby in places, but filled with wonderful smells. The breakfast was delicious, and we almost had the place to ourselves! Afterwards, we filled up at the gas station, as we weren’t sure when the next one would be, and made our way down the interstate a little further.
It only took about twenty or so minutes to reach the North entrance for Petrified Forest National Park. It wasn’t hard to find, as there was literally nothing else out here. This entrance was the only turn off we saw for a long ways. It was the smaller entrance, so we were kind of entering the park backwards, but it can be enjoyed going either direction!
Because this was David’s first national park, we had to make a big deal about it with our photos. We got some great shots of the park sign, surrounded by blue skies, red sand, and scraggly bushes. Also, David had brought some of the playing cards from Parks, the board game, to get some novelty shots for Instagram! (While we were taking pictures, I noticed the only other person sharing the parking lot with us was a young woman living the dream life: traveling by van with her cat as her companion! Travel goals!)
We paid our entry fee (about $20) and were given a map, but since the park was basically only one road, it wasn’t difficult to navigate. We rolled through the open grassland until we got over the rise and approached the first sight-seeing opportunities: on the northern end, that was the Painted Desert!
The Painted Desert was formed by the oxidation of minerals stacking up through floods, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters over thousands, probably millions, of years. This has resulted in miles and miles of steep hills with brightly colored layers forming a massive maze through the grassland. It is often referred to as the “badlands” because getting lost in that maze might be the end of you. But from here, way up above, it was a beautiful panoramic view of red and white, fading into blue and purple plateaus along the hazy horizon.
We stopped at several overlooks throughout to get pictures of this mesmerizing landscape and, as we went, I noticed something else very amazing about this land…the pristine and utter lack of sound. There were no other people here (again, perks of going in the off season), but no birds either. No traffic, no leaves rustling in the breeze. There was only the lonely whistle of the wind through the rocks. It was the most stunning silence I had ever experienced. The kind that rings in your ears and makes even a whisper sound far too loud.
Eventually, we came to an adobe visitor’s center that also doubles as a hotel! However, like everything else at the time, it was closed due to Covid, but we were able to pause here for a restroom break. There was a beautiful overlook with some smaller trails that dipped down into the valley and wove between the violet and white hills and, although it looked fun to go explore, we knew there was much more ahead and didn’t want to use up all our energy before we even got to the petrified forest part. Before we left though, the writer part of me was entranced by the beautiful words posted on a sign at this overlook which perfectly captured what I was feeling at this moment. I have quoted the sign below:
“What does silence sound like? Where do you go if there are no footsteps to follow? How does it feel to be in a place where day and night are the only times that matter? How does it feel to be totally immersed in nature?
The sign prompted you to go seek those answers in the badlands below, with an info blurb on the park and the note: “These lands are yours to get lost in, find yourself in, or simply take in the view.” I really loved that notion. To finish it all off, there was a final quote, taken from the Wilderness Act of 1964 that goes as follows:
“…where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
It is quotes like these that make my naturalist side and my love for words and writing meet in harmony. It really sets the stage for what this park, and all national parks, are all about.
From this point, we followed the road through the rolling hills, stopping at various overlooks that towered over the desert. David also had his first encounter with a raven! The large bird was just chilling calmly beside us on the adobe wall, looking out over the badlands as if he had his own deep and mysterious thoughts running through his head.
We drove on through the flat grassland, crossing over some train tracks, and finding ourselves at the next hiking venture: the ruins of Puerco Pueblo. Here you could see the remnants of where the natives lived and get a glimpse of what their lives were like. At the edge of their settlement, there was a ridge of large boulders covered with petroglyphs, each one vivid and carrying its own meaning which you could decipher using the plaques. This whole area was amazing! (David and I got a little lost when we followed a dry streambed that looked deceptively like a hiking trail. We quickly scrambled up the hill and got back on course, making sure we paid more attention to our map! We were also partially guided by the call of the raven who was perched above my car. We got a strange feeling that he was watching us for some reason. Spooky…)
The color scheme of the landscape began to change as the road began weaving through the “tee-pees” which were blue and violet domes with white tips, looking like mini mountains. These domes sprouted from black stone and were the result of a prehistoric volcanic wasteland. It was eerie and surreal to pass through this dark world.
Eventually, we made it to Blue Mesa where we stopped for some more exploration. This portion of park was like a gorgeous mini mountain range all on its own. The trail was a series of sharp switchbacks cut into the cliffside that sloped down towards the valley below. Everything here was blue and white, like a dusty moonscape. The trail curved through the valley and then shot off into the flatlands beyond. We could see almost the entire thing from the height of the trailhead and the people at the bottom were teeny tiny without binoculars. We hiked a little way along this trail, but we were still trying to reserve our energy, as we were only halfway through!
We got in the car and drove on, passing the Long Logs Trail which took you out into the middle of all that flatness where the gist of the tree remains were, scattered across the land like discarded Lincoln Logs. Here was what remained of a once massive, gorgeous forest from a long-ago age, now stricken to stone with time. Before the floods and volcanoes ravaged this landscape, this empty, desolate place was once a thriving jungle. It was nearly impossible to picture, but fun to try.
By the end of the morning, we had made our way to the other end of park and were approaching the main entrance. This was where the Visitor Center and gift shop was located, so we made a quick sweep through the buildings and then went for a short hike through the Giant Logs trail. This section was a small maze of trails that wound around large chunks of what were once enormous, prehistoric trees. There were lots of them scattered around this one small hilltop. Plus, it finally gave David something to climb and hug! We got some great pictures with the stone trunks of these ancient giants, as well as some of the cute little cactus species that grew among them!
All in all, there had been a lot more to the Petrified Forest than I had imagined there would be. We had been there for several hours, so we had to head back to I-40, as there was a lot of ground to cover, but this is a place that definitely deserves more of our time devoted to it!
Back on the road, we buckled in for the long haul across the state, National Park Radio drumming from the speakers and keeping us motivated with their perfectly fitting music. And we drove…and drove…and drove some more. There was a single mountain on the horizon in front of us that seemed like it was taking hours to get any closer. Sometimes, it felt like we weren’t moving at all, and the grassland around us was no help, as it remained unchanged as well.
I remember there was an unreasonable amount of semis on the road, which kept me wary and alert, as I am familiar with their somewhat reckless and pushy driving. I also remember the handful of small, dusty towns we passed through. Lots of low-lying huddles of civilization spread out over a patch of desert, not a chain business to be seen. Hardly a gas station. How strange that I had never craved chain restaurant food as much as I did then, when it was impossible to find.
Finally, by late afternoon, the mountain we had been watching was finally closer! Turns out, it was Humphrey’s Peak, a mountain famous for its day-long hikes. It also meant we were close to Flagstaff. Thick forests of evergreens sprang up quite suddenly, all collecting at the foot of the mountains that rose above us. These mountains were tall and bare, with gradual slopes. Quite different from the steep, tree-covered cliffsides of the Rockies.
We knew Flagstaff was going to turn into a very busy city before long. The highway was already congested enough, which was a stark change after having spent all day cruising along without much traffic to worry about. Once we passed a sign pointing the way towards Los Angeles (which was really cool, as that’s the closest either of us have gotten to the state of California!) we decided to take a back road through town to avoid the worst of the traffic.
We ended up in a very pretty residential area with towering pine trees along the street and gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains. It was so beautiful, David began seriously thinking about us moving here (sadly, I had to shoot that down, as there is no way I would ever be able to survive Arizona summer heat, regardless of how pretty their streets were).
After a pleasant and peaceful drive through town, we were on the backside of Humphrey’s Peak and found a desolate patch of road to pull over and get some more pictures. All these pines and mountains and rolling yellow fields had a strong Colorado vibe to them! I sat very still and quiet for a moment, really soaking in the ear-ringing sound of absolute nothingness once more. It was gloriously relaxing!
After exploring my search for inner peace for a few minutes more, we were back to rolling through the thick pine forest of the Coconino National Forest. There was still some snow on the ground in this area, making the dark greens of the conifers really stand out, while complimenting the thin groves of white aspens. As the sun began to set, it made everything sparkle in the most beautiful way. Then, as we left Coconino, the snow patches became a dusting, and the trees shrank back to the familiar scrub brush.
At the Grand Canyon Junction, we turned north. We had made great time and decided to see how close to the Grand Canyon we could make it before dark. The town just before it was Tusayan, and there were a few hotel and restaurant options here (none of them cheap, we came to find out). But we still had some time left to our day, so we made our final decision. We wanted to see the Grand Canyon at sunset. And if everything this close to the park was going to be expensive, we might as well stay at one of the more convenient hotels within the park boundaries.
We drove straight to the main entrance and paid our entry fee ($30) and just like that, we were in the Grand Canyon National Park! We rolled along the main road, the golden sun lighting up the scraggly cedar trees all around us. We knew the sun was sinking fast and we had to hurry! And as we drove, I noticed a large shape keeping pace with us on the other side of the tree line…it was an elk! A big, beautiful female that leaped out onto the road and stared us down, snorting in all her glory. She was gorgeous, but also looked like she wanted to fight, so we kept on rolling.
Navigation within the park was actually pretty confusing. Even David, who is a master of maps, had a bit of trouble deciphering where we were. But somehow, some way, we found our way to a parking lot that wasn’t a far walk to an overlook along the South Rim. Hand in hand, we walked quickly along a sandstone pathway, shivering as the coolness of the evening set in. Then, at last, the trees thinned out and the view opened up before us.
Even if you have seen it before, there is still that hushed moment of awe and wonder, that surprise and shock that something like this is real and, what more, that you are actually witnessing it with your own eyes. There really are no words that can explain or describe the full glory of the Grand Canyon. And no matter how many pictures you take, they can never compare to the real thing.
David and I stood on the edge, watching that massive labyrinth of chasms turn from red and gold to blue and indigo as the evening light brushed along the sun-warmed stone. It was the kind of experience to be met in silence. That moment when you realize just how small you are, and wonder what the travelers of the olden days thought when they stumbled across this same view, unaware and unexpecting. We reveled in that sense of amazement as the glorious sunset slowly faded. We sat until the light was gone altogether and the Canyon was shadowed with darkness. Then, shivering from the cold, we made our way back to the car beneath the starlight, feeling privileged almost, as if we had been allowed to see something other people couldn’t.
As we made our way along the main road once more, we checked on a few different prices on the hotels available on park and decided that the Yavapai Lodge best fit our needs. It was about $130 per night, plus a security deposit, which was a little steeper than I was wanting, but it was the cheapest place outside of Flagstaff. Or camping, which we had the equipment to do, but it was still a bit too cold for our comfort. Also, it was only a ten-minute walk to the South Rim, which was hard to beat without buying a $300 resort room.
I took care of the reservation, but decided not to unpack yet, as we were starving and needed real food. As sleepy as we were, if we went to the room first, we knew we wouldn’t leave again. So, we forced ourselves to make the ten-minute drive back down the road to Tusayan, the only place with restaurants that were still open for the night. Again, we were met with limited choices, and none of them cheap. But we finally settled for a local joint called We Cook Pizza and Pasta…any guesses what they sold?
It was a quick meal of pizza and buffalo wings, but it was quite delicious after yet another day of food from the cooler. Leftovers in hand, we trudged back to the car and sleepily drove back to park. The Yavapai Lodge was made up of several motel-style buildings spread out across a wide map, so it took a few confusing laps around the parking lot before we found our room at the end of the row. But we finally got parked and unpacked in our simple, but clean accommodations. I even passed up a shower that night, which is unusual for me, to get as much sleep as we could manage because we had a big day of exploration planned for tomorrow. I think we were asleep before our heads even hit the pillows.
February 11th – A Grand Day at the Grand Canyon
David and I were surprisingly awake before dawn the next morning, even before our alarms went off. Perhaps because we were so giddy with excitement! The night before, we had planned out how this day would go, knowing we would spend dawn to dusk exploring the Canyon. And it started with catching the sunrise! We brushed our teeth, bundled up in several layers, and drove to the parking lot closest to Mather Point, one of the recommended places for watching the sunrise.
There were several people there already, so we found a quiet rock along the edge of the canyon, sheltered by bushy cedars. Here, we were able to cuddle in privacy and enjoy the silent morning, our breath forming small clouds of fog in the crisp air. We watched the deep blue shadows slowly recede into the depths of the Canyon as the golden rays of the sun brushed across the topmost ridges before steadily spreading, turning the rocks red and orange. We couldn’t resist taking a few pictures, but we mostly just let the majesty of this simple moment overtake us.
Once the sunlight was bright and strong, we stretched our stiff legs and headed back to our room to finish getting ready for the day. We also went ahead and packed up the car, as we knew we would be moving on tonight and didn’t want to have to pause in our day to do this later. As we were grabbing the last of our things, David excitedly pointed at some movement he had seen from the wide window taking up the back wall of our lodge room. We hurried over in time to see three mule deer walk right past us, so close we could have touched them if there had not been glass between us! Everything behind our lodge was pure forest, and I absolutely loved how close Nature was able to come to us!
We drove down the road and parked in the central lot where the Yavapai Lodge Office sat on one side, and the park convenience store sat on the other. We decided to take a peak inside the store and were shocked at how large it was! It was basically a gift shop and a mini-Walmart all in one, and the prices weren’t terrible! There was also a small deli area with some yummy smelling breakfast items, so we grabbed some coffees, an egg and sausage sandwich for me, and a breakfast burrito for David. We found a sunny table outside to enjoy our incredibly filling meal.
Feeling freshy rejuvenated and ready for a hike, we started off across the trail system that wound its way all across the park. In this area, it reminded me a lot of a college campus and was just as twisted and confusing as the roads. After a few wrong turns, we finally ended up on the correct path, headed for the South Rim Trail. This trail, as the name implies, runs along the entire south rim of the canyon, within the boundaries, and it the most recommended for easily accessible views.
Once we got to the rim, we turned west (left) and followed the nicely paved trail as it skirted along the edge of the Canyon. Half of the Canyon was brightly lit by morning sunlight. But the other half, where the shadows were still clinging, was cold and covered with patches of ice and snow. It made for a beautiful contrast in the pictures! We made lots of stops through this area, some at overlooks marked on the map, and some that had just been worn by the many feet scrambling across bare ledges to enjoy the view. Many of these overlooks did not have rails around them, which preserved the natural beauty of the area. However, I did not stray too close to the edge, and I did my best to deter David’s urges to stand on the narrow, precariously balanced rocks that he so desired to.
We took our time at these stops, really soaking in the grandeur of what we saw. David got another great shot of his Grand Canyon cards from the Parks game, with the actual Canyon in the background. And I found a nice, sunny stone to sit and enjoy the splendid silence of the morning, my gaze lost in the vastness of the snaking red canyons. The Colorado River was a tiny, sparkling ribbon far, far below and my eyes followed its course as far as I could see. It was an incredibly peaceful moment, and, for me, those mean a lot.
We spent the rest of the morning meandering along this trail. David took a few photos here and there, but eventually, we no longer wanted the distraction of the camera and chose to enjoy the moment as we were living it. After a while, we had made our way quite a distance and had walked into the shopping section of the Canyon community. It was a bit fancier down here, with expensive resorts right on the Canyon edge, the Kolb Studio (a historic photography center…closed, sadly), and several small gift shops. We were lured into Mary Colter’s Lookout Studio, an adorable souvenir shop with a large window and balcony that hung over the rim of the Canyon. The shop itself had a lot of neat stuff and we could have spent a chunk of money in here!
Just past this, we came across the trailhead for one of the most notorious hiking opportunities in the country! The Bright Angel Trail! This trail is renowned for its gorgeous views and its dangerous descent. With enough time, an experienced hiker could hike to the bottom and back in a single day! And with the right equipment and permit, you can hike to the bottom, camp the night beside the Colorado River, and hike back out the next day. Although both of those do sound like a great experience, the way I most want to explore the Bright Angel Trail is by mule!
The mule rides in the Grand Canyon have been around for a long time, and there are many options of trails to take. You have to plan ahead by about 16 months to get a reservation though! And if you’re really lucky, you can snag a reservation to stay at Phantom Ranch, the hotel at the bottom of the canyon! Traveling Bright Angel Trail by mule sounds like a dream come true for me! It would really put you back in the time of the first pioneers, when they discovered this Canyon and had to traverse it with their own faithful steeds.
Unfortunately, for many reasons, this wasn’t possible this time around. (Although, we did see the empty mule pen right beside the trailhead and it filled me with longing…) However, since we were standing at the trailhead, we decided it would be an atrocity to not hike a little bit of it! I wasn’t quite sure how much canyon hiking I was up to, but I definitely wanted to try. A lot of people who didn’t have the time or fitness level to hike to the bottom and back went to Plateau Point and turned around there. Now, Plateau Point, as the name implies, leads all the way out across a flat plateau about halfway down the Canyon. We could see it in our binoculars, far, far, far away. Even getting to that point and back was a good five-hour hike, which still sounded like a little more than we were bargaining for, but like the rest of this trip, we decided to just go and make our decisions as we went. (Note: Do NOT just hike this trail on a whim if you think you might be on it all day. BE PROPERLY PREPARED. This trail claims lives every year.)
So, we started our descent. The trail started right at the rim and descended rather sharply through a series of long, tightly twisting switchbacks. It has been trodden by so many feet, the trail has become almost a rut. It’s wide enough for people to pass one another and is lined with rocks and logs in some places, to further mark the edge. (Again, no railings). And it really is a beautiful hike, carved into the side of the Canyon wall. Soft, red sand and red rock, dotted with conifers and cedar bushes, and after walking for only ten minutes, all of civilization had disappeared. We had been swallowed up by towering red walls that looked much higher and much further away and you might think was possible in that short time. This was the kind of place to lose your way and find your soul, where the powerful aura of the natural world made you realize how much more there is to life.
With the correct time and preparations, I would love to experience all of this trail in all its glory. The Bright Angel is high in my bucket list and, honestly, I think I could have hiked a long ways on this trail that day, spurred on by own wonder and curiosity, if not for one major setback. Most of this trail sat in the shadowy side of the Canyon, meaning the sun had not touched it yet, nor would it for quite some time. So, there was about an inch or two of ice coating the whole thing.
The trail was not closed, in fact, there were still a lot of people on it, but there were park guides near the entrance warning people of the conditions. Now, me being me, I am nervous of steep trails and heights in the best of conditions, but I refused to be a killjoy. Plus, when I saw a group of young women start off down the trail in basketball shoes, I decided that if they were able to make it, then I certainly could.
There were several sunny bits where the ice had melted, and travel was easy. These bits were wonderful! We passed through a short tunnel that had been carved through a wall, and David scrambled from boulder to boulder, getting in his rock-climbing fix while I gasped and worried from behind. On the icy portions, I clung to the Canyon wall like my life depended on it, because it might very well have. David, of course, being half mountain goat, was not much affected by the winter conditions. We made it down several more switchbacks, the trail going back and forth from sandy and dry to cold and icy. We had to crane our heads back to see the rim above us!
However, when the trail started to turn steep, my courage was starting to wane. The next half mile or so was a rapid decline and all of it was covered thickly in shadow and ice. There were several other hikers turning back here as well. Only those with snow clamps on their boots were able to continue. My muscles were tense from the climb down this far, which made me shaky. I was trying to be brave for David’s sake, but he took pity on me and decided we should head back to the top. It was better to be safe than sorry.
I was disappointed that I couldn’t make it further, but we made a vow that we would come back one day (not in the winter time) to finish the experience that we had started! Maybe on a nice, cool fall day! Will we hike? Will we ride mules? Stay tuned for future adventures to find out because we don’t even know!
Our trip down Bright Angel Trail was short, but awe-inspiring! We scrambled our way back to the top and crested the rim, arriving quite suddenly back in civilization. I was feeling a little ill at this point, so we rested for a few minutes. Thankfully, there is a trolley system that functions throughout park, so we were able to get a ride back to the parking lot where we had left my car. Along this route, we also got to pass the mule barn, where the rest of the herd lives when not in use! I have ridden horses my entire life, but never a mule, so they still fascinate me!
Once back to the car, David went to the park store to restock on water and groceries while I went to Yavapai Lodge to ensure our checkout had processed. We ate a quick lunch of food from our cooler and checked the map to plan out the second half of our day! We had spent the morning on foot, so now we would spend the afternoon in the car, checking out the scenic drives. We first went west along Hermit Road. This was the shorter of the two, about 7 or 8 miles. We piddled along, stopping at several of the overlooks to see some different angles of the cliffs and plateaus we had seen from the other side. It was along this road that David got a professional shot of the Canyon, one of his best, that captures all the colors and layers in one smooth panoramic!
At another point, we had a stunning view of the Bright Angel Trail far below us. With the binoculars, we were able to pick out the tiny moving dots of hikers nearing the end of Plateau Point. And, even more exciting, we saw the mule caravan on their way back up the trail! I watched them climb the switchbacks until they made it to the rim and back into the corral! Then we kept on driving, really absorbing just how “grand” the Canyon really is. Every time we turned the corner or took a new curve, there was still just miles and miles of endless valleys and rocky chasms, stretching far into the distance. It was impossible to comprehend the magnitude.
As we were nearing the end of Hermit Road, we made a stop at a wide overlook with some benches beneath the trees. I was able to get some fairly cute pictures of myself, and we leaned against the rails, watching the ravens playing in the air currents above us. And then, without warning, a massive bird appeared out of nowhere and swooped over us! It was so large and prehistoric looking, at first glance it might make you think “dinosaur”. But David and I both knew what it was and scrambled frantically for our phones to take a video.
As budding naturalists and birdwatchers, we both have a great appreciation for wildlife and the conservation efforts put into place to protect it, especially when birds are involved. We knew we had just had the privilege of spotting one of the most endangered birds in the world…the California Condor! These birds are the largest in North America and actually went extinct in the wild in 1987 due to poaching, habitat loss, and lead poisoning. Careful conservation of the few that remained allowed small numbers to be reintroduced in the Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. There are now roughly 40 in the wild, each one marked with numbered tags on their wings.
It had happened so fast, we weren’t able to see the number on its wing tags, but it was, without a doubt, a gorgeous California Condor! And, if that weren’t enough of a treat…a second one appeared! We watched these magnificent birds dance around each other for a few minutes before they swooped away, out of view. We were left in shock and awe, as that had been a huge moment for two passionate naturalists!
With that fresh excitement vivid in our minds, we hopped back in the car and drove up the road a while longer, looking for condors now more than canyon views! However, we eventually hit a good turn around point and decided we had better head back to catch the easternmost scenic road along the Desert View Drive. It was late afternoon at this point, and since this road was about 23 miles, we didn’t bother stopping much. We just enjoyed the long, peaceful drive.
The views of the canyon started to disappear as the road curved through the desert a bit more (as the name of the road implies…everything in this park is very aptly named, I’ve noticed) and we were deep among sand and scrub brush. At the end of the road, we reached our final destination for the evening: Desert View Tower. It was a gorgeous bit of architecture at the easternmost point of the Canyon, and we had heard its sunset views were unparalleled. However…like everything else…when we arrived, we discovered it was currently closed due to Covid. We should have seen that one coming, I suppose, but I was still pretty bummed.
But we made the most of it and tucked onto a rock ledge at the base of the tower, watching the light slowly die over the quiet evening. However, the wind started to pick up and the clouds rolled in before the sun was at the horizon, deflating our hopes at getting some sunset pictures. We were thankful that we had taken the time to visit the night before! At this point, both of us were freezing to death and we were both dead tired from our early morning. So, we made the mutual decision to call it a day well-spent.
With a little light left in the sky, we loaded back into the car and made our way out to the main road. As we had packed our belongings earlier, we had no reason to stop on our way out of the park. We rolled slowly past the Grand Canyon views one final time, bidding our farewell to this beautiful place, then turned south and headed back to Tusayan. We had decided ahead of time to stay the night here so we could have a quick and easy departure south the next morning. It was dark by the time we got into town, so we quickly bounced around a few hotels, checking room prices, before finally settling on Holiday Inn. They were the only ones to accept our AAA discount, making them the cheapest option (still about $120).
This constant search for a hotel room, and the high prices of doing this nightly, were becoming a continual source of stress for me and was quickly highlighting the disadvantages of a spontaneous, non-planned trip. I was running short on the budget I had allowed myself and we weren’t even halfway through the trip! Teeth gritted, I switched to a credit card at this point, knowing I would pay for it later…literally. Stresses aside, the room was cozy, and we made a decent dinner from our groceries and leftovers. Bone-tired, we crashed early and slept hard.
See the next post for Part 2!