DNA X #25 The Colorado Plateau
After experiencing an early morning traffic jam in Los Angeles (to get the true flavor of the area) we drive east over a low pass and down into the high Mojave Desert. All of a sudden the hubbub of LA disappears and we are seemingly alone surrounded by sagebrush and sporadic Joshua Trees; an odd kind of yucca Dr. Seuss might create. We are aiming for the Colorado Plateau and the nations largest collection of national parks. Centered around the four corners area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet, this high desert is drained by the Colorado River and its tributaries. As we cross into Arizona we get our first view of this mighty river. We are heading for the grand dame of this regions parks; the Grand Canyon. The plan was to stay inside the park but as you can probably guess, the hotels were full. We did find one room, the “last” one of course (seems to be the norm) at an exorbitant rate but due to our previous trouncing at a park hotel we decide to call and ask a few questions. “Is there a restaurant?” The weary operator replied, “Yes, but reservations are full tonight”. “Is there parking for hotel guests?” She must get this question a lot as her tone sharpened to borderline bitchy, “No, this is a government property and we cannot reserve spaces but you can park in the village a mile away”. Doesn’t sound very welcoming. So you can’t eat and you have to play Russian Roulette in the parking lot or hike a mile after driving eight hours so you can sleep (?) in a worn out room priced like the Ritz Hotel. Jay vetoed the convenience of being ripped off again and we decided to room in Flagstaff, one hour south of the parks entrance. This is a nice area and if you have time spend a few days exploring around Flagstaff.
The next day we drive north through a ponderosa pine forest past the beautiful San Francisco Peaks, a volcanic range (now extinct) that has the highest mountains in Arizona. As the snow dusted peaks fade in the background the land flattens out and desert takes over. We are getting close to the canyon, according to the map, but the land is coy about revealing such a treasure. We enter the park through the south entrance showing our well used, annual National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. The $80.00 fee covers your vehicle and all passengers; it’s a great deal! We find a parking place and walk over to the rim. There it is and it really is grand! The immense canyon stretches over 277 miles, weaving and winding from the continuous convoluted carving of the Colorado River. At any one viewing spot you can only see a fraction of this wonder. I came here back in the 1970’s with a friend. For three days we looked over the edge and saw nothing, except fog! Today the view is endless. Jay comments that it looks just like all the photos and after a quick peek checks it off his list. Next?! Perhaps the scale is too overwhelming to grasp! I note that the rocks at the bottom of the canyon are 1.8 billion years old! He looks unimpressed, well really who can understand a billion anything? Never the less Teddy Roosevelt said this was “the one great sight every American should see” and I agree. The multi-hued gorge attracts over 5 million visitors a year who also agree. However, if you venture away from the tour bus clogged south rim area and hike or mule train down into the canyon you can experience the land as the local Native Americans have for thousands of years. The brave can go on a raft trip down the Colorado and retrace John Wesley Powell’s 1869 perilous expedition. There are several other entrances to the park that are less tortured with human activity so there’s plenty of land to enjoy peacefully if you choose. The Grand Canyon and surrounding deserts enjoy some of the nations cleanest air with visibility averaging 100 miles. Unfortunately air pollution is invading from outside the park. The smog has been traced to copper smelters in Arizona, power plants and urban areas from southern California to Mexico. Other threats to the park are leftover from the late 1800’s when the area was carved up into numerous mining claims, ranches, farms and even privately owned toll roads. Some of the mines are still being cleaned up while others continue to produce copper, silver, salt, and uranium. Within five miles of the park 1,100 uranium-mining claims are waiting to be developed. There are another 10,000 claims for other mines surrounding the park boundaries. We can be thankful for those that had the foresight to piece together this amazing park. We would hope that those charged with protecting this treasure for future generations will be even more diligent.
Aboard Blackie it’s hard to get a feel for the vastness of the Colorado Plateau that spans 130,000 square miles. The elevation varies from 5000-11,000 feet and the rocks come in just about every size, shape and color. It’s an effort to drive and not be constantly distracted by the amazing kaleidoscopic scenery where it seems there are no rules and anything goes. Even more bizarre is the fact that this high desert with only 6 inches of rain a year was once covered in water. Millions of years of deposits left layers of soft sandstone rock which is still being eroded into mesas, buttes, canyons, spires and other fantastic formations. Water has left its mark but wind also assists in the sculpting. We travel northeast on US 163 Scenic and into another famous southwest setting: Monument Valley. Straddling the Arizona and Utah border, it is the quintessential western desert. Ever since John Wayne saddled up in the 1939 film Stagecoach, the valley has been the setting for many westerns and a variety of other films. The valley’s towering burnt orange buttes have become world famous. We are in the Navajo Indian Reservation and part of the valley is protected as a Navajo Tribal Park. There is a visitor center, campground facilities and for a small fee you can go into the park. Navajo guides will take you to explore some of the remote areas or you can drive on the 14-mile dirt road to view the colossal formations some of which are over 1000 feet high. There’s plenty to see from the main road and if you are lucky to be in the valley late in the day you can watch the rocks turn an unreal red. We head north into Utah a state rich in extramundane landscapes. I wonder if this is really Earth or maybe we’ve been transported to Mars? The surreal desert plays with your mind. We have a lot of exploring to do.