Arizona – Canyon De Chelly (Navajo Homeland), a Route 66 trip (by accident) & Rafting the Grand Canyon


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Published: May 31st 2014
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It might help to explain the heading to our blog up front. Our plan was essentially to go to Canyon de Chelly and then raft down the Grand Canyon. However, we found that the route to our destination for rafting largely followed the old Route 66 in Arizona, from Flagstaff, through William, Seligman, Peach Springs & Kingman – which became a pleasant, wonderful & unexpected surprise addition to our travels so we had to add a section to the blog on it. And quite a large section at that……. So after Canyon De Chelly – share the ride.

Canyon De Chelly

We're up early to leave Mesa Verde to go to Canyon de Chelly, (pronounced Duh Shay) and as forecast it's snowing!! Thankfully it's not settling and by the time we are out of the NP and back on the highway (5 miles away) the snow stops and we can see sunshine ahead. It's obviously localised at the higher altitude in MV.

Shortly after leaving we make a quick stop in Cortez for some supplies, fuel & pictures. Thanks to the City Market discount card we've also earned 20 cents off each gallon of fuel; awesome. Cortez is a funky town that would be a good base alternative to staying in the National Park. It has a neat Denny's in the style of a diner - all chrome and retro, and a few signs and eateries that wouldn't look out of place on Route 66, so we get a few pics too.

Then it's all the way to Chinle at the entrance to CdeC, passing some fabulous large red rock formations en route - some innovatively called Los Buttes Gigantes! It's also the land of very straight but bouncy roads.

Chinle is a small town that looks a bit rundown but has plenty of hotels for the visitors. Just beyond the town is the entry to the CdeC National Monument, and a Visitor Centre where, in contrast to most we've been to, the staff don't seem to want to offer much advice at all. Still, we get a couple of park maps, a suggestion that we head to White House Overlook for a picnic lunch, and off we go.

There are 2 rim roads along the Canyon - North and South - which have overlooks for views into the canyon and of the cliff dwellings. Our plan is to have lunch, and go to all the south rim overlooks on the way to our campsite near the end of the south rim at Spider Rock Campground.

The views of the White House - an 11th century pueblo of cliff dwellings, one central one with white plastered walls - hence the name, are awesome. The canyon is full of curved rock shapes, buttes, towers all in red or pink stone, and in contrast to all the others we've seen so far, has a valley that is full of verdant green trees and shrubs and fields laid out for crops. It's very fertile land. This all contributes to a photographer’s heaven!

As it's getting on and we want to book a tour for tomorrow, we decide to head straight to the campground then do the sights later. Bad move! There's no-one there (but our names are on a board so we know we're expected) so we end up going back to the visitor centre to use their phone - we can't as it's government owned - and get re-directed to a nearby lodge who fortunately are very helpful. The upside of all this faffing around is we get a great price for a 3-4 hour jeep tour from the guy who runs our campsite (Howard, an older Navajo Indian guy) and we can sort all the details out with him later.

Finally, we get to do the south rim overlooks tour: Tunnel (though not a tunnel in sight), Tsegi (Navajo for rock canyon and for which the area is named), Junction (the place where Canyons de Chelly and del Muerto meet), Sliding House (cliff dwellings built on an impossible slope which have, not surprisingly slipped), Face Rock (no faces but 4 small cliff dwellings settlements that are spotted by looking through small pieces of pipe strategically positioned), and Spider Rock (a 800 FT tower of rock rising up from the valley floor, where the deity that taught women to weave, Spider Woman lives) - it's absolutely majestic in the late afternoon sunlight and a great way to finish.

Then we head back to the camp and meet Howard, a really nice guy, to fix our tour, and get dinner sorted. This camp has no water or electric hook ups and pretty limited toilet and shower facilities so we're roughing it for a couple of days, but it's a nice place with lots of birds and rabbits and at only $16 per night, a bargain.

While in Durango we bought a camping stove with griddle for our next stage of travel - tent camping, and as there are no BBQs at Spider Rock, we decide to christen it with some pork steaks; does the job nicely.

Next morning we head off to the north rim to see one of the three overlooks there - Antelope House Ruin, named for the drawings of said beasts added by a Navajo artist (Dibe Yazhi) in the 1800s. It’s quite attractive and we should see it close up later on the canyon tour. The other two sites will have to wait till later as they are in shade in the morning.

We get back, meet Howard and set off in his jeep via the park entry office. As we head off road into the Canyon we can see why a jeep is needed; much of the route is along or through the Chinle Wash and the rest is sand.

The trip takes 4 hours and we get to see lots of petroglyphs (rock carvings), pictographs (rock paintings), cliff dwellings, and awesome rock structures and geology. We also see a Coyote (well spotted M) though no bears which are apparently in the area. We get to see both Antelope House and White House up close, though unfortunately they are fenced off so not as accessible as the sites in Mesa Verde were. We also try some local Navajo Fry bread as a snack with cinnamon sugar. At $5 it's pretty pricey and we've had better but it was nice to try some local stuff.

M takes the opportunity to ask Howard loads of questions about Navajo customs and culture. He gets answers to most but interestingly none about their ceremonies and many of the questions about religion are side-stepped. Unfortunately Howard doesn't volunteer much else about the sites we visit or history which is a pity. He does give a free T shirt though to commemorate our tour.

At the end of the tour we grab a beer to refresh & then head off back to the north rim for the final two overlooks, starting with Mummy Cave, which is supposed to be one of the highlights. Unfortunately the sun is still not fully on the site and much of the rocks around are quite pale and less dramatic than other parts, so photo opps are limited. On balance we decide not to go to Massacre Cave where over 100 Navajo's were killed (or not depending on who’s version you go with) by the Spanish in 1805, and instead dash back to Spider Rock for some final pics in full sunshine.

At the visitor centre we were given one of the National Park service leaflets (as is the norm and they're very good with maps and local info) which gives a summary of the people of the Canyon through time. They list them as follows: Archaic (2500 - 200 BC) the earliest people who lived in occasional settlements, basket makers (200 BC - 750) attributed as farmers and weavers and created more sedentary dispersed communities, Pueblo (750 - 1300) village settlers, Hopi (1300 - 1600) who apparently without reason left the area though the Hopi describe this as part of the migratory cycle (one of the challenges for historians is the oral tradition of the native Americans so much of the "story" is conjecture), Navajo (1700 - 1863) who came to the area possibly from Alaska or Canada (again disputed history) and settled, until various wars with the Spanish, other tribes and eventually the US Army, which resulted in The Long Walk (1863 - 1868) this was the enforced relocation of the Navajo to New Mexico, only for the government to recognise that this was not a good solution and then allow them to return to their homeland; about 70% died in the process. Finally they suggest Trading Days (1868 - 1925) where the Navajo settled again and established trading posts some of which continue to this day in various forms (like Gouldings in Monument valley).

After a good couple of days, we head off again, this time to the Grand Canyon via Flagstaff and Peach Springs.

The journey is pretty straight forward on mainly good roads, and long stretches where the road goes straight for as far as the eye can see but undulating; it's a bit like being on a roller coaster. There are high plateau ridges in the distance but largely it's scrub land with lots of horses and a few towns interspersed. Then we join the I-40 and go through mainly farming communities with cattle ranches. The historic Route 66 runs alongside and we see some quirky signs and places as a result - though not quite OKC/Amarillo standard. The route also takes us through Winslow - made famous by The Eagles. Not a great deal to see if we're honest. Then its wide open sand & scrub plains with snow-capped mountains in the distance (which could be where we're heading as Flagstaff is at 7000ft - back to the chill!).

Walnut Canyon

As we gain an hour en route due to time zones, we decide to detour to Walnut Canyon National Monument just outside Flagstaff. Its home to a Sinagua community of cliff dwellings, named to recognise the ability of the people who lived here 800 years ago to turn a relatively dry region into a productive homeland. The canyon is believed to have been in use as a settlement for 1000's of years.

The canyon, unlike those at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly, is a pale limestone with lots of ponderosa pines growing up the sides and at the bottom (not that we go there) are black walnut trees and walnut creek, which occasionally is in full flow.

There are two walk options; a rim walk which gives you quite distant view of some of the cliff dwellings and a rim pueblo - not worth it we feel, and an island trail that takes you down 240 steps to a loop around a section of caves. We go to the viewpoint where we can see the main cave used in the advertising stuff and a few others and decide that on balance, we've seen better and we need coffee! So it's back in the RV, next stop Macy's coffee house in Flagstaff.

Flagstaff

After sandwiches and good coffee we wander around town a little. This is a rail town - we tracked the railroad for much of the journey - and trains go through regularly (freight mainly though also the steam train to the Grand Canyon via Williams which runs the first Saturday of every month in season). Apparently, it's National Train Day at the visitor centre so we enter a free raffle and find out later we we've won two prizes - a book on Route 66 through Arizona (perfect as we're headed that way) and a T shirt. The town is also a base for skiing and outdoor holidays and has a nice vibe.

We’re staying at J&H RV Park a few miles north of Flagstaff. It’s a nice, well-kept site with very clean facilities which we make good use of. We’re only here for one night as a stop-over though you could easily spend more time relaxing in Flagstaff.

We go to Fry's for shopping and petrol - more discounts (we get to 20cents off a gallon this time just by buying more beer!), then we head to Beaver Street Brewery for dinner, recommended by the campsite folk. It's packed as its Graduation celebrations and Mother’s Day weekend. They do decent food and good Lumberyard Ales. There are about 4 micro-breweries here (this is an expanding enterprise we’ve seen in quite a few towns along our trip) and it makes a nice change to get a decent beer other than Bud Light on tap.

In the morning we head back into Flagstaff visitor centre to collect our prizes and take some pics in the snow (a few flecks really)!! Apparently this mix of weather is quite normal at this time of year; no-one told us!! Then we do make it to Sedona. It’s only 29 miles but takes an hour as it's a really narrow windy road for most of the way. Sedona is packed as its Mother’s Day. It’s very touristy with loads of off road trips in jeeps (pink ones) and eateries. All in faux adobe style like Santa Fe revisited.

It seems to have lost a lot of its charm since our visit 10 years ago, then we realise this is all new development since our last trip here and the old town is about 20 mins walk away - where all the alternative therapies etc are promoted that we remember the town for. There are also loads of new fancy houses in the hills around the town - seems like where the money lives. As it’s not really doing it for us (we only came here as P was interested to visit it – but he seemed none too taken with it either), we decide to head off back to Flagstaff and on to our destination for the next two days, Peach Springs.

Peach Springs on Route 66 for our Rafting Trip down the Grand Canyon

Peach Springs is our base for rafting on the Colorado River with the Hualapai River Rafters – a long held dream for M&C though we just wish the weather was a bit warmer. The landscape we drive through is rolling plains, with long straight roads (though shocking condition in places for an interstate), but with a detour onto Route 66 through Williams (thanks to our new book) for pics and lunch (Goldies Diner, not brilliant), then Route 66 again from Seligman to Peach Springs so more pics.

Route 66 abounds in this part of Arizona, with loads of shops done up in retro style and old signage etc. The main street in Williams has a great looking retro BBQ smokehouse/diner decorated with a red Cadillac on top of its signboard.

There’s also a soda shop called Twisters which has great décor inside, a few Route 66 gift shops, and Route 66 Parking signs. It’s a popular route with Harley Davison riders too and we see a lot of bikes go through town.

Further along (30ish miles) Seligman is almost a museum town for Route 66. The landmark point is Delgadillo's Snow Cap, a café with all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff outside including old cars, so very photogenic. Also here is Angel & Vilma’s shop and barbers, famous as he was the founder of the Historic Route 66 Association in Arizona that sought to revitalise the communities along the Mother Road that had been affected by the new Interstate roads.

There are also a couple of cafés which have all the paraphernalia outside and in, and some old motels with the retro signs. The only downside; loads of tour coaches come through so you have to get here early for tourist free pics – which we decide to do on the return journey. So more information below.

Back on the road, the railway line tracks the road through the plains but otherwise the only sights of interest are the occasional series of road signs that read as a ditty to encourage safe driving - sponsored by Burma Shave whoever they are.

Grand Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns, where we are staying, is an Arizona attraction famed for having the largest dry caverns in the US, the equivalent of 21 storeys underground. It used to be a dinosaur theme park, and it is also a Route 66 attraction with old cars and trucks outside, a 50's style gas station, a Bettie Boop diner inside and in the making, a 1 mile road marking key places along the Mother Road.

The RV Park is virtually empty so we take our pic of the sites - nice tree and BBQ being the main attributes. They do have Wi-Fi but only at the motel which is a bit of a pain. Toilet & shower facilities are good though.

M does a cracking BBQ as usual and we get organised with all the different layers of clothes we might need for our rafting trip tomorrow.

Rafting on the Colorado

We're up early as we need to be at the Hualapai Lodge - a new building that looks pretty flash in an otherwise quite simple looking community of Peach Springs, by 7-30am for check in. The good news is the forecast is for 73 F and it will be about 10 degrees hotter at the bottom of the Canyon to help counteract the water which stays at about 46 F.

We meet up with the other rafters; 5 Brits and 7 US folk so only two rafts which is quite a small group, which we like. Two of the Brits have flown in from Vegas!

The journey to the start point is in a minivan over a dirt road for an hour. We stop twice in the way, ostensibly for viewpoints though we rather suspect it's more to do with the drivers (Gines) smoking habit. (That said, when we get delayed on the way back he pulls out the throttle and only stops once for a comfort break in a 2hr 30 min journey).

We get to the start and the water is emerald green, in contrast to the muddy swirl we'd seen in the Colorado in Glenwood Canyon. The company provide a dry bag for all your clothes and an ammo can for things you might need while on the water, and life jackets of course - not that they expect to tip you in. The rafts are actually motorised RIBs rather than paddle rafts that we had in New Zealand, so it's not so interactive but with 8 runs of rapids running from a 3 to a 7 (on a scale out of 10) we need our hands fixed to grab bars to keep in the boat at times. Oh, and if you think you might just get a bit damp, or that waterproofs will help keep you dry - forget it! This is full on soaking as the water breaks over you with pretty cold water. C sits at the front and takes the full force, with Pete next to her, whilst M wisely sits on the bench at the back, in front of the driver, Andre, but he still gets a full shower when we hit the 6 and 7.

After about 3 of the rapids we stop for a short walk to a waterfall hidden in a ravine. It's a tricky place to get to with ropes and rope ladders to get up and down but once inside you get lovely light, a small waterfall and interesting water shaped rock formations.

We've just about dried out again when we get back on the water and a couple of rapids soon have us back to soaked and holding on for dear life. The 7 is a corker, throwing you into a hole and pretty much submerging everything, except Andre I notice!!

Eventually, we are out of the rapids and so we stop for a packed lunch on a "beach" area, warm up, dry out, and then re-launch for a 2 hour gentle raft down the Colorado to the end point just under Grand Canyon West Rim. This is a nice way to finish as we can get the camera out and take some pics of the Canyon from water level. There are some beautiful rock formations which Andre explains - some like corkscrews caused by whirlpool spins thousands of years ago, and he also points out key places from the expedition by John Wesley Powell which tracked the Colorado through the Grand Canyon (see next blog for more).

Finally, we get to the end point and the final part of the adventure is a 5 minute helicopter ride up from the river to the top of the canyon. It's short but pretty awesome and as C is the lightweight in our trio, she gets the front seat with the pilot; very happy.

The trip cost about £250 each, so not cheap but it was a great day and a great way to see the Canyon. The only downer was the trip home at the end which was delayed by 45 minutes due to road works; sitting and waiting whilst all the construction traffic got priority was pretty frustrating and meant we didn't get back to Peach Springs until 7-30pm. Hey ho. The trip back is via Kingman, noted as one of the best bits of road of the original Route 66. We don’t see much evidence of this – the only signage is on a gas station, and Kingman itself looks pretty boring. It’s all bungalows – apparently over 70%!o(MISSING)f the town’s population are retired. Then we go through a real sand desert terrain for a while – no grass or shrubs at all.

The first priority when we get back to the RV is beers in the freezer; it’s been a long day.

Route 66 (Arizona) revisited – the return journey

It’s a lovely sunny day so we start early as we plan to have breakfast at a Route 66 diner called the Snow Cap Diner, in Seligman about 30 miles down the road. However, before we go the Grand Caverns have quite a few interesting old cars and Route 66 memorabilia so we decide to take pictures including the special Roadster Garage (a take on the ‘Cars’ Animated Movies).

Seligman

It’s quite sunny and abandoned when we arrive unlike the last time we passed through here when it was grey and cloudy with a couple of busloads of tourists all over the place. This time we have the place almost to ourselves. So its pictures time….snap, snap, snap!

We head for breakfast at the Snow Cap diner – an institution since 1953 but find it’s closed for some reason. Inside it looks like a classic American Diner from the 50s. Next its Angel & Vilma’s Original Route Gift Shop a few doors away. It was also a Barbers shop which we understood had closed for business but we find someone being shaved. Its a store full of memoribilia of Route 66 in Arizona and the couple are famous for starting The Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona. So its US style referred to as the ‘Birthplace of Route 66’!!

As we are hungry we decide to try the 66 Roadrunner Café across the street, which is more modern in look outside and inside but has the same approach, plenty of Route 66 souvenirs and a more modern Diner to match. We try croissants with egg & cheese or with steak & coffee. It’s a pretty greasy meal but quite tasty and good for the soul.

As we are leaving we find that 4 Busloads of tourists have arrived and stopped along Main street and they are crawling all over the place for pictures so we beat a hasty retreat and take some pictures of a Motel at the end of town before making our way to Williams – again.

Williams

We decide to call in here again as the weather is so much better than the last time we were passing. We briefly stop for some more photo’s (during all this Route 66 excitement for us Pete stays in the RV as he’s not sure what the fuss is all about!).

We take loads of pictures of the place, mainly on the one way street where the colourful Diner and Café are. We also bump into Jane & John from the UK who we had met on the Rafting trip the day before. They have been in Toronto for John’s work and are now going back home to the South Coast near Southampton. C pops into Twisters to take a picture inside this classic diner which does pop and Soda Floats – another institution. They are none too pleased but she promises to be back later………….We then make our way out to Flagstaff about 40 miles away.

The reason for coming back to Flagstaff is to prepare for our Grand Canyon visit and stock up with shopping for 5 nights as we are not sure what we might find at the GC and how expensive they would be. We go to AT & T to top up our iPad for travel & data and buy a few bits for our Camping trip from Walmart, who incidentally have the Coleman’s cooker and grill we bought recently for our camping trip - but $20 cheaper. Damn! No worries we go to Fry’s and stock up and get another $20 discount and more on filling up the gas at their petrol stop. We also check the tires and oil – all being well we are then off.

And so, the first part of the Arizona Canyons trip ends and we look forward to the big one next………..The Grand Canyon – South Rim


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