Arizona National Parks

A dramatic sky over the Blue Mesas. No sunset for us due to the clouds.
A dramatic sky over the Blue Mesas, but no sunset for us due to the clouds.
Day 20

We were up early to explore the Petrified Forest National Park. The road through the park is 28 miles. With trail walks and pictures, we figured it would take most of the day.

Petrified wood
A petrified log near the visitor’s center

The temperature was very pleasant when we started and the forecast was calling for highs only in the mid-80’s, cooler than I had expected. We checked out the visitor’s center, watched the short film, and walked Big Trees and Crystal Forest trails. We had not realized that the Long Logs trail started at the visitor’s center, so since we had already moved on, we decided to defer it to the next morning. It was really nice to have only a handful of people on the trails. I always feel really lucky when we can be someplace beautiful and not have to deal with crowds of people.

A portion of the Blue Mesa trail
A portion of the Blue Mesa trail

The 3.5 mile loop road around the Blue Mesa area was definitely a highlight. By the time we got there, the lighting was pretty flat from bright, late-morning sun, but it was still an amazing place. We walked part of the trail although by this time the wind had picked up significantly.

With lighting that was not so great for photography and being a little tired from our morning walks, we decided to return to the trailer, have a bite of lunch and chill for an hour before heading to the north end of the park. When we arrived at the north end after our break, the number of people definitely picked up from the morning, but it still was not bad at all for a national park. (The north end of the park is right off of the interstate, so it gets more traffic than the south end. There were also definitely more people out in the afternoon than in the morning even on the south end – trails that were nearly empty in the morning had many more people in the afternoon when we went by them.)

The Tee-Pees
The Tee-Pees

We worked our way down the various pull-outs, took a bunch more pictures, and walked a couple more trails. The clouds moved in as we were heading south, which was pretty disappointing. We had hoped for beautiful late afternoon sunlight and a nice sunset, but that was not to be.

We decided to end our day back at the Blue Mesas. We did a couple of loops, and the sun teased us by peeking through the clouds a couple of times, but the sunlight never landed on anything close to us. The best we managed was a dramatic sky with the Blue Mesas in shadow (the opening photo), which had to make do instead of our sunset.

Day 21

P5190638The Grand Canyon was less than four hours away, so we wanted to spend part of the morning checking out the Long Logs trail that we had skipped the day before. The trail was very enjoyable, and with the spur to the Agate House was a little over 2.5 miles. We had another beautiful day, pleasant temperatures, and literally no one else on the trail with us. It was really amazing to be walking trails in a national park – with the dog no less – and essentially having the place to ourselves.

The Agate House reconstruction is apparently not entirely correct based on current scholarship, but the use of petrified wood is striking.
The Agate House reconstruction is apparently not entirely correct based on current scholarship, but the use of petrified wood is striking.

The Agate house is located on the site of an eight-room Puebloan structure that was partially rebuilt in the 1930s. It didn’t sound that exciting – we had seen the remains of the hundred-room Puerco Pueblo the day before – but it was a beautiful morning and we had time, so we took the one mile roundtrip spur.

Detail of the walls
Detail of the walls

It turned out to be quite interesting. It wasn’t so much the layout – we’ve seen a number of Puebloan structures, but we aren’t interested enough to make them a field of study. But the use of the petrified logs gave the reconstruction a unique look, and we enjoyed looking at the walls and structure for a while.

Following our walk, Oma did a bit of shopping (we’re now the proud owners of some beautiful, polished (and legal) petrified wood), and it was off to our next stop – the Grand Canyon.

The Elk inspected our set-up when we arrived
The Elk inspected our set-up when we arrived

We arrived to find the Trailer Village campground to be pretty much what I expected. It was a field of RVs. A nice field, all things considered, clean and organized, but nothing special. We were greeted by the campground officials (elk apparently run this campground) who made sure that we were setting up properly.

Oma had never been to the Grand Canyon before. I had, for a river trip, many, many years ago, but oddly enough really didn’t see the canyon from the rim. (It seems strange, but I had arrived at the Grand Canyon after dark and started the hike down into the canyon before dawn, so I had no time on the rim in daylight.) Still, we decided to tackle some chores and catch up after two nights of dry camping with no hookups instead of trying to get to the rim. Although we lost an evening on the rim, we had already had a full morning and an afternoon of driving, and it allowed us to focus more on the canyon for the rest of our time there.

Day 22

Grand Canyon Village is a relatively large area with a shuttle bus system (three different routes). To make up for the peaceful and uncrowded Petrified Forest National Park, the Grand Canyon south rim was crazy busy. And it turns out that the week before Memorial Day weekend was the busiest of the year so far. I’m sure it is worse in the peak summer tourist season, but it was more than busy enough for my taste.

We got a slightly different view of the canyon at every stop. There were a lot of pictures to review.
We got a slightly different view of the canyon at every stop. There were a lot of pictures to review.

It took us a while to get to our destination for the day – the rim trail that parallels Hermit’s Road. This area requires taking the shuttle (it is closed to cars most of the year) and we spent over an hour getting from the campground to our stop. The buses were packed.

Interestingly, once we got on the trail, we had a great walk. Though we were not alone, there really were not that many people on the trail. The section we picked was not paved but I would still rate it as an easy walk, and it had fantastic overlooks throughout. It was really a great choice for a few mile walk to enjoy the views and start adapting to the 7000 foot elevation.

More shuttle transfers on the way back, so by the time we made it to the campground, it was dinner time. I had planned to take some sunset photos, but with the crazy number of people and long time for shuttle transportation, we chose to just have dinner and chill.

Day 23

After our fun on the shuttle system the day before, we decided to escape the village and head along Desert View Drive. This road is less than 30 miles to Desert View and is open to traffic with a number of overlooks. We took the dog as well since we were not planning any significant hikes.

The canyon dwarfs people, and the mighty Colorado appears as little more than a thread in the distance
The canyon dwarfs people, and the mighty Colorado River appears as little more than a thread in the distance

The viewpoints continued to amaze us as we took our time working towards Desert View. We finally made it in the late afternoon. The light was starting to look good for photographs, but clouds kept interfering. We hung around for a while and decided to have our third restaurant meal of the trip (the others being dinner with the kids in Houston and drive through at McD’s in Roswell) and split a large and reasonably priced Indian taco there while we waited to see what the clouds would do.

Sunset over the canyon, from an overlook near Desert View
Sunset over the canyon, from an overlook near Desert View

In the end we headed back towards “home” but caught a sunset on the way back. I think Oma missed much of it as way too many people wanted to meet the dog.

Day 24
Ooh-ahh point on the South Kaibab trail. Ooh-ahh Point is where the people are congregated.
Ooh-ahh point on the South Kaibab trail. Ooh-ahh Point is where the people are congregated.

Our last day at the canyon. Oma’s knees were doing okay, so we decided to head into the Canyon via the South Kaibab trail. Two more shuttle buses and we found ourselves at the busy trailhead.

There were plenty of switchbacks, similar to what I remembered from descending Bright Angel Trail many years ago, but I think the South Kaibab trail was much more spectacular in it’s views. We really enjoyed heading down to Ooh-aah point, where we were treated to both great views and two different mule trains (one with people, one with supplies) heading to the rim.

Mules and riders heading up the trail
Mules and riders heading up the trail
Pack mules heading up. The trip down started at 3:00 am that morning.
Pack mules heading up. The trip down started at 3:00 am that morning.

We were both feeling pretty good and might have gone down farther, but clouds had been threatening most of the morning so we decided to head up. It started pouring soon after. We were prepared with rain gear and nylon pants, so it wasn’t too bad, although I don’t think either of us expected sleet and snow. By the time we made it to the top we were a little chilled despite the climb and were happy to get in the heated buses.

View of the approaching storm from the trail. Most of our trip back up the trail was in rain, sleet and snow.
View of the approaching storm from the trail. Most of our trip back up the trail was in rain, sleet and snow.

We actually had to turn the furnace on when we got back. Annie has a heat pump, but temperatures in early afternoon were nearly freezing and too cold for it to be effective. Following two longish, very hot showers and a late lunch, we headed to the Yavapai Point Geology Museum by truck. Rain was still falling, so the crowds that we’d had most of the week were largely gone. We got to the Museum, wandered some of the exhibits that were designed to have you compare the exhibit to the view of the canyon out the window. That view was nothing but cloud for us. I was glad we hadn’t bothered to bring the cameras.

The clouds clear allowing late-afternoon light to reach the canyon
The clouds clear allowing beautiful late-afternoon light to reach the canyon

About the time we had seen most of what we could take in without a canyon view, the clouds literally parted. One minute we have a solid wall of white; the next moment sun is streaming through the clouds. And I was kicking myself for not bringing that camera that was so pointless a few minutes ago.

Oma took some pictures with her phone while I drove back to the trailer and grabbed the cameras. Not all of it made good pictures, but we spent until sunset enjoying the constantly changing look of the canyon as scattered clouds and light fog drifted through, with the late afternoon sun lighting various portions of the canyon. It was a magical end to our stay.

A magical end to our stay at the South Rim
A magical end to our stay at the South Rim

When we booked the Grand Canyon at the beginning of the year, we thought that four nights would be enough. In retrospect, a full week would be my minimum next time. Part of it is that transportation in the park just takes time, except for the three months in winter that all roads are open to private vehicles. But more and longer hikes, plus a couple of off days, could easily fill up a week or more for us.

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