Rural America ~ Desert SW Road-Trips: Four Corners   5 comments

Sunrise at Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell.

Here’s a sad story:  Imagine driving through a typical developed section of the United States.  You drive by a continuous series of shopping complexes, fast-food joints, theaters, condo developments and all the rest.  It’s just the way it is, right?

Now imagine a long-time local in the car with you.  Inevitably he or she would be able to point and tell you that not long ago this was all farmland (or forest, or grass meadows, or swampland, or tidal marshes).  I’ve heard this told of many areas across the country, and I could tell the story for numerous places that I’m personally familiar with.

America has experienced continuous growth and development for quite some time now, and the effects are many.  This blog series is about one of them, the swallowing up of rural farm- and ranch-lands as the suburbs have pushed outward.  We’ve lost much of the on-the-land character here, and visitors from other countries, along with younger residents, simply do not know what the country was once like.

When you come upon a rare round barn in rural America, you stop and take a picture: east Oregon desert.

Thankfully rural America does still exist in places.  But in order to see it, you must be willing to get away from the popular routes and sights.  It’s one of those things that is easy to say but much harder to put into effect during a trip.  The internet tends to push us into narrow tourist-trails, perhaps more so than travel books and magazines once did.  But the internet can also give you ideas for getting off those beaten trails to explore just a little bit of the original character of the country and its people.  It’s that rural character that made this country great in the first place.

The last few posts have been exploring the Desert Southwest with some of my favorite road-trips.  This post continues with that theme, moving east and south to explore the Four Corners region, especially the native tribal lands of southern Utah, northern Arizona and western New Mexico.  It’s part of a big loop starting and ending in Page, Arizona.  Next time we’ll cover the southern leg of the loop.  If you are flying in and renting a vehicle, your trip could start in Arizona from either Phoenix or Flagstaff.  Or you could fly into Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico and start the loop on the eastern end.

The famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Page to Cortez

Page, Arizona is a little town on the shores of Lake Powell.  It’s popular with snowbirds and retirees, but is probably best known as a minor tourist town.  It’s the base town for house boat trips on the lake and also for desert tours.  The town is set in ridiculously scenic desert, so it’s popular with photographers.  There is a balloon fest the first weekend of November (image below).

If you love slot canyons and can’t resist an over-photographed location, visit nearby Antelope Canyon.  It’s on Navajo land and a guided tour costs anywhere between $20 and $40, not including the $6 tribal fee.  The cheaper option is for the lower canyon while the upper costs more.  Both are stunning visually.  Another superb but over-shot location is Horseshoe Bend just south of town (image above).  The whole area is like candy for landscape shooting.  I recommend a sunrise at Lone Rock Beach (image at top).  You can camp right there on the beach.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

If you have extra time a great side-trip from Page travels Hwy. 89A past Marble Canyon on the Colorado River and up to Jacob Lake.  Turn south on 67 and enjoy the cool pine forests on a short jaunt to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Our trip will take us east into very different country.  This is vast, unpeopled desert, dotted with small communities that are a mix of American Indian, white ranchers and more recent immigrants.  Many towns are dominated by native tribal people.

Looking east over the upper Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

Drive to Kayenta, AZ and turn north toward Monument Valley on the Utah border.  As you near this iconic place of the west, the terrain begins to look like an old John Ford movie.  There is a fee to enter the tribal park, and it is 100% worth it.  Make sure and stop for some Navajo fry bread at road-side and chat up the friendly locals.  I’ve camped out in the desert here and had locals roll up in their pickup trucks to check me out.  Instead of running me off their reservation they’ve been friendly once they know I’m just after a good night’s sleep.

A young Navajo pony is curious about the white stranger in Monument Valley.

Continue north, making sure to stop and look behind you for the view from the movie Forrest Gump.  Mexican Hat on the San Juan River is a tiny town typical of this part of the country.  Stop for lunch and learn something from a local or two.  Continue up the San Juan to Bluff, another interesting little place.  There are spectacular rock art panels along the river just west of Bluff.

Pictographs: southern Utah.

A side-trip north toward Blanding, Utah takes you into the recently designated Bear’s Ears National Monument.  You can stop along the roadside in this area and walk cross-country, exploring randomly, and come upon ancient Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins and rock art.  It’s that rich with prehistoric treasures.  A hiking trip into Grand Gulch will take you into the heart of this amazing piece of America.  This place has become a political hot-button issue, as the Utah state government attempts to convince the current president (who is sympathetic) to undo its protective Monument status.

Bear paw petroglyph: Bear’s Ears Natl. Monument, Utah.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries set in a cliff overhang: Bear’s Ears, Utah.

Continue east on Hwy. 162 to the Four Corners area.  This is where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, the only place in the country where four states meet.  But let’s take a little detour to see some unique native ruins and drive an out-of-the-way little valley lined with pretty ranches and farms.  You can turn north on Hwy. 262 or the road a few miles to the east.  Or in Bluff just set your GPS to find Hovenweep National Monument.

Square Tower under winter stars, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

You’ll come to the main ruins of Hovenweep, where the visitor center and a nice campground are located.  A short loop hike takes you around Little Ruin Canyon, where the Ancient Ones built towers of the local stone.  Driving the dirt roads north from here will lead you to short hikes that visit other towers (directions at the visitor ctr.).  I recommend doing this for the strong feelings you’ll get with nobody else around.  The ghosts of a past long before this was called America haunt this lonely region of shallow sandstone canyons.

The towers of Little Ruin Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Retrace your steps back south and find Ismay Trading Post Road (ask a ranger for directions or study the map).  Take this straight east into Colorado.  It’s a beautiful way to enter the state.  You can stop and take a short hike into the public lands of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on the north side of the road.  Too soon you’ll reenter the modern world at Cortez, where you can gas up and stock up.

Cortez is jumping-off point for Mesa Verde National Monument.  Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans whose ruins and rock art you’ve already been seeing, and visit their truly amazing cliff dwellings.  I recommend not stopping with seeing Cliff Palace but also doing the ranger-guided hike to Balcony House.

Rock art of the Fremont people, who came after the Ancestral Puebloans: Colorado.

Spruce Tree House on a beautiful October morning at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cortez to Santa Fe

From Cortez head south on Hwy. 491 into New Mexico. You will reach the Navajo town of Shiprock.  You are now in the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, in both area and population.  Navajo Nation covers nearly 30,000 square miles!  Nearby sits the “ship of the desert”, Ship Rock.  Approach it on undeveloped roads and tracks.  But remember you are not technically in the U.S. here.  It is Navajo land and you must abide by their rules.  On the plus side they are generally very chill and willing to let a person just be.

From Shiprock drive east to Farmington where you have a choice.  You can head south on Hwy. 371.  then, after about 35 miles, turn left on road 7297.  Drive a few miles on the sandy road to parking for Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness.  After hiking through this geological wonderland, continue on the unpaved roads to reach U.S. Hwy. 550.  Or you can continue east of Farmington to Hwy. 550 and head south.

The Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness, New Mexico.

Either way I recommend taking the turn off Hwy. 550 for Chaco Canyon.  The recognized center of Ancestral Puebloan culture, Chaco is home to a complex of dwellings, rock art and spectacular kivas (excavated places of spiritual practice).  The hike out to Penyasco Blanco ruin offers sweeping views of the canyon and passes the famous Supernova pictograph.

Continue southeast on Hwy. 550 to the oddly named town of Cuba, where a turn east on route 126 takes you up into the mountains.  The Desert SW is not all desert, especially in New Mexico’s high country.  Here you’ll find forest and grassy mountain meadows.  In some places ranches are still running cattle according to season as they have done for centuries.  In others the land has been protected to preserve its unique plants and animals.

A wind-powered pump at a ranch in remote northwestern New Mexico.

The road ends at Hwy. 4, where you’ll turn left and continue east through Valles Caldera Preserve, a lovely ancient caldera now covered with grass and pine trees.  You will finally leave forest and mountain behind when you reach Los Alamos.  Still an active research complex, this is where America developed the world’s first atomic weapon.

Continue east until you pass over the Rio Grande at Santa Clara Pueblo.  Here you can either turn south and go on into Santa Fe, or turn north on Hwy. 68.  The northern detour takes you alongside the beautiful Rio Grande River to the adobe-covered town of Taos, where you can visit the home of Jesse James on a self-guided walking tour of the charming town.  Taos Pueblo, a village adjacent to the main town, is a native community that you might consider visiting on a guided tour (click the link).

A frosty autumn morning along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico.

This leg of our loop ends in Santa Fe, a smallish city with many layers.  On the surface it might seem a little too slick with its modern adobe architecture.  But this place figures in the history of the Southwest from the very beginning and hosts a diverse population.  In North America you simply do not find places with this many layers of history.  At the least enjoy a good meal at one of its many restaurants and do a walking tour of downtown’s historic buildings.

Thanks for staying with this series.  I’m really getting a kick out of sharing some of my best road-trips through rural America.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Monument Valley at dusk.

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5 responses to “Rural America ~ Desert SW Road-Trips: Four Corners

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  1. Great work. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Stunning!!

  3. Fabulous series of posts that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing through your lens. You’ve showcased a few of my faves and a few I’ve missed. Keep the photos and ideas coming!

  4. Wonderful post! I wish I were visiting that area in the same manner.

  5. Hi Michael, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I’ve been through many of these places on our travels and drives across the country. Your images and narrative are a real celebration of rural America and our natural resources. It is more apparent than ever that photographers and writers document, inform and educate others of the importance of conservation and preservation of our environment. Such magnificent beauty, culture and history. Thanks for inspiring me today. Happy shooting and safe travels.

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