The American Southwest is home to some of the most incredible natural wonders on the planet. I recently spent time roaming the high desert of the Colorado Plateau hoping to see as much of the area as I could. I had two main goals for the trip:
- To visit some of the lesser known Southwestern highlights; and
- To hike several short sections of the Hayduke Trail (Hike #17 in Hike The World), in preparation for an upcoming thruhike on the trail.
I’ll post about the second piece soon; this post focuses on the first. It takes a quick look at some of the amazing places in the Four Corners area that, whether due to their remote location or just the overwhelming number of natural and historic attractions in the Four Corners region (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah), don’t get as much press as their more famous brethren.
I hope you enjoy and maybe even pick up some new ideas for your next US-based roadtrip.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Chaco Culture National Historic Park protects the ruins of some of the most incredible architectural and cultural achievements by indigenous people in North America. The site, in northern New Mexico, was the epicenter of the ancient Puebloan culture (an ancient indigenous people) and is now a major stop on the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, which connects historic sites of the Hopi and Ancient Puebloan Peoples.
Chaco Canyon was populated from A.D. 900-1150 and consists of 15 major residential and ceremonial complexes. Pueblo Bonito, which over the course of four major construction period would ultimately become the largest of these complex at over four hundred room in a single large structure, would remain one of the largest structures in the entire United States until well into the 19th century.
The Chaco site was the focal point of a vast economic, social, and cultural network that extended across much of the pre-Columbian western United States and northern Mexico. Excavations at the site have revealed an array of trade goods , including sheets from the Pacific Coast, as well as chocolate and parrot feathers from Central America.
The Park is remote but is well worth a visit to learn about the impressive, and vastly under appreciated, architectural and cultural achievements of North America’s indigenous cultures.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Currently home to approximately 40 Navajo families, Canyon de Chelly National Monument has been home to human inhabitants for more than 5,000 years, making it the longest continuously inhabited site on the Colorado Plateau.
The site, located on land in northern Arizona owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation, is jointly operated by the tribe and the Federal government. The Monument protects three massive canyons – de Chelly (pronounced “de-shay”), del Muerto, and Monument – that have been carved by rivers flowing out of the nearby Chuska Mountains.
Access to the Monument is free and most visitors view the site’s highlights from the pair of access roads aptly named North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive. The Monument’s major attractions include Spider Rock, a 750-ft sandstone spire (near the end of South Rim Drive); and the White House, a haunting ruin built into bottom of the canyon wall (near the start of the South Rim Drive).
With the exception of the White House Trail, which leads along the canyon floor to a viewpoint, all access to the bottom of the canyon is prohibited unless accompanied by an authorized Navajo guide or a park ranger.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Ok, so maybe this one isn’t quite so unknown. Monument Valley is an iconic set of sandstone buttes that have today come to define for many the image of the desert Southwest.
The Park is located on the Navajo Nation Reservation on the Arizona-Utah border. The buttes, the largest of which rises more than 1,000 from the valley floor, bear an array of endearing names, such as the Totem Pole and East and West Mittens.
Entry to the main parts of the Park, including the iconic viewpoint and tribal museum, is subject to a fairly steep fee. Access to more remote parts of the Park is only permissible if accompanied by an authorized guide.
Valley of the Gods
Valley of the Gods is a dramatic sandstone valley near the the town of Mexican Hat, Utah. The easiest way to experience the valley’s vivid red rocks is via a 17-mile unpaved road that winds among the towering buttes and ancient mesas.
There is no entry fee and free camping is permissible in previously disturbed sites. The road is accessible to non-4×4 vehicles in dry weather, but can be otherwise impassible when water levels in Lime Creek rise.
The area was briefly part of the Bear Ears National Monument, as proclaimed by President Obama in December 2016. That status was unfortunately eliminated earlier this year as part of the current U.S. President’s (and his Administration’s) on-going attacks on conservation lands and the environment in general. With development leases for this uniquely beautiful part of the world already up for auction, get there before too much damage is done.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park is a scenic Utah state park that overlooks a dramatic bend in the Colorado River. Situated near Moab, Utah and Arches National Park, the Park’s highlight is an observation point that gives amazing views of sheer vertical cliffs, deep canyons and the winding river.
The Park owes its name to apocryphal legends of 18th century cowboys corralling wild mustangs behind the narrow neck of the Point.
The Park has an entry fee and offers a number of developed campsites. The site’s remote location, distant from any significant development, enables its membership as an International Dark Sky Park that offers an exceptional quality of starry night free from light pollution.
Bandalier National Monument
Bandalier National Monument is an extensive conservation area in northwester New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. The Monument is another site of ancient human habitation, with evidence suggesting human resident in the area more than 11,000 years ago.
More recently, the deep canyons and undulating mesas were home the Ancient Puebloans, who farmed corn, beans, and squash in the region from 1150 to 1550 C.E. The Ancient Puebloans left behind an impressive number of stone- and cliff-carbed dwellings along the walls and valley floor before abandoning the area for other sites in the region following a period of extreme drought.
The National Monument offers over 20 miles of hiking trails for those wanting to explore the ancient dwellings and dramatic wilderness landscape more closely. The highest concentration of dwellings, kivas and petroglyphs in the Monument is in Frijoles Canyon, which is access by an easy trail from the Monument office.
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument features a massive rock wall covered with hundreds of ancient petroglyphs. With individual carvings dated to as early as 2,000 years ago, contributions to the collection of animal, human and symbolic forms were made over the ensuing years by people from the Archaic, Anasazi, Fremont, Navajo, Anglo, and Pueblo cultures.
Tse’ Hone, as it is known in Navajo, is one of the most impressive and well-preserved petroglyph sites in the western United States. The site is located on the access road that leads to the Needles District in Canyonlands National Park and makes for an easy stop on the way to the Park.