Wild Wild Southwest, Week 3: Mesa Verde – Monument Valley – Antelope Canyon – Grand Canyon – Sedona

Mesa Verde

The drive from Telluride to Mesa Verde is short (under 2 hours) and beautiful, through the San Juan mountains. We stopped in the nearby town of Cortez to re-stock our food, then headed into the park to set up camp. After lunch we went to the visitor’s center and then made the hour long drive through the park to Mesa Top Loop, a loop road at the top of Chapin Mesa that has stops along the way of some of the ancient ruins. It shows how the people who lived there went from nomadic to farmers with pit houses, to using more elaborate masonry, and eventually how they moved into the cliffs and built huge apartment complex type dwellings. They have a pretty well appointed museum and then at 6:45 we met up with a ranger for a twilight tour of the largest cliff dwelling, Cliff Palace. It was incredible to get up close to the dwelling and see this city built into an alcove of the cliff. You could even look up into one of the towers and see some art that was still painted on the wall. We were truly awestruck.

I highly recommend doing at least one tour of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. It’s a great park with a twist in that you learn a bit more about human history and anthropology rather than just nature. It also has a nice campground and beautiful views along the scenic drives up the mesas.

Monument Valley

The next morning we ate breakfast and packed up the camp and drove over to the Four Corners Monument. The kids were very excited to have one limb in each state. It was pretty hot so we didn’t stay long. Driving through the Navajo reservation, we stopped for lunch at a historic little restaurant for some authentic Mexican and Navajo food (fry bread!). Then we drove up to Monument Valley. It was hot and crowded but fun to do the 17 mile car tour around the monuments. The kids felt like we were really off-roading.

Antelope Canyon

We then headed to Page, Arizona, checked into our Hampton Inn and ate dinner at an awesome sushi restaurant. The town of Page is not necessarily quaint or cool, but we thought it had really good food! The next morning we checked in to our Antelope Canyon tour. This little slot Canyon on the Navajo reservation has become very popular since photos of it became screensavers for Microsoft and Apple. You can only go through the canyon with a Navajo guide. As we waited at our tour company we couldn’t believe how many people were there – they run tours every hour and there were at least 120 people for our 10am time slot! They ran it very efficiently however, as they broke the group down into smaller groups, each with their own guide. They take you out to the canyon in pickup trucks and our guide had fun making the drive extra bumpy. They then take you through the canyon and the guides show you the best shots to take with your camera phone. It was pretty packed in the canyon but most of your pictures are looking up. It was fun to experiment with pictures. The canyon itself was amazing, I just wish they hadn’t packed so many people in. It would have been nicer to go at your own pace. It reminded me of some cave tours I’ve been on, except busier. We were lucky that at the end we caught a sunbeam coming through the top and our guide helped us snap a few pics of it.

Afterwards we headed to the iconic Horseshoe Bend, which was also so crowded!!! There were so many tourists, mostly foreign, at both places. It got me wondering if Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend are listed as top spots on tour guides of the American West for international travelers. I’ve never seen so many foreign tourists at one US site. It was also ridiculously hot. After a great lunch at a burger place, we headed back to the hotel for a swim and I went to wal-mart for a last re-stock of supplies.

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In the evening, we went over to the Glen Canyon Damn and visitor’s center and watched the sunset over Lake Powell. We had made a reservation for a dinner-theater type place I read about on yelp called “Into the Grand.” It was in a warehouse and you were greeted by the owner, Hoss, who seemed to be a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski. His parents were one of the first river rafting tour companies through the canyon and so the place was somewhat of an homage to that. The warehouse had paintings of the Colorado River from the floor of the Grand Canyon and old rafting boats. There was an acoustic guitar player on stage while we ate our food (Mexican and Navajo and very delicious). After about an hour, Hoss introduced some of the Navajo dancers. Several were adolescents who compete internationally. There was even an adorable two-year old who took to the stage. They all put on a fantastic show, and the finale, a Native American hoop dance infused with hip-hop music, was amazing.

Grand Canyon

The next morning we woke up very early for the 2 hour drive down to the Grand Canyon. Our campground was first come, first serve and we wanted to make sure we got a good site. We made it there around 9:30am and got a nice site at the Desert View Campground near the Desert View Watchtower on the east end of the park. We toured the watchtower a bit and the kids and my husband got their first view of the canyon. My youngest had really been looking forward to it but he said he was underwhelmed.

No matter, we next drove into the park a bit to find the semi-secret Shoshone Point, which I had learned about on a Podcast and in a couple of my National Parks books. The trail is unmarked, but not too difficult to find. We made a picnic lunch and hiked about a mile down a flat trail through the forest. Eventually we came to an area with picnic tables, a pavilion, and even a bathroom area. The view of the canyon from this spot was amazing, and even better, there were only a handful of people (unlike every other overlook at the South Rim which was over-run)! I am so glad I did some research to find this place, because otherwise we would have never known about it. It really goes to show that doing a little bit of research on a location before you go can make a huge difference in finding some of the hidden gems.

Afterwards we went over to the visitor center and watched the film about the canyon. Next we made our way to the Village, where all of the hotels are. It was so crowded! We got some ice cream and checked out the Bright Angel lodge and hiked only about 0.2 miles on the Bright Angel trail to the first tunnel. It was super hot so there was no way we were going to hike down and up more than that. After we checked out the Kolb brothers studio (2 brothers who did daredevil photography at the turn of the century in the Canyon), we started walking west on the rim trail. This got us a little bit away from the crowds and we were able to get to some of the other lookout points. We made it to Maricopa point and then hopped on the shuttle bus to go west to some other lookouts, like Hopi point, Powell point, and the Abyss. The shuttle bus system was great but again, so crowded. There was no place to sit and we were packed in like sardines. We took the bus back to the village and drove all the way back to the campground (about 25 miles), stopping at a few points along the way to catch the sunset.

The next morning we left camp early to go to a fossil walk led by a ranger. My husband LOVES fossils and fossil hunting and we had a great time as she showed us an area off the rim trail with TONS of fossils. After this we went to the supermarket to re-supply. Yes, Grand Canyon NP is so big they have their own supermarket, in addition to hotels, restaurants, and a postal service. To be honest it was a bit off-putting after going to some of the less-visited national parks. And talk about crowds, we then went to the visitor center because we wanted to rent bikes (we had looked into it the day before), but there were absolutely no parking spots in any of their four parking lots! It was like being at the mall the week before Christmas where you are stalking people who you think are leaving to get their spot. We ended up parking illegally and then went to the bike rental place to learn they were sold out! At this point we had enough of the crowds and decided to head east where it is a little less busy. We stopped at some of the lookout points along the road heading east, and then just went back to our campsite to chill. Of course, right around the time we started cooking burgers over the fire pit we had a rain shower, but we were able to cover them with foil and eat quickly during a break in the rain.

When the rain stopped we walked over to the desert view lookout and waited for the sunset talk by a local Native American. The gentleman was the grandson of one of the painters of the interior of the desert view watchtower. He played the flute, sang a Navajo song, and then talked to us about the local Native American people and some of the atrocities they have been through, such as getting sent to boarding schools hundreds of miles away, and having their land decimated by uranium mines. Apparently there are still 500 open and abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation, because the companies would declare bankruptcy so they didn’t have to clean them up.

Following Ed’s talk we watched an amazing sunset over the canyon and headed back to camp for the night. The kids worked on their junior ranger books and were very excited about completing all of the activities. They have these at all of the parks but the kids were somewhat disinterested before. Isaac did do one at Capitol Reef. It is a really nice part of the National Park system. After they do some activities in the book and go to a ranger program, they can be sworn in as “junior rangers” and they get a little badge.The next morning we broke down camp and headed back to the visitor center (much less crowded at 8:30am) so the kids could be sworn in. We took a look at the famous Mather Point and the started driving 2.5 hours south to Sedona.

I’m glad we went to the Grand Canyon so that my husband and kids could see it, and we had some incredible moments there, such as the hike to Shoshone point and the sunset talk by the Navajo gentleman. But overall it was just so crowded it turned me off a bit. North rim next time?

Sedona

The drive to Sedona along 89A south goes through Oak Creek Canyon and is very beautiful! You start to see the red rocks with green foliage as you make your way down the windy road through the canyon. As we got to Slide Rock state park it started to get crazy busy! It was a Sunday and there were so many people parking along the side of the road to go to the state park and national forest. Apparently there is a nice swimming spot in the state park and I guess when it’s a hot Sunday in the middle of the desert the place gets full fast!

We got to our resort in Sedona around noon but the room wasn’t ready so we walked into town for lunch. Sedona is definitely interesting. It’s pretty touristy and of course has a bunch of crystal and new age type shops along with a “Wild West” theme. It was just really hot for walking around so we were glad to be able to check into our hotel and use the pool.

We stayed at the Kimpton Amara Resort, booked using Ultimate Reward points. I also learned online that Kimpton does a little promo over the summer that if you say the “password” you get something for free. I learned the password (out of office) from one of the travel blogs I follow and we got a free movie rental. We used that for the kids to rent Peter Rabbit and got them room service while we headed over to have dinner on the patio at the resort. It is really nice for the kids to be old enough to do this. We wouldn’t have left the resort but we were close enough to check on them and also my son could text us if they needed something.

The next morning we ate breakfast in town and headed out for a hike. A few people had recommended Devil’s Bridge, so that’s where we went. It was about 10am but already super hot in the desert. The trail follows a Jeep/ATV road for about a mile, and then another mile up the side of the rock formation to the natural bridge. It was pretty amazing. There is kind of an optical illusion so that the stone bridge looks very thin from the the side as people are walking across it but then when you face the bridge head on it is actually pretty wide. We took turns going on it and even though I knew I was an illusion, I have to admit when the kids were on the bridge my heart almost stopped. Scary!

We walked the two miles back and were soooo hot we couldn’t wait to get back to the resort pool. We scored a cabana and had lunch poolside! So nice to relax in luxury after all the camping! I made an appointment for a massage at the spa that afternoon, which was my reward for planning the whole trip. It was heaven. My body and feet were so sore after 3 weeks of hiking and camping.

We then hung out at the resort for a bit as they were supposed to have s’mores outside and someone to talk about the stars. But for some reason they only put a few, ready made s’mores in the lobby. We ate those and headed into town for some pizza. When we came back the person to do the star talk wasn’t there (maybe they cancelled due to threat of rain), so we watched TV in the room and went to bed.

The next day was our last day but our flight didn’t leave Phoenix until 11:15pm! We decided to enjoy swimming at the pool for the morning. We checked out around noon and went to see the Chapel of the Holy Cross, this really cool 1960’s style Catholic chapel built right into the red rocks. After a last meal in Sedona (expensive!) we made our way to Phoenix and stopped at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument to see another cliff dwelling.

We arrived in Phoenix around 4pm and wanted to visit the botanical gardens, we even walked up to the entrance, but it was 114 degrees out and would have cost us $75! We just couldn’t stomach being in the heat that long so we decided to bag it. Our flight wasn’t until 11:15pm but there really wasn’t anywhere else to go. All the museums closed at 5 and it was too hot to do anything outside. We went to a taco restaurant and then to Tempe near ASU for some ice cream. Eventually we decided just to bite the bullet and head to the airport because at least it would be air conditioned. After dropping off the rental car and checking the luggage we got comfortable in the terminal and just hung out in the a/c for 3 hours.

All in all, it was a trip to remember! The parks were incredible, the scenery was indescribable, and we made lots of fun memories. We can’t wait to see more national parks and I hope we have inspired you to as well!

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