After hugely enjoying the Australian outback with its fanciful red rock formations and austere desert beauty, we realized that we could view similar geological attractions in our own backyard, and set out to explore the U.S. Southwest. Upon our return we realized that we were afflicted with the real Montezuma’s revenge - an unquenchable chili pepper habit.
We flew to Santa Fe, arriving in the early evening, picked up a rental car, and drove north about 90 miles to Taos, New Mexico. Along the route we stopped for dinner at The Rancho de Chimayo, a family-run inn with a renowned restaurant in a remote area. We had reserved a table on the outdoor patio romantically lit by glowing lanterns. The airy sopaipillas served with sweet local honey melted in our mouths. Sated by a delicious repast of New Mexican specialties, we continued on our way.
Our hosts at the Hacienda del Sol had retired for the night by the time we arrived, but they left instructions for us and we let ourselves into our quarters. Occupying traditional adobe buildings, the B&B featured extensive gardens and a panoramic view of Taos Mountain. Our room was oozing with Southwestern character - wood-burning kiva fireplace, viga ceilings, handcrafted furnishings and native fabrics. A private room with an oversized Jacuzzi under a starry skylight adjoined the spacious bed and sitting room, both with views of the gardens and mountain.
The next morning we met the charming owners, John and Marcelline, over a tasty breakfast with some of the best coffee we’d ever had. John told us that it was a special blend prepared for the B&B by a local coffee shop. In the afternoons we enjoyed cheese and wine in the garden while watching iridescent hummingbirds pollinating the lush flower beds.
Taos retained the feel of the hippie era, a laid back, long-hair, crunchy granola aura. Among the attractions in town are the fine Millicent Rogers museum, which features Native American, colonial Spanish and contemporary art, and a slew of art galleries. We especially admired the work of the local artist Melissa Zink. Our favorite place was Taos Pueblo, a traditional, centuries-old adobe village on nearby Indian lands, where you can learn about the culture and customs of the Taos Indians. Although most of the current inhabitants live in homes on the Pueblo lands with more modern conveniences, they still use the Pueblo for ceremonies and to market indigenous crafts. We spent a good deal of time shooting the breeze with a garrulous young artist who was selling cards with skillfully rendered drawings.
From Taos we returned to Santa Fe, the charming capitol of New Mexico. Although it unabashedly caters to the tourist trade far more than Taos, it remains a lovely and absorbing town, graced by appealing wood and adobe architecture, a lively mix of Indian, Mexican and Anglo culture and distinctive cuisine. The biggest selling point for us is the art. Santa Fe hosts an abundance of museums and excellent galleries featuring modern American and European artists as well as Native American art and crafts. You can find tourist trash as in any city, but real quality as well. We subsequently returned on more than one occasion for the art and ambience, and usually cannot resist shipping a painting home. We considered selling our rental car to buy more, but figured we wouldn’t get away with it. We stayed at a pretty adobe B&B and enjoyed conversing with fellow guests during their late afternoon tea.
The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian displays a wonderful collection of contemporary and traditional Native American art. We could have spent days exploring the marvelous objects in the Museum of International Folk Art, which includes crafts from six continents. We also enjoyed the Palace of the Governors for the historical artifacts and artwork and the Southwestern art in the Museum of Fine Arts. The Georgia O’Keefe Museum was not established yet in 1991 but we visited it in 2002 - it’s an intimate space and during the times that the galleries are devoted to special exhibits, there may be very few O’Keefe paintings on view, so if you want to see the work of the namesake artist, check the website schedule. Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings are inexpressibly gorgeous.
We don’t travel to shop, but if something captures our fancy, we will succumb. Santa Fe has a fine Nambe outlet as well as stores featuring handsome Native American textiles, furniture and superb crafts. We especially admire the exquisite black pottery from Santa Clara and couldn’t resist adding some to our collection. Their characteristic design is nearly flawless pottery fashioned with coils of clay, rather than being wheel thrown, burnished to a high gloss by hand using stones, and painted with matte black patterns and/or incised with traditional motifs. We also picked up a book describing pottery making techniques in the region.
We sampled some excellent restaurants during our visits. We felt that the highly lauded Coyote Café was seriously overrated, but that Santacafe lived up to its reputation (and it was still just as wonderful on every subsequent visit). We were enjoying tasty sandwiches outdoors at Celebrations on Canyon Road when a squall blew in, causing diners to grab their plates and rush inside. Stu nonchalantly popped open an umbrella and we continued eating, much to the amusement of the staff, patrons and passersby. A few minutes later the sun returned along with our grinning fellow consumers. We wish we could recall the name of an outstanding Mexican restaurant that we tried - it was much better than some of the more popular tourist places, like the Shed. On our last trip we discovered the exceptional Geronimo, which we will definitely revisit when we return to Santa Fe.
We dropped off our rental car in Albuquerque and flew south to Tucson AZ. After checking in to our elegant B&B, we drove east about 15 miles to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This exceptional site recreates the natural environment of the Sonora desert including plants, animals and natural history exhibits. Among the highlights were the aviaries, a spacious walk-through one with about 100 species of birds, and a second with several varieties of hummingbirds. Naturalist guides presented interesting and informative lectures on local fauna while showing off a specimen. We especially liked the hefty tarantula, calmly cradled in her lecturer’s palm.
After the Desert Museum we went to Saguaro National Park to marvel over the virtual forest of majestic cactus. The largest species of cactus, the Saguaro can live about 150 years and attain heights of 50 feet. These hardy giants can grow straight and tall or twist into weird configurations, their prickly epidermis sprouting brightly colored fruit and flowers.
From Tucson we winged to Flagstaff, AZ and drove to Sedona, admiring the lush evergreen, oak and rocky landscape of Oak Creek Canyon along the way. Sedona’s red rock buttes, mesas and sand punctuated by desert greenery were exceedingly photogenic.
We drove and hiked around the area as well as visiting Montezuma’s Castle - a five-story Sinagua Indian cliff dwelling ca. 1400 AD. Montezuma never traveled this far north, so the site name is like the many residential signs claiming that "George Washington slept here".
We stayed at L’Auberge de Sedona, a romantic complex of lodge buildings and cabins on Oak Creek. We found that, while nice, both the hotel and restaurant did not live up to expectations.
Remembering how much we enjoyed our four-wheel drive tours in the Australian outback and on Kangaroo Island we decided to take an off-road tour of Sedona’s geological sites. We inadvertently signed up for a New Age diatribe. Many of Sedona’s inhabitants appear to be survivors of bad acid trips from the 60’s who are eager to enlighten the ignorant masses. We were subjected to a three-hour monologue during which we were informed that humans are the least intelligent beings on Earth, following, in ascending order, animals, plants and rocks. It is vitally important to avoid injuring, killing or insulting rocks, and you must ask their permission if you wish to pick one up, especially if you wish to keep it. Our guide didn’t tell us what you’re supposed to feed them. Sand? Or would that be cannibalism? At the end of the tour the guide handed us plastic pouches with rocks in them that were supposed to bring us luck. We asked if the rocks wouldn’t have suffocated in these bags since there were no air holes. We were also worried that the rocks might be angry at us, since we hadn’t personally requested their permission to remove them from their native homes, and exact some horrible revenge.
The guide also advised us that Sedona and Mt. Shasta in California (the source of that power food, Shasta Cola) are major energy sources. This is why so many UFOs are spotted in these areas - they’re refueling for their long trips to the far reaches of the cosmos. As commercial as we Americans are, it’s unbelievable that some bright entrepreneur hasn’t figured out how to set up metered pumps and charge these freeloading aliens for the fuel. Our guide zealously delivered scores of scientific untruths, for example, that all extinctions of plants and animals (oddly no mention of rocks) have been caused by humans. In fact, a large proportion of extinctions occurred before humans even appeared (think dinosaurs), though humans do seem to be trying to make up for lost time. Most of this harangue was delivered to us with our backs to the scenery, which we were forbidden to view. We highly recommend that you steer well clear of any pink jeeps in Sedona.
We left Sedona before dawn’s early light, and motored north to the Grand Canyon. We arrived quite early, and had lots of time to survey the magnificence of the gorge from the rim without crowds before our 10:00 AM flightseeing tour. We boarded a 19-passenger DeHavilland Otter, fitted with special large viewing windows for the 55 minute flight over the canyon. We strongly suggest that you take this flight if you tour the Grand Canyon as you gain a perspective impossible to achieve in any other way. We returned to the park for more exploration after the flight but by now it had gotten quite crowded. If we were planning this trip again, we probably would have allowed much more time here for hiking and for visiting the quieter North Rim.
From the Grand Canyon we pressed on north through rippling white sand desert, stopping to sample tasty local cuisine, including Navajo fry bread, at the Cameron Trading Post. The historic trading post, in operation for close to a century, offers a lodge, restaurant, market, gallery and gas station. When we reached Monument Valley, just over the Utah border, we discovered that the time was one hour ahead of the time in Arizona, a peculiarity we had not discovered in advance, so we arrived shortly after our scheduled four-wheel drive tour of the valley had departed. A helpful clerk at our hotel contacted the tour guide by radio, and a driver in a battered pick-up truck raced us over to join the group, so we only missed about 20 minutes of the three and one half hour tour. Monument Valley belongs to the Navajo Nation and is best appreciated with a native guide.
Even if you’ve never visited before, the striking red sandstone buttes and mesas of Monument Valley are immediately familiar since it is a popular location for many movies and countless television and print advertisements. In fact, while we were there we saw three film crews working on television commercials. Probably the most famous are the Mittens, two towering outcrops whose name aptly describes their form. During the tour we experienced a mild though persistent sand storm, which we found out is common in the afternoon - we advise that you schedule tours of the valley during the morning hours when the air is clearer - though the scenery was spectacular nonetheless. In addition to the geological marvels, we also viewed ancient petroglyphs, a small herd of wild horses and burros sipping at a shallow stream, and drifting sand dunes backlighted by the late afternoon sun. We stopped at a hogan, a traditional Indian dwelling, where an elderly Navajo woman was weaving a handsome rug, to learn about living conditions in the valley.
The only place to stay near Monument Valley is Goulding’s Trading Post, established in 1923 just outside the reservation. During the Great Depression, Goulding interested director John Ford in using Monument Valley as a film location, which brought much-needed dollars to the Navajo. Ford first filmed Stagecoach there, and eventually shot another half dozen films there as well. Goulding’s is a great place to stay for a slice of Old West atmosphere and breathtaking views of the valley. It has a decent restaurant, modern motel facilities, pool and museum, all at the base of two buttes.
We arose early to take advantage of the morning light for photos of the valley as we continued north towards Moab, Utah. On the way we took a short hike in the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park, so named because of the marvelous needle-like sandstone spires. The spires were lovely with strata of red, yellow and white rock stacked like a parfait.
We checked into Pack Creek Ranch in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains, dropped our bags in "Trail’s End", a cozy three room log cabin built by the registration clerk’s grandfather, and went off to lunch. That afternoon we explored the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. The Colorado and Green Rivers cut Canyonlands into 3 land sections, thereby requiring multiple park entrances separated by many miles to access the different areas. The Island in the Sky is a mammoth mesa rising from a 1000-ft. deep gorge carved by erosion. We ascended a small peak and the caldera of an inactive volcano for panoramic views of the surrounding land. More outdoorsy types than we could spend weeks hiking, camping and rafting in Canyonlands; we took only a dip in its deep pool of resources.
The 6,000-ft.-high overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park presents an expansive vista of this splendid river canyon. The promontory at Dead Horse forms a natural corral where cowboys once broke and subsequently sold wild mustangs. According to legend, a herd of horses left behind died of thirst in the corral even though the gate through which they could have escaped reputedly remained open, prompting the macabre name.
Based on the website, it looks as if Pack Creek Ranch doesn’t serve food anymore, which is a shame because we recall their barbecue sauce being one of the best we’d tried up till that time. We didn’t take full advantage of the facilities during our stay by riding their fine horses, but we greatly enjoyed the atmosphere, the ranch cuisine and the delightful staff.
We arose with the sun the next day to hike the more challenging trails in Arches National Park (four miles north of Moab) before the heat of midday. The park features over two thousand natural arches and all kinds of fascinating red rock formations. It ended up being our favorite national park of the trip. The round trip hike to Delicate Arch, an exquisite free-standing sandstone arc, was posted as a two hour round trip and included a fairly steep climb up. It took us about 70 minutes R/T, including time to relax and enjoy the stunning views once we got up there. Next we drove to the trailhead to trek the 7.2 mile Devil’s Garden Loop which exposes about 8 amazing arches, including the long (290-ft.), thin Landscape Arch, the fascinating Double O Arch, Navajo Arch and Pine Tree Arch. The trail was fun, often passing beneath the arches, and requiring navigation on narrow ledges. By the time we got back to the car about 3 hours later we were hungry so, since we failed to pack a picnic lunch, we drove into Moab to eat. We returned to the park in the afternoon to investigate the Windows section, where fanciful rock formations, such as the Balanced Rock and Parade of Elephants, stood side-by-side with yet more natural arches and peepholes, such as Double Arch and the North and South Windows. This area is most easily accessible for visitors who don’t want to walk much, and in fact many attractions can be seen along the road as you drive through.
We hit the road early the next day for the long drive to our last jumping-off point, Cedar City, UT. We only had time to travel the 10 mile Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef National Park by car, which still afforded us the opportunity to stop along the route and appreciate some of the geological diversity of the area, such as the Waterpocket Fold (a 100-mi. long monocline), the Grand Wash (one of Butch Cassidy’s hideouts) and the dramatic Capitol Gorge. Bounded by high cliff walls, it’s clear that flash floods from a thunderstorm would quickly engulf any people or vehicles unlucky enough to be caught on this road, hence it makes sense to heed the signs posted everywhere to carefully assess the weather before venturing forth. Unless you were Spiderman, it’s unlikely you could scale the sheer rock faces fast enough to escape. We breezed through the cool Dixie National Forest at about 7,000-foot elevation with its towering stands of white birch and ponderosa pine covering roughly 2 million acres.
The principal lure in this region is Bryce Canyon National Park, a compact but exquisite landscape of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters sprouting a unique and eccentric array of delicately colored pinnacles, spires and fins called hoodoos. Like a metropolis of fairy tale castles or a whimsical Dr. Seuss playground, Bryce is undoubtedly among the most dazzling natural rock terrains on earth. In addition, we saw amazingly assertive rock squirrels, adorable prairie dogs, and several unusually beautiful varieties of birds and flowers. You can witness a lot of Bryce’s splendor without walking very much in the 7,000 to 9,500 ft altitude, but the walks were definitely worth it. We took some short hikes, including some time beneath the rim, but probably should have allowed more time to assay the longer trails.
We finished up our whirlwind tour of the Southwest at Zion National Park. By the time we hit Zion, we were feeling a bit canyoned out, so we didn’t really afford it the attention it merited. The scenery was very different from Bryce with attractive cream-colored curvaceous stone massifs. If you enjoy camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, etc. you could spend weeks in any one of the fabulous parks we visited, but we were largely satisfied with our highlights tour. We thought it would be nice to unwind from our aggressive road trip on the beach, and since there are no seas in Utah (unless you want to count the Great Salt Lake), we stopped at home to repack and flew to Bermuda for a week.