Navajo National Monument and Canyon De Chelly

Pam and I dropped south out of Utah, through Monument Valley to meet up with Lou and Nancy at a place neither of us had been to before, Navajo National Monument. It’s located about 20 miles west of Kayenta, AZ, within the Navajo Nation.

Our view from the campsite was spectacular.

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There were a couple of hikes you could do on the rim of the canyons. One was to a beautiful view up one of the canyons.

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The other hike was to a view of the Betatakin ancestral Pueblo ruins tucked into the face of the cliff. The alcove was approximately 400 feet high, 300 feet across and 150 feet deep to give it some perspective.

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They have guided hikes down into the canyon with an up-close tour of the ruins, but the first tour of the year started two days after we were there. Therefore, we decided to leave for a couple of days and return and do the hike.

We headed south along the Arizona – New Mexico border to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. This is also a beautiful sandstone canyon. Pam and I have been there many times, but it was the first time for Lou and Nancy. We camped outside the canyon in Cottonwood campground. We had camped there years ago when our boys were much smaller and the cottonwoods were just planted and not providing much shade. Now the cottonwood trees are huge and the campground is a beautifully shaded area. Another couple, Anthony and Astrid, and their dog Digby joined us at the campsite after finishing up the close-out of Overland Expo.

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We took the drive along the south rim and stopped at all of the overlooks.

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The last overlook is at Spider Rock, a beautiful column of rock that has been the subject of thousands of pictures.

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Many Navajo families still live in the canyon. The last time Pam and I were there we took both our Moms and hired a Navajo guide to drive us into the canyon. He grew up in the canyon and told us many stories of life in the canyon.

In the 1860s, the US Army, led by Kit Carson, killed or captured many Navajos in the canyon. The captured Navajos were taken to Fort Sumner, NM, over 300 miles away, on what is now known as the Long Walk. Many died on the walk and in captivity before being released and allowed to return to the canyon.

The only hike you can do into the canyon without a guide is to the White House ruins. It was a pretty hike down and back up through the sandstone canyon.

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All six of us then returned to Navajo National Monument for the first guided hike of the year down to the Betatakin ruins. The ruins are in one of the many canyons that are visible from the hike. There is a longer hike to the Keet Seel ruins that we’ll have to go back and do sometime in the future. It’s not a guided hike but there is a ranger at the ruins when you make the 8 mile trek up another canyon.

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The ruins are one of the most intact ruins in the southwest. Many of the wooden ceilings are still in place. There are a few rock sections of the alcove that have shed over the centuries to wipe out sections of the ruins, but most are still there. The place was occupied from 1250 to 1300 before they left and went south to the Hopi Mesas. Pictographs of several of the Hopi clans are still present today.

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The valley is lush and a different eco system than the rim when looking out from the ruins. The valley was filled with oak and aspen trees and not the juniper trees that dominate the rim.

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The hike was beautiful.

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However, as with all hikes into a canyon there is always the issue of getting back up and out. A section of the hike reminded us of South Kaibab at the Grand Canyon, but it was just a short section.

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We drove home on the holiday weekend and the forest south of Flagstaff looked green and healthy. Small cities of campers were everywhere in the woods for the long weekend.

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Pam and I need to restock and then it’s off for the summer to the Rockies.

Chaco Canyon and Hovenweep

Lou and Nancy left us at Chaco to head to Overland Expo near Flagstaff, AZ. It’s a yearly gathering of worldwide off-road travelers who definitely have chosen the path less travelled. The weather this time of year at the event is always the wild card. Three years ago it was freezing cold, two years ago it was gale force winds and last year the event was nearly washed out with rain. Therefore, Pam and I decided to pass on the expo this year and continue our own exploration.

The weather system that had been over us for that last few days disappeared and our second day at Chaco was beautiful. We did a great hike to the Wijiji ruins that can only be reached by foot.

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Since it is off the beaten path, we had the ruins to ourselves. The construction of the buildings still amazes me, lasting now more that century of without any maintenance.

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Even the campground at Chaco has ruins in the cliffs nearby.

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The sunset that night in the canyon was beautiful.

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We planned to meet up again with Lou and Nancy on their trip home to Colorado after the Expo so we had a couple of days to kill. Where to go? We decided to head north out of Chaco, thinking that Mesa Verde or the Canyons of the Ancients in southern Colorado would be a good choice. We stopped in Farmington, NM to do some laundry and then headed to Shiprock, NM, the capitol of the Navajo Nation. Once we crossed the border into Colorado there was a sign that said Hovenweep 42 miles to the west in Utah, so that became the next stop.

Hovenweep National Monument is another example of Pueblo masonry that has lasted through the centuries. It’s a collection of sites in a 20-mile radius with ruins in many of the canyons. Most of the ruins are near the visitor center in a nearby canyon.

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The buildings are constructed on the rocks in the canyon, many a combination of home and storage for the food that they needed to protect after harvest.

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During our hike of the canyon we came upon a Park Ranger who was observing one of the many birds in the area, in this case a mother barn owl with several owlets. The owl had roosted in a cave in the canyon wall. She suggested that I could take a picture of it by holding my camera to the scope she had set up and it worked.

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We then took off to the other sites that were located along the many back roads in the area.

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The buildings were constructed with defense in mind to protect their families and the food from predators or raiding clans.

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The roads were also nice to drive on and luckily there was little traffic to worry about.

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Our campsite there was nice and we set up our alcove for shade and protection from the wind. However, after we returned from our exploration our alcove had lifted out of the ground and luckily wrapped itself around a nearby juniper tree. Thoughts of it taking out a 1000 year old ruin crossed my mind when we pulled up and it was gone.

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It was a full moon when we were there and it rose out of the mountains to the east to light up the night.

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Santa Fe National Forest

We left Taos heading west to find new areas that neither of us had been to before and stumbled upon what must be NM’s fishing playground. Just west of Santa Fe and south of Los Alamos is Bandolier National Monument.

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This is a beautiful area that was once a Pueblo settlement until the 1670s, similar to the ones we visited south of Albuquerque. One of the 20 year droughts that the southwest still gets forced these settlements to be abandoned. We camped up on the hill and hiked down into the canyon. The ruins were impressive, both on the canyon floor and up against the walls. You could still see the holes where the wooden ceiling poles were installed that separated the multi-floor dwellings.

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We were allowed to climb into several of the old cliff dwellings.

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One was 140 feet above the floor and required several ladders to get to the dwelling where an old Kiva was probably the site of many ceremonies.

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Heading west from Bandolier was Valles Caldera National Monument, which used to be a national preserve, but was recently upgraded to monument status. Similar to Yellowstone, this area was a huge volcano caldera. The area was noted for the many movies that have been shot there over the years. The back area is day use only, but with many fishing spots that will be on list of places to revisit.

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We passed the Soda Dam along the road, where calcium carbonate has been building up for thousands of years to form the rock dam and a pretty interesting rock formation.

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We then headed north to Fenton Lake State Park for the night and relaxed in the high elevation woods near a lake and stream.

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We talked to the Fish and Game guy who was there stocking the area with rainbow trout about the condition of the dirt road that headed north over the mountain. Even with the recent rains he said it was passable so we left the park the next day and headed over the mountains. The drive was beautiful and it was so high that the spring leaves had not come to this area yet.

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We dropped down the other side of the mountain into Cuba, NM and then west to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. This is also a world heritage site due the size and significance of the ruins.

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Between 900 and 1100 Chaco was the trade center for a region that encompassed the entire southwest. They have found evidence of sea shells, macaws, chocolate and even coffee beans in the ruins. The great houses there span many miles and many are not even excavated yet. Those that are visible are creations of masterful stone masons.

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Taos Area

We drove into Taos the next day and by way of another beautiful church, San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, one of the most photographed churches in the area.

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We toured Kit Carson’s Taos home, a few of the many art galleries in the area and strolled through the Saturday farmer’s market in the square.

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We then drove the Enchanted Loop through the mountains around Taos that passes by the ski resorts of NM, many with snow still visible on the peaks.

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We camped for the night at Eagle Nest Lake State Park at the base of Wheeler Mountain, the largest mountain in NM at 13,159 feet and still covered with snow. The picture below was not of the peak because it was still covered in clouds and snow while we were there. The park itself was covered in Prairie dogs and we even saw a badger, at a safe distance, hunting them as we sat out in the evening.

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The next day we drove back into Taos to join up with Lou and Nancy on their way to the Overland Expo show near Flagstaff, AZ. At one of the galleries we visited, the artist showed us a casita she had redone for guests to stay. It was the epitome of NM décor.

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We camped in the Carson forest just outside of town and enjoyed the evening catching up and watching storms all around us until one came right over us, dropping a lot of hail and then providing a good lightning show that lit up the nighttime skies.

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Albuquerque, He’s My Turkey ….

We headed north on the east side of the Manzanita Mountains until we hit old Route 66 and headed west into Albuquerque to visit with Sue and Alex. On the way we stopped at Petroglyph National Monument to see some of the ancient graffiti. The petroglyphs are separated into several sites, but I failed horribly at map reading and we wandered around the first site for some time until one of the nearby residents came into the desert and corrected my map orientation. He was a retired postal worker and we got a short history of the region as an added bonus. Once I read the map correctly, the petroglyphs were much easier to find.

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The monument was created to protect these rock drawings from the encroachment of the Albuquerque suburbs, which extended from the cliff we were on to the foothills in the distance.

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Sue and Alex were awesome hosts and even better tour guides. That night we had a wonderful southwestern dinner at a local restaurant, Cervantes, and watched a thought provoking Robert Redford directed movie, The Milagro Beanfield War, about the changes faced by many of the rural, mostly Mexican-heritage towns in northern NM by new development in these beautiful areas. Christopher Walken was the bad guy so “you know” it had to be good.

The next day they took us north past Santa Fe and to the small village of Chimayo. We visited several beautiful 200 year old churches in the area,

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… including El Santuario de Chimayo. Nearly 300,000 people visit the site each year as part of their pilgrimage, similar to the Camino Way in Spain.

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We had a fabulous southwestern lunch at the local and very highly rated restaurant, Rancho De Chimayo Restaurante that is located in an old 1880 home.

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We then visited the small courtyard village, the Plaza Del Cerro, tucked in the hills…

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and visited the local weavers making the beautiful southwestern rugs for export all over the world.

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Sue and Alex headed back to Albuquerque, while Pam and I found a nice spot in the Carson National Forest nearby to camp for the night. It was nice to get away from the city again.

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