Four Corners

With the COVID-19 virus dominating everyone’s thoughts and actions, it was a good time to hit the road and explore the natural beauty in some remote places. I put together an itinerary for a southern Utah road trip for Pam, myself, Clark and Jill to get out of town for a couple of weeks. It turned out that other friends, Mike and Nancy, had just purchased a Ford Sportsmobile and were enroute back to the valley when they saw the itinerary and decided to join this adventure. It would now be a Roamer, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and a Ford Sportsmobile trek.

Due to the heat this summer in the valley, Pam and I headed up north with the Roamer into the cooler mountain forest and waited up there until Clark and Jill could leave the valley. Mike and Nancy would join us enroute in southern Utah after they got home and stocked up their new rig.

Before any trip I like to practice taking some pictures with our camera to learn more about photography and how the camera works in different conditions. While most of my pics are of stationary objects, I would like to get better at capturing action shots. I am not there yet.

I caught this rabbit trying to hide behind some ferns in our yard.

Steller’s Jays are all around our yard, especially when we put the peanut feeder out. I think they eat as many as the Abert’s squirrels and the two are always stealing from each other’s stash – lol.

We have had a couple of bald eagles at the pond near our place this summer. We typically get osprey that come over from Willow Springs Lake to fish in the pond, but the eagles are a new guest.

I caught a couple of Canada geese resting at the pond during a migration stop. It looked like they were possibly staying, but with the eagles keeping an eye on them from above they moved on the next day.

A great heron was fishing in the pond. Fish and Game are stocking the pond this year so there were a lot of small fingerlings to eat in the shallows since the larger stocked fish now command the center of the pond.

A northern flicker was drinking from the water dish on our deck. I guess they cannot suck so they get some water in their beak and then tilt their heads back to let it run down their throats.

Chipmunks are making a comeback to our area. Alfie, our neighbor’s male cat, pretty much decimated the chipmunk and snake population for over a decade. He even attacked a coyote that was in his hunting territory. Now he is getting older, slowing down, and staying close to his house. The local wildlife appreciates his aging. He still comes over for a scratch when we are in the yard.

An Arizona Gray Squirrel was interested in posing for the camera on a fallen tree.

When Clark and Jill arrived, and we took off north for the four corners – that place where the state boundaries of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all join together at a singular point. We passed through Petrified Forest National Monument to get to the four corners area. The road through the park was open, along with the trails, but the visitor center and campgrounds were still closed due to COVID.

It was nice to see that every bridge in the park was being rebuilt during this period of partial closure. The impact of the COVID shutdown is not all bad. It is a great time for road work and construction with the reduced daily traffic.

As you can see from the pictures, the place is no longer a forest. The large trees that once stood there were buried under layers of mud, volcanic ash, and other minerals. The lack of oxygen prevented decay and over millions of years the wood’s cellular structure crystallized, transforming into petrified wood. Chunks of the old trees are still visible everywhere and the colors within the crystallized wood are beautiful.

The four corners region is on the Navajo Nation lands. While the majority of the Navajo Nation is in Arizona, it does extend into Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. The Nation is 27,400 square miles, roughly a 160-mile by 160-mile square. If it were a separate US state it would rank 41 in size, being just larger than West Virginia in size, with a population of roughly 200,000 people. While the area is sparsely populated and remote, the Navajo family-oriented society has suffered significantly due to COVID relative to the surrounding areas in the West. Because of this, much of the Navajo Nation is still closed, which includes businesses and even the National Parks and Monuments within the Navajo Nation.

We caught an afternoon dust storm as we made our way through the beautiful landscape of the Navajo Nation on our way to southern Utah.

We climbed the Mokie Dugway switchbacks and finally made it to our first campsite of the trip, Muley Point. A rain cloud hung low to the ground in the south over the four corners region as we looked out over the beautiful landscape. Luckily, it did not rain so the dirt roads we were driving on were dry.

From Muley Point you can look past the lip of the plateau and see Monument Valley on the horizon about 10 miles to the south. Having grown up in Western Pennsylvania, surrounded by trees, I now prefer the majestic horizon-to-horizon vistas that most of the West provides.

Soon after we arrived, Mike and Nancy arrived to complete our travel group. We had the plateau to ourselves again, which was why I chose this spot for our campsite given the COVID social distancing requirement. I think the closest neighbor to our three rigs was about a quarter of a mile away on the next plateau.

As an added precaution, we had happy-hour every night during the trip to ensure that the alcohol killed any growing COVID cultures in our throat – lol.

Sunsets up on the plateau are spectacular.

The next day we dropped back down the Mokie Dugway switchbacks and explored Gooseneck State Park. The San Juan River cut this gorgeous formation through the rock on its way westward to the confluence with the Colorado River at Lake Powell. We saw some rafters on the river 1000 feet below from our lookout vantage point, making their way through this section of the river.

This entire region of the country is breath-taking if you like colorful, unique rock formations. To the east of Gooseneck State Park is a mountain side with a few million years of erosion history beautifully displayed.

From up on top of the Muley Point plateau you can see Monument valley on the horizon to the south, Gooseneck State Park just a little way to the south, and a dirt road that runs along the southern base of the plateau that we have always wanted to explore, Johns Canyon Road.

Both the Roamer and the Sportsmobile are high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles so we let Clark and Jill lead with their two-wheel drive Sprinter. We figured if they led and got stuck, we could pull them back to a good section of road with our winches, rather than let them follow and attempt to pull them through a bad spot or force them to scrape their undercarriage to keep up. The idea worked well. Both Mike and I were impressed with the rough road sections Clark was able to get the Sprinter through without scraping the bottom. However, as a future note, the rougher four-wheel drive sections are typically not areas with a lot of room for recovery options. But then again, you only need one good option that works.

Most of the road looks like the picture below, so most of it is an easy drive. However, the sections of easy road turn to clay in the rain and become impassable even for four-wheel drive vehicles.

We ended up stopping near a cattle guard gate that blocked the road. Due to the slope and erosion of the road after the gate, the Sprinter would have modified a few components under the vehicle attempting get through.

Instead of doing vehicular damage, we parked on a nice bluff overlooking the San Juan River gorge and had lunch. The picture below is from the cattle guard gate looking back the way we came.

Here is our Roamer advertisement shot for the trip that Pam took at our lunch spot along the road – lol. It was a beautiful spot.

The original itinerary had us using Muley Point as our social distancing nightly base for a few days as we explored the local area. However, we are always looking for a new and better place to camp so we decided to check out the Valley of the Gods for a good afternoon hike and a campsite.
The colors within the Valley of the Gods are spectacular.

The road winds through the rock monoliths.

We found a good spot for a hike. According to Clark the trailhead sign told of beautiful petroglyphs, so we all headed up the trail.

The trail ran up the rock-bed wash, but no petroglyphs were found.

There were many spots along the road where you could pull off and camp. We found a great spot to spend the night and enjoy the stars.

The next morning, we continued along the road to the other side of the picturesque valley.

One of the rock monoliths was called “sitting hen” for an obvious reason.

After leaving the Valley of the Gods we headed east towards the Colorado border and Hovenweep National Monument. Again, the park and trails were open, but the visitor center and the campground were closed. We hiked the 2-mile loop around the ruins that were built between 1200 and 1300 AD.

It is estimated that roughly 2500 people lived here during that time, and that most of the ruins are the food storage granaries.

After lunch at Hovenweep NM, we decided to explore the dirt roads in the area for a good campsite. We drove up Montezuma Canyon and Montezuma Creek roads until we came to Three Kiva Pueblo.

It was a BLM (Bureau of Land Management) site with a preserved kiva out in the middle of nowhere. As with all kivas, you climbed down the ladder into the kiva, symbolic of re-entering the earth where the ancient Pueblo people originally emerged during creation.

The inside of the kiva was well-maintained and is probably still used by some locals for native ceremonies.

We camped near the kiva that night, which turned out to be a huge mistake. The area was covered in sage, which always smells great, and cottonwood trees running along a submerged stream nearby. It was an active cattle grazing area, which meant there were a lot of biting gnat-like bugs that made for an evening of advanced deet-related skin protection. Clark and Pam were the gnat’s food of choice based on their quantity of bites, but we all suffered enough irritating bites when we took inventory in the morning that should remind us to never, ever camp there again.

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