Canyons, Valleys and a Winter Wonderland: Northern Arizona

I wake up in the winter wonderland of northern Arizona. The roads are clear for the most part, which initially took me by surprise, but then Holbrook is 4,000 ft higher up than Phoenix, so perhaps they’re a bit more acclimatised to it. I head out to the Petrified Forest National Park to hang out in the reception building while the National Park rangers decide whether the weather will prevent the park from opening.

Petrified Forest National ParkSpoiler: it doesn’t.

So what is petrified wood? Short answer: it happens when Medusa goes for a picnic. Slightly longer answer: wood that is rapidly buried, so not exposed to what most commonly breaks down plant matter, and exposed to mineral rich water for a long period of time. Eventually, the minerals replace the organic material while maintaining its structure.

Petrified Forest National ParkOver the years (both before and after it was designated a National Park), tourists have come here to admire these fossils that are millions of years old. And what better way to appreciate them than to steal them? Unfortunately, people stealing small and large chunks remains a problem, and has given rise to the idea that owning a stolen piece is cursed. This results in the National Park receiving some of the stolen material back, accompanied by confessional notes. Take this example from a hardened criminal, probably a psychopath:

Wood Thief ConfessionStill, even if all of the petrified wood was to disappear, tourists would still flock to this place to see the sci-fi set that is the landscape.

Gorn Burial MoundI’m pretty sure that piece is a Gorn corpse.

Further on up the road is the Painted Desert Inn, existing as an independent tourist attraction before the National Park expanded and purchased it:

Painted Desert InnIt was rebuilt using labour from the Civilian Conservation Corps (one of FDR’s efforts to provide employment during the Great Depression), operated as a business until 1963 and, since then, as a museum.

Painted Desert Inn RestaurantPainted Desert Glass CeilingElsewhere in the park is Puerco Pueblo, the remains of a village which was abandoned around six hundred years ago. The remains are predominantly the outlines of buildings, but also a series of petroglyphs:

PetroglyphsOne of the more intriguing ones I’ll let the sign explain:

Summer Solistice PetroglyphUnfortunately I’m visiting in the middle of winter, on a cloudy day. Is there some sort of pictorial representation I could use to convey my feelings?

Sadface PetroglyphMy last stop in the park is a familiar one. Part of the park runs across the old Route 66:

Arizona Route 66The arrow, by the way, points straight at this:

Route 66 CarNo word if my Route 66 sabotaging nemesis is responsible for this tragedy. Still, it’s an excuse to follow the Mother Road again as we start to head west. It takes me back through Holbrook, this time to:

Wigwam MotelOut back it becomes apparent that one of these guys doesn’t have Geico:

Rustic CarsFurther on up the road is a meteor crater, called … Meteor Crater. Listen, names are hard. Scientists call it the Barringer Crater, but that’s just to show they have friends. Initially the crater was thought to be the result of volcanic activity, but it’s since been conclusively proven that it was, indeed, caused by one of God’s fiery spit-balls.

MeteoriteUnfortunately for Barringer, while he worked out that God punched his crater into existence, he assumed the Almighty’s mighty iron fist left 100 million tons of valuable iron in the crater. Please note, from lack of major mining equipment, and that it’s not located in the state of Barrizona, that he was somewhat optimistic:

Meteor CraterClick to enlarge. (Still won’t find any iron though)

The pale grey point down there in the crater is, indeed, the remains of some efforts to location this vast horde of metallic wealth as well as a cut out of an astronaut. Because, y’know, they had one hanging around.

RimshotThe view from the rim looking out.

I head on, skipping Flagstaff in order to get to Sedona before the next snow storm, because if it’s one thing I associate Arizona with now, it’s snow. Still get caught in a brief flurry, but fortunately it doesn’t interfere with going down one of the best snippets of road that I’ve encountered: the 89A into Sedona valley. It’s lovely and twisty and takes you through some of the nicest landscapes that I’ve seen so far. The closed in weather gave the valley its own beauty, but certainly in the morning you got to see its true splendour. Check out these before-and-after images:

Sedona EveningSedona Morning

In the morning the valley looks like this:

Sedona ValleyAnd the road I had so much fun with last night (less so in the morning as I was behind a caravan) was this:

89AI’m retracing my steps a little because my next destination is to the north of this, the Grand Canyon State—well, no beating around the bush there, Arizona. Fine, yes I am going to the Grand Canyon. Several times during this trip, people have mentioned the Grand Canyon with an almost ominous town: you’ll be disappointed. Whatever you’re expecting it to be, you’ll be disappointed. I went to the Grand Canyon expecting something grand and canyon-y, and that’s what I got:

Grand CanyonThe reason people find it disappointing, I suspect, is that it has been mythologised both within America and, to some extent, globally as the pinnacle of breath-taking. In a sense, I think it’s too big to be properly appreciated in that sense. Each view point that I stopped at was vast, but almost unconnected to the one that I had stopped at before. It’s just too big to fully understand. For instance, one of the more notable tourist attractions has been the Skywalk, where you can walk out on a glass floor above the canyon. I didn’t go to it, because to get to it from where I entered the National Park is a 251 mile, 4 hour drive. Sure, that’s because of the roads, but even if I flew in a straight line from the entrance to the Skywalk it would still be about 100 miles, which isn’t taking into account the meander of the canyon.

Grand CanyonThe Grand Canyon is so huge as to seem fake. Seriously: staring out at it, I got to a certain distance before a quiet voice in my head said, ‘Hey, it looks like a backdrop.’ And it does, you assume that the canyon ends at some conceivable point and you just run into an old-style movie set backdrop. As final proof of its scale, here’s the Grand Canyon next to Bertie:

Bertie and the Grand CanyonOkay, maybe not the most convincing point of evidence, but I do want to point out to the couple who stared at me and gave me a wide berth: taking pictures of a stuffed bear with a Grand Canyon background is perfectly normal.

Grand Canyon WatchtowerNot to drive home the point too repeatedly, but that building, the little speck, centre-right there, is four storeys tall. So do go to the Grand Canyon. It’s definitely worth seeing. Unless you have plenty of time on your holiday, you won’t be able to go for a hike down into it and get a sample of it the way you can with other National Parks, but go and let the enormity of the thing hit you.

Anyway, enough of that, I’m aiming to get to Utah by this evening, a plan that is somewhat hindered by another unusual natural occurrence: a big chunk of the main road north decided to collapse. The 50-mile odd detour takes me through Tuba City, which only compounded the disappointment by having no tuba-shaped buildings. Despite nature’s attempts though, I manage to get to Page shortly before sunset. I also run into Girl Scouts selling cookies. Do we have that in the UK? I mean, you can keep the kids, but the cookies were good. I cross over Lake Powell, which is effectively the top of the Grand Canyon. Even here, several hours and ~200 miles worth of driving later, it is still an imposing size:

Lake PowellI rumble across the border into Utah and head towards Kanab as the sun goes down.

Utah SunsetTo close out, here’s a few more pictures from Arizona, the Petrified Forest and a panorama of the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon PanoramaPetrified Forest National Park Arizona Route 66 Petrified Forest National Park Petrified Forest National Park Petrified Forest National Park


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