Wednesday, July 18: Canyon de Chelly to Cortez
An interesting detour
Last night was interesting. We were camped in ant city. We knew they were all over the place (including the asphalt driveway), but we tried to set up our tent where there were no (or at least not so many) ant hills. We hoped that they netting on the tent would keep them away.
It was semi-futile. All during the night, I kept thinking I felt something here or there. I assumed (or at least hoped) that it was a bit of thread or something. But when the sun rose and we got up, we found at least a dozen ants crawling around inside the tent (and over us).
At least they weren’t biting ants....
I called the Petrified Forest visitor’s center, but they didn’t have any camera turned in. I left my contact info, but I doubt I will ever see that camera again.
We had a simple breakfast (cold cereal, OJ, and hot cocoa; Amy had oatmeal), packed up the tent and cooking supplies, and headed off to the visitor’s center.
Amy found out about a large tour that was about to leave nearby. We went out to the parking lot and called them on the cell phone, but it was too late; they had already left.
But just then, this guy was getting into a nearby jeep labeled something like “canyon tours”, and he drove over. It turns out that he owns a company doing canyon tours (you can’t go in without a guide), and he asked if we wanted one. It was $150 cash, but fortunately I had hit the ATM at the movie theater in Flagstaff, so I had enough.
The three of us along with the driver filled the jeep nicely. It was a really beat up jeep. The windshield was cracked, the side mirror was missing, the speedometer bounced between 20 and 100 constantly, the muffler was falling off, and the gears often ground. It seemed to fit bouncing across the sandy floor of the canyon.
In places the sand was more packed and he could drive in 2-wheel mode; but in other areas is was very soft and fluffy. There we seemed to be swimming through the sand (in 4WD) more than driving over it. The ride at time got very bumpy which got great grins from Michael.
Unlike Mesa Verde, you can’t go into the ruins, but it gave us a good appreciation for the canyon to drive a fair portion of it. There is apparently up to 40 feet of sand in the bottom of the canyon, so the walls tended to drop straight down to a level sandy bottom.
At one point, we saw the tour that we missed. It was a larger truck with an open back, that had 4-5 rows of seats with 4-5 people per row. Our driver dismissed them with a derogotory title of “shake and bake”. I liked our tour although it was undoubtedly more expensive than the other. Of course, one advantage of the tour (as opposed to a normal hike) is that you learn a lot more about the area and people than you would just walking around.
At the major stops, there were locals selling goods. We ended up buying a few at one point. It sort of reminded me of Tanzania.
The tour lasted 3 hours. Afterwards, we drove (just us) along the south rim, stopping at the overlooks. It was interesting looking down from a distance at the area we had just been driving through.
The only area you can visit without a guide is the White House. From the overlook on the south rim, you hike down some steep switchbacks to the canyon floor, and across the floor to the other side. That looked like a fun hike. Of course, getting back up afterwards would have been more difficult.
By then, it was almost 2, so we stopped a the Subway to get some lunch, and to hit the ATM as we were pretty much out of cash. Afterward, the plan was to drive the north rim, which has far fewer overlooks, and then rather than back-tracking, continue along that highway to loop back to the main highway, and continue around to Mesa Verde.
We spent more time at lunch than we hoped, and more time at the overlooks than we expected, so it was pretty late (after 5) that we finally left for our next park.
A short ways into the trip, I had Amy program the GPS. We knew the route we were going to take, I just wanted an estimate on how long it would take us. To our surprise, about a mile down the road, it told us to take a right down a different road. It wasn’t clearly marked on our map, so we weren’t exactly sure where it went. On the other hand, according to the GPS, it dropped our time from 3 hours down to 2.
I asked at a gas station, and the guy there seemed to say that it would take us where we wanted to go, but that it went over the mountains. So we decided that at worst it would be an adventure, and we took it.
We went straight towards a ridge that we had been paralleling, and then once we got there, we immediately hit some really steep switchbacks that reminded me of the Virgin Islands. We gained altitude quickly, even though I was probably only driving 20 MPH or so. We kept wondering when it would stop but we continued to grind up the mountain ceaselessly.
Strangely enough, even though we saw essentially no buildings or other signs of life, we passed several small groups of people walking along the side of the road, many of them with small children. There must have been something nearby, even though we couldn’t see it.
The drive across the top was awesome.
Eventually, after lots of good views back the way we had come, we came out on top. I think we were up around 7-8,000 feet, and we were in a pine forest that looked more like the Rocky Mountains than Arizona.
We tooled along there for a while, then we began dropping down the other side. We could see the whole valley on the other side laid out before us, and it was strange to see these small lumps below us later on tower over us as we drove past.
The strangest thing was this large almost two-dimensional triangle of rock sticking up hundreds of feet. It was very prominent. When we later drove past it, we saw that there was a strange knife edge running from the base of the triangle a mile or two across the road and some ways on the other side. It sort of looked like a giant dinosaur remains. As we drove through it, I was surprised that this was also almost two-dimensional. I’m guessing that at the road, it was 50-100 feet high, but only 6-10 feet thick.
I later found that this was “shiprock”, and that it was an old volcanic vent and dike. I’m guessing that the vent and dike filled with lava that cooled to basalt, and then the softer sandstone around it eroded away exposing the basalt.
We were hungry, so we stopped for dinner in Shiprock (the town), then continued. It was pretty late when we got to Cortez, so we stopped there for the night at a hotel with internet.
I called the lodge at Mesa Verde to see if they could accept packages, but they were already closed. So I spent some time spelunking on Amazon, then called it a night.