Days fall into a routine along Camino Real road south of Cottonwood, AZ. Breakfast is usually had with hot air balloons for company.
After breakfast, I take a walk.
On April 3rd, another storm blows through. This one comes as a surprise, as early as noon the weather forecast wasn’t calling for anything significant. But close to sunset I peek out the window and see some fantastic clouds rolling in from the northwest.
I hop out of the Casita. My first thought is: “Wow, that’s really pretty!” My second thought is: “Wow, that looks pretty serious.” My third thought is: “Oh well, it’s still really pretty!”
The first blast of wind strikes as I’m folding up the solar to stow it in the back of the truck. It catches the panel which goes air-born. I plant my feet in a wide stance to wrestle it into the carry case By the time I get back inside the Casita I have sand in places sand should not be. The National Weather Service clocks the highest wind speed in Cottonwood at 52 mph and Camp Verde at 55 mph (I’m between the two).
April 5, Wednesday
Travel day! Bertha tows Cas up I17 (both in elevation and cardinal direction) to Flagstaff. The signs creep by: 4000 feet, 5000 feet, 6000 feet…
Humphrey’s Peak north of town is capped with snow after the storm on Monday. It’s the highest natural point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. I stop in Flagstaff briefly to meet a friend for tea, but despite the ample boondocking around Flagstaff I won’t be staying here this visit. It’s still too cold this time of year.
I board 89 heading north. Looking at Humphrey’s Peak from this direction a lot of the mountains have a dusting of snow on the side shaded from the sun. It looks pretty cool.
This is a pretty neat drive. After the pine forest surrounding Flagstaff the road coasts down into a grassland, then the grass ends at a painted desert area. Pinks are a common theme in the badland formations.
Here the road forks. If I continued on 89 I’d pass the Grand Canyon and then go up to the Lake Powell area and eventually Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. It would be a nice route, but I’m quite familiar with it, having worked at Zion in the summer of 2014.
Instead, I turn onto 160 heading east. The scenery continues to impress.
Navajo National Monument is hidden about 9 miles off 160 along a bumpy, winding lane. Maybe that’s why it gets so few visitors. It’s small, but entry is free and so is the camping, at least this time of year. I can’t speak for peak season.
Sunset View Campground is open year-round I gather (but is not plowed, so if there’s snow probably best not to come). It consists of 30 pretty tightly packed sites along a single loop. Given the time of year though, few of the sites are taken when I arrive.
Maximum equipment length is stated at 28′, it’s not a place for big rigs. And given the hilly nature of the region, most sites are unlevel. There are six or seven parallel parking type sites that can fit Bertha and Cas’ combined 35′ length (they’re curved though, so a 35′ motorhome would not fit well), and a few double-wide back in sites where I could unhitch the Casita and park Bertha beside it. The rest are smaller sites with single-wide pads made for smaller vehicles.
I get lucky and site #4 is open, which I think has the best view of them all. The seating area with picnic table and grill look over the valley that 160 runs through. This camp is at about 7,300 feet and there are traces of snow on the ground.
I have a pretty narrow window of opportunity to explore this place. Nighttime lows will be at or above freezing for the next three nights before the next cold front comes through. That works out okay though since Verizon coverage is marginal here.
April 6, Thursday
I’m up bright and early to pack as much of the park in as possible. First stop is the visitor center, which is within walking distance of the park. There’s a little store built in, and a Navajo jewelry shop next door.
This site was a made a National Monument to protect three Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling sites. During peak season, guided tours go out to two of them, it’s too early in the season for that. Sandal Trail is a 1.3 mile self-guided paved trail that starts at the visitor center and goes to an overlook of one of the ruins, the only option for viewing them without a guide.
This is a pretty neat area. Pinyon pine and Juniper make a stubby forest on top of the plateau, signs call it a pygmy forest which I find amusing. Vast slabs of sandstone on the surface prevent plant growth in places.
This is my first time seeing cliff ruins. Betatakin sits in a giant sandstone arch in Tsegi Canyon. It faces south, which means the ideal time to see it with the sun lighting up the whole bowl is noon (or 1 pm daylight time). I actually visit twice, once around 11 am and again around 3 pm, and I miss the window by two hours on either side. The overlook is a good distance away from the ruin and my phone camera can’t capture it well without optical zoom. I have every intention of visiting more sites like this though in the future!
Betatakin was inhabited from about 1250 to 1300. Archaeologists have documented 135 rooms, some of which have been destroyed by rockfall. At it’s height, an estimated 100-125 people called this community home, and they lived here year round. The climate back then was similar to today which may sound quite inhospitable, but the steep canyon walls trap moisture and reduce the amount of sun the floor gets in the summer, which made farming possible. Corn was a staple crop.
During the afternoon visit, I hike the Aspen Trail, which also starts at the visitor center. This one is only 0.8 miles round-trip, but it’s much harder with stairs, switchbacks, and less even surfaces. The park is pretty sparsely populated as it is, but I see no one else on this trail.
I love having beautiful places like this all to myself, it’s so peaceful. The rapid change in vegetation descending into the canyon is amazing. Oak leaves litter the path and stately fir trees cling to the walls.
And the view from the lookout point, wow! I may have timed the cliff dwelling wrong but I nailed this one. The sun illuminates both walls.
Do you see the Aspen and other deciduous trees (along with a few more fir) at the canyon head down below? These trees are pretty common on mountainsides farther north in Wyoming and Colorado, but are quite rare in Arizona. Signage calls this a Relict Forest, a leftover holdout from 10-20,000 years ago when the climate here was cooler and wetter. This piece survives for the same reason the ancient cliff dwellers chose this area, because the canyon altered conditions to make them more hospitable.
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