Navajo National Monument, AZ

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.

Typical back-in site (#16)

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.

A picture in the visitor center of the Betatakin ruin, since mine turn out so poorly.

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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  1. Steven on May 27, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    Woooow, the cloud photos are awesome and Betatakin ruin. This place is a must visit for me. Thanks for showing me this amazing place.

    • Becky on May 29, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      You’re welcome Steven, glad you enjoyed this.

  2. Seana on April 12, 2017 at 11:57 am

    Oh woooow…another place I need to see before I leave this state, thank you!

    • Becky on April 12, 2017 at 4:16 pm

      You’re welcome Seana!

  3. Archer on April 11, 2017 at 3:31 am

    The Najavo monument looks amazing. Hopefully I can get to that place someday.
    Archer recently posted..Best Long Range Rifle ScopeMy Profile

    • Becky on April 12, 2017 at 4:15 pm

      Yes Archer it’s worth a visit!

  4. Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets on April 9, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    While you were passing thru Flagstaff, we’ve been camped over here in Williams, just to the west. That storm you dealt with while in Cottonwood hit us also, except we got snow. Then strong winds. I cannot tell you how many times we have crossed on 160 going to Colorado. And never visited Navajo National Monument. No more. You’ve planted a seed. We’re headed that way in another week or so anyway. Happy Trails.

    Your Quartzsite ice cream Shoppe buddies. 🙂
    Ed@Chasing Sunrises and Sunsets recently posted..Wintering in Quartzsite 2017My Profile

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:57 pm

      The reason I stayed in Cottonwood as long as I did is because I saw snow in the forecast up on the plateau and went “Nope, nope, nope!” I hope everything was fine up there.

      And yeah, Navajo NM is kind of a hidden gem, not many people seem to know about it (or think it’s worth a stop). Glad you’re going to visit next time you go through! Take care and have a good trip.

  5. Jodee Gravel on April 9, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Stunning photos of a beautiful area. Glad you didn’t blow away under those awesome clouds! That lookout view is so pretty. We need to definitely make this stop next time we’re in the area.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Fresno Family FunMy Profile

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:54 pm

      Me too Jodee! And yes, this spot is worth a visit.

  6. Dawn in MI on April 9, 2017 at 8:41 am

    Wow, wow, wow on the cloud photos…and the cliff ruins. I’ve seen quite a few cliff ruins but would love to go see these! Thanks for taking us along just in case I don’t get out there!

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:53 pm

      You’re very welcome Dawn and I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

  7. Judy Blinkenberg on April 9, 2017 at 4:49 am

    My husband and I plan to visit the higher altitude in Arizona. We live at 3500 now. We may find a small place to live in a low density area as I want chickens again.

    I wanted to ask you: are you ever afraid of being in a place alone? Parked at night with no one around? We stopped at a place but arrived after dark. I was a little scared even though my husband was there. We had never been there. We left at 3 am. The temp was 9. Great pictures Becky!!

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:52 pm

      That sounds like it would be fun Judy. I have a friend who raises chickens for eggs.

      Afraid? No. Aware? Yes. And really very seldom am I parked truly ‘alone’ as at most boondocking places you’ll have at least one neighbor within view. Plus I have a pretty good radar for sketchy places and if a spot doesn’t feel right I move on. I’ve talked about this in my Boondocking Safety post which I imagine you’ve seen but in case you haven’t:

  8. Gerri & Mike on April 8, 2017 at 10:26 pm

    We plan on being in this area late summer/ early fall. A definite place to explore and appreciate.
    Great pics!!
    Gerri & Mike recently posted..A Vintage Kind of DayMy Profile

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:47 pm

      Thanks! You’ll love it Gerri and Mike, so pretty.

  9. Ron on April 8, 2017 at 5:57 pm

    Great Photos, you must go to Mesa Verde if nearby. If the tours are running you can actually go in the ruins. Arches National Park is not too far either.

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:46 pm

      Yes Mesa Verde is on my list Ron. Not this trip but on a future one!

  10. Dave on April 8, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    About 150 miles from Mesa Verde, and both places have a lot of similarities. Nice to be at a place like this when the crowds are not there.
    Dave recently posted..2017 Travel PlansMy Profile

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:44 pm

      Spring and fall are my favorites. I love the time before summer break starts and after it ends. Just so much easier to connect to a place without the crowds.

  11. Kim on April 8, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    Love the remoteness and quiet of this National Monument.

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:43 pm

      Yes it sure was peaceful.

  12. Rob on April 8, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    When I was at Navajo National Monument (2 summers back?) there were two campgrounds.
    I liked the place!

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      Yes Rob, Canyon View is only open in peak season. If it was anything like Sunset View I’m sure it’s nice.

  13. John Warren Simpson on April 8, 2017 at 9:49 am

    Good idea to visit Navajo National Monument, especially early in the season. We were there in 1968 when things were quite different. Hiked out to Keet Seel by ourselves and stayed overnight. Incredible. I will be hitting the road in September with a new Escape 19 and newly purchased Toyota.

    • Becky on April 9, 2017 at 5:26 pm

      Congrats on your impending departure John, I bet you’re very excited!

      I loved how quiet Navajo NM was. I’ll get out to see more cliff dwellings in the future.

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