Walking out of the yurt in the early morning, feeling the sun already hot on my skin, I look toward the Navajo Rug ridgeline. The bands of colorful sedimentary rock do look remarkably like the geometric patterns seen on the Navajo rugs for sale in town. The red and orange dust comes to rest on everything here. I look down at my LL Bean boat shoes and note how much they’ve already changed since leaving Maine a week and a half ago. I like this new color. It’s a good look.
Whenever anyone mentions the heat of the desert, it seems there is always someone nearby who chimes in with “but it’s a dry heat,” which has always sounded pretty nice to me. Growing up in South Carolina, summer heat always meant humid and sweaty weather that often called for multiple showers per day. On a really bad day, the southern air feels positively sticky, and I’ve hardly missed that part of life in the south since moving to Maine. Now that I’m experiencing the desert climate firsthand, I feel like I was born for this environment.
Someone at Grand Canyon National Park would later tell us that there are two kinds of people who come to this part of the country: those who see a bunch of rocks and dirt, and others who are wowed by all the beauty. Compared to places like the Maine woods, there does seem to be a lot of emptiness in the desert. But that emptiness makes room for our thoughts to stretch out and contemplate our small role in the history of the planet.
The southwest is famously known as a geologist’s paradise, because the story of the earth’s past is exposed to view here like almost nowhere else. This landscape has seen alternating oceans and deserts, tremendously violent seismic activity and the never-ending effects of erosion and weathering over hundreds of millions of years. Everything looks ancient here, even though many of the most stunning features are very young in geologic terms. Visiting this area gives you a sense of arriving very late to a very old scene, and it is also a reminder of how much the planet is capable of changing.
We wanted to see the most dramatic evidence of these forces of change, so we headed to Goosenecks State Park in Utah, an awe-inspiring vantage point overlooking one of the most remarkable entrenched river meanders in North America. The San Juan river carved this winding canyon over 300 million years, cutting through layer after layer of soft, sedimentary rock as it washed debris downstream. The powerful, transformative effects of water are visible everywhere in this region. Really, the desert is all about water. Even if it’s not visible, the story of where water has been and what it has changed is all around you here. From the top of the canyon, the distant river below wasn’t even audible. It was impossible to comprehend time on this scale, and we felt very small and insignificant here.
In the parking lot at Goosenecks, we met a Navajo couple who sold handmade jewelry. We talked with them about their excellent choice of location and a little about the history of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American territory in the U.S. When we were planning our trip, I didn’t realize how much time we would spend in Navajo Nation, nor how special a place it is. In the south and northeast, there are no large Native American territories left, so it was enlightening to visit here and talk with the locals about what life is like. We agreed we would return to Mexican Hat and spend more time exploring Navajo Nation.
Our new friends at Goosenecks recommended we check out the nearby Muley Point overlook from the top of Cedar Mesa. The road to Muley Point starts out flat on the valley floor, with the 1,200 foot mesa looming ahead. The steep cliffs don’t look very inviting from the bottom, and we wondered how the road could possibly take us to the top. However, we soon found ourselves climbing a series of switchbacks that included some memorable hairpin turns along the sheer face of the mesa.
Like quite a few scenic drives on our trip so far, this one would have been impressive even if there was nothing to see at the end. Our efforts weren’t in vain, however, as those who make it to the top of the mesa are treated to the sight of not only Goosenecks and more of the San Juan meander, but also views stretching as far as Monument Valley, 20 miles away. We even thought we could spy the (relatively) tiny Mexican Hat Rock. In this area, Monument Valley gets the lion’s share of attention, but if that’s all you see, you might be missing out on the big picture. Muley Point puts the entire Mexican Hat/Monument Valley area into perspective, which in this part of the country is hard to achieve outside a helicopter, just because everything is so massive and spread out.
From Muley Point, we headed west to Grand Canyon National Park, one of our most anticipated stops. The drive was mostly through Navajo Nation, which we continued to find captivating. As much as the landscape there is shaped by water, there is very little of the stuff to be found except in a few developed areas. This is so different from Maine, where it feels like we live in a giant sponge! It’s worth noting that throughout our trip, there’s been a “red flag” warning in effect for wildfires, the highest possible risk level, due to extreme drought conditions.
We were fortunate to arrive at Grand Canyon from the east entrance, also known as Desert View. It is a less popular entrance since most traffic is coming from the south in Flagstaff, and it offers a series of spectacular views leading up to the classic south rim viewpoints. The first time we caught a glimpse of the canyon, still nowhere near its widest point, we were a little dumbstruck. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and trust me- pictures do NOT do Grand Canyon justice. I tried, I really did, to capture worthwhile images, but I’ve seen a lot of photos of this place and none of them prepared me for the sight of it in real life. It’s simply one of the most incredible places in North America. Honestly, I’m content to call it #1 at this point, but I’m keeping an open mind.
After taking in the view from the south rim, we had to find a place to make camp so we could explore in earnest in the morning. Fortunately, there are plenty of free spots to camp in the sprawling Kaibab National Forest. On our way to a site, we passed a very tall fire tower. I immediately elected to climb it, which I realized a third of the way up was ill-considered since the minimal iron grating proved slippery in my aforementioned LL Bean boat shoes, and I could see all the way to the bottom through the skinny metal slats. I made it to the top, saw miles of forest, then hurried back down.
A surprising thing about Grand Canyon if you’ve never been before is how forested the area is. I was expecting desert, but that’s only found down below. Up above the rim, the weather is cooler and trees grow abundantly. Our first night in Grand Canyon, we slept in a wooded area on National Forest land that didn’t look anything like the Grand Canyon of my imagination. Surprises abound when traveling, and it’s delightful when a famous destination defies the stereotypes. The next morning we would get to experience the Canyon from below the rim, which turned out to be the key to grasping its immensity. Follow along to see what the Grand Canyon taught us, and our incredible next stop: Zion National Park!