Sneak Peak: Southwestern Variety at its Finest

Scrambling the Lava Falls Route in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Scrambling the Lava Falls Route in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

I just got back from another hiking-adventure trip across the western US!  It was different than any before, even as we visited old and new sites across Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and even Utah and Wyoming.  There were high points – the highest point in New Mexico and 12,000ft. Mt. Agassiz to views of the highest point in Utah – and old favorites like Pueblo Bonito in Chaco and trails into the Grand Canyon.  In between were desert, Native American culture, the Grand Canyon, and so much more!



Doorways in Pueblo Bonito, my favorite of all the Native American ruins I've seen, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Doorways in Pueblo Bonito, my favorite of all the Native American ruins I’ve seen

We started out in Monument Rocks, Kansas, a national park on private property with monoliths in the middle of the plains.

Wildflowers and the Keyhole in Monument Rocks, Kansas

Wildflowers and the Keyhole in Monument Rocks

Later that day we pulled into Great Sand Dunes, and because no one wanted to spend the heat of the day on the dunes, we hiked to Zapata Falls.  It was nice and cool in the falls’ canyon – there was even still some winter ice at the bottom of the falls!

Zapata Falls - see the ice block still at the bottom of the falls? Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Zapata Falls – see the ice block still at the bottom of the falls?

Because of 25% of average snowpack last winter, the stream wasn’t flowing by the dunes as we had hoped.  Still, we had a great time jumping the dunes, and a few of us even made it all the way to the top of Star Dune, the highest in the park!

Hiking the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Hiking the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park

After jumping dunes until the sand started to burn our feet, we drove down toward Taos.  There’s a bridge nearby over the Rio Grande that I’ve wanted to visit for about 12 years (literally).  So we stopped and walked The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, not to mention taking a few pictures along the way.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge near Taos, New Mexico

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Our biggest destination in New Mexico was to climb Wheeler Peak, the highest point in the state.  I was a little worried that it might still be snowed in, but due to the light snow year, we barely saw snow the whole way up.  While we were on the trail anyway, we visited Williams Lake

Williams Lake - it's very low due to the light snowfall last winter. Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Williams Lake – it’s very low due to the light snowfall last winter

Williams Falls…

Williams Falls, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Williams Falls

Mt. Walker (the 2nd highest point in New Mexico)…

Views toward Wheeler Peak and surrounding mountains from Mt. Walter in Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Views toward Wheeler Peak and surrounding mountains from Mt. Walter

…And then climbed Wheeler Peak, proper.

Views from Wheeler Peak over Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Views from Wheeler Peak

Everyone was tired the next day, so in the afternoon we took a little stroll/bushwack up to Gavilan Falls.

Gavilan Falls, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Gavilan Falls

Before climbing Wheeler, we had chatted with a couple men working for the Forest Service.  They told us their favorite hike was Gold Hill, up via Bull-of-the-Woods Pasture, down via Long Canyon.  I knew no more about it than that and looking at a map or two, but it looked nice, so we took off to climb the peak.  It turned out to be one of our favorite hikes on the entire trip.  Those guys definitely knew what they were talking about!

Views from Gold Hill toward Mt. Wheeler and other peaks, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Views from Gold Hill toward Mt. Wheeler and other peaks

We moved on to Los Alamos.  My plan had been to hike up to the Los Alamos Arch, but sitting in the parking area, a very nice woman in the neighborhood told us that all of the trails in the national forest were closed due to fire danger.  She recommended a museum in town, so we spent a very enjoyable midday learning about the Manhattan Project at the Bradbury Science Museum.

Replicas of Fat Boy and Thin Man, the two atomic bombs, at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico - the bombs were named after Winston Churchhill and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively

Replicas of Fat Boy and Thin Man, the two atomic bombs – the bombs were named after Winston Churchhill and Franklin Roosevelt, respectively

In the evening (they wouldn’t let us drive in until 3pm) we hiked a couple old favorite trails in Bandelier National Monument – the Main Loop…

Old pueblo sites along the Main Loop in Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Old pueblo sites along the Main Loop in Bandelier National Monument

…and the trail to Alcove House (up all those fun ladders!)

Descending one of the Alcove House ladders, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico

Descending one of the Alcove House ladders

About 13 or 14 years ago, I ran across Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument.  I’ve wanted to visit ever since, but it never quite works out.  This time, despite all the national forests being closed, Tent Rocks was not, and it was worth waiting 13 years to see!

Tent Rocks at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, New Mexico

Tent Rocks

A little more recently – probably only about three or four years ago – I heard of an area of rock formations called the Valley of Dreams. It’s extremely remote, and very difficult to get to, but it’s amazing!  First we visited the Valley of Dreams East…

A storm rises over the Valley of Dreams East, Ah-She-Sle-Pah Wilderness, New Mexico

A storm rises over the Valley of Dreams East

…then the Valley of Dreams, itself, as the sun finally came out!

The formation known as the

The formation known as the “Alien’s Throne”

In the afternoon, we hiked over to the King of Wings.  All of these would have been nearly impossible to find without the GPS – even if the GPS did get us in trouble by telling us to take roads that didn’t exist and others that went straight through people’s houses.

The King of Wings in the Ah-She-Sle-Pah Wilderness, New Mexico

The King of Wings

The next day we decided civilization would be nice (just kidding), so we went into Chaco Culture Historical Park.  It’s always been our favorite Native American History park, and I was reminded just why.  We did Pueblo del Arroyo

Sunrise (or nearly) at Pueblo del Arroyo in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Sunrise (or nearly) at Pueblo del Arroyo

…walked up to Kin Kletso…

Windows in Kin Klesto Pueblo, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Windows in Kin Klesto

…then took the Pueblo Alto Loop, which has been on our “to hike” list for probably close to 20+ years.  (We’ve done the first portion a few times, but never the whole thing – I thought it quite nice.)

Walking toward New Pueblo Alto on the Pueblo Alto Loop, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Walking toward New Pueblo Alto

And a visit to Chaco wouldn’t be complete without visiting Pueblo Bonito.

Scarlet globmallow flowers in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico

Scarlet globmallow flowers in Pueblo Bonito

From there, we drove up to Angel Peak for the night.  It was downright crowded; I think there were four other campers in the campground!  Sunset was a disappointment, but sunrise was a bit better in terms of views.

Badlands near Angel Peak at sunrise, Angel Peak Scenic Area, New Mexico

Badlands near Angel Peak at sunrise

One of my group members wanted to visit the Grand Canyon very much, so we ended up in the Toroweap area.  I had read about the Whitmore Trail, and how it was only a 2 mile round trip trail to the river.  That sounded great.  But the road was rougher than we anticipated, and we ended up getting only about 4 miles from the parking area.  We would have hiked the rest of the road, but it was a bit hot to be out hiking.

Whitmore Trail views in the sideview mirror, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona

Whitmore Trail views in the sideview mirror

So we drove back up the road to the Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse.  The swings and seasaws were a real treat.

Mount Trumbull Schoolhouse, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona

Mount Trumbull Schoolhouse

On a whim, following an official map I had picked up at the schoolhouse, we walked to the Nampaweap Petroglyph Site.  It’s by far one of the best I’ve seen; there are images scratched into the rock everywhere!

Sample of the petroglyphs at the Nampaweap site, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Arizona

Sample of the petroglyphs at the Nampaweap site

We spent the night at the Tuweep Campground (high clearance required, 4×4 recommended, and prior reservations stipulated).  Sunset was beautiful.

Sunset near the Toroweap Campground, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Sunset near the Toroweap Campground

The next morning we got up very early to get on the Lava Falls Route to the bottom of the canyon before sunrise.  We didn’t quite make it before sunrise, and we didn’t quite make it to the river, but we hiked most of the route before it got far, far too hot to be out hiking.  The trail is a little less obvious than it was when I last hiked it 13 years ago!

Barrel cacti along the Lava Falls Route, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Barrel cacti along the Lava Falls Route

In need of gas and ice, we drove back into town, then down into the official North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park.  A short stroll along the Ken Patrick Trail revealed some great views.

Point Imperial and views from the Ken Patrick Trail, North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Point Imperial and views from the Ken Patrick Trail

And since we were there, we figured we might as well walk out to the Point Imperial Overlook.

Point Imperial, North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Point Imperial

I had read on the internet (on a site we’ve been using for trail ideas since about 2001) about a few points along the North Rim that have great views of the canyon, but that don’t have official trails to them – it’s GPS navigation and bushwacking.  We started with the one that looked the most interesting, Honan Point.  All I can is that I never knew the North Rim had views like this; it’s absolutely stunning!

Views from Honan Point, North Rim Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Views from Honan Point – we could even see the South Kaibab Trail, Grandview Lookout, and much more

And since we were there, it only made sense to hike out to Cape Royal.

Views from Cape Royal, North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Views from Cape Royal

The next day, we did one last hike – another bushwack (this was really whacking bushes!) to Point Atoko.  The view wasn’t as good as Honan Point, but it would have been quite nice if it hadn’t been quite so hazy.  Oh, well.

Views from Atoko Point, North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Views from Atoko Point

A few weeks before we left, I ran across the Uinta Mountains in Utah, three times in one week in three completely, totally unrelated places.  That was so odd – I’ve never heard of these mountains before, or since – so I got some trail info before we left, even though we weren’t planning to go to Utah.  After Grand Canyon, feeling the heat in the southwest, we figured we would drive up to the Uintas and get out of the heat.  We got close, stopped for internet, and discovered that the most recent information (about 2 weeks old) said all the trails I wanted to do were closed due to snow.  Without much else we could do, and all the nearby ranger stations closed for employee training, we drove up into the mountains anyway.

Hope Lake, with a mountain in the background and glacier lilies decorating the foreground, Uinta Mountains, Utah

Hope Lake, with a mountain in the background and glacier lilies decorating the foreground

The trail up Bald Mountain certainly had a little snow, but it was easily negotiated.  And the views.  Oh, wow!

A small part of the views from the top of Bald Mountain in the Uinta Mountains of Utah

A small part of the views from the top of Bald Mountain

The trail to Ibantik Lake was mostly dry, but what little wasn’t was reminiscent of last summer in the High Sierras – “Home, home on the trail!  Where the streams and cataracts play!  Where seldom is found a piece of dry ground.  And the snowmelt increases each day!  Everybody now…”  The lake itself was lovely, and the views along the trail were stunning.

Ibantik Lake in the Uinta Mountains of Utah

Ibantik Lake

Our final hike was a real challenge: up the trailless Mt. Agassiz overlooking Naturalist Basin, not to mention Kings Peak (highest peak in Utah) and more peaks and lakes than I could count.  Oh, wow-wow-wow!  This one got on my favorites list for the sheer beauty of the views!

Naturalist Basin from the slopes of Mount Agassiz in the Uinta Mountains of Utah

Naturalist Basin from the slopes of Mount Agassiz

We did stop at Hobo Pool on the way home (we joked we came to the Uintas so we could go home I-80, past Hobo Pool, but really, it was icing on the cake).  We also got smoked out by forest fires at the Lincoln Rest Stop as we tried to make and eat dinner dodging the sudden outbursts of raindrops.

A simple pinecone, Gold Hill, New Mexico

A simple pinecone

But overall, it was a great trip, with so much variety it’s hard to pin down exactly what the trip was about – Deserts?  Mountains?  History?  I think it’s all of the above, and so much more.

Dancing in the sunset at the Ah-She-Sle-Pah Wilderness Official Parking Area, New Mexico

Dancing in the sunset at the Ah-She-Sle-Pah Wilderness Official Parking Area

I’m looking forward to sharing all these places with you in the upcoming months!  Stay tuned!

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I always try to take water purification tablets with me on hikes – I didn’t need them on this trip, but I came close a couple times and was thankful I had them.




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