Monday, October 22, 2012


The drive from Mesa Verde through Durango and on southward is beautiful. We are chasing the fall colors. The hills vibrate with brilliant yellows and reds under the cloudless azure skies.  Our destination: The Chaco Canyon National Historic Site. There is no easy way into the park, every route includes travel over rough dirt roads.  We call ahead en route to assure that there is room in the first come first serve basis campground. (Dragging and bouncing Dimples through the dirt only to be turned away has zero appeal!) We are assured that there should be space in the campground AND we are warned to drive slow as the road condition is heavy washboard.  Armed with this knowledge we turn off the main Highway onto County Road 7900 – its paved and in pretty good condition… and then onto CR 7950… also paved for a few miles and then turns to gravel and then to dirt…really bumpy dirt!  Now the key to driving a car or truck on washboard is to go faster than you think and pretty much drive on the tops of the divots… this is NOT the method when towing a trailer… when towing, SLOW as in REALLY, REALLY SLOW… it is the only way to avoid serious damage… Since this is the first time that we are attempting to take Dimples off pavement, I volunteer to sit in the back and see how things hold up.   After a few bone shaking miles we stop and assess… The kitchen sink is loose – SO… Slow… as in walking speed is the only way!

We finally arrive at Chaco and secure a space at the back end of the campground. The campground is tucked along cliffs sporting petroglyphs and a few small ruins, there is a spectacular view of Fajada Butte and we are intrigued! This is dry camping but they have a dump station and potable water available.  We plan to stay a few days.  After setting up, we head to the visitor center to pay our fees, check the schedule of Ranger talks, the weather report and information about backcountry hikes.  That evening we start planning.

Hungo Pavi
Our first experience in the ruins is a ranger lead hike through Hungo Pavi.  This is a mid sized virtually unexcavated site. Late nineteenth century, eyewitness reports described a four-story structure virtually intact. The remains now are barely two stories.   Hungo Pavi like all of the sites was a victim of treasure hunters burning the wood vigas and latillas to keep warm while trashing the buildings searching for pottery and turquoise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Our Ranger Guide G.B. has lived in Chaco for over 25 years.  He points out the construction and talks a bit about the history and speculations surrounding Chaco.  In the end he states that the only truth is, “Once people lived here and now they don’t.”
We now know that a few days will not be enough to even start to explore this fascinating place.  There are nine sites within the canyon and four backcountry trails.  Stopping at the visitor center we extend our stay… we will be here a whole week and still not see it all!
Every day we explore more of the ruins in the canyon and surrounding mesas.  They are crumbling remains of massive stone buildings that soared to as many as five stories, with engineered water collection systems, line of site communication between locations and a massive road system linking them to outlying communities.  Most thought provoking is that many are built along celestial alignments. 
Casa Rinconada
Pueblo Bonito
Penasco Blanco
The backcountry hikes are the best.  The four and a skosh mile South Mesa Trail climbs a cliff for a spectacular view of the great kiva at Casa Rinconada and on up to the high point on South Mesa where we explore the Great House Tsin Kletzin.  The Pueblo Alto Trail leads up the canyon wall via skinny rubble “stairs” in a crack for a spectacular view of Pueblo Bonito and the heart of Chaco.  And our favorite hike; The Penasco Blanco Trail, takes us to… you guessed it… Penasco Blanco a distant unexcavated site that seems to be melting into the landscape.  When we arrive we are alone… well there was this really lovely rattlesnake, but he left shortly after we arrived.  Along the way we pass walls of petroglyphs and the “Super Nova Pictograph.”
Super Nova Pictograph
We celebrate National Fossil Day with a hike guided by the park’s resident paleontologist who explains the park geology and points out fossils.  From this point on, everywhere we look there are fossils embedded in the rocks and littering the roadsides and trails. They are also seen disembarking from tour busses… but that’s another story for another day…
Astronomy is also a huge part of Chaco.  The night skies are dark and well suited for stargazing.  Dale, one of the campground hosts is an amateur astronomer.  On Tuesday and Wednesday nights he sets up his large computer controlled telescope and invites all who are interested to take a peek – or two or ten… it’s really cool!  We also attend a talk by Ron Sutcliff an archaeoastronomer who explains the celestial alignments in Chaco.  Specifically the Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada that is aligned to both the moon and the sun. His book “Moon Tracks, Lunar Horizon Patterns” now holds the distinction of being one of the very select few non-digital books we own. Chaco also has the distinction of being the only national site with it’s own observatory.  After Ron’s talk we are treated to views from the observatory telescope and two other large telescopes set up nearby.
All in all, Chaco is a fascinating and intriguing.  There are as many opinions about Chaco as there are visitors… (Google it and waste a day or two scratching the surface.) Yes everyone has an opinion as to the why and what about Chaco.  Our take on Chaco… It is testament to the observational skills of humanity and the ability to translate those observations into the physical.
So enough of this dry camping in the desert… we need to brave the washboard road, crawl out of here and seek some citification… Santa Fe sounds pretty good….

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Hovenweep Castle

Heading south from Moab on Hwy 191 we turn off onto less traveled roads to Hovenweep National Monument.  We find a lovely spot at the Hovenweep campground.  The spaces dedicated to RV use are wide, level and come with their own sun shaded picnic table and fire ring.  This is dry camping at it’s best.

The park is known mainly for six village groups of the Ancient Puebloans, but this area was also inhabited by the hunter and gather Paleo-Indians for around eight thousand years prior to the arrival of the early pueblo people around 200 AD.  From 200 to around 900 AD the population of the area grew and finally began to explode around 1,000 AD.  At this time the residents began to move from the mesa tops to the canyon rims and a building boom of check dams, towers and kivas changed the landscape.  These towers and kivas display a fine level of construction and many appear to be more defensive structures, situated near water resources.  All of these structures are astronomically aligned both (solar and lunar) for keeping time and tracking the seasons.

The Little Ruin Canyon is an enjoyable 2-mile round trip hike from the campground.  The views along the canyon rim are spectacular.  We start off in the late afternoon at the first structure a snake crosses our path hissing and rattling.  Now that our adrenalin levels are up we continue around the rim.  Some of the more intriguing structures are: the Square Tower (a three story structure built on top of a large boulder at the head of the canyon) Boulder House (a structure actually inside of a boulder down in the canyon) and the Hovenweep Castle (at the top edge of the canyon.) Estimates place the population here at around five hundred.

Visiting the other ruins involves 4WD, fortunately Dave is up to the challenge!  The road to Cutthroat Castle passes through the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and we stop to check out the painted hand in one of the ruins.  (An unexpected surprise!) Cutthroat Castle is impressive as are Holly, Horseshoe and Hackberry.  There is a fine level of craftsmanship in these structures and another five to seven hundred ancients called these home.

Cliff House
Next we’re off to Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a short fifty-mile drive and we score a full hook-up campsite in the park.  We can stay only 3 days as the campground is closing for the season.  Mesa Verde is known for the elaborate cliff dwellings that supported a population of approximately 30,000 people. (To put things in perspective, his is 3X the size of the current population of the area.)  Here we book two ranger-guided tours of the Balcony House and the Cliff Palace.  Both of these tours involve climbing up steep ladders and crawling through tunnels.

Balcony House
 One of our favorite sites is the Spruce Tree House.  Here we can explore on our own.  There are a couple of rangers on site to answer questions and keep folks off the walls. The highlight is climbing down into a kiva, which is surprisingly warm considering the cool temps outside. 
Kiva Interior

All of these structures were built in the last years of the Ancestral Puebloan occupation and deserted shortly thereafter.   There is a lot of speculation as to why these people, after completing these structures, left and migrated south.  The best answer we hear is, “Because it was time."

And now for us, it too is time...

We are even more intrigued with this civilization.... so we head next to Chaco Canyon, the largest and most elaborate collection of ancient structures… and one of the earliest to be abandoned…


Monday, October 8, 2012


Moab is RED!
We head east along Brontosaurus Boulevard to Dinosaur, CO. There we turn south on the Stegosaurus Freeway and follow the Dinosaur Star Scenic By-Way. With names like these we know that we are passing through “Dinosaur Land.”  The entire drive to Moab is visually exciting, although Utah roads seem to be competing with California for the “Rough Texture Award!”  As we approach Moab, one word comes to mind – RED – the land is really, really red. Not the peachy red of Sedona, but a real rusty brick red. It’s gorgeous and we can’t wait to get settled in and start exploring.  We book a few days at the Riverside Oasis RV Park along the Colorado River. The sites are clean and shady. The staff friendly and the location (just two miles south of Arches National Park and a few miles north of Moab) perfect!  After unhitching and settling in, we head out to Arches NP to do quick reconnoiter before sunset.

Tower Arch
The next morning, we start out in Arches, with a drive across the Salt Valley to The Tower Arch Trailhead.  We hike a little over a mile and a half to the Tower Arch.  This is our first arch of many and we delight in the remote location and sheer size of this natural monument.  With one hike under our belt we figure out that we will need a lot more than a few days to even scratch the surface of “things to do in Moab.” Returning to base, we book an additional week here so we can stay a total of ten days.  That evening we do more research using the park’s free WIFI and start planning our excursions.

Monument Valley
First up: an aerial tour of the area with Redtail Aviation. Since many of Utah’s national parks and monuments meet at the Monument Valley, we book the two and a half hour Monument Valley flight over southeastern Utah.  We get up at what feels like the crack of dawn, and head to the airport for an 8:30 AM departure.  Our pilot Tim is an old timer from the area – we are reminded of the “old” every time he calls us “kids.”  He’s a living encyclopedia about the culture, history and geology of the area.  As we soar over mesas and canyons, in the Cessna 172 he points out the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, ancient Anasazi ruins, Canyonlands Island in the Sky, Dead Horse Point (where they filmed the final scene for “Thelma and Louise”), Robert’s Roost (of Butch Cassidy fame), Arch Canyon, Natural Bridges, Monument Valley, the Canyon of the Gods and everything in between.  After seeing the landscape from the air, we are even more anxious to explore on the ground.
Double Arch

That evening we enjoy a cowboy dinner before embarking on the Canyonlands by Night Light Show on the Colorado River. The light show is a little corny, with a canned recording about the history of the area, but visually it is spectacular.

Moab is also known for extreme mountain biking and fat tire bikes almost outnumber cars on the city streets. It is also great for foraging with two full service supermarkets offering great selections of organic produce, bakery goods and meats.  We stock up. 

We also sample some of the local color and flavors with a tasty lunch at La Hacienda.  The ambiance is colorful and energetic.  The Crab Lupe is fresh and flavorful and the Beef Tostada followed suit.  Their salsa is spicy and bursting with flavor and a couple of Nega Modellos finishes off the meal.
La Hacienda on Urbanspoon

At Woody’s Tavern we discover Cutthroat Ale and Polygamy Porter, two outstanding local beers. Woody’s is classified as a dive bar, but midweek with the late afternoon sun shining through the expansive windows, it looked more like a family restaurant decorated to look like a dive bar. The only staff is one overworked bartender/cook. She’s pleasant, but not overly friendly as she serves us up some tasty hot wings and some not so special nachos.  We don’t doubt that this place comes alive well after the sun sets.
Woody's Tavern on Urbanspoon

While exploring the town we stop at the Moab Grill and enjoy a huge plate of nachos,  (to make up for the dismal ones at Woody’s.) These go well with a draft of Cutthroat Ale and a house chardonnay.  This restaurant is light and airy and the service outstanding.
Moab Grill on Urbanspoon

One experience that is not to be missed is hiking in the Fiery Furnace. Because of the impact on the environment, the park only allows 75 hikers into this area daily.  There are 2 ranger lead hikes of 25 participants and these are booked up for a month in advance.  We joined a group from The Moab Adventure Center.  Another early morning – as we have to meet in Moab at 7:00 AM – argh! But we are rewarded!  There are only ten in our group plus our guide Molly.  Molly takes us to areas not included in the ranger hikes and because of the small size of our group we are able to explore the area in greater depth.  She teaches us some basic canyoneering skills and we scrambled between fins and through holes in the rocks. (And surprisingly,  when viewed from behind climbing through those holes does not make your ass look fat LOL.)
Dave on Potash Road

We drive out Potash Road, stopping to view petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks and continue on to just below Dead Horse Point, to view from the bottom looking up to where the final scene for the film Thelma and Louise was filmed.  The canyons are steep rugged and amazing! Continuing towards Canyonlands National Park we drive up Shafer Canyon Road a steep rocky switchback cliff hugging 4WD experience. It literally takes our breath away!

Moonlit Arch
This is the first time since we started this adventure that stars are visible so we decide to try our hand at some nighttime photography.  The first night out the moon rises around 10:00 PM and we capture the windows arches from the civilized trail.  It’s really warm and we stay until almost 1:30 in the morning.

Windows by Night
Windows by Day
We return a few days later and hike around the back of the windows via the primitive trail.  The moon is rising later and hiking this by starlight (with headlamps) is a fun challenge.  The temperature is much lower than a few days ago, and we are bundled up, but lying on the slick-rock, watching the night sky surrounded by silence is an experience we will never forget.  We are now hooked on learning more about night photography.

The next days are spent hiking and photographing arches. The hike through The Devil’s Garden passes five large arches. Landscape arch is delicate spanning over two hundred feet. Partition Arch, is a window to a wide view of the mesas and outlying mountains. Navajo Arch is an entry into a secluded box canyon and Private Arch leads to a tingly hike on top of a fin with breathtaking views.  This is an exhilarating hike up rocky slopes, across slick-rock fins, through slot canyons and sandy washes; we sleep very soundly that night.  

Delicate  Arch
Our final foray into the realm of nighttime photography is to try to catch the iconic delicate arch in the dark.  We opt to set up at the top of the Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint and shoot from across the ravine.  Although we reconnoiter the trail during the daytime, retracing our steps in total blackness with the aid of our headlamps is a tad more fun!  Once set up we can see that photographers under the arch are experimenting with "light painting" and we take advantage of their efforts.  We still have a lot to learn about night techniques and look forward to exploring this more.

We originally plan to head to Escalante for more slot canyon hiking, but after seeing ruins from our aerial tour and the petroglyphs in the canyons, we are fascinated by the ancient cultures of this area.  Since we have no firm plans or reservations we will head south towards Hovenweep and Chaco Canyon. So off we go in search of ruins…