Posted by: lindsaygoes | September 21, 2012

A journey in stone (Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon)

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From Santa Fe we travelled to Aztec Ruins, which were not actually built by the Aztecs, but by the ancestral Pueblo people from the late 1000s to 1200s. The ruins were deceptively small until we got closer and realised we had only seen the beginning and they actually stretched a fair distance back. There was room upon room (many also used incidentally as burial chambers), connected by low doors (which made me realise how stiff my back was from camping), as well as a reconstruction of the Great Kiva, an enormous circular room probably used for community and ceremonial events. Our final destination for the day was Mesa Verde, where we had a bit of a drive around the National Park and saw some more Pueblo ruins, and some lovely views over the Mesa, which was starting to turn lovely autumn colours. 

The next morning we headed back into Mesa Verde for a tour around the Cliff Palace, another Pueblo ruin, built into a giant cleft in a cliff.  It’s the largest cliff dwelling in North America, and was constructed from around A.D 1200. To get there we had to climb down narrow, uneven staircases, and up wooden ladders (probably not original). The location was amazing, looking out from the cliffs into a canyon, while standing in a huge collection of buildings squeezed into a crack in the cliffs. The most mysterious part is why the ancestral Puebloans vanished. One of the most likely explanations was that there was a high rate of crop failure over twenty years (it may have been around the time of the mini ice age) forcing the inhabitants to leave.

Our next stop was Monument Valley, an area I was particularly looking forward to visiting. We started off doing a jeep tour around the valley, seeing all the fantastic rock formations which have played starring roles in many Western films. We also saw some ancient petroglyphs, and continued driving round as the sun was setting. Then we had dinner in the Valley, cooked over an open fire, before being entertained with traditional Navaho dancing and singing. Finally we rolled out our bedding and slept under the stars (and there were a lot of them!).

The next morning we got woken up early for another jeep ride to watch the sun rise. We drove out and then climbed up a hill to watch the sky changing colour over some rock spires, before the sun rose between two of them. The early sun rise on the rocks gave them beautiful colours and it was a lovely way to start the day. Running water would have been nice as well, but you can’t have everything. From Monument Valley we headed to the Grand Canyon and had our first look at the Canyon at Desert View. It really is spectacular, stretching endlessly into the distance, a million shades of red and brown. Then we headed further into the National Park, getting another incredible view at Mather Point. After setting up camp we headed off for a helicopter flight over the canyon. I was sitting in the front so I got to start the helicopter (which involved flicking one switch, so not all that exciting). We took off to the opening bars of the Bond theme tune and after a few minutes of flying very low over trees arrived at the Canyon. We had about an hour flying over the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon, and it really is an amazing way to see it. It’s hard to get a perspective of how big it is. It felt like the helicopter was hovering in the one spot when the pilot told us we were travelling at about 180km/hr. Looking down from above we were told one set of cliffs was three times the height of the Empire State Building, but it was still hard to comprehend how enormous it all is. On the way back from the helicopter ride we were looking at Elk on the side of the road, when an enormous antlered stag leapt out in front of the van. As I was sitting in the front passenger seat at the time it was lucky the driver was quick enough to honk the horn and swerve.

The next morning we started early to try and beat the heat. We began by hiking into the canyon along the South Kaibab trail, turning back at Cedar Ridge while we still had some shade. It was much more work walking out of the canyon than in, but it really gives you a different perspective. Once we got back to the top we walked back along the Rim Route and then watched a short film about the Grand Canyon before lunch. After lunch (and a bit of a rest) we walked the other direction along the rim trail to Yavapai Geology Museum before joining a geology walk. That was pretty interesting, looking at how the Grand Canyon formed and how travelling down through the layers is like travelling back in time. Then we walked a bit further along the Rim Trail, had a bit of a drink and a sit down before slowly walking back. We picked a good spot to watch the sunset on the way back. Facing into the canyon the sunset behind us, briefly turning all the rocks gorgeous red colours. All together we worked out we walked about 17km for the day.

The next morning we woke to find a herd of Elk wondering unconcerned throughout the campground, a nice way to start the day in a National Park. Then it was goodbye to the Grand Canyon and off to Las Vegas.

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