Travelogue: Death Valley


In the rugged Mojave desert 120 miles west of Las Vegas lies the famed Death Valley. At 5,270 square miles, it is the largest national park outside of Alaska and ranks fifth overall. Long on our radar, we decided to work it into this itinerary because it fits better seasonally and geographically with Arizona than the big cluster of California parks. Its size can be a challenge for planning. For example, it takes more than two hours to drive from Ubehebe Crater in the park’s northern reaches to the Ashford Mill Ruins at the southern end. There are also several sites, like the famous moving rocks of The Racetrack, that are inaccessible without a high-clearance four wheel drive vehicle. With awareness of these factors, plus some good research, it’s pretty easy to come up with a plan to hit a lot of choice spots. Most people are surprised to find more variety of landforms than expected. In addition to containing the lowest place in North America, it is home to multiple mountain ranges, pushing as high as 11,000 feet. There is cultural history here as well. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe’s ancestral lands are within the park boundaries and they are still an active part of the community. Their ancestors followed a seasonal migration pattern based on elevation to live in balance with the seasons, summers in the high mountains and winters on the valley bottom.


Zabriskie Point landscape and hat-stealing winds.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon after a 6.5 hour drive from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Entering from the east on California Highway 190, we headed directly to the Furnace Creek visitor center to orient ourselves and catch the last daily showing of the park movie. A large thermometer outside the entrance read 89 degrees, but highs here in the summer commonly reach 120 degrees and above. A weather station at Furnace Creek still holds the record for highest observed temperature on Earth of 134 degrees, set in 1913. Autumn through spring is obviously the main visitation season as a result, with some lodging and amenities closing up shop for the fiery summer months. In addition to heat, a dust storm greeted us as we entered the valley, with brown clouds rolling across the valley floor carried by intense and constant winds. From the visitor center, we backtracked a few miles to Zabriskie Point, where a short path leads to a viewpoint overlooking dramatically weathered badlands. The wind here was so strong that standing upright became an isometric exercise. We held onto hats and skirts and took in the view. Another place to experience this landscape is the nearby 20 Mule Team Road, a twisting gravel drive that threads between the mounds. The name 20 Mule Team references the teams of mules and horses that were used to carry borax from mines to processing plants in the 1880s. Remnants of this industry can be seen in the Harmony Borax Works, our next detour. It has a short trail that loops around the ruins of an old borax processing facility and informational signs on how the process was carried out. One of the old mule team wagons is on display here as well. Industrial use of such a harsh environment seems surprising to us now, but there was a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Death Valley was of major interest for its natural resources, and industrial ruins and ghost town sites dot the park as a result.

Continuing 25 miles north, we arrived at our lodging at Stovepipe Wells Village. With its on-site restaurant, general store and swimming pool, we found it an ideal combination of location and amenities for a reasonable price. The hotel dates to 1925, when the region began its transition from mining to a tourism economy. Perpetual dust and an hourglass shower timer reminded us we weren’t in the average neighborhood. The Toll Road Restaurant satisfied for breakfast and dinner, importantly staying open until 9:00pm, so we weren’t rushed with our dining schedule like we sometimes are in remote areas. One disappointment was the non-functioning bar tap system that weekend, denying us the pleasure of a well-curated beer list.


Charcoal Kilns at the Wildrose Peak Trailhead.

Our longest hike of the whole trip was planned for Friday, April 14th. Surveying the day hike options via Death Valley’s NPS website and in our National Geographic book, we settled on Wildrose Peak as the ideal trek. With a summit at just over 9,000 feet, it stands 2,000 feet lower than the park’s highest mountain, nearby Telescope Peak, while still offering commanding views. The trail’s round-trip distance of 8.4 miles and climb of 2,300 feet allows a more leisurely pace than the 14-mile route up and down Telescope. From Stovepipe Wells, a nearly 1.5 hour drive up squiggly Emigrant Canyon Road leads to the trailhead adjacent to 10 historic charcoal kilns. Another remnant of the industrial days, these 25-foot-tall beehive-shaped stone constructions were used to create charcoal from local wood to be used as fuel in smelters at nearby mines. Wildrose Peak Trail begins here by entering green forests of pinyon pine and juniper. The temperatures at this elevation (6,800 at the trailhead) made for pleasant hiking. Just less than two miles in, we reached a saddle in the mountains and were rewarded with our first view into Death Valley below. After a brief level portion, the trail steadily increases in angle before becoming a series of switchbacks on a steep slope toward the top. Just before the true summit is a false peak, and the last quarter mile is a mostly level walk to the tip top. Wildrose Peak provides nearly 360 degree views of a vast surrounding area. Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48, is visible in the Sierras on the western horizon, and Badwater Basin lies below sea level just 15 miles to the east. The Panamint Range stretches to the immediate south, with snow-dusted Telescope Peak poking up from behind Rogers Peak. We ate our picnic lunches downwind of the summit to shelter ourselves from the chilly breezes, a major change from the hot valleys below. A few other hikers arrived, but for the most part, the trail was nearly private. After about an hour, we turned and made our way back down the way we had come up. In total, the hike was just under six hours, a perfect day hike length.


Panoramic view from Wildrose Peak. (click for larger view)

Back at Stovepipe Wells, we sourced six packs from the general store across the street and relaxed on the shaded patio. Just before sunset, a trip to the nearby Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes gave us the perfect vantage point for the beginning of twilight. In this area, dunes up to 100 feet high stretch in every direction. There are no official trails, but visitors can wander up and down the sand as they please. Back at the hotel, we downed mass amounts of food and then returned to the patio with a bottle of wine to enjoy the firepit and clear, starry skies of this International Dark Sky designated park.


Sunset from the middle of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.


Salt Creek Pupfish.

The final full day of our road trip consisted of lots of stops on our way from Stovepipe Wells to the park exit in the general direction of Las Vegas. First on the route was the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail, a boardwalk meandering along a marshy, spring-fed creek. This hot, salty water is home to the endangered Salt Creek Pupfish that eke out a life in tiny, isolated streams and pools whose conditions would kill most other aquatic animals. They get their name from the playful way they interact with each other, which also makes them surprisingly entertaining to watch for little 1.5-inch-long fish. Next up, we passed by Furnace Creek and went to Golden Canyon, where a network of trails passes through yellow hills and narrow gorges. Options range from easy strolls up to an 8-mile fairly strenuous loop. The routes even connect to Zabriskie Point on the eastern side. We chose a middle ground by hiking up Golden Canyon as far as the Red Cathedral. With a round-trip length of three miles and an elevation gain of nearly 600 feet, it was more strenuous than expected, with the 85 degree heat amplified by the rock walls all around. At Red Cathedral the trail dead ends into a vertical rock alcove, where climbing a small rise affords views out over the valley and to the Panamint Range beyond.


The salt flat at Badwater Basin.

Fifteen miles south, we arrived at the quintessential Death Valley location, Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level it is the lowest spot in North America. A sign marks sea level on a cliff high above. Just off the parking lot, a boardwalk gives way to a well-trodden path out into the salt flat. The surreal, white landscape all around is formed when water collected in the basin evaporates and leaves a layer of salty minerals behind, building into a thick crust over time. We walked out far enough to get a good vantage point of the valley around. The heat felt intense, even sub 90 degrees, making us cringe at the thought of being here in the summer. Off to the west, we spotted Wildrose Peak, where 24 hours earlier we’d stood looking down at Badwater Basin. From the hot valley floor we could see three patches of lingering snow on Wildrose, highlighting the wild range of conditions within the park. Approaching a late lunch time time we turned northward toward the Furnace Creek village, making a brief stop at the jagged formations of Devil’s Golf Course and detouring on Artist’s Drive through multi-colored canyon walls. After lunch, we ended the visit with a side trip to Dante’s View, located off Highway 190 where we had entered the park two days earlier. The 28-mile round-trip drive seems far, but we were glad we took the extra time because Dante’s View might be the most stunning vista in the park. At 5,475 feet in elevation, people on the Badwater Basin trail look like ants more than a vertical mile below. We stood in awe viewing nearly the entirety of the north/south stretch of Death Valley. What a way to say goodbye to an amazing national park. We covered a lot of ground, but there is plenty more to be discovered on a future visit. We’re putting this one in the must-return column.


Parting shot: Panorama from Dante’s View. Badwater Basin is the white area on the valley floor and the Panamint Mountains rise in the background.

bye-las-vegasOur flights were out of Las Vegas the following day, so we booked a room at the Main Street Station Casino Hotel downtown. We thought maybe downtown would be less trashy than the strip… it wasn’t. We’re not fans of Las Vegas in general, but it’s even more depressing after having spent a week in some of the country’s best scenery. That being said, we did find one redeeming experience with dinner at Carson Kitchen. We toasted another successful trip over tasty small plates and brainstormed future travels.

Previously: Flagstaff and Grand Canyon
Previously: Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly
Previously: Tucson and Saguaro National Park
View trip photo gallery here.

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Travelogue: Flagstaff and Grand Canyon


Approaching the midpoint of the trip, we planned two nights in Flagstaff, Arizona. During the three hour drive from Canyon de Chelly, we stopped for lunch in Holbrook and inadvertently stumbled upon a monument to the song “Take it Easy” by the Eagles. There’s a line that goes “Well I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see…” We found some fine sandwiches and shakes at the Sipp Shop across the street, and watched a constant stream of people take photos in the appropriately named “Standin’ on the Corner Park.” Another few minutes down Interstate 40 we pulled off to visit Meteor Crater, a mile-wide, 500ft-deep impact structure dating to around 50,000 years ago. Initially we thought it would be a brief peek at the crater from an overview, but there’s actually a pretty fascinating and extensive museum devoted to this crater and the history of meteor impacts around the world. For years, nobody knew for sure how this one was formed, but after confirmation, people spent decades determined to find a giant lump of valuable ore at the center. All the exploratory mining never amounted to anything because most of the meteor vaporized on impact, but the crater did prove valuable as a training location for astronauts. Being the best-preserved impact crater on the planet has made it valuable to many areas of study. In the distance, the towering San Francisco Peaks beckoned us toward the City of Seven Wonders.


Meteor Crater as seen from the upper viewing platform.

Flagstaff is a small city in north central Arizona known for Northern Arizona University and its close proximity to at least seven wonderful natural sites. As a result, it’s one of those towns full of good restaurants and craft breweries where it’s socially acceptable to wear outdoor athletic wear in public. We stayed in the center of downtown at the historic and allegedly haunted Hotel Monte Vista. Many celebrities have spent the night there, frequently while filming old western movies, and each room is named after one of them. We were in the John Wayne suite on the top floor. Each room contains a binder explaining all the hotel’s ghosts and in which rooms they are most often seen. The John Wayne room was quiet and comfortable, and we were glad not to be in the second floor room haunted by the prostitutes who were thrown out the window in the 1940s.

Back in civilization after a few nights off the beaten path, we enjoyed having abundant dining and drinking options. We sampled beer at three of the six breweries calling downtown Flagstaff home. There really is an impressive craft beer scene for a city of 70,000, and conveniently they’re all within walking distance of each other. We started with flights at the cozy Lumberyard Brewing taproom and then made our way to Mother Road, which in addition to having great beer is connected to Pizzicletta, maker of delicious wood-fired pizza (also a bike store, hehe). The next day we thoroughly enjoyed Historic Brewing’s Barrel + Bottle House in the same neighborhood. Our favorite cocktail find was the Annex Cocktail Lounge connected to Tinderbox Kitchen. The Desert Spoon hit the spot with its combination of classic and local ingredients. Our bartender also built an impressive mini bonfire to create the woody smoke that topped off the Founding Father cocktail. Overall, some high quality boozing.


Beer flights from Lumberyard and Historic. Desert Spoon Cocktail at Annex.


Diablo Burger and Criollo Paella.

In addition to the aforementioned Pizzicletta, we enjoyed a full day of meals in town, starting with breakfast at MIX. They offer a wide selection of fresh breakfast options and have sandwiches and specials for lunch and dinner. After a day of national monument exploration, we returned to the same block to refuel at Diablo Burger, where they specialize in sourcing ingredients from within 250 miles, impressive for a burger joint. Coincidentally, Diablo is from the same owners as Good Oak Bar in Tucson, (where we loved the beer press drink) and there’s a location there too. For dinner there are plenty of upscale options in town, making our decision difficult. After some deliberation we ended up at Criollo Latin Kitchen, which has been considered amongst the best restaurants in Arizona.

Flagstaff is situated within easy access to several National Park Service units. We chose two to visit during our full day in town, Sunset Crater Volcano and Walnut Canyon. Sunset Crater is the youngest cinder cone in this area of abundant volcanic history. It emerged about the year 1085 and stands just over 1,100 feet above the surrounding landscape. We made the half hour drive from downtown Flagstaff to the small visitor center and then to the Lenox Crater Trail. This mile-long trail climbs the 300-foot volcano adjacent to Sunset Crater and affords great views of the San Francisco Peaks to the west. The crater at the peak has been reduced to a gentle depression over the years, but it still gives a good impression of the force that created these mountains. The trail up Sunset


View of Sunset Crater Volcano from the Lenox Crater Trail.

Crater volcano itself was closed in the 1970s due to massive erosion created by visitors, 40 years later the scar of the trail is still visible on the mountainside. Nearby, the Lava Flow Trail gives a close-up view of the rough, volcanic landscape formed by the eruption. Another half hour up the road lies Wupatki National Monument, but we were taking it easy, so we instead drove back toward Flagstaff to visit Walnut Canyon National Monument. This monument preserves approximately 85 cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua people sometime between 1125 and 1250. The dwellings occupy ledges and shallow caves protected by an overhanging rock layer about halfway down the canyon. The Island Trail leads down from the visitor center to the section of the monument with the highest concentration of archaeological sites. In a mile-long loop, visitors come across the remains of several dwellings in various states of repair. Late 19th and early 20th century artifact looting reduced some walls to rubble, but others remain in relatively pristine condition. Despite the harsh climate in the area, the Sinagua were able to cultivate crops on the canyon rim and live a good life, but after about 150 years in the canyon, they moved on for reasons unknown. We were soon moving on to another canyon ourselves.


Grand Canyon view from Hermit’s Rest.

While planning this trip, we realized we couldn’t come this close to the Grand Canyon without stopping by. It was five years since our last visit, so we planned a quick one-nighter at the iconic park. An easy 1.5-hour drive north from Flagstaff leads to the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. In 2012, we hiked the popular Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point, so we set our sights on the less-visited Hermit Trail area this time. The bustle of the Grand Canyon is a stark contrast to the tranquil parks we were accustomed to from the past week. We parked the car near Maswik Lodge, got geared up, and walked to the shuttle bus to Hermit’s Rest. From March 1 through November 30, this portion of the rim drive is off-limits to private vehicles to ease congestion. A half-hour ride with several stops ends at the rustic Mary Colter-designed Hermit’s Rest, where a snack bar, gift shop and the largest fireplace we’ve ever seen await. We bought picnic lunches, filled our water reserves and approached the Hermit Trailhead.



Sheer cliffs along Dripping Springs Trail.

The Hermit Trail is a historic course that stretches all the way to the Colorado River nine miles and 4,200 vertical feet below. It is a more rugged and less-traveled route than Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails. Going all the way to the river and back in this area requires more than one day and some backcountry camping, but there are many day hiking options as well. We selected Dripping Springs as our destination, 3.5 miles one-way. In the first 1.5 miles, the trail rapidly dips 1,500 feet in a series of switchbacks. The Hermit trail then continues a downward course along the west-facing ledges of Hermit Canyon, but at mile 1.75 we veered left onto Dripping Springs Trail. This portion of the hike is more level, but also where it gets the most interesting. The next 1.5 miles traverse the crumbly, red rock Hermit Shale layer and skirt the edge of a drop-off of several hundred feet. Huge sandstone and limestone cliffs towered above our heads and stunning views opened up into the interior of the main canyon. Beyond the sheer dropoffs, the trail veers into a smaller side canyon and rises gently to Dripping Springs. Overhanging rock at the canyon’s head provides a shaded rest area, and we used it as our picnic spot, with splattering water providing the soundtrack.


L to R: Giant fireplace inside Hermit’s Rest, Picnic spot under the rock overhang at Dripping Springs, making our way back up the switchbacks of Hermit Trail.

We went back up to Hermit’s Rest the same way we got there, slowly but surely. The funny thing about hiking in the Grand Canyon is that it’s backward compared to most mountain hikes. The first part is the (debatably) easier downhill portion, and the toughest climb is during the return trip. Because Dripping Springs is higher than the low point of the trail, there is actually about 1,900 feet of total climb along this route. Overall, it’s a rewarding day-hike that offers an alternative to the more commonly visited trails. There are some rough and rocky sections, and heights may be an issue for some, but we wouldn’t consider this hike too difficult for anyone with a little day hiking experience.

The evening was spent dining on enormous steaks at the famous El Tovar Lodge dining room and stargazing in the inky sky. The next morning we were prepared to head to the final national park of the trip, Death Valley.

Up Next: Death Valley
Previously: Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly
Previously: Tucson and Saguaro National Park
View trip photo gallery here.

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Travelogue: Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly


Heading north out of Tucson on Arizona Highway 77, we quickly left the population behind. The destination was Holbrook, 4.5 hours to the northeast. In between is a scenic landscape that might not be the typical “red rock and desert” that most people see when visualizing Arizona. It gives off more of a Colorado Plateau vibe as you continue north on U.S. Highway 60 beyond the town of Globe. The highway climbs up and over a few mountain passes, entering high altitude juniper forests. A little more than halfway through the drive we entered the scenic highlight of the day, Salt River Canyon. Here, colorful rock walls plunge 2,000 feet to the Salt River while the highway descends in a series of hairpin turns. We stopped at Hieroglyphic Point to take in the view from a precipice. From this vantage point it was easy to see where it gets the nickname “Little Grand Canyon.” At the bottom, there is a small rest area where travelers can walk across an old highway bridge and gaze up at rock walls all around. Just before reaching Show Low, the highway ascends the Mogollon Rim, the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau, and enters a flatter landscape approaching Holbrook.


Salt River Canyon viewed from Petroglyph Point

wigwammotelThe town of Holbrook lies on the original Route 66 in eastern Arizona, 20 miles west of Petrified Forest National Park. It served as one of the inspiration towns for Radiator Springs from the animated Cars movies. The thing we were most excited about in Holbrook was our stay in the Wigwam Motel, tagline: Have you slept in a wigwam lately? A relic of the heyday of the Route 66 era, the motel features a collection of vintage wigwam-shaped rooms with mid-century cars parked around for effect. It definitely stands as one of the most unique rooms we’ve rented, and other than the awkward shower layout it was plenty comfortable.

The next morning we made the quick drive to the southern entrance of Petrified Forest. Since there’s one main north/south oriented road through the park, it works well to start at either end and simply make your way to the other without backtracking. The southern section near the Rainbow Forest visitor center is where the largest deposits of legendary Petrified wood can be found. It dwindles in quantity with northern progress, and the portion of the park north of Interstate 40 transitions into the scenic Painted Desert.



Close examination of the petrified wood along the Giant Logs trail.

A quick lesson on what petrified wood is: About 200 million years ago in the Triassic Period, the area that is now Arizona had a wet, tropical climate. Tall conifers grew in a forest among rivers and swamps. As trees died or were knocked down by flooding and wind, they were quickly buried by layers of mud and other sediment. Over time the wood tissue soaked up groundwater and silica, which then crystallized into quartz. Other interacting minerals account for the rainbow of colors on display. Today, after being buried for millions of years, the logs have been exposed by erosion of the sedimentary layers that were deposited on top of them. From a distance they still look exactly like fallen trees, but upon closer inspection their true material and mass is revealed.


L to R: Blue Mesa, Agate House and Painted Desert.


Petrified Forest National Park contains one of the largest concentrations of petrified wood in the world. Immediately adjacent to the Rainbow Forest Museum is the Giant Logs Trail, where we walked amongst huge trunks as thick as 10 feet in diameter. Across the road, a 2-mile loop trail leads through the Long Logs section and to the Agate House, a reconstructed seven-room pueblo made of petrified wood. The trees at Long Logs are up to 180 feet in length and were left lying where they collected in a Triassic period logjam. Heading north on the park road, we took the 3-mile side trip to the top of Blue Mesa and hiked the one-mile loop. This area reminds us of a more colorful version of the South Dakota badlands with its blue, purple, pink and cream layering. A little further up the road we stopped by Puerco Pueblo, where the 100-room pueblo and nearby petroglyphs offer good examples of Ancestral Puebloan habitation of the park. We’ve come across the remains of these communities from Mesa Verde NP through New Mexico and now into Arizona and it’s always fascinating. After passing over the remnants of Route 66, the northernmost reaches of the park provide spectacular viewpoints overlooking the Painted Desert. The National Historic Landmark Painted Desert Inn has been preserved to highlight the 20th century rise of tourism and hospitality in the region. Reaching the other end of the park road we had a late lunch of Navajo Tacos at the Painted Desert Diner in the visitor center. Definitely don’t miss this traditional comfort food of fry bread topped with taco accoutrements when in Navajo country.


Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Our next destination, Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chelly is pronounced “shay”), is located in northeastern Arizona on Navajo Nation land, just a 2.5 hour drive from Petrified Forest. It is one of the most visited National Monuments in the U.S. and is the only NPS unit jointly managed by a Native American nation and the National Park Service. This is the longest continuously inhabited place in the region, with evidence of population going back nearly 5,000 years. Several waves of residents left their marks on the canyon, providing an uninterrupted cultural record. 40-some families still live within the park boundaries, continuing the tradition. We began our visit by driving the 15-mile South Rim Drive to its end at Spider Rock, the most dramatic natural formation in the park. The canyon itself is impressive, with nearly vertical walls of red rock standing 1,000 feet over the valley floor. Spider Rock itself is a slim spire of rock towering 750 feet tall in the middle of the valley. In Navajo legend, its top is the home of Spider Grandmother, the creater of the world. We made our way back toward the town of Chinle making stops at several more overlooks while the sky lit up pink and purple with the setting sun. We retired to the Thunderbird Lodge for dinner, where the availability of menu items was spotty at best. Much to our horror, they had just run out of fry bread. Also remember alcohol is not allowed in the Navajo Nation, so don’t expect to have a beer with dinner or relax with a bottle of wine afterwards. We didn’t know this detail ahead of time, or we might have come prepared, but we hear it’s best to be very discreet if you choose to BYOB.


Our guide, Delbert, scouting the safest way to drive across this stream.

With the exception of the White House Ruin trail, visitors are only allowed on the floor of Canyon de Chelly accompanied by either a Navajo guide or a park ranger. Knowing this, we made a reservation with Beauty Way Jeep Tours for the next morning. We met our guide, Delbert, at a nearby campground and climbed in for our 3-hour tour. They also offer full-day tours and even overnight camping excursions. We rode into the canyon on a dirt road, but shortly thereafter made our way into the center of the stream flowing down the center. Long stretches of the trip were made this way, through several inches of water with massive sprays shooting out from the wheels. Along the way, we made stops at several locations to view ruins and petroglyphs and hear the history of the canyon and its residents with visual aids drawn in the dusty ground by Delbert. The whole Beauty Way operation is a family affair and we were lucky enough to catch up with Delbert’s uncle in a canyon with an insane echo, where he played a song on his flute. It was maybe the most memorable moment of the entire trip. Along the tour route, Delbert shared stories of his childhood experiences in and around the canyon and even showed us his plot of land on the canyon floor that he farms every summer. Having a native guide really made the experience special above and beyond a normal National Monument visit, it’s a must-do in this must-visit National Monument.

Up Next: Flagstaff and Grand Canyon
Previously: Tucson and Saguaro National Park
View trip photo gallery here.

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Travelogue: Tucson and Saguaro National Park


It’s impossible to travel any distance through the southwestern United States and not come across something of beauty or historic importance. Even though we’ve previously made three passes through the region, there are still some gaps in our coverage, so way back last summer we began planning a southwestern 2017 spring break outing. The target was eastern Arizona, specifically Saguaro and Petrified Forest National Parks. The route quickly expanded to include Canyon de Chelly National Monument and then we made a big leap to study the feasibility of including Death Valley National Park in California by way of Flagstaff, AZ and the Grand Canyon. What resulted was a 1,665-mile journey encompassing four national parks, three national monuments, three cities, four international dark sky parks, several breweries, lots of amazing food and a ton of laughs.

We began by flying from Chicago O’Hare to Tucson, Arizona. 4-time road trip partners Emily and Jake made their way to Tucson from Cedar Rapids, Iowa by way of Dallas/Fort Worth. With good luck and clear weather, we all landed within an hour on Thursday night. Both Tucson flights landed early and Nick and I even got a whole row to ourselves, when was the last time that happened? In even more transportation good fortune, the rate we received for our rental car through Hertz was so low ($7 a day for a full size car) that the girl at the counter said “How did you get this rate? I don’t even get a price that low with my 40% employee discount.” Our tip for getting good rental deals is to make a reservation whenever you see a decent price, but check back often to see if rates gave gone down. You’re not committed to anything since rental companies take only your contact info when you reserve online. When you find a lower rate, simply cancel your first reservation and start a new one. We’ve used the strategy with other car bookings and with other agencies, but this one was the best deal we’ve found.


Pool at Lodge on the Desert

Now rolling in our black Chevy Malibu we found some great late night food and drink at the Welcome Diner, a stylishly rehabbed mid-century lunch counter serving killer sandwiches and creative cocktails. Our dwelling for the next two nights was Lodge on the Desert, a historic property that hosted old western movie stars back in the day. Its mid-town location puts it in a quiet neighborhood and a short drive from downtown Tucson. The Lodge is arranged in groupings of hacienda-style buildings, separated by beautifully landscaped gardens. It was a great place to get the day started with complimentary breakfast in the restaurant and end it with a relaxing dip in the pool and hot tub.



Teddy Bear Cholla

Bright and early the morning after our arrival, we set out to explore Saguaro National Park. The park is made up of two separate units, one east and one west of Tucson. We began by driving about 40 minutes west to the Tucson Mountains unit. This is the smaller side of the park by area, but is more heavily forested with the eponymous giant saguaro cactus. After stopping by the visitor center, we drove Scenic Bajada Loop Drive, making stops to walk the Valley View Overlook trail and Signal Hill. These are short (less than a mile) trails, but they give a perfect introduction to the scenery and plant life found throughout the park. Temperatures in the 90s in early April meant we weren’t able to take a long, strenuous hike such as the Hugh Norris Trail to Wasson Peak. In fact, Saguaro National Park has the opposite season we’re accustomed to, with busy times in the tolerably warm winter months and most attractions and programs closing down for the unbearable summer desert heat.

Plants here are adept at holding onto what little precipitation falls throughout the year, helping make the Sonoran desert the greenest in the world. Throughout the park, ground cover is made up of a fascinating variety of desert plants with charming names like ocotillo, prickly pear, teddy bear cholla, fishhook barrel and mesquite. Obviously saguaros are the real stars though, towering overhead in all directions and dwarfing anything else in the desert. They grow extremely slowly, averaging about a foot in height 15 years after sprouting, but they can ultimately achieve heights over 50 feet and weights over 16,000 pounds. Because they lack a ring structure like trees, nobody knows for sure the age of the oldest saguaros, but they are estimated to live about 150-200 years. They only start growing their signature branches after 70 years and some never form arms at all. The result is a surreal landscape with a wide variety of saguaro forms, some standing as single-trunk “spires” while others strike bizarre arm-waving poses.


Overview of the Tucson Mountains District of Saguaro National Park.

Approaching lunch time, we found some tasty barbecue at Brother John’s Beer Bourbon and BBQ, and then headed east toward the Rincon Mountains district. One thing to keep in mind is that though Tucson is a mid-size city, it sprawls out over a huge area. It takes what feels like hours to cross the whole town on stop-and-go Speedway Boulevard, you’ll swear you’ve passed the same strip mall five times. Arriving at the Rincon Mountains Visitor Center, the eastern unit appears more mountainous and reaches higher elevations. It’s not quite as stunningly saguaro-filled at first impression, but it’s definitely beautiful. On a longer stay, camping in the high backcountry sites around Mica Mountain would be amazing, but it will have to wait until next time for us. We had just enough time to check out the Freeman Homestead Trail before we had to see a woman about some horses at Houston’s Horseback Rides. Conveniently located on Speedway Boulevard


Kilo, Remington, Cinco and Beau

right across from national park land, Houston’s has easy access to the network of trails in this portion of Saguaro. Upon arrival, we were introduced to our riding buddies for the next couple hours: Kilo (Neil), Beau (Nick), Remington (Emily), and Cinco (Jake). Guided by Jim, we rode single file through a wash and then into the heart of the saguaro forest. Jim pointed out plant and animal life and provided great geologic and cultural commentary about the area. Aside from two minor horse spookings (simmer down, Kilo), the ride went off without a hitch and allowed us to cover a lot of ground on the two-hour ride. When the heat keeps you from doing major hikes, let a big animal do the walking. We ambled a little bow-legged that evening into Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, where we enjoyed fantastic food and booze on the sidewalk patio. It turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip, with everyone loving the calamari appetizer (an early favorite to appear on our yearly “Best Of” list.)


L to R: Downtown Kitchen, Guadalajara Original Grill and Good Oak Bar.

Speaking of food, Tucson is designated a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy, the first in the United States. Being located in an area where evidence of farming goes back more than 4,000 years means there is a rich lineage of innovative local cuisine. It is reflected today in the quality Southwestern and Mexican restaurants all over town. For a traditional Mexican lunch, we tried Guadalajara Original Grill where their table-side fresh salsa mashing was a highlight. In the Tucson beverage department, the most inventive drink I’ve had in a while was the “chai, coconut, bourbon and stout” beer press at Good Oak Bar on Congress Street. Think French press tea, except the ingredients are steeped in beer instead of water … amazing.


Tucson Museum of Art

On our last morning in town, we took a break from the outdoors and dining to visit the Tucson Museum of Art. It fills a contemporary building with the largest exhibits, plus smaller historic buildings in the surrounding block. The western art collection is impressive and there was a great temporary exhibit on the use of body language in art in the main gallery. It was our last chance for some urban culture before setting off into the sparsely populated eastern and northern parts of Arizona.


Up Next: Petrified Forest and Canyon de Chelly
View trip photo gallery here.

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Statistics: Southwest 2017

Our spring break 2017 trip took us back to the desert southwest. Here’s some statistical info on how it all went down. Click the image for larger view.

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Arizona & California 2017 Gallery

Images from our trip through Arizona and California, April 6-16, 2017.
Click to enlarge, read captions and view slideshow.

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Arizona and California Trip: 4 Major Parks and a Monument

ArizonaCaliforniaParksHeaderA few fun facts and some infographics (scroll down) about
the major National Park Service sites we’ll visit:


  • Protects the park’s namesake cactus and the Sonoran Desert ecosystem
  • Contains the Tucson Mountains and Rincon Mountains that flank the city of Tucson
  • A mature saguaro can reach 60 feet in height, but they grow so slowly it can take 50-70 years just to develop the first arm
  • There are an estimated 1.8 million saguaros in the park
  • Between May and September daily highs average more than 100 degrees

Our Lodging: Lodge on the Desert – Tucson, AZ

Petrified Forest

  • Named for its large deposits of fossilized trees that were buried during the late Triassic period when the area had a tropical climate
  • Northern sections of the park cover the Painted Desert, featuring the brightly colored badlands of the Chinle Formation
  • More than 600 archaeological sites have been located
  • Remnants of Route 66 pass through the park
  • Elevation ranges from 5,300 to 6,235 feet

Our Lodging: Wigwam Motel – Holbrook, AZ

Canyon de Chelly

  • Among the most visited national monuments in the country
  • One of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America
  • Preserves ruins of early tribes and the three major canyons that contain them, de Chelly, del Muerto and Monument
  • The most famous landform is a 750 foot spire of red sandstone called Spider Rock
  • Tours of the canyon floor are only allowed when accompanied by a ranger or native guide

Our Lodging: Thunderbird Lodge – Chinle, AZ

Grand Canyon

  • The one-mile deep gorge is often considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world
  • Total length of the canyon is 277 miles and maximum width is 18 miles
  • Second highest visitation of the 59 national parks after Great Smoky Mountains
  • The Colorado River has carved through nearly 2 billion years of geologic history, which is visible in the multi-colored layers of rock in the walls
  • John Wesley Powell led the first successful expedition through the canyon in 1869
  • Weather conditions vary greatly by elevation and season, with everything from blizzards to 100 degree + temperatures during the year

Our Lodging: Maswick Lodge – Grand Canyon Village, AZ

Death Valley

  • Largest U.S. national park outside of Alaska
  • Hottest and driest place in North America, some areas receive less than 2 inches of rain a year
  • Record worldwide observed high air temperature of 134 degrees was recorded in 1913
  • Contains Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, while 14,505 ft Mt. Whitney is just 85 miles away
  • Few developed trails mean most hiking in the park is cross-country

Our Lodging: Stovepipe Wells Hotel – Death Valley, CA



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