Traveling the Utah-Arizona Border

I recently went on a camping excursion along the Utah-Arizona border; here’s my blog post about it!

DAY 1 – I had work in the morning/early afternoon, so I didn’t leave LA until 4pm. I drove straight to Zion National Park, arriving at midnight.

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Campground on the Virgin river, just outside of Zion. Very calm and peaceful and quiet. (This picture was taken on day 2.)

DAY 2 – Zion National Park. I went to Zion when I was a kid and I remembered it as a drier, less lush Yosemite. That’s pretty much what it is. But we didn’t hike Angel’s Landing when I was a kid, and that is the main reason I wanted to go back.

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Angel’s Landing is a 2.5 mile hike, with 1500 feet of elevation gain. Pictured above is one of the most intense portions, a staircase full of switchbacks about halfway along the hike.

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The last portion of the hike involves using chains scale up rocks. It was super fun!

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The view from the top. The view actually extends about 300 degrees around the landing. It’s amazing, but not really capturable with a camera.

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Chipmunks at the landing. They aren’t afraid of humans at all; two even jumped in my lap while I was eating. They reminded me a lot of Leia, who I now consider to be my chipmunk.

After finishing at Angel’s Landing, I continued on a three mile hike from the Angel’s Landing to the West Rim Springs. This hike was very secluded, for more than 90% of it I was the only person there. The hike also had lots more elevation gain, rising out of the canyon, to 7000 feet (2500 foot gain) and into the highlands. I now realize that this hike is part of the eleven-mile high-alpine West Rim Trail, but I did not realize that at the time. So once I reached the top and made it to the West Rim Springs, I turned back.

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West Rim Springs. Kinda disappointing (it’s a water refill station).

After hiking back to the canyon floor, I stopped by the Weeping Rock and the Emerald Pools. I tried to made it to the Narrows but I ran out of time (from what I hear the Narrows is a must, so I guess I’ll be coming back!). All told, I hiked more than twelve miles, with over 4000 feet in elevation gain. It was a great day!

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A portion of the upper Emerald Pool, taken in panorama mode. It was really hard to capture the immenseness and seclusion of this place, but this picture captures some of it (for scale, note the person standing in the lower right of the photograph).

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Meta 

DAY 3 – Today is another driving day, leaving Zion and heading the entire length of the Utah-Arizona border, to the Four Corners Monument (I originally wanted to go to Mesa Verde, but its most notable cliff dwelling was closed for repairs. I’ll just have to go there on another trip!). I made a lot of stops along the way, so check out the pictures below:

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Woke up to deer in my campsite. I saw lots of deer on my trip, in Zion, on the side of the highways (both alive and dead) and one even ran out in front of my car near the Grand Canyon, causing me to slam on the brakes and miss it by less than ten feet. Stupid deer.

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Viewpoint after exiting Zion to the east. The mountain to the far left is Checkerboard Mesa, notable for the horizontal and vertical lines that crisscross its north face, resembling a grid or a checkerboard.

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Part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest national monument in the US. This area is significant for several reasons: it contains many of the paths settlers used to explore the southwest, it contains exposed rock hundreds of millions of years old, it is a prime dinosaur fossil and ancestral artifact discovery site, and it contains lots of interesting land and rock formations. The expanse above is along the path of one of John Wesley Powell’s post civil war expeditions, one of the first in the region.

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The southern-most portion of Lake Powell, also known as Glen Canyon (coined by John Wesley Powell). Part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

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The Glen Canyon Dam. Built in 1956, this dam created Lake Powell, provides electricity and water storage in case of drought, and forever changed the ecology of the river downstream. Simply put, the many canyons in this area (including the Grand Canyon) were carved by the extreme amounts of sediment in the area’s rivers. Now, sediment in the Colorado River is blocked by this dam, effectively ending the river’s canyon carving ability and also removing nutrients for fish and wildlife. The dam also affects the landscape of the downstream canyons, as floods can no longer wash away rockslides or overgrowth in and along the river.

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Monument Valley. A popular shoot location for classic Hollywood westerns, particularly John Ford films.

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A restaurant/motel in Mexican Hat, Utah, a city I’ve always wanted to visit because it has a funny name. Mexican Hat has a population of 31 and other than a gas station and an AM/PM, this was the only business that was open on my visit. When I asked the AM/PM employee if there was more to the city than the road I was on, she said “Nope. This is it.” 

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We’re deep in the Navajo Nation (the largest sovereign nation in the US), so for lunch I ordered fry bread and beef stew, an authentic Navajo meal. It (the fry bread in particular) was delicious!

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The rock that Mexican Hat gets its name from.

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Goosenecks of the San Juan, ten miles outside of Mexican Hat (I discovered it from a poster inside the restaurant I ate at). Thousand foot cliffs and the river meandering in the shape of a W. Pretty cool.

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A historic fort in Bluff, Utah. Bluff was one of the first settlements in the four corners region of the US, a notoriously difficult area to settle due to the Rocky Mountains to the east, the desert to the south, and the steep and giant canyons to the north and west. Bluff was settled by Mormon explorers who crossed from western Utah, over the Colorado River through the Hole in the Rock Trail near Glen Canyon. It took them six months to travel the distance I traveled twice in this single day.

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The four corners monument. Flags are for Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, the United States, the Navajo Nation (who run the site), the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation (whose land borders the Navajo Nation at this site), and one more flag that I can’t remember.

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It’s cliche, but I had to do it.

At this point it was close to nightfall, so I drove back to western Arizona. I drove back on the Arizona side, and while there is a ton to see and do in southeastern Utah, there is nothing in northeastern Arizona. Combine that with the fact that it got dark really fast and I was on a two lane road in the middle of nowhere and some light went on in the dash of my rental car (turned out to be a low tire pressure warning that was incorrectly triggered by a bump in the road) and this was one scary drive back.

I ended up making it to Page, Arizona, where I camped for the night.

DAY 4 – Page was just a stopping point for me, so I got up early, packed my things, and I was off. First stop, back to the Colorado River, to Horseshoe Bend.

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Horseshoe Bend. I’ve always wanted to visit here, and this was one of the main reasons for my trip. It was awesome.

South of Horseshoe Bend, the road splits, with one road heading to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and another road heading to the south. I went for the North Rim (I’ll visit the South Rim tomorrow).

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The Navajo Bridge, crossing over Marble Canyon, connecting the Arizona strip to the rest of the state. This was the first bridge over the Colorado and when it was built it was the highest steel arch bridge in the world. It is nicknamed the Honeymoon Bridge because newlywed Mormons in southeastern Utah frequently used this bridge to get to St George, where they would have their marriage registered with the Mormon church. The original bridge is to the right in the photograph, the bridge to the left was built in the 1990s to accommodate higher traffic loads and flow (the original bridge is now used by pedestrians).

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The Vermillion Cliffs, another step in the Grand Staircase I visited yesterday. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go to The Wave because the road to get there is unpaved and I didn’t have time to traverse it in my little Hyundai Accent (and apparently you also need a permit?).

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A small hut at the bottom of the cliffs. In the 1920s a family was driving through this area when their car broke down, stranding them. They ended up falling in love with the place and so once they made it home they packed their things, moved here, and opened up a trading post. This was the house they built and lived in.

Alright, enough with the distractions. On to the main event, the Grand Canyon.

There’s no real way to describe the Grand Canyon, other than that it is incomprehensible. It is so big, even from the best lookout you only see a small portion of it, and because you are so high the details get lost in the distance. All you can do (other than hike to the bottom or river raft through it) is admire its immenseness, and let your jaw drop. It really is amazing.

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Grand Canyon, north rim. Not really sure what to say, other than wow.

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While at the north rim, a California Condor swooped by, no more than fifteen feet over our heads. It was so close we could see the tags on its wings (it was #23). Unfortunately, I was eating when it happened, and by the time I got my camera out, it was long gone (and had joined up with another bird, number: unknown).

I spent more time exploring the north rim and took lots of pictures, and while they’re all different, they’re all kind of the same. A giant, sweeping canyon that goes on forever (277 miles to be exact). After a few hours, I left, making my way to Lees Ferry, where I camped for the night.

DAY 5 – I woke up early again (it is so easy to wake up early when you are camping) so I could explore Lees Ferry before heading to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.

Lees Ferry is the only site for hundreds of miles to feature gradual slopes on both sides of the Colorado River, and as such was the main avenue to ferry across the river before the Navajo Bridge was built in the 1920s. It was (and still is) a common starting point for rafting through the Grand Canyon, and is also the last point for boaters who started at a more northern destination to resupply or abandon their trip before entering the Grand Canyon. It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

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Lees Ferry. The only portion of the Colorado river (for hundreds of miles at least) that doesn’t have giant sheer cliffs on either side.

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The location of the ferry crossing.

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A dried up riverbed near Lees Ferry. One of the most fun hikes I’ve ever been on.

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Fun but also intense. I was by myself and so I made the decision to turn back when it got like this. (Also, rain was forecasted today, and this is not where you want to be when it rains!)

Alright, no more stalling, onto the Grand Canyon again! South Rim!

The South Rim is much more developed than the North Rim, more to see, more do to (also more crowded, but I went on a weekday late in the season, so it wasn’t crowded on my trip). And more info along the way, which helped differentiate the lookout points and designations. Here are some of them:

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Desert View Watchtower. Built in 1932, using architectural techniques to make it look much older. The top of the watchtower is the highest point on the South Rim (the North Rim is about 1000 feet higher than the South Rim).

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Inside the Desert View Watchtower

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View of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim near the east entrance, next to Desert View Watchtower. You can see the river here, and also the flat topped Cedar Mountain in the upper right of the photograph.

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Marker near the site of a DC-7 and L-1049 that collided in mid-air while doing a flyby of the Grand Canyon. The crash, at the time the deadliest air disaster on US soil, led to sweeping changes in US air safety, including the creation of the FAA.

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Halfway between the east entrance and Grand Canyon Village is Grandview Point, former location of the Grandview Hotel and current location of the Grandview trailhead, one of many south rim trails into the canyon. This trail originally led to a copper mine located on the horseshoe shaped formation in the center of the picture. I hiked about 200 feet to get this picture, then ran back up (for fun) and boy was that a mistake! I was super winded when I got to the top, I think due to the thin air. I can tell that hiking in and out of the Grand Canyon is much more difficult that hiking out of and back into Zion Canyon, which I did earlier on this trip. 

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View from Pima Point. This viewpoint, 32 miles west of the east entrance to the park, is about as far west as you can go on the South Rim without trailblazing. I wanted to go as far west as I could to see if the canyon looked different compared to the east end (it does and it doesn’t). A cool aspect of this viewpoint is that not only can you see the Colorado River, you can also hear its rapids.

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Selfie from Pima Point, looking west.

The most amazing thing about the Grand Canyon is that despite driving 32 miles from the furthest east viewpoint to the furthest west one, and then taking panoramas at both spots, I still saw only a small portion of the canyon. This is because the canyon continues for hundreds of miles, beyond even where (only on the South Rim) Grand Canyon National Park ends. The park ends but the canyon keeps going, through the Havasupai Indian Reservation (containing Supai, the only settlement in the Grand Canyon and the most secluded spot in the continental US, eight miles from the nearest dirt road) and the Hualapai Indian Reservation (containing the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a modern, controversial, super touristy viewpoint at the west end of the Canyon). On the North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park continues, but it is all dirt roads, making it difficult and time consuming to access. All told, the Grand Canyon is bigger than Rhode Island and extends more than a third of the width of Arizona. It also contains exposed rock more than two billion years old.

After finishing at the Grand Canyon, I made my way south, to Surprise, Arizona. And if I thought that night drive through northeastern Arizona was scary, this drive was terrifying. First, I almost hit a deer. Then it started pouring. Then I entered the stretch all the 18-wheelers use to travel between Flagstaff and Phoenix; they kicked up so much mist that I couldn’t see anything, all the while repeatedly ascending and descending more than 5000 feet, all on a newly paved (ie super smooth, not much friction when wet) two lane highway. Not a fun drive.

But I made it, to my buddy Matt’s place, where we hung out and had dinner and where I spent the night.

DAY 6 – No pictures today, but it was cool nonetheless. Matt gave me a tour of Luke Air Force Base (where he works), a major training base for F-16s and F-35s. I got to see the planes up close (including looking into the cockpit of the F-16) and also chat with the maintenance officers. A different experience from the rest of my trip, and very fun too!

After that it was time to head home. All and all, a great trip! And with so much that I missed, I’ll definitely be doing another one soon!

map

A map of my trip. 5.5 days, 19 highways, 1900 miles, 3 campsites, 2 national parks, 2 national monuments, 1 state park, 5 national historic landmarks, 1 national recreation area, 1 Air Force base, 3 deserts driven through, and 1 friend visited.

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