The Desert Southwest

Mid November I find myself in a dramatic excursion in the Desert Southwest for 7 days in the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California. After much consideration and research I came to the conclusion that The Desert SW would be a good place to visit in this season. Last year I went to North Carolina at this time and traveled the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had an excellent trip with Cold and Clear weather, but there were no leaves left on the trees at all. I was hoping to see some color in the lower elevations, but I saw none. I determined to choose better according to season on my travels. I have to compromise in each trip to a certain extent regardless. I wish I could be at the right place at the right time in the whole extent of each trip in order to have; perfect weather, Spring Bloom, Snowy Mountains, Waterfalls and rivers filled up, Fall Colors, Wild Life Migrations etc. Due to my combining time off with what holiday time is afforded me, I am limited to times that may or may not coincide with ideal travel seasons. My December time off is not really ideal for anywhere in the lower 48, not even Florida. Late November is usually too late for fall colors in most places. Early September is not ideal for summer blooms and too early for fall colors usually. Early July may be great for rivers / waterfalls to be at their capacity, but the snow may still affect high meadow flowers. In April the spring bloom may be great but many roads remain closed due to snow accumulation. These are a few observations I made this year in my attempts to find Nature in its Glory.

               From Phoenix I head up to Page, AZ on Day 1 visiting Sedona on the way seeing such grand rocks like Bell. While on the road in the morning the sunrise was picturesque in color due to the veil like clouds complimenting the skies reflecting golden and pinkish hues. My 1st stop was Montezuma Wells (I had to forfeit Montezuma Castle because it was not yet open). This is a natural well and quite unique. It was the only time of this day with nice skies. I felt at peace in this area and thus had a good start. Mainly due to much less than ideal weather, I forfeited nearly half of what I had planned to do and see in this trip. The 1st day alone I gave up “Montezuma Castle, Cathedral Rock, Shnebly  Overlook, Encinoso Falls, West Fork Oak Canyon Trail, Grand Canyon and almost skipped Horseshoe Canyon for a reason I will mention in a moment. There were many times that I thought it not worth going out of the main route, doing a long hike or paying the fees when I would have a poor first impression of these places. I reasoned that I would return (if God allows) to see these places in their glory not their shame. I could easily plan another trip to the Page, AZ area exclusively without the need to travel far beyond its Grand Canyon Sphere. Days before I even left for this venture I diminished my expectations because of the imminent weather pattern. After a couple of hours of the onset of this journey I get hit hard with what seemed like a full blown cold after just one sneeze. I had no symptoms previous “The Sneeze” and only thought that my runny nose was going to last a few minutes. I would have temporary relief when I went for short hikes in the chilly windy conditions. I managed to enjoy a few moments in Day 1 like when I saw Marble Canyon, The Navajo Bridge, Horseshoe Canyon and Montezuma Well prior to my severe allergy attack. By night fall in the hotel in Page, I was physically and emotionally troubled concerning the rest of the trip. I had all these hotel reservations thru out the 4 states and felt like it was going to be a joyless march to the inevitable. I was also troubled about the dismal weather forecast for the next few days. I had a hard time falling asleep due to this freak allergy / cold.

            The next morning I was expecting rainy and windy conditions along with my so called cold. There was some sunshine, not much of wind and the previous day’s allergy was now just a bad dream. I don’t know how I got it, but I thank God for His mercy in allowing it to go away overnight. In a mixture of clouds and some sunshine peeking thru, I arrive at Toadstool Rim Rock after a short hike to see some hoodoos. These pillars of stone with rocks perched precariously on their pinnacles are a geological wonder. The whole area looks like unfinished masterpieces of sculptures with all their various colors, shapes, sizes and textures. I enjoyed this place as the sun started to shine on these rocks after I thought clouds were going to keep the sun covered. It was a major difference seeing the rim rocks in cloudy conditions as opposed to sunny. There was no one in the entire place while I was there which would be a common theme in this trip. I am sure that this was the off season for the regions I was exploring regarding tourist. This is not a bad time to visit the area because the weather is potentially good during this time with moderate temperatures and it is not the wet season. In place of seeing the spring bloom and snowy mountains one may see a good display of fall colors mainly being bright yellow leaves.

Now I head into the cold front I had been dreading for days. I had seriously considered reversing my entire itinerary by running south away from the approaching storm. After reviewing my options I decided against running from the storm and faced it head on. The worst of this storm ended up being a treat for me in the form of a blustery snow storm in Zion Canyon. As I approached the park it was rain, but when I got near the entrance it was snow that was quickly accumulating on the road and mountains. This was the most impressive snow I had seen to date. I lived in Colorado during 2 winters but this was more dramatic in appearance especially due to the remarkable surroundings. The canyon walls of Zion are extremely vertical and high. The features of the rocks having grooved lines make for interesting patterns as the snow fills the grooves. I had no previous experience of driving in snow not to mention the steep windy roads of Zion, but I felt comfortable in this situation. At the canyon floor the freezing rain was coming in sheets. I saw tall waterfalls plunging from canyon cliffs being whipped sideways by the fierce wind. I would only spend minutes at a time outside the car. During this season anyone can access this part of the park in car rather than shuttle only (during spring / summer). Last April I saw Zion under blue skies and sunshine, this time Zion had a different garment on with attitude.

Day 3 was supposed to be a mixed bag of weather (some clouds and rain), but it was perfection all day instead. I arrive at Valley of Fire in Nevada to greet the sunrise in the crisp morning air. The rocks lived up to their namesake “Fire” due to their flame like shapes and the golden light of the sunrise upon them. The features of this park are so striking as to deserve to be a National Park rather than a State Park. Parts of this huge park have been used to film multitudes of movies and TV shows including Star Trek. There are places in Valley of Fire where the colors of the rocks are in sharp contrast to one another in layers. It is a charmingly bizarre place with ample space to explore unimpeded. There are even hieroglyphics found here along with natural arches etc. Later I drive thru Las Vegas in the mid day sun and some minor traffic. It was interesting to see this grand city at a glance as one is passing by on Highway 15. I then entered California (The land of $3.40 a gallon Gas) to reach Mohave Desert. I regret not filling up the tank on the Nevada state line. There were no gas stations in the desert, and though I still had almost a half tank of gas I went 30 miles out of my route to Baker, CA to fill up at $3.40 a gallon to avoid any problems the rest of the day. In this route I saw the Cinder Cones, but I did not reach the Lava Tubes (No visible access to this area). My timing in hiking up the Kelso Dunes in the Mohave Desert coinciding with the setting sun was good. These are the 2nd highest dunes in North America at 600 feet from base to peak. The tallest are the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado which I went to last May that are 750 feet from the base. Those are the sand dunes that are set in the highest elevation in the world. The Coral Pink Sand Dunes are the 3rd highest from the base in North America I read. I saw the Pink ones the day before with snow mixed with sand being blown mightily from the crests. I also visited these dunes in April this year. Once I am getting relatively close to the taller dunes in Kelso the hike becomes more difficult due to the soft sand on steeper inclines. I gave myself little rest as I ventured up the dunes, so when I was near the top of a high peak I was much winded and even sweating in the chilly evening air. The last few steps up the high peaks would be the hardest as my footsteps would be buried in sand and recycled (like a step machine) causing a low booming sound and mini sand slides. The trick to reach the narrow peaks was to do quick short steps in succession without stopping until the top was reached (out of breath). This was the quintessential desert experience. The sun was setting in a clear golden sky creating wonderful shadows from the sand peak and ripples as just a few people sauntered in the vast area. On my way back from the dunes I saw a white trailer in the distance that I guessed to be the parking lot where I parked the car. Once I get there I find out it is not the parking lot so I followed the gravel road east bound thinking the car was nearby. It was getting darker and cooler by the moment as I was not hearing or seeing any signs that I was going in the right direction. At this point my mind exaggerated the peril, as it was about 20 minutes of walking on this dirt road in the desert dark. I thought I was lost in the desert. This is a very remote place (Mohave Desert) with no towns anywhere nearby. I was thinking if the road split at one point or I needed to go west instead of east. I was trying to convince myself I was going the right direction by looking at the now almost imperceptible tallest sand peak which paralleled the road. Much to my relief (after praying nervously) I heard some voices which were people in the parking lot (people doing some camping I think). I was quite grateful as I drove under the starry night sky with a bright near full moon the 2 hours of isolated lonely road to reach my hotel for the night in Yucca Valley, CA.

           I enter in Joshua Tree National Park predawn (the hotel was only minutes from the entrance) to see what I think to be the most dramatic sky I had yet to see. There were interspersed thin veils of clouds reflecting vivid red an orange hues prior to the rising sun. It was a grand unfolding display of light and color which filled the sky (One immense dome of glory). I was in awe of this manifestation in flux as I sampled the crisp morning air with no cars or people for the duration of this drama. The odd and curious branches of the Joshua Trees made for exemplary silhouettes with the predawn skies’ display.

 In the distance I saw a range of high mountains deeply dusted with fresh snow that glowed with a pinkish hue due to the rapidly approaching sunrise. In times like these (Sunrise / Sunset Events) I run like a mad man (or a glad man) to capture the light show in various spots and angles. I had the liberty of stopping the car on the road leaving the door open while there was no one around so I could quickly capture a moment of the sunrise among the Joshua Trees. I found out later that I missed a place I wanted to see in Joshua Tree (Barker Dam) that has water bordering interestingly shaped boulders. I did not know from looking at pictures prior to my visit that it was a dam. That is why when I saw the sign for Barker Dam I skipped it. So much in this trip that I skipped compels me to return to these same places. Other than Barker Dam I felt like I saw a substantial part of this very large park including; Keys View, Jumbo Rocks, Bighorn Pass, Skull Rock, Cholla Garden and the Ocotillo Patch. I loved the rock formations of the Skull Rock area so much that I got lost among them while exploring. In this case of my wandering off the path and getting lost, it was mid morning. I was trying to find my way by using the sun as a guide. I reasoned that if I hiked opposite the sun I would find the road. I traversed many odd boulders and a lot of sharp plants and finally found the road, but I had to walk a quite a bit on the road to reach my car which was out of sight. I arrive in San Diego earlier than expected (I had to skip San Jacinto MT due to overcast weather). I saw many seals and some sea caves under cloudy skies.

        The next morning I had to skip Cabrillo National Monument because it does not open until 9am, so I went to Sunset Cliffs for the sunrise (non-event). The wind was strong on shore creating a mess of sizable waves crashing on the cliffs and splashing relatively high. I could feel the pounding of the waves where I stood on the cliffs. I skipped my main event I planned for in San Diego (Torrey Pines) and headed early to Anzo-Borrego Desert Park. The main thing (only thing) I saw were the so called Bad Lands which are these heavily ridged hills variously colored which extend for a few miles. This place is reminiscent of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. To reach the overlooking cliff one must drive in soft sand for a few miles (4 wheel drive recommended). I made sport of it and spun the car tires often and purposely swayed the car. I did not deem it worthy to drive significantly off the main route to reach the Salton Sea beach so I just went to Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge. I saw a lot of quail and a bunny in a garden in the parking lot area. In the open area there were innumerable white birds squawking and it was a spectacle to see them simultaneously take flight.  On my way to Yuma, AZ, I took somewhat of a detour to reach Imperial Sand Dunes (not planned originally). There is a large area dedicated to off road vehicles where the tallest dunes are found. On the other side of the highway, police officials informed me to be a designated wilderness area. To reach these dunes was much quicker than reaching the Kelso Dunes. So I set out for a sunset session in these dunes never venturing very far in the area to prevent a repeat of the Kelso incident. Even though I did not venture far from the highway I found a blessed silence and solitude in this intriguing place. In Kelso there were a few souls spread about, here it was only I. Again the shadows and golden light of the sunset played excellently on crests and ripple features of the sand.

The next morning I leave the comforts of the Howard Johnson hotel in Yuma on a 4 hour drive to Tucson, AZ. I now get my first good look at the stately Saguaro cactus plants. These plants are interesting for a number of reasons besides being the primary symbol of the Desert Southwest (especially Arizona). Like the curious Joshua Trees they twist their limbs in all kinds of odd ways that resemble human limbs in some cases. Beyond their physical appearance causing attraction, they have many other internal features of interest like their ability to absorb many gallons of water from a rain storm and store it for many months during intense heat and drought. They bloom nightly in the spring from around midnight till mid morning and birds make nests in their thorny skin are just a couple of neat facts. The West Saguaro National Park was one of the least impactful “National Parks” I had visited thus far. After meandering around Tucson waiting for my cheap Days Inn hotel ($35 a night / clean and large room with a nice patio area etc.) to be ready, I hung around a county park and was fascinated by the multitude of ducks and other birds congregating in a pond. These characters put on a thrilling show with their constant fluttering, flying, squawking and squabbling. The variety of and quantity of birds here are noteworthy, and their approachability (especially when being fed some bread or whatever) is an attraction in and of itself like one would see at a petting zoo. I later make it to Saguaro East and actually enter in only to exit a moment after due to some haste calculations concerning the remaining amount of daylight. This calculation was in regards to my making a quick side trip to Colossal Caves (Large dry caverns). I fortunately was able to obtain a personal short tour right after my arrival. It is a shame to see the majority of the stalagmites broken off by foolish people about century ago. It was interesting, but not worth my haste and $11 ($5 for parking $6 for the short tour). The hosts were friendly, and I would return to do some of the deeper adventures that they have available. I also had an appetite to add more variety to my trip by seeing the caves. I then make a mad dash back to the Ranger’s Gate (Who gave me the Colossal Caves Brochure) and reentered the Park to rush thru the scenic loop well past the posted speed limit of 20 MPH to view the large cactus in their vintage silhouetted portrayal as the sun rapidly descended in mostly clear sky. I would run out and back to the car trying to capture varying shots. Javelina Rocks is set to overview sunsets well but there were too many people already there for my preference so pushed on. I had good lighting, but not the glorious display I saw in Joshua Tree Park.

Day 7 (Last Day) I purpose to make it back to Picacho Peak which I saw last mid morning from afar. I make it with ideal timing (prior to sunrise) to set up in the cold and pleasant air at the base of the south side of the prominent peak to see the gradual lighting of the peak from the rising sun. This mountain which rises abruptly was a significant land mark in the olden days of the west for many travelers. It is also the western most area of the American Civil War. In all my travels I do not set out to learn specific things of the regions, but by reason of casual observance of the sights and sounds within a myriad of miles driven and hikes taken I gain particular knowledge and understanding that I value much. These become part of my ongoing study of how the mountains, rivers, forests etc. came to be what they are today and the history of the earlier inhabitants interacting with the land. Due to repetition I retain what I see, hear and read along the way. I do not have the ambition of becoming an expert in any of these subjects, but to be “at home” or familiar with a broad scope of the prevailing themes that make these regions unique.

           Right after I witnessed the rays of the sun gradually spread down this very pointy peak unto the mountains mass I approach Picacho Peak State Park to see large Saguaros. I observed from this peak and others in this trip that a mountain peak viewed from different vantage points can completely change their appearance. From one side, the mountain top may seem fairly round.

However, once you move around it a bit a very prominent peak could be revealed. Before I reached the official entrance of the Park (it’s about 7am) a Police officer stops to “greet” me. He saw me near someone’s front yard while I photographed Saguaros, so he inquired if “everything was alright”. I asked him if the Park was open expecting him to say no. He said I needed to use the self serving pay envelopes. Once he realized I was not a threat to homeland security, he actually became quite helpful. The fee to enter the Park is $6 and I did not have change. The officer returned and to my surprise opened up the office as if he was a park ranger and gave me proper change, the necessary parking stub for my rear view mirror and a trail map along with some of his encouragement to stay and hike some trails. As I told the officer, it is indeed a nice park. The main features being Picacho peak, Saguaros and other desert plants. The lighting was excellent so I lingered a bit and hiked a short distance too.

On my way to Apache Junction which took less than 2 hours, I stopped at Casa Grande National Monument Ruins. Since I have the National Park Pass I enter places that otherwise I would skip. The same is true for my Florida State Park Pass. The Museum at Casa Grande is very presentable and filled with interesting informative displays of the history of Arizona. The ruins themselves have a canopy built over it for some reason. I guess it slows the process of the ruins being ruined. There were a few days in this trip that the clarity of the days were phenomenal, but this last day of the journey was extra clear with remarkably stark azure skies. My guess is that when the sun is lower in the sky in the winter months the sun emits less glare thus allowing for skies to be a true blue in the mid day. The Ruins (Albeit Non-Spectacular in and Of Themselves) had appeal with the cloudless deep blue as a backdrop. Before I entered the Apache Junction scenic drive, I noticed what looked like the typical western gold mining towns of the mid 1800’s. The town of Goldfield became a ghost town and later became what it is now; a tourist curiosity. The buildings are kept with their original exterior appearances in mint condition. There are many activities to participate in like a train ride, seeing a shoot out reenacted by actors, posing for pictures with cowboys or inside the original jail. The chapel in the little town is also still in active use with services done weekly. The other chapel of interest I saw in this trip was set dramatically on a rocky cliff on the side of a mountain in the picturesque town of Sedona. I shot (photographed) a tall cowboy (actor in full attire) as he walked by holding buckets (used for tips). He said to me “now I will shot you” indicating the firearm in the holster. I said now I can shot you (with the Olympus), but you can’t shot me with your (Smith & Wesson). We exchanged acknowledgements of the “perfect weather” as I continued to gawk at the curiosities of the buildings and its props.

I now officially start the Apache Drive to make a long loop only find out later the road was closed after half the drive causing me to retrace my route (contrary to my trail name; FruitLoop). The views from the road were awesome. The most notable features being multicolored mountains (yellow, pink, red etc.), odd shaped protrusions of rocks, and the Canyon Lake. I went on 2 unofficial hikes into this region. The first one I just wanted to get a closer look at a large head shaped rock outcrop. The other hike was much more of a challenge and consequently more rewarding too. The elevation in this place was probably over 5000 feet above the level of the sea. This seemed like the summit of the drive. I was enticed to venture in this wilderness area by the deep canyons and unusual layered patterns on the sides of the mountains. I traversed up and down steep hills in which prickly plants covered much of it. I was only pricked in a minor way from all these thorns all around me, but I did get pinched often. A lot of these stickers would stick to my clothing, shoes and skin as not so well.  I would get to the bottom of the hills (where there evidently was a wash) and then try to follow the wash to arrive where I wanted since the flood waters already cleared a lot of the rocks and vegetation. The issue I would encounter is that the wash would have tall and sheer drop off’s that would actually be waterfalls when I flash flood hits. I eventually reached 2 very desirable spots. The spots were on high cliffs that overlooked deep canyons and prominent mountains surrounding it. This was probably the most dramatic (unadvertised) place I had ever been to. The view from the road was a mere foretaste to what one may see once entered in this (unfrequented by people) area. I just sat on a cliff gazing on the incredible surroundings in serenity for a good little while. This is one of the major appeals to me of natural and wild places in America. The opportunity to escape from man-made influences/ manipulations and arrive at beautiful/ undisturbed places in solitude within a jump, hop and skip away from civilization (so to speak). This is a treasure that most Americans never taps into. After this I found myself wandering around the edges of Phoenix looking for a place to spend the final sunset. I worked with my GPS and my Michelin Atlas to finally arrive at Tonto National Forest. I found a place called Red Rock with a decent looking lake and river in the forefront. I would have gone deeper into this area was it not for a lack of daylight availability. I saw some trees displaying their fall colors brightly along the river. It did not feel like south central Arizona (antitypical desert environment). I rushed like a crazed man trying to find the ideal place to see the sunset. I spoke with a few locals concerning this and they were helpful. At first I thought this group of (I do not know what ethnicity / not Hispanic) people led me into tangled bush when I was looking for the river, but it was not the case. I jumped to about 3 different places not finding exactly what I was looking for (Reflections on the water and golden hue on the already Red Rock Mountain). It was pleasant nonetheless.

             I keep thinking how wonderful it is for those who live in the West for the simple fact that they can progressively explore this vast and incomparable part of our country at leisure. For a person like me in the extreme South East one must ardently purpose to get to know the West even in a limited fashion. Thus far in my trips to the West (or to the Appalachians for that matter) I feel like they are but preliminary in nature and by no means they are a thorough investigation. I feel compelled to cover a large expanse of territory on each adventure I undertake just to get a good glimpse of the essence thereof. The trips I take actually take me as John use to say. God willing, when I return to the places I am already acquainted with, I would endeavor to become more intimately connected to the wild places I encounter. I am all too accustomed to a hasty 400 miles a day pace that it can rob from me the sense and value of the “Present” being a “Present”. Fortunately I tend to always find a time and place to Observe and Absorb (live and reflect in the moment) as I release anxiety and such. This last trip was no exception to this tendency. I distinctly remember times like when I was among the Jumbo Rocks of Joshua Tree when I paused to observe a flurry of a flock of small birds moving among the thorny plants and odd boulders. The Biblical principle fits such occasions well “Be still and know that I am God”. In retrospect I seem to wax fonder of the trips I had already gone on. 5 years ago I would have not foreseen this travel pattern in my life. I attribute my current pursuits in travel to be rooted in the beginning of my surfing ocean waves. My searching for ocean waves led to my travels up and down the Florida East Coast. My surfing led to long board skating which lead to my becoming interested in hills. I started to discover that Florida was not completely flat in waves or in topography. As a fluke I visited a couple of State Parks that featured springs or forests. I finally made it out of Florida unto Georgia in 2008 and the rest is a blessed history to me. Florida is indeed a good primer for nature travels; however it is very unlike any other place in the world (that being a good thing I think). The peace you can find in a Cypress Forest in Florida is equivalent to that of the great conifer forests of the West. The West totally out does the East in regards to overwhelming ones senses with awe, and thus I shall continue to make the necessary efforts to go to the Wild West.


About Dionys

I am perpetually seeking the aesthetics found in the realm of diverse creative arts. I am often dedicated to producing creative projects also. I balance my intellectual pursuits with various action sports. I consider physical fitness important along with adequate nutrition. I am an avid traveler and an explorer of wild places. I am Biblically Literate therefore a Believer in Jesus.
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