Chaco Culture National Park

Sunday, April 9We’d learned earlier in the week when Mary called to inquire about the road to Chaco that we could now make reservations for the campground. This was news to us since the last time we were here 8 years ago. When we went to the website though, we found we could only book a hodgepodge of sites to span the 5 days we wanted to be there. We were happy to get them though. Easter? I later learned from our enforcement Ranger that it’s usually like this now.

We’d also learned from the park service that the road had recently been graded because so many folks had gotten stuck or slid off. RV friends Galye and Jim, of Life’s Little Adventures, also emailed to tell us friends of theirs had just come back from Chaco and reported the last 5 miles had been graded and was in great shape. We were feeling like it was going to work out well.And it did. After an easy 100 mile drive to the turnoff, we disconnected the vehicles to avoid spraying the Raw with gravel as we towed. The first 5 miles were paved and in good shape. The road turns to hard-pack gravel for the next 8 miles and is county maintained so it was also in great shape. The road becomes dirt with some gravel after this and includes some hills that would be wicked in a rain, but bone dry today. All pretty smooth due to the grading. I sometimes drove 30-35 mph, but most often it was more like 25 and sometimes slower at particularly rough washboard. I could have gone faster sometimes, but occasionally a small group of potholes would appear requiring a quick slowdown. We also had to cross a wash at one point. That section is paved but large signs warn to not cross when water is flowing. Once across the wash and up through the hills, we hit the paved road at the park boundary.  Easy.Getting our campsite should only have been so easy. Our reservations were waiting when we got to the visitor center, and we were soon set-up in site 15 for our first night. Tomorrow we jump across the camp road for 3 nights, then down the row for another night. When the ranger came around, we discovered a no nonsense enforcement division guy in – bulletproof vest and sidearm – who was directing where people should go. Mary began explaining our situation in a way that I simply could not follow. By his look, I thought he might tell us to take a hike, but whatever she said to him, he thought a minute and said, “Look, site 17 is first-come-first-serve site and is open all week. Why don’t you take that one and I’ll re-open your other sites. Gee thanks!

Their reservation system is pretty messed up here. It was never clear which sites were first-come sites (which are not reservable). When we asked about extending another day through Friday, they said not until Friday because it is non-reservable. We tested this online and could not reserve the site. But in the office they said there was a chance someone could reserve the site (the 48 hr rule) and they wouldn’t know it, so couldn’t let us extend until Friday. But it isn’t a reservable site. As a friend of mine says, “And so it goes…”

It was late afternoon now and the increasing wind was blowing dust around. We were happy to hang in camp for the rest of the day.

Monday, April, 10
Pueblo Alto TrailIt looks like we are in for an extended period of good weather. It will be cold the first few mornings, but is supposed to warm to mid to upper 70’s each day. This morning was really cold. 36˚ inside the rig, probably high 20’s outside. We planned to rise at dawn for our hike today, but the cold kept us under the covers until we could wrap our minds around it.

We were on the trail by 10 am. It had warmed up considerably in that time. So much so, I wish we’d gotten started earlier. Aside from warming, the light was hash already. High clouds help soften things somewhat, but now it is more of just a hike, not a photo walk.

The trail starts with a nice walk around the back of the Kin Kletso ruins. We will return here another day to explore. It quickly turns up into a cleft in the towering mesa behind us. This is a steep, rocky path barely wide enough in some places to squeeze through. It is also the way the ancients got up and down the mesa. It is odd walking the same primitive path people used over 1,200 years ago. The elevation gain for the entire loop is around 350’. Half of it is going up this cleft to the mesa top. Once on top, we followed the well cairned trail along the slickrock rim to views overlooking Pueblos Una Vida, Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito. Also along the way, trail signs point out interesting features such as fossilized shrimp burrows, seashells, pecked basins, Chacoan steps and more. We came to a view of Pueblo Bonito, at which point the trail veered away from the rim and began a gradual rise up to the highest part of the mesa, and it is here we found the Pueblo Alto Complex of ruins. Just as we arrived at New Alto, I noticed a few other folks on the trail behind us. It soon became maybe 30 German students on an outing. They soon overwhelmed us in the ruin we were in, so we moved to Pueblo Alto maybe 100 yards away They were right behind us again. Since it was near lunch, we walked back to New Alto, and spent time exploring the ruins more thoroughly, finding pottery shards, interesting walls, and finally a shady spot for for lunch. Only they didn’t move very far. They stopped at the other ruin for a lesson which lasted just longer than our lunch and I could see them getting ready to move on just after we passed them. They were on our heels again so we had to stop again and let them pass. We saw almost no other people on the trail all day till the end. The big draw for us on this trail is how easy it is to find pottery shards around the ruins. It is all catch and release of course. One does not take ancient artifacts from archeological sites. We looked in the washes around the sites and before long before we’d each found some nice examples. After we looked touched and photographed them, they went back on the ground.The trail continues on to views of mortarless stone terraces and stairways laid down by the ancients. We soon reached the William Henry Jackson stairs – named for the USGS photographer who discovered them in 1877. Looking from across the canyon, it is nearly inconceivable that people would use these “steps” for access to the mesa top. But there are other areas just as impressive. The Chacoans created straight wide “roads” across the landscape – nearly invisible now – leading to Chaco. When the road came to a drop off along an edge of the mesa, instead of going around and picking it up on the other rim, they built huge extensive stairs and ramps so the straight path would continue. So curious. We continued around the edge of the mesa to a different stone crack, just as narrow as the first, in order to get down off this higher section of mesa. It was much warmer now as we marched our way back around the last part of the loop. Then it was down the original crack in the wall and back to camp. Another fun hike – and a few decent pictures.

Pueblos Una Vida and Chetro Ketl
Tuesday, April 11
We were both pretty worn out from yesterdays hike, so today became a mostly hang out kind of day. A good opportunity to catch up on blogs and try to get an internet connection. So far, when the wind is right, we can sometime download mail on the phones, but getting anything out is nearly impossible.Later in the afternoon, we walked the short Una Vida Pueblo hike. This one starts just behind the visitor center and finishes about 3/4 mile down along the mesa base. Una Vida is a small mostly un-excavated ruin where I found a few nice pictographs on a panel above the ruin. Just a short leg stretcher. Later tonight, a ranger led moonlight walk through the largest ruin, Bonito, should prove interesting since afternoon clouds have covered the sky. We showed up early for the walk, so we walked out to Pueblo Chetro Ketl to look around. This is another very large set of ruins. It was apparently continuously under construction for 300 years – the span of time the pueblo people lived here. The light was flat so I just experimented with compositions until it was time to meet up for the walk. At least 50 people showed up. Actually Mary and I made 52. We missed the signup cutoff by seconds, but after chatting a while with the ranger, he stopped us on the way out and said to just show up and he’d let us come along. Nice guy.We were all soon escorted to the central plaza of the pueblo where the ranger talked about sun and moon influences on the earth. Once it was good and dark, we moved into the pueblo itself. By now the full moon had begun to break through the clouds and stars were appearing in great numbers. It was cool to have stars as our ceiling while our ranger related stories of architecture in one room, while in another he told old of how the sun, moon and stars came into being.

While I brought my camera, it was too difficult trying to photograph in the dark amongst 50 people without a tripod. It would just detract from the ranger stories, so I just listened and enjoyed the experience.

Pueblo Bonito at Dawn
Wednesday, April 12It is a bit of a challenge getting into the park for early light. The gates to the loop road to all the pueblos is unlocked at dawn and locked at sunset. One still must in and walk to the ruins, so first light is not really possible. But we got in as early as we could and headed for Pueblo Bonito straight away.I couldn’t decide which version I liked best.I usually like to use the early warm light to highlight aspects of the walls of the ruins, but this morning I walked directly to the plaza. Each time we come here, more of the ruin is roped off and not accessible. This time, my favorite window/wall combination was beyond the ropes and I couldn’t get to the spot I wanted.I made due by looking for other compositions. So much of what I shoot here are images I’ve shot before, so this forced me to look elsewhere. I moved around the plaza, then backtracked to the beginning and entered the ruins looking for window/wall images. Probably nothing new, but it is fun looking and composing. Back outside again, I moved through the plaza to the long back wall of the ruin. I met up with Mary near “Threatening Rock”, the huge chunk of rock that fell over onto a corner of the ruin in 1941. Previously, Navajo who moved into the area felt so threatened by this rock, the tried propping it up with timbers on one side and wedged in a medicine stick on the other.We walked a petroglyph trail over to Chetro Ketl again to see how it looked in morning light. Photographically, our day was done. We’d planned an afternoon walk near the mesa in the campground, but it got so windy that neither one of us wanted to face the blowing sand. We just hung in camp.

Pueblo Penasco Blanco
Thursday, April 13We had hoped Chaco would be somewhat exempt from crowds for Easter week. It has been busier than we expected, but overall, not too bad. Of course, we did have a group of at least 40 kids show up late yesterday at the group campground. I figured that they would probably be on every trail in the park, so in a effort to avoid them as best I could, I chose to hike the longest trail – a 7.2 hike out and back to Pueblo Penasco Blanco and some pretty special pictographs of a super nova (maybe) and a sunburst.

Mary didn’t want to walk on that long a hike, so she chose the South Mesa trail that is about half as long. She drove me to the trailhead out past Pueblo Bonito and agreed to meet me back here later in the afternoon. I’ve hiked this trail before. It is quite flat most of the way and only rises where it leads up onto the mesa top to reach the ruins. It is maybe a 200 ft rise and pretty easy walking.Early on, the trail passes another ruin and several areas of pictographs. The pictographs here are a mixed bag. Some ancient designs, overlaid sometimes with Navajo versions, and still later with even more modern scratchings. It is usually easy to tell what group did which pictograph. The most accomplished are the oldest. Sometimes, subject matter tells you who did it. A horse pecked into the rock tell us it was probably Navajo – Pueblo people didn’t have horses or any beasts of burden. An even more detailed horse nearby speaks of a more modern hand. Eventually the trail crosses the canyon and then a wash. Very little water in it just now so there was no worry of crossing. Where the trail meets the mesa is the location of the pictographs. As i said earlier, these are quite unique and officials don’t really know what exactly they represent. High up on an underside of sandstone block, there is a large handprint, a sun and moon. Just below these is what might be a supernova. Nowhere else do these images exist. A pretty cool sight and well worth it to me to come here.I wanted to see the ruin as well. The last hike out here, we turned back after the pictographs, but I had plenty of energy to hike the last .8 mile to the ruin. As I was walking up the mesa trail, I looked off back over the canyon to see a group of maybe 20 kids hiking toward the paintings. Oh, great. I hurried the rest of the way to Pueblo Penasco Blanco and worked quickly for a while hoping to finish before they overran me. Eventually I slowed down enough to realize they weren’t coming up here. They stayed at the pictographs. I stopped then for lunch and just enjoyed the quiet for a good long while. I found several interesting doorways and windows, and even some bleached elk antlers. On the way back down the trail, I stopped again to see the rock paintings in different light. Earlier, the sun washed out the super nova pictograph on the bottom, so I photographed it again and caught it a bit better. I was running a little late so after that I just put my head down and zoomed back with just a few stops to rephotograph some spots. I met Mary at the trailhead and we finished our day reviewing work we had done on our separate hikes. We have one final day in Chaco before we begin our way back to San Francisco. I should have one final post before putting the blog to bed for a spell.

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Santa Fe and Ghost Ranch

Wednesday, Thursday, April 5 – 6A beautiful sunny morning greeted us, and we made an easy drive up to Santa Fe. We picked the Santa Fe Trailer RV Park and Over 55 Community as our base. It is just off a busy Cerrillos Rd, but set back enough so that road noise was minimal. The RV portion of the park is sort of the entrance to the Community portion, so it was well kept with a few trees and grassy areas and decent laundry. Much better that the Park across the street which was basically a parking lot with hook-ups.

We are waiting out some upcoming weather so we can travel to Chaco Culture National Park. We’re being over cautious I know, but it only take one good cloudburst to muddy the road beyond drivability. We still have some wiggle room before we return home, so a couple days here fit in well. Besides, we haven’t been to the Coyote Cafe for dinner since, well, the last time we visited. We drove the 4 miles to the old downtown square, strolled about a bit until our reservations were ready and had a wonderful dinner.Thursday morning we were back to town for breakfast at the Plaza Cafe, right on the square. Great food all day long, but breakfast is my favorite. I love the interior of this place as well – especially enjoying the broken plate display above the counter. Mary wanted to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum just a few blocks from the plaza, so we strolled over, hoping to digest a bit as we went.The museum is a nice way to introduce oneself to Georgia’s work and get a feel for the landscape she painted. They have quite a deep collection – from earliest student work to some of her last. I see new works each time we visit, and a new museum phone app related deeper aspects to think about. Afterwards, we walked around town to do some gift shopping before heading back to camp.

Ghost Ranch
Friday, April 7Before moving to her hacienda in Abiquiu, O’Keeffe lived and painted at nearby Ghost Ranch for a time. The entire area is rich in beautiful landscape to explore, and with a couple more days before we can get into Chaco, this is a good time to visit.The drive to Ghost Ranch was another easy 65 miles from Santa Fe and we were soon set-up with a rather primitive full hook-up site for $40/night. We located a couple of hikes we wanted to do while here, and in the afternoon, we set out for a walk on Matrimonial Mesa. The trail starts just along the entrance road at a rundown log cabin that was a movie set for City Slickers. We walked through grasslands for a time as the trail wound up and down along the edge of the mesa. From here Georgia’s Pedernal could be seen. In fact, it can been seen from just about everywhere on the property. No wonder is appears in so many of her works. As we worked our way up the trail, we came into more areas of colored sandstone and badlands. I am always surprised at the varied color combinations. So different everywhere I go. The wind was coming up again as it seems to to every afternoon, so we turned around. We could have made a big loop out of this trail, but it would have meant walking back a couple of miles along the much less interesting road.Back in the car, we toured around the grounds a bit, trying to get a feel for the layout and found a yurt and a number of interesting other buildings, before calling it a day.

Ghost Ranch – Chimney Rock Hike
Saturday, April 8Another beautiful morning got us up and out by 8 am for our planned 3 mile out-and-back hike. The trailhead was a short distance from the campground through some of the compound buildings, so we left the car behind and walked it. With an elevation gain of 675’ over 1.5 miles, the trail is a steady gradual rise, then steeper toward the end.We were soon walking up the first of the hills, and the landscape opened up immediately to wide vistas of colorful rock. In the distance, we could see Chimney Rock, our destination is the tip of the mesa. As the trail wound in and out of the hills, we would get new, closer views as we went. The trail got steeper and more rocky the higher we got. It moved into, and scooted up the side of canyon that sported hoodoo’s and some nice coloration. Near the top, the trail was even more rocky but still not hard to traverse. Once on top of the formation, it leveled off somewhat, but the wind was much stronger. Near the shear drop off edges, it was fierce. I had to go to a knee and hold my hat to keep steady to make pictures. Where the trail ends, wonderful views of Chimney Rock begin – if you can bear getting close enough to the edge to lean over. Even if not, the views from the rim all around the valley below are wide and with a clear sky, the colors of the ridges and hills and cliffs kept me busy. We lunched at a spot out of the wind and just took in this wonderful landscape. Now later in the afternoon, we made our way back down the trail enjoying the lower angled light and high clouds as they combined to change the scene before us. Tomorrow all looks good for Chaco.

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Return to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Monday, April 3
We arrived in Albuquerque on Friday ahead of yet another spring storm. This one promised cold rain, wind, and snow at slightly higher elevations than Albuquerque. Mary’s longtime school friends, Cynthia and Jerry have a wonderful home in the hills near here and we were able to get together Saturday night for a fun evening of food drink and conversation.Sunday we made the move 20 miles north to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. The COE campground near the monument is a gem. Situated along the shore of Cochiti Lake, the camping fee is $20/night for water/electric, and a dump. The last time here four years ago, I wrote in my blog that we paid only $5/night with the Senior Pass, but this time we could find no mention of honoring passes and the camping fee was double last visits $10. The campground was far from full, but all the perimeter sites overlooking the lake and hills were taken. We still found a nice site with a good view of the lake and sky. We set up and enjoyed a cool evening sunset.Still worth the price – this will be a good place to wait out Tuesday’s cold, wet weather before moving up to Santa Fe. We still plan on trying the road to Chaco, but now will wait till Friday or Saturday. One last weather maker coming in on Tuesday is the cause. Beyond Tuesday, there seems to be 10 day period of no rain. It might be our chance.Morning was bright and beautiful, but cold. We huddled inside for a couple of hours. Being just 4 miles from the Tent Rocks trail we wanted to hike, meant we were still on the trail by 10 am. Earlier might have been better. This is one of the most heavily trafficked trails I’ve walked and there was steady streams of groups at a time, making photographing a little more difficult. It’s not just that people get in the way, it’s also me getting in their way. The slot canyon areas are very narrow in places, meaning one person at a time can walk through. Just one person can create a back-up. So picture making was hurried at times. I’m not going to recount the hike again here. Instead, go to my earlier trail description for that account. It’s virtually the same walk, but I’ve posted all new images here. I did find it interesting how my recollection of the place differed from my last visit. Instead of the warm-tone pale browns and buff colored volcanic ash, I remembered the formations being much lighter, almost white in color without much variation. Moving through the slots was as enjoyable as ever. Light was constantly changing with the increasing cloud cover and I managed to work around the groups coming and going along the trail.
I was taken once again with the wonderfully curving strata of the layers of ash. As the canyon opened up, wider views opened and new formations came into view.
The steepest section of trail winds through the most unusual of formations. From this higher vantage, the real beauty of the surroundings hills can be appreciated. I had to stop often to look. Instead of following the trail out onto a plateau, as virtually everyone else was doing, We branched off just before the highpoint and walked out to a different arm of the plateau. We had lunch here and enjoyed the lovely view. From this vantage, I could look down into the canyon to photograph the incredible walls.We spent an hour or so moving around the area, watching the light change as even more clouds began moving over us. We enjoyed the spot a little longer before making our way back down the cliff and through the slots. Once out of the canyon, we decided to take the Cave loop trail that runs along the plateau’s base. The cave was not real exciting, but views of surrounding areas was worthwhile.
We eventually came to another section of ash formations before we completed the hike. The wind was increasing and dust beginning to blow, so we did too.
Back in camp, we watched as heavy clouds increased. Waking around 2 am, I could hear light rain falling on the roof. It was supposed to stop by 2 pm Tuesday, but it lasted most of the day. Sometimes light rain, sometimes snow. We decided to stay put one more night.

Tomorrow we move up to Santa Fe.

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El Malpais on the way to Albuquerque

Tuesday, March 28The threat of more rain drove us out of Bisti for now. Temperatures at night are dropping to the 30’s, so we need to flee for awhile. Our next planned destination was to be Chaco Canyon, but the rain will at least delay, if not cancel that leg. I’ve driven the rig down that 13 miles of washboard, ruts and potholes when it was dry (the first 5 are paved as is the last mile), and while it was indeed a rough, rattling shake of a ride, it was well worth it for us – as long as it’s dry. It’s looking like after Tuesday, no rain is forecast for 10 days or so. We may try on Wednesday.

So we stopped at the Bar S RV park near Grants, NM for the night. At $22 for full hook-ups it will certainly do the trick. Typical gravel park with few trees, but seems to be right next to some sort of corral or stock yard. Only a faint aroma of animal was present.We’d beaten the weather, but it caught up with us soon after. First a little rain, then a gentle hail shower, colder and windy too. Even so close to I-40, there was no highway noise. We were, however, right next to what might have been the busiest stretch of railroad in the state. Fortunately I enjoy the sound of trains rumbling by. I wouldn’t have enjoyed their blowing horns this close, but they refrained.

Sandstone Cliffs
Wednesday, March 29This morning was cold and bright with cotton candy clouds wafting by. Looking out my back window I saw it all through a lovely row of trees marking the boundary of the park. We tended to chores in the morning, and by early afternoon were ready to explore El Malpais National Monument.We chose to take a drive down NM-117 that runs between the vast lava beds of the monument and some wonderful sandstone bluffs. The La Ventana arch can be found along this road, but I most enjoyed photographing at scenic turnout called, “Sandstone Bluffs” a bit before the arch.We had a dramatic sky of wind driven clouds creating a constantly changing landscape. I could use the changing light to modulate how intense I wanted it. At full sun, the rocks became too harsh. As clouds began to edge the sun, the light would soften just long enough before going too dim. If I was ready at the right moment, I could get something a little nicer. I also found nice potholes along the cliffs edge and used those to anchor images. In another area, a jumble of rocks and water made for a nice abstract. Back on 117, we stopped again along a shear cliff of sandstone. The changing light was casting shadows on the wall that kept me busy for a time. The wall also echoed the mooing of cows across the road from us. The time delay was odd. I’d hear the far off moo, then a moment later I’d hear it again behind me, but with a different lower tone. Sort of sounded like a foghorn. When I looked out across the pasture, I realized the far off line of cows had gathered near the fence expectantly. They just stood there looking at me, looking at them. So I had to photograph them. Further on, we reached La Ventana Arch tucked into, and carved out of the cliff face. A short trail leads up to the arch, but we stayed back. It seem better to view from afar. I talked briefly with a guy there who said he had just retired from AP (Associated Press) and was working on his Bucket List. He recommended the Smoky Mountains the last week of September as his favorite place so far. We finished our tour by driving to the trailhead for the Narrow Rim Trail. If the weather holds, we will probably stay longer and hike this 6.6 mile trail tomorrow.

The Narrows Rim Trail
Thursday, March 30We were slow to rise this morning. Temps outside were below freezing again last night and sitting in a cozy motorhome won over going out early. But by 11 am we were out on the trail. It was a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky and warming nicely. Why, we may break 60˚ today!On my AllTrails map, this is a 6.6 mile out and back hike. Over that length, the trail rises about 500 ft. It is a slow gradual rise, quite easy to walk. The first mile or so is very rocky, so having the hiking poles were very helpful to keep from stumbling. The trail is well marked with sometimes elaborate cairns in sometime unusual places, to keep us on track over especially rocky areas. The trail turns to mostly sand after a mile, with rocky portions occurring here and there. Because of the recent rain, the sand was quite firm to walk on. That was nice.The hike itself is terrific. It largely hugs the edge of the cliff, or you can go off-trail a bit to get to the edge in many places. There are wide views at a number of overlooks, but photographically I found it to be sort of a one trick pony. I really only saw one picture to make – and I made it over and over again. Tree in the foreground and long expansive views of lava.At around 2 miles, Mary was hinting in her own adorable way that she might like to end this hike early. It had gotten windy by now – especially near the edge – and wind is no friend of Mary. It’s true the hike was not stimulating our picture making desires, but it was still a very pleasant hike and we wouldn’t be hiking again for possibly a week. I didn’t want to stop yet.

We walked on to the 3.3 mile mark where the trail should have ended and our view of the arch should be in front of us. It wasn’t. My app told me we had another half mile to go. So my only complaint about this app is that the stated trail distances in the descriptions are suspect. A cross check with other trail info is a good idea. Another half mile is not a big deal, especially on a fairly easy trial like this, but Mary was tiring and got worried about tripping on the rocky final portion of the trail going back down.She was tired but still wanted to see the arch view. In another half mile, we came around one last bend in the bluff and found the first view of La Ventana Arch. Amazingly similar to the ground level view yesterday. But I didn’t care. Today it was just about hiking on a beautiful blustery day through a pine forest. We had our lunch at the viewpoint and rested a bit before heading back. It looked like the trail went on further along the bluff, so there were probably more views to be seen. But not this time. I found this to be a fun, easy hike. I wouldn’t do it again for photographing, but I would if I just wanted to hike.More heavy winds for tomorrow and some rain on Friday. A chance for Saturday, Sunday and Monday means Wednesday is still our target for Chaco. We will be meeting friends in Albuquerque for dinner Saturday and make some decisions on where to go until Wednesday. Stay tuned!

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Good Days in Badlands

Friday, March 24
We left Page on Page on Monday with the intention of stopping off for the night at a BLM campground we found on the Ultimate Campground Guide app. It’s been my experience that GPS coordinates can be off quite a bit on this app and sometimes the location no longer even exists. We drove right past the coordinates listed with nary a road to it to be seen. I’d found an arial image of the campground that showed it on the opposite side of 160 than did the app, but couldn’t match it to anything nearby. At a large turnout, we detached the vehicles and I set out to investigate all the roads nearby, but could not find anything that lead to the spot. The one road I found that might have lead to it was just too rough to take the LD on. Reluctantly, we stayed at the turnout for the night. There really was no other place to go and we didn’t want to drive another 100 miles to Farmington. We were well off the highway but it was still noisy from the more than occasional trucks and cars during the night.We were taking our time getting to the Bisti (pronounced Bis-tie) BLM Wilderness Area in New Mexico, because the 85-90 degree heat we’ve been experiencing was forecast to change to cold, wind and rain by Thursday. I wanted to be at Bisti by Wednesday afternoon, but decided sitting in a mud-soaked parking lot that is the BLM dispersed camping area wouldn’t be too keen. We’d go to Farmington, get our chores done and go in on Friday.

In Farmington, we found Mom & Pop’s RV Park – the only park in town listed in any of our info. It was run-down but neat and quiet – aside from the typical road noise these urban parks have. Mostly looked residential, but it had good Wifi and was close to everything. Over those days, we stocked up on food, water, propane and got our blogs updated. Mary has a bit more about Farmington on her blog. The wind and rain did show up on Thursday, but it was far less than I’d expected judging from what the weather people were saying.So Friday morning we drove the 40 miles south on highway 371 to the Bisti turnoff at CR 7297. Just 3 miles down the good gravel road (a a bit of washboard), bearing left at a T, we arrived at the parking /dispersed camping area. There is a smaller parking area about 100 yards north of this one, but the ground has no gravel and in a rain it will turn to slippery mud. Yes, there is more rain forecast for the entire period we are here, but we are hoping to get in some hikes.

It was very windy when we arrived. Even for a Friday, I was surprised at how many cars were here. Not crowded by any means, but I expected far fewer visitors because there are no services – not even port-a-potties or garbage cans and it is at least 40 miles from anywhere. It is basically a trailhead with a large parking area. I found a nice corner spot a little away from most of the cars that we fit into nicely. There was very little gravel over this part of the lot and that gave me pause, but I could always move if weather got wet.Rain showers were predicted for tonight, so we decided to get in an afternoon hike despite the wind at 15-20 mph. All of our information about Bisti warned of getting lost in the badlands while hiking. We researched well before arriving and had maps, apps and hiking descriptions to keep us oriented.

The Bisti Wilderness Area is a 45,000 acre reserve carved out of Navajo country and fenced all around. There are no trails here. All hiking is freeform, but most people just walk up the washes and branch off to any group of rocks or mud formation that look interesting. We used our AllTrails saved hikes maps as our main guide and backed up with paper topo maps and a compass for extra insurance.I was still a little nervous about hiking without trails and tried to stay as close to the saved hike we’d chosen to walk. It wasn’t long before we were hiking up washes and gullies, forgetting all about the saved route. But just a look at the app and we could get right back on track. An interesting aspect of the terrain here are these orange hills. The dirt of these hills is mostly brown, but is covered by a thin layer of bright orange shattered rock creating a stark contrast amongst the other less colorful hills. We used some of these hills as important landmarks.We walked out orly a mile or two, but in that time we found several great areas of unusually carved sandstone. Many of the winged sandstone formations we found conjured up familiar shapes like this Star Wars battle cruiser.Some were sedate while others wildly crazy in form. It is a very alien landscape – just the kind of place I like. The wind was relentless this whole time and wearing us out. Grit was stinging eyes and I was concerned that our whole stay would be like this. We headed back to camp for the evening.

South Bisti hike
Saturday, March 25A crystal clear sky and calm winds greeted us this morning. We were up predawn and out the door 45 minutes later. The forecast called for sunny weather till about mid-day when clouds would move in and rain late afternoon and evening. I wanted to get in a longer hike to take best advantage of this.I picked out the same route on AllTrails, and we more or less stayed with it. A loop of about 6.5 miles traveling through a couple of washes and over mud hill and sand formations would give us a good overview of what Bisti has to offer. We made a b-line past yesterdays stops looking for some specific formations about 2 miles out I’d read about in our Photographing the Southwest, guide. It is a better sunset spot, but I wanted to find it first and come back another time.
As we moved into new territory, I stopped occasionally because, well, I just couldn’t resist these strange shapes. Eventually we found the Egg Factory. They are also known as Cracked Eggs.I had a slightly vague description of where this spot was, but out there in landscape, things don’t always look familiar. It doesn’t look like much from a distance. Just another group of 2-5 ft rocks or boulders. But up close, their true beauty of became clear. Wind erosion had sculpted lovely grooved designs over their surface. We would probably have never come over to this edge of the wash if not for our guide book. Continuing on, we found lots of petrified wood fragments and several larger logs.  The mud hills eroded away leaving the harder petrified wood freestanding. About another mile after we’d starting hiking again, our chosen trail began taking us up onto some colorful mud hills. Soft in appearance, they are quite hard when dry.
While they were plenty dry to walk on, we were finding it difficult going. I wasn’t certain the app was functioning properly as our GPS location dot was jumping back and forth over our intended path. I didn’t feel comfortable with it’s accuracy and Mary was beginning to wear out, so we decided to walk down a drainage to the main wash and just follow it awhile as we returned to camp.Before that though, we found several more fascinating areas of formations where we spent more time exploring.Walking back, I really began to get a feel for navigating the landscape. One information source said that while it is easy to get disoriented and even lost in the badlands, if you just follow any mud hill drainage to a wash, follow that wash down, you will eventually run into the border fence that can be followed to the parking area. Also, climbing to any highpoint helps orient yourself. I’m not worried about getting lost at all now.It was around 2 pm when we got back. The wind had picked up significantly in the last hour and was blowing pretty good by now. While we were gone, a Boy Scout Troop of about a dozen had arrived and was setting up camp about 40 yards away. Their tents were already whipping in the wind and the rain clouds were just now beginning to approach.By 6 pm it was getting really windy. High sustained winds and occasional higher gusts were reeking havoc on their camp. Tents were beginning to uproot. Their port-a-pottie tent, a narrow 5’ tall tent was sideways and scouts were scurrying about trying to secure everything.

Eventually a light but wind driven rain began to fall. It lasted only a short time. We were just on the edge of the shower – mostly wind and one crack of lightning. It passed and the scouts regrouped and looked good for the evening. They should have packed up then. An hour later, just at sunset, another shower came through. This one more directly over us. High winds were buffeting the LD and it was dark now. Outside I could only imagine what they were going through.

Sunday, March 26
In the morning, looking outside, the scouts were gone. I guess they weren’t quite prepared enough. A look at the weather report would have told them everything. It was supposed to rain more today so we thought it best not to hike. The little rain we got was still enough to make the ground turn to a muddy mush in many places, too slippery to hike comfortably. Not so bad in the lot, but there were several very soft areas around our rig. It didn’t stop anyone else though. A steady stream of cars came and went all day long. Most folks coming back spent considerable time scraping boots and pant legs before leaving.I wanted to check out the other nearby section of Bisti, known as Da-Na-Zin. Mary decided to stay in camp after a bad encounter with a mud patch next to the rig. This section is reached by going back out to highway 371 then driving south another 12 miles to CR 7500, then 15 more miles of dirt road that travels through more Navajo land across wide plains of rabbit brush and grass. The road was in great shape with only one section of sand that worried me a bit but was no problem.At the trailhead I was surprised once again that anyone was here, but 2 other cars greeted me when I arrived. I couldn’t see any of the terrain from the lot so I went out for a short hike so the edge of the bluff. It was easy walking on real trails this time.At the high point before descending into the canyon wash, I could see wonderful color in the hills and canyon walls off in the distance. I walked down another half mile to a large wash. Another group passed me here and I watched as they crossed the wash and continued on.I turned around then and worked my way back up the hill. This spot looks to be another interesting area to explore. A return trip would be well worthwhile.It was quite clear no rain was going to happen today or tonight. What morning clouds we woke to had broken up to be wonderfully typical New Mexico fluff. To me the flat expanses and puffy clouds just scream New Mexico. Lots of wild horses roaming the plains too.When I got back, I suggested an afternoon hike back to the Egg Farm for a sunset visit. The ground had mostly dried up by now, but in some spots, only the top few inches of mud had dried. Stepping on it resulted on a thick coating coming away on the shoes. Those spots were usually easy to avoid. No wind this afternoon, perfect conditions.We set out after an early dinner. Sunset is about 7:30 and it is about a 45 minute walk out to the eggs. Again we retraced the direct route we have taken on each of our hikes so far.But we lost the Egg Farm. Try as we might, we could not find the area again. It wasn’t where either of us had remembered it to be. Mary had a partial recording of our earlier hike that included this portion, but somehow we both misread it.So our Egg Farm plan got scrambled. It got too late to keep hunting for it so we just explored some of the low “wing” formations we’d passed earlier. It would have been a perfect evening for the eggs.
We actually got low near sunset light before it was lost behind incoming clouds. Still it was worthwhile. Back in camp, we reconnoitered and discovered we hadn’t quite gone far enough to find them. Our map app did indeed have the spot highlighted, but out in the field we had a little trouble reading it. We still came away with some nice images and the evening walk was great. North Bisti Hike
Monday, March 27No rain last night and this morning we had a sky filled with puffy clouds. Today was to be similar to yesterday in that no rain or wind till late afternoon. Mary wanted to hike the north side of the wash and reserve that we’d skipped on Saturday. We were up predawn again and out hiking in the chilly morning air. Nights have been in the 30’s but it warms quick once the sun rises and after about an hour, the gloves and outer layers were off. A beautiful morning.This part of the wilderness area was well described in our photographer guidebook and it was easy to follow despite no established trails to follow. The route took us out of the main wash into the surrounding mud hills. Hidden in those hills was one area after another of sandstone formations and more colorful mud hills. After exploring a section of boulders, we hiked up some hills and found even more spectacular areas. Of course we dawdled at these spots. Hiking was easy and mostly level except when crossing hills. We could walk on level benches in many areas. The patchy clouds were perfect for softening the light and highlighting areas of the landscape. We enjoyed our lunch out of the now increasing wind and decided to head back just after lunch. Winds had increased once again as we got back and soon after, even higher winds arrived. Laterin the evening more sustained rain began. Because of tonights rain and the forecast for more tomorrow, we decided to cut our stay short. We’d be out of water in a couple of days anyway, but we may return if another extended dry period begins. For now, we are heading toward Albuquerque. We’ll play the next few days by ear, see what the weather does and make plans from there.

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Hiking Slots and Washes

Sunday, March 19
We had an easy 100 mile drive into Page AZ where we will spend the next few days. High on the list of things I wanted to do again was photograph in Lower Antelope Canyon. They offer a professional photographers “special deal” where we can walk unescorted for 2 hours through the canyon with our tripods. The professional qualifications seem to consist of having a big camera and tripod. We qualify! Unfortunately the reality was that the professional option is not offered during Spring/Summer because of the swarms of folks wanting access.

Neither of us wanted to do the group tours because no tripods are allowed and one must stay with the group. There’s not much light in the slots, so that would mean high ISO’s and short exposure times, i.e. handheld. Upper Antelope still offered photo specials, but that experience is like cows being herded to slaughter.I looked around at some of the other slot tours and came upon Canyon X, a lesser known part of Antelope Canyon. There is also Secret Canyon and a couple of others worth looking into. Canyon X offers many of the same appealing features as Upper and Lower Antelope, but in a less dramatic setting. The sinewy curves and glowing light are there, but I had to work a little more getting compositions that weren’t too confusing.I called the tour operator, got a voicemail and a quick call back. It was Jacqueline Tsinigine, the owner/operator of the property, who was friendly and casual and told me to come by anytime. They would take us down to the trail. We still needed a guide, but they would pretty much leave us on our own while we worked. So we got 3 hours virtually unaccompanied for $68 each.

Entrance to upper Canyon X.

The tour is actually in 2 different small areas of the canyon. For the first part, we met Jacqueline at the take-off point about 8 miles south of Lower Antelope. There were only a couple of cars in the dusty lot so it looked like good timing. We threw our cameras and tripods into her Bronco and she ferried us down the 2 miles of sandy road to the start of the short hike down.
We picked up our guide there. He was trying to get out of escorting us down because he was in a roping competition in an hour and wanted to get going. He did bring us down, but then handed us off to another young guide who was already there with 3 other photographers. Our new guide was setting up a shot for the photographers by throwing sand in the air so light beams were created. We jumped in on the fun.The three had been there for a while, so our guide left with them on the short hike to the next portion of the canyon about 300 yards away. So we were left alone to explore. This part of Canyon X was just a couple of twists and turns, maybe 50 yards in length. There were a lot of images in that short space. Lovely twists and turns of sculpted sandstone, wonderful cracks and curves as well. Light was bouncing off the walls from above and constantly changing. After exploring here for a good hour, we decided we should try to find our guide again. We exited the slot and began looking around to where the next part of the canyon was. I couldn’t really see it directly, but there wasn’t anywhere else to go but down canyon, so we strolled down this much wider portion.The next slot was maybe 300 yards down, so it was just a shot time before we were at next entrance. We found our guide, who was just finishing up with the other 3. We were only there a few minutes before they left for the return trip. Again we were left on our own and had the canyon to ourselves. This portion was also just a few turns long – maybe 100 yards – but again there was lots to work with. The sun had crossed over the high canyon opening by now, so light down in the deeper parts of the slot was very low and less dramatic, but we still spent another hour poking around. Just about the time we were finishing up, another guide leading a middle-age hispanic couple came by. She asked us who our guide was, and I replied, “Which one?” We all kind of giggled and shrugged. We walked back out of this slot and leisurely made our way back up the canyon toward the trail out. Along here we began looking more closely at the canyon wall of this wider section. Some nice formations here too. The guide and her 2 charges caught up with us and we all walked back up together. The climb out from the canyon was back up the same two very wide sandy switchbacks we’d walked down before. Steel grating laid along one edge of the path, greatly eased the slog back up. Once on top, our young Navajo guide piled all four of us in her truck, and we were motored back to the lot. All tolled, only 5 other people were in the canyon while we were. This is a great alternative to hiking the other slots during busy times. I would still prefer Lower Antelope on the pro option because of the longer, more dramatic route, but this one was the best option today.

Cathedral Wash
Monday, March 20
We weren’t ready to leave the area quite yet. It’s still been pretty warm with most days in the mid 80’s – easily 15 degrees above normal. But mornings are cool and it doesn’t really get warm until afternoon. So we decided on an early hike, and Cathedral Wash was one I’d read about in our photography guide and from friends who’d also done it.The hike starts about 2.5 miles down the road to Lee’s Ferry and runs down Cathedral Wash anywhere from 3.1 to 4.2 miles out and back, depending on where you read it. I did a hike recording on a new app, called, All Trails that put it at 2.2 one way. It is a communal app where everyone contributes their hikes and reviews of the trail. It i remarkable how many of the hikes we do are included on this app from other users. It is free in it’s basic form, but I chose to subscribe for $35/year to get access to downloadable maps that can be used while out of cell range. I can also make hike recordings tracked by the phones GPS function. How it can track with no cell reception is beyond me, but it works. Before getting to the hike, we stopped at the Navajo Bridge that crosses the Colorado to have a look. Out on the bridge were a number of people huddled around a woman with a tracking antenna. I saw a couple of birds that looked much like vultures. The turned out to be a pair of condors. We waited a while to see if they would take flight, but it was getting warm already and we needed to get going. At the trailhead located at a turnout along the road, there were just 2 other vehicles parked. We met one older fellow whose wife was doing the hike on her own because he’d hurt his back. This gave me pause because the hike features quite a few 4-6 foot drop-offs and one 20-30 drop from ledges that need some real care to negotiate. I wasn’t sure we would be able to make it.We started off well enough down the wash. It wa rocky and sandy as a wash would be, and as we walked along downhill, the walls got higher and higher. This also provided lots of shade and made hiking quite comfortable. The walls of the wash were quite varied in how they showed erosion. Some places had rocks long embedded, now half revealed. Other spots were just the opposite, with miniature caves pockmarking the walls. We eventually ran into the man’s wife walking back up the wash. She was stymied by the one huge drop-off and decided not to attempt it. A smart move. After a number of twists and turns and small to medium drop-offs, we came to the dry waterfall.I walked all along the rim looking for a way down. Several places look feasible, but I just wasn’t sure. I was about to give up, when down the canyon, the only other hikers on the trail were coming back up. Talk about your basic luck! We watched as they worked their way back and forth up and along the ledges. It was a bit difficult going and great care needed to be taken, but it went well for both of us. I probably would not have attempted this path without having seen someone else do it first. There were still more drop-offs and a number of very narrow ledges that required finger holds while our backends stuck out over the long drops. I found it great fun and more interesting than the photographs I was taking. Mary was less fun-filled, but did well. Eventually we began to hear, first as a whisper, then a roar,  the Colorado river as we wound our way down the wash. We emerged just as a couple of kayakers began shooting the mild rapids just in front of us. We were in time to watch another batch of kayaks and rafts run by. We enjoyed our lunch on a big rock at the edge of the river. A nice water cooled breeze came by every so often, but it was quite hot so we finished lunch, looked around a bit more and started back. While the way back was all up hill, it was gradual, except for the now climbing up all the drop-offs we’d negotiated.The dry waterfall remained the big problem. At it’s base I stood there awhile not able to figure out how to get back up. I remembered how I’d gotten down, but getting back up that way took a while to figure out. It involved standing on a wobbly rock, then lifting myself up backwards to sit on a small ledge. I then had to get my legs underneath me while holding on to tiny finger holds, then lifting myself up and over the ledge. I had no idea how Mary was going to get up. I was too high on the ledge to even grab a hand. She had to get herself up to the first ledge and get herself turned around on her own, which she did, then I was able to grab a hand, and after some cajoling, her other hand – oh the trust – and pull her up. Which I did.Mary’s adrenaline was really pumping now it it fueled her most of the way back. We were both tired and hot by the time we got back around 3 pm, but happy to have done it. The scrambling work we had to do made for a really interesting hike – though for different reasons hikes usually interest me. At the technical details of moving over this terrain forced my attention in a different direction and made it fun in a different way.

We will be making our way to Farmington, NM for a few days to restock and do wash and wait out a storm that is supposed to come this way. Not good timing for walking around in the Bisti Badlands wilderness. All those hard mud hill turn to sludge at the slightest drops. We shall see.

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Yellow Rocks

Thursday, March 16We had an uneventful drive from Valley of Fire to Kanab, in Utah. Since we were going to be so close, we decided to attempt to gain access to a restricted hiking area known as, “The Wave”. It is a particularly amazing undulating sandstone formation that has exploded in popularity over the years. When I’d first seen images of the place 35 years ago in a photo magazine, the photographer refused to reveal the location. But word eventually got out and now everyone around the world want to go there. I guess, me too. Of course we didn’t score permits. We missed the first mornings drawing because while we changed our clocks for daylight savings time in Arizona, we didn’t allow for mountain time in Utah where the drawing occurred. We were one hour late. There were about 120 people hoping to score the 10 permits issued that day. Our plan anyway, in case of not being chosen, was to hike the Yellow Rocks trail off Cottonwood Rd. in the Vermillion Cliffs. This hike is outlined in an outdoor photographers guide we use, and describes white sandstone formations infused with veins of yellow and red. The elevation gain is over 1000’ and includes one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever attempted. We were soon out driving the 45 mile on Highway 89 to Cottonwood Road. Cottonwood is a dirt track suitable for most passenger cars, but having a little bit of high clearance would be a good idea because of some deeper ruts you might bottom out on. Otherwise the road is great and moves through some wide open areas with large hills and mesas all around. Unfortunately, major power lines also run along the cliffs, ruining an otherwise unobstructed view of the valley’s and into the canyons. We found the trailhead 14 miles in, at the junction of Cottonwood Road and Brigham Plains Road. Across the road were two cairns I thought might be the start. It was, more or less, but the path seemed more like a cow trail than people. Nonetheless, we followed it along. At one point I had to bushwhack just a little to get through some tamarisk. I knew we had to cross Cottonwood Wash so I found a likely spot and just made my own path to the wash.There was just a couple of inches of water in the wide wash so it was no problem getting across. The guide book said to point southwest and hike to a notch in the Cockscomb we were to hike along. The trail led up this canyon a short while the abruptly took a right. The trail climbed up the canyon wall at easily a 45 degree angle. It was very loose, rocky soil and quite often the trail was just straight up the incline. Sometimes we got a bit of relief when the trail switched back. The canyon all around was pretty impressive, but I spent most of my time concentrating on how to get up this seep, narrow path. Mary was game and did really well with just a little prodding from me. After 500 ft of this, we reached a saddle and took and extended break. The view of the Cockscomb was good here, but the light was still harsh. Still early afternoon, but by the time we get to the rocks, it should be better.The hiking was much easier from here but still rose another 200 ft. Soon we reached another viewpoint where the Yellow Rocks came into view for the first time. I thought we could walk around to the right in a wide arch along a ridge to get to the rocks, but after running into a couple of long drop offs, I changed course and walked down into the canyon, then back up along the base of Yellow Rocks. From here it is another 300 ft to the top of the formation.There is another route that runs along the left end of the rocks that would have been a better choice. If you can pick-up the cairn trail, it will lead you on an easier path to the rocks. But my detour did lead to some nice veins of yellow in the rock. We started up together, but soon separated and climbed to different areas. It is a steep but easy climb up the sandstone layers. Boots grab well on this stuff – as long as it is dry. Very slippery otherwise. Lots of huffing and puffing at this altitude. I wanted to get to the top, of course, while Mary moved around some of the lower levels. The top was quite windy and the view 360˚, but it wasn’t so good that I wanted to stay, as the wind was whipping along pretty well. I met up with Mary again around 20 minutes later and we began making our way carefully down the sandstone benches. The light was softening by now and the rich yellows were really beginning to stand out. Across the canyon, we could se other massive areas of solid yellow on the facing hillside and mountain of sandstone. We were careful to pick-out some landmarks from the last viewpoint so we knew where to point ourselves for the return trip down the mountainside. Retracing our steps brought us back to the Cockscomb viewpoint where the light was much nicer now. The colors were really standing out and the air seemed clearer than earlier. All that was left was the 45˚ descent. I thought it would be treacherous – especially for Mary – but fully using our trekking poles for support made a huge difference. Not a single butt slide was necessary. It was difficult, but doable. We were very tired with sore feet by the time we got back to the car. Still had the 60 mile drive back to Kanab, but it was worth it.

Friday, March 17thThis morning we showed up on time for The Wave lottery at the BLM office in Kanab. After 3 draws, it was all over. A group of 3, a group of 4 and another group of 4 that had to boot one person to stay under the 10 permit limit. 150 people trying today.We’ve been going up and down Main Street in Kanab (89) and kept seeing a police car at the edge of town parked by the side of the road. It was always there and I always slowed down even though I was under speed already. This morning I looked a little closer and what a surprise. The cop was the torso of a mannequin! They had a little fun with it. A Hitler mustache was drawn on it’s lip. At the BLM office, one ranger said the car used to have a bumper that read, “I Love Plastic Doughnuts”. Small town.I tried once more for a permit Saturday morning. I thought it would be even more crowded, but strangely, only 99 people showed up. Same result for us, except they took 3 sets of 2 people and 1 set of 3 people. the next draw was for 2 people, but because BLM doesn’t like one person hiking there alone, they allowed the 11th permit.On to Page and photographing Lower Antelope Canyon again.

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