Another relatively short, pleasant drive brought us to Kayenta and Canyon de Chelly National Monument around 3 PM. We’d made plans to meet friends Don and Dorothy Malpas at the Cottonwood campground for a couple of days of visiting. For them, this was the tail end of their latest multi-month outing that included a lot of 4-wheeling in southern Utah. We haven’t bumped into many friends this time around, so it was especially great to happy hour it with these two. They have a great attitude toward life and traveling, and just hanging around them brightens my mood.At first, Kayenta seemed to have begun to prosper. There is a shopping mall with nice grocery and hardware stores, all the roads seem in good shape and even the campground seemed better maintained. It only took a short while however, before we began to see that it was still much the same. The first clue was the gentle tapping on our RV door the first evening. It was a Navajo man, Marc Begay Sr, wanting to sell us some of his paintings on rocks. I was all ready to send him on his way until I actually looked at his work. Really nice. We haggled a bit and eventually bought 3 small paintings. Marc seemed to be a really humble nice man. He told me he lived in the canyon and used to work breaking horses. He’d fallen off too many times and could not do it anymore. To prove it, he proceeded to pop his shoulder in and out several times. This was the pattern every night, but someone different each night. Also the stray dogs are still here. We even saw stray horses wandering around.But we were here for the canyon. Wednesday morning we sort of got the lay of the land and decided to first take a drive out along the south canyon. There is almost no hiking in the park. It is mostly private Navajo land and only one trail exists. So drive we must. Each of the overlooks gave us a new view of the canyon, whether it be dunes and cliff or the crazy swirling sandstone layers. This is the first time this trip we’ve seen the amazing color combination of cottonwood greens and sandstone reds. Never gets old.We stopped for a time at the White House Overlook. From here you can see a well preserved ruin built into a cave high on the cliff. Tomorrow we will be hiking the 600’ down to the canyon floor and out to the ruins. From here we could judge what time the sun would be low enough to cast light on the white plaster covered structure that is tucked up under the overhang of the cliff. It stays in shadow most of the day, but I wanted photographs with light hitting at least part of it. At 3 PM, it still wasn’t low enough.
We continued on to Spider Rock at the end of the road and enjoyed the spectacular view from the point. Then back to camp and happy hour. Thursday we said goodbye to Don and Dorothy and spent the morning relaxing. We’d determined the best time to arrive at the White House ruins was going to be very late afternoon. It is only a 3.5 round trip hike, but with a 600’ decent, it will also give us a nice bit of exercise. The beginning is a pretty easy hike over sandstone on the rim, then it descends down 600’ via switchback trail. There are a couple of tunnels to pass through, but it is mostly wide and easy to follow. Once down, it’s an easy hike in the canyon on a sandy trail over the river and to the ruins.Waiting until this time of afternoon to hike and photograph is also a benefit because the lower angled light brings out the texture of the surrounding walls and casts really nice shadows all around. The swirling sandstone layers of the canyon walls were also interesting. The fairly heavy cloud cover was just a bit concerning. Would we see any sunshine once down there? The big shock came when we arrived at the ruins themselves. There is a 5 1/2’ high fence that runs in a wide diameter around the ruins making it impossible to approach for some better angles. This wasn’t here 10 years ago and we could walk right up to the lower ruin. I understand the reasoning – the recovery of the fenced off area being a big one. Also, vandalism must be addressed. Graffiti has always been a problem as some of my telephoto images will attest. One date I could read on the white plaster area was 1873. Cloud cover was pretty heavy when we left, but I could see lots of breaks in the clouds now that we were on the bottom.The whole point was to get here when the light was right. If the sun doesn’t come out, the images I had in mind would be impossible. With the fence being there, I’d already lost some of what I wanted. So it was just a matter of hanging around waiting for those short bits of perfect light. Always a good idea to bring a book along.It did work out very well as it turned out. Once at the site, we got plenty of sunny breaks and moments during the transition from light to shadow. We spent a couple of hours watching the light change and waiting for it to get lower. Luck ran out around 5:30 when the sun went behind clouds for good. Mary headed back, but I stayed on for a little while longer, looking at a few details a little more closely.On my way back up the trail, I passed a steady stream of Navajo in 2’s and 3’s, walking down into the canyon – presumably on their way home. One fellow stopped me to ask if I’d seen his cell phone. He said he’d slept the night just off the trail (about half way up), but that when he woke up, he couldn’t find it. He did not look in great shape, but he seemed in control of himself. He asked for cigarettes, but I couldn’t help him there. I met Mary at the top, then headed back to camp for the evening. Tomorrow we head for Monument Valley National Monument.
Monument Valley National Monument
April 24Another easy drive north though Kayenta to Monument Valley National Monument. We haven’t been here for several years now and it is always interesting to see what changes have occurred. Did a spire collapse? What else have they now built? This time was a real shock though. Way back when, we could camp in a somewhat primitive, but really nice campground right on the edge of the rim. Then the Navajo built a 2-story hotel on that rim and removed the campground. We could still camp across the road on another very rough open space. The view, I think, was actually better and more people could back-up to the edge. We were told by our Navajo guide then, there were plans for an RV park in this space.Regrettably, this has come to pass in a very poor way. The new RV park provides a level space with a picnic table. There is no power or water or dump station provided. All for the sum of $50 off season! Plus, you have to still pay the $20 entrance fee. Unless we hit the lottery, we will not be camping here anymore.
We made reservations at the privately owned RV park, Gouldings RV Resort, which is just across the Arizona border in Utah, which is just across the highway from the entrance to the monument. They wanted $44/night, but also had a $22/night area for dry camping. It was just a big lot next to a giant propane tank, but it was quiet enough and even the scenery was nice. We also still had access to all the amenities. There is one other dry camping campground run by the Navajo located about a mile from the entrance, but it is in a wide open sandy area. The wind that has been whipping up, would be a killer in that spot, but it is also $22/night. So we got set up and finished the day catching up on chores.
April 25We were up early this morning and set out for the 9 mile loop road through the monument. We drove the 6 miles to the entrance station, but arrived too early to have to pay to get in, so we just drove through to the loop road. The gate for the road would not open until 8 AM officially, so this was when we investigated the new campground. Most of the view spots were now taken up by little cabins. We’ve heard these are going for $150/night. A great spot if you can afford it. The RV spaces were level and pretty close together and only a few had a premier view. Not a great development.
The cloud cover was going to be a problem again today, but it was good to see these sights anyway. 8 AM came but still the gate was closed. No matter, we just drove around it and began the tour. At one of the overlooks, I photographed “The Cube” a giant sandstone boulder. There were also other wonderfully shaped boulder strewn around and I spent some time playing around with those. The light was pretty good for this because it softened harsh shadows without completely flattening the color.
It was a nice morning but got progressively more windy. Rain was forecast for a little later and into the evening, so we were hoping for some nice clouds and wet saturated sandstone tomorrow. We headed back to camp, and as we pulled into our space, I noticed what looked suspiciously like the emergency hatch laying in the sand next to the rig. We’d left it open a little before we left and a gust of the increasing wind, even here in our well protected spot, ripped it off the top. I thought it had to be trashed at first, but as I inspected it, I saw the there was not real damage to the cover. The little rivets holding the cover to the hinge had failed. I found the lifter next to the hatch – it had also been ripped out of the crank but only slightly damaged. I duct taped the hatch back on for the time being – later I’ll go into Kayenta again and pick-up the items I’ll need to repair it.
We had just a very light rain for just a few minutes last night. It’s still windy, and early it looked like we would see no sun today either. We planned to set out again in the afternoon anyway, so we did a short little hike around the RV park grounds. They are nestled in a nice little embrace of sandstone rock and hills. We followed a path that promised a hidden arch view, and after almost giving up, finally found it. The sky was beginning to clear now, and patches of sunlight lit up sections of the arch.
We set out again around 4 PM to do the loop drive once more, but this time with much more sun and great clouds. First stop was at the main overlook. I alway like to stop and photograph these rocks in front of the Mittens. Sort of like standing in Ansel’s footprints. He photographed this spot way back when and it has become kind of a photography roots thing to do for me.We hit most of the same spots and photographed much the same stuff, but it always amazes me how different light changes can make.
We finished up where we started the afternoon, and watched the light change over the valley. We were soon to loose the light for the evening when it went behind clouds, so there would be no crazy sunset tonight. We were ready for dinner anyway since it was now nearly 7 PM. We’re having lots of late dinners now that sunset isn’t till 8.
Tomorrow we head out for several days in the Valley of the Gods area.
Goosenecks & Valley of the Gods
April 26I drove the 20 miles back to Kayenta this morning to pick up some small nuts and bolts so I could reattach the emergency hatch to the RV. The wind had torn it from it’s place but not damaged it at all. I just had to remove the flimsy rivets and replace them with the nuts and bolts. Actually it was a good thing the rivets were flimsy. It they were sturdier, the wind would have probably ripped it off anyway, but would also have torn the holes. I’ll just keep it closed when away now. The crank was an easy fix. Just had to place a new screw in to hold the riser support in place.When I returned, we dumped and filled with water and hit the road again. We only had to drive another 30 miles to Goosenecks State Park. It’s about as bare bones a park as you will find – a few picnic tables along the curvy edge of the canyon. But for $10 we could camp anywhere along the edge we wanted. We could have driven a good 1/2 out along the edge if we wanted to get more remote, but opted for a nearby space instead. The place is pretty quiet anyway. No water, no dump, no trees, but oh, the view! The San Juan River is what has carved these narrow, twisting curves in the landscape. This section is particularly curvy, so it makes for some nice scenes.
April 27We decided an afternoon drive through Valley of the Gods would yield better light and cloud conditions, so we spent the day catching up on blogs and such. During the afternoon, clouds began increasing, with the heaviest concentration over Cedar Mesa. It was pouring up there as we later found out from rangers. But down on the valley, it was simply verga – never reaching the ground. Well, sometimes it did, but only once did we really see or feel any at all. What we got was tumescent cloud formations casting dramatic shadows over the wide valley.
The road itself is around 17-20 miles of good graded dirt. It rolls along through the valley, sometimes a straight shot, other times winding around the base of the mesa or other formations. Looking at some of the formations, one really understands why the valley got it’s name. Some are reminiscent of Egyptian God sculptures, others resemble victorian queens. There were a wide variety of wildflowers and a few blooming cactus, though not in abundance. With the clouds, the light was constantly changing, going from flat to contrasty in moments. This all made for great fun for us as we hop from location to location throughout the valley. Around each bend or rise in the road, new vistas are revealed. We kept thinking we were done, but then another curve would require one or the other of us to stop again. This was about the best light and cloud conditions we’ve ever had here. On other visits, we’ve encountered blazing hot temps with nothing but harsh light, or too overcast or windy. Today was one of those rare days when making images was easy. Our next several days, we’ll be exploring the Cedar Mesa area. We’ve never done much here other that Natural Bridges, so we’ll see some new parts.