From ancient Sinagua homes to stunning slot canyons this area of the US has a lot to see. The generally dry landscape is also home to tranquil water courses such as Oak Creek near Sedona and a peaceful stretch of the mighty Colorado below Lees Ferry.
The beginning of this trip was quite stressful - the Icelandic volcano erupted just before our original start date and everything was postponed, eventually we got reservations into Phoenix via Chicago. Lufthansa were great. In May the volcano was still erupting and causing problems. We left from Basel to get to Dusseldorf but once there we were delayed while Lufthansa tried to organise a more northerly route, well away from any volcanic activity and the huge ash cloud. Two hours later we left. Extra fuel had to be taken on and cruising altitude was 36000-38000ft. We actually started off heading north-east to Scandinavia! However, the route took us over Baffin Island and was beautifully clear so we had fantastic views of the huge expanses of snow and ice.
The late departure meant we had only an hour to catch our connection in Chicago - we were never going to make that. On arrival we were rebooked on the red-eye into Phoenix with US Airways and Lufthansa provided us with accommodation and a meal at the Doubletree.
No problems the following morning for our 5:10 flight to Phoenix. Three and a half hours in clear skies and we passed over some wonderful scenery: canyons, cliffs, buttes and desert. Very swiftly collected baggage and our car to get out on the road. We were quickly onto I17 and heading north out of the city.
Out of the city the landscape is scrubby desert covered with wonderful cactii. The video isn't great but gives a bit of an idea of the dryness of the landscape.
We stopped off at Montezuma's Castle, just off I17 south of Sedona. Early settlers believed it to be Aztec in origin hence the name.
The cliff dwelling is built into the rock 100 ft above the valley floor. It had five storeys and 20 rooms, housing about thirty people, and would have been reached by ladders. The Southern Sinagua farmers who built this home in the 1100s had lived in this area for thousands of years but they only began to build homes such as these under the influence of neighbouring cultures.
A little to the west are the ruins - little more than low stone walls and holes in the cliff face - of a much larger dwelling, built against the base of the cliff. Designated Castle A this was a six storey 45 room building which may have housed up to a hundred people, but there is very little to see.
The farmers would also have been hunter-gatherers and this small valley would have been an ideal settlement spot, having a good source of water and fertile land.
It's a pleasant spot with some beautiful white-barked Arizona Sycamore trees.
Though Montezuma's Castle is impressive and definitely worth seeing, Canyon de Chelly has much more of interest, and a much more impressive landscape.
We made our way up to the Red Rock Loop road west of Sedona, which has some great rocks at the turnoff from 89A then not much until Cathedral Rock comes into view and the landscape starts to get quite spectacular.
We stopped for a short walk to Red Rock Crossing on Oak Creek where it's very pleasant under the shady trees.
Lunch was in Sedona at the Coffee Pot for its Mexican specialties. My beef and chicken chimichanga was pretty good but the chorizo and cheese omeletee was disappointing - chorizo definitely not as good as it should be!
We left Sedona heading north up Oak Creek Road which has some nice scenery, especially just outside Sedona, but the hairpins aren't really hairpins. We stopped at the view point at the top but again, weren't particularly impressed. The sun had gone behind clouds so maybe it looks better in sunshine.
Before heading off to Page we made a short detour to visit Walnut Canyon. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries this was home to a large community of Sinagua. In this relatively arid landscape (Sinagua literally means "without water") the people grew drought-resitant varieties of corn, beans and squash on the rim of the canyon. They also hunted small animals and gathered edible plants and berries. They practiced a primitive form of irrigation, building terraces and small dams. There is speculation that the Hopi are descendants of the Sinagua.
Their homes were formed from natural depressions in the limestone cliffs, created by the eroding action of water. These shallow caves, perhaps three metres deep, were protected by walls built from limestone rocks cemented together with clay. Doorways were reinforced with wooden beams and all interior and exterior walls were plastered with clay.
The remains of over 80 of such homes have been discovered in the canyon, with many more outside the area of this National Monument.
We stayed at the Marriott Courtyard as being the best of a poor selection in this area. We were pleasantly surprised that halibut and fries is on the evening menu and it was excellent. We found throughout this trip that "fish and chips" has been discovered in the US and was available right through to the west coast. The Marriott didn't do food at lunchtimes and the choice in town is again not great. However, this is just a base to see some magnificent country.
Near Page is Lake Powell and the impressive Glen Canyon Dam. We went on one of their guided tours which was very interesting and not too long, going down to the top of the dam, then further down to the turbine hall (seen through glass). The dam was built to allow irrigation of the desert from the lake, which stretches 186 miles back up the Colorado River, and to generate power. Apparently it took 17 years to fill the lake! To stop the massively powerful water damaging the run-off tunnels it is bubbled.
Down at the base of the dam is a vast lawn!
The land originally belonged to the Navajo Nation who swapped it for land in Utah. Begun in 1956, it was ten years before power was first generated. Concrete was poured non-stop for over three years for the dam and power plant.
Though impressive in size, the lake could only be created by flooding the, by all accounts, magnificent Glen Canyon. The environmental movement was very much in its infancy at this time and building the Glen Canyon Dam was very much a trade-off for those such as the Sierra Club hoping to preserve some of the magnificent scenery elsewhere. Congress made a decision not to build more dams but to generate power from coal-fired stations instead and the Navajo Generating Station just south of Page burns coal from Black Mesa and pumps water from the lake to Phoenix.
These projects are the only reason that Page came into existence and survived.
Across from the Marriott is an excellent place high above the river from which to see the dam.
A few miles further downriver is Horseshoe Bend - a classic meander of the Colorado River. A hike of under a mile from US89 brings you to the overlook, about 1000 ft above the river. A highly recommended little side-trip.
Draining north-west into Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon is reason enough alone to visit this area. Upper and lower sections of the canyon can easily be visited with Navajo guides - the canyon lies within the land of the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation. The canyon is formed from soft Navajo Sandstone due to water action. The resulting slots with their swirling colours are amazingly beautiful. But they can be deadly: the same flash floods which form them have killed unwary visitors.
We drove out to the parking lot to get permits for Upper Antelope Canyon and just caught the start of the 11 o'clock tour - $25 each for a guide and $6 each for the permit, so not cheap. We wanted this particular time as it has the best light for photographs inside the high and narrow slot canyons.
A rather more hair-raising than necessary four wheel drive over sand to the canyon entrance. There were lots of tourists here; apparently it's always like this, but the guides are really good at getting people out of the way of the precious photographs.
We were a group of about ten with our guide Josh who was really nice and helpful, answering any questions we had, taking shots of interesting features at odd angles created by tricks of shape and shadow: bear and jackal for instance. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tse bighanilini meaning "the place where water runs through rocks."
The canyon isn't very long and you could probably walk from the entrance to the end in less than ten minutes, if you didn't stop to take photographs. The light inside is beautiful, all soft amber hues, and the guides throw sand into the air to make the shafts of light penetrating the narrow crack in the roof stand out.
Everyone goes to the Upper Canyon, but only a few seem to visit the equally beautiful Lower Canyon. This does have great advantages for those who do. The peace and vast beauty is not spoilt by hordes of tourists and you can take your time over the photography.
We'd already decided we wanted to visit both upper and lower canyons so we went on to Lower Antelope Canyon, whose Navajo name is Hasdeztwazi or "spiral rock arches". We weren't really expecting much here - otherwise why do so few people come? But it was wonderful.
We were the only visitors here with our guitar-playing guide. He said barely a word, so no helpful info, but led us over the sandy terraine to the entrance to the canyon which is through a crack in the ground. We scrambled down and entered the most amazing space. It is astonishingly beautiful.
We climbed down quite a long way, sometimes on ladders or steep wooden stairways, working through very narrow passages, the sandy colours shading into soft lilac, swirling in curved striations. Our guide kept just ahead of us, always out of sight but softly playing his guitar - magical.
US89 carries on south out of Page to drop abruptly down off the mesa onto a vast plain. A little further on US89A branches off to Navajo Bridge which crosses Marble Canyon.
On the western side of the bridge a detour north leads to Lees Ferry (with an outrageous $15 fee to park in the area!) - the disembarking point for the gentle float trips coming down from just below the dam.
A short way along Lees Ferry Road is the entrance to Cathedral Wash - here it is all red rocks but further in hikers say it turns white - maybe one to try next time we're here.
A large - very large! - standing rock can be seen at the side of the road. An information board tells how the boulder fell from the cliff above thousands of years ago, since when about 6 ft (1.8m) of the softer ground below it has eroded away.
At the actual Lees Ferry landing area it's swarming with tourists, but just down river it's an extremely pleasant spot, popular with anglers and those looking for peace and quiet, with the huge Colorado River rolling by on its way to the Grand Canyon.
Down river the Vermilion Cliffs recede into the distance. We were continuing on 89A west to Las Vegas and the road runs dead straight below the deep red cliffs unitl it hits the Kaibab Mountains and starts to climb - we stopped here for some megnificent views back east to the Vermilion Cliffs.