If you look out my hotel window this evening in Flagstaff, you’ll see snow drifts getting higher, above 5 foot. However, all I see is tomorrow’s 172 mile journey to Monument Valley being in jeopardy. Overnight, a further 17 inches fell in this mountain town which averages over 100 inches per year – placing it amongst the US’s snowiest cities.
Amazingly, we wake to clear skies. The snow plough teams have been out and seem to have summoned the sun to keep the roads clear and hot for us. We seize our window and high tail it to Monument Valley before the next big storm blows in from the Pacific.
Wind whips up dust devils in mesmerising red whirls as we approach Monument Valley. We pull over to get out and perch at the rim of the rocky canyon, almost waiting for a message from the valley to let us enter these mysterious, sacred tribal lands. As the powdery clouds disperse, a Navajo guide emerges from the dust storm to welcome us, and show us the mysterious, alien landscape that emerges from below.
It being winter, we practically have the place to ourselves. As such, though we’re in one of the most recognisable Western movie landscapes on the planet, it feels like we might as well be on Mars, or the set of a sci-fi film. For a start, absolutely everything is red – a deep, intense umber that shifts shades as the sun arcs. And then there are those weird shapes that the valley is famous for. Flat-topped mountains – or sandstone buttes, as the geologists call them – rise out of the rust-coloured, rocky ground. They seem proud, magnificent – the stories they could tell! Since rocks can’t speak, someone else explains to us the area’s rich history.
The Navajo Nation manage these lands and our guide is a native American from that tribe. guide – these are Navajo nation lands – explains how you can literally see about 70 million year’s of Earth’s history written into the rock face. More interestingly, what turns out to be the best ’camp fire story’ we have heard to date, he tells us bewitching stories of the Navajo’s history in this area.
We leave awe-stricken, not just by the landscape, but also with a better understanding and a profound respect for the native people that thrived in this unforgiving, yet visually incredible area. Next stop, Colorado, and Puebloan Indian cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde!
We leave the geological jaw dropper that is Monument Valley, and head through the ‘Four Corners’ – the only place in the US where four states meet on one point (Arizona, Utah, Colorado & New Mexico) – to reach Mesa Verde, where we’ll see how America’s Puebloan ancestors used to live.
Situated in Colorado, Mesa Verde park protects over 4,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings from people who lived there from A.D. 600 to 1300. Seeing the improbably-situated cliff dwellings is the key reason we have come here. You kind of expect them to be a wee bit of shelter where people huddled under with a few rugs – and then you see them and see just how wrong you were There are entire villages built into cliffs – with buildings including 3 story apartment blocks with balconies – and that’s from A.D. 1200. Some British councils can barely get such accommodation right today! People farmed on the ‘mesa’ or land above the canyon above, and brought rocks up from the valley. How they did this I have no idea. I have enough trouble clambering over a seven foot wall to get into my flat when I’m locked out, let alone climb 500 foot up or down a sheer cliff laden with this week’s shopping or the spoils of an IKEA spree.
The best part of Mesa Verde however, wasn’t just looking at the long abandoned cliff dwellings – it was visualising them as living, breathing communities with the help of our native American guide, park ranger Jose Castillo. In Puebloan times, storytelling was hugely important: it was the key source of entertainment so storytellers were the rock stars of their day. Charismatic Jose has clearly inherited the best of those storytelling skills, and transforms our Mesa Verde visit. He vividly brings life circa A.D. 1200 to life and makes this trip so much more memorable for it. If you visit this amazing place, be sure to look this great guy up. As for us, our next stop is about 700 miles away – Death Valley. Best not overnight in dry state Utah – we’ll need a few cold ones before attempting that monster drive tomorrow!
Having ploughed through freezing snow storms and clambered around native American ruins at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet, we’re off to somewhere completely different: the hottest place on earth at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere: Death Valley, California. So it’s off with the long johns and on with the Speedos (ok, cargo shorts); out with the porridge and in with the ice cream.
The only place that has recorded a higher temperature than Death Valley (134 degrees Fahrenheit, July 10th, 1913) is Libya with 136 degrees Fahrenheit on September 13th 1922. It regularly average above 120 degrees. It’s almost always sunny and, with salt pans, sand and mountains reflecting the burning solar rays in every direction, it’s a perfect place for making my milk-white Scottish skin crispier than KFC.
In the park, we stay at one of two hotels in Furnace Creek. Being in the park itself, the hotel can – and does – make up whatever price it likes. They’re milking us like the cash cows we are as we’re too knackered from the ten hour drive to find somewhere else – the closest is 40 miles in either direction. The great thing, however, is the location. We enjoy unparalleled views of clear skies glittering with millions of stars, as well as the best bit – close proximity and fast access to south Death Valley’s premiere sites.
Using the location to the maximum, we spring out of bed like exited bunnies in the morning and hop to Zabriskie point. We catch the one of the most amazing sunrises that we have witnessed, seeing that big yellow smile in the sky light up the mountain range which, in response, yawns and flushes with colour.
Then it’s off to Badwater basin, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, about 260 feet below sea level, off the top of my head. This giant salt pan is not only great for stocking up your larder on the cheap, it’s also the starting point for the gruelling, 100 mile Badwater ultra marathon – the ultimate endurance race for gazelle-legged masochists. None of that nonsense for us, we hop back in the car and roll on through the multicoloured geological landscape that is Mosaic canyon.
Camera battery suitably drained, we suddenly decide to drain our physical energy after all, by embarking on a sweaty, 5 mile, hike to the ‘cathedral‘, a giant red mountain set against a stark, sand-coloured range. Flippin’ ‘eck, it’s barely lunchtime and we feel like we’ve done an exhilarating few days worth of stuff – something we wouldn’t have done if we’d stayed in the park. Time to slow down though.
In the afternoon, H and I seriously take the foot off the pedal. We do one big thing after lunch – we visit the sand dunes in the desert within the park. Suitably exhausted, we finish the day with two relaxing tubs – a tub of ice cream as big as my head and a soak in one of the several, cool mineral water tubs featuring ‘magical’ Death Valley waters. Rub a dub dub!
Sequoia National Park
Next stop, land of the living US giants. And on this stop, I’m going to be an all-out tree hugger, getting up close and personal with the world’s biggest branched beings – the giant sequoias and giant redwoods of Sequoia National Park.
I’m particularly excited about this one as Star Wars – Return of the Jedi’s bike chase sequence was shot here – a movie I loved as a kid. Our base is the sleepy, beautiful Three Rivers – a village founded in the late 1800s as an idealist community that aimed to live life on its own terms. Today, a friendly blend of artists, teachers, retired actors, healers, farmers and outdoors people keep the vibe alive.
Three Rivers’ welcome for us couldn’t have been better – the rolling hills exploded into colour. As far as you could see, a riot of oranges, whites and purples carpeted the countryside – the wildflowers had sprung into life early.
Arriving at Sequoia national park, it seems we hadn’t figured on its altitude and Alpine climate. Indeed, the park’s elevation starts at 6,000 feet, and it‘s snow-covered – beautifully so. The ranger tells us we have to rent snow chains to enter the park, so we do, and I get covered head to toe in muddy slush putting them on – but it’s all part of the fun. In fact, I feel all the more manly for it!
As soon as we enter the park, it feels like we have been shrunk to a 100th of our normal size – it’s brilliant. Everything is just so huge. No wonder ’Jedi was shot here, it really does look like a forest from another planet. The biggest living thing on Earth lives here, a giant sequoia named General Sherman – the ‘Force’ is certainly strong in that one.
Really appreciating the sheer size of these trees is difficult, however – the surrounding sequoias have an average size of a 26 story building. Even the giant redwoods are tall – taller in most cases, than the sequoias, if not as thickly-girthed. And the pines are massive, too – just outside the park, in the Sierra Nevada range, you’ll find the world’s biggest pine tree. I scramble around trying to find a horse chestnut tree to see if I can find cannonball-sized conkers, for my nephews, to no avail.
Since it’s winter, the park is quiet – in terms of traffic and noise – so we feel like we have it to ourselves. We spend the day hiking around the park in rented snowshoes, occasionally running into friendly Americans, and from time to time exchanging camera tips with fellow DSLR snappers.
Otherwise, it‘s about the most silent silence I have ever experienced – a wonderful antidote to London’s constant big city drone. And save for the sporadic sound of snow falling off of laden branches, perfectly peaceful. With our appetite suitably worked up, we head back down to Three Rivers for steaming hot bowls of chilli filling enough for any wannabee Jedi master.
A great way to end our second week!