Category Archives: Southwestern Safari

6 Boondocking Campsites for Loners – In the Southwest

This is the 9th in the Southwest Safari series

These are isolated locations where lone wolf campers can be alone and most of these sites are free.  All of these are legal camping sites.

First, a reminder that boondocking is rustic camping without hookups. Some of these sites don’t even have a toilet, so you have to be comfortable with alternatives. Fortunately for me, I was hauling a pickup camper which was entirely self-contained and I could store my compost in a holding tank until reaching a dump site.

Pleasant Creek National Forest Campground

The first of the rustic campsites on my recent photography trip to the American Southwest was at a deserted forest campground along highway 12 in the mountains between Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante, Utah. At about 7000 feet elevation, this spot was a cool island of pine and poplar woods surrounded by lower deserts of bare rock.

Forests are rare in the southwest where the desert heat is a killer.
Forests are rare in the southwest where the desert heat is a killer.

The campground had pit toilets and delicious well water. All alone for the night, my campsite cost $6 which is half the usual rate because of my senior pass which also gets me into all national parks for free.

Pleasant Creek Nat'l Forest Campground is a cool respite on Highway 12 north of Boulder, Utah
Pleasant Creek Nat’l Forest Campground is a cool respite on Highway 12 north of Boulder, Utah

There were two other national forest campgrounds within a half mile and there were a couple of campers there for the night.  This was in September.

Hole-In-The-Rock Road, Escalante, Utah

Devil's Garden

After exploring the intriguing rock formations at Devil’s Garden off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, I found an isolated pull-off a couple of miles south and west across from the access track to the dinosaur tracks site (I didn’t cross the dry wash into dinosaur tracks because the steep sideways slope threatened to roll my camper over).

High clearance and four wheel drive are helpful on any of the side tracks from Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
High clearance and four wheel drive are essential on any of the side tracks from Hole-in-the-Rock Road.
The only other sign of life was the wild horse plops on the hills next to my camper.
The only sign of wildlife was the wild horse plops on the hills next to my camper.

This spot was essentially nothing more than a level field where I could pull off the road.  The sound of the light rain on the roof of the camper during the night lulled me to sleep.

Paria Contact Station

East of Kanab, Utah, there is a ranger station with some helpful volunteers on staff.  After driving through heavy rain coming down from Escalante all day, I was leery of crossing the gully at Buckskin Wash even with four wheel drive.  I figured a flashflood was coming that could prevent me from returning to the highway for several days.  Their solution for me was a gravel pit on the top of the mountain behind the station.  I had a free campsite with no neighbors.

I had a view of the Paria River valley from the summit.
I had a commanding view of the Paria River valley from the summit.

The next morning I looked down on a raging Paria River rushing at 30 miles an hour.  I decided to change my itinerary and stay out of the slot canyons where the water level rose from ankle deep to 30 feet deep overnight.  Deadly!

Valley of the Gods

This was my favorite campsite for pure desert grandeur.  I chose a spot at the foot of a huge stone butte where I could see for twenty miles toward the distant towers of Monument Valley.  The camping is free for a limit of 14 days at each spot.

Valley of Gods butte

Valley of gods camp

Valley of God view

One word of caution here.  If you approach Valley of the Gods from the south off highway 163 you can reach the campsites with a medium-sized motor home or trailer.  If you come in from the west on 261 as I did, you will cross no less than 20 dry washes with steep grades that will test the fortitude of your four wheel drive rig.  Don’t take your 40-foot coach in here from either direction.

Butler Wash

Five miles west of Bluff, Utah, on highway 163, open the cattle gate and drive through, then close it behind you.  You are on Butler Wash Road at the south end of a broad valley flanked by rocky cliffs on both sides.  Among those cliffs there are many hidden Navajo cliff dwellings.  Camping is free at any of the side tracks on this 25-mile long four wheel drive road.  Yes, again, you must not take a long wheel-base vehicle in here; you’ll get hung up in a step ravine trying to climb out the other side.

Butler Wash

You are sure to be alone with only the night wind to keep you company.  (Read about my adventure at Pedestal Rock Ruin here.)

7-Mile Parking

A few miles northwest of the town of Moab, Utah, on highway 191 there is a privately owned parking lot with nicely leveled gravel lots and porta-johns.  There are no other perks except its strategic location near the entrances of Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.  I found it almost impossible to get a campsite at the national parks so this little spot was a real blessing to me and I stayed several consecutive nights paying the measly $5 per night.  What a great staging area for rafting the Colorado River, dirt biking the slick rock at Behind the Rocks, or four wheeling the epic off-road challenges around the area.  Moab has provisions of all kinds.  You can even rent a Jeep or ORV there.

7 Mile Parking is surrounded by the rugged terrain of southern Utah.
7 Mile Parking is surrounded by the signature rugged terrain of southern Utah.  It is right next to the entrance to Gemini Bridges Road, a rugged off-road trail for four wheelers.

These are a few of the great boondocking campsites of southern Utah.  I passed up many others.  Much of the desert southwest is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) where free – or almost free – camping is permitted with only a few restrictions.

Somebody with the ultimate off-road camper was enjoying the almost-free campsites on BLM land near Fisher Towers 20 miles east of Moab.
Somebody with the ultimate off-road camper was enjoying the almost-free campsites on BLM land near Fisher Towers 20 miles east of Moab.

Happy camping!

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Read about my adventure near 7-Mile Parking on the White Rim Road:

3 Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me

The Chasms at Canyonlands

This is the 8th in the series.

Canyonlands National Park is a vast area of bare rock cliffs, mesas, and canyons.  It is trisected by the Colorado and the Green Rivers which divide it into the three districts, the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky.  Most tourists only visit the highest area, Island in the Sky, which is a huge flat-topped mesa surrounded on three sides by the canyons.  The Needles is reached via a single rugged road, and The Maze is entirely deserted but for a few adventurers coming down the river on rubber rafts or an occasional fly-over by a sightseeing airplane.

The defining theme of Canyonlands is the grand vistas available from the edges.  The road on Island in the Sky provides easy access to the edge of the cliff that offers such expansive views that they are almost incomprehensible.  The hiking trails are likewise perched on edges.

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From the edge of the high mesa the views into the canyons are almost mind-boggling.
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Photographers love the orange glow on the bottom of Mesa Arch when the light is right.

I was glad to be without small children when I was at Canyonlands because there are unguarded drop-offs everywhere.

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Where were the parents of these two sisters who crawled to the edge for a better view of the chasm 2200 feet below?
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From Island in the Sky one can view the White Rim 1200 feet below and the secondary drop to the Colorado River in a chasm called Monument Basin.

In my experience, there seems to be a psychological connection between risk and adventure:  The greater the perceived risk, the greater the sense of adventure.  Because of this phenomenon, I would call Canyonlands a high-adventure location. There is an abundant risk factor because of the abundance of edges.  The drives and the hikes all require frequent encounters with the edge.

After exploring Island in the Sky, adventurers who can afford the time and want to multiply their sense of adventure will likely drop down off the edge via the Shafer Trail and explore the White Rim Plateau 1200 feet below.

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The Shafer Trail drops 1200 feet in 2 miles of scary switchbacks and tight hairpin turns.

The White Rim Road is another level of high risk and delivers correspondingly high adventure.  It follows the edge of the Colorado River canyon for 100 miles of rough one-lane rocky off-roading fun.  (See my scary YouTube video of a 3-mile stretch of the road at the bottom.)

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My pickup and camper were dwarfed by the dizzying drop-offs of the White Rim Trail.

My drive on a section of the White Rim Road was a bucket list experience never to be forgotten.  Those with a fear of heights will be ill-advised to attempt either the Shafer Trail or the White Rim Road.

Visitors with Jeeps and high-clearance SUV’s will have the easiest time at Canyonlands National Park.  Despite the huge expanses of geography, the parking lots on Island in the Sky are small, and below the rim the turns are too tight for the big rigs.  If you want to get off the high mesa and explore the more challenging areas below, it’s best to leave the RV in the town of Moab and rent a Jeep.

Otherwise, there will be chaos in the chasm.

Beyond the Jeep trails, there are multiple adventures for river rafters, hikers and mountain bikers.

If you like adventures on the edge.

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This panorama is from my hike on the edge to the obscure cliff dwelling, False Kiva.

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Read more about my scary hikes: 4 Cliff Dwellings that Put Me on the Edge

Read more about my scary drives: 3 Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me

View my 11-1/2 minute YouTube video: A White Knuckle Drive on the White Rim Road  (You will leave my blog)

An Alien Adventure at the Arches

Southwestern Safari  Milepost #7

I met a Star Wars stormtrooper while hiking in Arches National Park. He was posing for his young son who was shooting photos  under a rock formation that looks strangely like Darth Vader. They had driven over from Colorado to get that photo (above).

That says a lot about the bizarre magnetism that Arches exerts on artists and adventurers – not just from the next state, but from all around the world.  There were buses full of tourists and hikers who were anxious to experience the otherworldly landscape that is reminiscent of the desert planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies (those scenes were actually filmed in Tunisia).

Young Liam steps to the side while tourists snap photos of his dad, Brack Lee, as the stormtrooper.
Young Liam steps to the side while tourists snap photos of his dad, Brack Lee, as the stormtrooper.

My encounter with the movie character did not actually surprise me in the least as I rounded a bend in the trail on the back side of the North and South Windows.  I had actually searched for an affordable costume on Amazon when I was planning my expedition;  I could easily visualize a Star Wars character in this setting with no real stretch of the imagination.  The most authentic costumes were quite expensive and I ultimately built my own cowboy and Indian costumes instead, which also fit the desert theme.

A small group of hikers lingers in the huge eye of North Window.
A small group of hikers lingers in the huge eye of North Window, another bazaar formation.
South and North Windows glow from the reflected light on the back trail where I met the storm trooper.
South and North Windows glow from the reflected light on the back trail where I met the storm trooper.
Double Arch is short distance from Darth Vader rock... and actually did show up in Start Wars movies.
Double Arch is short distance from Darth Vader rock… and actually did show up in Start Wars movies.

A rock shaped like Darth Vader is only the beginning when one continues to explore the geological wonderland that is Arches.  The park sits on the huge seismic Moab Fault, but it must not have been active for a very long time or hundreds of these fragile formations would have collapsed by now.

Rock strata have slipped several feet along the Moab Fault made visible by the rock cut for highway 191 across from the park entrance.
Rock strata have slipped several feet along the Moab Fault made visible by the rock cut for highway 191 adjacent to the park entrance.
There are hundreds of precarious balanced rocks which will be vulnerable to the slightest jarring earthquake.
There are hundreds of precariously balanced rocks which are vulnerable to the slightest tremor.

I can only imagine how drastically the landscape will change if ever this region is jarred by a major earthquake.  The park holds more than 2000 arches and as many balanced rocks and in fact, a few of them collapse without provocation every year.

I had to get myself in a shot with Landscape Arch before it collapses and is gone forever.
I had to get myself in a shot with Landscape Arch before it collapses and is gone forever.

One of the most frail spans, Landscape Arch is longer than a football field but only 11 feet thick at its thinnest point.  Hikers are not permitted beneath the arch since a 70-foot-long slab fell from it a few years ago.  I noticed an awed hush among the hikers near the span, as though the slightest noise would produce a vibration that would end the structure.

Of course, the signature formation in Arches is the aptly named Delicate Arch, so famous a landmark that it appears on the Utah license plates.  It is as ironic as it is iconic, as the hike is all uphill and steep, making this famous place almost out of reach to the general population.

I found the view quite worth the hike.  This was one of two sunset hikes for me inside the park.  South Window, where I met the stormtrooper, was the other where I returned for nighttime photography.

Delicate Arch is as popular as it is prominent on a high outcropping of red rock.
Delicate Arch never reveals itself along the trail until hikers reach the high amphitheater after a strenuous climb.
Fans of Delicat Arch hike uphill for a mile-and-a-half to gaze at the rock until sunset.
Fans of Delicate Arch hike uphill for a mile-and-a-half to gaze at the rock until sunset.
The trail hugs the cliff face behind the mountain before arriving at the high amphitheater where the arch stands.
The trail hugs the cliff face on a ledge behind the mountain before arriving at the high amphitheater where Delicate Arch stands.
Park Avenue is bordered by high rock walls called fins. Balancing rocks line the ridges.
Park Avenue is bordered by high rock walls called fins. Balancing rocks line the ridges everywhere.

While hiking back to the trailhead with a stormtrooper and his son, I was also scouting the landscape for some night sky photography and I was pretty sure I had found the best spot at South Window.  I checked the compass on my iPhone to discover that its orientation situated it crosswise to the Milky Way, which would be perfect for my picture, but of course, I wouldn’t know for sure until the sun went down.  Grabbing some supper in the camper, I then hiked back to the spot around behind the formation before sunset and waited for dark.

I climbed up into Double Arch but decided it didn't face the right direction for night sky shots.
I climbed up into Double Arch but decided it didn’t face the right direction for night sky shots.

I had talked to other photographers at the trailhead and they were headed for Turret Arch and Double Arch, but when I reached my spot on the backside of South Window, I was all alone.

And I was not disappointed.

As the light faded, the Milky Way slowly came into view – exactly where I had predicted.  I set up the tripod, got the camera automatically doing its thing and then climbed up into the huge rocks to “paint” the arch with some warm light from an old dive light I had saved from my scuba diving years.  It had a soft diffused beam that would work better than a focused flashlight.

There is something truly awesome about being alone in the desert at night adding my own touch of artistry to the universe.

There is something truly awesome about being alone in the desert at night adding my own touch of artistry to the cosmic canvas.

For me Arches National Park lived up to its reputation as a land of intrigue and unforgettable experiences.   High hikes to fantastic panoramas,  encounters with other enthusiastic hikers along the trails, and a  dark night under the stars — after an encounter with a Star Wars impersonator — all added up to an epic life experience.

Hooray for adventure!

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3 Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot out of Me

This is the 6th in a series on my Southwestern Photo Safari.

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I didn’t really know what I was in for when I planned my route across southern Utah.  I actually thought I had prepared pretty well, but the maps don’t even come close to conveying the extremes of these roads that cut through deep canyons and alternately wind across high ridges with drop-offs on both sides. I watched lots of YouTube videos of other travelers’ adventures and still wasn’t able to grasp the scope of what lay ahead of me.
It’s probably a good thing, or I might have lost my nerve. As it turned out, it seemed that my itinerary alternated between scary drives one day and scary hikes the next.

This is about three of the most adventurous drives I encountered on my photo safari to southern Utah.

The Hogback on Highway 12

I ended up driving this road twice since my side trip to Capitol Reef National Park was an out-and-back overnight trip from Escalante rather than a loop route.

Highway 12 cuts across ancient sandstone benches called slick rock.
Highway 12 cuts across ancient sandstone benches called slick rock.

Escalante road

Highway 12 east of the town of Escalante is a study in extremes.  Much of the route east and then north to Torrey is across bare stone landscape called slick rock.  It’s not actually slippery, since it is sandstone; its surface is more like sand paper.

The road drops into the Escalante Canyon and heads north up the other side.
The road descends into the Escalante Canyon and heads north up the other side.

The route drops down into the canyon to cross the Escalante river and then climbs as quickly up the other side to traverse the Hogback where the drop-off is 600 feet on both sides of the road!

The Hogback winds along the ridge with drops on both side.
The Hogback winds along the ridge with steep drop-offs on both sides.
A view into the canyon on the west side of the Hogback.
A view into the canyon on the west side of the Hogback.

There are a couple of turn-outs where I was able to stop for some photos and video, but most of the high section is narrow and winding with no shoulders or guardrails.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

(My video gives a much better idea of what the Hogback is really like;  I have posted the link to it at the bottom of the post.)

The Shafer Trail

This is one of the most extreme roads in America,  and should not be attempted by anybody with acrophobia – a true fear of heights.  Mostly Jeeps and SUV’s travel the gravel road because the hairpin turns are tight and will not accommodate long vehicles.   Would-be adventurers with trailers and motorhomes should absolutely stay away.   Just park your RV in Moab, rent a Jeep from one of several outfitters, then head out here for the drive of your life!

The switchbacks of the Shafer Trail are hanging on the edge of the cliffs.
The switchbacks of the Shafer Trail are hanging on the edge of the cliffs.  The White Rim Trail can be seen cutting across the lower plateau in the distance.

The Shafer Trail connects the Island In the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park with the White Rim plateau as it drops more than 1000 feet in about 2 miles of steep switchbacks and hairpin turns.

Shafer switchbacks

Of course, there is no room for guardrails on these steep cliffs and shoulders are non-existent.  One wrong move and it’s a tremendous tumble to the pearly gates!

(Go to my 26-second video of this road at the bottom of the page.)

The White Rim Road

This tortuous trail follows a 100-mile-long route through the Canyonlands National Park on what could be considered the middle level of the park, as it were.  The lower level would be the Colorado and Green Rivers, and the top level would be the high mesa called Island in the Sky.  Most tourists only get to visit the upper level, but they are able to peer down 2200 feet into the canyons on three sides of Island in the Sky.

The road traverses gullies and gorges on its way to the White Rim.
I came in on Potash Road which traverses gullies and gorges on its way to the White Rim.

The White Rim Road requires high clearance and four wheel drive.  Unless you are peddling it;  mountain bikers take 4 to 5 days to travel the route, camping in campgrounds at night.  Jeepsters usually take 2 days or more to cover the 100-mile loop because they are in low gear much of the time, only barely staying ahead of the bikers.

The road follows the edge of the White Rim which is 1000 feet above the Colorado River. The drop-offs are impressive.
The road follows the edge of the White Rim which is 1000 feet above the Colorado River. The drop-offs are impressive.

My day-trip on the White Rim was an out-and-back from Moab, Utah, via Potash Road as an alternative to the Shafer Trail.  I only ventured about 25 miles out as far as Musselman Arch, and then back, and it took all day because of the grueling conditions.   Stones, gravel, bare rock, steep grades up and down, dry and wet creek beds;  at one point I drove up a dry wash for some distance, secure in the knowledge that no rain was in the forecast and no flash flood would be forthcoming.

I drove up a dry wash for a while, between cliffs of red rock.
I drove up a dry wash for a while, between cliffs of red rock.

The views from the edge of the Rim are absolutely incredible!  The road travels on the cusp of the drop-off for several miles in some places.   Of course, the road is only one lane, which means when you meet another vehicle, somebody has to back up to the last turn-out so they can pass each other.  That encounter happened to me three times on a particularly dangerous stretch on the ledge!

Views from the edge are impressive.
Views from the edge are impressive.

Most adventurers take the 100-mile loop and only have to drive it once, but since my trip was an out-and-back, I got to see it twice.  That meant twice the white-knuckle fun on the White Rim Road.

On one of the most scary mountain sections, I stuck a video camera to my windsheild with a suction cup mount and captured 11-1/2 minutes of stomach-churning adventure.  I have posted the clip on YouTube so the whole world can view it.

I finally made it back to Moab by nightfall and drove straight to the car wash to reward my truck for its faithful performance on the awful trail, then I headed across the street to the Moab Brewery to reward myself for my awesome off-road driving on America’s second most radical road.

If you ever plan to drive this challenging road, I suggest you view this video so you will know what you are in for.  Full screen mode will give you the greatest gasp-per-mile factor (bottom of the list below).

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View the 35-second video:  A Drive on the Edge – the Hogback on Highway 12

View the 26-second video:  Driven to the Edge – The Shafer Trail

View the 11-1/2 minute video : A White-Knuckle Drive on the White Rim Road.   Click Full Screen for the best scare.  If you are afraid of heights, maybe take a Xanax first!

Thank you for coming along!

Find the other posts in this series in the left sidebar or go to Posts By Destination and click Southwestern Safari.

4 Cliff Dwellings that Put Me on the Edge

This is the 5th in a series on the Southwest.   Find the others in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this post.

Sometimes I can’t believe how I get into such scary spots…  and then I remember exactly how it happens: I am always looking for the obscure sites where there is nobody else around. I don’t like crowds, but for a photographer, they usually come with the job.

Not so with the obscure Navajo ruins of the southwest.  Three of these four sites are not even on a map; I found them through some meandering research, and some of them I had completely to myself.  Now that’s what I’m talking about.

There is a reason why the hundreds of ancient ruins are not publicized and it has to do with preservation.  Heavy traffic can destroy irreplaceable artifacts in a short time.  Most of these locations are protected by conservation laws, but that doesn’t stop some folks from picking up a curious arrowhead here or a stone tool there…  and soon there is no way for archaeologists to piece together the true history of the place when they eventually get to study the site.  Obscurity is their best protection.

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Looks like the Himalayas, doesn’t it? But it’s not Tibet; it’s here in southern Utah.

Pedestal Rock Ruin

I don’t think there is anything to worry about when it comes to the long-term preservation of this amazing location.  Not only is it difficult to reach by road,  it is perched on a high ledge that can’t be reached without risk to life and limb.  It’s just not worth taking the chance.

Further, though it is in plain sight, it blends in with the background cliff so well that it is all but impossible to spot without knowing where to look.

Can you spot the ruin? It is in plain sight near the middle of the photo.
Can you spot the ruin? It is in plain sight near the middle of the photo.  This was my first view of the site as I approached on foot following a sketchy path that ended at the foot of the cliff.
Honestly, the natives must have had their kids on tethers all the time to keep from losing them over the edge.
Honestly, the natives must have had their kids on tethers all the time to keep from losing them over the edge.

When I finally reached Pedestal Rock after several miles of off-roading  (yes, four-wheel-drive was absolutely necessary) and a hike on foot across the desert,  I still had to scramble 150 feet up a loose talus slope to get within 100 feet – and still 30 feet below the ledge – to photograph the stone ruin.  No way was I climbing any farther!

What a fantastic view those guys had from 200 feet above the valley!
What a fantastic view those guys had from their stone house 200 feet above the valley!

Nobody is going to bother Pedestal Rock ruin for a long time.  It’s a thousand years old now and will continue to last undisturbed until…  well, a major earthquake or something.

I spent the night at the end of the road near the cliffs.
I spent the night at the end of the road near the cliffs.

Seventeen-Room Ruin

This site was another well camouflaged structure.  I drove right up to it on a ranch access road and when I got out of my truck I still couldn’t see it.  It’s perfect blend with the huge alcove in which it sits also made it hard to photograph.

A gigantic alcove shelters the ruin on a semi-circular ledge that follows the contour of the formation.
A gigantic overhang shelters the ruin on a semi-circular ledge that follows the contour of the alcove.

Again, I was in for a challenging climb on a boulder-strewn slope.  Man, these guys knew how to pick their sites to ward off attackers!

This ruin commands a splendid view of the San Juan river valley. Yes, that's my pickup below.
This ruin commands a splendid view of the San Juan River valley. Yes, that’s my pickup below.

Many of these ruins were abandoned 700 years ago, but they date back to hundreds of years before that.  Just think, Columbus hadn’t even arrived yet in North America by the time these installations were vacated.  Historians say they moved southeast to more fertile locations, but I think it was because somebody had to carry water and firewood up that slope everyday and they just got tired of it.

17-Room Ruin view

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Set way back in the alcove, this structure will never be eroded by rain and snow.

False Kiva

My hike to False Kiva and back had me focused intently on my own survival.  The site is located in a high alcove overlooking the expansive views of Canyonlands National Park but it requires a sketchy climb across the face of a loose rocky slope on a rather obscure pathway where one wrong move can mean a disastrous tumble and certain death.  The drop to the Green River is over 2000 feet!

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The trail crosses the face of the loose slope with a sheer drop into the canyon below.

Long before I reached the ancient site, I was dizzy with vertigo.  Finally, the enormous alcove offered a secure place to rest…  and grab the photos for which I had just risked by life.  Wow!  What a view!

The setting sun had already dropped below the nearby cliff by the time I reached the old ruin.
The setting sun had already dropped below the nearby cliff by the time I reached the ancient ruin.

I still had to climb back out of here.  My original plan to stay for some night sky shots now seemed rather foolhardy and an invitation to trouble on the dangerous slope after dark.  A quick change of plans had me gulping Gatorade and trail mix and resting for a few minutes before initiating an immediate return to the canyon rim before darkness would set in.

Hovenweap National Monument

This place is actually on the map and gets a light flow of visitors even though it is a long way from anywhere.  It’s location near the Four Corners area makes it accessible on mostly nice paved roads, but it is still not really on the way to anywhere.  There is a rustic campground where I stayed the night.

Though you have to be a bit intentional about getting here, at least you will not be challenged by strenuous climbs.  The only real danger is that, just like every other ancient Anasazi installation, the buildings are perched on the edges of drop-offs.  Make the kids hold your hand.

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Some of these remarkable buildings are three and four stories high and really impressive.  The stonework is nothing short of amazing.

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Every building is contoured to the ledge that it sits on.  And apparently, the rock didn’t need to be level to be a desirable construction site.  It just had to be on a dangerous edge.  Amazing.

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Anyway, it was a relief for me to be able to wander around pretty much on the level and wonder about the way of life that the ancients experienced.  How deep must have been their fear of their adversaries to feel they had to protect themselves by building and  living their lives on the edge every day.

My visit to four ancient sites afforded only a brief glimpse of the historical installations.  There are hundreds of them, and I was amazed that most of them sit unprotected on their original ledges with nary a visit from anybody.  Hopefully, they stay that way, because they are a real treasure to all of us, not only to the native descendants.

I came away from all of my cliff dwelling adventures without a scratch, just some achy leg muscles from all the scrambling up and down steep rock-strewn slopes.  For that I am really thankful.

And I had fun.

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Read Episode #1: Bryce Canyon

Read Episode #2: Capitol Reef

Read episode #3: Monument Valley

Read Episode #4: Valley of the Gods

Thanks for reading!

Valley of the Gods – the Other Monument Valley

This is the 4th in the series on the American Southwest.  There are links to the others at the bottom… or click on the others in the left side bar.

There are no buses or safari trucks hauling tourists to this remote spot.  In fact, if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, you might not make it here yourself.  The road is gravel and sand and if you are coming in from the west, it crosses no less than 20 dry washes.  You descend steeply, cross the stream bed, and then climb just as quickly out the other side.  If it’s raining, forget about it.  Crossing streams here can get you stuck for hours or days – if you aren’t washed away entirely.

What this lack of accessibility adds up to is a lot of solitude…  in the middle of a magnificent valley filled with rugged silent beauty.  It is often described as a slightly less spectacular version of Monument Valley which is within sight, a few miles to the southwest.  To me, it looks as though the two are just part of one larger geological area, with the San Jaun River gorge cutting across the middle.

The road wanders among huge buttes and cliffs and crossed arroyos.
The road wanders among huge buttes and cliffs and crosses many arroyos.

The camping is free here, and that is one thing that attracted me to the spot; I saw it as an affordable overnight alternative to the expensive campgrounds and dude ranches that service Monument Valley.  Of course, boon docking is for those who are self-sufficient.  There are no restrooms or water pumps here; you are entirely on your own.

Camper heads into Valley of the Gods

I had checked off a mental inventory of my provisions before turning off the highway just north of Mexican Hat, having already filled the fuel tank and eating a hearty fast food meal at Kayenta, Arizona earlier in the day.

This spot will certainly be ranked in my top ten of my favorite campsite of all time.
This spot will certainly be ranked in the top ten of my favorite campsites of all time.

The campsite I chose was at the valley’s northernmost point at the foot of a giant butte and across from its twin.  There were cliffs both east and west of me and a view to the southwest that stretched almost to infinity where I could see the hazy buttes of Monument Valley in the distance.

I parked the camper at the foot of a massive monolith.
I parked the camper at the foot of a massive tower.
Looking west and southwest from my campsite.
Looking west from my campsite. There’s the road I came in on.
Looking east from my campsite.
Looking east from my campsite.

There is no restriction on hiking and exploring here, so I scrambled around for a while with the camera, just enjoying the sights.

The expansive view toward the southwest from my campsite.
The expansive view toward the southwest from my campsite.

Of course, boon docking means there are no improvements to the campsites; there are no RV pads or leveled platforms.  I soon realized that my site was sloping a bit and decided to make my own improvements – by backing the truck onto some slabs of rock for the night.  Perfect.

Leveling the site

After the sun went down, I became slowly aware of another spectacular scene:  the Milky Way was brilliant in the dark sky above me.  After all, the nearest town was 20 miles away and the nearest city was more than 100 miles south.  Out came the camera and tripod for a few time exposures of the starry sky.

I made a fake campfire of battery-operated mini-tealights and sat as still as I could for 25 seconds to get this shot.
I made a fake campfire of battery-operated mini-tealights and sat as still as I could for 25 seconds to get this shot.  Campfires are not permitted at this location.

Though there had been a few tourists driving by in rented SUV’s during the day, the place became extremely quiet after dark, almost too quiet.  There was not another soul nearby… or was there?
A light wind was causing a moaning in the highest crags of the stone tower near me. It seemed a little bit spooky, and I started wondering how this desolate place first got its name.  Did the natives name it?  Had they been conjuring spirits out here in the past?  Were there still manifestations that were floating about in the dark?

Were the Ancient Ones standing nearby watching me?
As the darkness deepened, were the Ancient Ones standing nearby watching me?

Climbing into the comfort of my camper loft, my weariness caught up with my consciousness and put me under a blanket of sleep.  There were no nightmares.  Just peace and quiet.

I loved Valley of the Gods and if I ever return, I hope to stay longer.

It’s a lot of fun if you like traipsing about in the desert among the most fascinating of rock formations.  Or if you just like quiet solitude.  Beautiful.

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Read Part 1:  Bryce Canyon is Hoodoo Central

Read Part 2:  Capitol Reef – I Think We’re Alone Now

Read Part 3:  Two (fake) Cowboys Meet in Monument Valley

Two (fake) Cowboys Meet in Monument Valley

This is the third in a series of posts from my photo safari to the American Southwest.  Look for links to the others at the bottom.

Since I am the most frequent subject in my own photos, I often dress to fit the setting.  For the southwest trip I bought a plaid shirt – red of course – and a cowboy hat and stepped into the picture at just about every site.

At Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park there is already a resident cowboy who poses on his horse for the tourists, making a few dollars in tips from each one.  Being photo savvy, he wears a red shirt too.  I don’t know this Navajo’s name but we spoke briefly at John Ford Point, the little mesa made famous by the namesake film director who first filmed John Wayne at the site for the movie Stagecoach  in 1939.  It has since been featured in a variety of flicks including The Searchers (1956),  Easy Rider (1969) and others.

monument-valley-cowboy-ortn-2

My tour of the dusty 17-mile valley loop took me past other popular scenes like the Totem Poles, West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Butte.

Valley Drive in Monument Valley

Totem Poles at Monument Valley

Though there are lots of safari trucks and outfitters who offer tours through the famous valley, I like that it is still open to general visitors to drive and explore.  However, hiking is not allowed in most areas and there are warnings about leaving the road, so it is closely controlled.  You can get ticketed for wandering off… if anybody can find you.

West Mitten Monument Valley

Monument Panorama

Monument North Window

My final signature site was Mile 13 on the north side of the valley where highway 163 makes a straight shot north out of the park.  It’s the spot where Forrest Gump finally stopped running in the movie of the same name.  The day I was there, the highway was being repaved.

There is a small turnout at milepost 13 where you can pull off and aim your camera south to capture th iconic skyline made famous by Forrest Gump.
There is a small turnout at milepost 13 where you can pull off and aim your camera south to capture the iconic skyline made famous by Forrest Gump.

Monument Valley is a long way from the nearest expressway and farther from a city, but if you go, you can get fuel and provisions at the Shell station in Mexican Hat coming in from the north or at Kayenta (AZ) to the south where there are several gas stations and even some fast-food joints.

Also, if you are boondocking, the camping is free at Valley of the Gods just 25 miles northeast (my next post will cover this remote location).  No facilities.

You’re sure to have a monumental experience!  And have fun.

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Read Southwestern Safari episode 1:  Bryce Canyon is Hoodoo Central

Read Southwestern Safari episode 2:  Capitol Reef National Park – I Think We’re Alone Now

Also, click the green Follow button in the left side bar if you want to get a notice of my next post.  You won’t want to miss my final post in the series, Four Mountain Roads that Scared the Snot Out of Me!