From McCamey, in western Texas, to Bellemont, Arizona, about 10 miles west of Flagstaff, we covered about 900 miles in April. And we did some serious sightseeing.
After spending three weeks in McCamey, and our NOMADS deck- and wheelchair ramp-building project finished, we said goodbye to the many friends we met there and headed west. About 30 miles south of McCamey, we stopped at a pull-out and went in search of dinosaur tracks – success! To keep the tracks protected from too much traffic and from vandalism, they are now protected by a fenced-in cage, easy to find after a few minute walk from the pull-out. Thanks, Steve, for the tip and directions.
Despite fighting a head wind once we got onto I-10, we made good time and breezed on through El Paso mid-day, and continued on to the Escapees RV park in Deming, New Mexico – very convenient to I-10 and always friendly folks to greet us. What luck – we were in time for the cooked-to-order breakfast the next morning before we hit the road. Anytime the chief cook and bottle washer doesn’t have to cook or clean up – life is good!
Tucson was our next destination, with a stay planned at Agave Gulch RV Park at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. We did a little bit of musical RV sites that first afternoon but soon got assigned a full hook-up site but not before we saw a bit of military pompousness we hadn’t seen since Larry was still on active duty. Long story short – someone decided to bypass the waiting list and tried to throw their rank around. The campground staff stuck to their policy and we were soon set up in that site.
While in the Tucson area, we visited Pen and Jim, friends we’d met in 2004 at our first Habitat build in Alpena, Michigan. Pen had recently been diagnosed with valley fever and was in the hospital recuperating from surgery. It was great seeing them both and playing catch up on our respective travels and lives.
We did six geocaches in and around Tucson one morning, with an eye out for snakes and desert critters and cactus needles.
Next stop – Peoria – where we had reservations at what is now called Valley of the Sun RV Park, located behind the Ramada Inn. This is a very basic campground but all we needed were hookups. Besides, it is very convenient to Roger (Lucille’s brother) and wife Kathie’s home. We had a ball the entire week we spent in that area – we didn’t do any sightseeing but got in a major family fix. Four years ago, they started enlarging their home – in jest, we threatened not to visit till it was finished. It is amazing the work that has been done and all the room they now have, with a few minor projects yet to be completed. One afternoon, nephews Russell and Stephen came by for a cookout. It’s been years since we’ve seen Roger’s sons – they’re not little kids anymore. It was neat carrying on adult conversations with them. We met Kathie’s son Tad, on vacation from Florida, and enjoyed hanging out with him as well.
While in the Phoenix area, we made arrangements to meet Charlie and Gloria (Escapee friends we met in Kentucky several years ago) at Cracker Barrel. This lifestyle is ideal for keeping up with friends we meet all over the US. Charlie and Gloria had checked our online itinerary, dropped us an email, and plans were soon made to connect back up again.
All too soon it was time to leave Peoria and family – destination Camp Verde, about 90 miles north of Phoenix. We quickly got set up at the RPI membership campground where we stayed for a week.
Besides doing several geocaches in the area, we visited:
Montezuma Castle National Monument: Five-story, 20-room cliff dwellings 100 feet above the valley built by Southern Sinagua farmers in the early 12th century. Early settlers assumed it was Aztec in origin, thus the name Montezuma. Nearby is Montezuma Well, which is actually a limestone sink formed by the collapse of an immense underground cavern. The castle was interesting, especially wondering how they managed to get in and out of these sheer dwellings without loss of life or limb. The short hike around the well was quite enjoyable and very scenic.
Tuzigoot National Monument: Tuzigoot in Apache means crooked water. This monument is the remnant of another Southern Sinagua village built between 1125 and 1400 AD. The original pueblo was two stories high in places and had 77 ground-floor rooms. Entry was by way of ladders through openings in the roofs.
Red Rock State Historic Park: Only open since 1991, this park is in danger of being closed, due to budget cuts within the Arizona state parks system. We hope not because we thoroughly enjoyed our visit here. The park’s 286 acres were originally owned by Jack and Helen Frye (Jack was co-founder of TWA along with Howard Hughes.) In 1940, Helen had a home built upon some of the red rocks to resemble Indian dwellings. Called the House of the Apache Fire, it blends in beautifully among its surroundings.
We took a guided ranger tour and as always, we learned something new. Do you know how mistletoe propagates? Thanks to a bird which eats its gelatinous seed - it goes through the bird’s digestive tract and then comes out the bird’s butt. This gelatinous goo sticks to the bird’s legs, which it then removes by rubbing its butt against tree bark - the mistletoe is now attached to the tree. And we kiss under this stuff? Hmmm….
There are several trails to hike – we did the Eagle’s Nest Trail – beautiful views all around when you reach the top.
Old Camp Verde Salt Mines: We did a geocache here. We aren’t sure why or when the mines shut down. We saw old timbers, rusted equipment, and huge hills of excavated salt just lying around.
V-Bar-V Ranch Petroglyphs: This site is part of the US Forest Service. We saw several very interesting and well-preserved drawings done by the Sinaguans sometime between 1100-1400 AD.
Fort Verde State Park: The fort was a base for US Army scouts and soldiers in the 1870s and 1880s and is the best-preserved example of an Indian Wars period fort in Arizona. Several original buildings still stand. From the docent, we learned that the “John Wayne and enclosed fort with Indians attacking” scenarios didn’t happen in the Southwest, but possibly did in the Midwest. Because of the surrounding desert, there was not much wood around to enclose forts. Neither did Indians charge any of the encampments. (Now someone will tell us there’s no Easter Bunny!)
Just before we left Camp Verde, we met up with Jaimie and her husband George. We met Jaimie for the first time in 2002 at a Workamper Job Fair in Tampa, Florida. From her, and subsequently her book, Support Your Lifestyle, we learned of the thousands of opportunities out there for RVers to work in exchange for a campsite and sometimes even get paid. This was the first time we’d met George – we thoroughly enjoyed visiting with the both of them and playing catch up since we’d last seen Jaimie in 2003.
From Camp Verde, we headed north to Bellemont, about 10 miles west of Flagstaff. We climbed an additional 4,000 feet in altitude during the trip – the truck did fine, although Larry kept a close eye on the temperature gauges. We pulled into Camp Navajo, a National Guard base that was originally an Army post in 1945 and also the location of a POW camp for Austrians during 1945-1946.
This fairly new military campground is conveniently located off of I-40, has just 14 sites with water and electric. We set up in what we think was the best site with a gorgeous view of a meadow and the San Francisco peaks in the background. Our week’s stay there grew to 11 nights – we were reluctant to leave when our time was up.
What a difference in temperatures while we were here. From the high 80s-90s we experienced in Phoenix and Camp Verde, it was a welcome treat to wake up to chilly below freezing mornings that quickly warmed up to mid-50s and 60s once the sun was out.
Besides doing a lot of sightseeing while we were here (more on that later), we did several geocaches, including one on old Route 66, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch at the roadside rest area. We imagined the thousands of cars over the decades that have stopped at that area – if trees could talk!
Another cache was at Keyhole Sink, located off a dirt road that we ended up walking – it was too rugged unless you have a 4WD vehicle. We weren’t successful in finding the cache but were rewarded with more petroglyphs.
Roger was looking for an excuse to go for a ride on his Honda bike so he came up from Phoenix one day, enjoying the much cooler weather up in the mountains with us.
Based on his recommendation, we stopped in Flagstaff for lunch at the Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Café – great food and good pricing if you are ever in the area. We only ate half of our respective sandwiches to leave room for dessert. We split the apple-ginger stout cake which was a dark gingerbread with apple slices, warm caramel sauce. Glad we split it – it was huge!
Another day, we drove to Williams, one of the hubs of old Route 66, and enjoyed ice cream treats at Twisters, an old-fashioned soda fountain and restaurant.
While we were staying at Camp Navajo, Shelley developed an eye problem. We located a vet in the Flagstaff area and after several return visits, shots, eye drops and pills, we got the swollen eye under control – never a dull moment. For a while, she was pretty scary-looking at you with one good eye and one ugly red eye – Larry nicknamed her Cyclops.
If there was a national park or monument or similar in this area, we saw it…
Meteor Crater: Located on an active ranch and privately owned by the Barringer Family, this is worth a stop. But get there early enough to take a guided tour to see parts of the crater the public can’t usually access. The tours are part of the admission fee.
Formed 50,000 years ago by a meteor hurtling through Earth’s atmosphere at 26,000 miles per hour (that boggles the mind!), the impact formed a crater 700 feet deep and over 4,000 feet across. Over 175 million tons of limestone and sandstone were heaved out of the area for a distance of over a mile. The crater was originally thought to be volcanic in origin, part of an actual volcanic field located northeast of there. It wasn’t until 1902 that mining engineer Daniel Barringer determined it had been caused by a meteor. Factoid: a meteor becomes a meteorite when it crashes.
We learned from our guide that astronauts have trained here because the terrain is similar to what is found on the moon. We also heard the story of the small plane that crashed in the crater, having to be extracted at great expense by Luke Air Force Base personnel. The crater creates its own atmosphere and the curious pilots ignored warnings to stay 500 feet or higher. Both pilots lost their licenses, a hefty punishment because they were both commercial pilots.
Wupatki National Monument: This monument protects the ancient dwellings of puebloan peoples. The Wupatki pueblo was settled around 1100 AD. This 100-room pueblo had a tower, community room and ceremonial ball court. Near the ball court is a blow hole – depending on the ambient temperature, either hot or cold air blows out of this hole – refreshing on the warm day we visited the pueblo.
The national monument features several other pueblos – one particular pueblo was impressive because it seemed to just rise up out of the desert. We were able to get up close and personal with this one, checking out the various rooms.
Sunset Crater National Monument: Erupting between 1040 and 1100 AD, Sunset Crater Volcano is the most recent in a six-million-year history of volcanic activity in the Flagstaff area. We walked the Lava Flow Trail around the base of the volcano, through lava flows and cinder barrens at Sunset Crater – unusual terrain, lots of volcanic ash, and with a beauty of its own.
Walnut Canyon National Monument: Declared a national monument in 1915, it is easily reached off of I-40 and provided us with a couple of hours of education and a bit of exercise. Occupied between 1125 and 1250 AD, the Sinaguans took advantage of natural recesses in the limestone walls and built over 300 cliff room dwellings in these shallow caves. Sinagua is Spanish for without water – these people were ingenious in how they turned a relatively dry region into a homeland.
The loop around the ruins had been closed for almost a year because of a rock slide and had just reopened the day we visited – what luck! We hiked the paved trail, down 240 steps and back up again, huffing and puffing because we weren’t used to the 7,000 feet in altitude. But it was well worth it – the scenery was spectacular.
National Weather Service in Flagstaff: On our way back from checking mail, we noticed that the National Weather Service office, located just outside the gates of Camp Navajo, was having an open house that Saturday. Not ones to pass up an opportunity for a peek at how things work, we stopped.
The tour started with a short slide presentation by the head meteorologist for this location, where we learned about the weather service and this particular office. We then toured the forecasting room with a final stop for a demonstration of winds and tornadic activity.
Staffed 24/7, the service provides weather warnings and advisories to protect the citizens of northern Arizona, using state-of-the-art technology. We learned that the Weather Service does not charge for its forecasts, unlike some of the other commercial sites out there, such as Weather Bug, Weather Underground, although the commercial sites may get some of their information from the National Weather Service.
United States Naval Observatory: Located a short drive off of I-40 west of Flagstaff, we were lucky to have gotten a personal tour by the woman manning the front desk. Tours are available only if staff has time – our timing was great.
You may wonder why the Navy is in land-locked Flagstaff. The major light-gathering instrument of the U.S. Naval Observatory was located in Washington, DC, but as the nation’s capital grew, increasing city lights and smoke reduced the effectiveness of this instrument. Money was appropriated in 1954 for the transfer of the telescope to a more suitable location. After a study of meteorological and other factors, such as accessibility, this site was selected. The new site is 7,600 feet above sea level, easy to reach, and atmospheric conditions are excellent.
There are now several telescopes located on the grounds here, including the 26-inch refractor used in 1877 to discover the two moons of Mars, now used for planetary satellite observations. The 61-inch astrometric reflector is the Observatory’s largest optical telescope. We not only got a tour of the inside of the dome where the telescope is housed, we toured the room where the lens is polished every five years. We also walked out on the catwalk to see the views all around. While up there, our guide pointed out a ship's anchor on the grounds – the highest point a ship’s anchor can be found in the US. It is a Navy facility, after all.
Lowell Observatory: Located just one mile west of downtown Flagstaff on Mars Hill-“Lowell Observatory is a private, non-profit research institution founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell. The Observatory has been the site of many important findings including the discovery of the large recessional velocities (redshift) of galaxies by Vesto Slipher in 1912-1914 (a result that led ultimately to the realization the universe is expanding), and the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Today, Lowell's 20 astronomers use ground-based telescopes around the world, telescopes in space, and NASA planetary spacecraft to conduct research in diverse areas of astronomy and planetary science.”
A self-guided tour of the grounds is available but we took advantage of the guided tour included in the cost of admission, which got us into the Rotunda Library Museum where we saw several displays of older astrological equipment. This tour also allowed us to visit inside the building housing the Clark telescope. The domed roof is made of ponderosa pine and turns with the help of 35 truck tires and three motors – pretty impressive. We also learned that astronomers at Lowell plotted out maps of the moon so the astronauts could land on it.
Can you think of a more suitable grand finale to the month than a visit to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim! Because our campground was 80 miles away, we made reservations for Shelley at one of the park’s kennels – we knew it would be a long day. She had a roomy indoor/outdoor run and didn’t even miss us when she met her doggy neighbors.
Our first stop was Market Square. A short hike brought us to our first view of the rim – still as awesome as it was when we visited years ago. From there, we drove to the Canyon View Information Plaza and checked out some of the recommended trails and hikes. We parked at Mather Point - more impressive views.
We then drove to another parking lot where we picked up the shuttle to Hermits’ Rest, the only way to view the park this time of the year. There are nine stops on the way up to Hermits’ Rest, a distance of seven miles. You can get on and off all the way up, get back on the shuttle or walk along the rim. There are three stops on the way back. We got off halfway to view one of the overlooks, hopped back on for another few stops, then got off to walk along the rim on a paved path for pedestrians and bikes for a little less than two miles – there are several beautiful viewpoints along the walk. We then got back on the shuttle to finish up at the top, stopped for a short break, then rode back down, retrieved the truck and Shelley and then headed out of the park, heading for the East entrance. (We’d entered the park from the South entrance.)
The way back was as fascinating and beautiful as what we saw on the way to Hermits’ Rest. There are several overlooks where you can park. We stopped at a couple of them, but the most memorable one was the Desert View Watchtower, almost at the East entrance to the park. The Watchtower was built in the early 30s as an overlook and the view from all around is gorgeous. We climbed as far as they’d allow us to – all enclosed with windows looking out as you go up.
Note: We’ve heard a lot about a Sky Walk, a clear-bottom man-made overlook that you can walk out on and see the canyon beneath your feet. It’s not at the national park but is located 250 miles west, still part of the Grand Canyon, but is on an Indian reservation. We heard there is a cost to get on to the reservation and another $25/person for the Sky Walk – a little bit much for our budget, even if it had been nearby.
As we mentioned, visiting the Grand Canyon was a great finale to a month spent seeing some awesome sights.
Coming up: We head west before heading north (a trip to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is postponed – it won’t be open till after we are long past) to visit friends in Dolan Springs, Arizona; Las Vegas, Nevada; then north to Utah with stops first in Hurricane and Hatch to visit Zion and Bryce National Parks before proceeding to Torrey, near Capitol Reef National park, where we’ll spend two months.