Posted by: Dave | May 26, 2010

Reminder: Arizona is awesome

I leave in less than 2 weeks for South Africa.  That means a lot of things… including the need to finally update this blog with the cool stuff I’ve done in Arizona over the past 12 months.  If you haven’t been out to the American southwest, I’ll plead with you to move it to the top of your vacation-planning list. (We all have one of those, right? Only a few of us are dorky enough to have an actual spreadsheet though.)

With my 3-week trip to South Africa (World Cup, safari, great white shark diving!) coming up quickly, I need to get back into the swing of things… and I really want to share Arizona with all of you.  Well, we can share the scenery, not the politics.

Most people know Arizona for its cacti and the Grand Canyon. But while the saguaro cactus is majestic and the Grand Canyon defies words, there is so much more.

Not smart to stand 1000 feet straight above the Colorado River and try to be creative. See that white thing in the river on the right side? That's a boat and its wake.

The best way to tee up the incredible landscapes of northern Arizona is for me to share a story.  While standing on the edge of a cliff at Horseshoe Bend (see photo at right… stupid), which is technically the beginning of the Grand Canyon, I struck up a conversation with a French tourist.  He told me that he has been all over the world – Africa, South America, China, Australia and of course all over Europe.  He said to me that there is nothing in the world like the American southwest and its incredible geologic formations, its vast open spaces and its true solitude.  That was quite an impression on me. The American southwest is my backyard… and Arizona in particular offers such amazing places as Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Sedona, the slot canyons near Lake Powell, not to mention the amazing things that can be found on the lands of the Hopi and Navajo.

I’m going to take you on a quick photo tour of some of the things I saw in the last half of 2009 and first half of 2010… and it’s all here in Arizona. Where to start?

You’ve seen Monument Valley before. It’s in countless car commercials and country westerns.  I think I remember it in Forrest Gump and National Lampoon’s Vacation too.  It’s right at the Utah border, and lies in Najavo Nation… which makes up for most of the northeast corner of Arizona.  There’s not much here… just a small hotel and visitor center that the Navajo operates, and a dirt road that takes you on a 13 miles loop of the “monuments”.  But it’s still amazing.  You can see forever, and these red rock formations dominate the vast landscape.  And I was there for full moon, which made the place even more special.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley - as seen in western movies and US Marine Corps commercials!

Full moon over Monument Valley

A petrified tree trunk in the middle of the desert. Who would've thought?!

If you’ve ever driven across the country on Interstate 40, you’ve passed through Petrified Forest National Park, which is located in the Painted Desert. This place has trees that were turned to stone (I’ll leave the science to you and Google) over 200-million years ago.  That’s even before my dad’s time!   Unfortunately, as the west was being settled, a lot of the petrified wood was stolen/looted and sold back east … often as coffee tables or paper weights.

The Petrified Forest is still fascinating, but it’s incredible to think about this land full of fallen trees that are made of stone. Oh… did I mention that the stone is rainbow colored?

The Grand Canyon. You might have figured out (because I’ve told you) that the Grand Canyon is my favorite place on the planet. It was only a couple of years ago that I saw my first photo of the Grand Canyon covered in snow. It blew my mind. I had no idea that it snowed there and it was incredibly beautiful.  I learned that it’s not easy to see the Grand Canyon when it’s snow covered, so that was priority #1 this past winter. I needed to make sure there was enough snow and that I had a vehicle to deal with potentially uncleared roads in the National Park.  There wasn’t much snow inside the canyon, but at the rim there was about 6 feet. There were also some spectacular cloud formations inside the canyon. I’ll let a couple of pics try to do justice to this massive crack in the earth.

Magical conditions in a magical place

Above the clouds... and on the rim of the Grand Canyon

Note the people at the top right for some scale. Chocolate Falls is taller than Niagara Falls.

And there’s the even more unexpected and unknown Arizona too.  On Navajo land, just 30 miles or so from Flagstaff, there’s a turnoff onto a dirt road that seemingly goes to nowhere.  15 miles down this dirt road, in the middle of the Painted Desert is a place known casually as Chocolate Falls. Its real name is Grand Falls, and it’s in the middle of the Little Colorado River, which meets up with the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  Chocolate Falls flows during the snow melt, and creates a waterfall that’s taller than Niagara Falls (admittedly with way less water flow). The water is a deep brown color, which gives the falls its name.  The Navajo haven’t done anything to commercialize the falls. There’s no sign telling you where to turn. There’s no stand selling water or even Native American handcrafts.  It’s really in the middle of nowhere with nothing around. Except maybe 2 dozen wanderers like me who somehow knew about it.

Like the snow-covered Grand Canyon, I had been wanting to go to Chocolate Falls since I first learned about it. There are only those couple of spring months when it’s worthwhile, and I hadn’t made it in the last few years.  With all of the rain and snow that we got this past winter (Flagstaff had the 2nd highest snowfall of any city in the lower 48 this year!), I knew Chocolate Falls would be great, so I made sure not to miss it. I’m so glad I went, for a few reason … not the least of which is that I think the picture below may be my best photo I’ve ever taken.  Maybe.

The beautiful muddy Little Colorado River flowing over Chocolate Falls.

Bell Rock. Sedona, AZ.

Sedona is known for its red rocks and spiritual vibes. You’ll find resorts, spas and plenty of shops selling every type of crystal that you could want.  And it’s incredibly beautiful.  The drive into Sedona leads you past Bell Rock (right) into town. There are some beautiful hiking trails around Sedona, that let you explore the red rocks and the high elevation is a great escape from the hotter temperatures of the Phoenix valley.

Central and southern Arizona have their share of southwest awesomeness too.  Kartchner Caverns, located just south of Tucson and about 50 miles from the Mexico border, are one of the newest complex cave discoveries in the world, having only been discovered by amateur cavers in the mid-1970s. They weren’t even open to the public until 1999. Amazing science has gone into preserving the caves, and the number of daily visitors is limited and there’s a complex entry process that involves multiple sealed doors and misting systems to control the lint on your clothing. Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed (light is controlled to keep mosses from growing on the cave formations), but it was worth sharing.

While driving to Kartchner Caverns, we did a quick drive-through of Saguaro National Park, which flanks Tucson. It was quick for two reasons: darkness and a rainstorm!  Sunset provided some brief light in the middle of the storm, which captured the drama of the desert.

Saguaro National Park with a desert monsoon rolling in...

And even here in the Phoenix area there is amazing and beautiful scenery.  Like most of the country, we had a ton of rain this past winter, so the desert was in full bloom all spring (downside: allergies).  We’re lucky to have great trails all over the Phoenix area, and this one is just about 3 miles from my house in Scottsdale in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The beautiful Ceara Harpley hiking on the Sunrise Trail in Scottsdale.

So that’s (part of) Arizona.  Plan your vacation out west asap!

Thanks for reading my blog – or at least looking at the pictures. There’ll be a lot more coming in the next month or so as I travel around South Africa!  I have started another website that’s more of a simple collection of my photography. You can see more pics there.  It’s a work in progress… so don’t judge the website design.

Arizona Saguaro & Sunset


  1. Safe travels! Look forward to the photos 🙂

  2. […] […]

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