Arizona: Down in the Valley(s)

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Thinking back on Arizona, one major theme rises to the surface- it had all kinds of valleys. There were massive valleys, narrow slot canyons, sharp bends- and we barely scratched the surface of Arizona. We kept mostly to the northern edge of the state since we wanted to see a few more things in western Utah before heading into Nevada.

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We started things off by driving into Monument Valley, which is kind of in Utah/Arizona limbo (it sits on Navajo land along the state borders). We stayed at the Valley View campground, which, despite costing an arm and a leg for a basic dry site, offered a luminous view of the formations that make up its namesake.

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As film geeks, Carl and I have seen Monument Valley several times on screen (its serves as a landscape in many old Western films, and even some newer ones!) It was so cool to see it in real life. The delicate forms are otherworldly, growing up from the desert floor out of seeming nothingness. We gazed at them as the sun went down and again at sunrise. Some wild horses decided to join us just as the sun was coming up, as if inspired by the ghost of John Wayne himself. We were only passing through for the night, but it’s possible to get an up-close-and-personal tour of the monuments led by Native Americans.

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After our night in the valley we were on to The Grand Canyon– one of the only National Parks that Carl and I had both been to before this epic trip (each of us as little kids). We’d planned to spend several nights there, imagining it to be so big and complex that we’d need LOTS of time to see it all. That turned out to be both true and untrue- in fact, The Grand Canyon had several surprises in store for us. Namely, that it could be snowy at the south rim in April, that it has precious few hiking trails and that its roads and campgrounds are as dense and tree-lined as any forest can be.

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We’d planned to spend five nights at Mather Campground (which, given the unexpected turns, ended up being both a good and bad thing!) We needed the extra few days to contend with snowy weather. And of course, the canyon is gorgeous, massive, and nearly impossible to consume from just a few viewpoints- but this would be true in nearly any case.

We’d imagined there would be several hiking opportunities in and around the canyon, but in reality there are very few on the south rim. We can’t speak to the north rim, since we arrived at the park before it opened; it’s accessible from mid-May to mid-October due to its higher elevation, whereas the south rim remains open year-round. The main paved trail around the most popular portion of the south rim goes for about 13 miles, and the famed Bright Angel Trail will take you down into the canyon and out again if you are so ambitious. We did portions of both paths, getting glimpses of the canyon all the while.

We developed a category for this type of park after visiting the Grand Canyon- the so-called “drive up and ogle” spot. There seemed to be so much infrastructure around the Grand Canyon, yet appreciating it was a surprisingly difficult process. It is an astounding sight, but one that you can only really just look at (barring those intense souls that hike one of the few trails down or those who can take advantage of the north rim). We’ve really come to value the ability to interact with our surroundings more deeply by hiking in or around these parks and monuments. To only stand around and look at viewpoints from above proved to be a little unsatisfying. The crowd alone at every viewpoint was so densely packed that people would hold their phones up above and click away, hoping for the best. If we had to do it over, we’d try to plan an overnight trip down into the canyon.

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As you can see above, it was blustery and cold! The canyon was often obscured by thick clouds.

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We took advantage of the clearest, warmest day to hike a few miles down (and up again) on the Bright Angel Trail.

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We even connected for dinner with some friends from Minneapolis who were passing through the park- rad moviemaker Dallas and his girlfriend Emily, pictured above! This photo was stolen from them. It was so nice to see some familiar faces and get the headlines from home.

In all, our trip to the Grand Canyon was not what we thought it would be- sure, it was a mind-boggling experience to look out over one of the biggest canyons in the world. But it was one we could’ve done in a day or two if we’d done our research, or seen in greater detail if we’d been able to plan a trek down inside.

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We continued on to the town of Page, which we chose as a jumping-off point due to its proximity to Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon. We spent the next few days exploring these sights and hunting feverishly for a strong enough wifi connection to catch up on Game of Thrones- you know, the important things in life! Let’s just say my new book chronicling this saga, titled “Wifi: a Song of Dust and Tears” will be out early next year.

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Our campsite on public lands near Lake Powell

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The infamous Horseshoe Bend! This is a part of the Colorado River where it takes an abrupt turn before heading down south into the Grand Canyon. The walls are deceptively steep, with no ropes or gates preventing you from falling in! I was too chicken to stay very long. A windstorm started kicking up sand a few minutes after we arrived and we were like, nah!

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Upper Antelope Canyon (from the outside, before heading in.)

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Our time in Page offered us some great opportunities to see unique scenery- but from the very beginning of entering Arizona, it was clear we were in tourist country. The Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend were full to the brim with visitors filing off of busses and snapping photos. It’s a tough pill to swallow, that everyone wants to see beautiful things- and that sometimes, crowds mean that those natural landscapes are interrupted by the very thing they offer a reprieve from.

Antelope Canyon proved to be spectacular, but its epic scenery was tempered by some pretty intense crowding and the pressure to shuffle through them quickly to make room for the steady stream of people. It’s clear that this natural wonder is a lucrative moneymaker for the Navajo Tribe that controls the land it resides on- people aren’t allowed into the canyons without a tour guide (and the tours start at $46 per person). Visitors are shuttled in and out of the canyons 12 at a time, rover after rover. Each group snakes through the narrow canyons with hardly a break between people. I found the crowds, stress and clausterphobia overwhelming, and it put a damper on the miracle-magic that is these red slot canyons.

We missed a lot of Arizona by opting to explore the natural beauty of the northern edge. Had we known the Grand Canyon would be cold (and possible to see in a day or two), we may have planned things differently. That said, we couldn’t believe how much scenery could be fit into such a small amount of space in Arizona alone. The wonders of the southwest never cease!

Next, we’ll be back in Utah for a couple more National Parks!

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US Anywhere is a year-long, cross-country documentary project by newlyweds Carl and Anna. They are taking the 52 weeks of 2016 and are using them to travel the country and make short films about all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C.). The project will seek to illuminate the states and the hugely diverse urban and natural landscapes of the US. They hope to inspire others to dream, travel, explore, and connect with the United States.

3 thoughts on “Arizona: Down in the Valley(s)

  • your photography captures the magnificence of the variations in landscape without evidence of the disruption of the throngs of tourists

  • Your photos are spectacular! BRAVO! I really enjoyed your pictures, and you captured the wonder and stark beauty and variety of northern Arizona/ Utah. I enjoyed reading your blog, too! Keep up the good work!

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