I recently wrote about returning to favorite places. A lifetime favorite, for me, is the Four Corners region of the United States. I could return there, and only there, for the rest of my life and be quite satisfied. For many reasons - perhaps some related to my content mental state these days - this was my favorite trip -of the many I have taken, in recent memory. Hyperbole? Yeah, maybe - but, candidly, I can't imagine having a better trip.
I traveled to places new and old - strange and familiar. My comfort level toting around a 3000 lb. trailer has increased and my trip planning has improved as well. I'm at that place of not worrying so much and enjoying things more...it's a good place to be.
This trip also felt a bit like a watershed for my photography. I've reached a point where I've grown somewhat satisfied about my approach - I have struggled balancing fun, relaxation and photography. On this little journey I felt I was able to better handle doing all the things I love to do.
My goal was to get to Hovenweep National Monument as soon as I could and so I drove 525 miles the first day back to Homolovi Ruins State Park. It was a long drive but between Audible, the MLB station on Sirius XM and my playlists it wasn't too brutal. The sky was wonderful when I got to Homolovi.
I gassed up and grabbed a quick bite at a chicken joint in Winslow and went to bed very early. I got up at the crack of dawn and headed for Four Corners. For a few years now I've wanted to see Hovenweep National Monument which sits on the border of Utah and Colorado. No reservations are available at the campground but, arriving on a Wednesday, it was wide open and I got a wonderful spot. After setting up camp, I went to the visitor center and took a few photos.
The next morning I was on the trail fairly early. I hiked the Square Tower Trail, the Castle Trail and Tower Point. The hiking was very easy and, in total, only covered about 4 miles. What a 4 miles, though! Each of the Ancestral Puebloan structures is fascinating and quite reminiscent of my trip to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
A highlight of the hike was, after picking up trash along my way, I ran into an NPS Ranger. We had a wonderful conversation and just as we were discussing how visitors can be idiots, she spied a guy dangerously off trail across the canyon and let out an awesome bellow. She yelled, “GET BACK ON THE TRAIL!”. The fool, near a precipitous edge, jumped back and said, “Oh. Sorry”. I gotta admit, it was pretty cool.
The eastern Utah sky put on a show that afternoon.
After two blissful days at Hovenweep I loaded up and set my compass east toward Montrose, Colorado.
Four years ago I went to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River National Park and transfixed by the beauty, I decided on leaving that I had to come back and as soon as I could. It did take four years but it was worth it. This is an unheralded gem of the Park system. Uncrowded and serene and gloriously beautiful. After I arrived I couldn't help myself - I grabbed my tripod and headed directly for the rim.
I spent the next morning at the Visitor Center and on a Ranger Archaeology walk. In the bottom photo you can see the mighty Gunnison which still roars at times despite being dammed three times before the river gets to the National Park.
That night, well, you know what I did that night. You are correct, I grabbed that tripod again and went for a drive. The weather was perfect and I rambled along the trails in shorts and a t-shirt...just breathing in the grandeur.
One of the nicest things about this National Park is the access to magnificent viewpoints within 300-400 yards off the main road. It's great - you drive a few minutes and then walk and sight-see for 30-45 minutes at each stop (or longer - I spent 2 hours one afternoon at Rock Point). There are much longer hikes and rock climbing in the Park too - it's got something for everyone.
I was able to get to Sunset View literally just as the sun was setting. What an evening...
Four years ago when I was at the Black Canyon I camped down by the Gunnison River in East Portal. The road is, I believe, the steepest I've ever driven but it merited a return. I loved it down there. As I was walking to the river a strikingly pretty Smooth Greensnake crossed my path and, after all these years of being frustrated with people harassing wildlife (and being idiots in the Parks - see above), was tempted to pick it up. These human minds of ours... Of course, I thought better of it and watched it cruise across the road and into the tall grass where he/she melded into the reeds. Just lovely - as was the sweet, cool river.
That night, as is my way, I went to the Ranger Talk at the South Rim Campground. As a testimony to my traveling days I talked to a Ranger I'd met two years ago at Lassen National Park. He said he remembered me (we discussed the government sponsored bison kill at Yellowstone) and he said, in his many years of moving around the Parks I was his first repeat customer. He gave another excellent presentation and it was kick to see him again.
After 4 days of canyon bliss it was time for me to drive over the Lizard Head Pass and get to my next destination, Mesa Verde National Park. The photo below is from a turnout on the San Juan Skyway.
After arriving at Mesa Verde I made a beeline for the showers and then, feeling fresh, I moseyed over to the Visitor Center and ran into some friends along the way.
The last time I was at Mesa Verde I was a young man. Since then the Visitor Center has changed and now a statue adorns the entrance which I thought was quite striking. It's an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dweller.
After securing my tickets for the next days Cliff Palace Tour and a congenial visit with the Rangers in the Center I decided to just drive back to camp and relax but an early autumn storm began moving in and I took some photos. It was a magnificent afternoon.
The next morning I went to iconic Cliff Palace and enjoyed myself despite one weird Ranger/Docent. On the way out an elderly woman was struggling to make it out of the little canyon and the Ranger started complaining that she needed to hurry up because he, "had to pee". The woman, hearing this, started to cry. One of her friends looked down at the Ranger and said, "WE ARE GOING TO WAIT UNTIL SHE'S READY!" He piped down after that. I could go on and on about this guy but he wasn't representative of the typical well-meaning, knowledgeable, helpful, underpaid and under appreciated National Park Rangers (like my buddies at Black Canyon and Hovenweep). Eventually, the woman was able to climb out and we went on our merry way although I felt awful for her.
I do enjoy the photos below. We know very little about the people who lived in this place -there's a sense of mystery here - we have many more questions than answers about the Ancestral Puebloans...
I shared on social media the photo below which seemed to garner some interest. The photo is of the old and original road into Mesa Verde. It has been washed out and is closed to hiking, but one can still get a sense of the harrowing experience it must have been driving to see the old cliff dweller structures. It was called the "Knife's Edge" - makes sense. While the current road looks and feels a bit treacherous it's nothing compared to this...
The following is a panorama of Navajo Canyon in Mesa Verde. It is quiet and grand and filled with wildlife.
I spent the next day over on Wetherill Mesa which, sadly, has been marred by a few fires and little resembles what I remembered from my last visit. I got up the next morning and headed for the Navajo Nation and one of my favorite places on earth - Canyon de Chelly. After I arrived I immediately decided to eat a traditional Navajo taco in Chinle. I then went back to the campground - waited for the afternoon shadows, and then drove along the south rim to make photos of the canyon and, in particular, iconic Spider Rock seen below.
Occasionally, on the road and at home, I'm asked for advice on seeing the "real Southwest". It's a tough question - but I typically recommend Four Corners and then I tell them about Canyon de Chelly. I'm always surprised about how few people actually know about the wonders there. In my last blog post I discussed places in which I enjoy returning - I've been a regular at this canyon since the early 1990's and I know I'll never stop going - it's too stunning and too sacred and powerful.
Sadly, that evening I prepared to leave and make the long drive home but I had one more stop to make - I wanted to camp at the free campground at Chiriaco Summit, just south of Joshua Tree National Park, where my friend - known professionally as PJ Finn - is the manager. PJ is a quintessential desert rat and a helluva photographer. There is no question that he and has been one of my biggest inspirations since I started making photography an almost full time avocation. Moreover, I admire PJ's ability to live simply and happily in a place he loves - despite the sometimes terribly harsh environment of the California desert which he calls home year around. You can see his photographic artistry on Instagram and Twitter and on his blog.
I rolled in, after a 550 mile drive, about 5:30 PM. We had dinner at the nearby diner and hung out and, of course, I made some photos from the campground. I particularly like the first photo of Interstate 10 from the campground - it still looks like the California of my youth or somehow captures that feeling or something.
We got up early the next morning and went for a drive. PJ was an excellent tour guide and I finally figured out how to pronounce Chiriaco properly (it's a family name). Here is the man himself, his dog Abbey, and the cholla protector of Chiriaco Summit.
Lots of photos on this post - but hey I took over 1400 images in those 2 weeks! Many interesting ones left on the cutting room floor. I did my best to show what I thought were the most representative of the magnificent country I visited. Here's the last - a lonely desert road south of Joshua Tree. Thanks for joining me. I hope you sensed a tiny bit of the joy and wonder that I did on this meaningful journey.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.