Sunday, June 18, 2017

Northern Arizona and Southern Utah; Part 1 - May 2017


I'd been wanting to check out the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, as I'd heard so many good things about it. It only opens on May 15th each year, so one cannot go before then. In contrast, there were a couple areas in northern AZ and southern UT I had never visited, and it would be good to go there before the weather got too warm (and before the crowds increase at Memorial Day.) I could add those to make a nice loop - I love loops! Fellow Wander-the-West member, Dawn, had visited a couple interesting areas earlier in the year and included them in her blog, so I added those. Bob, also WtW & recent White Rim Trail trip organizer, provided excellent suggestions, too.

My preliminary itinerary would be Mount Taylor, NM; the Little Colorado Navajo Tribal Park (overlook) via Window Rock and Tuba City, AZ; dispersed BLM camping at Marble Canyon, near Vermilion Cliffs, AZ; House Rock Road from AZ into UT; Cottonwood Road, UT; then some sort of loop up and around to Zion NP (which I did not do); then the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Ambitious for one week.

I will break this trip into four sequential blog posts for easy digestion. Plus, this combines fewer locations per URL, which makes the Location Map index easier to use. You do know about the map, right? If not, click the button above.

Remember to click on a photo for a larger version.

Part 1
Mount Taylor, NM
Little Colorado River Gorge, AZ
Marble Canyon, AZ

Wednesday, May 17

Mount Taylor

Though I was born and raised in Albuquerque, and it's been 10 years since I moved back, I'd never actually visited the mountain, despite driving by on I-40 many times. It is a dormant stratovolcano, but not the source of the lava fields of El Malpais National Monument immediately to the south - those flows came from much more recent shield volcanos that barely rose above their flows. The highest peak of Mount Taylor is 11,305 feet and can easily be seen from the heights of Albuquerque on clear days. The mountain doesn't look that high if you're up close as it rises barely 4 thousand feet above its immediate surroundings. Mount Taylor is also on the Continental Divide and the CDT runs through the forest, though mercifully the trail is on the west flanks of the mountain, not across the actual peaks.

The mountain, called Tsoodził by the Navajo, is one of the four sacred corners of The People's nation.

To visit the mountain you exit the freeway at Grants, NM, which is just an hour or so from home. That worked out, as I had an appointment Wednesday morning, I could blast off after that.

There are some convenient, easy to access camping opportunities less than 10 miles off the freeway, so pay attention if you might want low-cost or free camping in western New Mexico.

The Cibola National Forest, Mount Taylor District website erroneously directed me to an interagency visitor center at exit 85 south. [That link has been off line for over a week.] On arrival, I was informed by the park ranger there, that the visitor center was now exclusively an El Malpais National Monument VC, that the forest service had pulled out. She kindly provided me a map to the NF District Ranger Station in Grants.

The Ranger Station is at 1800 Lobo Canyon Rd., (505)287-8833, which is the highway you will use to access the mountain. From the west take exit 81 north, cross the freeway and turn right, then follow E. Santa Fe Ave east to 1st St. (Hwy 547) and turn left; from the east take exit 85 north, follow E. Santa Fe Ave to 1st St. (Hwy 547) and turn right. 1st runs into Roosevelt Ave at an angle about 9/10 of a mile later, there's a stop sign, turn right and follow that about half a mile to the intersection of Lobo Canyon Road (Hwy 547) and turn left. The ranger station is about a mile on the left.

There are camping opportunities only a few miles out of Grants up Lobo Canyon Road. These are pleasant destinations, but more importantly are free or inexpensive places to camp not far off the freeway if you're just passing through. Both campgrounds are open May 15th to September 15th, but there are plenty of dispersed sites, too.

Note: the web pages for the Mount Taylor campgrounds currently show they are closed, though they've been open for a month. If their status is critical to your plans, call the ranger office at the number above during business hours.

There is a charming little, free campground called Lobo Canyon Picnic Ground with lots of trees at an elevation of about 7400 feet. It only has about 4 sites which are suitable only for small pickup campers or tents, no trailers, covered picnic tables, and a vault toilet. Go about six miles from the ranger station to FR-193 and a sign that says Lobo Canyon PG, turn right and follow the road. At the volunteer fire station take the gravel road that forks to the right. Just under a mile from the junction take the small road to the left, there is a sign, to the picnic grounds and campground. You will pass one dispersed site before you get to the last turn off. There are many dispersed sites farther up the highway, but there are also private homes, so stay on the forest road.

A little more than two miles past FR-193 is Coal Mine Campground which offers 15 sites, some pull-through, on a paved loop, and vault toilets amid pine trees. The cost per night is a whole $5, as of this writing. This attractive, traditional campground with vault toilets is good for larger rigs or if you want to stay on pavement. There is also a nature trail.

Not too far past the Coal Mine CG the highway changes to gravel and becomes FR-239. There are numerous side roads used by hunters and the ranger cautioned me to wear red if I disperse camped along those. One "main" side road goes to the Gooseberry Trail, I wanted to try FR-453 that lead to La Mosca Lookout. The ranger didn't know if the road was open as they'd had snow recently.

View of the lookout tower.

I thought I'd try to get to the lookout, anyway. At first the road was gravel and in good condition. Then as it began to climb it got rougher, narrow & steep. I could finally see the lookout and it was way up there! I continued to climb until I was past the tree line. I could clearly see that the lookout, and many communications towers, were on the northern peak, which is a bit lower than the main peak. I continued to grind up the road until, as it wrapped around the west side, I came to a snow/ice blockage that covered more than half the width of the road. It would be insane to try to go farther, lest one slide completely off the road down a severe drop off. I also didn't feel the need to hike the rest of the way in the cold wind. I had to back up some ways to fing a place to turn around.

As far up the mountain as I could get.

Not enough room to pass and the snow bank was mostly hard-packed ice.

Looking west from the road to the lookout.

I returned to the main road and proceded north. I saw a couple wild turkeys, but no hunters. As the day wore on I decided to continue on and explore. According to the map, and the ranger, I could make a loop and drive out a different way. The wind, which was strong on the peak, was picking up at the "lower" elevations, too.

There were dispersed sites near this aspen grove, but I didn't stay here.

When I came to the major junction that would lead to Hwy 605 and out to the west, I instead stayed on FR-239 (had to turn right to say on the route, actually). I started looking for a campsite. I wanted one that would be sheltered from the wind and explored several small side roads. I drove up a track into American Canyon and finally settled in a site sheltered by a ridge. As I set up, I could hear the wind in the tops of the pines, but none reached me, safe, below.

I ended up camped up this road, but I think the sign refers to an equally primitive road on the other side of the wash.

Here is where I set up. There is a tall ridge to the left (west) that protected me from the wind.

It was a lovely evening, I walked around a bit to explore.

If you look carefully, you can see the towers on top of the mountain peak.

Thursday, May 18

Mount Taylor (continued)

Snow in the middle of May

It had been a quite night, so I was astonished when I looked out the window in the morning and saw snow everywhere! I hadn't heard anything during the night and owners of aluminum roof campers know we hear even the smallest raindrop or tiniest pit of hail magnified many times. The temperature outside was barely freezing and the sun was coming up, so I put on my boots and went outside to take photos first thing. There was about 3" of snow on the truck hood and similar horizontal surfaces, but the bare ground, such as tracks in the road, kept warm enough through the night so there was little accumulation there.

Despite many trips to Colorado, this is the first time it snowed on my camper.

I did put the truck in 4WD as I drove out to the road, just in case, but the ground was firm. I backtracked to the junction from the night before that would lead west off the mountain and to the highway. The road was a bit muddy in a few places, but for the most part in good condition. Coming off the mountain the view stretched far to the west. As I reached the relative lowlands, I was also surprised to see how verdant the land was just a few miles north of I-40, which seems to run though much more desert-like terrain between Grants and Gallup. There was a large cattle ranch.

Heading west down off the mountain.

Window Rock

I filled the tank in Gallup after turning off the freeway to head to Window Rock, the capitol of the Navajo Nation. When I was first planning this trip and came across a reference to the Little Colorado Navajo Tribal Park, I thought it had camping. Advanced permits are required of non-Navajos for camping and hiking on the Navajo Reservation and I was going to stop at the Parks office in Window Rock to get a permit. Further research, even before starting out, showed that there was no camping at that park location, only a scenic overlook, but passing though Window Rock was still a good route to the west cutting across the Navajo and Hopi Nations.

I had driven Highway 264 between Window Rock and Ganado many years before, but had not remembered that much of that stretch, especially the eastern reach, is well forested. There are many tall Ponderosa pine trees, and their needles were dusted with snow. This land was signed as the Navajo National Forest and was quite lovely to drive through.


I stayed on 264 though Granado, home of the Hubbell Trading Post, though I did not stop this time, once past the junction with US-191 that leads to Chinle, I was in new territory for me. I knew the highway cut through the Hopi Reservation, but there were no signs. It wasn't until I saw a speeder stopped by the Hopi Police (pickup truck) that I realized I was already in their lands.

I have to admit I know little of the Hopi people or lands. I should remedy this situation. It was interesting to drive though the reservation, which is a sovereign nation, much like the Navajo Nation that surrounds the Hopi. Their communities are formed around pueblos, unlike the Navajo, and are historically located on three ancestral mesas.

Although the highway doesn't cut through those communities, it does taverse canyons and mesas, so there are lots of ups & downs, and wide vistas of the landscape. I should have stopped to take photos, but much of the time the road was narrow. I also wanted to make progress toward the Little Colorado Overlooks and still have time to find the dispersed camping area of Marble Canyon along the Colorado River.

I got gas in Tuba City and headed west on US-160. Upon reaching US-89 I turned south, even though I'd have to backtrack after visiting the gorge overlook. I had intended to stop at the famous trading post in Cameron, but the large parking lot was full of cars, buses, and giant RVs. It looked way too busy with tourists for my taste, so continued to the junction of US-64 where I turned west toward the South Rim. The main overlook is about 10 miles from highway 89.

Little Colorado River Gorge Overlook

A donation is asked of visitors to the overlook, which I was happy to supply. The view is quite breathtaking as you stand at the railings looking down past all the brown and black layers of rock to the Little Colorado at the bottom. However, much like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, it is nearly impossible to take a photo that adequately shows what the eye sees. If you are in the neighborhood, be sure to make this stop.

You can see there is quite a drop into the gorge.

The Little Colorado River muddy from recent rains.

Walking back to my truck from the overlook I saw a lady making fry-bread. I stopped to buy one. She asked if I'd ever had blue fry-bread? She recommended it and I agreed. Yum! I'm guessing it has a little blue corn flour in with the wheat flour.

Information courtesy of the Tribal Parks Department

I backtracked to US-89 and topped up my tank just in case. I proceeded north and took the left turn on Alt-89, a.k.a., US-89A. I crossed the Colorado River on the Navajo Bridge at Lee's Ferry and at the "community" of Vermilion Cliffs looked for the closed and unmarked gate on the river side of the highway.

Marble Canyon

One of the reviews on the Free Campsites website cautions about the drop off the blacktop onto the dirt road. Let me repeat that - be careful and go at an angle lest you get hung up or drag something. Close the gate after passing through and follow the primitive road. The first 100 yards or so are the worst. I could see in the distance a white van which turned out to be camped at the end of the road right next to the canyon.

I stopped at that cul-de-sac and walked a little ways down to look at the river, take photos, and look for California Condors that frequent this area. It was late in the afternoon and a bit cool with lots of clouds, so didn't expect to see anything soaring. I drove back along the road to a site I had noticed on my drive out. It was only about a half a mile from the end of the road and close to the rim of Badger Canyon. If I walked to the edge I could even see (and hear) the rapids on the Colorado.

View of the Colorado River from the edge of my campsite.

I set up camp. There were dark clouds on the horizon in a couple of directions and the wind was picking up, so I also used my aluminum jack-stands to brace the frame of the truck just forward of the rear wheels. While setting up, three off-road/touring motorcycles came through. I didn't speak with the riders, just waved as they rode by. After checking out the Colorado they set up camp between me and the end of the road.

Very dark clouds behind the sunlit Echo Cliffs.

And the wind did blow - hard and strong and hard and gusty - slamming into my camper. This was the first hard blow I'd been in since installing the solar panel on the roof and I was quite concerned with the noises - cracks and pops - as the aluminum sheet roof flexed with the panel on top. I had bonded the panel brackets to the roof using VHB tape instead of drilling into the roof and using screws or bolts. FWC uses a single sheet of aluminum to cover the entire roof with no fasteners except around the edge, so with the wind it rose and fell onto the frame with the panel along for the ride. I was very nervous.

The wind died down after an hour and a half and no rain fell at the campsite. I was unable to check on the panel mounting with the roof up, so would have to wait until morning to inspect it.

Echo Peak seen from the camping area

Contrasting layers: Badger Canyon, Marble Canyon, and Echo Cliffs

A colorful sunset with Vermilion Cliffs on the right.

There were interesting clouds after the wind storm and a colorful sunset.

Earth, air, fire (sunset), water (rain)

You should be able to just see the motorcyclists' camp and the white van at the end of the road.

Just past sunset with lovely violet skies.

After dark a couple more vehicles came down the road to camp. One couple set up one of one of those hard-roof pop-up camp trailers a couple hundred yards away. I learned the next morning, when I talked to the man who had been camping in the van at the end of the road for a week, that the other vehicle carried photographers who set up for night sky photos and used large lights to paint the canyon walls across the Colorado. One more reason not to camp at the end of the road.

Friday, May 19

Marble Canyon (continued)

Morning next to Badger Canyon

A view including the Vermilion Cliffs.

It was a beautiful clear sky in the morning. I walked around and took a few photos.

A Say's Phoebe waiting for breakfast to fly by.

A wide-field panorama from the Echo Cliffs to the south and Vermilion Cliffs to the north.

I then leisurely broke camp and drove down the the end of the road. Though it was late morning it was still too cool for condors to be flying.

No condors, but this Rock Wren posed for a portrait on the canyon wall.

Later in this trip I bought one of the NatGeo Trails Illustrated maps of this area. In examining it for this report, I see other unimproved roads farther south (west) leading off Alt-89 to Marble Canyon. The next one south looks like it runs right along the main rim once it reaches the Colorado River near Tenmile Rock. It might be worth exploring and camping. Anyone have experience there?

Looking up Badger Canyon toward the Vermilion Cliffs.

A Desert Trumpet. I reveal how I learned what this interesting flower is named in the next post.

A pretty poppy with a potent payload!

I drove back to the highway, stopping for a couple of photos. I then turned west on 89A.

On the way back to the highway.

Next post: Rock House Valley, AZ; Cottonwood Canyon, UT; Kodachrome SP, UT; and Skutumpah Rd, UT


  1. I assume the solar panel was okay! I was thinking you just left the verdict til the next part of the post.. but I'm still in suspense! haha.. Seems like your Marble Canyon experience included more people than usual. Reckon it was because more people are trying to visit that site before it got too hot?

    1. Yeah, I forgot to mention there were no problems with the solar panel mounts. It functioned very well, too, plenty of power for the whole trip.

      I think there were so many folks because it appears on that Free Camping website. Most of the campers were just passing through and used the site for free overnight accommodations.


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