Trails of the Ancients
Updated: Feb 26, 2020
The Four Corners is the only place in the USA where four states meet (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado). The area is rich in ancient Puebloan archeological sites dating back 700 to over 5000 years. In addition Navajo, Spanish explorers, Mormon pioneers and Western cowboys have all added to the human tapestry over time; the land abounds in both cultural and natural scenic wonders.
As most van-dwellers in the USA already know, when winter strikes, there really is only one thing to do and that is head South and low (altitude)! We spent most of the Winter in Central/South America but caught the end of Winter in Las Vegas. It was much colder than we anticipated and hastily made out retreat, opting for the most gorgeous spot on the border of California and Arizona near a small town called Ehrenburg to wait it out. We were blessed with warm dry days and cool nights and our very own little beach for fishing and yoga, as well as hiking, biking and boating all easily accessible from camp. All around us was snowed in but our little corner of the desert was totally blissful and gave as a chance to regroup and relax before hitting the road for season 2 of Gntonefortheroad adventures. From our little piece of paradise, we were able to do several day trips including; Painted Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, San Diego & Lake Havasu.
Our next stop in Arizona was near Tuscon in the Sonoran Desert, possibly the most beautiful desert we’ve ever seen and absolutely teaming with Spring blossoms and life, including the infamous rattle snakes! We visited the historic Western town of Tombstone, The Saguaro National Park and Arizona Universities' Biosphere2, the location for the first human biosphere experiments. To top it off, we challenged ourselves to some incredible mountain biking at Sweetwater trails, riding within inches of Giant Saguaro’s and Cholla cactus. As usual I came off second best with a puncture on the last trail, but I’ll take it over a broken wrist any day.
Finally we made our way to the much anticipated Sedona, the self proclaimed most beautiful place on Earth, and home to enhanced energy vortex sites. We heard so many great things about this place, but unfortunately it has been overdeveloped and over run by tourists & pink Jeep tours, especially at this time of year, Spring break! There are some beautiful scenic drives to take (Oak Creek Canyon and Red Rock Loop drives) as well as a large array of hiking options, but with all the crowds wanting a piece of red rock glory, it was hardly the spiritual escape we had in mind. To escape the masses, we opted for a cultural experience, visiting the Palatki Red Rock heritage site as well as one of the more difficult trails, Bear Mountain.
For a more authentic cultural and spiritual escape, head to Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the Navajo Nation. The red rocks are spectacular, and you can also opt to pay for a Navajo guide to take you through the canyon exploring cliff dwellings and pictograph sites only accessible by hiking the canyon. Our group was small, comprising only 4 people and our guide and his family have lived in the canyon for generations. His local historic and cultural knowledge really added to the experience & spending time with him and seeing the canyon through his eyes was really wonderful.
Not too far away is Monument Valley, the iconic scenery made famous by the movie Forrest Gump. It only costs $10 pp but is well worth it just to visit the museum, not to mention the scenic drive amongst the red rock monuments and the onsite trading post. I was surprised to learn that Navajo code talkers were instrumental to winning WWII and formulated the only code never to be broken by the enemy! The Navajo rugs, woven baskets, pottery and jewellery are second to none and make fabulous gifts or keepsakes.
Just moments from Monument Valley, and a close rival is Valley of the Gods. A 17 mile drive on dirt road takes you through more remarkable red rock monuments, your imagination the only limiting factor. Finish the loop by taking a scenic drive up the Moki Dugway and imagine how the first pioneers managed to carve out this wagon road with pick and shovel as they descended to the valley below. Atop the Moki Dugway leads to Grand Gulch (and Bears Ears National Monument) an immersive landscape of canyons rich in ancient archeological ruins, cliff dwellings, pictograms and pectroglyphs (rock art). One could easily get lost here for days or months on end. For a quick glimpse into the past, take the South Mule Canyon hike about 20 minutes in to the awe inspiring Firehouse Ruin. Time your walk to arrive for lunch and stay to watch as the ruins light up in the afternoon sun. From our campsite in Valley of the Gods, we also made road trips to Hovenweep Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and Natural Bridges National Monument.
Finally, we made one more stop to The Needles, Canyonlands National Park and spent a fantastic week hiking over 20 km of the trail system and mountain biking the slick rock in our campsite. Canyonlands has captured our hearts and imagination and we loved coming back to this magical place again. As an added bonus, Newspaper rock, one of the largest examples of pictograms in the Four Corners Area is on route.
The jewel in the crown of the four corners monuments has to be Mesa Verde National Park with over 4500 archeological sites in the park. Make sure you take a ranger led tour of one of the cliff dwellings while you’re there to really get up close and personal as well as exploring the scenic drive and museum of artifacts on your own. A much less explored area of the park is the Long House Loop paved trail on Wetherill Mesa. This is closed to cars but is a great to explore by bike (10km).
If you would like to stand with a limb in each of the four states (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico & Arizona), make your way to the Four Corners National Monument, managed by the Navajo Nation, it costs only $10 per vehicle and you will have the opportunity to buy authentic Navajo arts and crafts as well. If that’s not really your thing, then perhaps take a day trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park instead and prepare to be amazed by the 2250 foot walls of Painted Canyon. There are also plenty of hiking trails to keep you occupied from short strolls to the canyon edge to multi-day treks into the canyon.
Of course, a trip to Colorado wouldn’t be complete without some mountain biking. The best option in town is definitely Phil’s World, just down the road from Mesa Verde National Park. Another good option is Sand Canyon trail in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.
After all that action and 2 months of primitive camping in the Navajo nation/4 corners areas (with no phone service I might add), we were pretty shattered and ready for some R&R. Time to call upon a new friend we met in the Grand Canyon last year. Lucky for us they were more than happy to provide us with some hospitality at their off-grid home, Gracelands in New Mexico. We spent an incredible 3 nights sleeping in a warm cabin with pot belly stove, hot showers, kitchen and all the mod cons we’ve been missing for the last 12 months. We got to know our new friends over dinner each night and learnt as much as we could about their off-grid lifestyle. Reinvigorate and restored, we then headed for the Carlsbad Caverns National Park & Guadalupe Mountain National Park (technically in Texas).
Where we Stayed:
Ehrenburg AZ (BLM land) - 14 days FREE
Ironwood Forest National Monument, Marana AZ (BLM land) - 14 days FREE
Coconino National Forest, Sedona AZ - 5 days FREE
Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation - 2 days $11pn
Valley of the Gods, Mexican Hat UT (BLM land) - 7 days FREE
Lockhart Road Basin, Canyonlands Needles District UT (BLM land) - 7 days FREE
Mesa Verde, County Road 34 CO (BLM land) CO- 7 days FREE
Graceland NM, 3 days FREE
James Canyon Campground Lincoln National Forest NM - 1 days FREE
Mile 10 Road, Carlsbad Caverns (BLM land) NM - 3 days FREE
GnTonefortheroad Travel Tips:
For the best photo opportunities, use the golden hours of sunrise and sunset for the best lighting and colour effects.
Never remove artefacts from the archeological sites your explore.
Respect the local people and culture. Speak with the Navajo to learn about the symbolism applied to their arts and crafts and buy from a local artist
Notah Dine Trading Post in Cortez has an amazing selection of Navajo rugs, arts and crafts at great prices and a museum too.
#boondocking #nationalparks #trails #mtb #Travelphotography #travelblog #journey #dispersedcamping #vanlife #landscapes #wanderlust #freecamping #usa #travelling #Hiking #history #mountainbiking #roadtrip #traveltips #photography #nature #nativeamericans #offgrid #budgettravel #archeology #ruins #pictograms #pectroglyphs #navajo #puebloan #gntonefortheroad #keepingitreal #keepexploring #beyond40