Hunts Mesa, Monument Valley et al

Hunts Mesa. A destination, an experience, a vista that will live with me the rest of my years. I’ve been coming to Arizona for 40 plus years, and spending time in the National Parks and accessible tribal lands located within a days drive from the Phoenix Valley have been on my bucket list all those years. Recently I finally made the four hour road excursion north to take in the sights of Secret Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Monument Valley where Hunts Mesa rules over the valley below, showcasing many more monuments than what you see at ground level.

Page sits just south of the Arizona/Utah border, near the shores of Lake Powell, and was base camp for the next several days. It is a good central location with so much to see and do within a couple of hours drive in just about every direction. This historic little town sits northeast of the Grand Canyon, with easy access to the Colorado River for some river rafting via Lee’s Ferry.

The view from the hotel in Page looking towards Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado River.

Because of the proximity to Page I was able to experience in 24 hours:

Secret Canyon – one of the areas slot canyons. It has an opening on both ends of the canyon, and you can also climb to the top of the canyon to take in a birds-eye view of the wavy slots from above. Weaving in and out of these wavy sandstone walls gives you an appreciation for the power of water as it swirls in these tight areas and has for centuries, leaving perfectly aligned ribbings along each orange-ish/pink-ish sandstone wall. The flood waters still come fast and hard from far upstream and can catch you unaware as you sit in these canyons with clear blue skies above. This slot canyon may be smaller than the famed Antelope Canyon, but it allows you access to ‘people free’ photos with a secluded 2 /12 tour with 15 people or less. Very intimate experience with a tribal guide who shared stories of his youth growing up in these canyons, and great photo tips.

Secret Canyon slot canyon – a maze of tight wavy curved sandstone walls.

Secret Canyon – no this is not a painting or highly photo-shopped. Handy work courtesy of Mother Nature inside Secret Canyon slot canyon.

Lake Powell, and all of it’s watery arm extensions, is an amazing location to catch the setting sun, lighting up a backdrop of multi-colored rock formations and inky blue pools of water with their rugged shorelines. Photographing the sunset is a popular evening activity with parking lots full of tri-pods and eager shutterbugs trying to capture the perfect natural lighting on the perfect natural setting. One of the countries largest man-made reservoirs, one could spend days discovering the many hidden gems of Lake Powell and is a must return for me.

A high vantage view of Lake Powell as the sun was setting over the marina.

Boat launch into Lake Powell at Wahweap Marina near Page.

Horseshoe Bend trailhead is a 5 mile drive from Page. The 3/4 mile easy hike to the edge of yet another amazing feature created by centuries of water powering it’s way through bedrock to create  this horseshoe shaped bend in the Colorado River. The contrast of multiple blue hues of the water weaving through the multiple shades of orange bedrock is breathtaking. So are the vistas all along this canyon, but with multiple deaths a year in the area from people getting too bold to experience the perfect view of looking over the edge of the rim a railing was recently installed above the bend to give security to the nearly 2 million annual visitors.

Horseshoe Bend photographed with a fish-eye lens showcasing all the amazing colors at sunrise.

The next day, after unfortunately coming across a horrific bus/SUV accident on Highway 89, where 3 people were airlifted to area hospitals, we were forced to change our plans of going to Bryce Canyon and ended up at a very unique little spot about 30 miles west of Page:

The Toad Stools sit at the southern edge of the Grand Staircase Escalante National Park with an easily accessible trailhead right off the highway. These multi-colored formations – from bright white, to a golden cream, to rustic orange – are mind boggling in how large boulders teeter atop a pointy sandstone spire that look ready to crumble. Even though they’ve been this way for centuries how do they not topple over?? I sure don’t want to be under one whenever that does happen! The 1.8 mile hike is easy, and generally not over crowded – plenty of space to spread out and see all the amazing rock formations and wall art created by Mother Nature herself.

Toad Stool – cream colored massive sandstone walls provide a backdrop to orange toad stools.

Finally made it to Bryce Canyon the next day – after a 2 1/2 hour drive northwest of Page along a two-lane windy road:

Bryce Canyon sits at an elevation of almost 9000 feet. I visited on April 5th and arrived to an amazing amount of snow. What a contrast of colors with the intense orange coloration of the rock formations dotted with thick layers of snow. It is meditative to fully absorb the aura of these cathedrals and amphitheaters of orange and cream colored spires and natural arches created by the extreme weather conditions that exist in this location. The canyon was named for a mormon homesteader, Ebenezer Bryce, in 1874. In Bryce Canyon you climb to above views of the spires, whereas in Zion National Park you drive through the low lying bases of similar formations. For this reason, Zion does not get as cold and is about 30 minutes closer to Page, which means larger crowds.

Bryce Canyon – this massive amphitheater of sandstone spires dusted with snow spreads out over miles.

A very cool natural arch, bathed in snow, at the farthest open end of Bryce Canyon.

Saturday, April 6th, 2019 – a day that will live in infamy, at least in my little world. A day I wasn’t sure I was going to live to see the end of, but when I did, I was oh so glad. The 2 1/2 hour drive from Page to Monument Valley mid-morning was non-plus. Enjoyed lunch at the The View Hotel while looking out over the world-renown Monument Valley. At 2:30 my travel companion and I met up with our native Indian guide, Toney Begay who works for Monument Valley Safari Tours. A man we would surrender the safety of our well-being to for the next 18 hours. A man who grew up in the area and has been a guide for over 40-years.

Some of the more prominent monuments basking under the crystal blue skies and blanket of white cotton candy clouds above Monument Valley.

For the next four hours we meandered along a 8-mile ‘road’, often going no more than 5-10mph, up the backside of Hunt’s Mesa, in a four-wheel-drive Suburban. I was happy to be enclosed and securely fastened by my seatbelt. The ‘road’ and I use that term loosely, wove through low desert sand dunes; up rock faces where we felt we were going to tip over backwards; along pathways that were no wider than the vehicle where we felt we were going to tip over sideways; and along drop-offs 100’s of feet on both sides of the road in one area. In these tribunal lands there are no guardrails, no barriers of any kind – one slip of the truck on a slick rock or a loose rock gives way – and it would’ve been all over.

Our roadway up the back side of Hunts Mesa to our vista point overlooking Monument Valley.

A higher vantage of the pathway we were about to embark on – with drop-offs of 100’s of feet on either side of the road.

I have always had a fear of heights, especially severe drop-offs. But I knew if I were going to get the best pictures I had to brave the ‘elements’ and sit up front. My travel partner sat in the back, often with her hands covering her eyes. Our highly experienced guide oozed with confidence, and we had no choice but to trust in him and his years of experience. During high season he makes this drive 5-7 times a week and often twice a day. He was so confident of his abilities he acted like we were out for a Sunday drive on the flatlands of Nebraska.

We took many deep breathes, and embraced the adventure that lay before us. When we arrived at our destination, we quickly understood the expression of awe when we told our slot canyon guide a few days earlier we were going to Hunts Mesa. He told us we were in for a treat of a lifetime and he was spot on!  As heart-pounding, gut-wrenching, lump-in-the-throat the trek to the top was – we felt we earned the views that now laid at our feet.

The heart stopping, mind blowing, gut churning, nerve-wracking trek was all worth it!

The whole of Monument Valley spread out before us like divas all battling for center stage to claim the crown for best in show. Each deep red rock monument has been given their own name by tribal ancestors over many centuries. It is hard to fathom this canvas of unique subjects was created by centuries of wind and water, not a pick and chisel at the hands of man. Their lines are majestic, magical, mind-bending – and nearly perfect, in their own right. I took over 600 pictures in the 18 hours we spent in the presence of such greatness.

On our way back down Hunts Mesa we stopped by our evening viewing point to see it had been overtaken by a heard of wild goats.

With no city lights for many, many miles in any direction the thick blanket of stars we experienced were bright enough to bath Monument Valley in a soft glow. Because we booked this tour on such short notice I did not have the proper equipment and knowledge to properly capture the night sky, but we were lucky enough to come across an amazing professional free-lance photographer who did capture some amazing pics that evening from the same look-out we were stationed at. Check out Ranjan Bhattacharya at rbfotoartcreations on Instagram.

On our way back down Hunts Mesa Toney asked if we were in a hurry. Thankfully we said no and were treated to more amazing sights along these sacred tribal pathways: Anasazi ruins built high up in rock faces; rock formations with a wow-factor to rival the world renown monuments we originally signed up to experience; and a hidden gem, Spider Arch, tucked deep along a dry river bed, through porcupine footprints, massive pincushion cacti – to a natural arch to rival any I have seen in person or in pictures.

There was a bit of a slick sandstone rock face we needed to ascend to take full advantage of the visual before us. Our guide Toney showed us how to navigate the rock face by traversing and to keep our bodies low to the rock. We were slip sliding all over and about to give up when I decided to risk doing a face plant and stood up and ran as fast as I could creating enough momentum to carry me up the rest of the face – only to be rewarded with one of Mother Nature’s most awe-inspiring creations. My travel partner plays the native flute and the site of her playing in this natural amphitheater, with our native American guide lying on his back listening peacefully will be a visual that will stay with me all my days.

A short but challenging rock face we had to climb to fully experience the whole of Spider Arch.

It doesn’t get much better than to be witness to my travel companion playing her native flute for our Native American guide as he relaxes under the Spider Arch.

As we made our way back out on to the main road to head back to our vehicle, all of our anxiety from the drive up Hunts Mesa was erased by the plethora of visuals that now filled our mind, our heart and our soul. Along with a new appreciation for the Native American culture that flourishes in places like Monument Valley. Toney and his tribe are a proud people and I am honored they choose to share these amazing sites – sites I will never take advantage of, and will do all I can do support their culture and their heritage so they will continue to be open to sharing these amazing adventuresome experiences.

Check back soon for more pics in the Global Gallery from Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon and all the other sites we visited.

Montana – Big Sky

Montana, known as “Big Sky” country is aptly named. Even with all of the Rocky Mountains ranges that dot the skyline of this expansive state, the ‘sky’ itself invokes a majesty all its own. The experiences in Montana are as vast as the sky, so I will break up our 10-day road trip to Montana into multiple postings to properly capture the highlights of the trip. Our trip began in Arizona, and we made our way up through Utah, Nevada, Idaho and into Montana. Any one of these states can and will garner a need for their own post – but for now my focus is on Montana.

When you arrive into Montana, it’s like a calm settles over you – your heart rate drops and you breathe easier. People who visit and live here, choose this destination to inhale and enjoy what nature created over the centuries. Montana by land mass ranks as the 4th largest state, but ranks 44th in population. Montana’s largest city, Billings, comes in at 110,000 people – leaving an awful lot of land preserved in its natural state, allowing for wildlife to populate in numbers not seen in many places and lots of room for people and that wildlife to co-habitate together peacefully.

We entered Montana in the southwest corner of the state, driving by the very western edge of  Yellowstone  National Park. This stretch of Hwy 191 is beyond gorgeous. The two lane road winds through lush green forests of pine and birch, and low-lying meadows dotted with ponds and running streams – a perfect setting for some big Montana moose, but sadly we never spotted one. The air was as fresh as the setting was serene. Smiles settled in on our faces, as life’s stresses melted away the deeper we made our way into this beautiful state.

Our first stop in Montana was in Big Sky – a ski resort town, about a 30-minute drive south of Bozeman, that we had visited many times in the 7 years we lived in Montana back in the late 80’s and late 90’s. We were initially drawn to the area for the skiing because it has remained un-commercialized and un-congested unlike its Colorado counterparts i.e. Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen. But the area shows its raw beauty even more in the summer months with no shortage of things to do: hiking, golfing, biking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, tram and chairlift rides, zip lines, rock climbing, and the list goes on and on.

The pathway leading up into the hiking trails along the ski runs at Big Sky.

The zip line comes out into the open below the chair lifts on the backside of the Summit Lodge.

River rafting down the Gallatin along highway 191 between Big Sky and Bozeman.

The entrance of Big Sky intersects the famed Gallatin River (think ‘A River Runs Through It‘) known for its great fly-fishing and white water rafting. Or in our case the place, some 20 years ago, where our chocolate lab puppy decided to test out her water dog skills. My husband was out fly fishing on the Gallatin and our new puppy so wanted to be near him, she jumped into the water, but the water was too strong for this little 8-week-old 12-pound puppy and she went swirling down the river. I never saw my husband move so fast through a fast running river, up onto the bank and down the river bank until he got ahead of where the puppy was in the water and reached down and yanked her out of the water like a fish on the end of a fly fishing pole!

Big Sky is separated into distinct topographies – the lower village (6,800’ elevation) or ‘meadows’ where some great golfing, shopping, galleries and lodging exists. And the upper village (7,500′ elevation) or ‘mountain’ where some of the best skiing in the US exists and most of the main resorts. The highest point of Big Sky is atop Lone Mountain Peak, boasting a tram that takes you across a wide bowl to its highest point at an elevation of 11,166 feet. Not for the faint of heart – this area above the tree line is double-black diamonds to get down the peak to were the bulk of the ski hill lies.

Lone Mountain Peak looms above Lake Levinsky and the blue Lake Condos at the entrance of Big Sky Mountain Village.

The runs at Big Sky show bright and green in the summer sun.

In the winter we went as far as taking the high-speed chairlift to the base of the tram. From there we pointed our skis downward into the single black diamond bowl before you ascend into the tree-lined slopes. Our last trip to Big Sky was to ski. Our son, 8, was a fearless snowboarder, taking black diamonds, through the trees, over jumps. Our, 10, daughter stuck with skiing and on one of our last runs she took off in front of us down into the bowl. In an instant she was tumbling ass over tea-kettle. Our hearts in our throats as we raced to where she had come to a stop – skis going in every direction, body in an upside down pretzel position. Instinctively my husband grabbed her around the waist to gently lift her up out of the contortion of body parts fearful to find our dainty daughter unconscious. Instead, a howl of laughter broke from her lips. She said that was the most fun she’d had all week and can we do it again! Suffice to say our mind was on a bottle of wine to calm our jangled nerves after that escapade! Kids!

But I digress – this trip (and post) is about our summertime fun at Big Sky – some 14 years later. We stayed at the rustic Summit Lodge – replete with log furniture, deer antler chandeliers, and bear skin rugs. With the lodge at the base of ski hill, we had easy access to trek up the mountain to access the hiking trails that meander up and through all the ski runs, over mountain creeks usually hidden by several feet of snow, and along logging trails that double as catwalks in the winter . Reaching some of the higher ridges, it was once again evident as to how the state and this specific ski resort acquired it’s title of ‘Big Sky’. The vistas are breathtaking and sky has no end in sight.

The Summit Lodge at the base of the runs at Big Sky Mountain Village.

A large deer antler chandelier in the Summit Lodge.

About halfway down the mountain, between the upper and lower villages, is a rustic but high-end resort, Lone Mountain Resort, where you can rent log cabins of multiple configurations and sizes. The restaurant is one of the best in Big Sky and is worth a stop for anything from a great brunch to a fine dining experience. As well as horse back riding in the summer, or sleigh rides in the winter.

The entrance to Lone Mountain Ranch midway between upper and lower villages at Big Sky.

Log cabin accommodations at Lone Mountain Ranch.

A little closer to the lower village is another great area for hiking, called Ousel Falls Trail. It doesn’t have the breathtaking expansive views as the hikes up on the ski hill, but the lush beauty of trekking your way along the fast running South Fork of the West Fork of the Gallatin River and take a breather for a picnic with the Ousel Falls for a backdrop is equally enticing.

Ousel Falls Trail head just above the lower village in Big Sky.

A great picnic spot along the Ousel Falls of the South Fork River.

Down in the meadows of the lower village is an Arnold Palmer designed golf course. As well as multiple galleries showcasing many local artists, our favorite being Harry Koyama. My husband so fell in love with one of his paintings that served as the back drop to the reservation desk at the Summit Lodge, that I commissioned Harry to replicate the same picture (in a much smaller size) for a surprise birthday present for my husband and serves as the backdrop of his home office.

Original painting by Harry Koyama, behind the reception desk at the Summit Lodge in Big Sky, called ‘Bruins of Lone Mountain.’

Interspersed between galleries and gift shops are a multitude of great restaurants. Most taking local flavors – such as elk or bison meat, huckleberries (my personal favorite), or fresh trout from the Gallatin River – and putting their own spin on recipes to satisfy even the pickiest palates.

Enjoy more beautiful pics of the very scenic Big Sky area in the Global Gallery under Montana.

 

Happy Trails in the New Year of 2015!

After a relaxing and fun-filled holiday season, I am refreshed and re-energized for another year of blogging! Travel plans are already underway for Canada, Spain, South of France, Alaska, Montana and Cape Cod. And if I know my family, there will be more additions to that already great list of travel destinations.

According to an article in todays New York Times, What a Stronger Dollar Means for the Economy, the Euro is trading at the lowest it has in 9 years – which means a strong US dollar for travel to Europe. So there may be a need to add an extension to the list of European locals.

The start of a new year is a time to think forward, make resolutions, plan. But it is also a time to reflect on the year we recently gave closure. Revel in the highlights, learn from the lowlights, and be grateful and happy for all of the new memories made to savor in the years to come. My nephew and his girlfriend started an in person chat session at our New Year’s Even gathering asking everybody what their personal highlight of 2014 was and what their family highlight of 2014 was: my personal highlight was accomplishing the one year anniversary of my travel blog – and still going strong; my family highlight was flying my kids home to surprise their father for his 50th birthday.

For myself and my travel forays, 2014 was a year that saw me sticking closer to home. Which is something I intend to build on. All corners of the US and points in between behold scenery to rival any place outside of the US and I plan to make a concerted effort to add a few of these amazing locations to my 2015 travel bucket list.

I live within a 6 hour drive of some of the most incredible rock formations showcasing some of the most vibrant colors – swirling red and tan sands, stoic red rock, and azure blue watering holes. Inclusive of the Grand Canyon, The Wave, and the Sedona Red Rocks. So add Arizona, Utah and New Mexico to that growing travel list.

I will also take the opportunity to continue to expound on features I implemented in 2014 – i.e. monthly restaurant reviews and writings by guest bloggers. I plan to expand my ‘Favorite Author/Artist‘ section by adding links and writings of several favorite travel writers, and artists of all genres, I have begun to follow over recent years.

For now I am off to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I will share the beauty of one of the most remarkable large cities in the world – where the waters of the Pacific Ocean flow into the Salish Sea on the west end of the city and the mountains of Whistler provide a dramatic backdrop to the North.

Happy New Year and all the best to my readers for a great 2015!

Happy New Year! Cheers to a great year ahead in 2015!

Happy New Year! Cheers to a great travel year ahead in 2015!