Hosteling

Martian Landscapes, Barren Desert and Old Bridges

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Northern Arizona Desert - B&W

When I left you last I’d just wrapped up a delightful evening exploring Flagstaff and begun my first American Hostel experience.  The following morning I woke up early, washed up and made a quick call to connect with Noelle who was the friend of a friend I’d met the evening before and was eager to join me on my day-long road trip through Northern Arizona.  We connected around 10:30 and by 11 had piled into the car and were trailblazing northward.

Desert Cactus - Northern Arizona

The first 30 minutes of the drive were pleasant and cool along old route 89A.  It took us through rural Flagstaff, pine forest and open meadows before cresting a small hill which opened up onto Arizona’s barren flatland’s.   The view before us stretched out and away for miles with the straight black line of the road cutting a ruler-perfect line down the sloping hill and out toward the horizon.  From our vantage point it was easy to identify where the pine transitioned into juniper, the juniper forest into grass lands with an occasional tree and then the naked rocky terrain that springs to mind when one imagines Arizona.

Northern Arizona - View Towards Flagstaff

As we said goodbye to most things green we found a small paved road which forked out from a tiny town (Gray Mountain) with a restaurant, gas station and 4 buildings nestled along along the highway. Eager to get out into the countryside we followed the road as far as we could – it eventually turned to dirt before dead ending at a power relay station.  As we backtracked we parked (essentially in the middle of the road) and got out to take in the natural beauty and sheer contrast of the location.   The desert that surrounded us was brown and lacked any consistent form of ground vegetation, though it was periodically dotted by beautiful blooming cactus blossoms or small wildflowers with muted orange and yellow flowers.  The barren desert landscape stretched out, largely flat, but was broken by the snow covered peaks of the San Francisco Mountains which surround Flagstaff.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

Cameron

The small town of Cameron is located just under 60 miles north of Flagstaff and tends to stand out on maps for two main reasons.  The first and best known of which, is that it sits at the junction of Highway 89 and Highway 64, which splits off from 89 and strikes west towards the Grand Canyon.  The town’s second claim to fame is the Cameron Trading post: a sprawling trinket, food and hotel complex that sits overlooking the Little Colorado’s dusty riverbed.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

While the trading post itself has never had much draw for me – it mostly consists of the usual over-priced south western toy tomahawks, sand paintings and weird leather cowboy memorabilia – the old bridge built in 1911 has always captured my imagination.  There’s something about the basic design, when combined with the classic suspension architecture that oozes personality.

Cameron Trading Post - Arizona

The old one lane bridge, which has been closed to public traffic for years, turns 100 next year.  Though old and no longer used by automotive/foot traffic the bridge is in good condition and still supports a large north/south pipeline.  It offers an interesting contrast between new and old, as it stands immediately parallel to a more modern bridge which supports 89A and serves as one of Arizona’s main North/South arteries.

Northern Arizona Desert

Painted Desert/Tuba City

Some 30 miles North of Cameron is Tuba City.  Though a relatively short geographic distance, the geological variation is spectacular.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that those 30 minutes, took us close to two hours as we regularly paused along the side of the road to explore.

Northern Arizona Desert

Our first stop was at a series of incredible bald hills.  The hills, if they can be called that, varied in size and looked more on par with giant anthills than the usual small hill.  Roughly the size of a house, they were completely devoid of any vegetation.  What limited vegetation could be found was usually in the form of small plants clustered along small ditches carved out by rain and erosion.

Northern Arizona Desert

Unfortunately, the area we stopped at had been used somewhat recently by ATVers for off road fun which left the hills heavily scarred. The ground itself had an odd consistency.  The dirt was cracked and obviously dry, but also extremely fine and soft.  It left me feeling like I was walking across the surface of the moon, though its appearance had far more in common with mars.  The dirt itself was a wide mixture of colors, from reds and browns to deep grays.  It’s truly an incredible site and well worth exploring.  Especially if you’re the type who has always dreamed of visiting Mars or the Moon.

Northern Arizona Desert

Our next stop wasn’t technically in the painted desert, which is further to the North East, but it did offer an incredible view of gorgeous desert landscapes that looked as though they’d been painted in watercolor.

Northern Arizona Desert

Located just outside Tuba City – these hills were absolutely stunning.  With each layer a different color they offer a desert rainbow for those who pause long enough to take them in.   In many places the sandstone rocks have been partially eroded creating small sand dunes, which only serve as a further reminder of just how arid and difficult the natural environment is.

Northern Arizona Desert

As we paused for a few photos, we were greeted by one of those a-typical sights that you only stumble across while traveling. As we stood sweating, roasting in the desert heat a heavily laden Asian man in what appeared to be his 30’s passed us.  In and of itself not all that noteworthy right?  Wrong, this guy was apparently rollerblading his way across the state, loaded with a heavy backpack, wearing two roller-blades, and with a modified hockey stick for balance (and perhaps snakes).  Needless to say, the guy oozed a mixture of badass and Buddhist monk.

From there it was up a hill, across jagged, rocky terrain and into Tuba City.  A small-ish town with a few gas stations, fast food joints and a dive restaurant or two.  We ended up at a small sandwich shop which looked busy and had mediocre food.   The service was slow and ambling, though that may have been as much perception as reality given our famished state.

Northern Arizona Desert

Time was slipping by, and we elected to stop our northward push and begin making our way back towards Cameron, where we’d split off and make a B-Line for the Grand Canyon in the hope of reaching it in time for sunset.  First, however, it was time for another quick break.  This time we found a small pull off atop a decent sized shelf, which offered a Lion King esque view of the desert valley below us.

Northern Arizona Desert

The view was incredible and the lack of vegetation served as a stark contrast against the pine trees and lush greenery that we’d started the morning out with.

Northern Arizona Desert

We took a few minutes to enjoy the view, paused to snap a few silly snapshots jumping off the cliff or taking in the scenery and then jumped back in the car.  We were drenched in sweat and eager to escape the sun scorched desert.

Where next? Cameron, a quick pause along the Little Colorado and then the Grand Canyon to take in a spectacular sunset. The photos from that leg of the trip are spectacular, so stay tuned for my next post!

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

12 Comments

  • Marie Matelski
    June 16, 2010

    Wow! Someone was ROLLERBLADING across the state? At this time of year? I am convinced I am missing some chromosomes that guy plays life with.

    As usual all of these pictures where absolutely breathtaking and the story telling excellent! I almost wished there had been a way to show the transition from green to desert though, since it was a heavy theme but mostly I think I am just jealous.

    Keep rambling and posting :3

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    June 16, 2010

    It was definitely nuts. The guy was out in the middle of nowhere, just cruising along.

    Thanks for the kind words about the photos and narrative. In retrospect it definitely would have been nice to take a few more shots of the meadows outside Flagstaff. The good news is, though, that the footage from the Grand Canyon (next leg of the trip/post coming soon) will have lots more Green in it! Even some running water =)

    Reply
  • Carrie
    June 19, 2010

    Beautiful photos! I like the post-processing you've done on them!

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    June 19, 2010

    Thanks Carrie! Normally I leave them as is, but had some fun with these.

    Reply
  • Donna Hull
    June 20, 2010

    Rollerblading across Arizona? My hats off to the guy for trying something different. Alex, I enjoyed your photos and text. When you first look at some parts of Arizona, the areas seem desolate until you take a closer look, as you have done.

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    June 21, 2010

    Agreed! It was something else. I really wanted to pull over and interview him, but couldn't find a place to pull over, which is a bummer.

    Thanks for the kind words – it definitely is far different than the status quo/common dialogue suggests.

    Reply
  • Josh
    July 30, 2010

    Are these all your pictures? Absolutely beautiful…

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    July 30, 2010

    Yep, that they are Josh – thanks! I try and almost exclusively use my shots on the site.

    Reply
  • darngooddigs
    August 18, 2010

    Cool photos. I think Cameron might be famous for one other reason – I think there are some dinosaur footprints off the highway where you can stop and have guides lead you to the prints. I remember driving past on our way from Monument Valley to yes – the Grand Canyon. There was a lightning storm up ahead that was spectacular.

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    August 18, 2010

    There are some tracks along the road up outside of Tuba City. Fun stuff and worth a stop if you’re looking for something a bit a-typical. I imagine there are probably more around the area – might be some in Cameron as well. The lightning storm sounds spectacular!

    Reply
  • Michael
    September 17, 2010

    Just Stumbled on your post. We also just finished our little Southwest tour taking in some of the Four Corners. As I write, we are about to drop off our rental car and getting ready to head back to Europe. We also took tons of pictures because the spectacular and awesome landscapes really just asked for it.

    Reply
    • AlexBerger
      September 17, 2010

      Michael,

      Thanks for reading! What part of Europe are you from? I’m glad you loved the area – I’m actually originally from Cortez. Did you make it up/through that area?

      Reply

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