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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!