Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Northeastern Arizona

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The Navajo Nation is famous for its scenery and ancient ruins. For its hotels, not so much. 
Why not take an RV?


“So, where you folks headed this weekend?” the guy at the RV place asks, in that neighborly, no-judgments kind of way. When I tell him we’re driving his 31-foot Four Winds Chateau motorhome up to Navajo Nation to see the spectacular Betatakin cliff dwellings and explore Monument Valley, he evinces a mixture of enthusiasm and mild bewilderment. “Oh, I hear it’s pretty up there,” he says. “Tell me how it is.”


So it goes with northeastern Arizona, that vast, rugged, sometimes impossibly picturesque pocket of the American West that few of us urban Arizonans seem to know jack squat about. And that’s understandable. After all, the wide, untouched horizons and russet sandstone monoliths of Navajo country don’t exactly scream “fun in the sun.” More like “reverently contemplate the passage of time and man’s essential solitude, in the sun.”

Another limiting factor is the region’s paucity of good hotels and restaurants. It’s not like you can roll into dusty towns like Chinle or Tuba City and order a meal of roasted squash blossoms and grilled buffalo tenderloin. That’s a yuppie trip. On the reservation, you’re generally stuck with McDonald’s or frybread. And lodging? A Quality Inn if you’re lucky.
 
Our solution: Opt out of the hospitality industry altogether and take an RV. Cook for yourself. Clean for yourself. Go on a hike and see some of the most startling wilderness beauty on the planet, then wash off the dust in the shower of the motorized domicile parked not 100 feet from the trailhead. Yeah. That’s the way we roll.
 
“Be careful up there,” Ryan from Scottsdale RV says, handing us the keys. Translation: Please don’t roll it off a cliff.

A straight shot north to Navajo National Monument – where the Betatakin ruins are located – takes about six hours by RV from the Valley. Mind you, that’s a straight shot, which sort of defeats the purpose of a leisurely weekend Navajo roadie, doesn’t it? Why not seize the opportunity to see the region’s other great natural endowments?

So resolved, we head east on the I-40 from Flagstaff. Our destination: the high-desert railroad town of Winslow and places beyond. This stretch of the I-40 is flat but visually intriguing. We pass Wildcat Hill, an impressive specimen of mountaintop-removal mining that looks not unlike a scalped skull. A few minutes later, we zip by the settlement of Two Arrows – which announces itself to travelers with two humongous arrows that stick out of roadside asphalt. These are the quirky details that make an all-day hinterlands drive bearable.
 
En route to Winslow, we make a detour at Meteor Crater (meteorcrater.com), that kilometer-wide terrestrial pockmark gouged into the Earth by a 150-foot meteorite some 50,000 years ago. Wanna know what a 10-megaton nuclear bomb blast would look like? Here you go – a radically symmetrical, sunbaked divot, with human admirers crawling around the rim like ants on a mason jar. If you visit late in the day, you can even hunker down for the night at Meteor Crater RV Park (40 Meteor Crater Rd., Winslow, 928-289-4002).


phm0513 ge2 mdRolling into Winslow, we find a sleepy windswept burg seemingly untouched – or, at least, ungentrified – since its Route 66 heyday. The paint is peeling, the fonts are ancient, and the “Under New Management” sign hanging outside a run-down motel has at least 10 years’ worth of grime on it. The notable exception to this tableau of worn chicness is Standin’ on the Corner Park – the town’s ode to its famous name-check lyric in the Eagles’ hit “Take It Easy.” Commissioned in 1999, the  installation features a “girl in a flatbed Ford” ogling a bronzed Jackson Browne-esque wayfarer, per the lyric. If that’s not on-the-nose enough, there’s also nonstop, piped-in Eagles music, lending the whole thing an appropriately surreal, Groundhog Day vibe.

You can’t visit Winslow and miss the La Posada Hotel (303 E. Second St., 928-289-4366, laposada.org), the one-time outpost of Depression-era hospitality king Fred Harvey. Resembling a sprawling, colonial Spanish boarding school, the hotel is also the location of northeastern Arizona’s best restaurant: The Turquoise Room, run by James Beard-nominated chef John Sharpe. With game-focused regional gems like elk medallions in huckleberry sauce and crispy fried Arizona quail with a chile-and-cherry gastrique, the restaurant touts itself as “Winslow’s award-winning restaurant,” but a truer tagline might be “last gourmet grub for 189 miles.”

Indeed, Winslow sits on the very cusp of Navajo Nation, a territory that has the land mass of West Virginia but one-tenth the population. Settlements are scant, and services few and far between, so make sure to gas up accordingly, especially if you’re driving a thirsty beast like an RV.
 
From Winslow, you have two options. To start your Betatakin adventure straight away, jog north on state route 87 into Hopi – the 2,532-square-mile reservation that sits within Navajo land like a small island. About an hour north of Winslow, the Hopi Cultural Center (928-734-2401, hopiculturalcenter.com) provides a free campground and no-hook-up RV park in the settlement of Second Mesa for weary travelers. Be warned: It might not be your most restful evening – the campground is next door to a youth center that hosts late-night electronic dance music soirees. Never heard of “Hopi House”? You will.


phm0513 ge3 mdYour second post-Winslow option involves lengthening your detour and continuing east on the I-40. Sailing through the town of Holbrook, you can jog south to Petrified Forest National Park (nps.gov/pefo), an excitingly desolate badland populated by ancient rock-like log fragments and captivating Painted Desert erosion-layer motifs. After that, you’ll swing north on state route 191 toward the legendary Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Photographed by the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward S. Curtis, and a favorite of location scouts for Western movies – including this summer’s presumptive Johnny Depp blockbuster The Lone Ranger – the three-canyon complex is stunning and strictly regulated. You can book a tour through the tribe-managed park service (nps.gov/cach) or hire a backcountry guide through one of several independent outfits. Or you could remain in your vehicle and view 200-million-year-old Permian sandstone formations from eight paved overlooks that girdle both the south and north rims.

Unless you end your tour in the early afternoon, you’d be wise to spend the night. The best option for RV dwellers is Spider Rock Campground (spiderrockcampground.com), run by a charismatic luddite named Howard Smith, who books reservations ($15) by personal check. Located near the rim, Spider Rock is also a good place to book overnight hikes and four-wheel tours of the park.
 
From Chinle, it’s about a 150-minute drive west to Navajo National Monument (nps.gov/nava) – the proverbial 12-point buck of your northeastern Arizona sight-hunting excursion. From late May to early September, the National Park Service offers guided tours of Betatakin and Keet Seel – two 13th-century Pueblo Indian cliff-dwelling ruins set in natural sandstone alcoves. The Betatakin tour is a strenuous 5-mile roundtrip hike that takes about four hours; Keet Seel is a 17-mile roundtrip monster that takes all day. Afforded a special pre-season guide by the NPS, we’ll be doing Betatakin.

Parking the RV at the visitor’s center, we meet up with NPS ranger Bill Little, who conducts four Betatakin hikes a week during summer. Little is more than just a cliff-dweller expert – he’s also an accomplished amateur geologist, describing the origins of the painterly layers of cliff color that captivate hikers as they descend into Tsegi Canyon. “That’s Navajo sandstone,” he says, pointing to the ocherous top layers of the canyon walls, laid down by a million sandstorms before Arizona even sniffed its first mammal.

Containing high concentrations of soluble marine salts and minerals, the sandstone surrenders enthusiastically to moisture, an erosion process that explains the magnificent natural alcove that greets us as we emerge from a blanket of junipers on the valley floor. Five stories high and 375 feet wide, the Betatakin alcove inspires both reverence and enticing thoughts of Pink Floyd concerts in its massive natural amphitheater. “Approaching the alcove, 800 years ago, a visitor would hear singing,” Little says. “And the sounds of labor. People grinding corn. Building walls. Using tools.”

We cross under the towering forward lip of the alcove, and the orderly system of rooms and chambers resolves into view. According to Little, about 120 Pueblos lived here at the height of the Betatakin culture, attracted by the alcove’s south-facing winter warmth and abundant alluvial water supply. They farmed corn during the summer and stored it in bunker-like rooms during the winter.
 
It was a brief run for the Betatakin people and their cousins at Keet Seel. Sometime in the early-1300s – not 80 years after first inhabiting the alcove – the Pueblos quickly vacated it. Little counts down the possible reasons for the community’s decline: drought, lack of deadfall wood for fires, starvation. “No one knows for certain,” he adds, eyeing the tiers of well-preserved sandstone block-and-mortar buildings above us.

Until 2010, the NPS allowed visitors to tour the ruins. That ended when a five-ton sandstone sliver detached from the alcove lip and exploded upon impact in front of a dozen mortified hikers. “Maybe that’s another reason why [the Betatakin people] left,” Little says, referring to the alcove’s ongoing march toward self-destruction, which will presumably one day swallow the ruins whole.
 
Rested, we begin the long walk back to the top of the mesa, and it’s a hell of a hike – which is either a sweet or bitter coda to the Betatakin experience, depending on your attitude toward exercise. “Not bad for my first hike of the season,” Little, a 50-something who runs a nearby ranch during the winter, says while huffing and puffing slightly. We both agree it beats an office job.
 
Camping is available at Navajo National Monument, but not RV parking. As luck would have it, we’re only a brisk 90-minute drive from Monument Valley – that border-straddling co-possession of Arizona and Utah. Famed for its eerily beautiful lonely sandstone buttes, this is the desert wilderness that provided director John Ford with the visual language for many of his best-known films, including Stagecoach and The Searchers. When people think of the Old West, it’s often Monument Valley that comes to mind.
 
Taking Monument Valley Road west from SR-163, we drive past a receiving line of buttes and mesas – each one a well-wisher for pavement-weary travelers. Of the local RV options, Goulding’s Lodge (1000 Main St., Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, 435-727-3231, gouldings.com) stands alone. Set within the folds and foothills of Rock Door Mesa, this sprawling, town-like compound offers full-service RV hook-ups in addition to traditional hotel services, which feels like a five-star Conde Nast luxury after our sleepless Second Mesa interlude. There are trailheads within walking distance of the RV park, daily activity and tour services, and even a nightly John Wayne movie in the lodge.
 
All that’s missing? Filet of bison with sea salt and roasted beets. Luckily, we brought that particular provision ourselves. It’s cooking on the campsite grill, just as the setting sun ignites the womb of Rock Door Mesa into a furnace of orange and red hues that rise all around us. Never has the concept of four walls and a ceiling seemed so tragic. It’s too bad you can’t take one of these things to Hawaii.


phm0513 ge4 mdNo Fifth Wheel?

If you visit Navajo Nation the traditional way – i.e. in a car – check out these hotel options.

Amangiri: Located about three hours west of Monument Valley, this 34-room luxury resort – famed for its striking mountainside pool – is probably worth the drive, and great as a launching-off point for Lake Powell. $1,050-$1,100. 1 Kayenta Rd., Canyon Point, Utah, 435-675-3999, amanresorts.com

The View: As implied, the east-facing balcony views offered by this 95-room Monument Valley hotel – which opened in 2008 – are spellbinding. It lies just outside the Arizona-Utah border. $149-$199. Indian Route 42, Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, 435-727-5555, monumentvalleyview.com

Goulding’s Lodge: In addition to excellent RV and camping services, this Monument Valley property operates a 62-room lodge with commanding views of Eagle Mesa. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. $130-$195. 1000 Main St., Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, 435-727-3231, gouldings.com


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