The Ultimate Arizona Road Trip: 16 Places to See & Things to Do

In many ways the beauty of Arizona is embodied by its most famous natural landmark, the Grand Canyon but there is so much more. Discover the endless possibilities now.

Arizona is well-known for its beautiful landscapes and scenery. These beautiful, must-experience places are bucket-list worthy; some are well-known while others are hidden gems you might not have known about. From national landmarks to historical towns and breathtaking outdoor landscapes, here are 16 places to visit on your next Arizona road trip.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Canyon

The most obvious landmark and Arizona road trip (and the most breathtaking of them all) is the Grand Canyon. If you have never experienced the sight of this outstanding view, you absolutely have to add this to your bucket list. The hiking trails will leave you speechless. Plus many photo opportunities! Check out the El Tovar Hotel, a historic property that opened its doors in 1905 and has entertained celebrities and presidents for over 100 years. Just steps away from the Grand Canyon’s edge, the dining room is as close to the canyon as you can get as well.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

One of Arizona’s best-kept secrets is the historic town of Bisbee. The former mining town is a small, unique community that sits high in the mountains in the far southeast corner of Arizona. With plenty of things to do, activities, events and festivals, shops, and galleries plus hiking, birding, gallery-gazing, or dining, Bisbee offers a plethora of choices to keep you entertained.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Home to Lake Powell, The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is a stunning region of blue water with desert landscape and dramatic stone walls. One of the largest manmade lakes in the United States, this area is known for both land-based and water-based recreational activities. You can enjoy a summer’s day with perfect weather, cool water, amazing scenery, and endless sunshine. This is the perfect place to escape to and rent a houseboat, stay at a campground, or enjoy lodging.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle, near Camp Verde, has nothing to do with Montezuma, nor is it a castle. The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room pueblo about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s, almost a century before Montezuma was born. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay served as the floor of the room built on top.

Hoover Dan © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoover Dam

Linking Arizona and Nevada, Hoover Dam is one of America’s great engineering marvels and a fantastic Arizona road trip. Completed in 1935, this massive and hard-to-miss structure crosses the Colorado River and sits at a total of 726 feet high and 1,244 feet long. You are able to walk across the dam or take a tour. The visitor center provides information on the tours and has a café where you can stop for some basic grub.

Jerome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jerome

An old mining town-turned ghost town-turned tourist attraction, Jerome sits on a mountainside just above the desert floor. Jerome is unique and quirky, to say the least, with the Sliding Jail in Jerome that was originally built around 1928. While you’re there, you can visit the town’s most appreciated historical landmarks including the Gold King Mine Museum and the Jerome State Historic Park.

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Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

Along a 17-mile one-way gravel road, you will find the heart of the valley, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. While visiting this area, which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah, you’ll experience the true Arizona desert feel with miles and miles of beautiful landscape and scenery of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, creating all the wonderful and majestic colors of the Valley.

Prescott © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prescott

With its small-city feel and defined seasons, Prescott has tall Ponderosa pine trees, lakes, and the occasional sprinkle of snow. This charming town has many things to offer, including the old courthouse, Whiskey Row, Elks Theatre, and numerous other tourist attractions. You can grab a bite to eat at one of the downtown restaurants.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

One of Tucson’s most popular attractions is Saguaro National Park which is a great place to experience the desert landscape around this well-known town and see the famous saguaro cacti up close. With an east and west portion, the park has two sections, approximately 30 minutes apart. Both sections of the park offer great opportunities to experience the desert and enjoy hiking trails.

Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Picacho Peak State Park

Jutting out of the Sonoran Desert some 1,500 feet, you can’t help but see Picacho Peak for miles as you drive along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. Travelers have used the peak for centuries as a landmark and continue to enjoy the state park’s 3,747 acres for hiking, rock climbing, spring wildflowers, and camping

Tombstone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tombstone

After getting its start as a silver mining claim in the late-1870s, Tombstone grew along with its Tough Nut Mine becoming a bustling boomtown of the Wild West. From opera and theater to dance halls and brothels, Tombstone offered much-needed entertainment to the miners after a long shift underground. The spirits of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Brothers live on in the authentic old west town of Tombstone, home of Boothill Graveyard, the Birdcage Theatre, and the O.K. Corral.

Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Papago Park

Just minutes from downtown Phoenix, Papago Park offers great hiking and a wide array of recreational facilities. Comprised primarily of sandstone, the range is known for its massive buttes that rise and fall throughout the park. Papago is home to two of the region’s most visited attractions, the Phoenix Zoo and Desert Botanical Garden.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

Sedona is a well-known hotbed of energy—one that’s conducive to both meditation and healing—and this is one of the reasons 4.5 million travelers flock here annually. That and the region’s red rocks: stunning sandstone formations that jut upward thousands of feet and change colors from orange to rust to crimson as the sun passes through the sky.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present-day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor. From the mesa east of Chinle in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.

Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Surrounded by mountains, Tucson is a beautiful city set in the Sonoran Desert and is the second-largest city in Arizona. With many historic sites and cultural attractions, Tucson is a place to unwind and explore. Highlights include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, El Presidio Historic District, and Old Tucson Studios. You will also discover hiking trails, and afterward, you can find a bite to eat at one of the many wonderful restaurants Tucson has to offer.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the park is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce its first flower near the age of 35.

Worth Pondering…

The trip across Arizona is just one oasis after another. You can just throw anything out and it will grow there.

—Will Rogers

8 Native American Heritage Sites to Visit This Fall

Dive into the incredible sacred stories behind your favorite parks and sites

How many Native American tribes do you think are there were in all 50 states?

574. Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today with the number increasing as years goes on.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, in Canada, there are over 630 First Nation communities (a title used by Canada to describe the various societies of the indigenous peoples) speaking more than 50 languages, divided into six cultural divisions in eight geographical locations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That being said, the lands all around us in both the United States and Canada are the traditional homelands to indigenous peoples. Some of them have been designated as Native American heritage sites which I’ve been privileged throughout the years to visit and hear stories about—from the brave Crazy Horse warrior to sacred refuges in the Grand Canyon, and even the original Native American tales of giant monsters in Monument Valley.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With Native American Heritage Month in November, fall is a fantastic time to visit and hear the first stories behind many of America’s greatest parks and monuments. A few favorites are listed here by their original Indigenous names.

Related: Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A kind reminder when visiting tribal lands: It’s always good practice to ask before entering someone’s space and especially before taking their photo. Please respect privacy, remember that all tribes are different, and note our tradition of listening when elders speak (which is sometimes not in English).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Ancestral Pueblo, Colorado

After living atop the mesas for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved their homes to the mesa walls and became cliff dwellers. They kept their crops and fields atop the mesa but lowered their harvest down to food storage rooms.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There they dwelled for another hundred years before beginning their migration further south. Descendants of these people teach their children that their ancestors only inhabited such areas for a time before journeying on as their deity bid.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a mind-perplexing glimpse into the lives of those who once lived here. Here, you will also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii / Monument Valley

Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah

One of the most majestic and most photographed points on earth this great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Related: Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most known for its appearance in films such as Forrest Gump (when Forrest decides he’s tired and stops running in the center of the road) and the old John Wayne cowboy flicks, the breath-taking Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii remains much as it did back in the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deities worked together to turn the monsters to stone. It is those monsters who remain as monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tseyi’ / Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Diné Nation, Arizona

Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock, and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims. “A place like no other”, the National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Related: Travel Experience like None Other: Monument Valley and Northeastern Arizona

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground is located near the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. Administered by Tseyi’ Dine’ Heritage Area, it offers camping for anyone desiring to pitch a tent or park your RV to enjoy a quiet night or two under the stars. A picnic table and barbeque grill is available at each campsite.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the breathtaking views and relish in the paths of the ancient ones who once flourished in the canyons by booking a guided tour from one of the local tour operators; they will take you in by horse, vehicle, or on foot. Or, you could take a self-guided tour of the South and North Rim Drives and view the canyon from the overlooks.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many possible reasons the Sinagua chose to build their homes on the cliffs. At Montezuma Castle, the cliff faces south, so the dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The high location also protected them from damage caused by the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. The dwellings may also have been built high up for protection or to help the Sinagua view approaching travelers. More than likely, the cliff dwellings served all these functions and more, much like our houses today

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Sinagua left about 600 years ago, the Verde Valley has been continually occupied by other groups of people. Some Hopi clans believe that the Sinagua were their ancestors. Some Yavapai-Apache say that not all Sinagua left but instead integrated with the Yavapai and Apache. Today, the monument is affiliated with many tribes including the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona: Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.

Casa Grande Ruins National Nonument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and “Great House” are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

Casa Grande Ruins National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Desert People or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

Related: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archeologists call a site where there are earthen buildings, red on buff pottery, and extensive canals, “Hohokam”, but this is not the name of a tribe or a people. Years of misunderstanding have confused the ancestors of the O’Odham, Hopi, and Zuni people with the name Hohokam which is not a word in any of their languages nor the name of a separate people.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Around the year 650, 1400 years ago, people began settling in the Verde Valley. Among the oldest structures found in the valley are the pithouses, partially buried dwellings that were the most common form of housing across the southwest between about 4,000 years ago and 600 years ago.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of multi-room pueblos began by the year 1000. The pueblo at Tuzigoot is architecturally similar to pueblos that can be seen around the region, like, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and many sites along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona including Montezuma Castle.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Utah/Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers of Hovenweep were built by ancestral Puebloans, a sedentary farming culture that occupied the Four Corners area from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years.

Today’s Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins, built and used over a 200-year period, is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An interesting 700 yard trail leads visitors through the West Ruin, an excavated great house that had at least 400 interconnected rooms built around an open plaza. Its massive sandstone walls tower over 30 feet. Many rooms contain the original pine, spruce, and aspen beams hauled from distant mountains.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

Monument Valley has Re-opened: What to Know Before You Visit

One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has reopened

Monument Valley was described by the filmmaker John Ford (1895-1973) as “the most complete, beautiful, and peaceful place on earth.” Many of Ford’s films were westerns and filmed in Monument Valley, one of his favorite film settings.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, seeing the place in a movie is nothing like being there. As filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich explains, “It’s breathtaking. You can’t believe it. It’s very photogenic; it has a kind of mythic feeling of age, of legend… You’ve seen it in the movies, but when you see it in life, it’s so epic in its proportions that it almost stands for the whole of the West.”

The Navajo Nation is reopening parks and businesses on a phased basis, welcoming visitors back to the community’s monuments, casinos, and unique attractions.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After more than a year of being closed during the pandemic, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is now open on a limited basis. The park that straddles the Arizona/Utah state line reopened last week after the Navajo Nation determined that the reservation has achieved the orange status of its COVID-19 reopening plan. According to the “Safer-at-Home” order issued August 12, 2021, the Navajo Nation is returning to “Orange Status”; thereby Navajo Parks and Recreation will continue to follow all safety protocols. It is mandatory that all visitors and tribal members continue to wear face masks at all times while visiting the Navajo Nation. According to the order, 50 percent capacity is permitted in most businesses including in restaurants, casinos, hotels and campgrounds, museums, and parks.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As part of the plan, several other destinations on the Navajo Nation—Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Navajo National Monument, Hubbell Trading Post, and Four Corners Monument—also are open to visitors under certain conditions. Visit your destination’s website for specific COVID-19 guidelines. 

Here is everything you need to know to plan a trip to Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Can I drive through Monument Valley?

There are two ways to visit Monument Valley. You can enter the park and drive to the valley overlook but not beyond. Admission is $20 per vehicle for up to four people. Each additional person costs $6.

You need to book a tour to go on the full 17-mile Monument Valley loop drive. Self-driving is not allowed at this time. You’ll ride in your outfitter’s vehicle. According to Louise Tsinijinnie, media representative for Navajo Nation Parks, most vehicles are open-air and can hold 10 to 12 passengers. Tours typically cost $65-$75 per person, Tsinijinnie said. A list of tour guides is at navajonationparks.org.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Visitor Center

From the visitor center, you see the world-famous panorama of the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. You can also purchase guided tours from Navajo tour operators who take you down into the valley in Jeeps for a narrated cruise through these mythical formations. Places such as Ear of the Wind and other landmarks can only be accessed via guided tours. During the summer months, the visitor center also features Haskenneini Restaurant which specializes in both native Navajo and American cuisines, and a film/snack/souvenir shop. There are year-round restroom facilities. One mile before the center, numerous Navajo vendors sell arts, crafts, native food, and souvenirs at roadside stands.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The View Hotel and Camping at Monument Valley

For visitors wanting to stay inside Monument Valley, The View Hotel and Premium Cabins are open at 50 percent capacity as well. The campground and RV sites remain closed. Masks must be worn indoors, in any public areas, and on all guided tours. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is not a ‘valley’ in the true sense of the word but rather a vast, desert-like expanse of land punctuated by towering, huge stones that rise hundreds of feet in height. Monument Valley is one of the most majestic—and most photographed—points on earth. This great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Area Geology

The geology of the area helps add to its grandeur. Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau which covers 130,000 square miles. More than 50 million years ago the area was a lowland basin that over eons of time and extensive layers of sedimentation, ceaseless pressures from below the surface, and eventual geological uplifts were transformed into a plateau. Then wind and water took over the task of creating the dramatic vistas and formations that we see today.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The current elevation of the valley floor ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The floor is basically siltstone. Iron oxide gives the area its red color. The blue-gray rocks get their color from manganese oxide. The buttes are clearly stratified in several distinct layers: Organ Rock Shale, de Chelly Sandstone, and Shinarump Conglomerate.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is a part of the Navajo Nation. It is located on the Utah/Arizona border, east of Highway 163, midway between Kayenta, Arizona, and Mexican Hat, Utah. The park entrance is in Utah.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternative to Monument Valley

Often described as a “Miniature Monument Valley”, the Valley of Gods is definitely worth checking out—and it’s totally free and without restrictions. The area is publicly managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat and Utah Route 261 just below Moki Dugway. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Navajo Name: Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Valley of the Rocks)

Elevation: 5,564 feet above sea level

Size: 91,696 acres (spans Utah and Arizona)

Worth Pondering…

So this is where God put the West.

—John Wayne

Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

The Valley of Gods is a Miniature Monument Valley and definitely worth checking out— and totally free

The Valley of the Gods is publicly-managed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in a setting surrounded by two national parks (Arches and Canyonlands), three national monuments (Natural Bridges, Hovenweep, and Bears Ears), three state parks (Goosenecks, Dead Horse Point, and Edge of the Cedars), Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a land of immense beauty that epitomizes both the American West and movie landscapes.

From the top of Cedar Mesa, Moki Dugway descends into the Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The beautiful Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths, pinnacles, and other geological features of this enchanting area are known as a Miniature Monument Valley. These sandstone sentinels were eroded by wind and water over eons of time.

The 17-mile Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between US-163 north of Mexican Hat, Utah, near the Arizona-Utah border, and Utah Route 261 just below the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. In the morning, enter from US-163 in the east. This way, the sunlight highlights the buttes. And, in the afternoon start from the west entrance off SR-261.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s just a simple non-descript green highway sign on US-163 in southeastern Utah near Mexican Hat: “Valley of the Gods.” Tighten your grip on the steering wheel as you drop down to ford the creek as the towering Seven Sailors Butte fills the earth to the sky. This is the eastern beginning to the twisting, climbing, and turning but readily accessible drive looping through a valley of 9dramatic red rock buttes, rolling desert landscape, and a smattering of brush and wildflowers.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following the Seven Sailors greeting, Setting Hen and Rooster buttes loom large. This starts the stretch where the most scenic campsites are located. The road weaves its way north and west past buttes named Franklin and Battleship and then after making a steep turn at Castle Rock, two whimsical buttes are in view: Rudolph and Santa and Lady in a Bathtub. A simple drive-by brings you past more than 12 named buttes and spires and easily another dozen without names on various maps.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. It’s a potpourri of Southwestern geology. To truly enjoy the experience, stop often at the many wide spots on the road. Get out and walk around and take some photos. Keep an eye peeled for roadrunners and coyotes—this is their home turf.

Valley of the Gods Road is graded gravel and clay. This two-lane road is passable in a conventional passenger car when road conditions are dry. A local inquiry should be made during and after periods of inclement weather.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Never enter a flooded wash if it’s not possible to discern depth and flow speed. When storm conditions are present over the Valley and north of Valley of Gods, watch for flash flooding. Lime Creek is the drainage for a large area including portions of Cedar Mesa. It can flood even if the Valley of the Gods is in the sunshine and blue skies. It takes only six inches of water and a 5 mph flow to float a passenger car—even a four-wheel-drive pickup truck—off the road and down the stream. Use common sense and caution.

This 17-mile loop through Valley of the Gods has sharp turns and crosses several washes. Taking the drive in a leisurely fashion, we stopped for photos, taking two to three hours to complete the loop.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many places to stop along the scenic drive and numerous locations suitable for FREE camping as the valley lies on BLM land and is completely undeveloped. Since hardly anyone seems to pass by, the area provides a much more relaxing and isolated experience than the famous valley (Monument Valley) 30 miles southwest, and without any of the restrictions on hiking or camping. The spacing between campsites and the low traffic volume through Valley of the Gods provides ample opportunity for privacy while camping.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping is available in the dozens of off-road graded areas BLM has prepared adjoining Valley of the Gods Road. Starting just before Setting Hen Butte and past Battleship Rock, the campsites are slightly hidden from the road and provide some privacy and distance from dust. Practice “leave no trace” camping techniques. There are no potable water and no restrooms or pit toilets. Be prepared for primitive camping and bring plenty of water.

Overnight stays allow a chance to explore the buttes and rocks at leisure, cross-country hike, and see a near-perfect dark sky reveal of the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder’s map rates Valley of the Gods with its darkest sky measure.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are no formal hiking trails. Hike with a map and compass. With a portable GPS, remember extra batteries and set the tracking feature. The ground surface tends to have loose small rocks, especially below and around the buttes which can be slick. Trekking poles are recommended along with a basic “watch-your-step” sense. Keep an eye open for rattlesnakes and other reptiles on large rocks or near crevices. Do not stick bare hands under a rock without checking for spiders, insects, or snakes. There are many things that sting and bite in the desert.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Small canyons cut into the cliffs that form the northern boundary of the valley and can be reached after a couple of miles of cross-country hiking. The entire region is excellent for photography, especially at sunrise and sunset when the rocks take on a particularly deep red hue.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Do not count on mobile phone signals anywhere throughout this portion of southeast Utah. There is mobile service from time to time but not that can be relied upon to be available when needed.

Worth Pondering…

Time, geologic time, looks out at us from the rocks as from no other objects in the landscape.

—John Burroughs

15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when the molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh

A Journey of Incredible Beauty: Trail of the Ancients

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence

Far too often we consider the roads that we travel purely as a means to get from point A to point B. Most spend far more hours in their cars commuting and running errands than truly enjoying what lies beyond the edge of the asphalt or concrete. But once you hit the road in your recreational vehicle, why not get off the roads most traveled and take in the breath-taking splendor of America’s system of scenic byways?

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway circles through the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Country of southeastern Utah, providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites, as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep (also in Colorado) national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists. An extension of this route continues into Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence. Attempt this 482-mile drive (366 miles in Utah; 116 miles in Colorado) in a single day or two and you’ll miss the point. This landscape took thousands of years to create; you’ll never appreciate it at 65 miles per hour. Instead, take a week or more, stopping to walk through the numerous parks, preserves, monuments, and unnamed places whose beauty defies categorization. Start at any point along the route.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on U.S. Highway 491 and continues to the junction in Monticello with U.S. Highway 191. Turn south onto U.S. 191 and travel to Blanding where you’ll find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area. Visitors can walk the paths through the ruins and climb into the kiva via a ladder, just as the original residents did. Exceptionally rare and well-preserved artifacts are at the heart of the museum exhibits.

Utah Highway 261 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Blanding the route follows U.S. Highway 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and continues west on Highway 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Butler Wash Ruins, about 10.5 miles west of Blanding, has cliff-type dwellings located under rocky overhangs in a lush green valley along the river. An easy half-mile hike allows closer views. Eight miles further west along Highway 95 brings you to Mule Canyon Indian Ruins at milepost 101. Adjacent to the road, the site contains dwelling units, a reconstructed open kiva, and round tower—all made of stone.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a few more miles and you’re at Natural Bridges National Monument about 35 miles west of Blanding. Located atop a 5,500- to 6,500-foot mesa a nine-mile, one-way, paved loop road winds through the park, revealing spectacular views of deep pinyon-filled canyons with scattered ancient cliff dwellings and three of the world’s largest natural stone bridges. Bridges differ from arches in that they are created primarily by stream action; whereas arches are created primarily by rain and wind.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The bridges in this monument are all easily viewed from overlook areas along Bridge View Drive, or you can hike down into the canyon and walk under them. Interpretive signing is present at each overlook. Horsecollar Ruin Overlook Trail is mostly level and leads over the mesa to the edge of White Canyon. The small cliff dwelling is unique in that it is still plastered. The doorways to the two granaries are shaped like the horsecollars used in harness equipment. A small campground is limited to RVs less than 26 feet but an overflow area on the edge of the park has plenty of room.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Natural Bridges National Monument, the Trail of the Ancient Scenic Byway turns south at the junction with Highways 95 and 261. Along this route you’ll find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top. Prior to dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road 274, a 5-mile remote dirt road leading to Muley Point which has been listed by National Geographic as one of the most outstanding views in America. From its magnificent overlook you’ll peer deep into the San Juan River Canyon and onto Monument Valley 25 miles or so in the distance.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of unpaved road that descends 1,000 feet down tight switchbacks from the edge of Cedar Mesa into the Valley of the Gods. The dugway itself is a historic part of the trail, built during the uranium boom to accommodate ore trucks that traveled from the mines on Cedar Mesa to the mill near the Navajo community of Halchita across the San Juan River from Mexican Hat. Never planned for public use, Moki Dugway is not recommended for RV travel.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the bottom of the Dugway our journey continues past the entrance to the little-known Valley of the Gods and onto the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosenecks State Park. Although Valley of the Gods is not listed as a site on the Trail, it is worth visiting. The 17-mile loop drive on a native surface road leads among sandstone monoliths which have been given fanciful names such as Seven Sailors, Southern Lady, Rooster Butte, and Battleship Butte.  The valley allows a close-up look at towers and mesas of multicolored sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in subtle shades of pink, red, gold, orange, and purple. The sandstone monoliths here are reminiscent of Monument Valley. This route puts travelers on Highway 163, between Bluff and Mexican Hat.

Goosenecks State Park is another adventure in geology revealing the skeleton of the earth in the layers formed by the San Juan River 1,000 feet below. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River is one of the most striking examples of an “entrenched river meander” in North America. Like a snake the river twists and turns and coils back on itself for a distance of over six miles while advancing only 1.5 miles west as it flows toward Lake Powell. Over 300 million years of geologic activity is revealed from Goosenecks State Park. Located at the end of Highway 316, Gooseneck is a wilderness park encompassing 10 acres.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Highway 261 continues to the junction with U.S. Highway 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. Founded in the early part of the 20th century during an oil boom, Mexican Hat has a population of less than 100 and functions mostly as a stopover point for visitors on their way to Monument Valley or as a base for river expeditions.

At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in countless Western movies directed by John Ford. An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

After exploring the wonders of Monument Valley retrace your route for 21 miles to Mexican Hat on U.S. Highway 163 and continue east to the pioneer-era town of Bluff on the edge of the Navajo Nation. Snuggled up against the San Juan River, the town was settled by the famous “Hole-In-The-Rock” expedition of Mormon pioneers in the 1880s. Continue past Bluff and travel east on Utah Highway 262 towards the town of Aneth and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known for its square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers, Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric clusters of Native American ruins. Established in 1923, the villages date from the Pueblo period of the mid 13th century. They are spread over a 20-mile area along the Utah-Colorado state line. Unlike the large ruins at Mesa Verde, these are approachable and the visitor can wander among the fallen walls and consider the people who built them.

From Hovenweep return to Aneth and drive southeast on Utah Highway 162 and Colorado Highway 41 to the Four Corners and northeast on U.S. Highway 160 to Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Part of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, the Ute Mountain Tribal Park has been set aside to preserve remnants of the Ancestral Puebloan and Ute cultures. The Park encompasses approximately 125,000 acres around a 25 mile stretch of the Mancos River. Within the park are hundreds of surface sites and cliff dwellings, Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs, and historic Ute wall paintings and petroglyphs.

Mesa Verde National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Ute Mountain, drive north on U.S. Highway to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park. Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde offers an excellent opportunity to see and experience the life of the Ancestral Puebloans. Spectacular cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages were built between A.D. 450 and 1300, when the Ancestral Puebloans migrated from the area. 

The park is split into a series of sub-mesas all bearing different names. There are thousands of archaeological sites across the park and excellent interpretive loops and scenic pullouts. Hiking and climbing ladders in and out of cliff dwellings is one option, or walks through less rigorous self-guided routes are also available. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this note we end our fascinating discovery of an ancient land of incredible beauty.

Worth Pondering…

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

—Marcel Proust, French novelist

The Most Beautiful Places in Arizona (That Aren’t the Grand Canyon)

Half the state looks like it was drawn by Dr. Seuss.

Just over three decades ago we made several stops in Arizona on a cross country journey in an RV. My first reaction was how could anyone choose to live in this big, desolate god-forsaken desert? While camping at Usery Mountain, a Maricopa County Regional Park, I entered into a conversation with the campground host. A full-time RVer originally from Michigan, she had similar sentiments upon seeing Arizona for the first time and within several weeks fell in love with the desert and never left. I, too, fell in love with the Sonoran Desert and its flora and fauna and have returned to Arizona more than a dozen times.

Sedona from Airport Mesa © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona will completely shatter any pessimistic expectations you may harbor. Arizona is an absolute stunner! It’s a state where orange-hued slot canyons and colorful sandstone formations could trick even the most experienced explorer into thinking they’ve wandered off to Mars. Here, ancient deserts seem painted by unseen artists. That canyon? It is indeed grand! But look beyond it and you’ll discover a state whose beauty all but ensures you’ll want to stay for the long haul or return again and again.

Cathedral Rock, Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona

I can’t tell you exactly what it was at the time, but something brought me to Arizona… looking back, maybe it was the pull of Sedona’s vortexes. And I’m not the only one feeling the tug of some sort of unknown spiritual energy. Nearly 3 million tourists visit Sedona annually; a figure that’s tripled over the last decade or so. Just a day trip from Phoenix, Sedona is a gem of a town surrounded by forests and red-rock buttes that thrust skyward; all obvious reasons why so many seek out the new-agey Northern Arizona town. Recognized for their powerful energy and scenic views, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, Airport Mesa, and Cathedral Rock are said to be the strongest vortexes around the town. What does a vortex feel like, exactly? You’ll have to experience it for yourself in Sedona. 

Mission San Xavier del Bac © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mission San Xavier del Bac

Located just 10 miles from Downtown Tucson, this stunningly beautiful mission was founded in 1692 and built in 1700 which makes it the oldest intact European structure in the state of Arizona and the best example of Spanish Colonial architecture in the country. Referred to as The White Dove of the Desert, the church’s interior is brimming with original statuary and detailed mural paintings that portray motifs influenced by both the Spanish and Tohono O’odham people. The style is truly unique to Arizona and is a must-stop when passing through Tucson or nearby Saguaro National Park.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley 

Since the 1930s, Monument Valley’s iconic desert landscape has been featured in dozens of movies and western-style films. With its tower-like red sandstone bluffs and long-stretched highway, Monument Valley’s panoramic scenery is essentially the picture of the American Southwest. Parts of the area including Hunts Mesa and Mystery Valley are only accessible by guided tour. However, road-trippers can drive through the park on a dirt road that winds 17-miles. A trip through the park takes about two to three hours from start to finish. Monument Valley also made our list of Most Beautiful Places in Utah.

Bisbee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bisbee

Bisbee’s reputation for being a little eccentric isn’t exactly a lie. The town has been nicknamed “Mayberry on Acid.” Hell, they even printed it on t-shirts. Nestled in Southeastern Arizona’s Mule Mountains and just 10-miles north of the Mexico Border, this mining town turned arts colony provides travelers an offbeat experience against a backdrop of historic mines, psychedelic art displays, and staircases leading to houses on stilts. What made Bisbee so… Bisbee? After a lucrative and long-running mining boom, creative souls from near and far found a home in the sleepy desert town. And there is certainly no denying that the creative influence remains very, very strong today in this underrated small town.

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Painted Desert

Millions of years in the making and spanning more than 953,000 acres from Grand Canyon National Park to Petrified National Forest, the aptly named Painted Desert is a living canvas featuring a palate of red, pink, and lavender. The unique landscape consists of innumerable impressive formations and features created by volcanic eruptions, floods, and earthquakes. About 25 miles east of Holbrook is Petrified Forest National Park. It takes some imagination to see it, but this area of what we know call Painted Desert was flourishing with vegetation and trees some 200 million years ago before volcanic lava basically destroyed everything in its path. The petrified wood, made mostly of quartz, is all that’s left today. 

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Page

For the uninitiated, Page looks like nothing more than a desolate spot on the map near the state-line crossing into Utah. Look a little closer. Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend, local secrets for years, have become some of the most photographed natural attractions in the Southwest (thanks to Instagram). A quick hike will get you to the Horseshoe Bend overlook where you can get a bird’s eye view of the Colorado River and horseshoe-shaped meander below. And in a state with no shortage of unique geological formations, some of the most puzzling and fascinating is to be found at Antelope Canyon. Guided tours are required, but the supernatural beauty of it all is definitely worth it. And a short drive to simmering Lake Powell and the stunning Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Fountain Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fountain Hills

The Fountain Hills fountain is one of those strange sights that only seems to make sense in Arizona. There’s something especially impressive about a fountain that reaches a height of 330 feet, in the middle of the desert—even if it is man-made. The spray cranks up to 560 feet high on special occasions (like St. Patrick’s Day and Fourth of July), but it’s a captivating sight anytime, and it’s available for your viewing pleasure for 15 minutes every hour, on the hour, from 9 am to 9 pm every day.

Hole in the Rock at Papago Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Phoenix

One of the first things you’ll learn about this state is that it’s beloved for its colorful sunsets, and one of the most quintessential ways to watch an Arizona sunset is by viewing it through the famous “Hole-in-the-Rock” at Papago Park, a naturally-formed opening in the red butte. In addition to its beauty, the park also holds historical significance—it was the home of ancient Hohokam Indians, served as a prisoner camp during World War II, and some areas of the park are still used for Arizona National Guard training today.

Worth Pondering…

To my mind these live oak-dotted hills fat with side oats grama, these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near to being the cream of creation.

—Aldo Leopold, 1937

6 Unique Rock Formations

These amazing rock formations remind us that nature is still the best artist of the universe

Geology may sound boring on the surface but when you gaze your eyes on these incredible rock formations, you will find them anything but dull. Passionate rock lovers from around the world plan vacations to see some of the country’s strangest landscapes.

Many of the most spectacular formations are in the West where the mountains and canyons are younger and haven’t been softened by erosion and age. These craggy profiles and volcanic monoliths have intrigued humans for millennia.

Rock on with these six unusual rock formations below from Arches National Park to the Texas Hill Country.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley in Arizona and Utah

Providing a dramatic craggy backdrop for many a cinematic Western movie, Monument Valley runs along the border of Utah and Arizona within the 26,000-square miles of the Navajo Tribal Park. U.S. Highway 163 scenic byway barrels through red rock buttes and spires.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The names of the formations offer lots of Wild West flavor: Grey Whiskers, the Totem Pole, the Sentinel, and the matching Left and Right Mitten Buttes which the Navajo believe represent the hands of the Creator. Director John Ford shot seven westerns here most starring John Wayne including The Searchers (1956) with the landscape playing a featured role. There’s even has a spot in the valley named after him: John Ford’s Point.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red Rocks of Sedona

You’ll find spectacular red rock buttes like those surrounding Sedona scattered throughout the Southwest but these particular rocks have something that sets them apart: mystical vortexes. Even if you’re not an adherent of the New Age movement, plan on visiting at least one of Sedona’s famous vortexes. They’re at some of the most gorgeous spots around town.

Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vortexes are thought to be swirling centers of energy that are conducive to spiritual healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Believers identify four primary vortexes: Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Airport Mesa.

El Morro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Morro in New Mexico

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country.

El Morro © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot. This massive mesa point forms a striking landmark. In fact, El Morro means “the headland.”

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock in Texas

Round as a giant Easter egg, Enchanted Rock sits half-buried in the hills north of Fredericksburg. It’s a half-mile hike to the top but an unforgettable experience. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- to 40-story building.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One billion years ago, this granite was part of a large pool of magma or hot liquid rock, perhaps seven miles below the earth’s surface. It pushed up into the rock above in places, then cooled and hardened very slowly turning into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away. Those pushed-up areas are the domes you see in the park. The domes are a small and visible part of a huge underground area of granite, called a batholith. The Enchanted Rock Batholith stretches 62 square miles; most of it is underground.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, Utah

These knobby, colorful columns of red rock are just as weird as their name: hoodoos. The word hoodoo means to bewitch which is what Bryce Canyon’s rock formations surely do.

Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hoodoos we are talking about are tall skinny shafts of rock that protrude from the bottom of arid basins. Hoodoos are most commonly found in the High Plateaus region of the Colorado Plateau and in the Badlands regions of the Northern Great Plains. While hoodoos are scattered throughout these areas, nowhere in the world are they as abundant as in the northern section of Bryce Canyon National Park. At Bryce Canyon, hoodoos range in size from that of a human, to heights exceeding a 10-story building.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch of Arches National Park

The largest arch on the planet, Landscape is rightfully famous. It is amazingly thin, delicate-looking, and photogenic. Landscape is an awesome sight; the amazing width of the stone arch, held in place by such a delicate, slender center. Only a few years ago, a short spur trail passed directly underneath the arch. Because of recent rock falls from the underside of the arch, visitors are no longer allowed to travel underneath the fragile-looking rock span.

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Landscape Arch is located near the end of the Devils Garden Trail. There is more to see within the Devils Garden then just the impressive Landscape Arch. Private Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Wall Arch, Double O Arch, and the Dark Angel pinnacle are all within this rocky playground.

Worth Pondering…

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.

—Neil Armstrong

Here’s the Proof that Utah is the Most Beautiful State

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

The reappraisal of Utah over the past decade has been astounding. Long mistaken as a bland expanse of wasteland, more and more people are coming to appreciate the state’s charms and otherworldly beauty. And especially now, its combination of mind-blowing— and isolated— natural landscapes make it ripe for exploration in an RV.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the snow-capped mountains of the north to the iconic red-rock desert landscapes of the national park-packed south, Utah’s terrain changes with every bend in the road. Taken alone, each of these 11 places construct a solid argument for Utah’s scenic dominance. Together, they cement Utah as one of America’s most gorgeous destinations.  

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

Situated near the banks of the Colorado River in southeastern Utah, Moab is the gateway to many of Utah’s grandest locales. Here you’ll find easy access to iconic Arches National Park, the lesser-visited Canyonlands National Park, and diamond-in-the-rough Dead Horse Point State Park all of which combine to make Moab a mind-blowing amalgam of everything that Makes Utah so grand in scope. 

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the town in the middle of this vortex is also a thing of beauty. The longtime mountain biker magnet attracts more than its fair share of funky artists, spirit seekers, and people looking to live life to the fullest. In fact, you could easily spend your entire Utah vacation here and still make it one for the books without setting foot in a park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Attracting more visitors than Yellowstone and Yosemite, Zion‘s stunning landscape offers a variety of terrain from desert to mountains with many visitors looking to hike Angels Landing and The Narrows. Those looking to take it easy can cruise the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (shuttle service has resumed with advance ticketing) or meander the wide-open Pa’rus Trail along the valley floor.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon, Utah’s second-most popular national park is a short 90-minute drive from Zion making it a heck of a one-two punch of southern Utah wow. Yet the landscape undergoes a complete transformation along the way, serving up some of the most epic canyon vistas on Earth. Marvel at the huge concentration of hoodoos (rock spires) that line the seemingly never-ending canyons as you cruise the 18-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping off at the park’s 13 scenic viewpoints including Sunset Point and Natural Bridge. Can’t get enough canyons? Check out the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument for more.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

The land encompassing Cedar Breaks was described in 1868 by early Mormon settlers as “a paradise on the mountain”. A colorful palette of weathered pinnacles and cliffs, Cedar Breaks National Monument is home to some of the most dramatic desert erosion features on this planet. The multi-colored geological amphitheater found at Cedar Breaks is 2,500 feet deep and 3 miles wide with the highest point of the amphitheater’s rim standing at 11,000 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah’s outdoor tour de force continues over at Capitol Reef National Park where a star-studded assortment of cliffs, domes, arches, and canyons do their best to overwhelm the senses of the relatively few visitors who make their way to this park. A bit more off the beaten path with roughly half the visitation as Bryce Canyon and one-quarter of Zion, this fascinating park is something of a cross between those two more famous cousins. In addition to 15 hiking trails and plenty of room for 4WD road touring, visitors can also harvest fruit from the various cherry, apple, and peach orchards in historic Fruita during summer. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges. Hiking trails provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges, which are located in two adjacent canyons.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

The debate over the quintessential image of the American West starts and ends in Monument Valley. Straddling the Utah-Arizona border within the huge Navajo Nation near the Four Corners, this stunningly cinematic landscape has served as an acting background for everyone from John Wayne to Forrest Gump—and it’s not hard to see why. Visitors can tour this living artist’s canvas by driving its 17-mile dirt road, posting up for some glorious sunset photography or even spending the night in a traditional native dwelling while learning about Native American culture over campfire stories and Navajo tacos. Unfortunately, all Navajo tribal parks—including Monument Valley—are currently closed until further notice due to the pandemic.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers similar scenery and is located on BLM land and is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Equal parts refreshing and beautiful, clear, green water dominates Quail Creek State Park. Red, white, and orange cliffs surround the shore, and are set against the Pine Valley Mountains as a backdrop. Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes, ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests, and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats. The history and culture of the area blend together, making Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon, but those who linger will be rewarded with a bevy of national park-worthy sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are its most famous and easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon), but don’t forget to explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area, or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.

—Jack Kerouac

Magnificent Monument Valley: Where God Put The West

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand, makes Monument Valley the most impressive landscape in the southwest

One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has isolated sandstone mesas, buttes, and a sandy desert that has been photographed and filmed countless times.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. Made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, the towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is one of those sights that takes your breath away and makes you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptored, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (or Valley of the Rocks) to the Navajo, they believe it is a gift from their creator and each unique formation has a story.

Entering Monument Valley is to enter a world of mystery, incredible beauty, and age-old tradition.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our visit to Monument Valley was in two parts: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Goulding’s Trading Post.

Our first stop was the legendary Goulding’s Trading Post located just north of the Arizona-Utah border, six miles from the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After arriving Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in mid-afternoon and obtaining information about available options for exploring this wonderland of rocks, we departed the Visitor Center at Lookout Point and started the Valley Drive, a 17-mile self-guided dirt road. The road winds past the valley’s best red rock buttes and spires, with 11 stops for photos.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is considered one of the world’s premier spots for landscape photography. The best stops for photographing the towers are the Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Camel Butte, The Hub, the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei, Sand Springs, Artist’s Point, North Window, and The Thumb. The best times for photography are early mornings and late afternoons when the shadows lengthen and the sun brings out the reds and oranges in the buttes.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Allow at least two to three hours at the posted 10 mph. Expect to eat the valley’ orange dust, because other vehicles will kick up thick clouds of it during the dry weather that you’ll find in this high desert most of the year.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a swirl of red dust we dropped down into the valley rim in our four-wheel-drive dinghy with guide map in hand.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road is dusty, steep in a couple of places and rather uneven, but does not need a four-wheel-drive—the journey is suitable for the majority of family cars, and small to medium sized RVs, though the surface is perhaps not improved too much in order to increase business for the many Navajo guides and 4WD Jeep rental outfits, which wait expectantly by the visitor center. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though rough in many spots and probably impassable in wet weather, the road was easily travel on this day.

We wound our way past the Mittens, Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters, and to John Ford’s Point—named for the famous director who made movies in Monument Valley, many of them starring John Wayne.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The weather was perfect—sunny and warm—as we continued on past Camel Butte, the Hub, and to the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei. The changing light and shifting shadows created an never-ending stream of views. Continuing on around Raingod Mesa and Artist Point, we timed our drive to return to the

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After photographing the amazing sunset we drove our toad east to our camping site at Cottonwood RV Park in Bluff, Utah, a round day trip of 119 miles.

Worth Pondering…

So this is where God put the West.

—John Wayne