Arizona and New Mexico occupy a very special place in the hearts and minds of tourists to America. These two states preserve a flavor of the Spanish influences which harken to a time when they were part of Mexico. They are also blessed with incredible natural wonders, prehistoric civilizations, and a desert landscape which is very different from other parts of the country. Below are my favorite sights in this exciting area. Check out the photo album which will soon follow.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park is so beautiful and spectacular that people who see it have difficulty expressing themselves. Because the area is so huge (it can be seen from outer space) it defies description and is hard to capture adequately in photographs because of the immense scale. However, it is, without question, one of the most, if not the most, significant natural landscape on the planet and, for that reason, a must-see for all people of the world who value travel! It is basically a gigantic gash in the earth’s crust, carved by a river or successive rivers over millions of years. What today’s visitors see are layers of multi-colored sandstone lining the walls of the canyon and huge mesas and buttes rising from the depths to fill much of the space. At the bottom of it all is the thin, muddy Colorado River which winds its way through (it defies imagination to realize that this tiny river has helped to create this masterpiece although geologists know that it was significantly larger in the past).
Considering the immensity of the Grand Canyon (over 300 km or 200 miles long, 16 km or 10 miles wide and a mile deep) the park area which can be visited is remarkably compact (only about 32 km or 20 miles long on both the North Rim (less accessible and less crowded) and the South Rim (the major visitor area and extremely crowded during the summer months).
Looking down into the canyon means looking back over almost 2 billion years of earth history and is a geological bonanza for scientists. But the average person is unaware of that and is just able to appreciate the incredible beauty of the place.
Different overlooks, such as Mather Point, Hopi Point and Grandview Point on both West Rim and East Rim Drive give the observer different views and even different perspectives on the canyon. There are many such overlooks, so be sure to check them all out.
Try to be around until evening to see the area’s transformation as light diminishes and shadows creep across the abyss.
See the IMAX presentation before heading to the viewing areas to better understand what can be seen.
Bring lots of water, especially for a descent into the canyon. And do descend into the canyon either on foot or by mule to get a totally different perspective.
A particularly good vantage point is from the top of the watchtower at Desert View.
Acrophobics beware! The newest attraction at the canyon is a glass platform which protrudes 70 feet (24 meters) beyond the canyon rim and affords very unusual views of the canyon floor directly below. This attraction, called the Grand Canyon Skywalk, is located at the Hualapai Indian Reservation, which, unfortunately, is inconvenient to get to. Although only about 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of the South Rim Visitor Center, it requires a drive of almost 250 miles (400 kilometers) because of the lack of roads in the area. Once on the reservation, there is an additional 14 mile (20 kilometer) drive on windy, unpaved roads to reach the attraction. The tribe offers a variety of tour packages which include access to the skywalk. Don’t fret too much about the possibility of the glass breaking since it has been built to withstand over 70 million pounds of weight, winds of over 100 miles per hour, and an earthquake of magnitude 8.0. In addition, the number of visitors on the glass bridge is restricted to 120 at a time.
2. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the premier cave destination in the world. Imagine descending over 250 meters (750 feet) into the dark depths, but finding lighted pathways through chambers of stalactites, stalagmites and many other formations. There are numerous tours offered, some of which are more strenuous, but reservations are a must during the busy summer season.
The most popular tour is the Blue Tour which begins at the Visitor Center and descends into the cavern through its natural entrance. Be aware that this walk is fairly strenuous and includes numerous stairs.
The Scenic Rooms, such as the King’s Palace, Queen’s Chamber, and the Papoose Room contain remarkably exquisite formations.
There is even a post office, gift shop, and snack bar in the “Big Room”. Return to the surface is via elevator. Because the cave is a constant 55o F, appropriate clothing is recommended.
A Ranger-led tour is the best way to see the caverns since park rangers are usually extremely knowledgeable about the geology and ecology of the area and are happy to answer questions.
Every evening from late spring to early autumn, there is a Ranger talk and viewing of the daily exodus of hundreds of thousands of bats from their roosting sites inside the cave. The National Park has created an amphitheater to facilitate the viewing and to discuss the natural history of these fascinating mammals.
For those visitors in the region for several days, an interesting excursion from Carlsbad is to travel northwest to White Sands National Monument, an extensive area of pure white gypsum sand located near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Dunes Drive affords the visitor access to the area.
For truly different and unusual excursion, travel north from Carlsbad to Roswell, New Mexico, which is world-famous for its supposed UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) sightings, dating back to a reported UFO crash in 1947. Aliens are portrayed everywhere in the area.
3. Monument Valley, Arizona
Monument Valley Navaho Tribal Park, which straddles the border between Arizona and Utah represents the classic southwestern landscape made famous in the movies of John Ford and others. It is sacred Indian territory so access is limited, however, up-close views of these vertical mesas and buttes rising from the valley floor are beautiful and inspiring, not to mention nostalgic if you remember these old Westerns. Guided or self-guiding tours are available from the Visitor Center. Be aware that the roads in the park are not paved.
The Mittens are the classic image of this landscape but visitors will encounter many other distinctively-shaped rocks, most with interesting and descriptive names.
Check out postcards of the area before you enter the park and try to duplicate some of these views when traveling through the area.
4. Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Arizona
Rainbow Bridge National Monument is located in a remote section of Lake Powell, a watershed along the border of Utah and Arizona, created by the erection of the Glen Canyon Dam. It is the largest natural arch in the world, almost 100 meters (300 feet) tall and 90 meters (275 feet) wide. Because it is in a fairly inaccessible area, the best way to visit is by boat, from the Wahweap Marina in Page, Arizona. The boat trip is pleasant, because the canyon scenery is beautiful, but long (about 80 km or 50 miles), at least a four-hour round trip. The arch area is sacred Indian territory, so visitors are requested not to walk under or around the arch. However, they may disembark for a short while to admire the scenery and take pictures. It is a spectacular sight.
Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area include the extensive area created by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. Following the completion of the dam, it took 14 years to fill the 180 mile long lake. An incredible variety of water activities are available here, including cruises to Rainbow Bridge (see above). The major entrance to the area is via Page, Arizona, although the recreation area extends into Utah.
5. Sante Fe & Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
Taos Pueblo is located in Northern New Mexico, on a broad plateau at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Its dramatic setting, near the source of the Rio Grande River, is probably responsible for its longevity, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. The Pueblo is still inhabited even though there is no electricity or central heat. Taos Pueblo was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. Guided tours are informative. Many of the tribal members sell crafts and trinkets for income.
At the other end of the High Road to Taos, a legendary scenic drive in this part of the country, is Santa Fe, New Mexico, the oldest capital city in the US and the second oldest city. The city’s pride in southwestern culture is evident in its architecture. The Old Town is remarkably well preserved and is ideal for walking. Many artists have been attracted to the area so there is an abundance of art galleries and craft shops.
The Palace of the Governors, on one side of the main square, is now a museum, and native Americans display their wares on blankets along the front of the building. San Miguel Mission is one of the many, lovely churches in the city.
In Santa Fe, visit the Loretto Chapel to appreciate a local legend. Inside the chapel is a “miraculous” spiral staircase with no visible support beams or nails, built by a transient carpenter who left as soon as he was done, without asking for payment and without giving his name. He accomplished all this with only a T-square, a hammer, a saw, and a tub for bending water-softened wood. The chapel itself is lovely and frequently the scene of weddings.
6. Meteor Crater, Arizona
Meteor Crater, just off Interstate 40 near Winslow, Arizona, is the most accessible crater of its type on the planet. It was formed 50,000 years ago, as a result of an asteroid or meteor impact, in what must have been a catastrophic event. The resulting crater is nearly 1.6 kilometers (one mile) across and almost 200 meters (600 feet) deep. The Visitor Center provides information about the crater and access to it. Because of its similarity to a lunar landscape, some of the early astronauts received training here prior to the United States’ voyages to the moon.
7. Saguaro National Monument, Tucson, Arizona
Saguaro National Park is composed of two separate districts. One (Rincon Mountain) is just east of Tucson while the other (Tucson Mountain) is just west of the city. These two locations preserve stands of the Saguaro cactus which grows only in this general area. The eastern district is larger and offers a 13 km (8-mile) scenic loop drive. Both areas have numerous walking trails which identify the various cactus species encountered. Watch out for rattlesnakes along the trails!
While in Tucson, an interesting side trip lies southeast in Tombstone, Arizona, a town with one of the more notorious reputations in the history of the American West. The town began as a mining camp, but is much better known for the classic gunfight between the Earps and the Clantons at the OK Corral. Even today, there is a daily reenactment (at 2:00 PM) of the shootout on the original site.
Also of interest in the town is Boot Hill Graveyard, Crystal Palace, one the most elaborate saloons in the West, and the Bird Cage Theater, a saloon and dance hall with a sordid reputation.
Just outside the city of Tucson is San Xavier del Bac (the “White Dove of the Desert”), an Indian church which exemplifies Spanish mission architecture. It is striking because of its location, standing alone in a desolate landscape, and for its detail, both inside and outside. Inside the church is a continuously running video which discusses the building and which also solicits donations.
8. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park is located in Eastern Arizona, just off and straddling Interstate 10. This park preserves many excellent examples of petrified wood, trees which have been buried, mineralized, and subsequently uplifted. The park also contains colorful badlands known as the Painted Desert. This striking landscape extends beyond the boundaries of the park. The 45 km (28-mile) scenic drive through the park offers many opportunities for stopping to observe and take pictures of the geological features. In addition there are numerous trails for walking to get up-close and personal.
There are numerous, excellent overlooks which are well-marked along the drive. Particularly beautiful spots include Kachina Point and Pintado Point.
While in Petrified Forest National Park, take the short but impressive Giant Logs Trail near the Rainbow Forest Museum to see some great specimens of petrified wood.
Another eastern Arizona attraction which can be conveniently combined with a trip to the Petrified Forest is Canyon de Chelly National Park, near Chinle, AZ. It preserves an area inhabited by Native Americans from possibly as long ago as 2500 B.C. to the present. The park, which is near the New Mexico border, in northeastern Arizona, can be accessed from both states. Scenic drives are found along both sides of the canyon and offer overlooks at the ruins. Descent into the ruins requires accompaniment by a Park Ranger or an authorized guide, except for one self-guiding trail from the White House Overlook to the White House Ruin. Other ruins include Antelope House, Standing Cow, and Mummy Cave.
9. Albuquerque & Chaco Culture National Historic Site, New Mexico
Chaco Culture National Historical Park preserves the ruins of American Indian habitations dating back to the 9th century. Access to the park, off the highway, is via a 34 km (21 mile) road, much of which is unpaved. However, the visitor who braves the journey is rewarded with extensive Native American ruins, some of which are remarkably well preserved. Take a self-guided tour or a ranger-narrated one and plan to do a lot of walking. Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses, had, at its peak, more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas and was four stories high.
The most convenient base of operations for a visit to the park, and a destination in its own right, is Albuquerque, New Mexico. Its Old Town is a classic Colonial, Spanish town, with flat-roofed, adobe buildings, a central plaza, bordered by a church and government and other buildings. It is easily walkable and offers several museums as well as the ubiquitous shops and restaurants. The city of Albuquerque is a thriving metropolis and offers every available service, so it makes a great starting point for an exploration of a variety of western New Mexico and eastern Arizona attractions.
The Route 66 Historic Highway, also known as “The Mother Road”, and “Main Street, America”, was built to connect Chicago, Illinois, with Los Angeles, California, and provided a major route to the West for desperate families from the East and Midwest during the depression. The road was made more famous by a 1960’s television series and a song, recorded by Nat King Cole. Little of the old road still exists, because of the interstate highway system, but the areas that remain offer a nostalgic glimpse of the past. Probably the best preserved section runs through the city of Albuquerque and contains several good examples of vintage landmarks, such as the KiMo Theater (423 Central Ave, N.W.) and the gas station at 2455 Isleta Blvd.
10. Red Rock Canyon & Sedona, Arizona
Red Rock Canyon, a combination of Red Rock State Park and Oak Creek Canyon, refers to the area around Sedona, Arizona. Because of its dramatic scenery, it has been used for many years as a setting for movies and television ads. The area is just off Interstate 17, north of Phoenix and is accessed via Route 89A off the interstate. A stop in the town of Sedona, an artist and “new age” haven, is worth the extra time. Cathedral Rock is one of most recognized spots along the drive.