Sabbatical Sites Round-Up

For weeks I’ve been planning to write about some of the amazing places I’ve visited, but then my fingers seems to keep missing the keyboard, landed on rock holds instead.

I’ll do a shortened round-up of sites, for all those challenged by such busy lives. I dedicate this post to all my friends who are parents, because I hope you’ll take the 90 seconds to read it, and I hope you can take your kids to these incredible places some day.

Hovenweep National Monument

Nestled just North of Cortez, CO and the Four Corners area, Hovenweep is a series of small land parcels managed by the National Park Service, and surrounded by Forest Service/BLM land. This is important for many reasons, namely if you don’t mind “rough camping” (meaning no toilets), you can camp within a short walk of most of the archeological sites. That’s what I did, making my visit to Hovenweep that much more personal.

If you’ve ever seen or been to Mesa Verde National Park, you’ll know about ancient native american masonry in the desert. The difference at Hovenweep is the smaller scale, giving you a more intimate experience. Most sites you can reach out beyond the small chain on the path & touch the buildings. But, please don’t, of course.

Also, the structures at Hovenweep are individual free-standing buildings, with an intricate masonry unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Each site boasts unique building shapes and sizes from multi-story “castle”-like buildings, to ceremonial circle and u-shaped buildings.

As mentioned before about the land setup, the additional bonus is there’s nobody here. Hardly anybody knows about the place, so there’s light traffic except at the visitor’s center. I camped on one of the rims in between two sites. It was profound & stunning, and I left feeling intimately connected with the amazing ancient people that once thrived in this harsh valley. It’s a must-see.

Valley of the Gods 

This area is on a dirt track 9 miles West of Bluff, UT, and a few miles Northeast of Mexican Hat, UT. There are signs pointing the way.

Again, barely _half_ the people than Monument Valley just down the road, and free camping. The rock formations are exquisite, and all have names on the placards at each end of the road. Even if you just take the 15-mile road all the way through, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views.

The campsites are all spaced far apart, affording privacy, and as the same with Hovenweep, it’s “rough”, meaning you have to dig a cat hole for going #2. Even in late October the weather was fabulous, but as mentioned in a prior post, be wary of ghost visitors to your campsite.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum 

This arboretum is one of the most unique and lovely I’ve ever visited. It was essentially a 300-acre garden built by a wealthy copper mine owner, who bequeathed it to the state of Arizona upon his death.

The walks feature incredible desert plantings from deserts all around the world, and even a gorgeous rose garden, despite their watery thirst. The home of Mr. Thompson is still intact and used on the grounds, and was built especially to blend in to the stone ridge & other natural features around the garden.

The trail winds down to the wash, where trees of all kinds grow, because the spring runs year-round, a rarity in Arizona. There’s also a fabulous Eucalyptus grove, and one of the best Australian plant areas I’ve ever seen. The staff is super friendly and knowledgeable.

Mt. Lemmon

At 9100′, Mt. Lemmon is no joke. My friend and I were there the last week of October, and like many peaks where the surrounding areas are much smaller, it had it’s own weather system. You can drive almost to the top, at least to the gates of the observatory.

There’s also climbing on the West side, but due to bad weather, I didn’t try it.

Even so, what’s neat about Mt. Lemmon when you hike around there, is how quickly you can drop in and out of the “pine tree zone”. Just an hour walking down on our hike, and we were starting to see the signs of the desert. Hiking back up, we entered the cool pine forest once more.

If you have kids who are anti-walking around, it’s a great place to drive & pull over at the overlooks to enjoy the great views.

Mt. Wrightson and Mt. Hopkins 

By accident, I was directed to Mt. Hopkins by Google maps. Mt. Hopkins was great, though, because the only traffic on the dirt road was for the observatory at the top. It was a nice, quiet serene place to camp.

Once I realized where Mt. Wrightson was, I went to the park there and paid the $5 daily fee. However, if you’d like to avoid the exorbitant, yet quaint bed-and-breakfast places in the valley, there is free “rough” camping on the dirt road going to the mountain bike trailhead.

Mt. Wrightson summit hike is not for the feint of heart! It’s a 4000′ elevation gain from the parking lot to a 9400′ summit. There is no observatory so you can see for miles around. Just like Mt. Lemmon, though, the peak has its’ own weather system. A lenticular cloud was covering the summit when I started at 8:30AM. Thankfully it burned off by noon when I summited.

The trails are steep on both sides, so coming down I was almost slower than going up, because I was tired by then. Be extremely careful on this hike! But, don’t pass it up if you can; the views are really worth it, and the trails themselves are pretty with lots of gorgeous views in the saddles.

Dragoon Mountains – Cochise – West Stronghold

Yesterday while climbing outside Phoenix, I met a local and her Cali friend, who both agreed the Cochise had some strange mojo around it. Out of all the places I visited, I’d caution folks on visiting the West Stronghold unless you really have a hankering to.

Most everyone knows about the Funky Cow Medina incident by now, and the rattlesnake, AND the barcalounger theft. Even as a climber, the routes were put up a long time ago on the Isle of Ewe, and so the ratings had many “gotchas”.

It’s also close to the border, so border patrol vehicles are constantly poking around, tallying cars that go through even on the dirt roads, and there are checkpoints on every main drag.

Then there’s the wild and wooly tourist trap of Tombstone, where a package of frozen peas cost me $2.99.

The rock formations themselves are lovely, and the remoteness and wildness of the nature (saw lots of white-tailed deer, etc.) is really special. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular. But, geez – was it worth all the suffering? Jury’s still out on that one. Travel there at your own risk.

The Grand Canyon 

As one quote said on the placard at Grandview trail (paraphrased), “No photograph or description can equate it’s awesome-ness…The Grand Canyon must be seen in person.” I can’t agree with this sentiment enough.

Honestly, I have never been so emotionally moved by a natural place in all my days. Even with the cold weather and tons of tourists (because the North Rim is closed in Winter), the canyon was breath-taking.

I didn’t want to leave. The Watchtower at Desert View Visitor’s Center was such a moving dedication to native peoples who saw the canyon as a spiritual powerhouse. I’ve never been so proud of my country til I came to this incredible park.

Absolutely _everyone_ young and old, US Citizen or foreigner, should put this canyon on their punchlist. You will not be disappointed. And, if possible, take a hike below the rim on one of the trails, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. The changing views and colors will simply blow your mind. A hiker said, “You can never get bored with the views here.” She’s absolutely right.

Coconino and Tonto National Forests 

These forests can be reached via Coconino County road 3, starting in Flagstaff, AZ, and winding down to AZ Highway 87 passing through Strawberry, Pine, and Payson, AZ. These roads were so beautiful I took them twice! Even though the weather made camping a bit harsh, the beauty of the landscapes, dried up lakebeds, reservoirs, and rolling hills on the rim leading up to the Flagstaff area was delightful. The road coming into and out of Payson was hilly & gorgeous! It felt like I was on any other Rocky Mountain road, except for the desert flora.

This is an uncrowded, gorgeous alternative to the Interstates. If you have an extra hour to kill, it’s worth it!

Superstition Mountains and Superior, AZ 

While writing this, I’m holed up in Superior, AZ waiting for Winter storm “Boreas” to move on its’ way. I only had 1 day of climbing before the inclement weather hit, but it sure was great!

The rocks are sticky and pocketed with lots of grip. I climbed a route that turned out to be really hard, like 5.10+ or so. Actually, all the holds were solid, but it was simply overhung. Despite hanging on pretty much every clip, I finished it!

There are lots of free camping places on either side of Hwy 60 at the “Oak Flats Campground” sign. When it’s not pouring down rain, there are a lot of dry washes and creeks to hike, even the Queen Creek along the highway! The formations are lovely, and there’s a lot of neat old Native American history around some of the formations.

There are several copper mines nearby, so be prepared for large semis lumbering around, and lights along some of the hilltops. Superior is just East up the road from the Arboretum. It boasts the World’s Smallest Museum, and Wyatt Earp’s common law wife in the Pinal City cemetery nearby.

The people of Superior really live up to its’ name – they are superior in nature! While the town is a bit run down, Porter’s Cafe has excellent food, and the buildings are charming and quaint, with a Spanish style to them. It’s worth it to pull off the highway and visit main street.

Up Next

There’s not much time for sight-seeing on the return trip to Colorado, due to being delayed three days by the storm. Places I’ve been to already when a kid that I’d recommend: Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Four Corners Monument, the town of Durango, CO, the town of Santa Fe, NM, and any other forest service areas in between. It’s beautiful landscape, even in dicey weather.

Have fun and safe travels!

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