This weekend was packed full of adventures including 2 US national park sites, and 1 Navajo nation park.
Saturday’s travels were to the monument valley area. I started out my trip to monument valley at Goulding’s Lodge. It used to be the home of Harry and Mike Goulding as well as a trading post. It has since been converted into a museum, but a lot of the history of it being a trading post and living quarters has been preserved. On the first floor, the first room still looks like a trading post, and there are original visitors logs with artwork and signatures from John Wayne and John Ford and many others from the same time. There are 3 other exhibit rooms on the first floor. One has all kinds of history and memorabilia from films made in monument valley, and even has a layout of where different films were shot in the area. Another room has all kinds of local artwork and photography from monument valley, and the third room has native clothing, jewelry, and tools from the area. The second floor has been preserved as the living quarters and has lots of the original furniture and accessories from when the Goulding’s lived there. Outside of the museum there were a few wagons and stagecoaches as well as a spectacular view of monument valley from a distance. The museum was free, and was a really neat look back at some of the history of how monument valley came to be so symbolic of the west and such a prominent part of film culture in the US. There is also a gift shop, restaurant, and hotel at Goulding’s, and I think they offer tours into monument valley as well. The line for the bathroom at monument valley was super long, so if you stop at Goulding’s before heading over I would advise stopping at the bathroom before leaving.
After Goulding’s, I went to the monument valley park. I decided to hike the wildcat trail first. It was very hot, and while the trail is advertised as 3.2 miles, it was probably much closer to 4 miles. There were some pretty great views of formations that are not along the drive through the park, and I definitely enjoyed going. It was incredibly hot, and had it not been slightly cloudy the trail would have been closed due to the heat. I definitely felt more exhausted and hot after this hike than I did even after the Palo Duro hike that was 6 miles. The hike it pretty smooth, but there is no shade and the altitude may have played a role as well in tiring faster. The visitors center has a nice small exhibit with some Navajo art and traditional dress as well as information on some Navajo customs and beliefs which was neat. There is also a large gift shop and restaurant at the visitor’s center. Seeing the park can be done a few different ways, through guided tours (jeep, horse, etc) or on your own on the park drive. Guided tours general run $50-100, and offer views and access to roads that aren’t on the main park drive. Driving on your own lets you have more freedom in how long to stop where, but does mean you have to take your own vehicle on the park drive. I chose to drive on my own, because I did not want to pay and I wanted to be able to stop for as long as I wanted. The drive through the park was beautiful. It was definitely a VERY rough drive, and while I saw all kinds of vehicles making their way through the park, there were parts of the road that I’m not sure should even be called a road. It’s also important to note that while the park road is one way, guided tours can do whatever they want and are often going the wrong way on the one ways or going down roads that the general public does not have access to. I definitely think that a guided tour would have been worth it after driving through on my own, (to not have to deal with driving and to get to see more of the park) but I am still very happy with my decision to drive myself and with all the views I did get to see. The park is run by the Navajo nation, so national parks passes are not accepted. Entrance was $20, and definitely worth it.
On Sunday morning, the adventures continued with a trip to El Malpais National Park/ conservation area. I was pretty excited based on the little bit that I had read ahead of time about the park, but ended up a little disappointed after visiting. The park is VERY spread out, and most of the stops really only have one thing to do. I stopped at the visitor’s center first, and got some advice on things to do in the park. The visitors center is 4 miles from either road that goes (sort of) through the park. I started on the road along the East edge of the park and drove 30 miles down to my first stop, the Lava Falls trail. From the main road, it was another mile on a gravel access road to the trail head. The trail was neat and was across a large area of lava with a distant view of one of the craters in the area. While it was neat getting to see lots of different lava types, and the ground literally was all lava, there were lots of places that you could see lava (maybe not as many types) right off the highway without having to drive the 30 miles. The next stop was probably 10 miles park towards the highway, and was Ventana arch. The trail to get to Ventana arch is about 0.7 miles and not too difficult, but at the end of the trail you can’t even see sky behind the arch. While it was still cool to see, it was a little disappointing not to be able to see through the arch. After the arch, it is another 10 miles, and a 1.5 mile gravel access road to the Sandstone Bluffs overlook. There were some pretty great views of the area from the overlook, and it was really nice, but again was the only thing to do at the stop. After the Sandstone Bluffs area, it was time to go down the West park road (so another 10 miles to the highway, 8 miles on the highway, and 15 miles to the first stop on the West road later). The stop on the west road actually had several things to do; however, it would have been a 3 mile hike to get to most of them. I had gotten a cave permit for Junction Cave to try and see some of the lava tubes and more of what the park was known for. When I got to the cave, I very quickly realized I was extremely unprepared and was not going to be able to do much. The cave has been left completely natural with the exception of reflectors to guide the way. The entrance was large rocks that had sort of just collapsed in a pile, and this rough large rock surface made up the entire floor of the cave. I went into the cave about 10 feet, and then turned around because it was way outside of my ability to do by myself. There was one other road in to park that led to some more caves, but I was told that it was a rough dirt road that was likely impassable due to rain, so I did not attempt it. Overall, it took about 3-4 hours at Malpais, and it really didn’t feel like there was much to do at all. I think if I had been with a large group and had been prepared to go caving, it could have been a lot of fun, but other than caving there did not seem to be a whole lot at Malpais. It was free entry, and cave permits are free so that was at least a plus.
Because I was so disappointed that I hadn’t really gotten to see any caves or do much at Malpais, I decided to take a chance on the Ice Caves. I was hesitant because the highway signs are pretty cheesy, and it seemed like a tourist trap kinda place, but it ended up being SO worth it. The Ice Caves and Bandera Volcano are a privately owned area sort of still in the Malpais park. The gift shop/ welcome center used to be an old saloon, and the people inside were friendly and had interesting stories about the history of the building and area. The path to the bandera volcano overlook was maybe ½ mile long and was wide and had small lava stones acting as a sort of gravel surface. The bandera volcano overlook was really neat, and along the trail on the way up you can see several other volcanoes. The trail had markers along it to point out interesting other lava features, twisted wood, and lightning struck trees as well. The path to the ice cave was maybe .25 miles. The entrance to the ice cave was wooden steps with platforms. The steps were pretty steep near the bottom, but definitely still nice with railing on both sides. The ice at the bottom of the cave was a green color and it was really neat to feel the temperature difference as I went down the stairs. The bottom of the cave stays below freezing all year, so there is always ice in the cave, and the ice is apparently close to 20 feet thick. The Ice Cave cost $12 for adults and $6 for kids (6-12) and free for kids under 6. It was definitely well maintained and worth the price. I am SO glad I decided to stop and check it out.
My final stop of Sunday was at El Morro national monument. I really wasn’t sure what to expect at El Morro, I had read about it being inscriptions, but wasn’t quite sure how that could be a whole monument. It was threatening to storm when I got to El Morro, so I wasn’t able to see everything in the park, but I was still pretty impressed by the part of the trail I did go on. There are sort of 2 trails at El Morro that somewhat overlap with each other. There is a 2 mile trail that goes on top of the bluff and goes through some ruins, and there is a 0.5 mile trail along the inscribed wall of the bluff. The inscription trail is a part of the 2 miles over the top, but does have a turn of for some views of the bluff on the way back if you aren’t going over the top. With the storm, I did not go over the top, but I did go a little past the inscription trail. The inscription trail has markers along the way pointing out influential or interesting inscriptions along the bluff. It was very interesting to see the early petroglyphs along the wall alongside inscriptions from the 1700s and earlier. Many of the inscriptions from the 1700s were still completely legible and didn’t seem to have faded at all which was really cool to see. The trail also passed by the pool of water that used to provide for people who lived in the area, and the trail guide provided insight into why people would have left the area and when the pool (that currently had water in it) would have dried up from droughts. I went a little beyond the end of the inscription trail, and at the edge of the bluff there is a formation called woodpecker rock. It was a really neat feature to see, and was visible just past the end of the inscriptions. El Morro was also free, and I really enjoyed getting to look back and see how long people had been coming to the area.
I was a little disappointed that I spent so long at El Malpais, and didn’t get to do the whole trail at El Morro or visit the nearby wolf sanctuary, but overall, I did get to see and do a lot this weekend. I really enjoyed my time at monument valley; I was pleasantly surprised by the Ice Cave, and I was fascinated by getting to step back in time at El Morro. Not every place is going to be great, but you’ll never know until you go.