Arizona awaited us. This wasn’t like Colorado – in my mind I knew EXACTLY what to expect from Arizona. I wasn’t disappointed as the scenery changed from mountainous and green to an extended desert wasteland with red dirt and towering rock formations.
Our first pit-stop was made famous in the movie Forrest Gump – it’s the point in the film where he’s been running for over 3 years on end and developed a following of media, supporters and fellow runners. He eventually gets to a point on the road in Arizona where he finally stops running and says “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now”. It’s an iconic moment in movie history, with a suitably iconic setting. We stopped for 15 minutes or so posing with Ben’s US flag in groups and running along the road in Forrest’s footsteps. It was definitely one of the coolest pit stops we’d had on the trip so far.
Even from Forrest Gump Point, we could see the towering rocks of Monument Valley on the horizon. Ben explained the rocks were called Mesas and Buttes, depending on their shapes. As we got closer to Monument Valley Park the Mesas loomed over us from either side of the road and we knew we were nearly at the end of today’s long drive. The camp ground we pulled up at was….sparse in a word. But in terms of the view, you couldn’t beat it.
That’s right – we were based right on the lookout point for the Mittens, and the sun rising over this iconic view was what we would be greeted with when we awoke the next morning. But we didn’t have time to stop and appreciate the view until our tents were pitched, which was a seemingly impossible task due to the ridiculous winds and the fact that we had to nail our tents down into pretty much solid sandstone. By some miracle, we eventually managed to get all the tents up and we had an hour or so to chill out and admire the incredible view before our evening activity. After gazing out at the beautiful vista in front of us I treated myself to a nap!
Our activity for the evening was a Jeep Tour through Monument Valley, led by a member of the Navajo tribe – a Native American tribe who reside in the Valley Park and open it up to visiting tourists. The first surprise was the jeep – which wasn’t really a jeep! It was like a big 4×4 with a mounted passenger section at the back for up to 16 people – all open air with no walls, just a basic metal frame and canvas roof to protect us from the elements. Seatbelts were a must! Our guide was named Jamie, and he was just brilliant. He had a great sense of humour and was really eager to get us out of the jeep regularly so we could take lots of photos and he could tell us stories about the various Mesas and Buttes, and about the Navajo tribal traditions. A highlight of the tour for me was being led into an open air cave, then being instructed to lay against the flat rocks with our eyes closed. Jamie produced a traditional Navajo flute and played/sang us some traditional songs. The music echoed all around the cave around us and it was just magical – I can’t describe the spine chilling feeling. As the sun started to set, the tour was over and it was time for dinner. We weren’t headed back to camp yet though!
We were in for a treat as we headed to our “restaurant” for the evening – the tribe had set up an outdoor seating area for the groups that were joining them for dinner, and we all queued up to receive a “Navajo taco” – similar to a normal taco but with a sort of thick, fried bread in place of a tortilla. It came with steak, salsa and beans, as well as sauces and some cheese. It was pretty tricky to eat with plastic cutlery so we all dove in with our hands (with various degrees of success!). The tacos were delicious but filling and although others went back for round 2, I was stuffed after just the one. Once everyone was done with the food and everything was cleared up, the evening entertainment could start! A large campfire had been lit while we ate, and now we saw some Navajo people dressed in traditional clothing gathering for a performance. We all managed to get good seats close to the campfire and spent a good hour watching the amazing, hypnotic dancing and singing in the haze of the firelight. At one point we were even encouraged to all get up and participate. It was such a special night, the memory of which will never leave me, and I smiled to myself feeling completely at peace as we drove back to camp in the moonlit night.
Sunrise over the Mittens of Monument Valley was as spectacular as expected the following morning. I mean, the kind of spectacular where you know you have lots to do to get ready and pack down camp, but you just can’t help yourself but to stare at the breathtaking scene in front of you. Eventually the sun came up enough for me to tear myself away and get showered/packed away but it was a tough view to leave behind. Still, we had more great views ahead of us that day. We were headed across the state to one of the USA’s most famous landmarks – The Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon
Everybody has heard of the Grand Canyon. It’s possibly the most famous Canyon in the world – and for good reason! It was formed an estimated 6 million years ago by the Colorado River carving it’s way through rocks over millions of years, which means that today you can see billions of years of the Earth’s geographical history in the many different coloured and textured layers of the rock. It’s also 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and over a mile deep at it’s highest point. In short, it’s a bloody enormous hole in the ground!
Ben led us up to a viewing point in a funny line, with our heads down so we couldn’t see where we were going, and our hands on each others’ shoulders so we stayed together. When we got to the top of the hill he counted down and we all looked up at the same moment – the reveal was epic! I felt a sudden wave of vertigo; it’s really high up and completely breathtaking (literally – it was like the wind was knocked out of me at first!) but once my brain adjusted to the view I could appreciate how incredible it was. I could have looked at it for hours – and we had the opportunity to! We spent the entire morning going around various viewpoints, taking in the different vistas and posing for deep-looking photos for Instagram. We also got to check out the visitor’s centre and figure out which routes we wanted to take for our hike into the Canyon the following morning.
A few lucky people in our group had booked onto the helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon (I wish I could have done it but I couldn’t justify the $350 it would have cost, at least not on this trip. Another time – it’s not like the GC is going anywhere!) so once we dropped them off for the adventure of a lifetime, the rest of us went to our campground to set up the tents and chill out for a little bit. To be honest, with the incredible pace the trip had had up til this point it was a bit of a relief to have time out to rest, chat and nap. It also gave us chance to go and raid the local store for hiking drinks and snacks for the following day. It was going to be a tough one! Once the helicopter group arrived back, Ben called us back to the bus for one last evening outing. We were surprised – we thought we were done for the day! Nevertheless we obliged and he drove us back into the GC National Park, with a brief stop at a pizza parlour en route. We figured out where we were going just before we arrived – we were being taken back to the South Rim viewpoint just in time for the sunset. With pizza. THE DREAM. It was really surreal to watch the sun set over the canyon while our legs dangled over the edge and we munched away on our hot slices of fresh pizza. Especially given that we’d only that morning seen the sun rise over the mittens in Monument Valley. All in all it was a pretty epic day.
We were up mega early the next morning for another day in the Grand Canyon National Park – this time we were going to be getting up close and personal with the Canyon with a hike down into it! The temperatures inside the Canyon can be up to 10 degrees hotter than on the top so we had to start walking early to avoid the worst of the heat. We had all decided to take on the Bright Angel Trail; one of the most popular hiking trails in the Canyon. The whole trail is a 12 mile round trip with a 3740ft elevation, but there were plenty of rest huts and places to optionally turn back along the route. One of the other girls in the group had a knee injury but still wanted to hike, so we decided to walk together at a nice steady pace taking it easy, aiming for the 1.5 mile rest house as our goal. Even at 7am when we set off, it was pretty damn warm – about 27 degrees C. It was the height of summer, so we knew this wasn’t going to be easy even if we only did a portion of the route. It didn’t take us long at all to get to the 1.5 mile rest house, and I was keen to carry on to see how far we could go but my walking partner Lauren suggested we should turn back as her knee was sore and she didn’t want to risk getting stuck further down the path. It turns out this was actually a very, VERY good idea because not only had the temperature increased to around 32 degrees C, but we were now walking UPHILL which is one heck of a lot more difficult than walking DOWNHILL.
It took us nearly twice as long for us to get back up to the top as it did to get down to the rest house (mostly down to me…huff puff…) but we did get some stunning views of the inside of the canyon and the rest of the hiking path we could have continued on. The rest of our Intrepid group had decided to go for it and try to get all the way to Indian Garden – a 9 mile round trip. I didn’t envy them as although I’m sure the views were incredible, a 4.5 mile walk uphill in Arizona’s summer heat was NOT my idea of fun. And besides, once Lauren and I had made it back up to the top we treated ourselves to a swanky lunch at the Bright Angel Hotel at the start of the trail and had the whole rest of the day to use the National Park shuttle buses to explore more viewpoints and flatter hiking trails. Or so we thought….
The weatherman had other ideas, it seems, and about halfway through our shuttle bus ride the rain started hammering down. Lauren and I were horrified, as we realised that back at camp we’d left the rain covers off our tents because of the heat. We really didn’t want to get back to find all of our possessions soaked and ruined so we made our way back to camp as quickly as possible to rescue the tents. It actually turned out that the storm had made it’s way in the opposite direction to our campsite so everything was safe and dry. Hooray! But to be on the safe side we covered up all the tents anyway (aren’t we good samaritans?!) just in case, and headed over to Starbucks to piggy back the free wifi. The rest of the day was pretty chilled for us, as the rest of the group didn’t make it back until really late after their successful walk all the way to the Indian Gardens. An impressive feat – they were all really chuffed! Rather them than me haha. I wanted to conserve my energy for what was to come – Las Vegas!