A Volcano, a River Walk and a Race!

Talk about doing an 180o turnabout in activity. We immediately go from 2 weeks of sitting still, to a week filled with a flurry of visits and experiences; starting the moment we leave Flagstaff.

We pull out of Navajo Depot and less than an hour later we come to a halt at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument – to see what the aftermath of a volcanic eruption looks like (or in my mind, what it would be like to walk on the surface of another planet).

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Welcome to a lava field!

Not really sure what to expect, I am pleasantly surprised by our visit which takes in a 1 mile walk around a lava field in the shadow of Sunset Crater (which from the base you can’t actually tell is a crater, it just looks like a mountain of cinder, but from an aerial view you can see the whole in its top).

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The lava field is surreal. You walk down into it and suddenly you are removed from the pine forest landscape you drove through to get here and instead you are transported to the surface of, what could be, mars or some other foreign world. Your feet crunch through the fine grey cinder and ash that forms the pathway through the field and everywhere you look are rough, misshapen black rocks; jutting up from the surface of the floor. On closer inspection the rocks you realise these are ‘normal’ stone, but that they have a bubbled appearance to them, not solid but containing small round holes in them; air pockets created when the lava cooled from its liquid form.

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While the temperature of the day is certainly not at its peak, the lava field feels a couple of degrees warmer, helped I’m sure by the rocks absorbing the heat and being retained in the ‘bowl’ area we are walking in. I continue to be amazed by the environment as I walk, with not only the shape of the rocks around us, but by the colours too; for not everything is a pure black, but multiple shade of black, grey, buff and even shades of pink. I have no idea the reason or cause behind the colourations.

Once I move past the bizarre feeling of the area I begin to notice how much life is actually present in the lava field. It isn’t bare as I first thought, but looking closely there are small patches of wildflowers here and there; a singular pant growing in a rock crevice here, and several small tree saplings over there in the cinder. And actually all around there are medium sized shrubs, looking something like lavender in shape, and then of course there are the odd single Ponderosa Pines scattered here and there.

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Life in cinder
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Life in the lava field
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Beautiful dead tree and snow-capped mountain

I’m slightly disappointed by there being no type of educational signs for me to read. While I am thoroughly enjoying the visual feast, as always I like to know what I am looking at and how it came to be, and here I have not a clue, apart from that the site is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field and last exploded 900 years ago.

With our walk concluded it’s time for a mammoth drive in the bus, heading over 200 miles north, across the border and into Utah!

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Utah is a state with a special place in my heart already, having spent a summer in Salt Lake City over 10 years ago, working an internship at The Tracy Aviary in the heart of the city. Not only did I meet some wonderful people there, but I loved being in the city, surrounded by a mountain backdrop wherever I turned. I have some fantastic memories of my time in Salt Lake and am so happy that I can now see so much more of the state as we travel through it.

Before we hit the state line though, we traverse some of the most diverse landscapes of northern Arizona. Driving north we pass through the Navajo Nation Reservation, which encompasses some of the most picturesque rust red rock, cliff and canyon formations we’ve seen.

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While the area is attention-grabbing to us for the scenery, I can’t help but think about this landscape in a broader scale, this is after all the land that the Navajo Indians (and some Hopi and other tribes) have been basically forced to accept and inhabit, when their lands were taken from them from invading white people from Europe.

Looking around, that makes me think of it in a different light. It’s barren. Lacking in water. There is no greenery. It’s a desert. This is not a place that you can grow crops or raise livestock. This is not good hunting land. And as you are so far from any large cities or urban centres, in this day and age that means no access to technology, which pretty much makes the world go round.

While we drive (outside the reserve, once I have a signal) I do a little light research which confirms my fears. In the majority of cases, reservation land is not a good deal for the people living on it. While it might pop into your head that tribes are making lots of money from casinos on their land, this really isn’t the case. As of 2012 (according to the Bureau of National Statistics), Native Americans have the lowest employment rate of any race in the USA – some tribes reporting unemployment as high as 85%. They also have the lowest graduation rate from high school, with approximately only 50% of Native American students successfully completing high school.

And potentially more worrying, government studies (2011-2013) have found that homes on reservations are likely to be 3-6 times more overcrowded than anywhere in the USA, that 1 in 10 Native American homes don’t have access to safe and reliable drinking water and 120,000 homes lacking in basic water sanitation services.

These facts swirl around in my head as we drive and I think back to all of the wooden shack huts we’ve just passed with Native Americans selling traditional-type wares to the passing public. I wonder how that must feel; having to basically sell your culture as a tourist attraction to make the money you need to survive.

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Native American wares on sale by tribe members

While I feel the gravity of those thoughts pressing down, my mood is lifted somewhat by crossing the border into Utah, and watching the landscape explode in colour and a multitude of habitats fly past my eyes. Dusty, red and salmon-pink jagged hills littered with scrub, long straight roads nestled in golden-coloured grassland valleys bordered by white and buff coloured undulating hills and cliffs, lush green farmland pastures, and small towns settled in between copper and rust red canyon walls. My heart immediately sings for the environment around me.

We arrive at our surprise destination – Loops has booked us in to possibly the world’s smallest RV Park at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. The sanctuary is located in Bright Angel Canyon, just outside Kanab, and its RV Park consists of just two spaces. As we pull in I am sure that I must be seeing things, because there is already one RV hooked up and blow me down if it doesn’t look a heck of a lot like ours – it’s another Bluebird!

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Belle to the right, other Bluebird to the left

We have managed to travel just over 13,000 miles in the past year and have previously only come across Bluebirds camping in the same spot as us at designated rallies. Here we turn up in the middle of nowhere, with only two possible RV spaces and our neighbour turns out to be a Bird – what are the odds?

Well, Loops can’t help himself. Once he has hooked up the bus, and after I’ve taken in the beautiful canyon view where we are parked, he goes and gives a knock on their door. He returns about half an hour later with John and Rita in tow, come for a tour of our bus. It turns out that they have only just bought their bus, are in the middle of renovating it and that this is their very first outing in it – ever. Loops provides an initial overall tour and as he launches into the more technical version for John, Rita and I get to chatting about animals, for after all, that is the reason they are staying here.

I sit slightly in shock as she explains their plans for renovating their bus, to fit in three (about to be four) cats and one medium sized dog into their traveling home. I think the shock not only comes from the fact they are completely renovating areas to fit in ‘cat cubby holes’, climbing apparatus and a crate for their dog, but that none of their animals have ever been in an RV before and their dog currently gets car sick. Even more surprising, Rita has been volunteering for two days here at the sanctuary and they plan to leave tomorrow – with their new fourth resuce cat – that they plan to transport back to their Colorado home in the RV, a drive of 72 hours she informs me.

Well, I hope it all works out fine for them, but all I can say, is rather them than me.

One of the neat things about staying here at Best Friends, is that they give free tours of their sanctuary to visitors. So for us, it’s not only a scenic camping spot, but come with the addition of its own educational experience of learning about what they do, and a chance to have a brief pets of some cats and dogs.

To be honest, if you want to know more about the sanctuary, your best bet is to check out their website at this link – Best Friends Utah Sanctuary or if you like, you can watch scenes from the tour in our YouTube video using the link in the ‘Videos’ section above.

What I can tell you now is, the site is 3700 acres, set within a stunning canyon environment and appears very well run. They take in a whole host of animal species; cats, dogs, birds, rabbits and small mammals, horse, pot-bellied pigs, other farm animals etc. They are a No Kill shelter and have aims to see the whole of the USA become No Kill by 2025.

The animals they take in with the aim to adopt out and receive animals from the local area as well as from other partner shelters around the country. They work to provide low cost spay and neuter programs on site as well as campaigning for an end to breed discrimination legislation i.e. stop persecuting pit bulls/pit bull type dogs.

They love volunteers and are happy to take you on for a single half day or for as long as you care to stay. They run tours of the sanctuary as a whole and for individual areas that you may be specifically interested in. And apparently Best Friends was featured on the Discovery Channel (or Animal Planet) in a show called Dog Town (not that I’ve seen it).

From looking around and the information provided, I thought the shelter was well run, clean and that the animals were well cared for. They seem to put a lot of thought into housing groups for animals and especially with the training levels they try to achieve with the dogs, to give them a better chance at being successfully placed in a home environment.

I think the only thing I question is that there were a couple dogs that were showcased in a video of theirs (with severe neurological issues), and 1 specifically that I saw on site (with extreme nervousness even after two years of work), where I wonder if their quality of life justifies keeping them alive. The nervous dog in particular was absolutely terrified, had come from a hoarding background, can barely be put on a lead and does not tolerate any type of human contact – and that’s after two years of work, being at the sanctuary. At that point I wonder if it would not be kinder for the dog to be put to sleep, for what type of life is it to constantly live in pure fear of humans, no matter how kind and caring they may be, when you have to be around them all the time?

Overall though, I really enjoy this unexpected camping stop.

On our last afternoon, Loops and I decided that we would forgo a second tour at the sanctuary we had planned on, and instead use the time to go for a brief visit to Zion National Park, with it only being about 15 miles from where we were.

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For me, Zion was a tale of two parks.

Our drive into Zion was all that it should be, an astonishing rock paradise; giant cliffs of vermillion and white rock, windswept over thousands of years, giving all of the rock formations a pancake effect – like towers of coloured pancakes stacked on top of one another. There is also a small tunnel carved into the rock landscape that you drive through where you can see the natural stone above and around you.

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However, there is then a second tunnel which you traverse, a long and seemingly black abyss (though with surprise arch windows along the way, allowing you a glimpse of the canyons around) before you are expelled into a huge canyon area, hidden from the rest of the world by the rock hills you have just driven through. This is also the point when you realise how crowded, structured and controlled the main portion of the park is.

You make your way down a twisting road to the base of the canyon and must park and take a bus through the park itself (in the height of summer, such as this). There are people everywhere, like ants skittering about, and all of the buses we see returning from the end of the canyon are jam-packed with people, so much so, it’s standing room only.

The bus we board has seats and the ride itself has its uses – for we are able to see the whole of the main canyon area in one trip and there is an audio track that goes along with the ride. The speakers are different people explaining how they utilise Zion in some way – a Native American talking about its cultural and historical significance, a scientist discussing the geological aspects of the canyon walls, a photographer explaining its use as an artistic destination; to name a few.

The bus is designed as a hop-on, hop-off experience, so that you can stop and walk in different areas. Loops and I choose to ride right to the end of the line and walk the easiest and shortest trail on offer, based on our time limit – The Riverside Walk ending at The Narrows (where people can wade up the river about 10 miles, yes, that’s actually walking in the river itself).

The moment we step off the bus, I can feel my level of unhappiness and frustration start to rise – the pathway is just teeming with people. You can hardly move for all of the bodies on the path, which is concrete and despite being a ‘river walk’, only really follows the river proper right at the end. In several spots you can’t even see it and it feels like I could be walking down a city street with all my fellows around me.

My head is beginning to boil with all of the people stopping and starting, walking too slow but using the whole path so that you can’t get by, having to listen to inane conversations about what it’s like to work in Starbucks and some lady upset at some guy who didn’t call her back after a date.

This, to me, is everything you don’t want from a walk in a National Park. Loops, however, is far more level headed and placid and seems to just take it all in his stride. But I really can’t enjoy this portion of the park; the entrance area to me was far more my style.

When we finally reach the end of the path, well, it just ends. You turn the corner and the pavement just stops. There are three tiny, narrow steps; which about 100 people are trying to access up and down all at once. They lead onto a pebbled beach area and directly into the river. It’s as congested as a shopping centre in the river. I take a deep breath, snap a couple pictures and then need to leave.

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The view in one direction….
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…then you turn around to this. Welcome to The Narrows.

It’s a great relief to me to finally be back in the car and exiting the park. We do make a stop on the outskirts to climb some of the rocks and pose for pictures, which helps make me feel better.

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Relaxing after the crowds
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Loops is a-clambering!

The following day, when we come leave, Loops has yet another surprise up his sleeve – he’s managed to locate a possible area for us to boondock – in a forest! That’s right, not our normal boondock in a Walmart carpark, but a proper one in the woods with pretty trees and no-one around. Oh, and even better, it’s just a 15 minute drive to Bryce Canyon!

There is a slight problem though – it’s Friday, the verge of the weekend, obviously Bryce is a major tourist destination and the camping spots are first come, first serve. So there isn’t a guarantee we’ll get a spot. But we are going for it!

We once again have a glorious drive; southern Utah is insanely, out-of-this-world, beautiful. Our final miles coming through Red Canyon (how very aptly named) on Route 12; its rugged, flaming brick-red walls with scattered pines are just a slice of geology paradise.

It’s not far past this that we find Fremont ATV trail, the dirt track leading into the Dixie National Forest, where our dispersed camping can be found. We park up in the paved car park opposite the trail, jump into The Beast and go on a scouting mission for an open spot. The first couple we try which Loops has already identified from Google Maps are taken and as we continue to search, we are becoming less optimistic about finding anything that will fit us or, really, any space at all.

Just as we are about to call it a day and opt to spend the night in the car park, we spy amongst the trees what looks to be an open spot just atop a small rise. We slowly rumble up the track and into a ginormous open camp space, with a slight overlook of the little valley below us. The space really is big enough for two buses, has a fire ring and, while surrounded by trees, is open enough to give us a breeze and to not have to park under any pines which will drip sap on us. It’s perfect.

Now, we just have to get back to the bus and return here before anyone else finds it!

We dash back towards a waiting Belle and just as we are within site of the car park, don’t you know it, a class C RV pulls onto the ATV trail – curse our luck! Still, Loops flings himself from the Jeep, throws me a walkie-talkie and I do my best rally driving impression back up the ATV track, dust and stone flying in all directions. Within seconds I am on the tail of the class C, it’s one of those ghastly bright-painted ‘Cruise America’ rental RV’s, and obviously being driven by someone who has no clue where they are going, but I guess hoping to spy a spare site like us.

I have to say, yes, I was driving aggressively in the hope the chap would just get the message that I wanted to overtake him and hoped he was so busy looking about, that he would just take the hint and pull over to help me out – which he did!

I put the speed back on, careened off to the right onto the sandy track into the woods and with another hard right I was back atop the hill, with no-one having nabbed the spot before us – Button scores! I radio Loops with the good news so he can make a start over, and I park The Beast very clearly in the path up to the site – showing I have staked my claim. I clamber out and begin to investigate the area, absently kicking rocks out of the way, again to make a show that this is indeed my site in case anyone comes looking.

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The Beast on guard duty

I’m not out of the Jeep a minute and I see a fifth wheel (where did he appear from?) pull up at the end of my ‘driveway’. I very deliberately ignore the gentleman, who I see get out of his truck, as he begins to wander in my direction. I take a few deep breaths and really hope my British politeness doesn’t get the better of me and I end up offering him the site and a cup of tea to go with it, just because I only have the car and not the bus with me for ‘proof of camping’.

He keeps walking and eventually hails me. He politely asks if I’m camping here tonight and I confirm that yes, I am, and my massive 43ft RV is on its way. I even show him the walkie-talkie in my hand, like that’s somehow evidence of my claim. He stands there and looks around, compliments me on the site and then says “Wow, this is a really big site isn’t it?”

I cringe inside, divert my eyes and look around; I can’t stare directly at him. I know what he’s getting at, he wants to share my spot. I begin to feel my heart beat faster and my catch my breath and simply nod my head up and down, desperately telling myself in my head not to give in and offer him half the space. I once again mumble the words ‘big rig’, ’43 feet’ and a sad little wave of my walkie-talkie.

He finally gets the message and tells me to have a good evening and heads back to his 5th wheel. My success comes with a quick jolt of elation followed quickly by the immense guilt of not sharing space in a limited campsite – something I fester over for the next two days we are here.

However, I hope you all can forgive me, and can understand my desire for a real wild boondocking experience for the first time ever, because this was our site…..

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Excellent, right?

In order to make it up to you, how about I tell you all about our Bryce Canyon adventures next time?

 

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4 thoughts on “A Volcano, a River Walk and a Race!

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