Arizona adventures: Caves, canyons and behind

I’d seen the Grand Canyon once, and in fairly grand style. I was in Vegas with a friend and booked a helicopter flight that landed inside it with a sunset flyover of the Vegas strip on the return. It was a fabulous, unforgettable experience but I still had a hunger to see more of it.

Five years later, I would return for a caves and canyons tour of Arizona that would provide more than mind-boggling views.

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Goldfield Ghost Town

It’s lunchtime when I arrive at Goldfield Ghost Town, a 45-minute drive from the Phoenix Airport. It feels desolate with occasional stragglers toddling in and out of shops and galleries filling the formerly abandoned post office, jail, saloons, and an out of place Victorian bordello. It’s jarring against the otherwise brown wooden structures sitting in front of the mountains. There’s an underground mine offering tours of the site where upwards of $4 million in gold would be unearthed, bringing about 1,500 hopefuls to the tiny, makeshift town for 5 years until the gold ran out. This too seems empty at the moment. That’s because everyone’s inside Mammoth Saloon.

Here, Cowboy Dan, who’s lived in more countries that I can count, hosts the hungry for hearty meals at wooden tables under stag heads and a massive collection of signed cowboy boots. It’s a hodgepodge of curated local history represented in the curios of a century of visitors to this preserved town. Cowboy Dan insists on shots of ouzo before lunch is over. I better understand the bordello now.

Next up, The Apache Trail

Following the Apache Trail afterward toward Tortilla Flat is a more challenging drive than the first one. A winding road without guardrails hugs the Superstition Mountains and the drop-offs are tremendous. So are the views. Suddenly, Tortilla Flat emerges, a small strip of storefronts surrounded by absolutely nothing. It’s all that’s left of an old Western town, and it’s exactly as you’d imagine, at least on the outside. Facing a dramatic cliff and separated by a steep canyon, a handful of wooden buildings have little to distinguish them from a Western film set but inside is another story. Some come for the prickly pear ice cream in the general store or for a drink at the bar where real saddles top the barstools, but everyone stays for the dollars. Papering every surface are donated bills, totaling more than 400,000, for what may be the most expensive wallpaper in the world, and certainly in Arizona. Many are signed with notes of where the traveler came from, but donations come so fast and furious that some walls are papered four deep. I notice the cameras and the warning signs.

Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch

Checking in to Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch, my first day touring the Mesa, Arizona area begins to wind down, but not before a quick hike up a trail behind the cabins to check out the petroglyphs. The receptionist shows me a map on her computer, then warns me to be quick because the sun will set soon. It only takes about fifteen minutes to reach the glyphs, and I’m back in time to watch the vibrant pink and orange sunset behind the imposing cliffs. It’s a magical moment that couldn’t feel any more ranch-like than if I scripted it.  A bell rings for dinner which is served community-style next-door to reception. Sitting outside by a fire afterward, I sip a Kilt Lifter beer from local Four Peaks Brewing and gaze at more stars than I’m used to seeing. The fire’s contained in a metal barrel, far from any vegetation because we’re in the Sonoran Desert. They call them “burn barrels” here.

Hiking the Wind Cave Trail

In the morning I head to Usery Mountain Regional Park to hike the Wind Cave Trail, one of 21 trails in the 3,400+ acre park, the largest in the US. It’s a moderate, 2.6-mile trail of switchbacks that’s heavily trafficked, but the reward at the end is the wind cave, a hollowed alcove formed by thousands of years of wind with sweeping views of the valley below. I’m a little disappointed that it’s not quite at the top of Pass Mountain, so after a rest and some photos it’s time to descend. Until my friend Suzanne notices a “travel at your own risk” sign pointing further upward. We decide to chance it.

Reaching the summit isn’t strenuous — there’s some careful foot placement required—but the lack of maintenance here presents a mental challenge as it’s unclear if there is a way to continue upward. We stop two or three times and encounter a smattering of others who’ve given up, unable to find the route. Ultimately, we too decide there’s no way to the top until we spot one last possible scramble that might get us further along. And it does! When Suzanne and I reach the summit, she gives a holler of triumph and we start our descent. It proves much harder on the way down, and soon we realize we’re not on the same path and have no idea where we are.  Suzanne reminds me that you’re not lost until you give up, so we push onward keeping a distant landmark in sight until we rediscover the wind cave. From there, it’s an easy jaunt back down the beautifully maintained trail.  Later, I read a description of the mountain that includes the phrase, “few see the summit of Pass Mountain,” and smile.

Time for a paddle on Saguaro Lake

After lunch I decide to kayak on awesomely scenic Saguaro Lake, exploring the corridors of towering cliffs by slowly navigating around vegetation and low hanging rock. Eventually, I reach a dead end (it is a lake, after all) flanked by cliffs more than 20 feet apart and marvel at the crystalline reflection of sunbathed water on rock everywhere. Despite the serenity of this remote spot I feel a rush of energy and am moved by the staggering beauty. Returning to shore against the wind proves a bit harder and in the end, I’m out on the lake for more than two hours. It’s a very long but rewarding day of physical activity.

Starting the day with a morning horseback ride

In the morning, I take a guided horseback ride through the property. The horses follow each other, climbing steep hills and crossing water, and we begin to see inspiring views of saguaro cactus fields. This is the most familiar cactus and it exists only in this desert, stretching from northern Mexico into Arizona. The cacti’s whimsical arms personify them to locals, who claim to know each one by name. More than once I heard, “If you stare at them long enough, you’ll get to know them.” I admit they have a certain aura about them and am not surprised by the mystical trance they hold over those who live among them.

And on to the Grand Canyon

From here It’s a 3-hour drive to Flagstaff and the south rim of the Grand Canyon for sunset. The light is fading when I arrive, with much of the rock tucked into a blanket of deep purples and pinks as night approaches. It’s bigger than I remember, and as it’s November, much colder with temperatures fluctuating dramatically. I stay only an hour and head right back to my hotel for warmth and sleep. I want to return for sunrise.

At dawn, it’s just 16 degrees when I arrive at another vantage point along the South Rim, and it doesn’t warm up much. The moment the sun rises and I watch the peaks turn from gray to fiery orange, I’m convinced that it was worth enduring the frigid winds. I realize this morning that I’m appreciating the Grand Canyon’s splendor by experiencing new viewing points along its monumental expanse.

Except at Horseshoe Bend. Here, in Page, Arizona, at a picturesque point where the Colorado River makes a dramatic turn, the rockscapes are nearly as photogenic and captivating as the river. Wildly textured and tinted a Martian red, these rock walls of Horseshoe Bend bring out the child in me and I can’t resist climbing every one of them. It’s slippery in places so I stay alert and I love how natural it feels dangling over the edge. Invigorated, I finally feel satisfied that I’ve really experienced the Grand Canyon because of the quality of the many special moments I’ve had.

Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley

Two hours east, just across the Utah border, I arrive at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley. There’s a safari-style truck waiting to take us to a desert dinner among the epic sandstone formations. There, I feast on flame-cooked steak, beans, and Navajo frybread while a trio called Dark Sky perform intertribal entertainment. The evening ends with dancing around a fire under the stars, sheltered by imposing rock formations, the drums echoing in the darkness.

I brave the cold one last time to watch the sunrise in Monument Valley.  This collection of monumental buttes surrounded by nothingness is otherworldly and especially when the sun ignites the ancient sandstone turning it to fiery red. I’m stunned by the beauty and silence of this place and pause to reflect, then head to the warm vehicle for the 2-hour drive to Chinle, Arizona for one last jaw-dropper.

Finally, Canyon de Chelly

Arizona is steeped in Native American heritage, and nowhere is this more visceral than in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”), where the past is devastating. Here our Navajo guide shares the brutal story of Native American removal, highlighting the violence that once filled the caves of this peaceful place. Today, it’s owned by the Navajo Nation and is a national monument, co-managed by the National Park Service. It’s absolutely breathtaking, with steeply sloped trails and tantalizing caves, but the ruins of centuries-old structures, abandoned by force, cast a somber glow over it. Like all the caves and canyons along my trek from Mesa to Monument Valley and back, it’s a place to applaud the impossible splendor of nature, and to contemplate the past and my place in the future.

Where to stay:

Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch — Live the dude ranch life at this rustic 20-cabin ranch along the Salt River, just below the Bulldog Cliffs.

13020 Bush Highway, Mesa, AZ; (480) 984-2194;

Goulding’s Monument Valley — Monument Valley’s premier lodge, Goulding’s started as a simple trading post in the 1920s before the filming of Stagecoach put it on the map, starting a long history of Hollywood stays here.

1000 Goulding’s Trading Post Road, Monument Valley, UT;  (435) 727-3231;

Where to eat:

 Mammoth Saloon — The centerpiece of the Goldfield Ghost Town, this steakhouse and burger joint is famous for its quirky décor and exuberant proprietor.

4650 N. Mammoth Mine Road, Apache Junction, AZ; (480) 983-0333;

Tortilla Flat — Stop in for ice cream at Country Store and a drink (or lunch) at Superstition Saloon in what remains of this storied Old West town.

1 Main Street, Tortilla Flat, AZ; (480) 984-1776;

What to book:

Detours Native America – This Native owned and operated tour division of Detours American West provides personalized itineraries of history, culture, and breathtaking scenery while traveling in style through Arizona and beyond.

722 S. Tempe Lane, Perry, AZ; (866) 438-6877;

This article originally appeared on Travel Squire.

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