If I asked you to draw a cactus you would draw a saguaro. Saguaro National Park is split into two separate areas: east and west. We didn’t have time for both so we picked west because that’s what you pick when you don’t have much time.
To be honest we took quite a detour to spend half-a-day in Saguaro in the first place. It would have been much easier to take the old Route 66 from Kingman through Flagstaff to Petrified Forest National Park. But as this was one of the remaining National Parks of the southwest on our list, and there was the airplane boneyard on the way there, we couldn’t skip it.
So it is mostly about cacti. Lot’s of saguaros, which we hadn’t seen elsewhere, but also chollas and other types as well. The saguaro core looks very interesting. You can see a dried one in the bottom right corner of the following picture.
We met a man with his elderly mother on the trail and they asked us if this was our first visit to the national park. They also asked where we were from. When they found out that we were from Finland the mother said that when she was young her best friend was Finnish. What a coincidence. We also found sign which had been modified by an amateur geologist.
Saguaro was the third national park on this trip and quite simple to be honest. In the evening we took a 320 km drive to Pinetop-Lakeside. On the way there we stopped at the gate of Biosphere 2. The gate was closed already so we didn’t see the building itself. We were already a bit late so we had to hurry. At that time we didn’t know that we were about to enter a part of Arizona which would deserve more time for exploration.
A couple of years back we stumbled upon an airport with a lot of dead passenger planes in the middle of the Mojave desert. This time we wanted to see where the war planes go to die. Pima Air & Space Museum hosts an excellent collection of war planes but they also run bus tours in the neighboring Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It is the home of 309TH Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) Facility. From the museum you can book your seat for a ”tour of the 4,000+ aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, and several federal agencies including NASA in varying degrees of storage, being regenerated or recycled.” Book early because they will run a security clearance and the tours are very popular.
It is bookings like this which make our trip planning very difficult. You have to know months in advance where you will have to be on a certain date and make sure that your trip is not delayed before you end up in there. The security clearance was so secret that we didn’t even know if we had gotten it. Unfortunately we didn’t receive the email which confirmed our security clearance so we had to call them in advance to check if we are allowed on the tour. Zoom in here to see the vastness of the boneyard.
Both the museum and the tour of the airplane boneyard were excellent. The tour bus stopped at the entrance of the airbase, our passports were taken and we had to wait in a warehouse for them to be checked. It is really amazing how many different types of planes and helicopters have been deployed in the U.S. Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard and other federal agencies. Some of the planes even had complete production lines stored here so you could start building them again.
Minna had booked another historic landmark for us in Tucson. We stayed in Hotel Congress which is famous for its bar (Billy Gibbons’ favorite bar) and the fact that John Dillinger and the gang was arrested there. The room was very small and noisy. The hotel was right next to the railway station and there was a live music event downstairs: Bass Drum of Death at Hotel Congress. However, we had been warned.
After a full day of driving we stayed over in Scottsdale. Unfortunately no time for sightseeing in Phoenix because the next day. Quick stop at Premium Outlets and a dinner in a newly-opened Korean Barbeque Sizzle where they prepared your meal in your table.
At first our plan was to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles and follow whatever there is left of Route 66. However, the national parks of the southwest seemed more tempting especially when we considered the drive through midwest possibly a bit boring for the first couple of days.
So we decided to enjoy Route 66 in small pieces starting from Williams and driving through Ash Fork, Seligman, Peach Springs, Hackberry, Kingman and Oatman to Topock. Then we drove through Needles to Barstow. We had originally planned to drive through Amboy and Bagdad but it started to be late and National Trails Highway was closed between Mountain Springs Summit and Essex. This was a big disappointment as this part of the route would have had some very nice abandoned gas stations. We ended up taking I-40 from Needles to Barstow in the dark.
There were very nice old neon signs along the route but Williams and Seligman had commercialized Route 66 so they had a lot of Route 66 memorabilia stores with brand new Route 66 items on sale. I was not looking for anything new but authentic pieces of the Mother Road. The section from Kingman to Topock was clearly the most interesting and authentic part of the Mother Road we drove this time. Oatman was just plain weird with donkeys and all and if we’d known better beforehand, we’d stayed over for a night there.
The three mandatory stops along this leg of the journey I’d recommend are Hackberry General Store (authentic Route 66 memorabilia, licence plates etc), Cool Springs Station (there was actually an old dude playing the blues on the front porch when we arrived), and, of course, Oatman.
Oatman is an old mining town but now a popular Route 66 destination of the gamblers across the state border. As soon as we arrived we thought that we should’ve stayed over. The main street looked very peculiar and there were wild donkeys walking around. I opened the window to take a picture of a donkey and it immediately pushed its head into the car. I was like ”What the hell” but then I noticed a sign which said ”Burro food”. Apparently they were not that wild anymore.
We arrived at Barstow at night, had some sleep and continued crossing Mohave desert in the morning. 330 kilometers ahead and a possibility to visit Sequoia National Park in the afternoon.
P.S. Suddenly, on the way from Barstow to Lemon Cove, we saw lines of Jumbo Jets in the middle of the desert. We hadn’t planned this beforehand so it was merely an accident that we happened to drive by Mojave Air & Space Port.
Minna had booked accommodation in El Tovar Hotel well in advance. Even if a bit pricey, staying within the park had several benefits: the hotel was right on the edge of the canyon, you could take the early buses around the park without queuing at the entrance and the overall the ”Twin Peaksey” atmosphere of the lodge. Another thing that needs to be booked well in advance is the dinner at El Tovar.
In the morning we took a bus to Hermit’s rest and hiked about 8 km back to Mohave Point from where we took a bus back to the village. The bus rides are included in the park pass. The path followed the edge of the canyon and included The Abyss: 900 m drop from the edge to the bottom of the canyon.
Here’s a three-minute-video of the hike (plus some footage from Mather Point).
One of the exciting perks of staying on the edge of the canyon was the possibility of viewing the canyon after dark. I tried to take some pictures of the stars but my lense was too wide so no milky way shots. However, you could see to the North Rim and the lights of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the other side. I could also see the campfires of the hikers of Bright Angel Trail in the bottom of the canyon.
Next leg of the journey took us to Route 66. We saw some authentic towns and lots of Route 66 memorabilia on the way to Barstow. The next two days would be spend driving 1000 km to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California.
We were about to start one of the most amazing rides in the world: From Cortez, CO, to Page, AZ. While still at home I went through some of the preplanned legs of the journey zooming in to the Google maps marking some of the interesting spots. For example, this is how I found the Forrest Gump Point on the map. A memorable scene in which Forrest’s ”runnin’ days was over”. Here’s a funny recreation of the scene.
Most of the area here was Native American country. The first interesting stop after we left Cortez, CO, was Four Corners National Monument. This is the only place in USA where you can have all you limbs in 4 states simultaneously. And people really want to do this, even Minna did. There is a fee to enter the site. Basically it is just a parking lot with Native American crafts for sale.
We had booked accommodation in Page, AZ but we didn’t take the shortest route. To see the Forrest Gump Point from the right angle you would have to drive there from north. We drove to Bluff through Red Mesa and then took the US Route 163 towards Monument Valley.
Before arriving at Forrest Gump Point we took right and entered a gravel road. I don’t remember why we took the turn but we probably saw the name of the road somewhere: Valley of the Gods Road. We drove a couple of hundred meters and saw a dead cow by the road. It was very hot so I expected it might not be very pleasant to walk to a shooting distance but this we too good of an opportunity to be missed. I took some fresh air in the car and stepped out. I was a bit afraid if there would be some animal eating the corpse but I had to take a picture of the cow. The smell was bad but not unbearable. When I came back into the car Minna claimed that my clothes started to smell like a dead cow already even though I had been out for just a couple of minutes.
Later I found out that Valley of the Gods would have been worth a visit as it had also served as a filming location. We didn’t drive any further because we had to get to Monument Valley.
We had concerns that we would miss the exact spot where Forrest stopped running as Monument Valley could be seen from many parts of the route. When we got to the right spot, we saw that it cannot be missed. The roadside was full of cars and people were taking pictures in the middle of the road. And so did we. It is one of the quintessential views of America.
And then to the place where the westerns were made. It is truly an amazing place. The best view to the valley is from the hotel parking lot but if you’d like to see a little bit more, take drive 17-mile-long Monument Valley Loop Drive with your SUV. High clearance vehicle is strongly recommended. John Ford Point is located on Loop Drive.
We stayed in Best Western View of Lake Powell, without the view of Lake Powell. Before we checked in, we drove south from Page and managed to get to Horseshoe Bend at sunset. The cliffs were full of people taking selfies on the edge. Apparently not everyone always survives. There were no rails to prevent people from falling down but they had started to build some to save the rescue persons efforts.
There was one more sight in the area: the slot canyons. The most famous one is the Antelope Canyon but Minna had read that it is also very crowded. Canyon X tours had very good reviews so we booked it. The tour was shorter than some of the other tours but there was plenty of time to see the whole canyon. The slot canyons are on Native American grounds and they are all run by the family who owns that particular part of the land. Canyon X had very nice service and we heard some interesting stories from the lady who drove us down to the canyon. We certainly recommend Canyon X tours.
After seeing the slot canyon we started the next leg of the journey. Our next destination was Grand Canyon village 223 km away from Page, AZ.