Canyon de Chelly National Monument – November 2018

Canyon de Chelly was not initially on my radar for this trip, as it’s not a National Park, it’s a National Monument.  I honestly cannot remember how I heard about it, but it happened to be right on our route from Mesa Verde National Park to Petrified Forest National Park, so I decided to add it to our itinerary and I am so glad I did.  Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “Canyon de SHAY”) is located in the remote city of Chinle, AZ, with 90+% of its residents being Navajo Native American. 

Spider Rock

We arrived in the afternoon and went to the Visitors Center to learn more about the canyon and what we should do there.  With only a few hours, they suggested we visit the six popular stops along the southern side of the Canyon.  Canyon de Chelly Map

We drove all the way to the end first as we were told that Spider Rock is what the canyon is most famous for, and we were not sure if we’d have enough time to stop at all six stops.  The hike out to the Spider Rock overlook was short but beautiful.  There are two large rock structures that stand up in the middle of the valley that are amazing.  We happen to be there on a nice fall day, with blue skies and a sunset that was making the rock of the canyon a deep set of reds and oranges.

Spider Rock

We met a couple at the overlook whose daughter had just accepted a job as a doctor at the hospital on the reservation.  They were out visiting her for the first time and were as in awe at the view as I was.

Wildlife

Each of the stops had a different view of the valley.  You could see homes down in the valley with farms that were currently being lived in and farmed by the Navajo.  There were also a lot of fun rocks for Hannah to climb on and around. 

View of the canyon, a small farmhouse and farm at the bottom right of the photo.
This coyote was about 10 feet from our car.

We were just pulling into a stop when we saw a coyote about 10 feet from our car.  I was glad we were in the car, but that encounter also made me a little more alert for wildlife on the rest of our stops.  Being the day before Thanksgiving, the stops were not busy at all.  We saw very few other cars, but we did see some men on horseback, which was our only other animal encounter.  We managed to visit and do short hikes at each of the six stops noted by the park ranger along the south side of the canyon.  The sun had set by the time we got back into our car after the last stop, so it was time to check into our hotel.

Good Local Eats at the Holiday Inn

The Holiday Inn was one of the only hotels in town, and it was located right outside of the park.  Their outdoor pool was not open, but Hannah made sure we walked by it just to be sure.  It was late, and the restaurant selection was limited in Chinle, so we decided to eat at the onsite restaurant at the Holiday Inn.  I was pleasantly surprised that they offered some traditional Navajo selections!  The Navajo waiter we had was great and even sat down and talked a little bit about the food and the history of the canyon and the Navajo who farmed it.  He offered to set us up on a horseback ride through the canyon the following day, however, we had one more park to visit so we had to decline.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes the smaller, lesser known sites and stops are the most beautiful.  I was very happy with our decision to add Canyon de Chelly to our itinerary and impressed with what we all learned about the Najavo during our short time there.

Hiking around at one of the overviews

Four Corners National Monument – November 2018

We left our hotel in Cortez and drove less than an hour to the Four Corners National Monument.  This is the spot that four states (Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) all come together in one place.  It was a bit in the middle of nowhere and I lost cell phone reception as we got closer to the monument.  Thankfully there were signs, so we did not have any problems finding it.  I am not exactly sure what I was expecting, but it there was not as much to it as I thought there would be.  

The Four Corners spot was pretty neat, labeled with each of the states, and there were places to stand a little higher up on each side to make for good photo opportunities of the corner.  We waited while one other family finished their photos, and then Hannah took to the center, posing for as many pictures as I was willing to take of her.  It was not a busy day, so we had plenty of time.  I had Hannah take one photo of me in the center, but the photo is only of my upper body, so you can’t actually see what I am standing on.  This is what you get with a 5 year old photographer. 

The Marketplace

Each “state” had a line of vendors along it, creating a square marketplace selling mostly handmade Native American artifacts.  We walked all the way around the square while Hannah stopped at nearly every vendor to compare product and prices.  I gave her a $10 limit, which got her some very cool beaded hair clips and a bracelet. 

Hannah with her beaded hair clips

Stateline Trail

Beyond the square was a hiking trail called Stateline Trail.  We walked to the trailhead, but decided not to hike it as we were heading to Canyon de Chelly National Monument which was another two hours away.  However, as I mentioned earlier, I was no longer getting any cell phone service, so when I opened Google Maps to find our route, I got a “no service” message looking back at me.  I vaguely remembered seeing that our route would take us west, so I did my best and guessed on the direction to take upon exiting the monument.  About 30 minutes later, my service returned and confirmed we were on the right road.  Phew! 

Hannah at the Stateline Trailhead

Mesa Verde National Park – November 2018

Hannah – 5 years old – National Park #5

The drive from Alamosa to Mesa Verde National Park was gorgeous.  We weaved through the Rio Grande National Forest taking twists and turns, through valleys and alongside rivers.  We stopped at a gas station just outside of the turn into the park to fill up.  The last time I was here with Jim in 2011, we didn’t realize how far up the mountain the actual park was, and we were almost out of gas by the time we got to the top.  On the return down the mountain, we had to put the car in neutral and brake our way down to make sure we would make it to a gas station.  I wasn’t about to make that mistake again! 

We arrived at the Visitor Center and the Park Ranger gave Hannah a Junior Ranger book.  We do not do these at every park, but occasionally when we have extra time, she does enjoy them.  It may be easier when Hannah can read better, but at this point, she needed a lot of help with it, and since I was driving up a winding road along a mountainside, I thought I should keep my eyes on the road instead of sounding out “Pueblo” for her. Some of the activities did not require reading though, and she enjoyed looking through and drawing in the book on the 45 minute drive up the mountain. 

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Since it was the week of Thanksgiving, there was a skeleton crew working and not everything was open.  This was a bit of a bummer, but it also kept the crowds down, and I felt there was still plenty to see and do.  At the top, there is a Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum that Hannah really enjoyed.  It featured many artifacts the ancient Pueblo people used.  There were also several small scenes showing how they originally built their homes and the development into the current cliff dwellings that you can walk through and see today.  It is incredible to see what they were capable of with such little tools and technology.   Mesa Verde Map

Cliff Dwelling along the Mesa Top Loop

After the museum, we took the car around the Mesa Top Loop making several stops to visit the sites and see the cliff dwellings.  Hannah and I discussed the challenges they must have had building their homes on the side of a cliff, and how they had to hunt for their food.  I also told her that “Mesa Verde” means “green table” in Spanish and why it was called that with the tall plateau landforms with steep sides that looked like a table.

Far View Sites

On our way down, we stopped at the Far View Sites which was a flat less-than-one mile hike showcasing some of the top pithouses and other ruins.  It was really neat as you are able to walk into the ruins as long as you stay off the walls.  The Pueblos were living at the Far View sites at least 200 years before they built the more famous cliff dwellings for which the park is so well known.

Far View Sites
Far View Sites

We cruised back down the mountain and arrived at our hotel in Cortez, grabbed dinner from the restaurant across the street, and you guessed it… hit the swimming pool!  We met a really nice family with 2 young girls at the pool, and I ended up talking to the mom for quite some time.  The next morning Hannah begged me to go to the pool again before we left, and we saw the family again.  Although I do not mind travelling alone with Hannah, it’s really nice to make those adult connections from time to time.  It’s also really fascinating to meet people from all over and get a little glimpse into their lives. 

Lessons Learned

Even if some of the park is closed for the holidays, you can still see and learn a lot.  I was a little bummed that the Spruce Tree House was not open due to restorations being done, but Hannah did not seem fazed by that and she had a great time exploring the dwellings we could visit.

Great Sand Dunes National Park – November 2018

Hannah – 5 years old – National Park #4

We arrived in the city of Alamosa early afternoon and went straight to our hotel – Holiday Inn Express & Suites – for a swim.  With the distance we already drove from Santa Fe, and the park being another 45 minutes from Alamosa, I didn’t want to push Hannah’s patience and car trip time any further that day, as I knew this vacation was going to be a lot of car riding and driving overall.  We were spending two nights in Alamosa, so we had the entire next day to explore the park.  Also, being the only adult, I don’t have the ability to research anything while in the car, so I spent that first night figuring out a plan. 

Sand Sleds

I was researching what to do in the park and everything I was reading said to rent sand sleds or sand boards (like a snow board) and bring them to the park.  Thankfully the reviews I was reading also informed me that these have to be rented in Alamosa and they DO NOT rent them at the National Park.  I am so thankful I read that in advance, as I would have had a very sad 5 year old on my hands if we showed up and had to drive 45 minutes back to town for the sled!

Hannah with the sand sled

As luck would have it, there was a sports shop within walking distance of our hotel!  We stopped at Kristi Mountain Sports the next morning and rented one adult sand sled for $20.  They had child sized ones available as well, but I knew I would already be carrying a backpack along with the adult sled, and I figured we could share.  They gave us the sled and taught us how to “wax” it before every run. 

Visitor Center

The drive out was pretty uneventful.  You could see the mountainous sand dunes in the distance but it was hard to tell how far away they were.  Everything else around us was flat.  As we drove into the park, we saw hundreds of elk grazing in a field.  The Visitor Center was great and Hannah wanted to play with every cool sand storm exhibit they had in there.  We asked the rangers where to go and they informed us of where to park and said, “You can go anywhere!  But the higher you climb, the better the sledding!”  We drove down to the parking lot and got our daypack ready, loaded with clothes layers, PB&Js we made in the morning in our hotel room, and other snacks. 

Hannah crossing the Medano Creek River Bed

You start by crossing the Medano Creek river bed and hiking about ½ mile before you hit the dunes.  In November, when we were there, it is a dry river bed, but in the spring, with the snow melting off the mountains, it is an actual river that you wade through.  The sand can get pretty hot there in the summer, so it is recommended that you were tennis shoes rather than flip flops, but that was not as big of a concern in the late fall. 

The Dunes

PB&J lunch break

I wasn’t sure how far Hannah would make it before she needed a break.  But to my surprise, we actually made it about halfway up to the top before she said she wanted to try the sled.  We waxed it up and took our first ride down together, her in front of me.  We hit an unfortunate bump which made sand fly right into her face.  She thought this was hilarious, while I was glad she blocked it all from hitting my face!  We took several more rides on this medium sized hill, testing the sled out together and separately. 

The way the dunes are shaped by the winds can make some areas really tough, if not impossible to climb up.  You have to find a ridgeline and hike that and then decide which “bowl” you are going to slide down.  The sand seemed to be finer as you went up, making the sled go faster.  

It was a gorgeous fall day without a cloud in the sky.  With the wind blocked, the sun felt amazing and we removed several layers of clothes.  However, as soon as you crested a ridgeline and that wind hit, you wanted them all back on right away.  We took a break for lunch and then decided to explore more. 

I let Hannah lead the way and she found a new bowl for us to try.  Instead of sledding, she decided she wanted to roll down into it.  At the bottom, we were completely blocked by the wind.  She played in that bowl doing headstands, cartwheels, and rolling around while I relaxed and soaked up the sun. 

Sandy-hair Headstands

Hiking Out and Dinner

As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I knew it would get colder, so we decided to slowly make our way back to the car, sledding down the dunes where we could.  We pulled back into Alamosa around dinner time, dropped off the sled at Kristi Mountain Sports, and stopped at this great restaurant called Locavores.  I ordered some delicious fish tacos, while Hannah opted for her favorite, mac and cheese.  Back at the hotel, as we took our layers of clothes off, it had appeared we brought a mini sand dune home with us.  I think we had sand in our hair the remainder of the trip.

Lessons Learned

Doing some research ahead of time can save you a lot of time and aggravation.  Thankfully we took the day before to research about the sled rentals instead of driving straight out to the dunes.