Grand Circle Part 4

Northern Arizona: A Kaleidoscope of Images

In my mind’s eye, I see northern Arizona – the southern reaches of the Grand Circle – as a kaleidoscope of striking and diverse images, which change continually with the hour, the season and the weather.  I can see the arid and richly colored lands of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, in the northeastern quadrant of the state; the great Ponderosa Pine forests of the Mogollon Rim escarpment, at the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau; the circular rim of the 4000-foot-wide, 570-foot-deep Meteorite Crater some 35 miles east of Flagstaff; the volcanic mountains and craters of the San Francisco Peaks immediately to the north of Flagstaff; the beguiling fall colors of Oak Creek Canyon, in the Coconino National Forest down the Mogollon Rim; the transcendent panorama of Grand Canyon, south of Arizona’s border with Utah; the haunting, centuries-old ruins of Pueblos, at numerous locations across the region; and the remnants of the Mother Road, Route 66, a cross-state highway to hope during the Great Depression.

The Navajos and Hopis

In the lands of the Navajos and Hopis, you can see some of the more spectacular geologic formations of the Southwest (see ’s Grand Circle: The Four Corners ), but you can also learn about the two peoples, their histories, their traditions, their celebrations, their beliefs.

The Athapascan-speaking Navajos, linguistic cousins of the Apaches, migrated as hunting and gathering bands from the Northwest into the greater Four Corners region.  They have now forged the largest governing body of any tribe in the United States, overseeing a reservation of some 27,000 square miles (an area 17 times larger than Rhode Island) with a population of more than 170,000.   In an age of high technology, the Navajos have held fast to ancient traditions. 

On the reservation, you can still see Navajos wearing traditional dress, hear them speaking the old tongue, watch them perform ancient tribal dances and song.  You can shop for Navajo crafts—exquisite jewelry fashioned from silver and turquoise mined from Southwestern deposits, tightly woven basketry richly vested with symbolism from prehistoric rituals, the incomparable (and expensive!) Navajo rugs hand-woven with wool drawn from tribal sheep, and (if you’re so inclined) ersatz sand paintings derived from ceremonies for healing.  You can still find and share Navajo foods made from wild plants and cooked, not by written recipe, but from generational memory, over an open fire. 


The Uto-Aztecan-speaking Hopis, with cultural roots in the two-millennia-old Anasazi Puebloan traditions, live in the oldest continuously occupied village cluster in the United States.  Their ancestors established the most ancient of the villages, Old Oraibi, early in the second millennium.  Roughly 9000 in number, the Hopis occupy a reservation of some 2400 square miles, which encompass three large mesas and a dozen villages.  The Hopis’ Reservation lies totally encircled by the Navajo Reservation.

Although the Hopis guard their traditions and ceremonies carefully, you can still visit the villages of Walpi and Old Oraibi.  You can attend some of the social dances.  You can shop for finely crafted jewelry.  You can buy the meticulously crafted and painted (and expensive!) authentic Hopi kachinas, icons used to teach children about tribal religious figures and beliefs. 

The Mogollon Rim

The Mogollon Rim describes a some 400-mile-long arc across Arizona, beginning near the foot of the White Mountains in the east and ending near the mouth of Grand Canyon in the northwest.  Characterized by scenic canyons, sculpted limestone and sandstone cliffs, and extensive lava flow caps, the Mogollon Rim rises from elevations of some 4000 to 5000 feet to an elevation of some 7000 feet.  Its plant community ranges from the towering Saguaro Cacti and other Sonoran Desert species in the lower elevations to Rocky Mountain woodlands in the higher elevations.  Its slopes and rim form the heart of the Coconino National Forest—the largest stand of Ponderosa Pine in the United States. 

Along the rim, within the national forest, administered by the National Forest Service, you can hike some dozen and a half trails, which range from half a mile to 25 miles in length and rank from easy to strenuous in difficulty.  You will find designated campsites both for families and groups, lakes for boating and fishing, a 54-mile driving loop with spectacular views, and even an area for rock climbing.  Along the length of the Mogollon Rim, you can explore remnants of prehistoric Puebloan traditions, including those of the Mogollon and Sinagua peoples. 

meteorite crater

Meteorite Crater

The 50,000-year-old bowl-shaped Meteorite Crater, east of Flagstaff, resulted from the impact of a 300,000-ton nickel-iron meteorite traveling at a speed of some 28,600 miles per hour.  The energy released would have been equal to an explosion produced by 2.5 million tons of TNT.  It blasted some 300 to 400 million tons of earth from the impact site.  The crater shape, rock deformation, geochemistry, exotic minerals and surrounding ejecta, once understood and explained by the scientific community, pointed the way to new discoveries and increased understand of similar craters on earth and on terrestrial solar bodies (for instance, the moon and Mars).  It ranks as the best-preserved meteorite crater on earth.

While you cannot hike the entire crater rim, explore the bottom, or collect meteorites, you can tour the visitor center, the astrogeology museum and the interactive learning center.  In the visitor center, you will find an exhibit of meteorites, including one that weighs nearly three quarters of a ton.  From an observation deck that is equipped with telescopes, you can examine the crater.  In the museum, you can venture through exhibits that display the ongoing process and effects of meteor impacts in our solar system.  In the learning center, you can see two interactive computer displays about the solar system and space.  Once in the morning and once in the afternoon, you can join a guided tour that will take you about a third of the way around the crater rim. 

The San Francisco Peaks

The San Francisco Peaks – three peaks of a mountain lying at the heart of an 1800-square-mile volcanic field that includes the Sunset Crater National Monument – rise to an elevation of more than 12,000 feet.  Produced by six million years of eruptions, the peaks and the volcanic field encompass 600 craters.  The peaks formed as a “stratovolcano,” a high symmetrical cone built of layers of cinders, lava, ash and bombs, and they surround a caldera, or inner basin, that may have been produced by a cataclysmic eruption much like that of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.  Located within both the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests, the mountain supports communities of Pinyon Pine and Utah Juniper in the lower elevations and Englemann Spruce and the storied Bristlecone Pine (among the oldest living organisms on earth) in the higher elevations.  The mountain holds a sacred place in the religious beliefs of the Navajos and Hopi as well as 11 other tribes in the region.  Sunset Crater, produced by a succession of eruptions early in the second millennium, has around its rim an accumulation of oxidized iron and sulfur particles that seems to glow like a desert sunset. 

Within the mountains and volcanic field, administered primarily by the NFS, you will have a choice of easy to strenuous day-hike trails, several camp sites, various scenic drives, and, in the winter, numerous downhill ski runs and crosscountry ski trails.  You can participate in an archaeological dig, walk through a lava tube, or simply relax in mountain splendor.  At Sunset Crater, you can hike a one-mile-long trail across the Bonita Lava Flow, which issued from the volcano and spread across nearly two square miles of the landscape.  You can explore black lava rock, or basalt, that retains the evidence of gas bubbles that rose through the material while it was still molten.  You will even discover an exceptionally large “vesicle,” or chamber that trapped a substantial volume of gas before allowing it to escape.  You will find “squeeze-ups,” where lava still in a plastic state issued up through fractures like toothpaste squeezed from its tube.  You can learn about lava tubes, which form as a flow of molten material freezes around the surface, creating a long basaltic chamber through which molten material continues to flow like water through a pipe.  Along the rim of the volcano, you will see the colors that give Sunset Crater its name.

Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon, which begins just south of Flagstaff and runs down the Mogollon Rim to Sedona, holds the promise of something magical, especially in the autumn, when the foliage turns into a gold tapestry laced with red.  Shaped by the earth’s crustal fracturing, advancing and receding oceans, volcanoes, rushing waters, ice, falling rock, gravity and even living organisms, Oak Creek Canyon shows nearly two billion years of its geologic heritage in its canyon sides and its famous red rock formations.  Its swirl of color made an indelible impression in my mind when I drove through it for the first time, at the peak of the fall season, some four decades ago.  The experience almost left me feeling that I had emerged from a lyrical dream. 

In Oak Creek Canyon and in its branches and adjacent wilderness areas, you can capitalize on opportunities for hikes, horseback rides, jeep tours, swimming and fishing.  You can camp and cook at various campgrounds, or you can luxuriate at top-flight hotels and restaurants.  Should you sense something spiritual about the canyon, you would not be the first.  Native American peoples and other believers think that the region around Sedona holds a bounty of “spiritual vortices,” or focused electromagnetic energies, which promote emotional strengthening and healing.  You can visit places with names like Shaman’s Cave, Prayer Butte, Sacred Mesa and Vision Butte, where people have experienced mystical awakenings and renewed meaning in their lives.  As a guide for the Sedona-based Aleh-zon Sacred Healing Journeys said, “Whatever we do and wherever we go, you can be certain that the land will work its magic on you.”

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park, administered by the National Park Service, attracts some four and one-half millions visitors a year, 90 percent of them to the easily accessible south rim.  It draws a wide range of people who come for a wide range of reasons.  Edward Abbey said in One Life at a Time, Please, that he walked rather than riding to the rim for his first visit because, “I wanted to see this great sanctuary of space and form and color as the Indians had seen it, as the Spanish explorers had seen it in the early sixteenth century, as the first Americans had seen it—suddenly.  Without official notice.”  Later, he said, he saw a young schoolgirl take “one swift glance down into the wonder of the ages.”  She said “Neat-o!” then promptly returned “to the curio shop to buy postcards.”

Surprisingly, given its vastness, Grand Canyon, carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries, has formed in only the last five or six million years.  Its lowest stratum, nearly a mile below the rim, formed some two billion years ago.  Its higher strata formed between 550 and 250 million years ago.  Its strata erode at different rates, depending on the hardness of the rock, giving the canyon walls their distinctive shapes.  The strata take on different colors from the minerals – typically including reddish, yellowish and greenish iron ores – embedded in their matrix. 

At the south side of the canyon, you might begin your visit at the Canyon View Center, which is located near an overlook called Mather Point.  You might next hike all or part of Rim Trail, a pathway broken into segments that, collectively, run for some 9.5 miles.  You can also take also take Canyon View Drive, a 26-mile road with many turnouts to canyon overlooks.  With good conditioning, you can trek down to the Colorado River and back up, a hike that will take two days.  With a tribal permit, you can also hike or ride horses to the Havasupai Indian Reservation, located in a tributary canyon.  On the less crowded, north side of the canyon, you will find other hikes and overlooks, and you can join another Colorado River trek. 

Expect to encounter large crowds at the Grand Canyon National Park, especially during the peak tourist season.  According to the NPS, you may have to book reservations for lodging, campsites or Colorado River treks as much as a year in advance. 

Montezuma Castle National Monument

The Archaeology

Stone-walled pueblo ruins, vestiges of farming villages built by the Sinagua Puebloan people early in the second millennium, virtually encircle the San Francisco Peaks.  The ruins, along with the flotsam and jetsam of their daily life, suggest that the Sinagua (“sin agua,” the Spanish words for “without water”) drew on hunting and gathering desert cultures to the west, the agricultural cultures to the east and south, and the Mesoamerican cultures of Mexico to fashion an especially diversified Puebloan lifestyle. 

The three-story Wupatki National Monument pueblo ruins, located at the edge of a small, arid plateau, once served as home for some 300 people.  It features a masonry ball court, a venue for sport and ritual that had origins deep in Mexico. 

The well-preserved Walnut Canyon National Monument ruins, sequestered in the alcoves and along the walls of the canyon, was once home for people who – much like the Anasazi Puebloans of Mesa Verde – raised corn, beans and squash in small plots above the canyon rim.  The cliff-dwelling architectural style was unique among the Sinagua within the region. 

The Tuzigoot National Monument pueblo ruins, situated on an arid hilltop, comprised 110 rooms that sheltered hundreds of occupants.  One of the largest Sinagua pueblos, it holds remnants of trade wares transported over trails hundreds of miles in length. 

The Montezuma Castle National Monument (which had nothing to do with either the Aztec Montezuma or a castle) features a fragile but well-preserved five-story 20-room cliff dwelling built into a large recess more than 70 feet above a small stream called Beaver Creek.  Constructed late in the Sinagua cultural history, the theatrical-looking Montezuma Castle appears situated for defense, although the reasons are obscure. 

The pueblos lay abandoned after about 1500, with their people – for poorly understood reasons – having moved east or south, many of them joining the Hopi Puebloan peoples. 

While many other Sinagua ruins occur across the southwestern Grand Circle, you will get a good cross-section of the culture by visiting the national monuments.  You will see, in the community planning, architecture and masonry, the Sinagua’s skill in adapting to environment and terrain.  You will see, in the pueblo features and artifacts, the evidence for long-distance trade.  You will see, in ruins like those of Montezuma Castle, the ingenuity and persistence of the human spirit. 

Oatman Az

Route 66

Route 66, labeled the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his memorable The Grapes of Wrath, became the highway of hope and, often, despair, for America’s refugees from the Great Depression.  It led desperate and hungry families, hollow eyes fixed on a willow-the-wisp promise of job – any kind of job – in California, across the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, blindly past the Navajo Reservation, Petrified Forest National Park, Meteor Crater, the Walnut Canyon Sinagua ruins, the Coconino National Forest, the Grand Canyon and into the Mojave Desert.  Woody Guthrie sang about the experience in Hard Travellin’: 

I been a-having’ some hard travellin’
I thought you knowed,
I been a-havin’ some hard travellin’,
Way down the road,
I been a -havin’ some hard travellin’,
Hard ramblin’, hard gamblin’,
I been havin’ some hard travellin’, Lord.

Beginning in Chicago and ending in Los Angeles, Route 66 became the symbol of the American experience of the time.

If you follow the Mother Road across northern Arizona, primarily via Interstate 40, you can still track the original route in some segments.  You can see remnants of the original route, sometimes marked by the crumbling walls and rusting gasoline pumps of a long-closed service station.  You may find abandoned “tourist courts,” with decaying signs saying something like “Paradise Courts,” “Golden Courts” and “Happy Days Courts.”  If you stop and peer through broken windows into old rooms, you may see stained and broken mattresses and springs and rusting iron bedsteads scattered across the floor.  In other areas, you may find old diners, their windows boarded, where a waitress in a starched white apron would have called you “Hon” or “Sweetie” and served you a hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and mustard for a nickel.  It will be a journey through nostalgia.

Return to Grand Canyon

I remember the first time I saw Grand Canyon, one summer some 50 years ago, now.  Unlike Edward Abbey, I drove to the rim.  Unlike the young schoolgirl, I didn’t say “Neat-o!” and head for a curio shop.  I looked at it for a long time, remembering, I think, that Hemingway once said that if you look at a great painting long enough and closely enough, it will be yours.  I had the same feeling that I have when I look through a telescope at the craters of the moon’s surface.  I saw something that lies beyond the reach of individual human ownership, something that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Grand Canyon

I took my wife Martha to see Grand Canyon for her first time during a winter about a dozen years ago.  We drove to a parking area at an overlook near the rim, despairing because we could see that heavy clouds masked the view.  As we walked up to the rail, however, the sky grew lighter.  The clouds opened.  The rays of the sun washed across the canyon, lighting stone columns and cliff walls rimmed with snow.  Within moments, the clouds closed in again, leaving us standing in a cold mist.  It didn’t matter.  Martha had seen Grand Canyon. 

By Jay W. Sharp

Grand Circle Part 1
Grand Circle Part 2
Grand Circle Part 3


 More Information

Navajo National Monument
Sunset Crater National Monument
San Francisco Peak
Sedona, Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park
Wupatki National Monument
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Tuzigoot National Monument
Montezuma Castle National



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