Spring Break Road Trip Day 3: Lyin’ Down At Horseshoe, Tiger Beetles, and Bear Right At Wild Cows, Oh My!
Editor Note: If you thought Day 2 was a long day, get ready for Day 3. If you have only been following along to get to our visit to Supai and Havasupai Falls, today is when that adventure itself begins with camping at the trailhead. But there was a whole day of fun before we get there!
No matter what I do, my internal clock will wake me up while away from home just at that time when the horizon is starting to brighten but you can still see the stars out in the sky. Even with an eye mask on. Even when I am dog tired. It has its benefits, though. What is that saying, the early bird gets the worm? Well, the early bird gets the trail to herself.
As I awoke from the second night of our spring break road trip, I began to feel around for my glasses and phone to see what time it was. As my hand brushed over my down quilt, I felt cold little bumps. After a slight freak out at the thought of bugs (yeah, I have an irrational fear), I realized it was actually just covered with ice droplets. I touched up on the tarp over my head where my breath collected overnight and felt the same thing. I was then thankful I had taken the time to erect my tarp and cover with the down quilt or else my entire sleeping bag would have been something to defrost today. Not to mention I would have been a lot colder during the night.
The night before I had told Denise that I wanted to do a little hiking on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes before we made the long drive down and around the Grand Canyon to Hualapai Hilltop where we planned to camp tonight. She asked to sleep in while I did that and we decided we would leave by 8am. I quietly got up, packed everything but my tarp which I left up to dry as much as possible, and drove down the road to the day use area for the state park after spending a few minutes plotting our route today on the map. One of the places I had hoped to stop was Pipe Spring NM close to Fredonia, but it looked like it would be too much of a detour for us today if we wanted to do a few of the other things on our list like Horseshoe Bend. Plus, we need to find showers today before we headed into Supai. Looks like Pipe Spring would have to be another trip.
The sun was just coming up and I could see the Moquith and Moccasin Mountains on either side of me as I made my way from our dispersed camping up a mud road about 3 miles from the official state park boundary. I narrowly missed a few small desert fox that ran out across the road, probably not used to sharing it at 5:45am.
Parking in the small day use lot, I took a few minutes to read the kiosk and learn about the Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle, only found here in the state park. It made me a little angry sad that it has to share its home with ORVs, but I guess some protection is better than none at all. As I made my way up on to the sand, I opted to leave my shoes on because it was actually quite cold without a few hours of sunshine yet to warm it. I still had my insulating layers on, as well.
Walking out onto the dunes, I marveled at the salmon colored grains contrasted by the early morning blue sky and the large moon still suspended above. Who doesn’t imagine themselves in scene from a Star Wars? Or maybe from Hidalgo. Oh, Viggo. Hubba, hubba. The sand had plenty of human disturbance but it was fun to see the tiny trails of the beetles that must skitter about while the sand is still cool.
I really hadn’t had a plan for how much I wanted to wander this morning but as is normal for me, I could see the sands begin to blend in to the mountain in front of me and I was called to go UP.
It took my about 25 minutes to walk across the dunes, mostly because I take too many pictures. There is nothing that gets your heart pumping like a climb in sand early in the morning. Turning around to look back at the dunes was breathtaking.
My puffy was now around my waist but I kept my long johns on to protect against prickly stuff. As I made my way up, the sand was slowly replaced with brush, cactus and rock.
It appeared there was a trail to some extent in the sand to one side that the ATVs must take but as I continued on further, I began to follow more of a game trail in the opposite direction. It was one of those times when I could see what appeared to be a ridge up ahead of me that might be attainable.
However, I was trying to stay on durable surfaces and avoid vegetation so I ended up going a bit to the right in my ascent. Checking my watch, I gave myself until about 6:30 am before I would turn around so I could make it back to the car and Denise by 7am. The side of the mountain had an easy slope and was covered with juniper and pinion pine.
I think I even spotted some oak interspersed. It was amazing to think about how those seeds must have traveled on the wind, the lucky ones landing here instead of the dunes below. There was plenty of evidence of game and I guessed they come up here for the tiny bit of water still running off the mountain.
I even saw some old barbed wire strung across some logs that may have been standing at one time. Cattle guard? Someone not happy with motorized travel in the area? I had to be very careful as I walked as the “rock” was mostly soft Navajo sandstone and broke easily if I stepped to close to an edge. It is easy to see how the dunes developed; a steady source of wind would have no problem wearing away at the mountain. I tried to stick to the center of the sandstone and walk on harder rock and soil.
About the time I reluctantly had to turn around, I found a stone lined gully heading back down and opted to take it as far I could before dropping down to the sand. Based on what I remember when I had hiked up, I would most likely cliff out and then have to traverse across to the sand trail I came up.
I was able to follow the creek bed down until I came to a sheer drop in a small cirque of cliffs at the base of the mountain. I imagined what it must be like when the rains come and flood this natural culvert creating a waterfall down to the sand below.
Most certainly something I would like to see from a different perspective than where I was standing at the moment. I peered over the edge as far as I felt comfortable to see what was below and then made my way back up to a spot I could hop out of the gully and make my way back down. There were a few more game trails to follow and I figured they would be doing the same thing as me, finding the path of least resistance off the mountain.
It wasn’t long before I was back down on the dunes and headed back to my car around 7am. Perfect. I drove back to Denise and found her making her coffee and sunning out her tent on a juniper brush. It was going to be a warm day, gotta love the Southwest.
After packing our things up, eating breakfast and checking out the old cattle corral we had slept next to, we headed back towards the visitor’s center at the state park to use the bathrooms to change clothes and brush teeth. The park wasn’t manned yet but a few vans filled with vacationing families began to pull in.
As we prepared for the drive ahead in the parking lot (rearranged food, checked the map), we directed a few of them back down the road to the day use area to play in the sand. I was using information from my gazette to decide which roads to take to get down to Arizona. Based on what I saw on the map, it appeared that we could continue on the road that had brought us in, hit a junction and loop back up to SR 89 and on to Kanab. As we took a left out of the state park Denise wasn’t so sure, thinking we were already passed the junction for that. I figured the worst thing that could happen is that we had to backtrack and when I saw large campers coming towards me on the road, I figured THEY must have come from somewhere and continued along. For the next few miles we looked for a junction to the left as we passed a couple pullouts filled with RV campers nestled in the meager shade of what vegetation the desert had to offer.
The landscape was vast with flat topped mountains off in the distance beyond sage brush filled fields. There was also at least one trailhead leading off into the foothills that would be fun to explore during a future visit. But no junction. In fact, what happened is that we ran out of road. Paved road, that is. The pavement ended with an abrupt edge and plopped us down onto compact sand with a Primitive Road sign on one side and a white road work truck manned by a guy in an orange vest on the other. I’m not sure what his expression meant as we passed by but I imagine it was probably something close to what the rental car was feeling. He didn’t put his hands up in warning so I considered it a good sign.
A few more road signs, however, warned us that the road was not maintained for the next 3 miles and to seek higher ground in the event of thunderstorms. I was not deterred. Did I mention we had had no cell service since turning off SR 89 the night before? At this point I knew there would be no junction and Denise was right about seeing it last night BEFORE we found our road side campsite. I apologized for not believing her, telling her what a great story this was going to make. I’m sure she was having her doubts but she is a good sport. I think it is because I have pretty much taken the job of driving so she doesn’t have to. She drives school bus and is more than happy to let someone else take the wheel. The primitive road turned out to be in fairly good condition (thus the RVs I saw coming from this direction) but I wouldn’t want to drive it with any kind of precipitation in less than 4 wheel drive. It seemed like forever but it probably was just 3 miles before we came to where it intersected paved road and headed into a rural neighborhood. We took it to mean that we would be coming into a town and possibly a state route or highway. It turned out to put us onto 389, west of Fredonia and Pipe Springs NM. I SWEAR, I didn’t do it on purpose but if we were going to be driving by anyway, we would definitely be stopping.
This drive begins to take you into the foothills of the Vermillion Cliffs and the land of the Kaibab Paiute. It is gorgeous and expansive, yet desolate. What a hard life it must have been, especially with limited water resources. The turn for Pipe Springs NM at Kaibab has a gas station and market so it was hard to miss. We pulled into the parking lot for the visitor center about 10:10am, glad that they were just opening.
The first to arrive at the ranger desk, it was free to tour the museum and grounds because we each have annual parks passes. However, we were a bit early for the tours given in the Winsor Castle but could do the self-guided walk through the rest of the historic buildings and outlaying features.
We spent about 30 minutes at the monument designated to remember the spring’s importance to the Mormon tithing ranch, the native Paiute and settlers who traveled through and needed shelter and water. We explored the old log home, watched the spring feed the original storage ponds from under the fort wall and read the information in the kiosks.
There was one other family there and a ranger telling them a story about the rescued animals in the corrals. A staff person dressed in the full wool outfit of someone who would have lived back then was in the garden under a large oak tree tending the rows. Talk about taking one for the team; that has got to get hot later in the day! It reminded me of our visit to Scott’s Bluff in Nebraska where there was a ranger dressed in a full military uniform playing the part of a soldier during the 1800’s standing next to a covered wagon in the hot sun. You could see the sweat beading on his forehead. But I digress.
My favorite structure was the old outhouse up beyond the cabin that was reminiscent of some of my favorite western movies. I have a thing about outhouses and framed portraits of them decorate one of the bathrooms in my house. Yes, really.
There was a trail beyond the main living area but it was closed while we were there due to unsafe conditions. Maybe next time. On our way out, we stopped to use the bathrooms and fill up on water. They had one of those water fountains designed to replace plastic water bottles that you see in most environmentally friendly places now. In Vegas, we had purchased a few gallon sized jugs to refill our Nalgenes on the trip and I refilled one of them along with my bottle. The ranger passed by and smiled, saying that the water comes from the actual Pipe Spring. It felt a little like being a part of the long chain of travelers who have stopped here on their journey through this land over the centuries.
We were soon back on the road and heading towards Fredonia and U.S. 89A to eventually meet up with 89 that will take us south to Flagstaff. At the junction with the Grand Canyon Highway/SR 67 in the Kaibab National Forest, we pulled off at Jacob Lake for gas and hopes of a place to shower because there is a campground. No such luck but we took a few minutes to peruse the gift shop, use the facilities and coffee up. I didn’t see much I wanted but was excited when I was checking out some tourist brochures in the seating area in the front of the store.
What’s this, the AZT? It dawned on my then that the Arizona Trail must pass through here on its way to the state border just a bit to the north of us. Back on the wall to the restrooms was my confirmation. How fun, Jacob Lake is a trail town!
I didn’t see a trailhead as we pulled back out onto the highway but I could imagine what it might be for a thru hiker to be walking down the shoulder of the road toward their anticipated reward of cool drinks and burgers. Still not quite noon, we continued east with the striated Vermillion Cliffs growing more prominent on our left as we skirted along the southern end of them and with the day growing warmer and warmer as the sun made its way overhead.
Nothing makes you feel smaller than to see house size boulders littered along the side of the road having cleaved off the sides of the sheer cliff walls above you. I wonder how often that happens. About an hour later, we pulled up to the road stop of Marble Canyon, not quite big enough to call a town. We had seen it on the map but weren’t sure if it as just a viewpoint or if there were services. There was a gas station on the left and what looked to be lodging and guide service on the right but it was a tiny little strip of window fronts that caught our eye.
Showers!!! H.A.P.P.Y D.A.N.C.E! With some quarters from the convenience store next door, we were soon washing some adventure dirt off and switching into fresh clothes. Baby wipes can only get you so far, just sayin’. Okay, I know you are thinking it has only been 2 days so far. How do I survive 6 days on a backpacking trip without a shower? Yes, I survive. But if a shower is available, I’m taking it. Sometimes it is about more than just being clean.
Just down from here was the Navajo Bridge that stands 467 feet over the Colorado Canyon as it runs through Marble Canyon. There is a place to park and a visitor center and I highly recommend stopping.
The Colorado was the most amazing green color, so jade like.
From this stop, we turned left and crossed the Colorado on the highway, reaching the junction with SR 89. Left would take us north to Page and right down to Flagstaff. The debate was that it was almost 2pm now and we had hoped to get to tonight’s camp spot with some daylight left (sound familiar?) and still had 6+ hours to go based on what Google was telling us. However, to turn left and drive just 20 miles would take us to Horseshoe Bend, a place neither of us had been to. Guess what, we turned left. What’s one more night setting up camp in the dark? Yes, it is a cliché stop but we are so close! Well, let me just say that it was TOTALLY worth it.
Who cares that there were a billion people there? When Denise and I made our way to the canyon wall and to peer over the edge, it felt like were the only ones there. The feeling of the warm sandstone underneath us, hovering above the shimmering blue and green river as it curved through the gorge was magical. I’d do it again.
From here, it was straight down to Flagstaff where we only stopped briefly for gas and cold kombucha drinks at Safeway before connecting with I-40 westbound. Flagstaff reminded me a little of Colorado, but without the 14rs in the distance. It does have a 12,600+ft mountain, Humphreys Peak, just 11 miles away; that would be fun to come back for some time. Lots of next times on this trip…
Our time on I-40 was brief, turning off onto 66 at Seligman to head towards Supai. Yes, Route 66.
It was about 7:00pm so we stopped for a short break to eat snacks, use the bathroom to brush teeth and check out a gift shop. Denise was in search of smashed pennies but the machine was broken at the store we stopped at so she was directed next door. While waiting, I walked around and I am happy to report that if you need supplies, this lovely place does stock fresh produce and groceries (not necessarily paleo but whole foods anyway) and there are covered picnic tables attached to the side for a roadside picnic (with bathrooms). I thought it was cool to see a family cooking up dinner on an actual hot plate they had plugged in as we hit the road once again to finish our day’s journey.
This is where it gets interesting. As in that simultaneous laughter/nervousness thing but it won’t be as funny to you if I don’t tell a little back story. At least I think it will be funny. Unless you are vegan, maybe. Oh, I hope I don’t lose any vegan readers.
Earlier in our trip (I’m not sure if it was today or not) my mind began to wonder as we were driving down a long stretch of Nothing. You’ve been there, right? Well, I started to think about what if vegans got their way and we simply stopped eating meat all together. Particularly cows. No more eating cows. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am totally anti CAFO and think our veggies to meat ratio is way too low. But those cows. What would cows do if we stopped eating them (just go with me here). I started thinking about all the other animals that we eat and how they would probably be just fine on their own in the wild without human support. Even chickens, they are feisty. But cows? There are no wild cows, right? I don’t mean open range cows but REAL wild cows. Would people keep them simply as pets? Do you REALLY see a bunch of pet cows in our future? A pet cow is a big commitment. Turn them back out into the wild? Cows are not that smart, that doesn’t seem very ethical. Yes, I did remember there are cows running the streets in India but my mind was on a strange tangent. Anyway, I shared my thoughts with Denise (who I don’t think believes I am entirely crazy) and so when we eventually DID manage to pass a herd of “wild cows” (open range) and it became a running a joke for the rest of the trip. Moooo…
So, back to now. The sun had fallen behind the horizon as we took the turn off 66 and onto Road 18 and we lost both daylight and cellphone reception for our last 60 miles or so to the parking lot above the Havasupai Canyon where we planned to camp tonight for an early start tomorrow morning. Although we started out with nothing but sage brush lining the highway, there was soon taller and more dense vegetation on both sides of the road. Guess what that means? What comes out at dusk and likes to leap and dodge across the road? Elk. Lots and lots of elk. You thought I was going to say wild cows, right? Silly you, cows don’t leap or dodge. Ever. Needless to say, after a few times we were quite on edge and seeing elk around every bend.
But then there WERE cows. Cows JUST STANDING THERE on the side of the road like in some Stephen King kind of movie. WILD COWS! Okay, they were probably still just open range cows but in the dark of the night they could have been wild. After a few miles of alternating leaping elk and stoic, wide-eyed cows, we vowed never to take this road again in the dark. We were laughing hysterically at the same time we were thinking about what we would do if we ended up with one as a grill ornament. Would we just leave the car and hitch a ride to the trailhead so we could still do our hike down to Havasupai Falls? This WAS one of Denise’s bucket list items. Yes, I know we would probably need emergency care at the very least if that happened but none of this is based anywhere in reality anyway.
After about an hour, the shoulder of the road began to have cars and trailers parked along side and we knew we were almost to the parking lot. Sometimes I will just pull over now assuming the lot will be full but because we hoped to camp next to the car (and not on the road), I drove all the way to the end where Hualapai Hilltop was lit a large portable street light. I could see a portable building ahead and someone with a clipboard coming out a lit up doorway as we looked around for a spot with room next to it for Denise’s tent. A woman came out and asked us if we had reservation and our name, marking us off her list.
We told her we needed some flat ground and she suggested a spot up front. She said there was room to camp on the other side of the guard rail; lots of folks were already set up. We were warned not to park on the far side because wild horses come in the middle of the night for the water in the tanks there for the stock horses. Somehow I was not surprised there are wild horses here, too. She also said that some folk were getting up at 3 AM to start their hike! Denise looked at me and sent mind waves that that was NOT going to happen. I had thought maybe we would start around 6am because the office in Supai doesn’t even open until 8am and it was an 8 mile hike into it. It’s first come, first serve but I figure most folks will still be in their sites until after that so there wasn’t that much of a hurry. 3 am is mighty early.
We parked the car and looked over the guard rail. There was plenty of room for her tent and for me to just lie out on the gravel covered ground. It was warmer tonight then the last 2 and my worst problem was going to be the pretty good breeze blowing (I am a very light sleeper). I was working on making myself a ground cloth out of the trash compactor I had brought to line my pack (again, only something a Seattlite would pack) instead of using my ruined hammock while Denise almost lost her tent over the side of the canyon when she stepped away briefly to find something heavy to weigh it down. Yes, we were right on the canyon edge though you couldn’t tell because it was so dark. Luckily I had looked up and saw it take flight in time to grab it a few feet over the edge before it dropped off. I used a water jug to keep from losing my air mattress in the same manner. After my hammock, the loss of anything else would have put me over the edge. Maybe literally.
We spent some time repacking our things again for our hike in so that we would be ready when we got up in the morning and settled in for the night. There were still plenty of cars pulling in just like us, the woman had said there are normally at least 30 people or so camped out in tents and cars the night before the hike in. I was so glad I had earplugs or I never would have fallen asleep. But I did eventually, with just the Big Dipper and the bright starry night above me as I cowboy camped for the second time in my life. Tomorrow would bring the whole reason for our trip (aside from escaping the wet Pacific Northwest): backpacking into Havasupai Falls. Would it live up to the hype?
P.S. I now know that we drove down Road 43 from Coral Pink Sand Dunes to connect with County Highway 237/East Cane Beds Road to hit 389 if you think you might want to try the same route.
P.S.S. You can read more about and see more pictures of Pipe Spring and Horseshoe Bend in the following pages:
P.S.S.S. You don’t have to write me in defense of cows and how the bulls would defend them and how there really ARE a few pockets of wild cows left in the world. Even though you can find plenty of support on the internet from PETA and Mother Nature Network that cows are smarter than your dog and even have best friends, I still can’t think of them as very intelligent animals and that is probably the reason for my weird mind ramble about wild cows.