Eight Unforgettable Days in Arizona & New Mexico
Arizona, one of America's most colorful states with its stunning red peaks, golden hills, and psychedelic sunsets. Home to one of the most dramatic geologic creations on Earth, ancient volcanoes and lava flows, towering peaks, colorful badlands, petrified forests and so much more. Nearly 85% of its more than 110,000 square miles comprises national forests, national parks, recreation and wilderness areas, wildlife preserves, and Native American reservations. The Grand Canyon State also possesses the largest contiguous stand of ponderosa pines in the world. It also contains the most national monuments of any state in the country, tied with California at 18. On this unforgettable adventure you'll visit two national parks, six national monuments, explore ancient Native American ruins, drive along the world famous Route 66, view incredible petroglyphs, walk the rim of a volcano, navigate through underground lava tubes, hike into some of the most beautiful caves found in the American Southwest, and a ton more. The best time of year for this one is generally late September through early November when temperatures have cooled a bit. A high clearance vehicle such as a standard SUV is highly recommended as is an America The Beautiful park pass which will save you a decent chunk on park fees in the long run.
The map below illustrates nearly all of the stops on this adventure and clicking on each waypoint previews the photos found throughout the article.
Day 1: Lost Dutchman State Park
Flatiron via Siphon Draw - 5.6 miles/2,600'
Soldier Pass Cave + Devil's Kitchen - 3.1 miles/600'
Begin your adventure with a fairly short but steep hike up Siphon Draw to Flatiron in Lost Dutchman State Park forty minutes east of downtown Phoenix. Often regarded as the best hike in the Superstition Mountains, this one packs in some incredible views, but you'll have to work for them. An easy first mile is followed up with a whole lot of low class scrambling before reaching Flatiron, the prominent peak pictured below. Some of the best views can be seen just prior to the top when the view of Flatiron's sheer cliff can be seen to your right during the ascent. Don't underestimate this one. It's challenging, but worth every step and the views are ridiculous all the way up. There's a cash only self pay station at the trailhead as a heads up. One of our favorite hikes in the state for sure. When you get about two-thirds of the way up and you question which way to go, stay left. Seriously, stay left.
After, head two and a half hours north into Sedona and set up for the next couple days. There are several excellent campgrounds in the area if you plan on camping. Cave Spring & Pine Flat are located a mile from each other along Rt 89A and worth checking out. A lesser known campground with immaculate bathrooms, hot showers, and paid wifi is Camp Avalon located just outside of Red Rock State Park. Any of these three are great options, but none have electricity.
A great first hike in Sedona is Soldier Pass Cave. The easiest way to the cave is along what AllTrails lists as the Soldier Pass Cave Spur Trail which follows an OHV road before joining the Soldier Pass Trail and ultimately the cave pictured below.
The entire trail is surrounded by Sedona's beautiful red rock formations before reaching a slot at the base of the cave. An easy climb up leads to two narrow ledges and a window to the left. The ledges are wide enough to walk on without issue, but a fall would end your trip short for sure. On your return you'll have the option to take the Tea Cup spur trail to Devil's Kitchen, a large sinkhole near the base of the Sphinx formation. This adds roughly 0.3 miles to the hike and is included in the mileage listed above. Very simple if you have the AllTrails map to follow.
It's worth mentioning that trailhead parking is closed Thursday through Sunday, but can be accessed via free shuttle. Also worth noting, the shuttles do not wait a minute past stated departure times, so if you do take a shuttle make sure you're back at the trailhead in time. Parking is open Monday through Wednesday, but is limited to fourteen or so spots and parking on the nearby residential streets is prohibited.
If you're interested in catching sunset somewhere after, two great options are Schnebly Hill Road Vista and Merry Go Round Rock or near Airport Mesa, but both come with some caveats. Schnebly Road should only be driven in a high clearance vehicle since the road is very rough and impassible even with standard SUVs. Schnebly Road Vista and Merry Go Round Rock are probably the best sunset spots in Sedona, but they're a challenge to get to and take some time. Airport Mesa Overlook comes with hoards of people and requires a fee to park, so we like a lesser known but equally impressive view nearby. If you're able to snag one of the few spots at the Sedona Airport Loop Trailhead located just below the main Airport Mesa lot, head uphill a short distance and you'll have a similar view without the masses. This is hands down the way to go if you're interested in a sunset near Airport Mesa, but don't want to deal with the crowds.
Day 2: Sedona
Devil's Bridge - 4 miles/500'
The Subway - 6 miles/1,000'
Birthing Cave - 2 miles/300'
We're pretty big fans of sunrise hikes in Sedona and one of the best around is Devil's Bridge in Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness. There are multiple ways of reaching it, but we prefer starting from the Mescal Trailhead which takes you through a more forested, far less crowded area than any other route and is great in the dark with a headlamp. In the cooler months when overnight temps dip below freezing, agave cacti form frost at their tips and appear to glow when light hits them. It's an amazing sight to see. Trail elevation gain is gentle until just before the bridge when it steepens a fair amount. This is a very popular hike in Sedona, so don't expect to have the bridge to yourself unless you get there before sunrise and even then it's a gamble. The photo below was just before sunrise, luckily before anyone else had reached the top. Brins Butte can be seen in the distance, dead center.
The photo below was minutes after the sun had broken the horizon and was lighting up Mescal Mountain in the background. By this time there were about two dozen people standing off to the left waiting to get photos on the bridge, so the earlier you get there the better off you'll be. For more info check out our Hike to Sedona's Devil's Bridge.
About two miles away you'll find the Boynton Canyon Trailhead, the starting point for The Subway. The lot fills up quickly, so in the likely event that you're not able to find a spot, parking is permitted along each side of Boynton Pass Rd. It'll be noticeable where you can park when you get there. If you are able to snag a spot in the parking lot you'll need to display a Red Rock Pass or America The Beautiful Pass on your windshield to avoid getting ticketed. The trail is fairly uneventful and runs next to housing and lodging developments for a decent chunk, but at 2.0 miles in you'll come to an alligator skin tree to your left and a spur trail to your right. If you're using the Boynton Canyon Trail on AllTrails you can't miss it - the spur trail is noted in the app. Hang a right here and follow the spur for about 0.4 miles to reach the entrance to The Subway. Here you'll find a steep slab of rock leading up between two rock faces. The photo below was taken from the top of that rock slab looking back out towards the way we came in. It's pretty simple. Also, make sure to check out the Sinagua ruins nearby which can be reached by walking around the corner from where I'm standing in the photo below. This is a very busy trail and even worse in the cave, but it's worth the noise in our opinion.
A great easy hike for later in the day is Birthing Cave. Some claim that Hopi women used to visit the cave to give birth to their children, but we've not found any solid information backing this up. Regardless, it's still a pretty cool hike and comes with minimal effort. Parking is roadside and generally easy to find if you use the AllTrails app directions. Once at the top of the cave you'll find a small nook in the back of the cave. If you're able to climb up the fairly slippery rock to get inside it and have a wide angle lens you'll get a photo similar to what we snagged below. The cave is inside Mescal Mountain and the view is looking back in the general direction of where Devil's Bridge is located.
Sunsets inside the cave are often excellent, so keep that in mind when planning. For more info on the hike check out our Hike to Sedona's Birthing Cave article. If you're heading back into town for dinner, a few spots worth considering are Picazzo's, Pisa Lisa, Mesa Grill, and Elote Cafe.
Day 3: Grand Canyon
Cathedral Rock - 1.2 miles/750'
South Kaibab to Cedar Ridge - 3.4 miles/1,100'
Another awesome sunrise hike is Cathedral Rock, one of Sedona's most famous red rock formations. Like Soldier Pass, trailhead parking is prohibited Thursday through Sunday so you'll need to utilize the free shuttle if this is on one of those days. This adventure was really geared to start on a Saturday, so if you can swing that you'll have no problem getting to the lot on Monday for sunrise. Like The Subway, a Red Rock Pass or America The Beautiful Pass should be displayed on your windshield to avoid getting ticketed. The trail's large rock cairns are very easy to follow, even in the dark, and lead you all the way to the top. At the top you'll find an end of trail sign at which point you'll want to hang a right to reach the ledge pictured below. You'll often find hot air balloons launching for sunrise rides so keep an eye out for those as well.
A spot that most people miss out on when hiking Cathedral Rock is the vortex area which is exceptional at sunrise. If you were standing in front of the end of trail sign mentioned above you'd make a left to get to the vortex. A hundred feet or so after the end of trail sign you'll find a short and easy scramble leading to where the photo below was taken. If you're looking to photograph these spots we recommend getting to the ledge before the sun breaks the horizon and the vortex area after. The lighting is better along the ledge prior to sunrise and this also buys the sun time to rise a bit so you can capture it rising along the spire in the vortex.
After, begin the two and a half hour drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Just outside of Sedona, at the top of the Rt 89A switchbacks, you'll find the Oak Creek Vista which is worth a stop and short walk for one final view of the Sedona area. It's a really great overlook. Soon after the vista, Humphreys Peak, Arizona's tallest peak at 12,637', comes into view and stays there for a bit. About a dozen miles after you turn onto US-40 from Rt 89A you'll pass by the Pine Breeze Inn where famous scenes from the 1969 movie classic Easy Rider were filmed. It's a cool little roadside attraction worthy of a stop if you're a fan of the movie.
After arriving at your hotel or campground pack up for an amazing sunset hike in the Grand Canyon. We highly recommend taking the South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Wash, but since parking isn't permitted at the trailhead you'll have to do one of two things to get there. The first option is taking the Kaibab Rim (orange line) shuttle from the Visitor Center Shuttle Bus Terminal to the South Kaibab Trailhead and then back to the terminal after your hike. The problem with this option is that the last pickup time at the South Kaibab Trailhead is thirty minutes after sunset and that doesn't give you a whole lot of time to really enjoy sunset from below. The better option is parking along Rt 64/Desert View Dr at coordinates 36.047117, -112.088801 and hiking to the trailhead. Parking is permitted here, adds 0.3 miles to the hike each way, and is figured into the mileage above. The Arizona Trail (AZT) crosses over Rt 64 at these coordinates and heading north along it leads right to the South Kaibab Trailhead. Super easy and you won't be pressed to get back in time.
On your descent to Cedar Ridge you'll pass Ooh Aah Point, one of the most photographed places on the South Kaibab, before reaching Cedar Ridge. Our favorite spot along this hike though is the flat section of trail just below Ooh Aah Point, pictured above. O'Neill Butte, named after legendary Rough Rider Bucky O'Neill, is the prominent butte to the right of the trail. On your way back up, during the ascent through the switchbacks near the trailhead, make sure to look out into the canyon as often as possible. The view just after the sun has set is often remarkable. If you're looking for a spot to grab dinner after in Tusayan, Plaza Bonita is solid. In fact it's the only restaurant we've ever been to throughout our half dozen trips to the Grand Canyon. Big burritos.
Day 4: Wupatki National Monument & Shit Pot Crater
Shoshone Point - 2 miles/150'
Wupatki Pueblo - 0.7 miles/80'
Wukoki Pueblo - 0.3 miles/flat
SP Crater - 1.6 miles/900'
Moenave Dinosaur Tracksite
Sunrises in the Grand Canyon are just as beautiful as sunsets and the overlook that we always recommend to people is Shoshone Point. The views are drop-dead gorgeous and come with far fewer, if any crowds at all. A flat one mile hike along a dirt service road surrounded by ponderosa pines is all that's required to get there, but bring layers as it tends to be windy at the overlook. And, while the masses are gathered at spots like Mather, Hopi, Yaki, and Yavapai, you'll likely have this gem all to yourself. Newton Butte is the prominent formation just below and slightly west of Shoshone Point, and the pyramidal peak in the distance is Vishnu Temple, named after the Hindu deity and redeemer of the universe, Vishnu. It's a breathtaking sight.
On your way out of the Grand Canyon you'll pass Grandview Point, Moran Point, and Navajo Point, all exceptional viewpoints, before reaching the Desert View Watchtower. Designed by Mary Colter, one of the few female architects of her era, the watchtower was constructed in 1932 based on the architecture of the Ancestral Puebloans of the Southwest. Its first floor Kiva Room serves as a gift shop and if the upper portions of the tower ever open back up they're one of the best stops in the entire park.
Just beside Desert View Watchtower you'll find a memorial to the Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site. On June 30, 1956, a United DC-7 and a TWA Super Constellation maneuvered around towering cumulus clouds attempting to give passengers more impressive views of the canyon, but collided killing all 128 passengers and crew. For the next several decades crash remains were found inside the canyon, eerie reminders of the fateful day. Within walking distance of the watchtower and memorial are the Desert View Trading Post which offers authentic handmade Hopi pottery, jewelry, coffee and breakfast items, and the Desert View Market & Deli which serves as a general store and lunch counter later in the day.
After, head an hour east to Wupatki National Monument, an Ancestral Puebloan farming settlement built between 1100 AD and 1200 AD, and abandoned by 1225 AD. The settlement was established shortly after the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater which blanketed the area in volcanic ash, improving agricultural productivity and the soil's ability to retain water. At its height, the settlement was inhabited by more than 2,000 Cohonina, Kayenta, and Sinagua. More than 800 settlement sites have been discovered here and none more famous than the Wupatki Pueblo, a pueblo containing more than 100 rooms, including a community room, above ground kiva, and the northernmost ballcourt ever discovered in North America. It's unlikely that the pueblo housed anyone, rather serving as a gathering place for those living throughout the settlement. The best way to experience the Wupatki Pueblo is stopping at the visitor center, purchasing a pueblo trail guide for a couple bucks, and walking the self-guided tour through the complex. Don't miss the signed petroglyph to the right of the main structure or the ancient blowhole not far from the ballcourt at the far end of the complex.
Three miles from Wupatki Pueblo lies the Wukoki Pueblo, one of the best preserved prehistoric structures within the national monument. Unlike the Wupatki Pueblo, the three-story, seven room Wukoki has not been reconstructed and to this day the Hopi believe that those who lived and died in Wukoki remain as its spiritual guardians. Also unlike Wupatki, visitors are free to walk through certain areas of the pueblo. Impressive views of Sunset Crater and the neighboring San Francisco Peaks can be had to the southwest from here.
About 30 minutes from Wupatki National Monument on the northern edge of the San Francisco volcanic field lies a nearly 900' tall cinder cone with a fairly unflattering name. Today it's known as SP Crater, but it wasn't always called SP Crater. For upwards of 70,000 years it didn't have a name at all, but that all changed in the 1880s when rancher and landowner CJ Babbit gave it the name Shit Pot Crater. Mr Babbit felt as though it resembled a chamber pot, or shit pot. The name stuck with locals, but mapmakers were not so pleased and decided to abbreviate the name to what is now the accepted SP Crater. One of the great things about SP Crater is that it's hikeable. Even better, once you're at the top along the rim you'll have a bonkers view of the lava flow that erupted from its base and traveled 4.5 miles eastward tens of thousands of years ago. It's a fairly steep hike to the top and involves ascending loose pumice for a third of the hike, but the views up top are incredible. The lava flow can be viewed from the lower in elevation northern rim and Humphreys Peak, Sunset Crater and several of the other 600 extinct volcanoes belonging to the San Francisco volcanic field can be viewed from the higher in elevation southern rim. AllTrails has a half right trail map to reach the summit. The starting point is accurate, but once you crown the abandoned service road that doubles as a hiking trail keep your eyes peeled for a visible trail that leads up the volcano. It'll all make sense when you get there and you're all but guaranteed to have an incredible experience. The photo below was when we were on the northwestern side of the rim looking down on the lava flow and the road ranchers cut through it more than a century ago.
About 45 minutes away from SP Crater you'll find the Moenave Dinosaur Tracksite. Use Google Maps to get you there and once you've arrived park next to the half dozen or so Navajo jewelry stands to the left. The tracksite is immediately behind the stands and goes on for more than a quarter mile. The tracksite is on public land and does not require a guide or fee, however the Navajo will offer to show you around for a cash donation. Feel free to do so, but just know that nearly all of the information they give is inaccurate. Regardless, there are hundreds upon hundreds of 200 million-year-old dinosaur tracks throughout the site, mostly of what appear to be Grallator prints.
After, continue west to Chinle, Arizona and grab a hotel for the night. The Thunderbird Lodge is a good no frills option just inside the entrance to Canyon De Chelly National Monument. We highly recommend against the campgrounds in this area, including Spider Rock Campground. Poorly managed and very run down.
Day 5: Canyon De Chelly National Monument & Chaco Canyon
Canyon De Chelly Overlooks
Una Vida Ruins & Petroglyphs - 0.5 miles/flat
Pueblo Bonito & Chetro Ketl - 1.4 miles/flat
Pueblo Bonito Overlook - 2.5 miles/260'
There are several overlooks along the South Rim of Canyon De Chelly (pronounced De Shay), and the two we highly recommend spending time at are Spider Rock and Face Rock. Sunrise at Spider Rock is borderline spiritual and should not be missed. Google Maps has a tendency to tell you that you've arrived at the parking area when you're actually a quarter mile from it, so if that happens just keep going and you'll dead end into it soon enough. There are railings along much of the walk leading to the overlook, but you'll find large gaps in them where you can get a great view along the edge similar to that in the photo we took below.
After Spider Rock head to the Face Rock parking area and take the short, well-marked trail to the overlook where you'll find four viewing scopes pointing at various cliff dwellings. The viewing scopes don't have lenses in them, but without them there the ruins would be pretty tough to spot. Binoculars can really help here. The Navajo have inhabited the canyon for more than 5,000 years and in addition to the ancient ruins, views of their current farms and buildings can be seen below from the overlook as well. There are several other overlooks, but none that pack the punch that these two do in our opinion. If you were to add another day onto the trip and wedge it in after today, you can pay the Navajo take you on an overnight hiking trip through the canyon which we've heard nothing but incredible things about, but haven't done ourselves. There are also shorter excursions inside the canyon that can be taken with a Navajo guide, but even those would add on another day. Something to think about though.
After exploring the overlooks you have a three hour drive to reach Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Getting there can be a bit cumbersome if you allow Google Maps to lead you there from the overlooks. For some reason they want you to venture down a rutted dirt road that's a nightmare to drive on and in wet conditions would likely be impassable. We're no strangers to rough roads, but thirty miles on that road is no bueno. Instead, head back into Chinle and pull up Google Maps from there. This will give you a new route that is all highway, zero shitty rutted dirt roads, and total drive time is almost identical. The last 20 miles of Rt 57 into Chaco Canyon are pretty rough and best suited for high clearance vehicles. Standard SUVs are good. Once you arrive at the visitor center grab self-guided trail guides for Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl. They're a couple bucks each and absolutely make the experience more interesting. It's the same concept as Wupatki. They also have some damn good New Mexico/Southwestern cookbooks if you're into cooking. A good thing to know about the park is that the main attractions all fall along the one way Canyon Loop Rd starting at the visitor center, so stopping to see them in order will save you time.
Kick things off from the visitor center and pick up the short trail to the Una Vida ruins and petroglyphs. The petroglyphs can be found at the end of a very short and signed spur trail behind the ruins. As you return from the petroglyphs you'll notice Fajada Butte, a 400' tall butte that sits in the distance slightly to the right of the visitor center. Back in 1977 an artist performing a survey of rock art on the butte discovered ancient solar event petroglyphs now known as the Sun Dagger Site. The entire butte is now off limits to visitors and is considered a sacred site to Native Americans, but it's worth mentioning.
After returning from Una Vida, head down Canyon Loop Rd to Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, the two most famous pueblos in the park. Often considered as historically important as England's Stonehenge and Peru's Machu Picchu, Pueblo Bonito is the largest great house in Chaco Canyon. Planned and built in stages between 850 AD to 1150 AD, this work of art has more than 800 rooms, more than 30 kivas, and a large central courtyard covering 3 acres. Interior walls show exposed timbers once used as roofs and aligned doorways display the craftsmanship its builders possessed.
It's estimated that more than 800,000 man-hours were required to construct the pueblo which means if it's builders were to work 24-hours per day, 365 days per year it would have taken more than 90 years to complete. It's an absolutely mind-blowing achievement and you could easily spend a half day or more exploring it alone.
After exploring Pueblo Bonito, follow the trail behind the rear wall where you'll find petroglyphs, marks from sharpening tools, and holes used in shelter construction notched into the adjacent cliffs. The trail leads to Chetro Ketl, another great house and largest by area in Chaco Canyon. Also built in stages between 990 AD to 1075 AD, it is estimated that more than 500,000 man-hours were required to complete its 500 rooms. Chetro Ketl's great kiva, located at the front of the pueblo, measures more than 60' in diameter and the deep red cast visible along its masonry wall gives evidence that intentional fires were used inside during prehistoric times.
Near the northern end of the pueblo you'll find a two-story room behind a glass-fronted door displaying the upper-story section of a multi-storied room block that contains the original plaster and floor/roof coverings. Chocoan builders applied a decorative mural to the east wall of the room that contains a geometric design in shades of green and blue.
After exploring the two massive pueblos from ground level, continue down Canyon Loop Rd a half mile to the Pueblo Bonito Overlook Trail. Shortly after the trailhead you'll encounter Pueblo Del Arroyo, a large pueblo at the center of Chaco Canyon, followed by a tame scramble up and through a crack in the face of the cliffs. Make sure to turn back and get an elevated view of Pueblo Del Arroyo from here. From the top of the scramble to the overlook it's a very gentle walk with a huge reward at the end. From the cliffs you're finally able to get your hands wrapped around the scope of the pueblo's size.
The trail leading away from Pueblo Bonito towards the cliffs leads to Wetherill Cemetery, a historic cemetery with the remains of several Navajo, Richard Wetherill, and others. Wetherill came to Chaco Canyon in 1896, set up a trading post at Pueblo Bonito and excavated the site. If you're interested in a really awesome read about an interesting find in Pueblo Bonito check out the book House of the Cylinder Jars: Room 28 in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon by Patricia Crown. The visitor center sells it but it can be found online as well. When you're ready to call it a day, head two hours south to Grants, New Mexico and grab a hotel for the night. El Malpais Visitor Center is located in Grants and since you'll need to pick up a permit there tomorrow morning it just makes sense to crash here for the night. It's worth noting that even on weekend evenings the restaurants in Grants close pretty early, so if you're hungry find something along the way or you'll be relegated to fast food when you get into town. And, whatever you do don't stay at the Sands Motel.
Day 6: El Malpais National Monument & Petrified Forest National Park
Big Tubes - 1.5 mile/150'
El Morro National Monument Loop - 1.8 miles/300'
Crystal Forest - 0.9 miles/flat
Giant Logs - 0.5 miles/flat
The first adventure of the day is one of the most memorable we've had in all our years exploring the country. The Big Tubes Trail in El Malpais National Monument is bonkers cool. It can be a bit of a challenge to get to but the juice is worth the squeeze. You'll first need a free caving permit from the El Malpais Visitor Center, so make sure to pick that up before leaving Grants. Once you turn onto Lava Tubes Rd from CR-42 the road becomes somewhat gnarly but nothing a standard SUV couldn't handle in dry conditions. However, it and the latter part of CR-42 may be impassable if it's recently rained or snowed. The rangers at the visitor center in Grants can give you an idea of the road conditions before you venture out. The trail itself consists of hiking over an ancient lava field where cairns generally lead you in the right direction, but having the AllTrails map can really help in some spots. When you reach the Caterpillar Collapse, a massive trench created from a lava tube collapse, Big Skylight Cave will be immediately to your right. It can be accessed from the far side of the trench and requires minor rock scrambling to get inside.
After exploring Big Skylight, make sure to check out Four Windows Cave a bit further along the trail. This was by far the coolest cave on the trail for us. Enter by climbing down from the side closest to you when you arrive at the opening. After that you just have to climb over the rocks and down into the cave.
There are numerous skylights in the top of the cave from portions of the roof collapsing over the years and scarring along the sides of the cave, evidence of lava flow. In the back right corner of the cave you find an underground lava tube which you can follow as far back as you like. It's pitch black inside so a headlamp or flashlight is necessary inside the lava tube. We went back several hundred yards before turning around, but it's got to go back considerably farther. Don't cheat yourself by not going through the lava tube. It's really awesome.
After, return the way you hiked in or complete the loop as described on AllTrails. Next up, El Morro National Monument, but getting there kinda blows. There are two roads that connect the Big Tubes Area with Ramah, New Mexico, Plum Rd and Big Pines Rd, and Plum Rd sucks hard. Any SUV can make it, just take it slow. You're looking at roughly 45 minutes from the trailhead to El Morro National Monument.
One of New Mexico's thirteen national monuments, El Morro was once home to more than 500 Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited a more than 350 room mesa-top pueblo somewhere around 1275 AD to 1350 AD. A pool of water at the base of the mesa subsequently served as a natural landmark for explorers and travelers who over the centuries left personal inscriptions that still survive today. The earliest inscription, pictured below, was left by Juan de Onate, the first Spanish governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, dated April 16, 1605. The loop trail leads hikers beside Inscription Rock and the pool of water, and up to the top of the mesa to view the nearly 1,000 year-old ruins. Like Chaco Canyon, El Morro is also one of the stops along New Mexico's Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway.
The Lewis Trading Post is 10 minutes west of El Morro and a good spot to grab a sandwich, snacks, drinks, supplies, etc. The Ramah Cliff Dwellings are only 5 minutes from the trading post and worth a stop if you have time. From there you're about an hour and a half from Petrified Forest National Park. We highly recommend stopping by the Painted Desert Inn, located just inside the park entrance, if for nothing else to get a glimpse of the large mountain lion petroglyph on display. Discovered in the 1930s, it's widely considered one of the finest depictions of a mountain lion in the Four Corners Region.
After, head 30 minutes south to the Crystal Forest Trail for one of the more amazing national park trails in the country in our opinion. A paved trail leads visitors through an area with arguably the most remarkably colored 200 million-year-old fossilized wood segments in the park, if not the world. If there's one hike in this park to jump on this is it.
The Giant Logs Loop is on your way out of the park and a worthwhile stop. The loop isn't as spectacular as the Crystal Forest, so if you're pressed on time at least make it to the large tree pictured below which is near the start of the trail. If you have more time in the park, Blue Mesa is a good easy hike later in the evening.
The town of Holbrook is a great place to call home for the night. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants, and it sets you up for an easy drive in the morning.
Day 7: Meteor Crater & Montezuma Castle National Monument
Apache Death Cave
Island Trail - 0.7 miles/250'
Montezuma Castle National Monument - 1.1 miles/100'
Thirty minutes into your drive from Holbrook to Meteor Crater you'll pass through Winslow, Arizona and if you're an Eagles fan you can't miss the opportunity to stand on the corner of 2nd St and N Kinsley Ave beside the red flatbed Ford. If you don't understand what we're talking about with this one, throw on the tune "Take It Easy" and get schooled on one of the greatest rock songs ever written.
Another thirty minutes down US-40 and you'll arrive at Meteor Crater National Landmark. This experience is all what you make of it. If you pay the entrance fee and just go up to the crater you might be disappointed. We recommend watching the 9-minute video in the theater and checking out the exhibits throughout the facility. It's a pretty remarkable story and the staff are really enthusiastic to talk with visitors about the landmark's wild history. Make sure to ask a staff member where the basket meteor is. Cool story. Our expectations were fairly low and we were pleasantly surprised. You may notice ruins to the left when exiting US-40 for Meteor Crater Rd. They're actually ruins of a home owned by a scalper who used to sell fake meteorite pieces to travelers in the 1950s. The story we were given was that the family who owned Meteor Crater at the time chased him away with death threats. After the douche canoe left town the home was destroyed as a message to others not to scam would be Meteor Crater customers.
A short 10 minute drive along US-40 from Meteor Crater lands you in the ghost town of Two Guns and the home of the Apache Death Cave. The story here goes, in 1878, a group of Apache raiders attacked two Navajo camps near the Little Colorado River, killing everyone but three Navajo girls who were subsequently kidnapped. Upon learning of the attack, Navajo leaders sent a group of men to avenge the fallen camp, but were initially unsuccessful as the Apache seemed to have vanished into thin air after the attack. While searching along the edge of Canyon Diablo the Navajo noticed voices and warm air rising up from a fissure in the ground. Upon further investigation they discovered the voices and warm air were coming from the Apache raiders hiding in a cavern beneath them. After finding the mouth of the cave they scavenged up what they could, lit it all on fire, and threw it into the cave intending to smoke out the Apache and rescue the girls. Those who tried to escape were killed and when it was found that the Navajo girls were already dead, it was decided that all of the Apache remaining in the cave were to be killed. After the trapped Apache had used up all of their water attempting to extinguish the fire, they cut the throats of their horses, used the blood to douse out the flames, and piled up the corpses near the cave entrance to hold off the Navajo. The Navajo showed no mercy, continuing to fuel the fire by throwing more sagebrush into the fissure. After the fire burned out and the smoke cleared, the Navajo broke through the barrier of charred horse corpses, stripped the forty-two dead Apache of their valuables, and left their bodies behind. From that point on, it's said that no Apache has used that cave for any reason. Local tribes later warned would-be pioneers about the cave, saying that the land around it was cursed, but settlers often passed off the stories as superstition.
The Apache Death Cave is a waypoint on Google Maps, so once you arrive look for the building in the photo above. It'll be to your left and easy to spot. A makeshift ladder leads down to the entrance of the cave and after that it's as far as you're willing to go. It gets super tight in some spots and in others requires a crawl, but it's pretty awesome given the story behind it. The photo below is in one of the main chambers of the cave. It's pitch black in most of the cave so bring a headlamp or flashlight. There are also a number of other ruins within eyesight, but nothing worth a stop other than an old outhouse with a wooden crapper seat still intact.
Thirty minutes from the Apache Death Cave you'll encounter Walnut Canyon National Monument and the Island Trail. One of the more beautiful canyons in the state, Walnut Canyon features steep walls and petrified sand dunes littered with hundreds of ancient Native American ruins, many of which you can walk through. You'll be able to spot ruins in seemingly every direction at all times on the trail which is what makes this one so special.
After, head an hour south to reach what many consider to be the grandest of all of Arizona's national monuments, Montezuma Castle National Monument. Perched nearly 100' up a sheer cliff, the five-story ruins were once home to the Sinagua people who inhabited the region around 1100 AD until 1425 AD. Built over three centuries, it features twenty rooms and housed up to as many as fifty people. Contrary to the name, the monument has no ties to the Aztec emperor Montezuma who wasn't even born until about forty years after the dwellings were abandoned, but was named so with the mistaken belief that he had been responsible for the site. A short paved walkway from the visitor leads you to several really great views of the structure.
Fifteen minutes north of the visitor center is the Montezuma Well Trail which leads to a sinkhole fed by an underground spring that was used by the Sinagua for irrigation as early as 700 AD. Several ruins can be found nestled in the cliffs above the well which make it an interesting stop. We missed out on this one our first time through, but were really happy after stopping during subsequent visits to the monument.
Phoenix is about an hour and a half south of here and worth calling home for the night especially if you're interested in doing a sunrise hike up Piestewa Peak tomorrow morning. If you do spend the night in Phoenix and can get in before they close, we highly recommend going to Fry Bread House for dinner. It was the first Native American owned restaurant to win the prestigious James Beard Award, in 2012 and is lights out good.
Day 8: Phoenix
Piestewa Peak Summit Trail #300 - 2.4 miles/1,100'
South Mountain Preserve Petroglyphs - 0.3 miles/flat
Piestewa Peak is one of the busiest trails we've ever been on not named Angels Landing (pre-2022), but even with the crowds it's still worth your time. It's fairly steep the entire way up, but the views are great and well worth the effort. It's incredible for sunrise and sunset, but is solid any time of day. Most people congregate to the left when you reach the top, but if heights don't bother you it's worth heading to the right as far as you're comfortable going. You can find quite a few spots that most aren't willing to venture out to where you can get some privacy and peace and quiet.
If you have time to kill today and are looking for ways to fill up your time, South Mountain Park & Preserve, located 25 minutes south of Piestewa Peak, has a small panel of interesting petroglyphs worth checking out. You'll want to use the Desert Classic Trail on AllTrails as your starting point, head left at the trailhead bathrooms, and in about 100 yards you'll find the panel pictured below behind a small split rail fence.
Another good option is the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve, located 25 minutes north of Phoenix, where you'll find tons of ancient petroglyphs along a short interpretive trail. It's operated by Arizona State University, requires a fee to enter, and also features a small museum filled with Native American pottery, hunting tools, and more. The only knock is that the facility and trail closes midday and viewing the petroglyphs can be challenging early in the day when the sun is in your eyes.
And that's Eight Unforgettable Days in Arizona & New Mexico. Enjoy, have a blast, and make memories!