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A road trip through canyon country

The Grand Canyon isn't Arizona's only majestic presence: head northeast for such low-key gems as Sunset Crater, Lower Antelope Canyon and the Petrified Forest.

August 09, 2009|Jason La

ARIZONA — An Arizona road trip? Why not? Last winter, a college friend and I visited the Grand Canyon, one of the country's most celebrated treasures. In late April, we decided to return to check out Arizona's northeastern corner, which seemed speckled with less-visited wonders and, I hoped, a few hidden gems.

I didn't have grand expectations for our itinerary. After all, what could be as breathtaking as the 6-million-year-old chasm, especially as I had seen it, dusted by snow and illuminated by the last rays of daylight? The answer, I soon learned, was plenty.

Using Flagstaff as our jumping-off point, we decided to meander north on U.S. Highway 89. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument wasn't part of the plan, but a roadside sign announcing it caught our attention. Its name intrigued me, and I thought maybe this could be one of our hidden gems.

Day 1

The colorful 3,040-acre park is easily enjoyed in relative solitude. Black rock with touches of green and yellow lichen covers most of the Bonito Lava Flow, near the park entrance. Red and orange glaze the top of Sunset Crater volcano, the park's namesake. Legend has it that 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell gave the crater its name because he thought its rim resembled a sunset.

Just up the road from Sunset Crater is Wupatki National Monument, with picturesque scenery and pueblo ruins. The largest of these is the Wupatki Pueblo, which in the 12th century had 100 rooms holding as many residents. You can tour the pueblo grounds, including the ball court and community room.

Worth a visit? Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano national monuments charm, but they didn't enchant me. I wouldn't plan a trip just to these two, but they're great stops on the way to the Grand Canyon or southern Utah. Together, they offer two distinct experiences for the price of one detour.

Day 2

From Sunset Crater and Wupatki, we drove two hours north on U.S. 89, heading for Horseshoe Bend. Although it's part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, nothing about it suggests anything remarkable. You can barely find it from the highway. The parking lot is small and dusty. Furry caterpillars meander across the 3/4 -mile trail. But if you trudge on, what you encounter is nothing short of amazing.

Vistas from the cliff's edge offer crisp views of the Colorado River 1,000 feet below as it cuts a horseshoe shape into the land. Greenery lines the river on both sides as reddish-orange and yellow rock strata rise from the banks.

Seeing Horseshoe Bend recalled the wonder I felt gazing at the Grand Canyon for the first time. Though the latter's magnitude makes comparison difficult, I appreciated that I could take in Horseshoe Bend in one gulp.

Worth a visit? Yes, definitely. But again, make it a stop on a larger trip. You would be hard-pressed to spend more than an hour or two at Horseshoe Bend. The view is stunning, but aside from the trail to the edge of the cliff, the area doesn't lend itself to hiking. For a complete experience, pair Horseshoe Bend with nearby Antelope Canyon.

"Where is it?" I asked myself, waiting for our guide to lead us into Lower Antelope Canyon. Off state Highway 98 on Navajo land about 11 miles east of Horseshoe Bend, it looks like any other stretch of desert. But descending into this canyon, you feel as if you've stepped into an elaborate art installation.

The slot canyon's walls, formed from sandstone, convulse into elaborate abstract shapes. Light shines unevenly inside, casting bright patches in some places and shadows in others. Every turn you take yields a new sight.

Not for the passive walker, Lower Antelope Canyon is an interactive experience. You climb and squeeze your way through. Some sections are so narrow that only one person at a time can pass. At the steepest points, visitors can continue only with the aid of metal stairs.

Worth a visit? Yes. I dare say I enjoyed Lower Antelope Canyon more than the Grand Canyon. You can hike here. The photographic opportunities are terrific. Surprisingly, there were few tourists even though we visited midday when the sun's angle creates ideal light conditions. Upper Antelope Canyon, more popular because of its easier trail, probably lured them away.

Access to the canyons, which make up the Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park, is by guided tours only, which start at $20, not including the $6 admission. Our guide was fairly relaxed, so we could roam as we pleased.

We jumped back on 98, heading east for about three hours to U.S. Highway 163, where we saw enormous rock formations rise as we neared the Arizona-Utah border. The towering presence of Monument Valley amid the flat landscape made me feel as though I had stumbled on the land of giants.

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