Southwest Road Trip for First-Timers [part one]
This is story narrative on a Southwest Road Trip that should be a great read for anyone wanting to do a road trip around the Southwest. Be sure to watch the video below. This is part one, at the bottom of this post is a link that will take you to part two, along with the 2nd episode in this Southwest Road Trip series.
Last year Mihaela (Miha) Popa of WorldTravelBug.com took me on an incredible Romania road trip of her home country. This year, it was my turn to return the favor and take this first-timer to the Southwest on an epic road trip adventure. After a couple months of planning, our destination date was quickly upon us. With a three week-road trip of the Southwest all planned out, our first stop was to pick up our RV rental from Cruise America in Mesa, Arizona. As we loaded up the RV with food and other supplies, the excitement to hit the road was rousing our spirits.
Apache Junction and the Lost Dutchman State Park
Our first destination was just a few miles east in Apache Junction where we would call the Lost Dutchman State Park home for the next two nights. We arrived late afternoon with time to get accustomed to hooking up the RV and organizing our belongings. With our housekeeping tasks completed, we went off to explore the glorious park, which is located at the base of the majestic Superstition Mountains.
It was a wonderful first evening with pleasant springtime temperatures, many cacti in bloom, and one of those famous Arizona sunsets.
The next day we pulled up camp, or rather, unhooked the RV from its tether to modern conveniences, to explore the Apache Junction area. We started off by heading down the famed Apache Trail (Hwy 88) toward Tortilla Flat, an old stage coach stop turned tourist attraction where you can get some Southwestern trinkets, tasty grub, an ice cream cone, or, leave your mark with an autographed dollar bill, where you’ll find thousands pasted in the rafters of the saloon.
Flowing water covered part of the street, a result from an otherwise dry riverbed overflowing from a recent rainfall. The reflection in the water created some great photo ops that captured Miha’s attention. As a matter of fact, her enthusiasm was palatable. She had never experienced a desert so full of cacti and character before and her shutter finger was ablaze with activity.
After exploring Tortilla Flat a bit we began heading back in the direction we had come, stopping by Canyon Lake, one of four reservoirs formed by the damming of the Salt River in 1925. The lake is known for its wonderful shorelines and red rock cliffs. Boaters wanting scenery and seclusion head to the end of the lake, where it winds through steep canyon walls. There are occasional sightings of Big Horn sheep and other wildlife. If you don’t have your own boat, the Dolly Steamboat offers tours.
As the winding road wove its way through a series of canyons we were soon stopped at Goldfield Ghost Town, where we walked down the dusty Main Street to explore the many shops and historic buildings. Without warning, the jingle of boot spurs and heavy heels stepped off the boardwalk where the sounds of gunfire erupted. We were witness to a genuine ol’ west gun fight performed by the Goldfield Gunfighters! The sound of a train whistle blew from the distance and called our name for a ride around the 1890s town which once boasted three saloons, a boarding house, blacksmith, a general store and more.
Our last stop of the day was to the Superstition Mountain Museum, keepers of all things related to the legends and lore of the area. This is much more than a museum; there are many outdoor artifacts to peruse, including the Elvis Chapel from a nearby movie studio that burned to the ground in 2004 on Valentine’s Day (the anniversary of Arizona’s statehood), leaving behind just a few buildings.
Back at Lost Dutchman State Park we enjoyed some hiking and another wonderful Arizona sunset, before preparing for our next destination.
Canyon De Chelly and a run-in with a Native Navajo
The next day we drove through the beautiful Usery Mountain Park in Mesa, down the Bush Hwy along the Salt River, passing Saguaro Lake (the 2nd of the two lakes created by damming up the river). Soon we were heading north on Hwy 87 toward Payson. Just outside Payson we stopped at the Tonto Natural Bridge, believed to be the largest natural travertine bridge in the world. This is another wonderful Arizona State Park where we had a lovely picnic before heading toward Canyon de Chelly.
It had been a long day with many stops along the way, so we chose to boondock about 30 miles outside of Canyon de Chelly. It took a while to find a good spot, but finally we found a dirt road that wound around a bluff, which provided both privacy as well as insulation from the nearby rural road. There was a ridge just beyond our campsite along with a few nearby trees. We settled in for the night and had a great time fixing dinner, playing a game of chess and watching a movie. It felt just like home, but with the convenience of being on wheels.
The next morning I was outside accessing a storage area of the RV when a small red truck with two Native Americans approached. It was about 7am and it was quickly evident that these two were drunk, or on drugs. Everything they said was nearly incoherent. Thankfully, they soon moved on, but at a very slow pace.
When I entered the RV Miha didn’t even know what had happened as she did not see the truck approach, or hear us talking. I kept my eye on them from a window and saw that they stopped. They soon came back our way and honked the horn. With the confidence of a weapon by my side I opened the door to find out what they wanted. They asked me for something and I just said I didn’t have any. That’s when they verbally exploded, saying things like “Get the fuck off of my property…right now!”
We obliged and I quickly got in the driver’s seat and took off. Unfortunately, Miha did not have time to batten down the hatches and things began to fly across the RV as we drove over the bumpy and uneven terrain. Once we made it to the safety of a public road, we secured everything and headed toward Canyon De Chelly.
The incredible beauty of the park made the incident a distant memory. That was, until we were heading back to the RV from a hike when we encountered another strange character running toward us. It was as if he did not see us at first, but when he did, he quickly came to an abrupt stop. We said a polite hello as we finished taking a few photos, then he started preaching some sort of Jehovah Witness scripture to us. As we continued toward the RV his voice began to trail off as we put more distance between him. Miha was once again shaken.
We continued our sightseeing of the park and Miha was just enamored by the scenery. While at an overlook where we were the only ones present, a car pulled up and another Native American approached us. He was trying to act friendly, but clearly he wanted something from us. He ended up being harmless and just wanted to sell us some of his sandstone carvings. We told him we just purchased a couple (which was true) and thanked him for showing us his work.
Monument Valley is Southwest Road Trip Must!
About 30 minutes south of Monument Valley we found a great place to boondock for the night off a dirt road not far from the Highway 191/160 junction. We had a view of a huge outcropping that stuck out of the ground like a giant spade. In the other direction was an expansive vista, and yet in another direction, a dramatic ridge. While we were not far from the main road of 191, we were nestled within the landscape with no one in sight.
The next morning, just after we packed up and left, we were exiting the dirt road onto paved as a car turned in. We possibly avoided yet another unwelcome encounter.
The short drive to Monument Valley was quite dramatic, so much so we stopped at the 160/163 junction to take a few photos before our final stretch into Monument Valley, which straddles two state lines, Utah to the north and Arizona to the South. We checked into the RV park at Goulding’s, a historic property on the Utah side. Goulding’s is essentially a micro city, with a motel, grocery store, RV Park, laundry facility and all the other makings of a community.
The views from our camp spot were amazing and it was nice to be hooked up to power and water after a few days of boon docking. After doing a few housekeeping tasks, we were invited to take a private tour of the property by Ronnie Biard, the general manager. We quickly jumped at the chance to see this historic place. Ronnie has been a staple at Goulding’s for more than 30 years and is one of the last connections to the Goulding family who founded the property in the 1920s.
When we got back from our tour we decided to enjoy an aperitif while sitting at a picnic table enjoying the warmth of the springtime sunshine. As I was opening a bottle of wine, the corkscrew broke. With no other utensil available, Miha insisted that she could open it by hitting the bottle against a tree. I looked at her in utter bewilderment as she said, “That’s what we would do in Romania when we were young and didn’t have a wine opener.”
Off we went to find a sturdy tree. Miha placed a small towel against the tree to absorb some of the impact and began hitting the bottom of the wine bottle against the base of the tree. After several significant whacks and making no progress, she gave the bottle to me, indicating it needed a bit more effort. I must have impacted the bottle a dozen times before any movement began to take place. Miha insisted I keep going and said it usually doesn’t require this many strikes.
In Romania they would use a wall, which was more sturdy. I continued striking the bottom of the bottle to the tree. Low and behold, the cork began to emerge from its snug position within the neck of the wine bottle. I had to admit, I was both surprised that I did not break the bottle, and, that the method, in fact, worked.
Unbeknownst to us, a fellow RV’er was watching from a bluff above. He yelled something in our direction to the effect that “That’s a lot of work to open a bottle of wine!” We both laughed and explained that our cork screw had broken. As we approached our RV, the gentleman’s wife extended a wine opener and said “Nothing should keep a woman from her wine.” We all had a chuckle and thanked her profusely.
The next morning we woke to a glorious sunrise and went for a bit of a hike around the property. Late that morning we packed up and were off to explore various elements of this iconic area that lures road trippers from around the world.
Southern Colorado was a bust on this Southwest Road Trip
After leaving Monument Valley we continued north where we made stops in Mexican Hat and Bluff, Utah. Bluff has a wonderful historic fort that is really worth exploring. The area is so scenic with many native artifacts and dwellings scattered throughout the area. We explored one just outside of town, it was Miha’s first (but not last) encounter with the ancient civilization that once inhabited the area.
Our goal was to visit and camp at Mesa Verde National Park, but this is where our Southern road trip story began to take a twist. When we left for our road trip Covid-19 was starting to dominate the news, but mid-way through our trip it started to impact our travels greatly. Mesa Verde had since closed and we were not only unable to visit the park, but had to rethink our upcoming travels.
Not quite sure what to do next, our Southwest road trip took us to Durango for a stroll of town. What we found was like an old west ghost town, hardly a soul in sight. As a matter of fact, I kid you not, there was a shop sign swinging in the wind with an eerie squeak, just like you would see/hear in the movies. While most everything was closed, we happened to find a pizza place (Fired Up Pizzeria) open for take out, so we ordered one to heat up later in the convection oven within our Cruise America RV.
While we were well stocked on food and supplies, the pizza just sounded so comforting at that moment. We also figured we’d get a few supplies at the local Wal-Mart since we were near one. We quickly discovered a quirky law in Colorado when looking for wine…apparently it’s only sold in a liquor store. Mind you, Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, but you can’t buy wine in a store. Riddle me that one!
What a View!
We drove for quite some time looking for places to boondock camp, but none were really special or even feasible with our RV. It was getting late and I was getting tired of driving. Finally, I saw a sign that said scenic view with a camping icon. We turned down a dirt road (Rd. 7225 Jaquez Canyon) to Angle Peak and drove a few miles and turned into the entrance of the scenic overlook. We did not see the view until we were right up to the edge, when we saw the expanse of Badlands in front of us, we were in awe. The view was magnificent and there was not a soul in sight. We had the entire area to ourselves.
The light was falling and before we did anything we took a few photos. Then, we kicked on the generator and warmed up the convection oven to heat up our pizza. We cracked a couple of beers and took our first bites of the pizza…it was absolutely delicious, one of the best and most flavorful pies we had had in a very long time. We were absolutely giddy! From the place we would camp, to the amazing meal and company, both of us were elated. That was, until an unwanted guest arrived.
As we were enjoying the last slices of our pizza, I saw headlights coming toward us down that dusty road. I was really surprised to see any activity given it was almost dark. I was wondering who would possibly be approaching the area at such an hour. In a matter of moments a car drove up and parked right next to us. Mind you, it’s a large area and this person(s) could park anywhere, but no, they had to park right next to us. The windows were tinted and we could not see inside. The car just stood still, no one came out. Our nerves spiked as we stared out the RV window. We waited for some sort of activity. Nothing!
Nervous about our previous incident outside Canyon de Chelly, I readied my weapon just in case. 10-15 minutes must have gone by before a Native American exited the car. He was very thin for his 6’ stature. He had on a pair of shorts and a tee-shirt, which did not match the chill in the air. He began to stretch or dance…it was odd as hell. Our elation went from a 10 to a 1 in a matter of minutes. We could not figure out what this guy was doing, and why he was doing it so close to us. He was clearly not right in the head, but thankfully appeared to be alone.
After 10 minutes of some pseudo dancing, he got back in his car. We thought for sure he would be leaving, but no, he just sat there. I finally made the decision to leave our glorious camp spot and head down the road, out of sight of this looney tune. We were quite lucky to find an equally good spot to park for the night, although it would not reveal itself until morning. As morning rolled around we discovered our views were just as wonderful with a series of hiking trails. We spent the morning exploring and were soon on our way. As we passed by our original spot, we noticed the odd ball had moved on.
Needless to say, the confluences of encounters had Miha a bit shaken and had trepidation about driving trough the Navajo Nation. I myself was not worried at all, but Miha is from another country and I could understand her apprehensions.
Southwest Road Trip to Chaco Canyon
We continued south on Hwy 550 toward Chaco Culture National Historical Park (aka Chaco Canyon). This is a place I had visited once before about 10 years earlier and had always wanted to visit again. The drive from Angel Peak was not far, but we had to drive down about 20 miles of rugged dirt road, sometimes traveling as slow as 5mph due to the deep washboard ripples in the road.
Once we reached the park we were thankful to be back on paved roads. We had plans to camp in the park for two nights, but due to Covid-19, our reservations had been canceled. Thankfully, the park remained open. We spent the entire day exploring the fascinating structures built between 1200 and 850 A.D.
On my first visit to the park I camped out and attended a park ranger lecture that explained many of the theories behind why the natives came and inhabited the area. I shared some of the highlights with Mihaela, such as how the building structures changed over time due to the lack of water. This element required for life was so scarce that they would have to collect and use urine as the liquid for the mortar. Some of the villages are massive and would have housed thousands of people with dozens of ceremonial kivas.
There are several trails within the park and we did one that I had previously hiked. You have to traverse through a slot in the canyon wall, eventually making it to the top of the ridge, which provides a great view of some of the ruins from above.
After a full day of exploring, we decided that we did not need another day in the park, so we exited right as they were closing and drove about 15 miles back down the dirt road until we found a suitable spot to camp for the night, right next to an old windmill and water tower. The views were quite nice and even more so with the added drama in the sky which created a lovely sunset.
We drove 2.5 hours south toward El Morro National Monument only to find it had closed. At that point we started looking at the other places we had planned to visit in New Mexico to see if they were open or closed. It was looking like the entire state was beginning to close down.
Forced to Detour
Until this point I had nearly every element of our trip planned, but now we needed to revise that plan. To be honest, it really took the wind out of our sail. Miha had come all the way from Romania and I wanted to show her some of my favorite places. It was becoming apparent that we needed to figure out how to take the lemons that were being thrown at us into lemon-aid. We had limited internet access and did not realize the scope of what was beginning to happen in the U.S. We began to realize that other states would start closing down, so we needed to go somewhere we would not be affected by as much by closures. We decided to backtracked and head north again into Utah. Click the following link to read part two of this epic Road Trip of the Southwest.