The site Wanderer Writes presents personal travel stories and memoirs, tips and guides to destinations around the world, based on the author's first-hand experiences. The posts tend to focus on little-known places and less traveled roads through popular destinations while highlighting different cultures, history, and nature.
We didn’t plan on driving through the Four Corners area in the summer before school started. The trip we planned to get away from this oven we call Phoenix was a different one.
To spend more time in a forest, we set off for Silverton, Colorado, the coolest spot within driving distance from us. It’s not the Pacific Northwest, my favorite spot for old-growth forests. But it is still forested. At least it was before a good chunk of it burned down.
Table of Contents
Wildfires and a Landslide
I knew about the wildfires raging around Durango and was following the stories about them. Right before we planned to leave, I read it was under control. So we set off.
We drove through some smoke occasionally since smaller forest fires were burning in a few different places, but we made it to Durango without any mishaps. Leaving it, a few police cars blocked the road to Silverton.
At first, we, like everyone else on the road, waited. More police cars arrived, followed by a few excavators and bulldozers.
Then one of them turned around and drove back through the long line of cars. The officer driving it told us a landslide blocked the road further up and they didn’t know how long it would take to clear it.
He directed us all towards an alternate route, a smaller road to Silverton. However, we didn’t take it.
We turned around and planned to spend time in Durango instead. It was raining; we noticed no smoke, and the town is pleasant enough to have a mini-vacation there. Besides, we thought, we could try to go to Silverton the next day.
Another Change of Plans
But, as soon as we stopped to check in at a hotel, the rain stopped, and we realized that we could smell the smoke from the smoldering ashes of the extinguished forest fire. It wasn’t just the smell; smoke surrounded us in all directions.
We needed another change of plans. So we sat in the parking lot of the hotel while trying to figure out what to do instead.
We looked at alternatives. Our first choice was Mt Taylor. Still a mountain, tall enough, cool enough and something new.
But before we set off, I checked the wildfire site. Sure enough, just three hours earlier they posted about a new forest fire close to where we would be going. Was there any place the forest was not burning?
The Chuska Mountains were free of flames.
We looked at the map again. The forest in the Chuska Mountains was free of flames. The road through them would take us to Canyon de Chelly, one of my favorite sites in the high desert. It started a plan of a Four Corners road trip.
Four Corners Road Trip
We’ve taken plenty of road trips through the Four Corners area over the years, but, we reserve them for fall or spring or even winter. Summer is not for vacationing in the high deserts. However, we were running out of options. The alternative was to go back to Phoenix early, but anything beats 115 degrees.
With no hotel reservations, we were open for anything. We would start with Aztec, the closest site away from the smoke.
This stop turned out better than we imagined. Once in town, we searched for hotels in the area. Not a big selection, we knew. But we learned about one we didn’t know existed, close to the ruins.
It was nicer than I expected. As a bonus, they had a fireplace in the back, built in the center of a circular stone structure/seating area. It felt almost like an open-air kiva.
The weather turned out to be perfect, nothing like the heat we expected. We met a few fellow travelers who have been there before. Like us, they marveled at our luck of being able to sit outside, by a fire, in the high desert by Aztec, New Mexico. Doesn’t happen often in July or August.
In the morning we revisited the Aztec Ruins National Monument.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Excavated by Earl Morris, whose home houses the Visitor Center today, Aztec Ruins is one of our favorite places to visit in the Southwest. Though on a much smaller scale, these ruins remind us of Chaco and Mesa Verde. But they have something extra.
This looks and feels like it could be in Chaco.
Earl Morris, a known archaeologist of the Southwest, who grew up in Aztec, rebuilt a great kiva at this site. Its historical accuracy is not perfect, but it is as close as we can get to be in a great kiva, covered like it would have been in ancient times.
Inside the reconstructed great kiva.
I was always used to Aztec being hot and sunny, even in the fall, when we visit. But the rains from the previous day cooled things down, and it was pleasant to walk through the site.
It was a pleasant day to walk through the ruins.
We explored the kivas, and the buildings, walked through the long-abandoned rooms, trying to stay quiet since bats live in some of them now. They were sleeping out of sight; I have seen none this time.
We spent time inside the great reconstructed kiva, and in the museum, but enjoyed the cool breezy morning walking outside through the site.
When we left Aztec, I thought of revisiting Canyon de Chelly. I knew it would be hot, but most likely not as hot as Chaco. Besides, it’s been a while since we last visited that part of the world.
We would have to drive through some of the most desolate parts of Dinétah, the Navajo Reservation. It surprised me to see that the drive would be a little over two hours. It always seemed much farther.
We drove through the high desert, scattered Navajo homes, and hogans, dirt roads that seemed to lead nowhere. And then we saw Shiprock.
Our first glimpse of Shiprock, standing lonely in the middle of the flat surrounding desert.
I always remember this huge volcanic rock, one of the iconic symbols of the high deserts of the Four Corners region.
Sticking up alone in the middle of the flat desert, we watched the rock for miles and miles while driving under the desert sun. We stopped a few times to take pictures. Contrary to my expectations, it wasn’t unbearably hot, instead, being outside felt pleasant.
We stopped the car and walked closer to it
As we left Shiprock behind, we found ourselves on a ridge, with a beautiful view of Red Valley. The view was there for a while, though we didn’t stop to take pictures, thinking we’ll keep seeing it. Then we were right in the middle.
The red rocks offer a gorgeous backdrop to the few Navajo homes scattered in the area. Since it was mid-day, everything seemed deserted. The usual small homes, with hogans in the yard, dotted the landscape.
Hand-painted signs on the road asked travelers not to litter. It added such a personal touch, I can’t imagine anyone ignores it.
Across the Chuska Mountains
Leaving Red Valley, the road climbed towards the Chuska Mountains. It’s been many years since we drove across this range. Last time we did, parts of the way through was still just a narrow dirt road. But the Chuskas had no fires burning anywhere. Mountain, and forest, without smoke, was great.
View from the top of the Chuska Mountains. Red Valley and Shiprock down in the distance
We stopped for a picnic on the top, in the shade of ponderosa pines, with gorgeous views of Red Valley below and Shiprock in the distance.
Revisiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Driving into Canyon de Chelly felt like coming back to an old friend. We stopped at each overlook, sometimes walked out to the edge of the canyon, but didn’t hike into it, since it was too hot.
People lived in this canyon uninterrupted for over 5,000 years, longer than in any other place on the Colorado Plateau. Navajo families still make their homes there, raise sheep and other livestock and farm the land down in the canyon. We noticed the farmlands and heard the cattle from the bottom.
Farmlands on the bottom of Canyon de Chelly
Since we came from the Chuska Mountains, our first stop was the Massacre Cave overlook with the Yucca Cave and Mummy Cave Ruins.
We drove over to the Antelope House Overlook next.
Antelope House at Canyon de Chelly
We passed the Visitor Center and the campground across it – no tents there, no one is camping there in the middle of the summer – and made our way to the farthest and my favorite point, Spider Rock. What seems like ages ago, we hiked down into the Canyon to Spider Rock, an experience I will never forget.
Spider Rock, the home of Spider Woman.
After spending a long time at the Spider Rock overlooks, we made our way back towards the Visitor Center.
White House Ruins. View from the top of the Canyon
White House Ruins is the only place where you can hike into the Canyon without a guide, and we do it most of the times we visit. Not this time; no one hikes this trail in the summer. We enjoyed a stop at the overlook and drove off to the Visitor Center.
Flagstaff proved to be our best place to cool down. We had the forest; we had no fires, but a pleasant day in the high country of Arizona. Yes, we could have just spent our time there. A pleasant stay in a familiar place, surrounded by pine trees.
But where was the adventure in all of that? We spend almost every weekend in Flagstaff in the summer. Besides, I realized that I had missed the Four Corners, Chinle, and Canyon de Chelly.
On the Kachina Trail in Snowbowl.
Since the heat didn’t spare the town, we drove up to Snowbowl and went into hiding in the forest. I mean we hiked about four miles on the Kachina Trail, the coolest, most shaded forest area in Flagstaff, and in all of Northern Arizona.
Aspen growth off the Kachina Trail
After the hike we still weren’t ready to leave the mountain, so we sat under – and on top of (my daughter) a tree in the meadow, overlooking the surrounding peaks.
Sitting in the meadow in Snowball.
Back in the Oven Called Phoenix
I didn’t want to, but we had to come back. School started and we still have a child who attends.
We weren’t happy about it since it was 115F degrees in our city.
But at least we enjoyed a long weekend away from this heat. Now we are in town, we’ll drive back to Flagstaff every weekend until it cools down – in October. Or we might hide in movie theaters or museums.
Emese Fromm is the editor and the main writer for Wanderer Writes. Some of her travel articles have been featured in publications like Matador Network, GoNomad, DesertUSA, MapQuest Travel, among others. She loves to travel the world with her family, trying to find the less-traveled path anywhere she goes (sometimes she succeeds).