Cool discoveries in northern Arizona

Story and photos by Robert W. Bone,,

Coal Mine Canyon.It’s a surprise to some that the state of Arizona is climatologically divided into two zones, the hot part and the cool part.

Hot spot central is Phoenix, a sprawling capital in the center of the state. Temperatures there, throughout the arid zone called the Sonoran Desert, are routinely in the 90s, and often rise to triple-digits for days on end during the summer. But the northern part of the state, with high-altitude towns like Sedona, Flagstaff and Williams, is markedly cooler.

The escape route from Phoenix to these gentler climes is Highway 17. Along the right-of-way and in the median strip are the famous saguaro cactuses, the kind that sometimes have arms permanently stretched upwards in the “hands up or I’ll shoot” position.

Driving north at a steadily increasing altitude, we could see the saguaros becoming less dense until finally there was a single lonely example on the side of a hill. Curtis Anderson, our loquacious guide logically enough called it “the last cactus.” In effect, it marks the northernmost border of the Sonoran Desert, he said. “From here on it will be pine trees.”

Curtis works for Detours, a company specializing in southwest adventures on and off the beaten path. As such, he was pledged to show us a lot of stuff we might not otherwise notice over a period of a week. He has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the area, and likes to tell tales of ghost towns, lost mines, and other historic and scientific facts about the Southwest.

Main Street (Route 66) of Williams.

The towns of Flagstaff and especially Williams have adopted a “Route 66” theme. That venerable highway, which John Steinbeck called the “mother road,” officially ceased to exist in 1985, generally replaced by the Interstate Highway System’s I-40.

In Williams, however, they won’t let the old road die. Much of it now reflects a pre World War II mood in the shapes and forms of stores, bars, gas stations, tourist courts (precursor to motels) and other facilities.

I checked in to a motel room in Williams that could well have been an upscale version of the one my parents and I occupied overnight in 1940, while on a trip from Illinois along the "mother road." I was just eight, and eagerly on the lookout for the Wild West that I saw in the movies.

Then, as now, almost any adult could openly carry a gun on his hip in Arizona, but the only one I saw on our recent adventure was that of the mayor of Williams, John Moore, who routinely completes his frontier look with a sheriff’s badge, boots, a large hat and a trusty six-shooter.

Williams is also the southern terminus of the Grand Canyon Railroad, a line which began to carry passengers 60-some miles to the famous canyon in the early 1900s. Back then it was just a spur of the Santa Fe railroad. I still remember that old MGM musical, the “Harvey Girls” and the rhythmic song about “The Acheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”

Banjo player Jesse Anderson on the train to the Grand  Canyon.

The views of the Grand Canyon were as spectacular as advertised, providing different colors of the buttes and cliffs as the sun moved across the sky. It almost certainly deserves a longer visit, although I was not up to straddling one of the famous mules to go deep into the canyon. Besides, Curtis was determined to show us that northern Arizona has a lot more to be experienced besides the Grand Canyon.

Near the town of Page, our vehicle dove into a dark, two-mile long tunnel from which we emerged to find ourselves on the banks of the Colorado River at the base of the 580-foot-tall Glen Canyon Dam.  There we clambered aboard a motorized rubber raft for a scenic 15-mile float between tall red and orange cliffs for the best part of the morning.

At one point our coxswain grounded the vessel on a sandy shore so we could disembark and trudge a short distance to inspect some petroglyphs --- stick figures of people, animals and symbols sketched by the ancient occupants of the orange-rock neighborhood.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

Another thrilling experience came in the afternoon when we boarded a speed boat and buzzed over the waters of Lake Powell. This dramatic body of water winds among the area’s many natural stone formations which emerge above the surface. A stop at just the right point provided a path to a large natural sandstone feature called the Rainbow Bridge, now a National Monument.

Before the lake was flooded in the 1970s, the only way to reach the area was via a difficult hike over several days. The Navajos still regard it as a sacred arch and a portal which would lead the unwary wanderer beneath it into another world. Curtis persuaded us not to test the theory by wandering under the rainbow, whether accidently or on purpose.

Back on the water, we overnighted in one of many houseboats now offered to vacationers on the lake. Dinner was a barbecue served on a sandy beach on which the houseboat was temporarily grounded.

The next day we met some Navajos. From Tuba City, we drove onto the reservation to find the Shonto Trading Post, perhaps the last genuine Indian trading post in the nation. Navajo art and crafts were for sale and manager Calvin Grieve said that occasionally someone will come in with a homemade blanket that they might exchange for a basket of groceries.

“We’re mainly here for the community,” he explained.

Strangely enough, the Navajo reservation entirely surrounds the lands ceded to the Hopi. Although there is occasional intermarriage between the Navajo and the Hopi, the two tribes maintain vastly different cultural traditions. Curtis introduced us to a Hopi guide, Micah Loma’omvaya, who is also a cultural anthropologist.

Houseboat on Lake Powell.

We drove up to Walpi, a settlement on a mesa 300 feet above the treeless landscape.  Micah said the village, which has no electricity or running water, dates back to around 900 AD.  The Hopi consider it sacred and do not allow photographs or even sketches to be made of the surroundings. Most Hopi now live on the plain below where they enjoy conveniences like TV and modern plumbing. They return to Walpi only to attend traditional dances and other ceremonial events.

For me, the most dramatic feature of the Navajo-Hopi lands was a large gash in the earth at the end of an obscure dirt road. In own way, it’s as beautiful as the Grand Canyon. Known by the prosaic name of Coal Mine Canyon, the seldom-visited feature is only about four miles long, but its walls, pinnacles, mesas and buttes, are decorated in many multi-colored layers, including one layer of black coal.

Coal Mine Canyon was a fitting climax to a week-long set of agreeable surprises unveiled while exploring some of the genuinely and refreshingly cool attractions of northern Arizona.

(Travel writer Robert W. Bone lived in Honolulu for 38 years where he was the author of four travel guidebooks. He now lives near San Francisco.)

More info:Hopi guide Micah Loma'omvaya.

Detours of Arizona, (866) 438-6977,

City of Williams, (800) 863-0546,

Grand Canyon Railway, (800 THE-TRAIN, 

NPS Grand Canyon, (928) 638-7888,

Colorado River Float Trips, (928) 6085066,

Antelope Marina, Lake Powell Houseboats, (800) 255-5561,

Shonto Trading Post, (928) 672-2320,

Hopi Tours, (800) 774-0830,

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