Walking over 2 billion years of volcanic eruptions and sediments deposited by ancient seas, I forget about the weird politics of Arizona and feel, dawn to dusk, awed by the edge between land and sky.
For a mid-January break from the Mid-Atlantic winter, Laurie and I plotted a drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas, with our time devoted to hiking around the red rocks of Sedona and the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. I’d been waiting for three decades to return to the Canyon (Laurie had never been), and Laurie was intrigued by the energy “vortexes” of Sedona.
After a late-day flight and overnight stay in Phoenix, we drove north, rising from Saguaro-cactus habitat around Phoenix (elevation 1000 feet) over the Black Hills to a stop at Montezuma Castle National Monument, a limestone cliff dwelling occupied from about 1100 to 1400, along Beaver Creek. Less than 10 miles north on I-17, we turned northwest. Winding through the Beaver Creek valley, we suddenly entered the red rocks around Sedona. Had we also entered a vortex?
Google “Sedona vortex” and you’ll find all sorts of entries. Whether these centers of energy uplift are legit, New Age hokum, or a gift to the Chamber of Commerce, I dunno. You can’t throw a rock in Sedona without hitting a psychic, a crystal shop, a shaman bedecked in beads, a purveyor of Tibetan singing bowls — or a woman dressed in natural fibers. I didn’t feel an energy flow in particular, other than exultation at having
stumbled into one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever seen. But when these magical cliffs reflect the light of sunrise or sunset (we saw each for three days), I’m inclined to believe anything good, maybe even from the Chamber.
So I go with the flow. There are four recognized vortexes. The first afternoon, we hiked three or four miles around the first, Airport
Mesa, which lies in the center of Sedona’s formations and has good views of two other vortexes, Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock. On the morning of day 2, we drove north, behind Capitol Butte, which towers over the town, to hike into the Boynton Canyon vortex, and in the afternoon we circumnavigated Bell Rock (up which I climbed as high as only feet can take you), on the south side of town. On the third morning, we had a flat hike from the west through Crescent Moon Park along Oak Creek to Buddha Beach, where a lot of people have stacked hundreds of small stones in whimsical homage to Gautama, and where the vortex energy is said to be strongest. After lunch (vegan/gluten-free restaurant, natch), while Laurie hung with the mediums, I made a steep but short hike from the south side of Oak Creek to Cathedral Rock, which had sublime views of Airport Mesa to the north, Bell Rock to the south, and Crescent Moon to the west. It was my favorite vantage.
From there as a crow flies, a mile-and-a-half east, is Sedona’s man-made landmark. The Chapel of the Holy Cross is the conception of sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude, who in 1932 was inspired by the Empire State Building. It’s also evidence that there’s room for Catholics amid all the holy-rock peddlers in Sedona.
On the way out of town, we drove north about 30 miles to Flagstaff, following Oak Creek Canyon. Sedona is at 4500 feet, Flagtaff 6800. Halfway up the canyon, the road, which is otherwise fairly straight and barely inclined, climbs a series of switchbacks. This is the Mogollon Rim where it meets the Colorado Plateau. Sedona also is on the Rim. Under the lava flows that form the crust of the Plateau are a series of sedimentary deposits. Sedona is heavy in iron oxide, providing the rust color that characterizes many of the layers. They are the product of ancient seas and tidal flats that sloshed back and forth across the shifting Pacific coast until about 250 million years ago. Erosion has worn away the land south of the Rim, revealing Sedona. To the north, and sitting on the Four Corners, the Colorado Plateau was formed by geological uplift, but not twisted and folded as were the Rockies to the east. And so over the Plateau we went another 80 miles, toward the Canyon.
My photo log from Phoenix through Oak Creek Canyon is here.
The first and last time I was at the Canyon, on both rims, was May 1980, on a whirwind 6,000-mile drive (thanks, Phyl) from Oakland to D.C., by way of St. Helens (the day before it exploded), Yoho in British Columbia, and Arizona, before turning east toward D.C. I camped amid snow flurries and hiked a short way down. So I’d been there.
Still, as we make our way from the visitor’s center to the heavily touristed Mather Point, my heart quickens. I see bits of the North Rim through the trees in front of us. And then the vista opens. Tears stream down my face. Words don’t come. I am overwhelmed.
We walk along the rim trail, which bears about 5 million visitors a year, the vast majority of whom do no more than we do our first afternoon. Eventually we make our way to Grand Canyon Village and a refurbished but rustic log cabin, where we will spend two nights, near the Bright Angel trailhead. Peak daytime temps: high 20s. Nighttime low: single digits. Too cold to linger under the stars. Also too cold to inspire an early-morning start of a daylong hike.
Back at the visitor’s center, Ranger Brown, a grizzled character out of central casting, advises me to take the South Kaibab Trail over Bright Angel. The former offers only a mile-and-a-half of trodding over ice at the start, he says, the latter twice as much, before the sun at its low angle can do some melting. Besides, he notes, Kaibab is a vista trail, and Bright Angel is a ravine trail. Stop at Skeleton Point, three miles in, because that’s as good a view of the river as you’ll get without going all the way down — and DON’T GO ALL THE WAY DOWN. Of course, park rangers spend a fair amount of time helping struggling explorers survive “Code W” (for Wimp). Never mind that I’m an endurance athlete often scratching my limits. Ranger Brown has been here 13 years, since he arrived to watch the fall bird migration over two months from a spot near Mather Point. I’ll take his advice.
After 10 hours of sleep (7000 feet will do that to you), I stir slowly and don’t make it to the trailhead till 9:30. It’s 27 degrees — balmy. The elevation plunge begins. With tens of thousands of hikers every year, this most popular trail is built to last (and closed for rebuilding periodically). The trail in places is blasted out of cliffs. It has log steps and rain gutters separated by walls of rock. It is rigorous and unrelenting. And in January, it’s nearly empty.
The most prominent feature, about two miles in, is O’Neill Butte, the horn on the saddle facing north off the Rim. Skeleton Point is the northern edge of a plateau below O’Neill, with a view of the Colorado near Phantom Ranch, the overnight base for the lucky who win the summer lottery for its few spots (it’s more open in winter). Beyond Skeleton, the trail again plunges into the ravine, just as it does off the Rim above. After eating lunch here, I descend a bit and watch a mule train snaking its way up, the two drivers stopping every five minutes to let the pack animals rest. And then I meander back toward the top, knowing I have more afternoon sun than I can fill. Along the way, I stop to gaze at a young hiker sitting on a boulder on the edge of O’Neill. Nice perch. Upon reaching the rim, I walk two miles back to the visitor’s center. Pics of the hike, plus a couple from Grandview Point to the east with a view of the Colorado, are here.
The next morning, steps from our cabin, I hit the rim at dawn to catch the light against the cliffs and walk two miles east to Yavapai Point. The Park Service has built a geologic timeline on this stretch, one meter per million years, with stones drawn from the canyon’s basement (2 billion years old) to its top layer — 270 million years ago. There are gaps, between and on top, as erosion wore away the fossil record, including that of the dinosaurs. The Colorado Plateau, as I noted above, is the product of the uplifting of tectonic plates. But geologists can’t explain why the Plateau lifted straight up, rather than folding over; the 40 distinct layers of rock at the canyon are horizontal, unlike the slanted layers revealed by highway cuts through mountain ranges. The canyon itself is a mere 6 million years old, the product of the Colorado River finding a route to the Gulf of California and cutting through the Plateau to get there. A file of Rim pics over the three days is here.
Mid-morning, we departed the sublime, heading for the ridiculous. To go from one of nature’s awesome creations to America’s model of excess is jarring. Fortunately we took the day to adjust, driving nearly 300 miles through northwestern Arizona and across the Colorado into Nevada atop Hoover Dam, where we stopped to tour one of the great engineering feats of American history.
The dam was born of an effort to control flooding along the Colorado and effect the water compact among the seven states (and later Mexico) drawing the river’s water. A secondary benefit was electricity generation for the Southwest. Today, nearly 80 years after its construction, the dam continues to serve all three purposes. Yes, of course, the security apparatus of the Age of Terrorism has descended upon this landmark, but it’s not overbearing. Shots of the dam are here.
And then finally, the ridiculous. We ended in Vegas because Laurie was attending a conference at the Bellagio. Having spent a night on the Strip, I need never do it again. (Here are my final shots, with only a clip of the Bellagio’s fountain tribute to Michael Jackson; see youtube for the full version.) On the other hand, Vegas is a proximate destination from which to explore the West — on a loaded touring bike. To summer….