Yes, the Grand Canyon is impressive; there's a reason it's called grand.
But just because Arizona bills itself "The Grand Canyon State" doesn't mean the nation's biggest ditch is the only national park in the state worth a visit.
There's plenty to see, from a forest of petrified wood to acres of rare cactuses resembling the columnar pipes of an organ. And for those yearning to see a "grand" canyon without the crowds, Canyon de Chelly is lesser known than its larger counterpart but still plenty impressive.
Each of these parks is a morning's drive from the Grand Canyon area -- and worth the trip.
It's obvious that movie studio animators in the 1940s liked Arizona as a vacation spot. The northern edge of Arizona is filled with the crimson-hued mesas and narrow, winding highways that provide a backdrop for Road Runner cartoons.
The state's warm, arid climate means that winter and early spring are prime times to visit. In fact, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers ranger-led programs only during those times, because the southern Arizona summer heat is likely to cook just about anyone else who ventures outside a vehicle with well-tuned air conditioning.
Canyon de chelly
It's a long and mostly desolate drive to reach Canyon de Chelly (pronounced deh shay), outside the Navajo town of Chinle, a little more than 90 minutes northwest of Gallup, N.M. Don't think about the drive; instead, focus that energy on putting together a good picnic lunch and making some more room on the camera's memory chip. Also, this is one of those spots where binoculars make all the difference.
The "canyon" is actually a network of canyons that several creeks have carved into the red earth over the millennia.
Two main roads, one mainly in the north, one south, offer easy access to overlooks. Park rangers advise visitors to head along the North Rim Drive in the morning. However, it's the afternoon sun at spots along the South Rim Drive that really makes Canyon de Chelly dazzling.
Start at the Spider Rock overlook at the end of South Rim Drive. Here, Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon meet, allowing the eye to wander off into both.
The aforementioned picnic lunch? Bring it out at Sliding House Overlook. There are no picnic tables, but there are plenty of fairly flat areas on the sandstone to eat and take in spectacular views. Be very careful at this stop, especially if you have children in tow. There are some barriers delineating popular lookout points, but it's also possible for the brazen to stand at the very sloped edge of the 700-foot-high canyon wall.
The stop is named for the Native American pueblo built on a sloping ledge in the canyon's far wall. Over time, gravity won out, and the slope is slowly claiming the structure.
Pull out the binoculars at White House Overlook, where one of the pueblo buildings sports white plaster walls. This White House predates the one in Washington by several hundred years. A sign at the overlook notes the white house was famed throughout Navajo lands.
White House Overlook is the one place in the park where it's possible to descend to the bottom of the canyon, a steep, two-hour minimum hike. Navajo still live within the canyon, so elsewhere in the park visitors must be escorted by park rangers or Navajo guides when visiting the canyon floor.
After leaving the park, if you have more time, it's worth driving about 20 or so miles north of Chinle to see reddish landscape that resembles the surface of Mars.
Organ Pipe Cactus
At first glance, the land of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument seems to have all the quintessential qualities of Arizona: tall green cactuses with impressive posture; thorny brush; and rocks blasted by summer heat that would make Beelzebub grin.
But look closer; given a hint of moisture in the spring, poppies will carefully sprout under the partial shade of a creosote bush. Palos verdes, named such because they look as if someone has painted them green all over, flamboyantly produce egg yolk-colored blossoms.
Of course, there's the park's eponymous cactus, so named because the arms of the cactus reaching toward the sky resemble the pipes of a church organ. While many types of cactus have adapted to the hardscrabble style of life in the desert, the organ pipe is a bit wimpier. In most parts of Arizona, the winters are too cool for the fickle cactus, with the park being one of the few spots north of the Mexican border where it will agree to live. Even so, most organ pipes in the park can be found on southern-facing hillsides.
Situated about midway between Yuma and Tucson, the park's remote location makes for a delicious kind of solitude.
The park shares more than 30 miles of its southern boundary with the Mexican border. In recent years, drug smuggling and immigrants illegally wandering across the border have prompted the National Park Service to shut down roads, effectively making two-thirds of the park off-limits.
Still, there's plenty to see.
Ajo Mountain Drive, 21 miles of dirt-and-gravel road, is worth the price of a car wash. Just about every type of the park's flora is represented somewhere along the road. For the ambitious, the Bull Pasture trail, located about halfway through the drive, is a steep but rewarding trek to a plateau overlooking a large portion of southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. Given the area's isolation, for anyone who hasn't planned to camp for the night, it's a natural urge to want to leave the park well before dark. Those people miss out. One of the best spectacles in the park is sunset at Alamo Canyon campground. When I say sunset, I don't mean to suggest that the show is watching the sun dip below the horizon. Instead, the extravaganza comes from watching the already ruddy slopes of the Ajo Mountains turn even more crimson as the sun dips lower and lower in the sky.
It's worth noting that the park's proximity to Mexico means the Border Patrol has set up several checkpoints on the highways leading to and from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Visitors to the U.S. and permanent residents should carry immigration documents with them when visiting the area. It's a buzz kill to have to endure questions about citizenship after communing with nature, but Organ Pipe is worth the hassle.
As a kid, I remember watching a cartoon where Woody Woodpecker unsuccessfully took on some petrified wood. Were he a real-life character, Petrified Forest National Park would be his undoing. Of the three parks mentioned here, this is the best known because of the unusual nature of its central attraction.
Don't expect to find the forest standing, but there are thousands of pieces of petrified logs lying along the roughly 30-mile-long drive through the park. Unless you get really close, it's difficult to visually distinguish the rocks from actual pieces of felled trees, making for great photographs. It's as if some determined woodsman used an indestructible blade to cut some stone wood for his hearth.
As difficult as it is to believe, at one time much of Arizona was pine forest and meadows, with rivers even running through them. This was true also of the area that is now the Petrified Forest. About 200 million years ago, the forest became shrouded in ash from volcanoes surrounding the area. Over time, that triggered a mineral metamorphosis where the silica in the ash replaced the organic compounds in the wood, but kept the tree's shape. Minerals in the sediment -- manganese, iron, copper -- often tinged the wood with shades of red, orange, brown, green or blue.
Route 66's sterile successor, Interstate 40, runs through the park, as do more than one incarnation of the "Mother Road." Though Bobby Troup didn't mention the park in his famous song, Petrified Forest is the only unit in the National Park system to have a portion of Route 66.
While there, don't miss the Agate House, an eight-room Native American pueblo constructed about 900 years ago. Pottery found at the site appears to indicate the ancestral Puebloans built the building. Whoever did, they used pieces of petrified wood. Most of the Agate House that visitors see today was reconstructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s with the help of an archaeologist. To reach the house, visitors have to walk a mile-long trail from the Rainbow Forest Museum parking lot.
By the way, collecting petrified wood or archaeological pieces is a big no-no; lots of pieces of the park get taken home by visitors. Petrified wood that was legally gathered outside the park is available at shops in and around the park.
There are no drive-in campgrounds in Petrified Forest National Park, though backpackers may stay in designated wilderness areas.
It's not camping, but a great nearby place to stay -- and an even better place to eat -- is La Posada. It's about 45 miles west of the park's closest entrance in Winslow -- yes, the "Winslow, Arizona" the Eagles sang about.
The restored La Posada is one of the last Harvey Houses, the product of a simpler time when trains and not multilane interstates were the preferred method of travel. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Fred Harvey made good on his belief that civilized dining was a necessary part of railroad travel. At one point, more than 80 Harvey Houses served meals to travelers in railroad stations across the western United States. Few remain today.
Dinner doesn't get much better than the meals served at the hotel's Turquoise Room. Order anything that comes with those heavenly corn tamales.
Contact Michael Mello in care of firstname.lastname@example.org.