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Arizona and New Mexico

Horseshoe Bend is a horseshoe-shaped incised meander of   the Colorado River located near the town of Page, Arizona, 8 km downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is also referred to as the "east rim of the Grand Canyon." We viewed it from the steep cliffs above, 1,300 m above sea level. The Colorado River is 1,000 m above sea level, so there is a 300 m drop. To get the pic, it is necessary to go right to the edge but on this occasion we did not lose anybody. It is a superb example of an “entrenched meander”. Six million years ago, the region around here was much closer to sea level, and the Colorado River was a meandering river with a nearly level floodplain. Between six and five million years ago, the region began to be uplifted. This trapped the Colorado River in its bed, and the river rapidly cut downwards to produce Horseshoe Bend as we see it today.


We then make two visits to “White Pocket”, an area within the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona immediately south of the Utah state line and comprising 293,689 acres of land ranging from 944 to 1,981 m altitude. The park was only established in 2000, carved from existing lands already under the management of U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Vermilion Cliffs themselves run along the southern and eastern edges of the monument and comprise sedimentary rocks which have been deeply eroded for millions of years, exposing hundreds of layers of richly coloured rock strata. Mesas, buttes, and large tablelands are interspersed with steep canyons, where some small streams provide enough moisture to support a sampling of wildlife. More than twenty species of raptors, including bald eagles and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and several hawk species, have been observed. Desert bighorn sheep, pronghorns and mountain lions are found here. Human settlement in the region dates back 12,000 years, and hundreds of Native American pueblos are spread across the monument. The first European explorers into the region were Spanish missionaries and explorers in 1776. Later, Mormon explorers searched the region during the 1860s, some of them settling on land that is now within the monument. They built one of the first ferry crossings on the Colorado River in 1871. Below the Vermilion cliffs runs the historic "Honeymoon Trail", a wagon route for Mormons who journeyed to have their marriages sealed in the temple at St. George, Utah, and then to return. The route, through remote country, was otherwise seldom used. Today, the region surrounding the monument is relatively unspoiled with virtually no permanent inhabitants remaining and limited road access. Our big GMC 4WD are put to good use to get up here but fortunately the river crossings necessary were not in full flood.


As we travelled east, we then visited Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon  on Navajo land east of Lechee, Arizona. It includes six separate, scenic slot canyon sections on the Navajo Reservation, referred to as Upper Antelope Canyon (or The Crack), Rattle Snake Canyon, Owl Canyon, Mountain Sheep Canyon, Canyon X and Lower Antelope Canyon (or The Corkscrew). They are accessible by Navajo guided tour only. The Canyons were formed by the erosion of Navajo Sandstone due to flash flooding. Rainwater, especially during monsoon season, runs into the extensive basin above the slot canyon sections, picking up speed and sand as it rushes into the narrow passageways. Over time the passageways eroded away, deepening the corridors and smoothing hard edges to form characteristic "flowing" shapes. The canyons are a popular location for sightseers, and a source of tourism business for the Navajo Nation. It has been accessible by tour since 1983 by Pearl Begay Family and 1997, when the Navajo Tribe made it a Navajo Tribal Park. Photography within the canyons is difficult due to the wide dynamic range (often 10 EV or more) made by light reflecting off the canyon walls. Lower Antelope Canyon, called Hazdistazí, or 'spiral rock arches' by the Navajo, is located several miles from Upper Antelope Canyon. Prior to the installation of metal stairways, visiting the canyon required climbing pre-installed ladders in certain areas. Even following the installation of stairways, it is a more difficult hike than Upper Antelope. It is longer, narrower in places, and even footing is not available in all areas. Five flights of stairs of varying widths are currently available to aid in descent and ascent. At the end, the climb out requires flights of stairs. Additionally, sand continually falls from the crack above and can make the stairs slippery. Despite these limitations, Lower Antelope Canyon draws a considerable number of photographers but we cannot bring a tripod. The lower canyon is in the shape of a "V" and shallower than the Upper Antelope. Lighting is better in the early hours and late morning.Antelope Canyon is visited exclusively through guided tours, in part because rains during monsoon season can quickly flood it. Rain does not have to fall on or near the Antelope Canyon slots for flash floods to whip through; rain falling dozens of miles away can funnel into them with little notice.  On August 12, 1997, eleven tourists were killed in Lower Antelope Canyon by a flash flood. Very little rain fell at the site that day, but an earlier thunderstorm dumped a large amount of water into the canyon basin 11 km upstream. At the time, the ladder system consisted of amateur-built wood ladders that were swept away by the flood. Today, ladder systems have been bolted in place, and deployable cargo nets are installed at the top of the canyon. A NOAA Weather Radio from the National Weather Service and an alarm horn are on hand at the fee booth. Despite improved warning and safety systems, the risks of injury from flash floods still exists. On July 30, 2010, several tourists were stranded on a ledge when two flash floods occurred at Upper Antelope Canyon. Some of them were rescued and some had to wait for the flood waters to recede but no fatalities were reported.


We then moved east to camp with the Navajo above Monument Valley (Navajo: Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaiimeaning valley of the rocks), a region of the Colorado Plateau near the Utah-Arizona state line,characterized by a cluster of sandstone buttes, the largest reaching 300 m above the valley floor.  The valley is a sacred area that lies within the territory of the Navajo Nation Reservation. Monument Valley has been featured in many forms of media since the 1930s. Director John Ford used the location for a number of his Westerns; critic Keith Phipps wrote that "its five square miles have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West". The area is part of the Colorado Plateau at from 1,500 to 1,800 m above sea level. The floor is largely siltstone or sand derived from it, deposited by the meandering rivers that carved the valley. The valley's vivid red colour comes from iron oxide exposed in the weathered siltstone. The darker, blue-gray rocks in the valley get their colour from manganese oxide. Between 1945 and 1967, the southern extent of the Monument Upwarp was mined for uranium, which occurs in scattered areas together with vanadium and copper.


We then move to Framlington in New Mexico and spend time in the Bisti de-na-zin and Valley of dreams wilderness areas, desolate areas of steeply eroded badlands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (With some parcels of private Navajo land). Badlands are a type of dry terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils have been extensively eroded. They are characterized by steep slopes, minimal vegetation, ravines, gullies, buttes, hoodoos and other such geologic forms. Translated from the Navajo word Bistahí, Bisti means "among the adobe formations." De-Na-Zin, from Navajo Dééł Náázíní, translates as "Standing Crane." Petroglyphs of cranes have been found south of the Wilderness.


To end our trip, we took a long road trip to the White Sands National Park located in New Mexico and completely surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range. The park covers 145,762 acres in the Tularosa Basin, including the southern 41% of a 710 km2 field of white sand dunes composed of gypsum crystals. This gypsum dunefield is the largest of its kind on Earth, with a depth of about 9 m, dunes as tall as 20 m, and about 4.1 billion metric tons of gypsum sand. Approximately 12,000 years ago, the land within the Tularosa Basin featured large lakes, streams, grasslands, and Ice Age mammals. As the climate warmed, rain and snowmelt dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountains and carried it into the basin. Further warming and drying caused the lakes to evaporate and form selenite crystals. Strong winds then broke up crystals and transported them eastward. A similar process continues to produce gypsum sand today. It’s a great location for some creative photography.

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