Coach Trip – USA National Parks, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon

Monument Valley

It was another early start today and so early that it was still dark when we checked out and boarded the coach because there was a lot of travelling ahead as we headed west to Arizona and the Grand Canyon.

We had recovered from our previous nights encounter with the drunken gunslinger and we watched as the sun came up as we drove for the last time through this particular reservation.  Actually it turns out that this in fact is one of the most prosperous reservations in the southwest because the residents were fortunate to find themselves sitting on large quantities of oil and gas reserves which has made the whole place hugely profitable.  I bet the Government was really pissed off about that but lucky for them that these are a bit more enlightened times and they can keep that good fortune without being bullied off the land by the white man as they would surely have done a hundred or so years ago just as they did in the Black Hills of Dakota when the gold was discovered.

Our first stop today was at the Four Corners monument where four US States meet at one intersection and it is possible to be in all of them at the same time by standing in two and reaching down and touching the others.  To get there we drove across a featureless landscape where distant mountains stood like islands in an ocean of desert and through a landscape scoured by erosion, a skeletal land stripped of all but the most minimal vegetation.

Utah and Colorado we had already visited and we would be spending the rest of the day in Arizona but we were able to make a very brief visit to New Mexico as well and although we only went a few metres across the border it still counts as another State visited.

When I was young I was always always intrigued by the clinical layout of the USA into a chessboard pattern of States that contrasted so noticeably with the irregular boundaries of the English Counties.

I know now that the man responsible for this was Thomas Jefferson who before he became the third President of the USA came up with the idea of strict regulation that subsequently imposed this orderliness upon the western territories.  Quite simply the State and County boundaries completely disregard sensible topographical features like rivers and mountains that make natural geographical boundaries, in favour of the straight-line solution.  Although it seems odd this seems to suit America because even the boundary of a place like the Yellowstone National Park is a convenient rectangle with straight-line borders and I would have thought that would be almost impossible to sensibly achieve.

Once you have seen the monument, climbed the viewing platform, walked through all four States and had your photograph taken there isn’t a great deal left to do at Four Corners and it wasn’t long before we were back on the coach and heading deep into Arizona towards Monument Valley, a journey that took us through the extensive Navajo reservation in the north east of the State.

Our approach to Monument Valley was along U.S. Highway 163 which provides an enduring and definitive image that will be familiar to practically everyone because it has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows and is the long straight road that undulates across brick red desert towards the iconic rock buttes in the valley ahead.  It has been used in the films Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise and in Forrest Gump.  Actually it is quite a new road as it was only completed in 1971 but now it forms part of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway and cuts through the heart of Monument Valley.

Monument Valley was everything that I expected it to be and there was a magnificent view from the visitor centre across the whole of the valley.  In actual fact it is not a valley in the conventional sense, but rather a wide flat desolate landscape punctuated by the crumbling formations rising hundreds of feet into the air, the last remnants of the sandstone layers that once covered the entire region.

Looking out over the vast terrain I could almost hear the bugle of the 7th cavalry because ever since the movie director John Ford discovered it in 1939 and used it as the setting for the film Stagecoach starring John Wayne it has been used for more western movies than any other location in North America.  After that first experience, Ford himself returned here nine times to shoot Westerns, even when the films were not set in Arizona or Utah. The Searchers for example was set in Texas but filmed here nevertheless and one particular rock feature that was used in that film has been named in his honour as ‘John Ford Point’.

We had lunch at the visitor centre in a western themed restaurant, contemplated buying a Stetson again from the shop and spent some time in a corral outside that old western wagon train exhibits to explore.  Monument Valley is on the Navajo reservation and in the car park there were two little Native American children posing for photographs.  A sign said two dollars a snap and I thought that was a bit expensive so I waited until I was back on the coach and took a sneaky one through the window for free!  I feel a bit bad about that now.

What followed next was another highlight of the holiday when Richard and I left the coach to go on an optional small plane journey for a flight from Monument Valley all the way down the Grand Canyon.

It was a small high wing twin engine Cessna plane for only about a dozen passengers and we bagged the seats directly behind the pilot with great views through the cockpit window.  After take off he took us first across the valley and around the towering buttes for another look at an alternative angle and as he did so he banked the aircraft first one way and then the other so that everyone on board could fully enjoy the spectacle.  This I confess made me feel a bit queasy at first but the feeling soon passed and I was able to fully enjoy this unique experience.

The plane left Monument Valley  and flew due west across the Black Mesa which the Navajo call the Black Mountain because it has a dark appearance caused by the numerous seams of coal which run through it and which today are productively and economically strip mined.

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Once over the plateau the north rim of the Grand Canyon came into view and the pilot set a south westerly course and we followed the canyon and the river as it flowed majestically south on its imperious journey.  Everyone has seen pictures and heard descriptions of the Grand Canyon but nothing can prepare you for its vastness.

I am aware that I have already used a lot of superlatives to describe the things that we had seen on this holiday but the Grand Canyon is almost indescribable in its breathtaking grandeur.  In some places the canyon is twenty four kilometres across and reaches depths of one and a half kilometres, it is four hundred and fifty kilometres long and has taken six million years to be carved by the Colorado River as it has cut down and through layer after layer of rock and in doing so created a multi coloured steep sided panorama and a real natural wonder to behold.  The pink and white veined granite at the very bottom is an estimated 1.8 billion years old!

At one point we flew over the Rainbow Bridge which is often mistakenly described as the world’s largest natural arch (the largest is actually in China). The span of Rainbow Bridge is eighty four meters, and at the top it is thirteen meters thick and ten meters wide but it didn’t look so big from the air.  We flew for eighty miles down the eastern side of the gorge over the Painted Desert and past Lake Powell and the whole journey took almost two hours, including a refueling stop along the way when the pilot, who at one point seemed to be showing worrying signs of concern about fuel levels, landed and refueled just as though he was at a motorway service station before taking back to the skies.

I don’t think that there could have been a better way to see the Grand Canyon than from this elevated perspective and it is certainly an experience that I shall never forget.

Eventually in the late afternoon we landed at Grand Canyon Village which is located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, right in the national park, and whose only real function is to accommodate visiting tourists.  Its origins trace back to the railroad built to the canyon in 1901 and many of the buildings in use today date from that period.  We found the motel, had a drink and a quick look around and then set about arranging our transport to the South Rim visitor centre where we due to rendezvous with Mum and Dad who had reached the destination in the coach with everyone else.

We managed to secure a place on a mini-bus tour with a young driver dressed in denim, buckskin and cowboy boots and of a very jocular disposition who would insist on calling me André and he drove us the two miles or so to the visitor centre overlooking the canyon just in time for the sunset.  This was a great time to see the deep gorge as rocks seemed to continuously change their colours in response to the rays of the setting sun and all along the rim the visitors sat and enjoyed the peaceful spectacle.  Until our driver turned up and shattered the moment that was.

He crashed about and shrieked at the top of his voice as he gave us a guided tour that we didn’t really need and neither did anyone else.  At one point there was a collective ssssush from everyone on the rim which despite our embarrassment failed to stop him.  And he would keep calling me André!  ‘André, look at this, André, look at that…’ and all I wanted to do was to get away from him.  He offered to take us further into the park in search of wildlife but we respectfully declined and we were pleased to find the others and take the coach back to the village.

It was a fine night so after everyone had settled in we walked to the historical centre and looked at the old buildings before finding a suitable restaurant for evening meal where we sat and reflected on what had been an excellent day.

The postcard images were all originally purchased in 1995 on the Coach Trip. The Promotional leaflet images are also all 1995 originals.

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10 responses to “Coach Trip – USA National Parks, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon

  1. On my ‘to do’ list – naturally!

  2. Looks a wee bit familiar! 🙂

  3. Excellent day and excellent post.
    The photo of you in front of one of the “monuments” is superb.
    How old were you?

  4. Have you heard about the reasonably new viewing platform made out of glass that puts visitors out OVER the canyon?

  5. Pingback: East Anglia – Anglo Saxons and East is East | Have Bag, Will Travel

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