Canyons and canyon people around the grand and ancient – Grand Canyon National park, AZ

At the hermit trail
At the hermit trail

From a vacation I don’t expect much, the expected, the unexpected, the surprising and whenever possible, the bonus! I am nothing if not easy to please.

So, when after a few years of discussion and postponement as I resist being predictable to the greatest possible extent: predictably; husband finally bought tickets to Phoenix, and booked a lodge (Yavapai) in the Grand Canyon National Park. Christmas time, no other alternatives, I resigned myself to seeing what everyone and their mom seem to have seen. Incidentally, my husband has been there before too, with his mom and dad.

Through a tumultuous weekend, best forgotten, I finally got to planning the trip, after all, that is my job and penchant. December 23rd I look up trip advisor to find the top things to do in Flagstaff and Grand Canyon NP. Call up the touring company rated the highest by it, however they only have a tour for the 28th, by which time we would be two days old in park. I wanted an overview tour, preferably on the day after we got there so that we can have local advice on what is really the thing to do or not to do. They recommend that I call Canyon Dave’s ( another, older, touring company). It is one of those occasions, rare and dear, where I was unexpectedly lucky as that was the best recommendation I have ever been given. Canyon Dave is called so, because he is a trained geologist, taught geology for years and known all about the geology of the Grand Canyon before he took up canyon tours. We didn’t meet him,  his wife was our tour guide who certainly has learned everything about the canyon geology as well!

Dora Thayer is a wonderful, enthusiastic, well read tour guide. The canyon itself was her class room and we learned about the upheavals that caused its formation, before it was a canyon, before the dinosaurs came and before long we were smitten. Sitting on an ledge (man made, but limestone) mesmerized, looking at the canyon layers, the example rocks for each layer she BROUGHT WITH HER, and matching them to the layers in a HANDOUT they give everyone!  It was indeed, a geological tour. With live demonstration of moving tectonic plates ( you have to see that for yourself!).  The various formations that look like buildings from far, with the tiered and what looks like crenelations at the top, are very appropriately called temples. Hindu and Greek, the geologists decide to name them as. Not to mention the Vishnu Formation that used to be at the bottom of the absolutely oldest mountains in the region ( forms the base of the canyon now). Very spiritual. Dora pointed out their names. Yes, even though they are very hard to tell apart, for someone seeing them only for two days.

One such temple
One such temple

But that was just the beginning. She had more stories on the “canyon” people. The arrival and moving around of various native American tribes, what is known, presumed and probably right. What is conjecture and possibly true. The ancient “Anasazi” ancestrol Pueblos  who lived in the area, and around it in various smaller canyons. In houses with small windows and even smaller doors, made to merge seamlessly with the canyon cliffs and walls themselves.(she told us their stories, and we saw the Pueblos later).
We have cool petrified wood pieces as souvenirs from the tour. We also saw bigger pieces of petrified wood outside the Navajo trading place and restaurant we ate in, in Cameron. The most surprising part (although, most everything she taught us was new for us, because she knows details!) was that rock slabs containing, wait for it.. Yes, Dinosaur foot prints were used (without knowledge) to build a gallery/antique store selling native American hand made art. So just a wall.., until the dinosaur tracks are seen!

Dinosaurs footprints on the wall
Dinosaurs footprints on the wall

It was a memorable tour for many reasons, including the history of the different types of people that have made the Grand canyon their home or work place ( like Mary Colter, the eccentric architect of various buildings at National Park, including the Desert View Watch Tower). Canyon Dave would be my first and only recommendation for a true history and geology of the Grand Canyon ( It is educational and to me, an open museum in situ, is always better than parts of the real in a far off land!! We saw the watch tower and the real petroglyphs used in building. It was legal at the time and Colter wanted nothing less than what she wanted.

The watch tower. The uneven edged flat stones had original ancient petroglyphs
The watch tower. The uneven edged flat stones had original ancient petroglyphs

One good thing was we didn’t spend much time at the gift stores, even though we could have gone to the Hopi gift store, one of the oldest buildings in the park. I just didn’t have the urge. Also, inside the NP the food is nothing to really write about. We ate at the Bright Angel Lodge and I can barely remember what salmon it was ( there have not been any angels seen here, it is named after an area, that was also used to name the most popular trail that starts close by: when one of the original travelers finally saw water). The El Tovar is totally not worth it, although the complimentary bread was good, we had to reserve a spot and wait in line to get to the spot. The dessert was too sweet and the main course unmemorable. Outside, We cook pizza and pasta is a good restaurant, they have Blanche pizza with shrimp and garlic and an appetizer called fried ravioli, both quite good even though it was in their bathroom I discovered the loss of the bracelet and had to make the order to go. The other options also looked good, it is one of the oldest restaurants there, opened about 40 yrs ago.

I had also planned to see some Indian ruins ( excuse my political correctness, however, I am not white, I do not have to share the white man’s burden and I don’t intend to, I have my own burden to carry) near Flagstaff and see the Walnut Canyon if possible. My original and very ambitious plans for going to Mesa Verde perished before we left, and less original and ambitious Canyon De Chelly (pronounced as sh-ea) also had to be abandoned for a future trip. Both are quite far, about 4 hr drive in slow roads. It wouldn’t have done them or us any justice. So, we took the route to the lesser known ruins ( to me, who knows, maybe everyone else knew about them all the time!).

Box canyon2

This route would take us to the Wupatki National monument that includes other ancient (500-1200 A.D.) ruins in the area, fairly spread out. We started with the Lomaki ruins in the Box canyon, built into the wall of the canyon. Then on to the Citadel, at the top of a small hill, overlooking a canyon. Then came the main Wupatki National Monument, and the first view makes it look like the work of a really eccentric, but wonderfully gifted architect ( yes yes, Fountainhead indeed, except far less pompous in the head, I decided immediately). Then it became clear as being simply the smart thing to do, use as many walls of a cliff excrescence as possible, then add locally available sandstone. End result: true beauty. Not that the others weren’t beautiful.  This was probably occupied by more people or families and has ball courts ( circular enclosures with mud centers) where community activities probably took place. The region is the most recently vacated, but not by the original Sinagua, who are likely to have left by 1300 A.D. The Navajo people who came here later and lived in the surrounding Mesa and their descendants, were forced out of their home to preserve a “National” historic monument, still lament the loss of their home.
The Hopi are the modern day  descendents of the Ancestral Pueblos ( Sinagua and Anasazi, -so called Anasazi- a Navajo term that in literal translation means the ancestors or our enemy, hence the political correctness). They live in close knit groups, forming small villages, usually in very harsh environments (no water, volcanoes abound).  They farm and cultivate and believe that living in the harsh environment is the price for being the “true” people who will always remember how to be good and not commit mistakes that led to God’s wrath (there is a whole story where this excerpt came from, including the destruction of the world, two or three times, leading from a dark to a increasing lit world, and a very interesting origin of the Grand Canyon as the hole through which the deserving humans emerged – from a darker previous world, to occupy the enlightened world of today). Whereas Navajo are nomadic people who historically spread out as much as possible and do not live in villages, if that can be helped.

The fantastical setting of Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff
The fantastical setting of Wupatki National Monument, Flagstaff


The other people of the Canyon region include, Yavapai, Havasupai and other ancient cultures whose history we know only through fragments of what remains were found of them.

Near Sedona, we went to the Walnut Canyon National Monument, and what we missed in Canyon De Chelly ( and Mesa Verde) we saw here. I had not looked into it deeply enough to realize there were cliff dwellings in this canyon! And when I realized there were, I kept that from the husband, as a surprise. But you know, he can read, and sometimes he does! So he read it somewhere ( although, where?  I am not sure, there is no internet in the lodges in the National Park!). These dwellings were also built by the Sinagua tribe, the ancestral tribe mentioned above, that left these dwellings as well about a 1000 yrs ago.

Walnut canyon dwellings
Walnut canyon  cliff dwellings

Now, had I read the hand outs Dora gave us, I would have stopped over at the Montezuma Castle National Monument on our way to the airport, if not the same day. But I hadn’t, I only just saw that  today. However, the added bonus part of the trip was the sunset crater drive- with lovely lava flowed rock on the right, with the peaks covered in snow. Also, one of my favorite radio programs ( copied on a CD) that has renditions of short stories by voice artists playing in the back ground. While I don’t like audio books, I do like audio renditions of short stories, especially as they are in Bengali and I am not really likely to ever read them. Additional bonus were the slide rock canyon, we only drove through it and used the restroom- not much activity in the winter, and the Red Rock Canyon Scenic rock canyon byway

Sedona is very beautiful. The place to retire. I would think ( at present). We had a fabulous lunch at a randomly chosen restaurant which had good food AND wonderful views, and nice decor. I ate kale salad and salmon, I confess to have never had kale at a restaurant before- probably because I cannot remember ever seeing it before! The restaurant is called Power Range Grill and Tavern.

The day before we left ( i.e., day before the drive through Sedona to the airport and the day after the Wupatki ruins), we also drove through the Hermit trail and the Hermit rest. That is where I lost a bracelet and had a rather sad day ( it was mom’s present to me). However, the views are beautiful. And I was not down for very long ( some people may disagree, but I thought I sprang right back up!!).

I wouldn’t have thought it such a wonderful trip if hadn’t been this combination. Grand Canyon, after all must be one of the most photographed places on the planet. It doesn’t have many plants or trees and seems to be very passive. Slowly eroding. But what it took millions of years to form, and it has eroded for more years than humans have been around or will remain ( is what I think!!). So, imagine that! Desert and sea at play to make the rocks as they are.  I am most definitely NOT a landscape photographer. Really. However, there it is, I did take several photos of landscapes, while also often being seen taking pictures of weird trees, being completely engrossed in a direction absolutely opposite to everyone else’s  plateau of immersion. Ha ha!!Split tree and sunset

All of the region, until some parts of New Mexico and Colorado is a plateau and that plateau has sub plateaus, one of them is Kaibab, that is also the name of the top most layer of the Grand Canyon. We did not hike much, except very easy hikes on the Rim Trail and in the Walnut Canyon. Yak-traks to grip on ice are a must for winter, just so you are forewarned!  Well while we must tread the less treaded road, the road most travelled also has more stories..


NOTE: there were some factual errors about the Wupatki ruin occupants in the earlier versions of this post. My sincere apologies for that. We didn’t have time to do an official tour and I was, unforgivably, too excited to write a post, to complete the research. Apologies.

A part of this story was published in the New Indian Express, Bengaluru in 2015.

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