Southwest Game Plans: Dissolve Into Red Rock

National Geographic Adventure (March 2006)

The formula for Four Corners bliss: sandstone slots, a great granite wall, and two new trails (one for your feet, the other for your car).

By Kate Siber

1. Superior Arizona
Hike a Brand Spankin' New Grail Trail

Now more than 90 percent complete, the 772-mile (1,242-kilometer) Arizona Trail has taken its rightful place alongside the country's premier long treks. Hike it in its entirety and you'll cross eight mountain ranges, four national forests, 225 miles (362 kilometers) of the Sonoran Desert, and 21 miles (34 kilometers) rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon. But you can hit an equally impressive array of ecosystems—from cactus-strewn desert to densely forested peaks—along the four-day, 49-mile (79-kilometer) stretch that begins four miles (six kilometers) west of Superior, Arizona, on Highway 60. From the Picketpost Trailhead you'll trek north through the Sonoran to your campsite at Reavis Canyon, which come March is blanketed in California poppies and fairyduster. Day two brings equal parts challenge and reward: A 5,057-foot (1,541-meter) climb into the Superstition Mountains and a night at Reavis Ranch, the abandoned homestead of an eponymous 19th-century hermit. Before hiking out to aquamarine Theodore Roosevelt Lake, savor the solitude of Reavis, where Apache once roamed among sycamores and oaks and apples still fall from the trees in a forgotten orchard. Contact the Arizona Trail Association for trail info (www.aztrail.org).

2. Canyon Country, Utah
Make First Tracks in Secret Slots

Canyoneering—better known among cattle rustlers and bandits of yore as "hiding from the law"—is fast becoming the most popular pursuit in the Southwest. And while its most iconic venue may be Arizona's Antelope Canyon, an equally impressive, less trafficked group of slots has gained attention, thanks to the publicity surrounding climber Aron Ralston's self-amputation in 2003. On Moab-based Desert Highlights' three-day trip into the south fork of the Robbers Roost Flats ($475; www.deserthighlights.com), Ralston's onetime haunt, you'll forge new routes, discover mile-long, three-foot-wide narrows, and camp under an inky sky. Most stunning are the seldom seen petroglyphs and age-old markings left by the canyon's first explorers—the Anasazi and the early outlaws who came here to roost, before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid started terrorizing their schoolmarms.

3. Gunnison, Colorado
Conquer Fear and the Black Canyon

After years of intimidation (rock falls! 5.12 climbs!), newbie climbers are starting to see the Black Canyon of the Gunnison for what it truly is: a sheep in wolf's clothing. "The setting is so intense that it's easy to overlook that there are a lot of moderate multipitch climbs from 5.7 to 5.10," says big-wall expert Jared Ogden, 34. The canyon boasts the tallest vertical wall in Colorado—2,250-foot (686-meter) Painted Wall—the Class V-plus Gunnison River bellowing below and peregrine falcons circling overhead. Sign on for a day-long climbing clinic with San Juan Mountain Guides ($285; www.ourayclimbing.com) and try five-pitch, 500-foot (152-meter) Casual Route, a popular 5.8. After the climb, arrange for Crested Butte-based Troutfitter Sports Co. ($225 for a one-day fly-fishing trip; www.troutfitter.com) to give you a tour of the gorge below, where brown trout reach 30 inches (76 centimeters).

4. San Lorenzo, New Mexico
Drive the Geronimo Trail

The meeting point of the Chihuahuan Desert, southern Rockies, and northern Sierra Madres recalls a Wild West movie set without the film crew. Dusty roads lead through 19th-century ghost towns, fir-covered mountains loom over vast desert, and ancient dwellings sit roadside as if abandoned weeks, not centuries, ago. See it all on a weekend drive along the newly established, 150-mile (241-kilometer) Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway (www.geronimotrail.com).

Day 1: For expansive views of the Black Range, stop at Emory Pass in Gila National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r3/gila) along Route 152 and follow the Black Range Crest Trail on foot five miles (8 kilometers) north to the Hillsboro Peak fire lookout. At night, drop in on Kingston's Spit and Whittle Club, America's oldest continuously active social club—where talk of religion or politics is strictly prohibited—then bed down at the Black Range Lodge ($69; www.blackrangelodge.com), built in the 1880s.

Day 2: Drive from Kingston through the austere mesquite-and-cactus desert of the Rio Grande Valley. In the afternoon, troll for bass in 14-mile-long (23-kilometer) Caballo Reservoir, then hit the mineral waters and gourmet grub at Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa ($105; www.sierragrandelodge.com), in Truth or Consequences.

Day 3: Journey through landscapes of scrub-oak desert to the picnic-ready valley at Beaverhead. Don't miss the eccentric ghost towns of Winston and Chloride, where a 200-year-old hanging tree still stands in the middle of Main Street.

Guide
Social Climbers Lisa Hathaway & Emma Medara

Unlike some big-time climbers, British expat Medara, 39, and guide Hathaway, 40, who both climb for Sterling Rope, Five Ten, and Metolius, understand that you can take the sport seriously without taking yourself seriously. In that spirit, Medara and Hathaway founded Chicks on Cracks (www.moabdesertadventures.com), an annual women-only crack-climbing clinic in Moab and Indian Creek. "Emma and Lisa are extremely mellow, nice, and supportive; they keep the atmosphere light," says Sue Kennedy, 44, an event producer from Elko, Nevada, who has taken the clinic three times. "Everyone is out there laughing and having a really great time, and that is a very big reflection of who they are."

Lodge
El Tovar Hotel Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sixty feet (eighty meters) from the Grand Canyon's South Rim, the stone-and-log El Tovar Hotel ($129; www.grandcanyonlodges.com) was built in 1905 to lure tourists to the Big Ditch. Today, however, no one needs convincing, and El Tovar has become a sideshow—albeit a swank one—to the main attraction. Last April, for its centennial, the lodge unveiled a five-million-dollar face-lift and reopened its cozy, fire-lit pine interior, where eight U.S. presidents and Albert Einstein have hit the hay.

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