National Geographic Adventure | March 2009
Moab gets a face-lift. The Grand Canyon shows off two secret falls. And the Colorado River makes room for untested paddlers. Presenting the 20 best adventures in the Four Corners, where everything old (even the ancient stuff) is new again.
By Kate Siber
RIDE A NEWLY REMODELED MOAB
Moab is at it again. In May the country’s most popular and best publicized biking town will open a remarkable addition: 13 miles of loops in Dead Horse Point State Park, an area once off-limits to the public. The riding is similar to Moab’s finest—slickrock and twisty, moderate singletrack through juniper, piñon, cactus, and yucca—but the views are some of the best in the U.S. Made possible in part by a grant from (get this) a community-minded local mining company, the trails crisscross some prime real estate: the edge of a rock butte that rises 2,000 feet above the snaking Colorado River and once served as a natural corral for wranglers breaking mustangs over a century ago. Pedal past old cowboy sites but linger on until sunset, when the low sun glints off the Colorado and torches the Great Pyramid and Big Chief formations below.
BECOME A “NATIVORE”
Forget fry bread. The Tohono O’odham tribe near Tucson is taking back its traditional cuisine with the help of a community farm that grows amaranth, tepary beans, cholla buds, corn, and other indigenous plants. Even better, Loews Ventana Canyon Resort has developed a 90-minute cooking class that not only introduces students to the unusual (and highly nutritious) crops but shows them how to use the ingredients in a Western-influenced dish, such as prickly pear sorbet in cactus-seed cones ($50; loewshotels.com/ventanacanyon).
PADDLE THE COLORADO ON YOUR OWN
You’ve got at best a 9 percent chance of winning the weighted lottery for a permit to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Or you can take the sure thing: the forgotten 15-mile stretch between the Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry, the launch point for Grand Canyon rafters—a run that requires no paperwork or Class V certification. Kayak Powell’s new self-guided two-day trips on this flatwater haven take paddlers through canyons that meld the height of the Grand with Glen’s skyscraper-steep walls and sinewy caves ($119; kayakpowell.com). And thanks to the dam’s filtration, it’s home to the Southwest’s cleanest waters (and tons of trout). Choose a boat at Kayak Powell’s shop in Page, head to Lees Ferry, and meet tour-and-shuttle operator Colorado River Discovery, which will ferry you 15 miles upstream to Glen Canyon. A piece of advice: Take your time. At the dam, the vertical cliffs rise to about 700 feet; halfway through the trip, they rocket to 1,700. Camp on one of six designated swaths of sand, then watch slivers of stars emerge between narrow canyon walls.
CLIMB A ONE-OF-A-KIND CRAG
You might recognize Diablo Canyon as the setting for the first shootout scene in 3:10 to Yuma. Then again, Diablo, which is carved from the desert about 15 minutes outside of Santa Fe, could be almost any canyon in the Southwest—a flat, sandy wash flanked by soaring cliffs and devoid of people. Here, however, those cliffs hide slices of hard, dark basalt with cracks formed by cooling lava—the perfect habitat for climbers. In the past ten years, local Santa Fe crag rats have developed some one hundred routes here. You’ll find impressive variety: single-pitch and multipitch routes, bolted sport and trad climbs, as well as both north-facing and south-facing climbs. “But the biggest allure is that there are no crowds,” says John Kear, an American Mountain Guide Association-certified guide and the co-owner of Albuquerque-based Suntoucher Mountain Guides. “On most all the crags you’re by yourself or close to it.” During a day of guided climbing with Suntoucher, don’t miss Post Moderate, a 5.9 face climb with large, satisfying holds and wide-angle views across the back lot of a Western ($295 per person, per day or $376 for two; suntoucher.com).
SKI TELLURIDE’S LATEST REVELATION
In 2008 the mountains above Telluride, a town of 2,267 airlifted from the Alps, kept their powder through May. This year some brilliant minds built a quad lift to the resort’s crown jewel: Revelation Bowl, heretofore one of the most sought-after backcountry runs in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado (lift tickets, $97; tellurideskiresort.com). Northeast-facing Revelation holds 800 vertical feet of wide-open turns (about the size of one of Vail’s big bowls—without the Vail-size crowds). For steep powder runs through boulders, traverse the ridges, or for rolling groomed terrain, beeline straight down the middle. In between schusses, catch glimpses of 13,000-foot peaks above and Telluride far below. Come evening, Capella Telluride makes for a suitably fluffy landing pad (doubles from $295; capellatelluride.com). The hundred-room hotel by Ritz Carlton founder Horst Schulze opened in the mountain village in February. Here, ski valets swap guests’ equipment for hot drinks, while a team of personal assistants arranges dinner reservations and private ski tours.
GET A ROOM (WITH A VIEW)
Amangiri Resort & Spa
UTAH Even as real estate values plummet, one maxim remains as relevant as ever: It’s all about location, location, location. Take, for example, Aman Resorts’ new 34-room lodge, which claims 600 acres of limestone cliffs, spires, and bridges near Grand Staircase- Escalante National Monument (doubles from $800; villasatamangiri.com). The lodge, Aman’s second in the U.S., is just 15 minutes from Page, Arizona, but it feels like a backcountry hideout. Hike the surrounding canyons with naturalist Mike Friedman, kayak Lake Powell, or detour to the Vermillion Cliffs. The Zen-chic rooms feature custom rawhide furniture, nearby fire pits, and, naturally, views.
The View Hotel
UTAH The Navajo owners named this lodge, aptly, after what guests see right after they walk in and then again from their private balcony: a stratling panorama of the Mittens, the poster-ready red monoliths that jut out of Monument Valley. Designed to blend in with the landscape, this 90-room hotel, which opened in December, was built in keeping with the owners’ Earth-minded ethos, using high-efficiency windows and drought-friendly landscaping (doubles from $95; monumentvalleyview.com). Each day, Navajo guides lead horseback or hiking tours. In the evenings, a wood fire burns in the lobby’s two-story stone hearth, and sunsets are almost guaranteed (the valley boasts 276 sunny days a year.)
FIND LOST ART
Last year Petroglyph National Monument, home to over 20,000 ancient masterworks, opened a new wing, er, canyon. Piedras Marcadas Canyon, a gallery of 5,000 mysterious depictions, bolsters what was already the continent’s largest concentration of petroglyphs within an urban area. Archaeologists say the Anasazi believed the canyon was a portal between this world and the next—that their ancestors’ spirits would travel from the escarpment to the top of nearby volcanoes. See the exhibit, then follow the spirits by hiking the park’s 3.8-mile loop to the top of the sacred cones.
RAFT A WILDERNESS REBORN
The Taos Box, a 17-mile stretch of Class IV to V rapids on the Rio Grande River, is called (by New Mexicans, at least) the country’s wildest stretch of wilderness whitewater. And that was before the BLM reintroduced two indigenous species to the area—Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and the rare river otter. On a weekend trip through the Taos Box with veteran outfitter Native Sons Adventures, scan the 700-foot vertical walls for bighorns, but be prepared to paddle ($325; nativesonsadventures.com). Rapids on this Wild and Scenic River drop through large basalt boulders, generating big water with startlingly graphic names, such as Boat Reamer and Enema. Riverside, the outfitter approximates wilderness luxury with hot showers, tents already pitched, and multicourse fireside dinners.
BOOST YOUR KARMA (WHILE ON VACATION)
Each year, the National Park Service puts out a wish list of urgent projects, and each year, Wilderness Volunteers organizes teams of 12 do-gooders to complete them. While volunteers must be fit, the weeklong projects seem more like vacations than work. Consider two that will take place this year in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, considered the cultural center of the Anasazi, who vanished mysteriously around a.d. 1300. Voluntourists spend much of the day clearing barbed wire fences so that wildlife can pass through, but extracurricular perks include ranger-led hikes to remote dwellings otherwise closed to the public, and evening stargazing with a park astronomer (April 19-25, April 26-May 2; $259, including meals; wildernessvolunteers.org). Instant karma, indeed.
FOLLOW JOE INTO APACHE COUNTRY
Joe Saenz calls himself a wilderness guide, but he’s being modest. Saenz is a new breed of Native American guide, eager to share his culture with outsiders but fiercely protective of his Apache traditions. He also happens to be a walking repository of the history, geology, and ecology of southwestern New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. “Joe really is a wonderful teacher—not just about riding and horses but about how to be in the wilderness,” says Pam Smith, a New Jersey doctor who rides with Saenz every year. A Warm Springs Apache, Saenz is soft-spoken and welcoming, but sign up for one of his horsepacking trips into the Gila and you’ll get a master’s class in wilderness ed ($160 a day; wolfhorseoutfitters.com). Saenz tailors each trip to groups of no more than five, so each can choose its curriculum. New horsepackers learn packing techniques, map orienteering, and wilderness hoof care. History buffs take in Saenz’s stories about the Buffalo Soldiers, miners, and Pueblo Indians who frequented these remote woods in centuries past. But everyone learns about the regional Native American heritage and local wilderness know-how that Saenz is uniquely equipped to share.
CLIMB OURAY’S TOWERS OF ICE
Ouray has found its groove as the country’s ice climbing capital. And apparently, chicks dig it. This winter, the tiny Victorian town ensconced in steep red canyons launched the first annual Betty Ice Ball, a series of clinics for female climbers and post-climb shindigs (chickswithpicks.net). If you miss the festival, though, San Juan Mountain Guides has a ready solution: the two-day Basic Ice Climbing Course, held on weekends between December and March ($320, including gear rental; ourayclimbing.com). In the Ice Park, students learn ax and crampon techniques, energy conservation tactics (use balance, not brute strength), belaying methods, and safety procedures. By the end of day one you’ll learn to suspend more than yourself while high off the ground in a frozen blue kingdom.
MOUNT AN EXPEDITION INTO A SECRET CANYON
Don’t hate John Wesley Powell and the Southwest’s other explorers just because they got here first. Far better to impersonate them. Rafting company Wild Rivers Expeditions and hiking outfitter Far Out Expeditions have teamed up to offer an 11-day trip in August to Slickhorn Canyon that’s worthy of exploration’s annals ($2,840; faroutexpeditions.com). The 20-mile-long chasm lined with unreconstructed ancestral Puebloan dwellings in southeastern Utah can be reached only by boat (provided by Wild Rivers). Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a certified canyon junkie who has 25 years’ experience guiding and surveying with archaeological expeditions, is your ground support. Push off in a raft from just outside of Bluff, Utah, and travel 67 miles along the San Juan River over five days. You’ll float past petroglyphs accessible only by river, hike to inscriptions etched by Mormon pioneers, and marvel at millions of years of geology rising into the cobalt sky, not to mention the Class III rapids and an avian bounty, including herons and hawks. Then follow Hadenfeldt on a six-day ramble through Slickhorn. You’ll scramble up side canyons, explore unexcavated ruins, and camp amid cottonwoods and willows while your expedition leader takes care of the rest.
DISCOVER A TROUT STREAM HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
Colorado’s Arkansas River is home to one of the busiest sections of whitewater in the country. But after 5 p.m. each summer day, swarms of rafters vamoose for Salida’s bars, leaving the river in utter quietude—an angler’s paradise. Twenty years ago, the Arkansas was grossly contaminated with heavy metals leaching from old mines and smelting sites upstream. Major cleanup efforts, including a new water treatment system, have transformed it into a phenomenal fishery with naturally reproducing populations of brown and rainbow trout. Join Arkansas River Tours’ evening fly-fishing trips, which launch at five in the afternoon and end after sunset between April and September ($175 for two; arkansasrivertours.com). During those months, over 40 species of caddis hatch, piquing the interest of 16-inch browns.
HIKE THE NEW ROADS TO RUINS
Turns out the Chacoan people, like the Romans before them, were crazy about roads. They built more than 200 miles of them, mostly for ceremonial reasons. With the help of a newly released map (aztecchamber.com), visitors can trace the routes, which were once wider than two-lane highways and are often accessible from major byways in the Four Corners. Make sure to take in two of the less frequented sites along the ancient roads. Salmon Ruins, a thousand-year-old Chacoan-style great house that once had 250 rooms, sits on government-owned land near Aztec, New Mexico ($3; salmonruins.com). Nearby lies perhaps the most isolated community: Twin Angels Pueblo, a 17-room complex perched precariously on the edge of a canyon. This year, the Aztec Visitors Center marked this remote site on a map for the first time, though few people hike the half mile to view it. It may be the perfect place to ponder the secrets of the ancients: sitting on the edge of Kutz Canyon, next to a centuries-old masonry wall, with expansive views over sagebrush country.
PADDLE CATARACT WITH A PULITZER PRIZE WINNER
It’s not easy to improve upon the hundred-mile raft trip on the Colorado River through Utah’s Cataract Canyon, the Grand Canyon’s stately upstream sister. But O.A.R.S. has managed to do it, inviting Pulitzer Prize-winning canyon expert Philip Fradkin on its trip this summer (July 11-16; $2,135; oars.com). In wooden dories, paddlers bounce through Class III rapids, spot seasonal waterfalls, and gape at the buttes and mesas of Canyonlands National Park. Side hikes reveal ruins and inscriptions from expeditions past. “I always get more out of trips when there are books or guides who give me a sense of the context of the river, and that’s what I plan to do,” says Fradkin, who wrote A River No More, the definitive work on the Colorado River. After dinner, Fradkin might read from his biography of novelist and activist Wallace Stegner or chat about the history and conservation of the West’s great plumbing system.
NAME THE GRAND’S BRAND-NEW FALLS
Last August, a flash flood in the Grand Canyon rerouted Havasu Creek and wiped out 75-foot Navajo Falls, a favorite swimming hole for weary backpackers. In its place: two newly created and yet unnamed cataracts. The Havasupai tribe is busy rebuilding the end of the ten-mile trail to the reservation and plans to reopen it this spring. Join one of veteran outfitter AOA Adventures’ five-day Canyon Adventurer trips to the canyon bottom to see the forces of nature at work ($1,497; aoa-adventures.com). The hike switchbacks down the south rim of the Grand Canyon, then runs along arroyos and through stepped walls layered in red and beige that rise 3,000 feet from the narrow canyon floor. It steers through the dusty village of Supai, home of the last mule-train-serviced post office in the country, then ends ceremoniously at hundred-foot aqua blue Havasu Falls. The outfitter’s exclusive tented base camp, with linens, a library, and ice for gin and tonics, is staked in a shady grove of cottonwoods by a creek. Before packing out, hikers have four days to explore the remade wildland.
DRIVE AN EPIC BYWAY (THIS WEEKEND)
State Route 12 has always had the scenery part covered (the 124-mile road connects Capitol Reef National Park with Bryce Canyon National Park). But in recent years—as innovative restaurants have cropped up alongside it—the byway has become nothing less than the definitive Four Corners road trip.
Day 1 At Capitol Reef National Park, hike the 3.5-mile Chimney Rock Loop to the path’s namesake monolith, then motor 20 miles west to Torrey. The Torrey Schoolhouse Bed & Breakfast, your night’s lodging, is a refurbished 1914 schoolhouse where—legend has it—Butch Cassidy himself attended a dance (doubles from $110; torreyschoolhouse.com). Nearby CafŽ Diablo serves trip-worthy dishes like chipotle-rum-molasses-roasted pork ribs on a patio above the canyons (cafediablo.com).
Day 2 The 36 miles to Boulder, Utah, might seem short, but set aside the entire day for the road’s hoodoo views and a hike up Boulder Mountain. Boulder itself is a blip of a town, but it hosts the unmissable Zagat-rated Hell’s Backbone Grill, an organic, Buddhist enclave that dishes up regional foods like duck breast with wild rose hip-sage cream sauce (hellsbackbonegrill.com). Boulder Mountain Lodge, meanwhile, has a communal fire pit and yoga mats for hire (doubles from $97; boulder-utah.com).
Day 3 Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is just 29 miles from Boulder. Check in to a cabin at Escalante Outfitters, a one-stop shop that vends gear, pizza, and beer (doubles from $45; escalanteoutfitters.com). Rent a bike there ($35 a day) and gather intel on the slickrock and forested singletrack trails.
Day 4 After 34 miles of highway, take the seven-mile jaunt south of Cannonville to Kodachrome Basin State Park, where enormous cones of sand mark petrified geysers. It’s another 13 miles on Highway 12 to Bryce Canyon: a fitting finale. The tough eight-mile hike on the seldom frequented Fairyland Loop Trail delivers your own private hoodoo sculpture gallery.
BLAZE A TRAIL THROUGH HURRICANE
Hurricane, a small town in the wrinkled recesses of southeastern Utah, is the next great slickrock biking town for two principal reasons: (1) Its proximity to Zion National Park, and (2) Over the Edge Sports, the best bike shop this side of Moab. Community-friendly OTES, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in December, rents some of the best demo bikes available, including Ibis Mojos, Knolly Delirium Ts, and Yeti 575s ($90 a day; otesports.com). Then, of course, there are the trails out back. Hurricane sits alongside the famed Gooseberry Mesa, a nest of over 20 miles of singletrack, but otherwise the area remains largely undiscovered. “We have a boatload of potential,” says Quentin Morisette, who owns OTES with his wife, D.J. Every Saturday, Quentin offers free intermediate group rides in the morning, and D.J. runs free women-only rides in the afternoon. Slickrock freshmen hone their skills on the north rim of the mesa, while veterans head to the technical south rim—though no one need compete for views. An occasional look up from the handlebars reveals craggy mountains, water-carved canyons, and the crimson monoliths of Zion.
FIND A FOODIE OASIS
The town of Bluff, the put-in for San Juan River trips, sits just 50 miles from Monument Valley. But until recently it was about a hundred miles from a decent bite to eat. Then chef Leah Schrenk opened the San Juan River Kitchen (435-672-9956). Schrenk, a 34-year-old sandy blonde with a knack for kitchen chemistry, keeps it local. Veggies come from the organic garden she shares with a local rafting outfitter, and she buys her organic meats from a local ranch. Stop in post-hike, post-ride, or post-paddle and sample specials like dolmas wrapped in Swiss chard and kale or peppers stuffed with rice, sausage, and veggies. The homemade desserts—such as the chocolate-cayenne cake filled with fruit from nearby orchards—are worth the trip by themselves.
CANYONEER IN ESCALANTE (EXPERT INSTRUCTION INCLUDED)
The American Canyoneering Association has certified exactly one guiding company in the Southwest: Excursions of Escalante. And in 2009 EOE is launching the most robust canyoneering curriculum in the Four Corners: a series of three-day courses in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument ($450, including lunch and gear rental; excursionsofescalante.com). “The philosophy we teach is to move extremely slow and efficient,” says owner Rick Green. “The places we take people, there are no trails, there are no cairns. This is the real deal.” Moving methodically and safely leaves plenty of time for admiring the classroom: the monument’s Egypt area, a six-mile-long slickrock bench with tiny sand dunes and crimson canyons that rise 300 feet high and narrow to as little as two feet. While rappelling off cliffs into Dr. Seuss-like crevasses and sloshing through pools, learn basic knots, anchors, and rigging methods, as well as how to read maps and judge weather patterns. Each night, return to Escalante’s Grand Staircase Bed & Breakfast Inn, a cozy clapboard abode that serves enormous breakfasts (doubles from $135; escalantebnb.com). After class, participants return to town for a barbecue behind the outfitter’s shop and to plan their first guideless canyoneering adventures. Antelope Canyon, anyone?