It’s time for a little luxury. A bona fide booked campsite (with shower) for two nights at one of our favorites, Homolovi State Park – and a decadent dinner in the Turquoise Room at La Posada Inn.
Over sweetcorn tamales, lamb free-range raised locally on Navajo Nation lands, generously poured wine pairings, and a bread pudding that nearly had our wait person weeping just to describe it – we reminisced about our travels of the past few days:
Gila National Forest quietly boasts 3.3 million acres of amongst the least developed forest land in the United States. Tucked into the wilderness interior is a gem of a site: the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The drive is a few hours along winding forested roads that break out occasionally on stunning vistas across the mountains. We sleep one night in the forest and another along the river.
Gila Cliff Dwellings is a National Monument, but there are only a few cars here. It takes dedication and time to get here and there’s no through road. The mile hike loop to the dwellings elucidates Mogollon people’s reasoning for having chosen this location – stream crossings, pinion pines, wild grapevines, a steep climb to shaded cliff walls.
Up a wood ladder and we are standing in a spacious hall. The creosote-blackened roof tells of community fires. Below and within are stone walled rooms lined with built-in benches, and windows that look out on douglas fir, ponderosa pines, and the rocky outcrops that are home to the canyon wrens we hear.
Human voices suddenly fill the space and for a moment it sounds as though we’ve stepped back to 1275 C.E. It turns out to be a national park volunteer talking to a small group ahead of us. He tells of the archaeology of the site and shows us petroglyphs on the walls. Under a rock are two small flakes of turquoise, but these do not belong, we learn; rather, they were brought by the packrats which threaten to undermine the dwellings. But the Mogollon peoples are still here in other ways: we are shown a single white bead discovered in a crevice just days earlier.
We cap our time in the Gila with one last hike. This one is short, and executed in flip flips as there are two river crossings to get there. We find the hot springs and soak our feet, moving upward toward the source until the mix of waters from hot springs and cold stream is just a little too warm. Ahhhh….
Just 50 miles outside of Winslow is Petrified Forest National Park. In 2019 just as the Covid-19 pandemic was rapidly descending on the United States, we found ourselves here with my parents, who had come from California on a road trip to meet us. As parks began to introduce limited occupation, social distancing, and sanitizer stations (masks were still taboo at that time, being saved for health workers), we explored Crystal Forest and ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs. My boss called. “Take your time getting back… the museum is closing for a while….” It was an eerie, twilight zone time, and I have mixed memories of precious extra moments with my parents and the strange feeling of pending lockdown. Indeed, when we finally did get home it was just one day before Denver issued city-wide stay at home orders.
This time, we walk the same paths past ancient trees transformed to stone, and add more: a hike on the Blue Mesa Trail down into the canyon with its surreal colors. I love this park, and it will always remain a little strange to me.
“65 mile an hour gusts,” the Homolovi State Park ranger tells us. We’re lucky to have scored a second night on this Easter weekend with high wind warnings in effect from the National Weather Service. What to do with our afternoon? Go biking, of course. It’ll be a tough slog pedaling back uphill, but getting there will be… a breeze. 😉
Homol’ovi II is an ancestral dwelling place of the Hopi people, built around 1330 C.E. With archaeological and oral history evidence of extensive plazas and 40 kivas – a staggering 1200 rooms in total – some 750 or more people called this home for almost 70 years before likely returning to their earlier villages on the Hopi Mesas. Time, ancient ritual, and looters have reduced the site to ruins, but it is not abandoned: the remains are still accessed today by their descendants.
We return in a headwind, stopping to catch our breath twice: once to be brayed at by wild donkeys, and then to explore an archaeological gem that caught our eye – an awe-inspiring reward for biking over driving. For that- you’ll have to ask me.