Tag Archives: canyon

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area

Overview

Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is an underappreciated gem in the National Park Service (NPS) system.  It has gorgeous scenery, a winding reservoir, and abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep and wild horses.  The 525-foot tall Yellowtail Dam was completed in 1968, creating a 71-mile long reservoir, the majority of which is in narrow Bighorn Canyon where cliffs soar up to 2,000 feet above the water.

Highlights

Devil Canyon Overlook, Hillsboro Dude Ranch, Horseshoe Bend, Yellowtail Dam

Must-Do Activity

No road connects the north and south portion of the park, making for a long drive between the NPS visitor center in Lovell, Wyoming and the one at the Yellowtail Dam in Montana.  Thus, it is best to choose either one side or the other and explore the canyon by boat.  Devil Canyon Overlook and most of the 27 miles of hiking trails are in the southern section.  This is also where the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range enters into Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.  In the summer there are lifeguards at the designated swimming areas at Horseshoe Bend and Ok-A-Beh.

Best Trail

The southern portion of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has trails to historic sites like Hillsboro Dude Ranch and several tipi rings found along Bad Pass Trail, a route which has seen over 10,000 years of human use.

Instagram-worthy Photo

If you are unable to get out on the water, the highlight of the park is Devil Canyon Overlook where the cliffs drop over 1,000 feet straight down to the lake.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/bica/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Almost every road is paved, but they are narrow and winding so may not be advisable for very long RVs.

Camping

There are drive-in campgrounds (fee) in both states, as well as free boat-in campgrounds on the Montana side.  Backcountry camping is allowed below the highwater mark of Bighorn Lake.

Related Sites

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (Montana)

Devils Tower National Monument (Wyoming)

Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

Explore More – The Yellowtail Dam is named after whom?

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Overview

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area encompasses 1.2-million acres surrounding the snaky shoreline of Lake Powell, named for geologist John Wesley Powell who led a mapping expedition down the Colorado River in 1869.  The reservoir was formed by the Glen Canyon Dam, which was built between 1956-63 to store water for the Southwestern U.S. and generate hydroelectricity.  The damming was controversial because it destroyed archaeological sites, submerged scenic canyons, and altered the flow of the Colorado River into Grand Canyon National Park

Highlights

Horseshoe Bend Overlook, Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Dam, Cathedral Wash, Lees Ferry, Hole-in-the-Rock

Must-Do Activity

The National Park Service (NPS) run Carl Hayden Visitor Center in Page, Arizona is a good place to start a visit, where you can purchase tickets for a dam tour.  The meandering lake has about 2,000 miles of shoreline (mostly in Utah) with plenty of coves to explore and spend the night aboard a houseboat (rentals available).  If you do not want to attempt navigation there are many commercial boat trips, including an all-day cruise to Rainbow Bridge National Monument.  If you plan to stay on land, be sure to walk out to Horseshoe Bend Overlook, hike through the high desert landscape, or drive some of the hundreds of miles of dirt roads.

Best Trail

Wiregrass Canyon is located east of Big Water, Utah and the rocky trail passes hoodoos and two natural bridges.

Instagram-worthy Photo

You might want to bring your “selfie stick” to iconic Horseshoe Bend Overlook, a short 0.7-mile one-way hike from the parking area on Highway 89 outside Page, Arizona.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

Parking is now $10 at Horseshoe Bend Overlook (no NPS passes accepted), but many other sites are free. There is a $30 per vehicle entrance fee at some marinas (NPS passes accepted), in addition to charges for the dam tour and guided boat tours.

Road Conditions

This park is famous for its backcountry 4×4 roads (like Hole-in-the-Rock Road) and flash floods, so check with a park ranger before attempting anything unpaved.  A fee is charged to ferry across the lake between Halls Crossing and Bullfrog Marina.

Camping

There are several developed campgrounds (mostly near marinas), but free primitive camping is allowed along most dirt roads.  A permit is required for overnight camping in the beautiful Coyote Gulch area, which is popular with backpackers.

Related Sites

Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Nevada-Arizona)

Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Arizona)

Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)

Explore More – Lake Powell is well known for its “bath tub ring,” so when did the reservoir last reach its high-water mark?

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Overview

Archaeological evidence suggests indigenous farmers lived around the Gila River dating back thousands of years, but the cliff dwellings were only briefly inhabited between AD 1270 and 1300.  After their initial discovery by Anglo-American settlers in 1878 heavy looting occurred, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to establish Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907.  It is not an easy part of the country to access, but offers two incredibly scenic drives through the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico.  Plan to spend at least a couple days in the area, maybe hiking or backpacking to some hot springs.

Highlights

Museum, film, ruins, scenic views, hot springs in area

Must-Do Activity

The Gila Visitor Center is jointly managed for the 533-acre National Monument and 558,000-acre Gila Wilderness (which in 1924 became the world’s first designated Wilderness).  From the National Park Service (NPS) contact station located just down the road, a one-mile loop trail climbs 180 feet to a well-preserved collection of cliff dwellings.  If you find that you enjoy climbing ladders up to cliff dwellings, then check out Bandelier National Monument and Balcony House at Mesa Verde National Park.

Best Trail

The trailhead also provides access to the Gila Wilderness, so watch for backpackers on the road and black bears along the West Fork Gila River.  Lightfeather Hot Springs is less than one mile from a different trailhead located closer to the Gila Visitor Center.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are about 40 rooms in the cliff dwelling ruins, which housed approximately ten families.  The south-facing cliff dwellings received the sun in the winter and shade in the summer.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/gicl/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The access roads are paved, but narrow and curvy, especially Highway 15 that heads north from Silver City, New Mexico.

Camping

Upper and Lower Scorpion Campgrounds are located just outside the National Monument boundaries in Gila National Forest.  No permits are necessary to backpack in the Gila Wilderness.

Related Sites

Montezuma Castle National Monument (Arizona)

Fort Bowie National Historic Site (Arizona)

Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

Explore More – The people who built the cliff dwellings were part of what culture, with pottery designs unique to the Tularosa phase (AD 1100 to 1300)?

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Overview

Cliff dwellings were built in Walnut Canyon around the same time another group of Sinagua was living at nearby Wupatki National Monument.  These cliff dwellings were only occupied for about a hundred years and abandoned by AD 1250.  Since 1915, they have been protected within Walnut Canyon National Monument, a 3,541-acre park on Interstate 40 east of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Highlights

Museum, ruins, scenic views

Must-Do Activity

To get up close with the ruins requires a hike down 200 stairs on the one-mile Island Trail loop.  At 6,690 feet in elevation, downhill is easy, but getting back up is another matter entirely.  It is well worth the effort to get a feeling for a life spent inside the shallow limestone recesses in the canyon walls.

Best Trail

The paved Island Trail drops 185 feet and takes you right up to the 25 rooms built into the cliffs.  Above the canyon, 0.75-mile Rim Trail is handicap accessible and provides views of the ruins.

Instagram-worthy Photo

October is a great time to visit to see changing leaves in Walnut Canyon, especially the bigtooth maple trees.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/waca/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$15 per person or America the Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Access road is paved

Camping

There is not a campground at the site, but dispersed camping is allowed down the dirt road that turns off to the left just before entering the National Monument.

Related Sites

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (Arizona)

Montezuma Castle National Monument (Arizona)

Tuzigoot National Monument (Arizona)

Explore More – There are multiple Arizona sites in the National Park Service system dedicated to the vanished Sinagua people; what does their name mean in Spanish?

Petroglyph National Monument

Overview

Bordered by the suburban neighborhoods of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is a nice place to take a walk and enjoy some intricate artwork.  The petroglyphs were chipped into the patina of volcanic rocks in a long-populated region of the Rio Grande Valley.  Some of these images may be up to 3,000 years old, with most believed to be carved between AD 1400 and 1700.  A few were added by Hispanic settlers and explorers through the 1800s, but the National Park Service (NPS) politely requests no aspiring artists add any more.

Highlights

Boca Negra Canyon, Rinconada Canyon Trail, Piedras Marcadas Canyon, Volcanoes Day Use Area

Must-Do Activity

There are multiple areas of this National Monument established in 1990, some literally in Albuquerque residents’ backyards.  At Boca Negra Canyon, you will find interesting depictions of humans, snakes, and even parrots from Central America, as well as many puzzling illustrations.  Use your imagination to try to guess what the original carver was trying to display. 

Best Trail

Volcanoes Day Use Area offers loop trails around three volcanic cones on the West Mesa with incredible views of the Sandia Mountains and Rio Grande Valley (but no petroglyphs).

Instagram-worthy Photo

Rinconada Canyon Trail is 1.25 miles one-way and starts at a small NPS parking lot in suburban Albuquerque and accesses an area with thousands of petroglyphs.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/petr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, but be prepared for stoplights, especially on the main connecting road Unser Boulevard.

Camping

There are private campgrounds around Albuquerque, New Mexico, or you can look for options in the Cibola and Santa Fe National Forests.

Related Sites

Pecos National Historical Park (New Mexico)

El Morro National Monument (New Mexico)

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument (New Mexico)

Explore More – How many petroglyphs are estimated to be protected within this National Monument?

Boca Negra Canyon contains thousands of petroglyphs and fascinating volcanic rock formations.

Some petroglyphs are more difficult to interpret.  I think this one depicts a yucca fruit.