Road Trip: Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon was a busy place 1,000 years ago. Early great houses (large public buildings) began being built around 800 AD, and construction continued for about 300 years. Today the ruins of the Chacoan great houses stand as a testament to their builders’ culture, brilliant architectural and astrological knowledge, and remarkable ability to thrive in the harsh conditions of the desert southwest. Enjoy your visit.

Where is it?

Chaco Canyon lies in the Four Corners region of the US in northwestern New Mexico. (Four Corners is where the corners of the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet.) A town called Nageezi is the closest map dot to the park, but it doesn’t offer much more than a turn off for the road to the canyon, which involves another 24-mile trek, and part of the road is very bumpy gravel. But getting there is half the fun, right?

On the (smooth) road to Chaco Canyon.

Besides being a national park unit, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a designated International Dark Sky Park. Features of the park include:

  • Visitor center, museum, park film
  • Bookstore/gift shop
  • Nine-mile-long Canyon Loop Drive – open to motor vehicles and bicycles.
  • Three additional bike trails.
  • Four backcountry trails – permit required.
  • Gallo Campground, featuring 32 individual and two group sites which can be reserved through www.recreation.gov. RV, tent, and car camping is available with some restrictions and no hook ups.
  • Periodic night sky events, and the park also features an observatory.
  • Periodic ranger led tours or talks.
  • Seasonal hours apply.
  • Admission fee applies.

Access the park’s website here.

Chaco Canyon Visitor Center

Many Roads Led to Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon was a regional center for trade, and an elaborate road system covering hundreds of miles connected the area’s great houses. The map below shows the great houses and the roads. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, formerly Chaco Canyon National Monument, protects the 16 great houses in and around the canyon. The park’s great houses are the best preserved prehistoric architectural structures in North America. Additionally, archaeological and anthropological studies of the site have resulted in the discovery of over 1.5 million artifacts, most of which are in the care of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

A glimpse inside the park’s museum.

The new Chaco Canyon Visitor Center and museum opened in 2017 after years of planning and construction. Artifacts from the park’s collection as well as some borrowed from other museums were to be displayed in the park’s museum. Unfortunately, the heating and air conditioning system does not provide the proper climate controls needed to preserve the artifacts. Now, several years later with no resolution to the climate control issues in sight, empty display cases line the walls of the museum.

Some of the display cases feature reproduction pottery such as the jar shown above.

Despite the fact that the museum didn’t have original artifacts, it did provide us with a lot of interesting information about the canyon, its inhabitants, and the great houses.

The Great Houses

Builders of the great houses quarried stone and carried timber from many miles away. They also constructed dams, waterways, and stairways. Chaco Canyon’s great houses are sacred to many Native American tribes.

Hungo Pavi was occupied from AD 1000 – 1250s and remains unexcavated.

Hungo Pavi

Chetro Ketl is the second largest great house in Chaco Canyon and was occupied from AD 950 – 1250s. With 400 rooms, it covers 5.5 acres (2.3 hectares) which actually makes it the largest in terms of surface area.

Chetro Ketl practically blends into its surroundings.
Chetro Ketl’s back wall.
Petroglyphs on the mesa wall between Chetro Ketl and its closest neighbor Pueblo Bonito.

Pueblo Del Arroyo was occupied from AD 1075 – 1250s. Unlike other Chacoan great houses, Pueblo Del Arroyo does not have a great kiva (communal meeting place or possible ritual site). Perhaps its people shared Pueblo Bonito’s great kivas, as the two great houses sit just a few hundred yards apart.

Pueblo Del Arroyo
Archaeologists who excavated Pueblo Del Arroyo in the mid 1920s uncovered only about half of the great house.

Pueblo Bonito

The largest of all great houses, was occupied from AD 850 – 1250s and was the first Chacoan great house to be excavated.

Pueblo Bonito as seen from the trail.

Archaeologists believe that Pueblo Bonito was the convergence point of the roads leading to Chaco Canyon. The four story, D-shaped structure featured about 800 rooms, 32 kivas, and four great kivas. Its number of occupants remains debatable due to the lack of trash piles and burial sites. Some theorize that the huge great house was used primarily as a ritual site, thus the four great kivas.

In 1941, 30,000 tons of rock slid off of the mesa’s face and destroyed about 30 of the pueblo’s rooms. The Chacoan builders of the great house knew a rockslide was possible and had built supporting masonry walls just in case. Remarkably, Threatening Rock as it was called, held stable for centuries before it finally gave way.

View of the pueblo and the rockslide.
It is hard to tell how big the pueblo is from ground level.

For size and scale purposes, the aerial photo below shows the great house and the rockslide debris. Credit for the photo goes to Bob Adams of Albuquerque, New Mexico via Wikipedia.

Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito.

More Canyon Highlights

Casa Rinconada Community was occupied from AD 1075 – 1250s and is considered a village rather than a great house. The village features the largest great kiva in the canyon.

Casa Rinconada Community’s great kiva.

From wayside information: Unlike the monumental Chacoan great houses, the villages along this trail are more modest. Yet both the great houses and the villages were built and occupied during the same period. Hundreds of these small villages and communities have been discovered clustered around Chacoan great houses. The role of the great houses isn’t clear. Perhaps they served a central purpose: ceremonial, economic, and administrative, and the small village communities supported those efforts.

Ruins of the Casa Rinconada Community.

Una Vida is another of Chaco Canyon’s great houses and was occupied from AD 850 – 1250s. Basically untouched, Una Vida has had little excavation.

Ruins at Una Vida

According to archaeologists, Una Vida was two to three stories tall and had 100 ground floor rooms and kivas. Additional rooms surrounded the plaza. Interestingly, a jewelry workshop was found at Una Vida along with pottery from Mesa Verde which is now Mesa Verde National Park.

Petroglyph panel at Una Vida.

Desert sand and vegetation preserve most of Una Vida and its great kiva, so it looks much like it did when it was discovered in 1849. Una Vida is reached via a 1-mile out and back trail that starts at the visitor center.

Wetherill Cemetery

A lonely patch of sandy scrubland is the final resting place of Richard Wetherill, his wife, Marietta, and several others.

Wetherill Cemetery

Richard Wetherill was a Colorado rancher, but he had a passion for ancient puebloan culture and was an amateur archaeologist. He is credited with coining the word Anasazi to describe the ancient ones who occupied the ancestral pueblo dwellings of the southwestern US and is also credited with rediscovering and excavating some of the dwellings at what is now Mesa Verde National Park.

Richard Wetherill

Wetherill established a homestead in Chaco Canyon where he assisted in excavating Pueblo Bonito under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History. He ran a trading post in the canyon until his death. Click here to learn more about Mr. Wetherill and his mysterious murder.

Fajada Butte

Rising approximately 440 feet (135 meters) from the canyon floor, Fajada Butte is the predominant natural landmark in Chaco Canyon. It is also sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo peoples, and it is home to the most significant petroglyph in the canyon: the Sun Dagger.

According to the park: Atop Fajada Butte Chacoan skywatchers commemorated the movement of the sun and the seasons. Sunlight passed between three boulder slabs onto a spiral petroglyph to mark the sun’s position on summer solstice, winter solstice, and the equinoxes. 

In recent years, scientists have noticed a change in the light pattern on the spiral due to slipping of the boulder slabs. They suspect that the slipping could be from human-caused erosion to the base of the rocks, and as a result access to Fajada Butte is prohibited.

See a photo of the Sun Dagger here.


We were fortunate to visit Chaco Canyon when many wildflowers were blooming. We hope that we have identified them correctly. Click on any image in the gallery below to view as a slideshow.

Thank you so much for joining us on our Chaco Canyon road trip! We appreciate you more than we can express. We’re closing the post with one of the friends we made on our visit to the park.

Common blotch-sided lizard

Want to see more in New Mexico? Check out these great destinations:

New Mexico’s Salinas Pueblo Missions

Pecos National Historical Park

Albuquerque to Taos Road Trip: Things to Do

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.






The National Park That Was, Then Wasn’t

This is the story of a national park that was, then wasn’t. We visited Chickasaw National Recreation Area because we wanted to see what remained of a national park that once was one of the most visited in the United States. In fact, the park attracted visitors to southern Oklahoma before Oklahoma was even an official state!

Family at the park – probably early 1900s.

Our guess is that most people who visit the park today don’t pay much attention to the park that was. Most of today’s visitors are likely there to enjoy the camping and water sport opportunities that the new park offers. Interestingly, the park has always been about water, but not in the ways most people would think. Enjoy the journey as we explore the historic place that was once Platt National Park.

A wood sign for "Platt National Park" affixed to a stone pillar
Today the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built sidewalks and rock entrance monuments remain but without the wooden signs. National Park Service photo.

Birth of a Park

According to the National Park Service: Between the 1830 Indian Removal Act and 1850, the U.S. government used forced treaties and/or U.S. Army action to move about 100,000 American Indians living east of the Mississippi River, westward to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Among the relocated tribes were the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole.

Trail of Tears map. (Wikipedia)

The trails the tribes followed are collectively called the Trail of Tears. Chickasaw and Choctaw settled on the same land grant in the southern third of Indian Territory but later agreed with the government to split the land between the two nations. Lands acquired by the Chickasaw Nation included the area that would later become Platt National Park.

Primary view of object titled 'Platt National Park'.
1924 postcard

Fearing uncontrolled use of their lands’ mineral and freshwater springs, both the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations sold 32 springs along with 640 acres of land to the Department of the Interior for protection in 1902. The site was initially named Sulphur Springs Reservation, however, four years later the name was changed to Platt National Park.

Books and Brochures - Chickasaw National Recreation Area (U.S. National Park Service)
1939 Guidebook

Platt Historic District

Platt National Park was the seventh U.S. national park and was named after the late Connecticut Senator Orville Platt who had supported legislation to protect the springs located on the land. In 1914, the park, which was then the smallest of all national parks, attracted more visitors than Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks.

Fountain at the original entrance to the park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.
Bromide Pavilion, also built by the CCC in the mid-1930s, was a place for visitors to collect water piped in from Bromide Spring until it quit flowing in the 1970s. Today it is still a beautiful building.
1930s comfort station. Now modernized, the structure has withstood the test of time.

Pavilion Springs

Sulphur Springs Pavilion, circa 1902.

Much to the Chickasaw and Choctaw people’s dissatisfaction, visitors flocked to the springs because they believed the mineral waters held healing powers. Resorts such as the one above and others that popped up around the springs brought about the sale of the springs and surrounding lands to the government.

Renamed Pavilion Springs because of several different pavilions built over them through the years, this photo shows a newer, smaller pavilion. Circa 1904.
This pavilion was built by the CCC in the 1930s and still covers Pavilion Springs today.
Pavilion Springs continue to flow. The sign in the background shows the concentrations of minerals in the water.

Travertine Nature Center

Built in 1969, the Travertine Nature Center was the last major improvement project of Platt National Park. The building was designed to reflect the architectural style of renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright while keeping the National Park Service Rustic look of the park’s other structures.

The Travertine Nature Center serves as a visitor center in the park, and while it is a newer building it is considered part of the Platt Historic District. Its features include dioramas depicting the park’s wildlife as well as live exhibits of fish and amphibians. Visitors to the center can pick up park brochures, buy a souvenir in the bookstore, and talk with rangers about the park.

Diorama in the nature center. Foxes, deer, and many other animals can be found in the park.
We think this guy may be a bluegill which is found in the lakes at the park. Whatever he is, he looks kind of grumpy.
Travertine Creek flows beneath the nature center – very Frank Lloyd Wright-ish!

And speaking of history, how long has it been since you’ve seen one of these?

It’s in a little alcove on the outside of the Travertine Nature Center. It doesn’t work anymore, but it was a step back in time to see a pay phone.

Little Niagara

A longtime favorite swimming area for visitors, Little Niagara is a small cascade on Travertine Creek and is just a short walk from the nature center. Improvements at the Little Niagara area, including a dam to create the swimming hole, were also done by the CCC in the 1930s.

Little Niagara
People have enjoyed the waters of Travertine Creek and Little Niagara for many years. This photo is probably from the early 1900s.

Lincoln Bridge

Lincoln Bridge, which replaced an old wooden bridge, was the first improvement project of Platt National Park. Amid much fanfare, the bridge was dedicated on February 12, 1909, in honor of President Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday and re-dedicated on the same day in 2009 to celebrate its own centennial.

Approaching Lincoln Bridge

Forrest Townsend, who was the first full-time ranger at Platt National Park, designed Lincoln Bridge. Constructed of limestone, the bridge is 120 feet long and 20 feet wide. Four crenelated (notched) towers form the abutments with steps and a flagpole on each one.

View of Travertine Creek from Lincoln Bridge

Lincoln Bridge has long been a favorite scenic spot in the park. We found it to be our favorite too.

Trivia: In 2011, as part of the America the Beautiful Quarters Series, the U.S. Mint issued a quarter featuring Chickasaw National Recreation Area and the Lincoln Bridge.

Lincoln Bridge

In 1976, Platt National Park was abolished by congress and combined with the Arbuckle Recreation Area to form Chickasaw National Recreation Area. We haven’t covered all of the features of the Platt Historic District here, but we feel fortunate to have seen them. Thankfully the National Park Service has done a great job of preserving Platt National Park’s history.

Little waterfall on Travertine Creek

Where is it?

Chickasaw National Recreation Area is located near the town of Sulfur in southern Oklahoma about 13 miles east of I-35 and the town of Davis. The park’s main visitor center and administration office is located at 901 West 1st Street, Sulfur, Oklahoma. Features of the park include:

  • Travertine Nature Center – exhibits, park information, bookstore
  • Platt Historic District
  • Six campgrounds – some require reservations.
  • Veteran’s Lake – hiking, fishing, picnicking
  • Lake of the Arbuckles – boating, fishing, camping, fishing, hunting, swimming, picnicking
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Bison pasture
  • Scenic drives
  • Ranger-led programs
  • Free admission

Access the park’s website here.

Thank you so much for joining us!

Want to visit some other amazing national parks? Try these:

Mammoth Cave National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.



What is a Harvey House?

Harvey Houses, which were hotels and restaurants, served train travelers and locals for years along the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) Railroad lines across the United States. Founder Fred Harvey came up with the idea while providing food service in railroad dining cars.

El Tovar Hotel in early 1900s.jpg
El Tovar Hotel, a Harvey House, opened in 1905.

Our first Harvey House experience was the fabulous El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon National Park. A second Harvey House at the Grand Canyon is Bright Angel Lodge. Another one closer to home is located about 15 miles away from us in Slaton, Texas and is now a bed and breakfast. Though with that said, we are dedicating this post to the Belen Harvey House Museum in Belen, New Mexico. We would also like to recognize Heide, our lovely guide who taught us so much about Harvey House history.

Historic photo of the Belen Harvey House, built in 1910.

Where is it?

The Belen Harvey House Museum is located at 104 North 1st Street in Belen, New Mexico. Belen, which is the Spanish name for Bethlehem, is 34 miles south of Albuquerque on I-25. Access the museum’s website here.

Belen Harvey House Museum today, though this is a side view from the parking lot. The front of the building faces the train tracks located on the right.

Fred Harvey

Having immigrated from England in 1853 at the age of 17, Fred Harvey got a job as a dishwasher in a New York City restaurant. The restaurant’s owners taught him the complexities of the food service business, and he eventually became a busboy, waiter, and then a cook. Later, after working for a few years in a jewelry store, Fred and a partner opened their own restaurant, but the Civil War interrupted the venture. When the partner absconded with all of the profits, Fred was left holding the bag. Harvey eventually went to work for the Hanibal and St. Joseph Railroad in Missouri. After several promotions within the company, he was transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas where he remained for the rest of his life.

Fred Harvey, known as the first chain restauranteur and the man who civilized the Wild West.

In 1876, Fred made a deal with the superintendent of the ATSF Railroad after noticing there were few accommodations and no restaurants near most of their depots. The railroad would buy or build the buildings and lease them to the Fred Harvey Company. In turn, he would provide restaurants, workers, and hotel accommodations in or near the depots. A simple handshake sealed the deal, and the first Harvey House opened in Florence, Kansas in 1878 ushering in an era that would span almost 90 years. Fred Harvey died of intestinal cancer in 1901. After his death, his children and grandchildren ran the company into the 1960s. Harvey’s home in Leavenworth is now a museum.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter

Full length photo of Mary Colter sitting in an elaborate wicker chair that wraps around her.
Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (National Park Service photo)

Fred Harvey hired Mary Colter, an architect and designer who designed many of the buildings at Grand Canyon National Park, to design his restaurants and hotels across the southwest. She remained the Fred Harvey Company’s chief architect and designer for 46 years, retiring in 1948 at the age of 79. Colter designed 21 hotels in addition to other buildings for the Fred Harvey Company, however, the Belen Harvey House was designed architect Myron Church.

Desert View Watchtower, Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park was the railroad’s most popular destination, so Colter was hired to design several buildings for the park. She designed the Desert View Watchtower, Hermit’s Rest, Phantom Ranch, and Lookout Studio, among others, all of which are still in use today. Mary Colter also designed the dinnerware that was used exclusively in the dining cars on the ATSF Super Chief, which ran from Chicago, Illinois to Pasadena, California.

Colter’s love of the southwest shines through in the designs and colors of this dinnerware on display at the Belen Harvey House Museum.

Harvey Girls

Women aged 18 – 30 were hired to serve as waitresses in Harvey Houses and to bring hospitality, beauty, and refinement to those establishments. Upon being hired, all Harvey Girls were sent to a one-month training program at the Vaughn, New Mexico Harvey House which no longer exists. Paid $17.50 per month plus tips, they worked 12-hour shifts six days a week. Uniforms plus room and board were perks of their employment. Free train travel along with Harvey House accommodations and meals during their one week per year vacations was another perk.

Harvey Girls with Mr. and Mrs. Porter who were the Belen Harvey House managers.

Recognizable by their black dresses and white aprons, these hard-working ladies lived in a dormitory in or near the hotel and even had a dorm mother. House rules were fairly strict. Men were never allowed to visit the girls’ living quarters, and the girls were strongly advised against fraternizing with the male railroad workers.

Example of a dorm room in the Belen Harvey House.

Nor could Harvey Girls converse with or flirt with the patrons. Their employment contracts purportedly contained an agreement stating that they would remain unmarried for at least one year after being hired. However, according to museum information, between 1883 and 1905 there were 8,260 marriages of Harvey Girls to railroad men, ranchers, cowboys, and fellow employees. Throughout the Harvey House era approximately 100,000 women worked as Harvey Girls.

Nothing But the Best But No Bathrooms

Insisting on nothing but the finest, Fred Harvey imported his table linens, dinnerware, and silverware from Europe. Although, interestingly, most of the Harvey Houses didn’t have public bathrooms. This was to prevent a passenger from missing or delaying a train.

Home | Belén Harvey House Museum
Belen Harvey House lunch counter and shiny coffee pots.

Travelers had limited time in which to have a meal before reboarding the train – usually about 25 minutes – because it took about a half hour to refuel the trains. Harvey House lunch counters were casual and were great for a quick sandwich, piece of pie, or cup of coffee.

Belen Harvey House Dining Room

Dining rooms, on the other hand, were formal. Because time was so limited, an ingenious system was developed to ensure that travelers had time to enjoy their meals. The 1955 menu below is from the La Fonda in Santa Fe. We have eaten there, and though it’s no longer a Harvey House they were still serving fabulous food at the time of our visit. We’re including the menu to show the delicious-sounding meals of the time.

Just look at those prices! Hot pineapple fritter with brandy sauce anyone? We had to laugh at the Postum and Sanka. Do they even make those anymore?

The Harvey House Legacy Lives On

At their peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses. The Grand Canyon’s El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge are former Harvey Houses that are still in operation. La Posada opened in 1930 in Winslow, Arizona as Mary Colter’s self-proclaimed masterpiece. It is the only Harvey railroad hotel left in operation on Historic Route 66. In 2014, La Posada’s owner, Allen Allfeldt, bought the Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which was Harvey’s first trackside hotel. After some rehabilitation, the Castaneda Hotel has reopened for overnight stays and dining.

Former Harvey House, Castaneda Hotel, in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Castaneda Hotel’s beautiful dining room.
The Castaneda Hotel was built in 1898 and sits adjacent to the Las Vegas railroad depot which still serves Amtrak.

Visiting the Belen Harvey House Museum

  • Hours: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm, Wednesday through Saturday.
  • Admission is free but donations are greatly appreciated.
  • Last admission to the museum is at 4:00 pm.
  • Grab a bite to eat in the new Whistle Stop Cafe.
  • Buy a souvenir in the gift shop.
  • Watch the trains rumble by on the adjacent tracks.
  • Tell Heide we said hello!
A glimpse of the front of the Belen Harvey House Museum.

Thanks so much for joining us on our visit to the Belen Harvey House Museum. If you enjoy history and museums, you may enjoy these other wonderful destinations:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.



Road Trip: Oklahoma City National Memorial

On April 19, 1995, at 9:02 am, an American radical who was seeking revenge against the government blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. This heinous act of domestic terrorism killed 168 people, including 19 children, and injured hundreds more.

Children’s area near the museum entrance. School students from Texas made the handprint tiles to show their love and support after the bombing.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is a park that induces varied emotions in its visitors. During our visit we experienced a range of feelings that included sadness, anger, pride, and awe. There were also tears from at least one of us.

And Jesus Wept

A beautiful statue named And Jesus Wept stands across the street from the Oklahoma City National Memorial on the former site of the parish house of St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral. Fortunately, the cathedral survived the blast, but the parish house did not. There are 168 indentations in the wall in front of the statue representing the 168 people who lost their lives as a result of the bombing. The surrounding pillars represent the children and unborn babies who died in the explosion.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building before the bombing. (Wikipedia)

How It Happened

On that fateful April morning, Timothy McVeigh parked a rented Ryder truck in front of the Murrah Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The truck contained almost 5,000 pounds of explosives made of fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other types of chemicals. McVeigh lit a timed fuse and then escaped to his getaway car. At 9:02 am, the explosion rocked downtown Oklahoma City, destroying the nine-story Murrah Building and damaging 324 surrounding buildings.

Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the aftermath of the bombing.

Damage from the blast was not limited to the Murrah Building. Windows and doors were blown out within a 50-block radius, and vehicles parked near the building were reduced to crumpled metal. The buildings directly across the street were so badly damaged they had to be torn down.

Oklahoma City newspaper on the day after the bombing.

According to park information, the explosion was felt as far away as 55 miles and also registered 6.0 on the Richter scale. One of our family members who was 15 miles away claimed their windows rattled. Another family member who was on the fourteenth floor of a high-rise two blocks away said their building shook for a few seconds before the thundering boom was heard. Along with the rest of the country, we were horrified as reports of the bombing began to filter through the media.

Search and Rescue

In the photo below firefighter Chris Fields carries one-year-old Baylee Almon out of the carnage. The gut-wrenching amateur photo was featured in newspapers around the world. Sadly, Baylee died as a result of her injuries.

Oklahoma City fire Capt. Chris Fields carries 1-year-old Baylee Almon away from the aftermath of the April 19, 1995, bombing that killed 168 people.
“Of all the thousands of photos taken at the site, the photo of Baylee captured the horror of the bombing and took it straight to the heart of a sorrowful nation.” Caption from the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum.
The horrors that the first responders encountered are unfathomable to most of us. Unfortunately, many of them suffered PTSD as a result of their selfless efforts.

Nurse Rebecca Anderson tragically became the 168th victim of the bombing when she succumbed to injuries she sustained while helping a medical team search through the rubble for survivors.

Chasing Down Evil

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were immediately dispatched to the scene to begin the daunting task of interviewing potential witnesses and searching for clues. Their investigative efforts paid off when, remarkably, the rear axle of the Ryder truck was recovered on the day after the bombing.

The rear axle of the Ryder truck in the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. Also shown is the truck’s front tire rim.

The next day the FBI recovered a vehicle identification number from the axle and traced the truck to a body shop in Junction City, Kansas. Body shop employees described the person who rented the truck, and a composite sketch was made. Junction City townspeople identified Timothy McVeigh as the person in the composite. An intense search for the prime suspect immediately ensued.

In a stroke of luck, FBI agents found out that McVeigh was already in jail in Perry, Oklahoma. An observant state trooper had pulled him over for a missing license plate, and since McVeigh possessed a concealed gun and a knife, the trooper took him into custody just 90 minutes after the bombing. For a quick read and short video about McVeigh’s arrest, click here.

McVeigh’s yellow Mercury getaway car now has a permanent home in the museum.

The jury in McVeigh’s trial convicted him of his crimes and sentenced him to die by lethal injection. His execution took place in 2001.

It Wasn’t a Solo Act

Further investigations found that Terry Nichols, an army buddy of McVeigh’s, had built the bomb, and he was arrested in Kansas two days after the bombing. Prosecutors sought the death penalty in his case. However, at trial the jury couldn’t unanimously agree on executing him, so he instead received 161 consecutive life sentences. He remains incarcerated at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

Terry Nichols

The third person arrested in conjunction with the bombing was Michael Fortier. He was charged with failing to tell authorities about McVeigh and Nichols’ plan to bomb the Murrah Building. He had even cased the building with McVeigh prior to the bombing. Sadly, he chose not to make the one phone call that might have prevented the unspeakable tragedy. Fortier served 11 years of a 12-year prison sentence and was released in 2006.

On the Brighter Side

In the aftermath of tragedy, a beautiful memorial arose from the ruins. Along with it came one of the most astonishing museums we’ve ever seen. The Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum explicitly and meticulously tells the story of that disastrous time in our nation’s history.

Museum exhibit: replica of one of the offices destroyed in the bombing. Note the clock stopped at 9:02 and so much paper!

From displays of the wreckage and artifacts to videos of newscasts from around the world and interviews with survivors, the museum does a fabulous, albeit painful, job of telling the story of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The museum now occupies the Journal Record Building. Built in 1922, the Journal Record Building survived the bombing to serve another, perhaps more important purpose.
The memorial’s Field of Empty Chairs and reflecting pool as seen from the museum.

Standing at either end of the reflecting pool are the Gates of Time. The eastern gate shows the time of 9:01 and the western gate shows the time of 9:03. Time stands still at 9:02 between them. The 9:01 gate represents the last minute of innocence and the 9:03 gate represents the first minute of recovery and healing.

9:01 Gate
9:03 Gate

Field of Empty Chairs

Laid beautifully across the original footprint of the Murrah Building, the memorial features 168 chairs made of bronze, glass and stone. Each one bears the name of a person who perished in the bombing. Large chairs designate adults and small chairs designate children.

Field of Empty Chairs with the Alfred P. Murrah Building Plaza overlooking in the background.

Chair in honor of Luther H. Treanor, who died in the Social Security Administration office on the first floor of the Murrah Building.

The photo below shows the Survivor Wall, the last surviving piece of the Murrah Building. The wall features two granite slabs that were salvaged from the building’s lobby, and upon them are the names of more than 600 people who survived the bombing.

Survivor Wall

President Bill Clinton designated the Oklahoma City National Memorial as a national park in 1997. However, the Oklahoma City Memorial Foundation raised the funds to build the memorial, and in 2004 the site was relinquished to the organization. The National Park Service still lends some services to the park.

“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.” 

We thank you so much for joining us on our visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial! Our closing photo is of the Survivor Tree.

Once just another tree in a downtown parking lot, but it somehow survived the direct blast. Today the Survivor Tree, a 100-year-old Elm, stands proudly as a symbol of resiliency and strength.

Looking for more road trip or national park inspiration? Try these great destinations:

Pecos National Historical Park

Devils Tower Road Trip: Things to Do

Bryce Canyon National Park

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.



Road Trip: El Morro National Monument

El Morro, which means headlands in Spanish, is a park that we’ve had our eye on for years. So, like many others who have traveled to the incredible site for centuries, we finally got our chance to visit. Join us at El Morro’s Inscription Rock as we walk in the footsteps of Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish explorers, early settlers of the west, and many others. Enjoy!

Where is it?

El Morro National Monument is located 12 miles southeast of Ramah, New Mexico on Highway 53. Features of the park include:

  • Visitor center with park film and museum
  • Two hiking trails
  • Picnic area
  • Free campground with nine campsites – reservations not accepted
  • Visitor center and trails are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  • Free admission

Access the park’s website here.

Tiny wildflowers grow among wild grasses at the base of Inscription Rock.

Inscription Rock Trail

Our visit to El Morro and Inscription Rock Trail began at the visitor center where we purchased a trail guide. Regrettably, we didn’t have the energy to tackle the moderately strenuous Headland Trail in the afternoon heat. Perhaps we will venture back to El Morro another time, but this visit was to see the famous rock we had been hearing about.

Inscription Rock Trail

Wide sidewalks and mostly level ground were a welcome sight as we had already hiked several miles that day. Fortunately, there was only one other group on the trail at the same time we were which gave us time to linger at each of the 23 points of interest defined by the trail guide. Our first stop was the pool.

The pool

One of the reasons that travelers stopped at El Morro was because of its reliable water source. The pool is not a spring, it is fed by rainwater and snowmelt that runs down from the top of the bluff. A virtual oasis, the pool is 12 feet deep and holds about 200,000 gallons of water.

A view of the bluff from the trail.

Another reason people stopped at El Morro was to leave their mark, to leave a reminder that they had been there. Some might say their writings are an early form of graffiti. There are over 2,000 inscriptions on Inscription Rock, and we’re excited to share a few of our favorites.

Ancestral Puebloans

The earliest marks on Inscription Rock are petroglyphs. These could have been chiseled into the rock by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in a pueblo called Atsinna from about 1275 to 1350 CE. Ruins of the pueblo remain atop the bluff and can be seen from the Headland Trail. Atsinna is a Zuni word meaning writings on the rock.


Nobody knows exactly what the petroglyphs mean, however we try to make our own interpretations when we see them. Does anyone besides us think the one above looks like someone chasing or perhaps hunting a mountain lion?

More petroglyphs and other markings. Could these be the first smiley faces?

Spanish Explorers

The oldest inscription at El Morro is that of Don Juan de Oñate, the conquistador who established New Mexico as a colony of Spain. He was returning from the Gulf of California when he passed by El Morro in 1605.

A section of Don Juan de Oñate’s message on Inscription Rock.

Oñate’s message translates to “Passed by here the Adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South, the 16th of April of 1605.”

Don Diego de Vargas

Don Diego de Vargas was a governor of the New Spain territory of Santa Fe (now New Mexico and Arizona). His message translates to “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas who conquered for our Holy Faith, and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

Ramon Garzia Jurado

Jurado’s message above translates to “On the 25th of the month of June, of this year of 1709, passed by here on the way to Zuni, Ramon Garzia Jurado.”

In attempts to protect the inscriptions, early preservationists used pencils to darken them. Although their efforts were well meant, it was not a practical solution and may have done more harm than good. Despite careful protection of the markings, erosion is an ongoing concern for the park. Sadly, the inscriptions may in time succumb to the forces of nature.

Old messages darkened with pencil. The bottom one by Andres Romero is the last inscription from the Spanish colonial times and is dated 1774.

When President Theodore Roosevelt designated El Morro as a national monument in 1906, inscriptions on the rock were no longer permitted. Today it is illegal to deface any part of a national park site.

Settlers, Soldiers, and Surveyors

Many women passed by El Morro, but surprisingly, they rarely left their marks on Inscription Rock. One of them was America Frances Baley who was a member of the Rose-Baley wagon train heading west to California in 1858.

Miss A. F. Baley

Unfortunately, as they neared the Colorado River in what is now Arizona, the 60 members of the Rose-Baley wagon train were attacked by a large band of Mojave Indians. Several of the settlers were killed and many were injured. The group returned to Albuquerque or Santa Fe to wait out the winter months before trying to head west again the following spring.

Captain R. H. Orton, 1st California Cavalry.

Orton left not only his signature on Inscription Rock, but also a drawing of a church.

Some of these inscriptions were made by members of a Union Pacific Railroad surveying party.

Although the Union Pacific Railroad surveyed the area around El Morro, it never got the chance to build a railroad there. Santa Fe built a rail line 25 miles to the north thus dashing El Morro’s hopes of having its own rail stop.

Camel Corps

In the 1850s the U.S. Army needed a solution for the lack of water in the desert of the southwest while searching for a route from the Mississippi River to California. Interestingly, the idea of using camels was born. Thirty-three of the animals were acquired and brought to the U.S. along with some Arab handlers. The group became known as the Camel Corps. Men belonging to the elite corps passed by El Morrow in 1859 and inscribed their names on the rock.

E. Penn. Long, Baltimore, Maryland, perhaps the most elaborate signature on Inscription Rock.

Long was a member of the 1859 expedition tasked with finding a route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. On that expedition the camels were tested for use as pack animals in the desert southwest. According to reports, they did an excellent job!

P. Gilmer Breckinridge

Breckinridge was purportedly in charge of the 25 camels who made the journey west in 1859. Sadly, he died in a Civil War battle in Virginia in 1863.

The Museum

Not only are the outdoor areas of the park interesting, but so is its wonderful museum which bears mentioning here. Since so much humanity has passed by El Morro at one time or another, the museum does an excellent job of covering all aspects of the park’s history.

Remarkable pottery pieces from Atsinna Pueblo can be found in the park’s museum along with other interesting exhibits.

Thank you for strolling along Inscription Rock Trail with us! Our closing shot is another petroglyph showing antelope among other written inscriptions.

Need more road trip inspiration? Check out these other great destinations:

Happy, safe travels, y’all.

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.







Road Trip: Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano

Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano are located on the North American Continental Divide, but the site is not part of a national or state park. The site has been owned and operated as a tourist attraction by the David Candelaria family for almost 80 years. Join us as we explore this enchanting land of fire and ice.

Where is it?

Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano are located approximately 26 miles south of Grants, New Mexico off of Highway 53. The physical address is 12000 Ice Caves Road, Grants, New Mexico.

Features of the site include:

  • Trading Post with gift shop, snacks, drinks, and historical artifacts
  • Picnic area
  • Tent camping area – fee required
  • Overnight RV parking allowed with no services – fee required
  • Hiking trails to the ice cave and the volcano
  • Site is open from March through October
  • Admission fee required

Access the website here.

Ice Caves Trading Post, originally built in the 1930s along with a dance hall and saloon.

Visiting Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano

Ice Caves Trading Post, located next to the parking lot, is the first stop in order to pay admission fees and borrow a trail guide. While there, visitors can view historic photos as well as some of the ancient artifacts that have been found on the site. The trading post also sells wonderful pottery, rugs, and jewelry crafted by local tribal members.

Pottery and implements – proof that Native American people occupied the area hundreds of years ago.

Pottery, stone implements, and animal bones. Some of the artifacts on display date back 800 to 1,200 years.

When exiting the trading post, a right-hand turn will take visitors to the trail to the ice cave, and a left will take them to the trail to the volcano. Excited about a hike we hit the level trail, which is roughly a half mile out and back, to see our first ice cave.

Ice Cave Trail

Ice Cave Trail features the ruins of an ancient pueblo where artifacts like the ones shown above were found. Visitors will also be able to see parts of the Bandera lava tube. Lava tubes form where the surface lava hardens but molten lava still continues to flow underneath. The Bandera lava tube is 17.5 miles long, and some believe it is the longest one in North America. Much of the tube has now collapsed, but a few caves remain. Ice Cave is one of them.

Lava Cave

Amid a lot of lava, visitors to Ice Cave will see beautiful mosses and lichens. The alpine moss that grows near the cave’s entrance is an unusual find so far south.

Green alpine moss and orange lichens adorn the lava near the cave’s entrance.

A stairway with 72 steps leads down to a small viewing platform at the cave’s entrance. Visitors cannot enter the cave which keeps a temperature that never rises above 31 degrees (F). As water seeps into the cave the floor of ice thickens, though thickening depends on rain and snowfall. Ice has been forming in the cave for at least 3,400 years.

Ice Cave

Incredibly, the ice does not seem to be affected by climate change and is estimated to be 18-20 feet thick today. A type of algae causes the green tint.

Icicles on the cave wall appear to drip on to the icy floor.

Everyone from ancient Indians to the saloon owner, Mr. Mirabal, who was David Candelaria’s father-in-law, harvested ice from the cave. Fortunately, ice harvesting ceased in 1946 when Candelaria turned the site into a tourist attraction.

This shot shows the incredible natural colors of the rock inside the cave.

Bandera Volcano Trail

After returning from the ice cave, we took off from the trading post to hike to the crater of the volcano. The one mile out and back trail was fairly easy with a 150-200-foot elevation gain and gorgeous views.

Trail and volcano view.

Ever heard of a tree hole? We hadn’t until we came across one on this trail. A tree hole is formed when molten lava surrounds a tree, then the tree burns due to the extreme heat of the lava. When the lava eventually cools, a hole is left where the tree once stood.

Tree hole

Bandera, which is a cinder cone, is the largest of 29 volcanoes in the west central area of New Mexico, usually known as the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field but also sometimes known as the Malpais (Mal-pie-EEs) volcanic field. Neighboring volcanoes have interesting names, such as Rendija (Crack), Lost Woman, Americana, and Comadre (Godmother), just to name a few. Bandera means flag in Spanish.

Layered views of some other volcanoes in the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field of west central New Mexico.

Bandera erupted about 10,000 years ago, creating a 23-mile-long lava flow. The eruption blew out the side of Bandera resulting in a crater that is approximately 1,400 wide and 800 feet deep.

Bandera crater

Erosion from above is causing rock and cinders to fill the bottom of the crater. In an effort to keep this from happening faster than it should, visitors cannot venture past the viewing platform which sits about 130 feet below the rim. Bandera Volcano’s elevation is 8,367 feet at the rim.

From the trail: Volcanic landscape with a lotta lava in the right foreground.

A great interactive map showing the area’s volcanoes can be found here.

Final Thoughts

We highly recommend a stop at Ice Cave and Bandera Volcano for those traveling in New Mexico. The site is located about half-way between two national monuments, El Malpais and El Morro, and is an easy drive from I-40. Combining all three sites makes for a perfect one or two-day road trip with accommodations in the cities of Grants or Gallup.

Interesting dead tree

Thank you so much for coming along on our fire and ice adventure! Our parting shot is from Bandera Volcano Trail and is a peek through the trees at a couple of the other neighboring volcanoes.

Looking for more road trip inspiration? Try these great destinations:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye


As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our written content and photos are copyrighted and may not be published without our permission.
























Road Trip: Canyon de Chelly

We’re not sure there are enough pretty words in the English language to describe Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon d’Shay). However, stunning, beautiful, and breathtaking immediately come to mind. As a national monument and also part of the Navajo Nation, its history is just as inspiring as its beauty. Enjoy the journey.

Where is it?

Canyon de Chelly is near Chinle, Arizona, which is located in the northeastern corner of the state.

  • Admission to the national monument is free.
  • Tours of the canyon floor require fees and are not booked through the park. Click here for a list of approved tour operators.
  • Call the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department at 928-674-2106 for campground and backcountry camping information.

Access the national monument’s website here.

Rain, Rain Go Away

We arrived at Canyon de Chelly with a reservation at the Thunderbird Lodge, a tour that had been booked through said lodge, and an 82% chance of rain. If it rained, we weren’t sure the tour would go on. It was too early to check in to our room, so we made ourselves a picnic lunch and ate on the patio in front of the office under darkening skies.

Thunderbird Lodge. We loved this hotel!

As luck would have it, it started raining about five minutes before our tour was to depart. Our guide, Fernando, insisted that the tour was a go, so we boarded an interesting open top vehicle for what was sure to be a rain-soaked adventure.

Fernando and the truck. Thunderbird Lodge guides conduct their tours in Pinzgauer troop transport vehicles that were built in Austria in the 1970s.

Fortunately, the heavens smiled down on us, and the rain stopped as soon as we grabbed our complimentary bottled water and snack from the office. Off we went, along with five other people, into a (normally) dry wash that had turned into a river along the canyon floor.

Thankfully the water wasn’t deep, but Fernando said in 40 years of living and working in the canyon he hadn’t seen so much water in the wash. Not knowing the difference, we thought the watery wash just added to the adventure.

Canyon de Chelly – The Floor

Access to the canyon floor is only permitted with a Navajo guide or a park ranger. (There is one self-guided trail that leads to a small portion of the canyon floor, but it was closed when we were there.) Besides Thunderbird Lodge, which we highly recommend, there are several other tour companies with various tour packages. Ours was a four-hour tour and we thought it was perfect for viewing the spectacular scenery and learning the canyon’s history.

This shot shows a great example of desert varnish: the drippy striations on the canyon walls where minerals have leached out and stained the rock.

Canyon de Chelly is still occupied by Navajo families who have farmed and raised livestock there for generations, though today most of them only live in the canyon seasonally.

Mostly made up of De Chelly sandstone, the canyon walls vary in height from 30 feet to 1,000 feet. All of them are spectacular.

Things Best Seen from the Canyon Floor

The National Park Service maintains a scenic drive with overlooks along the rim of the canyon. However, here is what visitors will miss by not touring the floor: closer looks at Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings! Our tour took us to seven ruins, and each one was mind boggling, especially because some of them are located so high above the canyon floor. We’ve highlighted a few of them below.

First Ruin – that’s really the name.

There are approximately 2,500 ancient dwellings in Canyon de Chelly and adjoining Canyon de Muerto. Built between 1500 BC and 1350 AD, the dwellings have survived because they’re under overhangs or in cave-like formations in the rock.

Junction Ruin, so named because it is near the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon de Muerto.
Ledge Ruin because it’s on a ledge, and that ledge is in a natural amphitheater.
Antelope House was built on the ground and was once covered in white plaster.

We saved our favorite, White House Ruin, for last. Building began at this site around 1050 AD. Over the next two centuries, more rooms were added resulting in 80 rooms and four kivas at its height. White House was originally covered in white plaster.

White House Ruin and its rock art.

Ancient Rock Art

Canyon de Chelly’s amazing rock art cannot be seen from the rims. Yet another reason a tour of the canyon floor should be included on every itinerary. Below are a few of the many pictographs and petroglyphs that we saw on our tour.

Pictographs (painted on the rock)

Antelope or deer, people – perhaps a family, and a hill or rainbow.
Cow, antelope, horses, flowing water, and perhaps an astrological symbol.
This spectacular pictograph panel depicts the arrival of Spanish explorers, including a priest.

Petroglyphs (chiseled into the rock)

This probably depicts a deer hunt on horseback.
Horses, maybe and and a figure eight which possibly has an astrological meaning.
Possible depictions of snakes and other unknown images.

Canyon de Chelly – The Rim

There are three overlooks along North Rim Drive and six overlooks along South Rim Drive. Allow a few hours to enjoy all of the overlooks when visiting the park. 

Recent rains filled the wash and enhanced the “green”.
Views from the top are just as stunning as they are from the floor.
Spider Rock (center) is probably the most recognizable feature of Canyon de Chelly and rises 1,000 feet from the canyon floor.

Tragic Navajo History

Our post would not be complete without mentioning the 1863 – 1864 attacks led by Col. Kit Carson on the Navajo people who lived in and around Canyon de Chelly. In an effort to open up the western part of the country for settlement, the government decided the way to control Native Americans was to move them to encampments.

Traditional Navajo hogan (dwelling – pronounced hoe-gone) in Canyon de Chelly.

However, the Navajo, after hearing about the raid, fled to the top of a butte called Fortress Rock.

Fortress Rock – a sacred place for today’s Navajo people.

The people watched from atop Fortress Rock while Carson and his men destroyed their homes and orchards, killed their sheep, and stole their horses. Once captured, the Navajo were deemed prisoners of war and forced to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico – a journey that is now known as the Long Walk.

This shot shows a ladder (the two wooden poles on the right) used by the Navajo people who fled to the top of Fortress Rock.

Many Navajo people died during the Long Walk. Those who survived the trek were confined in a prison camp called Bosque Redondo. Living conditions at Bosque Redondo were horrific, and many people died of disease and malnourishment while imprisoned there. The hardships continued for four long years until a treaty was signed. Finally, the people were allowed to return to their homelands.

Thank you so much for joining us on our tour of Canyon de Chelly! Our closing shot is of a rainstorm at sunset.

Canyon de Chelly

For more national monument inspiration, check out these other great destinations:

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.



Road Trip: Petrified Forest National Park

Welcome to a place where the only trees in sight are petrified! We first visited Petrified Forest National Park in 2008. At the time we were in a hurry to reach another destination and unfortunately did not make the most of our visit. This time we made the most of our visit by walking most of the trails, learning more, and hopefully making better photographs. We hope you enjoy touring the park with us.

Where is it?

Petrified Forest National Park is located between I-40 and Highway 180, near Holbrook, Arizona. Access the park’s website here.

The Painted Desert Inn, which is a National Historic Landmark, can be found on the portion of Historic Route 66 that traverses the park. The former inn now serves as a museum.

What you should know before you go:

  • Admission fees apply.
  • The 28-mile-long park road is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, as are the Rainbow Forest and Painted Desert Visitor Centers.
  • The Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
  • A park film can be viewed in either of the two visitor centers.

  • There are parking areas, trails, and/or overlooks at all the main attractions in the park.
  • Pets are allowed in the park as long as they are leashed. Horses are allowed in designated wilderness areas.
  • A diner and convenience store with gasoline are located next to the Painted Desert Visitor Center. There are also several picnic areas with restrooms throughout the park.

  • There are no campgrounds in the park. However, backcountry camping is allowed in designated wilderness areas of park, and a permit is required.
  • Park sponsored demonstrations, guided activities, and workshops take place throughout the year.
It’s hard to believe this was once a rainforest and riparian ecosystem.

Rainbow Forest Museum

Our first stop was at the Rainbow Forest Museum and visitor center where we learned about the prehistoric history of the park. Once part of the super continent called Pangea about 220 million years ago, what is now Petrified Forest National Park was about 10 degrees north of the equator. As a rainforest surrounded by rivers and swamplands, its inhabitants included intriguing pre-dinosaur age animals that roamed or swam in the area.

Placerias hesternus lived before and then with the dinosaurs.

Displays in the museum featured several interesting animals including the placerias hesternus. According to museum information: Placerias hesternus (plu-SAYR-ee-us hess- TERN-us) was a dicynodont therapsid. Therapsids were large “reptiles” that possessed many mammalian characteristics including a “cheek” bone, enlarged canine teeth, and a specialized attachment of the skull to the spine. This massive plant-eater was up to 9 feet (2.7 m) long and might have weighed as much as two tons. 

Artist’s rendition of what the animal might have looked like.

Interestingly, a large number of placerias hesternus fossils were found in a quarry in St. Johns, Arizona, a town southeast of the park.

Giant Logs Trail

Giant Logs Trail located behind the Rainbow Forest Visitor Center lives up to its name. Below are a few photos of the colorful petrified tree trunks along the trail.

Crystal Forest

Believe it or not, the logs in Crystal Forest had become crystalline quartz before T. rex arrived 135 million years later!

Crystal Forest

According to the park, this area was once on the edge of a river channel. Flooding over time caused the trees to become buried under silt which preserved them. Gradually the volcanic silica in the groundwater replaced the molecules in the wood and created a replica of the tree or log in quartz.

Littered with logs.
Spectacular colors.

Blue Mesa

The Blue Mesa area of the park was probably the most intriguing to us because of the incredible geology. We didn’t caption the photos below because words really can’t describe the beauty of the place. According to the park: The colorful bands of the Chinle Formation represent ancient soil horizons. While the red, blue, and green layers generally contain the same amount of iron and manganese, differences in color depend on the position of the groundwater table when the ancient soils were formed. In soils where the water table was high, a reducing environment existed due to a lack of oxygen in the sediments, giving the iron minerals in the soil a greenish or bluish hue, such as at Blue Mesa. The pink and reddish layers were formed where the water table fluctuated, allowing the iron mineral to oxidize (rust).

That’s a little bit of snow in the left foreground.

The Tepees

Blue Mesa isn’t the only area of the park with breathtaking terrain. Introducing the Tepees.

The Tepees

According to the park: The Tepees are located in the middle of the park, but expose one of the lowest, thus oldest, rock members within the park and the Painted Desert. 

View across the road from The Tepees. Oh, those colors, and we accidentally captured the moon!

Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock is not just one rock. Throughout the area are many rocks with petroglyphs and other writings. Visitors view the rocks through telescopes/binoculars at the viewpoint – or in our case by zooming in with the camera. Most of the rock below is covered with petroglyphs that are thought to date back 600 – 2,000 years.


Puerco Pueblo

Petrified Forest National Park protects the ruins of a village that was once a 100-room pueblo and home to about 200 people. Puerco Pueblo’s residents were farmers who grew beans, corn, and squash while utilizing the nearby Puerco River for irrigation. Scientists believe the site was abandoned by 1380 due to climate change and severe drought conditions.

Some of the pueblo ruins.
One of several kivas (underground ceremonial rooms) located on the site.

Painted Desert

Named by Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the Painted Desert actually stretches about 150 miles from the eastern side of the Grand Canyon southeast to Petrified Forest National Park. Visitors traveling the portion of Historic Route 66 through Petrified Forest can see even more of the park’s breathtaking landscapes from several viewpoints along the way. Gorgeous desert vistas can also be seen from the Painted Desert Visitor Center.

Stunning vista.
Pretty in pink.

While we have barely scratched the surface of Petrified Forest National Park, we hope we have inspired some wanderlust. This is one of those parks that cannot be justified by photographs and words; it needs to be seen in person to be appreciated for its beauty and historic importance. We thank you so much for joining us on our road trip! Need more national park inspiration? Try these other great parks:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.



Road Trip: New Mexico Through the Windshield

Oh, how we love to visit New Mexico. It truly is The Land of Enchantment! We are enchanted by all of New Mexico, but we are particularly fond of the northern half of the state with its gorgeous mountains, breathtaking landscapes, and intriguing Native American culture.

Adding to the enchantment, New Mexico has 15 national park units, three national historic trails, and seven national scenic byways! Since it’s impossible to stop for photos at every turn we decided to share a glimpse of what we’ve seen through the windshield on our road trips through the state. Please accept our apologies for the occasional blurs, bugs, and other imperfections. Enjoy the ride.

Northwest: The Four Corners Area

Mountains and wildflowers on US 160 near Four Corners Monument in the far northwest corner of the state.

Four Corners Monument is a Navajo park where the corners of the states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona meet. Apart from our home state of Texas, those happen to be our four favorite states.

Here we are in all four states at once (kind of). Though not taken through the windshield, obviously, we had to stand in line to get our turn, and the people behind us were kind enough to take our picture.
Otherworldly landscape near Shiprock.
Ghostly Shiprock in a haze.

Shiprock is located on Navajo land about 15 miles southwest of the town of Shiprock. It is a 1,583-foot volcanic plug that is sacred to the Navajo people who believe the rock looks like a bird. According to legend, a big bird carried their ancestors to the top of the rock in order for them to settle in the area. The name Shiprock was coined by explorers in the 1800s who thought it looked like a ship.

Gorgeous Navajo landscape as seen from the highway near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Heading south on Highway 550.

North Central: Closest to Santa Fe

Highway 442 near Taos

Highway 96 near Abiquiu Lake northwest of the town of Abiquiu (Abba-cue).
Near Los AlamosJemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway (click for website).
Another gorgeous Jemez Mountains view. (It’s not a video – that’s a road sign.)
On the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway (click for website) near the small town of Cerillos.
From Highway 14 – Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe.

West Central: Closest to Albuquerque

Highway 117 about 20 miles south of I-40 near Grants
Highway 53 between El Morrow National Monument and Ramah
On Highway 55 north of Mountainair, New Mexico

East Central: The Middle of Nowhere

Desolation. Highway 60 between Clovis and Fort Sumner.

South Central: Closest to Roswell

Sierra Blanca peak near Ruidoso.
Featured photo. Sacramento Mountains off of Highway 54.
Free range cattle near Carlsbad.

Southwestern: Closest to Las Cruces

The following views were from I-10 between Las Cruces and Lordsburg.

Are you enchanted yet? 

Thank you so much for joining us on our journey! We hope that we’ve given you a glimpse into the beautiful and diverse landscapes of New Mexico through our windshield. Our closing shot is from the north central area of the state.

If you’re looking for additional road trip inspiration, try these ideas:

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.





Tonto National Monument

We were so excited to see the lower cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument that we checked out of our hotel early and hit the road for the 30-minute drive to the park. While we had high expectations of the park, we didn’t know how scenic the drive would be. As we drove through mountains and saguaro forests, a lake came into view. What a surprise! Tonto National Monument overlooks the stunningly beautiful Roosevelt Lake. We got a double dose of spectacular scenery when we least expected it!

Imagine topping a hill and seeing an unexpected first glimpse of a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains!

Farther down the road a left turn took us to Tonto National Monument, and due to our excitement, we arrived before the visitor center opened. However, that wasn’t a problem because we had lots of fresh air and plenty of breathtaking scenery to enjoy from the parking lot while we waited.

Scenic Roosevelt Lake and snowcapped mountains as seen from the visitor center parking lot. Little did we know that we would be driving through those snowy mountains later that day.

Where is Tonto National Monument?

Tonto National Monument is located in the Tonto Basin area of the Tonto National Forest in the far northeast corner of the Sonoran Desert. The physical address is 26260 N. Arizona Highway 188, Roosevelt, Arizona.

The park features include:

  • Visitor Center and bookstore
  • Museum
  • Park film
  • Self-guided tour of the lower dwelling
  • Guided tours are required for the upper dwelling – check with the park for information.
  • Entry fee

Click here to access the park’s website.

Lower dwelling

Why is Tonto National Monument significant?

Tonto National Monument protects the ruins of two ancient cliff dwellings that were built around 1300 CE. The cliff dwellers who occupied these sites are referred to informally as Salado people, a name which was given by archaeologists simply because they built their homes overlooking the Salt River, now Roosevelt Lake. Salado people were hunters, gatherers, and farmers, so the valley along the Salt River provided an excellent area in which to grow crops.

Archaeologists have found remains of macaws from Mexico or Central America, which indicates that the Salado were traders. Their woven cotton items and beautiful pottery would have made excellent products for trade. The cliff dwellers abandoned the site between 1400 and 1450 CE, but no one knows why they left or where they went.

Depiction of what the lower dwelling might have looked like when it was inhabited.

Interestingly, nobody knows where the name Tonto came from, though popular belief is that it came from the Tonto Apache who lived in the area, but nobody knows why they were called Tonto. President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation to create Tonto National Monument in 1907, five years before Arizona became a state. Then in 1966, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Lower Cliff Dwelling

The walls of the cliff dwellings were built of stone and mud, unlike the structures at nearby Casa Grande Ruins which were made of clay-like caliche. Archaeologists theorize that several families may have occupied the 20 rooms of the lower dwelling. Each of the rooms has a fire pit or hearth which backs up the theory. Smoke residue on the cave’s ceiling can still be seen today.

Many of the walls and even a couple of ceilings remain intact. Below are some additional shots of from inside the dwelling.

Stone and mud wall
Another view of the same wall as above
Remains an upper level of the structure with the cave wall
The pine or juniper beams would have supported a roof or a ceiling.

Originally, the dwelling’s roof beams were covered with saguaro spines then topped with mud, and the cave’s floors were leveled with dirt then covered over and smoothed with clay.

Interesting geology. Not only pretty, but practical.

The caves at Tonto National Monument lie in a geologic layer called Dripping Springs Quartzite. While the caves made ideal places to build their dwellings, the rock, primarily quartz and feldspar, was utilized by the Salado to make implements and weapons.

Detail of the rock layers at Tonto National Monument.

The Museum

Tonto National Monument’s Museum should be a priority for anyone visiting the park. We learned a lot while browsing the exhibits, however, it was the pottery we were most interested in. It’s incredible that these delicate ollas, pots, and bowls survived unprotected for hundreds of years!

With such brilliant colors occurring in their natural surroundings, it’s no wonder that the Salado and other Ancient Sonoran Desert People used them in their pottery. For an interesting article about the region’s pottery, click here.

Visiting Tonto National Monument

We recommend starting out with the museum and park film for an overview of what lies high up in the caves and the people who lived in them. Ideally, the second order of business would be to hike to the lower dwelling. The paved trail is .7 miles out and back and has a 362-foot elevation gain. Hiking websites claim it is a moderately challenging trail, however, we did it with just a couple of stops and some heavy breathing. That said, if we can do it, most everyone else can do it. There are even some benches along the way for those who want to sit and catch their breath. By the time we cooled down while browsing the museum, our visit to the park had lasted about three hours.

Lower dwelling as seen from the trail.
View of the trail looking back toward the visitor center parking lot.
And the views from the top are worth all the panting to get there!

Upper Cliff Dwelling

Those who want to visit the upper dwelling can do so on a reserved guided tour. Therefore, we recommend calling the park or visiting the website for reservation information before planning a trip to Tonto National Monument. Reservations usually open on October 1 and fill up quickly. Considered moderately challenging, the unpaved trail to the upper dwelling is 2.4 miles out and back with a 646-foot elevation gain. Allow three to four hours for this hike.

The upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
National Park Service photo of the Upper Dwelling.

Our closing photo is another view of scenic Roosevelt Lake. Thank you for letting us share Tonto National Monument with you! We are truly honored to have you join us on our road trips. If you’re looking for more road trip inspiration, check these out:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.