If I’m reflecting on the past year, I have to say that for me, 2022 was the Year of the Dirt Road.
After limited travel during 2020 and 2021, I was all over Arizona during the past 12 months and enjoyed some amazing adventures.
I hiked some new trails and old favorites, was almost bitten by a rattlesnake, got my kicks on Route 66, visited small towns and ghost towns, attended some fun festivals and racked up lots of miles in my ramblings. Yet it seemed like many of my most treasured moments were found at the end of lonely dirt roads.
Here are a few of my favorite adventures from 2022.
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Wandering in Sonoran Desert National Monument
I stood outside my idling SUV studying a chewed-up patch of dirt road in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Gauging my clearance, I was almost certain I could make it.
That’s when I turned around. “I was almost certain I could make it” is the universal battle cry for idiots.
So many stories of folks who got stranded/trapped/lost/arrested/injured/eaten began with the almost certain belief that they could make it.
While I have a longstanding relationship with idiocy, perhaps even an honorary degree, I am older now. If I’m no wiser at least I am lazier. No need to spend a couple of hours digging my tires out of a ditch when I could just park and walk across open desert.
Containing almost a half-million acres of diverse and sprawling tall cactus desert, Sonoran Desert National Monument is a special place hiding in plain sight about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix. What it lacks is a centerpiece attraction. There are no signature sights, no defining experience. There’s no official entry point, just a lot of barely marked dirt roads. Maybe that’s why I like the monument. It challenges visitors to make their own fun. When I couldn’t make it back to an actual hiking trail, I parked and set off cross country and ended up having a great day making my own discoveries far from civilization, mingling with the saguaros and chatting with lizards.
Sonoran Desert National Monument is in central Arizona. Easiest access comes via some dirt roads bearing north off State Route 238 that winds between Maricopa and Gila Bend, and from Vekol Road (Exit 144) turning south off Interstate 8. Bring water, plenty of gas and real maps. Don't expect your cellphone to work. https://www.blm.gov/visit/sonoran-desert-national-monument.
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Sleeping in a covered wagon and exploring Grand Canyon-Parashant
My friend Mike Koopsen and I spent a few gorgeous days traveling across the lonely swath of country known as the Arizona Strip, the section of the state cut off by the Grand Canyon. We explored some new places that I would never be able to go on my own because I don’t have four-wheel drive.
We spent a day and night in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, one of the most remote regions in the lower 48 states. There are no paved roads into Parashant. Indeed, there are no paved roads that even get close.
We drove to Whitmore Canyon Overlook, which offered a gorgeous view into Grand Canyon. And we had the spot entirely to ourselves. Not something you experience at many canyon overlooks.
Getting here required traversing 75 miles of dirt road, the last 12 or so requiring high-clearance 4WD. Every road in the monument is dicey. And even though it was a bit nerve-wracking, Mike is an experienced jeep driver so we had no issues.
I’ll offer no directions because in this isolated area everyone needs to do their own research to understand how their vehicle can handle road conditions. Be prepared with food, water, gas and real maps. You are far from help and generally without cell service. Plan your trip at https://www.nps.gov/para.
That night we slept in covered wagons at the Bar 10 Ranch deep in Parashant (435-628-4010, www.bar10.com). This working ranch has been welcoming guests to Arizona’s backcountry for decades. It’s a speck of civilization deep in the middle of nowhere. I’ve spent much of 45 years rambling around this remarkable state, and there’s always something more to see and savor.
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Camping at White Pocket in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Another spot that Mike and I explored was a dream come true for me. White Pocket is a place I always longed to visit but lacking 4WD, couldn’t reach on my own. But Mike is a regular visitor and he got us back there, through miles of deep sand with no problems.
Located in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, White Pocket is the landscape of another world, wild and chaotic with sudden swirls and waves and ridges and fins. The anarchy overwhelms the senses. I was devastated by the raw power and beauty.
These are earth bones with muscle and tendon still attached. Sandstone is the geological artwork of the ages. We camped overnight so I got to witness a sunset of velvety light, then rolled out of my sleeping bag and was back for the sunrise.
Amid the soft revolution of dawn, with the landscape wrapped in pastel hues, I was alone on a stony ridge soaking it all in. That’s when two coyotes started yipping their approval of this fat, fresh sun. First one sang and then the other. It was just me and two coyotes greeting the dawn of another amazing Arizona day.
If you don’t have 4WD, companies in Page and Kanab, Utah, offer White Pocket tours. If you go exploring on your own, make sure you have water and maps. Cell service is sketchy out here.
Touring Canyon de Chelly
Most visitors experience Canyon de Chelly National Monument, on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona, by making the scenic drives along the canyon's top. The North Rim drive traces Canyon del Muerto and photographs from the overlooks are best in the morning. The South Rim drive, better during the afternoon, includes an overlook of iconic Spider Rock.
To explore the inner canyon requires a Navajo guide. You can choose a tour with private operators or one of the group tours offered by Thunderbird Lodge in the monument (928-674-5842, www.thunderbirdlodge.com).
Locals call the Thunderbird Lodge outings the shake-and-bake tours, and for good reason. They are a jarring, jostling ride in the back of a military-style six-wheel drive truck. At most stops, guests stay in the vehicle while the driver stands nearby pointing out features and shares some stories.
If you’re looking for a more intimate personalized experience, a private tour is the way to go. But if your time or budget is limited, these bouncy group tours are a good option. They’re scheduled at specific times of day and reasonably priced, especially for solo travelers. I went on a four-hour summer tour ($70) because I knew it would be less crowded than the morning or sunset outings.
No matter what option you choose, it is a memorable experience to plunge into the ancient embrace of Canyon de Chelly. We drove down the sandy wash, swallowed up by the canyon mouth as walls rise higher and higher. We wheeled past small farms, beneath a canopy of cottonwood trees with cliffs looming overhead and prehistoric pueblos tucked in alcoves and rock art adorning the walls.
When we stopped to get out and stroll around, the quiet was astounding. I could listen to the breeze rustle each cottonwood leaf individually, a small and wonderful symphony. Time and space were suspended in this sacred place.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is 3 miles north of Chinle off U.S. 191. https://www.nps.gov/cach.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Best secret places in Arizona: Grand Canyon-Parashant, White Pocket