Friday, 20 May 2022, in the middle of nowhere
It looks like my Cloudless Tour had ended. In the sky, I spotted a good dollop of white (perhaps with a hint of smoke). This cut the glare of the sun, giving me a pleasant start to my long drive at 8:00 - no sunglasses needed! By the time I got back to I-10, though, the blazing sun had burned off the interlopers. I considered the Cloudless Tour still alive.
Now the time has come to pay the price for grouping these National Parks into one package. By postponing the Grand Canyon's North Rim and replacing it with White Sands, I would save several hours of driving in the long run. However, the logistics of doing so resulted in the task I now faced: an eight-hour drive, two four-hour stints with a small National Monument to give my body a rest.
Instead of dreading it, I looked at it as part of the grand challenge. The first two hours of the morning drive retraced roads I had traveled the last two days, after which I turned north. Though I now plied smaller highways, the scenery did not improve much - scrubby desert with little traffic and few houses. Twenty-five miles later I turned onto an even lesser route, trusting that Google Maps wouldn't let me down - but I checked the odometer every time I passed a house, so I would know how far I must walk back if the car broke down.
The road snaked through a low canyon, providing greenery as I headed north. I finally spotted the sign I'd waited for: 'Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 44 miles. Allow two hours driving time'. I'd read that the road to the park challenged visitors - over a ridge and down the other side, surrounded by wilderness. Time to experience the drive myself!
The road now steadily climbed, snaking up the mountain, shaded by evergreens. Halfway there it merged with a western route, becoming a dead-end highway to the monument. Soon it peaked, with wilderness peaks and forests visible on all sides. Miles to the east I saw plumes of smoke arising - looks like another new wildfire to ravage the area.
After a short ride on the ridge, the road dropped into the valley, offering vistas as it began its descent. Finally, I arrived at the monument at noon.
Way past time to stretch the legs. After watching the park film, I took the short drive to the main trailhead. Without doing one of the extended hikes into the surrounding wilderness, the only offering was a one-mile loop trail to the cliff dwellings, rising 180' above the valley floor. The hike shows off the ancient dwellings that inspired Theodore Roosevelt to name it one of the first ten National Monuments. After crossing the headwaters of the Gila River,
it rises in a small side canyon, bridging the placid creek several times.
The first view of the cliff dwellings comes from a few hundred yards away,
then the trail switches back to approach the old residences.
The first two caves you can see from the outside;
the third, largest one invites visitors to climb the ladder
and enter it.
The ruins are well-preserved - the remoteness of the site kept large numbers of people from pilfering the site of artifacts and damaging the ruins. The views from the dwellings across the tight canyon cried out for photographs -
and who was I to ignore those cries?
My time at the park passed way too quickly. My drive south to Silver City followed the same twisty mountain route for twenty miles before turning onto the western route. On this new highway, the turns were more numerous and even tighter than before, and my average speed plummeted. At least the scenery kept me engaged, and the hairpin turns let me practice driving skills first honed decades ago while growing up in the Colorado Rockies.
After a quick stop in Silver City for gas and a snack, I still had close to three hours to Springerville AZ. I rated the first hour-plus of that route as 2-to-3 stars: high desert scenery, isolated towns with no stoplights, and mountains forming a horizon. Eventually the road changed character from pleasant to divine, and I gave it 4 stars. Every bend revealed a new surprise - soaring rocks,
green canyons, National Forest lands, vistas of haze-dimmed mountains.
The road could have subbed for a scenic drive in a National Park, without the regular pullouts to stop and soak in the scenery - though I did find a place or two to pull over. The hours passed quickly. The scenery kept my mind engaged, and my back never sank into unmanageable pain.
If I had to drive that far, I couldn't have picked a better road to travel on!