Sunday, 27 April 2014






I first encountered the national parks of the US in 1968 aged 20 and was deeply impressed by the exceptional care, respect and protection afforded to these outstanding areas of natural beauty and historical importance. Over the years I had always hoped to return with enough time to explore them more fully and forty years later we arrived to begin our journey from the south of the western US to north ending the trip in Alaska. 

Arriving at a park the first place to go is the visitor centre which has excellent displays,well produced literature and a small film theatre where documentaries about the park are shown on demand. Ranger led activities are often available and we were always impressed by the enthusiasm and knowledge of these dedicated staff. The North Americans do this kind of thing so well and millions of people enjoy the parks each year so it can be a challenge in the more popular places to avoid the crowds but we hoped by setting out early in the season to avoid the crowds although of course the weather is more unpredictable at this time and we encountered more snow than expected for the time of year. 

The majority of visitors do not stray far from the main attractions and if you want to get away from the crowds there are always wonderful hiking tracks to explore. Our journey took place over 16 weeks in spring and summer and our very flexible route was planned to include a wide range of landscapes, historical sites, climates and the occasional town and city. April Fool's Day seemed an appropriate date for Vincent, Cara and myself to collect the 23ft RV, later known as El Monstero Blanco II, in Los Angeles and venture on to the busy freeway to learn how to drive a 7 ton truck with what appeared to be a small bungalow swaying along behind. Once the freeways are left behind, rural America appears


Try as I might, the days that followed proved to be so full of activity - sighseeing, hiking, driving - that the blog never really got off the ground despite sporadic efforts to set aside the time. Now I have resolved to try a different tack and write it in the form of a diary and, though there may be less in the way of facts, at least it might be reasonably up to date and those who have urged me to try harder will be able to keep up with our adventures. Pieces written in April will be inserted along the way and in this way, I hope to catch up.

                              TAOS, NEW MEXICO

The first day of May and we are well into spring but snow began falling as we made breakfast at our campsite on the precipitous edge of the canyon in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. As it became heavier we decided to return to Taos where we hoped that the weather might be kinder. 

We much prefer to park the van in the national parks despite the fact that such luxuries as electricity and showers are usually lacking but peace, space and beautiful surroundings more than make up for this. This particular morning seemed like a good time to spend a couple of hours at the wonderful Millicent Rogers Museum which is devoted to displaying the collection of a wealthy 1940's socialite who moved to Taos to pursue her passion for Native American jewellery, mainly Navajo and Zuni work in silver and turquoise. Hundreds of magnificent pieces are displayed and are among the best to be seen in the southwest. A lovely old adobe home was donated to house the collection and was itself a fascinating example of the local architectural style.  In addition to the jewellery, one room was devoted to a beautiful exhibiition of the mainly black pottery of Maria and Julian Martinez from Ildefonso Pueblo near Santa Fe and another to finely woven Apache baskets. There were many old photographs and fine examples of traditional clothing and finely woven Navajo blankets. Sadly no photography was allowed in the museum.

After a month exploring fascinating archaeological remains in a series of national parks in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico we had really enjoyed the opportunity to visits the excellent museums in the state capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe where a $15 ticket allowed entry to four of these beautifully presented collections. 

Santa Fe, with a population of 60, was founded in 1610 by the Spanish and presents a low rise uniform appearance with classic adobe architecture. It lies at altitude of in the high desert ringed by snow capped mountains and is the highest and second oldest state capital in the US. Two of the musems were housed in fine old buildings in the city centre with the others high above on Museum Hill.

                          APACHE LEADER GERONIMO

The Museum of Santa Fe stands adjacent to the Governor's Palace and traces the history of the city with hundreds of exhibits including an old wagon of the type used by pioneers on the Santa Fe trail and a collection of old photographs of people whose names are now part of the legend of the American west. 

The Santa Fe Museum of Art housed a fine collection of paintings and the nearby Georgia O'Keefe Museum contained many of her iconic paintings as well as an exhibition of work done by her and the photographer Ansel Adams in Hawaii. 

On Museum Hill a huge bronze sculpture at the entrance to the complex eloquently depicts the struggle of the early European settlers. 

The Museum of Indian Anthropology and the Museum of International Folk Art stood side by side close to the Botanic Gardens, all with world class collections.

During our stay in Taos we discoverd that the Adobe Bar, part of the Old Taos Inn, is a great place to spend an evening and always has live music and good food. The group playing on our first visit was really first class belting out modern American blues. Brendan Devlin, a young singer of Irish descent.put everything he'd got into his songs, some of which were classics, including a great rendition of Layla and even Wild Mountain Thyme which I haven't heard since Ray sang it at Mum's funeral. 

 It was a very enjoyable night and when the music was over we wandered back to the van parked conveniently at Walmart, a downmarket supermarket with a poor repution for the treatment of  staff but a policy of allowing RV's to spend one night in the secure carpark overnight. This suited us fine, opening hours were 6am until late and what better way to start the day than to wander in to buy milk and bananas for breakfast as the sun rose over the abandoned shopping trolleys.


May 2

There are of course more agreeable places to park one's home and some 16 miles south of Taos the southern section of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument offers peaceful campsites on the banks of the famous river. 

The cottonwood trees, which grow in abundance around the campsite, attract many birds especially what I think are American robins, much larger than English ones and I also spotted a black backed woodpecker on a nearby tree. 

The weather is much warmer, such a contrast to yesterday's snow and it was very pleasant to have a quiet afternoon sitting outside reading. We must try and do this more often!

May 3

Spring finally arrived in northern New Mexico this morning with blue skies and real warmth in the air. The American robins were hopping around with enthusiasm and the cottonwoods seemed to have come into leaf overnight. After breakfast we drove slowly along by the Rio Grande, the great cliffs soaring on each side of the canyon. 

Crossing the Taos Bridge the road became gravel and led up a steep hill with a very sharp corner which was a bit worrying in the RV but we made it to the car park at the beginning of the track. Three rangers arrived and the small group set off for a three mile walk along a broad ledge mid way between the river and the canyon top.
 This area is part of a great rift which stretches between the Sangre de Christo and San Juan mountain ranges from Colorado into Mexico. Molten lava erupting from below the earth's crust formed black basalt rock into which the river has slowly worn a deep canyon. Large white primroses covered the rocky ground which was also home  to various species of cactus

Indian Paintbrush

Two hundred bighorn sheep were released inthe park ten years ago and we were lucky enough to see a large male, in the process of moulting, picking his way through the rocks.
American otters have also been released into the river and Violet Green swallows skimmed over the water far below, reduced in volume by as much as 82% due to irrigation demands upstream in Colorado. Turkey vultures (called Texas eagles by the locals) soared above constantly searching for dead animals
The flat ground of theshelf was used by Native Americans to pitch tepees and petroglyphs, some of them thousands of years old, can be seen on the rock faces. 
It was a wonderful walk through this pristine environment which was only recently declared a National Monument and the rangers were very knowledgeable about the wildlife and history of this corner of New Mexico.  
The evening found us back at the Adobe Inn for a jazz performance and we shared a table with Scott and Sylvia, a very pleasant couple we had met on the walk. Elk burgers were on the menu with excellent beer from the Santa Fe Brewing Company.


Our first few days in Taos had proved especially rewarding.
This small town of 5600 residents lies in the mountains of northern New Mexico at an altitude of 6967 feet. It was colonized by the Spanish in 1598 and the old part of the town with the Plaza at its centre is filled with charming adobe buildings. A very strong Hispanic influence is immediately evident in street and place names, surnames and a reputation for Mexican influenced food. 

                           Antique Navajo ring and bracelet

                   Modern Navajo turquoise and silver bracelet

Many shops sell Native American jewellery and we found lovely old pieces for Cara at Kemosabe, a small shop close to the Plaza.

The church of St Francis Asis lies outside the centre and is a much photographed adobe building with beautiful Native American painted panels behind the alter.

                                                             TAOS PUEBLO

The most important sight in the area is the Taos Pueblo, "The Place of the Red Willow" considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the USA and a World Heritage listed site. People have lived in this high mountain desert oasis for thousands of year and the present adobe pueblo construction is thought to date back almost 1000 years. Soil, straw and water are the materials used and each year the building is resurfaced. The river flowing from the mountains downthrough the village is used for all water

The native language, Tiwa, is unwritten and unrecorded and the people of the pueblo intend to keep it that way. The details of their traditional practices remain secret since it is felt that past oppresssons have threatened the culture.

 Later we returned to the Taos Pueblo to see a group of dancers, women and children, performing the corn dance at a number of locations around the village. The spectacular male corn dance is performed at another time of year, probably during the 8 week period when the pueblo is closed to visitors for ceremonial purposes. No photographs are allowed during ceremonies at the pueblo.

The Church of St Geronimo is one of the most recent buildings and was constructed in 1850 to replace earlier churches which were destroyed. The first was burned during the Pueblo revolt of 1680 against the Spanish colonists who had forced the people into Catholicism and slavery. The church was reconstructed in 1706 after reconquest by the Spanish but destroyed by US troops in 1847 in reprisal for the murder of the Governor Charles Bent with the loss of many lives. The ruins were then preserved and the ground became a cemetery with the new church erected nearby. 

Christianity is now practiced in conjunction with the native religion and the central alter figure or Santo of the Virgin Mary is considered the parallel of Mother Nature. To the right of the alter stands a symbolic casket which was placed in all missions throughout the New World to convert the natives to Catholic funerary practices.

The two main structures of the pueblo are called Hlaama (North House)and Hlaukkwima (South House) and the building consists of many individual houses. Originally there were no doors or windows in the building and the people entere through the roof by means of a ladder which could be withdrawn if enemies approached.

Drying racks were used to dry wild game meat for jerky and corn, pumpkin, squash and bean crops. Wild berries and animal hides were also dried on these racks.

Each house has a horno or outdoor adobe oven to bake bread and pastries or roast game. A fire of cedar is lit and then the ashes are cleared before food is placed in the oven.


                                             THE KIOWA RANCH

I was intrigued to read the story of how the ashes of DH Lawrence, a long time favourite writer whose novels were often set in the glorious Derbyshire countryside, came to be interred in the wilds of New Mexico. He died of TB in 1930 and was buried in Vence in the south of France but in 1935 his widow Frieda decided to have his body exhumed and cremated and instructed her Italian lover to transport the ashes to the ranch in New Mexico where they had spent two summers. 

This property was known as the Kiowa Ranch because a trail used by the Kiowa Indians when they came to raid the pueblos along the Rio Grande ran through it.  The land was given to the couple by Mabel Dodge Lujan, a NewYork socialite who had moved to Taos, in exchange for the rights to the novel Sons and Lovers.

The ranch, bequethed by Frieda to the University of New Mexico for use as a retreat for artists and writers, is no longer open to the public.  I managed to gain permission to visit and on a bright, cool day El Monstero Blanco II rattled up the winding dirt road to where the group of old buildings sat on the slopes of Lobo Mountain at an altitude of over 8500 feet.

The simple cabin looked over the valley far below and was surrounded by tall Ponderosa pines, one of which had become famous when Georgia O'Keefe had painted it by starlight while lying on the ground on her back.

Over the fireplace hung framed copies of several of Lawrence's poems.

On the frontporch there was an old rocking chair said to have been made by the author

Lady Dorothy Brett joined the couple and lived in a very small and basic cabin. She later settled in Taos and became a noted painter exhibiting in the Tate in London.

The shrine is reached by a steep path and Frieda's grave is immediately in front. A phoenix, the symbol associated with DH Lawrence, sits above and the wooden doors open to revel and alter withthe initials DHL with a sunflower above in stained glass.

A guest book lies open recording the names of those who have made the journey to pay tribute and although I had at first felt that this was a strange place for the author, who wrote of Derbyshire "I know this view better than any other on earth. It is the country of my heart". I think that perhaps he would have been content to become part of this land.

                        SAND DUNES NP, NEW MEXICO

May 4 


Heading north towards the Colorado border early this morning we could see the snow capped Sangre de Christos range stretching as far as the eye could see along the horizon. The Sand Dunes National Park, although 20 miles off the main road, offered a spacious campsite at Pinyon flats dotted with trees which acted as a windbreak for the very strong wind. On the road in we passed a small herd of bison. and arriving at the Visitor Centre we watched a short film which explained how the giant sand dunes, around 44,000 years old, had been formed by wind and water.

Most of the sand came from the San Juan mountains 65 miles to the west and was washed into a huge lake which once covered the valley floor. As the lake shrank, the wind bounced the sand crystals to pile up beneath the Sangre de Christos. The biggest dunes are over 750ft making them the tallest in North America.

  Returning from the viewing area we saw a male prong horn antelope grazing in the sage brush and waking early the next morning a group of mule deer were grazing in around the van.


Our journey had begun at the beginning of April, when Cara was still with us in what must be one of the most popular of all the national parks, Yosemite in California.

                                  YOSEMITE NP, CALIFORNIA



"No temple made with human hands can compare with Yosemite" wrote John Muir who had arrived in the US from Scotland in 18  and made it his life's work to work for the creation of a national park, finally established in 1890, and which now covers 747,956 acres. 

                                                                 John Muir

 The Yosemite Valley had been occupied by the    tribe who farmed and hunted in the area until they were accused of raiding a trading post and tracked down by members of the Mariposa Battalion who killed many people and drove away the survivors.

Most of the 4 million annual visitors confine their  activities to the Yosemite Valley, a mile wide seven mile long canyon cut by the River  and widened by glacial action but those arriving in summer can also enjoy the vistas from the Glacier Point road and the High Sierra Tioga Road. 

On the evening we arrived, driving carefully up a winding narrow road to an altitude of 3500ft, snow lay thick in the woods of Jeffrey pine and red fir and our first night in the Roadbeast was chilly indeed.  The vehicle was equipped with a heater and a/c  but our intention was to avoid commerical campgrounds wherever possible and stick to the parks which do not run to full hookups to electricity.


There were signs everywhere warning against leaving food around since bears were coming out of hibernation.  Bear proof locked boxes were provided for campers to keep food.

Over the next few days the days were bright and crisp and we walked across meadows beneath the towering granite monoliths of El Capitan and Half Dome. 

It was too early for spring flowers but there were many birds and we saw mule deer and on one occasion, a bobcat.  Shuttle buses take people to various popular places in the valley which reduces traffic on the narrow roads. 

A 23ft long truck with a 10ft wide body is not the ideal vehicle in which to explore the parks as we quickly realized and I soon began to regret that I had chosen this model rather than the smaller 19ft camper.  Many roads are closed to longer RV's and some of the most scenic routes will be out of our reach which is very disappointing.

Cara set about her role of blog photographer with great enthusiasm.  Yosemite had been high on her list of places to visit since she had long been a fan of the work of Ansell Adams  and we were delighted to find that a lecture about the life and work of this renowned photographer whose family still run a studio in Yosemite Village.  Before leaving the valley, Cara chose two beautiful prints to take home with her.  On our second day we set out to climb the steep track up the side of the Yosemite Falls which cascade in three sections from high in the granite cliffs to the valley floor. 

 From a vantage point half way up magnificent views could be seen up the valley towards the far mountains.


                        CARA WITH THE RAINBOW MAN

                                  DEATH VALLEY NP, NEVADA

Our stay in Death Valley was brief and, after a long drive, the road wound steeply down to the floor of the valley and a welcome campsite as darkness fell. Across the road, a restaurant with a broad verandah specialized in dozens of different beers and we chose a table outside in the warm night air and sampled large glasses with an excellent pizza and hamburgers as bats flitted around catching insects attracted by the light.

Death Valley is the largest park in the US south of Alaska and is know for extremes. It is the hottest and driest spot in North America with fewer than two inches of rainfall annually and a record high of 134F and has the lowest elevation on the continent at 282ft. In 1849 emigrants bound for the Californian goldfields strayed into the 120 mile long basin and endured a two month ordeal of "hunger, thirst and an awful silence" One of the last to leave looked back and said "Goodbye Death Valley"!

Rock art and artifacts reveal a human presence dating back at least 9000 years andmost recently the Timbisha Shoshone found ways to adapt to the forbidding desert conditions.

The following day we drove slowly past the great sand dunes, rocks sculpted by erosion, richly tinted mudstone hills and canyons and multi coloured cliffs where spring flowers bloomed in the desert sands.

                                  Mesquite Valley Sand Dunes

A 200 square mile salt pan surrounded by snow capped mountains made a dramatic sight viewed from Zabriskie Point from where wagon teams used to haul borax from mines now in ruins.

It was a desolate landscape where the road eventually descends towards the lowest point in the US.

                                              Joshua trees

                                 VALLEY OF FIRES SP, NEVADA

We came upon the Valley of Fires state park late the next afternoon whilst looking for a campsite. Leaving the busy freeway a minor road led into a valley where huge contorted rocks glowed red in the setting sun.

  The small campsite was located among the rocks, a very dramatic setting.

                                              ZION NP, UTAH

The first residents of Zion were nomadic hunters who occupied the area for thousands of years and tracked mammoths, camels and other large mammals through open desert and sheltered canyons. These animals became extinct around 8000 years ago and as the climate changed by 500AD a community of farmers, now known as the Ancestral Publoans, evolved in a landscape which had terraces to grow food, a river for water and an adequate growing season.

 Eventually they were replaced by the Southern Paiute people who brought traditions suited to the harsh desert climate and later westward expansion eventually brought new settlers to the canyon. In the 1860's early Mormon pioneers came to the region and built small communities who farmed the river terraces.

Park elevations range from 3600 to 8700 feet and the red rock cliffs and towers of Zion soar above the Virgin River where a ribbon of green marks the water course. The early explorer John Wesley Powell who visited Zion in 1895 said "All this is the music of waters". In the desert over 500 times more species are found at water sources than in the surrounding arid country. Tiny pinion mice, golden eagles and mountain lions thrive in the many habitats of Zion and at the lowest elevations the desert tortoise can be found.

On our long climb out of the valley we parked the RV by the side of the road and put out our chairs, opened a beer and gazed at the wonderful cliffs above us.

                               BRYCE CANYON NP, UTAH

                                    LAS VEGAS,NEVADA

Cara had decided that her last night with us should be spent in Las Vegas and booked us into a luxurious suite at the Venetian Resort.


 The opulent lobby, with ceilings painted in the style of Michelangelo and a large marble fountain, was only the beginning of a vast pleasure palace modelled on Venice.

 A replica of St Mark's Square with pink buildings and street lamps was busy with people watching a group of opera singers in costume give a performance.

  The Grand Canal wound through the main thoroughfare lined with shops complete with a replica Bridge of Sighs and gondoliers poled traditional craft along singing romatic Italian ballads. Security guards, dressed as Italian policmen, strolled along and under the artificial sky complete with puffy white clouds, it was always late afternoon no matter what the weather was outside.

In the evening we took a cab to Fremont Street, the old Las Vegas strip where neon lights advertised all manner of entertainments and people watching was a major pastime.

A Scottish pipe band appeared, marching down the street before setting up on a stage to perform Flower of Scotland and the Star Spangled Banner at which the revelling crowds stood with hands upon their hearts.


                                   GRAND CANYON NP, ARIZONA 

The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular and spectacular sights in the southwest US and the cool,bright weather was perfect for walking along the Rim Trail. The dimensions of the canyon are awe inspiring- 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide and a mile deep. It hosts a variety of plant and animal communities from the riparian areas next to the Colorado River deep in the canyon which are home to humpback chub and beaver to montane forests along the North Rim where wild turkeys and mule deer can be found. Three of the North American deserts come together in the lower elevatins of the canyon with mesquite trees from the Sonoran desert, blackbrush sparsely cloaking the inner canyon in typical Great Basin fashion and Joshua trees representing the Mojave desert. Grand Canyon rattlesnake and desert bighorn sheep are found at this level. Where pinyon-juniper dwarf forest is suceeded by ponderosa pine the pinyon jay, mountain lions and Abert's and Kaibab squirrels thrive.

We spent three days walking along various sections of the South Rim from Mather Point to Hermit's Rest which allow glimpses of the Colorado River far below and ever changing views into the canyon where the colour of the rocks changes throughout the day. The Bright Angel trail winds steeply down into the canyon and the popular two day trips by mule are booked months in advance.

The Grand Canyon has sustained people both materially and spiritually for thousands of years. 12000 - 9000 years ago, the earliest Clovis hunters found a wetter, more verdant area with large mammals that are now extinct. They were followed by the Archaic then Basketmaker cultures 9000 - 1200 years ago and from 800 - 1300 AD Ancestral Puebloan developed villages relying on agriculture, growing corn, beans and squash. This population declined after 150 and the ancestors of the Hualapai, Havasupai, Southern Paiute and Navajo moved into the area. In 1540, members of the Hopi tribe guided Spanish explorers to the South Rim and in 1869 John Wesley Powell led an expedition through the Grand Canyon

                                   CANYON DE CHELLY,


In many ways our visits to the lesser known national parks and monuments were the most rewarding with Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon proving especially fascinating with their long history of human occupation. There is archaeological evidence that people have lived in these canyons for almost 5000 years with remains of their campsites and images etched or painted on canyon walls. The earliest people lived in small groups and hunted game then later grew corn and beans. Predecessors of today's Pueblo and Hopi built multi storied villages and kivas with decorated walls that dot the canyon alcoves.

Mummy Cave ruin is one of the largest ancestral Puebloan villages in the canyon and was occupied until around 1300AD. The tower complex was built in the 1280's by people who migrated from Mesa Verde

Spider Rock is an 800 ft sandstone spire and legend describes it as the home of the Spider Woman who taught the Dine the art of weaving. Navajo rugs are famous for their fine design and weaving techniques.

Tradition says that the Haashch'eeh dine e, the Holy People, created plants from air, light, water and soil to beautify the land and provide for Dine, the Navajo People. The Najavo respect plants as a perpetually renewing gift and a connection with all things on Earth.

The Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 to record this history of human occupation. It includes around 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation and a group of around 50 Dine families who farm the area along the river where the cliffs reach up to 1000 feet. It is known as Tsegi to the Dine who are connected to the landscape in a spiritual way and regard it as the epicentre of their culture. The Navajo arrived in the canyon around 300 years ago bringing domesticated sheep and goats acquired from the Spanish and a vigorous culture tempered by centuries of migration and adaptation.

In 1863 Colonel Kit Carson began a brutal campaign against the Navajo entering the east end of Canyon de Chelly and pushing the Navajo toward the canyon mouth. Resistance proved futile and most of the Navajo were captured or killed. Those who survived were forced to march over 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico with scores perishing from thirst, hunger and fatigue. After years of internment during which poor food and shelter and disease brutalized them the survivors were allowed to return home in 1868. This tragic episode became known as The Long Walk


The dramatic scenery of Monument Valley has become well known after being used as a location for a number of films, notably westerns. It is Navajo tribal land and the roads are rough with rv vehicles banned from entering. We decided to book an early 3 hour tour with a guide to see the sun rise over the great monoliths and this took us into some of the more remote areas. Our guide Matt, a quietly spoken Navajo, told us some of the history and legends associated with the place and at such an early hour we places pictographs could be seen.


                                              HOVENWEEP, UTAH


Pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson first used the term Hovenweep, which is Ute/Paiute for "deserted valley" in 1874 to describe this landscape where multi-roomed pueblos, tall towers and small cliff dwelling lie scattered around the rim of a shallow canyon.
Nomadic Paleo-Indian hunters had roamed the plateaus and canyons over 13,000 years ago but large numbers of people did not settle in the area until after 1100. The final wave of building that created the distinctive Hovenweep towers began around 1230 as the population began moving away from mesa top homes comprised of small scattered  clusters of dwellings to larger pueblos built around canyon heads which contained water sources such a seep springs.
 The site was abandoned 700 years ago and the people moved south into New Mexico and Arizona where their descendents still live. The small campground was perfectly located close to the ruins and on a crisp, clear Easter Sunday we set off to walk along the trail which circled the edge of the canyon giving clear views of the round, square and D shaped towers and  other dwellings, often perched precariously on the cliff edge or atop isolated boulders.  We saw many different birds and the sandy desert soil was studded with wild flowers. 


                                                        MESA VERDE, COLORADO

We first visited Mesa Verde National Park in 1990 and were very keen to see this, the first US World Heritage site, once again.  The park was created in 1906 to preserve the archaological heritage of  the Ancestral Puebloans both on the top of the mesa and in the cliff dwellings below. The high mesa, at around 7000ft in elevation, receives about 18 inches of precipitation in the form of rain and snow a year presenting a challenge for the first farming communities to settle here.  Deep, sandstone canyons cut through the mesa which was covered in a dense forest of pinyon and juniper. The park contains over 4500 archaological sites of which 600 are cliff dwellings and some of the best preserved of these are open to visitors.

The first Ancestral Puebloans, known as the Basketmakers, were nomadic tribes who had hunted in the surrounding  area for thousands of years sheltering in the cliff alcoves of the canyons.  People began to settle in communities on top of the mesa around A.D. 600, building modest dwellings which consisted of shallow pits dug into the ground and covered with pole and mud roofs and walls, with entrances through the roofs. The fertile soil supported crops of beans and  squash together withcorn which was the staple food, introduced from the south.  These foods were stored in the alcoves below the rim of the mesa. 

By 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole and adobe contruction to  skillful stone masonry. Walls of thick, double coursed stone often rose two or three stories high and were joined together into units of 50 rooms or more in the form of village known as a pueblo. Towers and ceremonial underground rooms known as kivas were features of these settlements.

Between 1000 and 1300, the Classic Period, the population may have reached several thousand.  About 1200 another major population shift saw people begin to move back into the cliff alcoves that had sheltered their ancestors centuries before, possibly for security, and this gave rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous.

On our first afternoon in the park we booked tickets for the ranger guided tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America which required a 100ft vertical ascent using 4 ladders attached to the cliff face.  The site was first brought to public noticein 1888 by two cowboys herding cattle who noticed the buildings in the cliff alcove across the canyon.  The first person they escorted in was Frederick Chapin, an experienced mountaineer who lowered a rope over the ledge and climbed down into the dwelling.  he wrote"It occupies a great space under a grand oval cliff, appearing like a ruined fortress with ramparts, bastions and dismantled towers"  Early visitors sadly often took important artifacts as souvenirs and notices at each site requested visitors to refrain from removing anything at all from this exceptional cultural monument.

Balcony House is a typical Mesa Verde cliff dwelling built using sandstone shaped into rectangular blocks and mortar mixed from the sandy soils.  The one hour tour involves climbing a 32ft ladder to enter the site, crawling along a 12ft tunnel and climbing 60ft up an exposed cliff face using ladders and stone steps.

Spruce Tree House is the best preserved dwelling in the park and we visited this on a delightful, crisp spring morning following a trail along the edge of the mesa and then  down a steep track to explore the buildings sheltered in a wide alcove with a smoke blackened roof.  This is one of the largest villages in Mesa Verde with 129 rooms and 8 kivas and between 60 and 90 people lived here at any time.

Further along the circular drive, a short walk led to a lookout from where the impressive Square Tower House could be seen.  This four storey tower is the tallest at Mesa Verde and,  like all the cliff dwellings, could only be reached by means of hand and toe holds created in the cliff face.


                         CHACO CANYON NP,NEW MEXICO
Chaco Canyon is reached by a 16 mile unpaved road through a flat sage brush landscape. The last 5 miles runs through a Navajo reservation and is completely unmaintained and very corrugated and rough. Finally we reached the small campground and parked the van close to a small cliff which had the remains of an ancient dwelling at its base. Early the next morning we set off towards the well preserved ruins of three Great Houses

Our visit coincided with a weekend festival to celebrate the election of Chaco to to the International Dark Skies Association, an organization set up to protect such areas against increasing light pollution from nearby cities. A visiting professor of astronomy gave an illustrated lecture on how the opportunities to study the night skies were decreasing worldwide and pointed out that the Chacoans had been observing the skies from this area a thousand years ago. Visiting amateur astronomers from the nearby city of Albuquerque, set up a variety of telescopes to view the stars and planets on what turned out to be a very clear although bitterly cold night.

                                BANDELIER NM, NEW MEXICO


BandelIer National Monument is located about 40 miles north of Santa Fe and Frijoles Canyon is the most accessible part of the 33,750 acre park with a number of Ancestral Pueblo dwellings within easy reach of the visitor centre. Huge ash flows from the Valles Caldera eroded into the rugged canyon and mesa terrain that typifies the area. 

Groups of nomadic hunters have lived in the area for over 10000 years and their descendants, the Ancestral Pueblo people lived in small scattered settlements and up to 3000 sites have been identified by archaeologists. By 1250 people had begun to gather together in villages which often included up to 40 rooms. They were farmers who grew maize, beans and squash and hunted deer, rabbits and birds. Cotton was cultivated and woven into garments and winter blankets were woven from yucca fibre string twisted with turkey feathers or strips of rabbit skin. Trade networks ranged as far as central Mexico and Baja California and they acquired shells, turquoise and parrots.


Long house, an 800 foot stretch of adjoining, multi-storied stone homes with hand carved caves as back rooms. Some of the rooms were painted and many petroglyphs remain carved into the tufa.

The following 250 years saw fewer and larger villages with some exceeding 600 rooms and in Bandelier these included Tyuonyi and Tsankawi with their adjacent cave dwellings. By the mid 1500's the people who lived there had moved on, settling into new homes along the Rio Grande river. Soon after, the Spanish colonized New Mexico bringing immense change to the indigenous people of the Southwest. No written records existed before the arrival of the Spanish but the Pueblo people of Cochita, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Zuni still have strong ties to Bandolier. 

"Spiritually, our ancestors still live here at Bandolier. You see reminders of their presence here - their homes, their kivas and their petroglyphs. As you walk in their footsteps, value the earth beneath you and show everything the same respect we do when we re-visit this sacred place" Affiliated Pueblo Committee

                      ROCKY MOUNTAIN NP, COLORADO

May 7

Spring comes late to the mountains and arriving at the western entrance to the Rocky Mountain National Park we discovered that the spectacular Trail Ridge Road, the highest major highway in the US reaching 12,183 feet which crosses the park, was still closed by snow and not expected to open until later in May. Over the next couple of days we enjoyed the mountain scenery along the first 10 miles of the road, looking out for birds and animals and were rewarded with an clear sighting of a Red Tailed hawk and several moose.

The Rocky Mountain chain forms the backbone of North America. Running from Alaska to Mexico it is the world's longest mountain barrier. The Rocky Mountains NP holds 72 named peaks above 12000 feet and almost one third of the park is above the tree line at 11,400 feet. It was established as a national park by congress in 1915. The Alpine winters are long averaging around 8 months and animals survive by migrating, hibernating or staying put with elklk and coyotes moving down to the lower valleys

Following retreating glaciers 10000 years ago, humans first began living intermittantly among these mountains. By 4000BC Mountain Ute lived off the land and with skillful knowledge of plants and animals they followed game and travelled over seasonal routes. Other groups including the Cheyenne and Arapaho lived primarily onthe plains hunting buffalo with occasional mountain excursions. By the 1800's, European fur trappers and traders sought beaver until the pelt prices fell in the 1840's and in 1858 a gold rush in the Rockies created the boom towns of Denver, Boulder and Golden.

                                 DINOSAUR NM, UTAH

May 9

Escaping from the increasing snow in Colorado we headed west and arrived at the peaceful campground on the banks of the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument where the sun was shining and the cottonwoods in full leaf.

Campgrounds in the national parks and monuments are invariably well maintained and although the facilities may be basic, they offer beautiful surroundings at a modest cost. At Green River a trail leads along the water's edge towards the Split Mountain Gorge and, wandering along this in the late afternoon looking for birds and enjoying the scenery, I was delighted to spot a Bullochs Oriole, a beautiful golden coloured bird which was nesting in a nearby tree.

The dinosaur quarry is located in a rock layer called the Morrison Formation whose fossils were deposited in so many environments that scientists can reconstruct how the area looked 150 million years ago. Paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered and began excavating these fossils in 1909 for the Carnegie Museum and hundreds of tons of bones were removed to museums over the following years. In 1915 this world class deposit of late Jurassic dinosaur bones, which include fossils from four major groups - plant eating sauropods, stegosaurs and ornithopods and flesh eating theropods, were protected in the 80 acre Dinosaur National Monument. The partially excavated dinosaur fossils can be viewed in a glass fronted hall designed to display the complete cliff face of the quarry.

About 5 million years ago, rivers began carving the deep canyons which can be seen today and these hold archaeological sites which reveal that people have inhabited the area for thousands of years. The many fine petroglyphs scattered throughout the park are around 1000 years old.


At the end of the canyon there is a small cabin which was once the home of Josie Bassett Morris, a feisty woman who ran a ranch there alone from 1914 for almost 50 years until she died aged 90. She had been married five times, divorced four times and her fifth husband died. Cattle were coralled in a steep sided box canyon and she grew fruit trees and vegetable and relied on horses for transport to the distant town of Vernal.

May 11

One of the rare days of bad weather and we resort to the breakfast of choice on such occasion - American pancakes and lots of coffee with the ipod playing on shuffle. With a choice of 3500 pieces of music you never know what will come up - an Irish morning for the US Mother's Day followed by Walk on the Wild Side and why not with 100 mile an hour winds. Even the bears and mountain lions will be lying low this morning!