Our Drive Through The Painted Desert In Arizona
Despite having been awake since a very early hour, it was not until about 10:30 a.m. that Bob and I decided to make a run for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was approximately 200 miles from the South Rim, and the roads were very good, so there was plenty of time left in the day to get there and back again. One of the striking features of landscape to impress us along the route was the Painted Desert with its myriad formations in all colors of the rainbow.
As we descended the South Rim towards Cameron, the mercury soared and continued to climb as we sped along Highway 89 going north through the Painted Desert. We had been enjoying rather temperate weather in Grand Canyon National Park, complete with downright chilly evenings, so it was a shock to our systems to find the temperature skyrocketing but no surprise given that we were entering an arid desert region.
The Painted Desert is a desert of badlands situated almost entirely within the Navajo Nation. In total, it encompasses an area roughly 120 miles (190 km) long by 60 miles (97 km) wide. It was a government explorer, Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives, who, in 1858, coined the name of the desert in order to sufficiently describe the varied colours of shales, marls and sandstones that have been exposed through erosion.
As our car sped down the highway, both Bob and I realized that, to stop every whipstitch for a photo would have us failing to reach our goal for the day, so in most cases, I rolled down the window, aimed the camera and snapped a picture even when we were driving at full tilt. The frequency of interesting and photo-worthy formations was boundless, such as these blue cone-shaped domes that seem unearthly.
The base for the badlands was laid in the Triassic Period and is referred to as the Chinle Formation. Through continual erosion of the stratified layers of fine-grained rock, the multi-hued hills and buttes have been created. The smooth, uninterrupted contours of these ghostly blue mounds allude to the windy and arid conditions on the desert.
As we motored along, Bob and I were in awe of the unending expanse of the badlands. In Marble Canyon, the terrain was barren and austere, to say the least, but a mesmerizing landscape with its own inherent beauty. At times, the air seemed to glow with a pink mist or purple haze as desert dust devils whipped sand into vertical vortexes that sped across the desert floor.
I was keeping track of the multitude of colours that brightened the landscape, and there was everything from pale lavender and grey to vibrant shades of red, orange and pink; cool hues like green, blue and white contrasted by vivid yellow. The spectrum of colours painted the Chinle rock formations into a fantasyland that was almost unbelievable. The only thing that could make an improvement on the view would be late afternoon sunshine.
It was easy to fly along the endless stretch of highway that reached to the horizon, but one poorly-marked detour had us driving out of our way towards Tuba City, a mistake that cost us about 45 minutes, time we could not spare. As we passed the miles, there were subtle changes in the topography until finally we were seeing vast mesas and soaring buttes. More significant amounts of iron in the rocks gave these formations their characteristic red colour and made for a breathtaking stretch of desert landscape.
The alternating layers of rock vary in pigmentation owing to the different types of rock…siltstone, mudstone, bentonite clay and sandstone, and to the mineral content of those rocks. The rocks may erode easily, but it has taken millions and millions of years for the forces of nature to shape the Chinle rock formations into such unimaginable designs.
The further north our journey took us, the more diminutive we felt crawling along the slim ribbon of pavement. Our route had us driving parallel to the Echo Cliffs for dozens of miles. The sheer sides and steep height of the Cliffs dwarfed everything else in the surrounding area. Part of Kaibito Plateau, Echo Cliffs prominently expose the layers of the Chinle Formation.
As we neared Lees Ferry, the rolling surface of the Painted Desert was now bounded by the Vermilion Cliffs. The sullen rock walls towered above the scorched valley, and to the casual observer, all life was absent from the lofty rocks and the barren land. The incredibly wild and hauntingly desolate landscape left an indelible impression on our consciousness, and we pushed on.
Lees Ferry represents the only place for hundreds of miles around where it is possible to cross the Colorado River.
Historically, a ferry was operated at that location where the river is very narrow and not hemmed in by sheer canyon walls, but by the early 20th century, a bridge was constructed to facilitate more efficient travel. Navajo Bridge conducts automobiles over that section of the Colorado River, which is much smoother and calmer than other stretches either above or below this point.
We pulled over at Lees Ferry to better appreciate the tremendous and desolate majesty of the Vermilion Cliffs that confronted us head on. The buttes in the near distance were diminished by the Cliffs that rise to broad, flat-topped mesas, all of which are part of the Paria Plateau. We still had miles and miles to go so did not dillydally even at this impressive sight.