America the Beautiful: From Desert to Rain Forest
The narrow two-lane road twists its way between the trail blazed between the scrubby desert pines and the scraggly sage. The desert sand starts showing its cereal-stained off-white color as the road climbs and turns. Glancing at the GPS receiver on the dash, the route is correct. It just doesn’t feel right.
As if God, changed paint without quite cleaning His brush, the sand starts changing color. The dirty white now seems to have a tint. In the desert, the morning sun can do that to sandstone cliffs, but it’s closer to mid-morning and well past sunrise. Over the next hump, the car plunges into a dip through the middle of a marshy wash with bubbling spring. Climbing the other side, the whiteness is gone, and the sand is orange pink.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, about 20 minutes off U.S. 89 northwest of Kanab, Utah, literally rises on the left side of the road. The smooth, drifting dunes block mountain views and turn the landscape a Creamsicle orange-pink. This is definitely one of the places that makes the West beautiful.
The 4,200 mile America the Beautiful Road Trip is just over six hundred miles into its route, and already there are five sights from the desert to the rain forest making the West beautiful. The list is not all-encompassing, it’s just the sights worth seeing on this route from Phoenix, Arizona, to Port Townsend, Washington, and then south along the Pacific Coast to San Francisco, California. There are dozens of sights not seen because the destination was off the track set for this road trip.
1. Mogollon Rim (I-17, 30 minutes north of Phoenix)
When leaving Phoenix on Interstate 17, the northerly route flows into the saguaro forests north of the city. Climbing from the desert floor’s 1,300 foot elevation, the road struggles up the escarpment known as the Mogollon Rim (Pronounce it like a local, “mo-GHEE-yun,” with a “G” as in “good”). This sharply rising cliff is the terrace between the Arizona Sonoran Desert and the Colorado Plateau. It is home to Sedona, a trio of wilderness areas, and the split between the Bradshaw and White mountains. It is a place to hike, camp, and recharge.
2. Sunset Crater National Monument (U.S. 89, 20 minutes north of Flagstaff)
Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and the destination of millions. This route, as it weaves northward passes by the Canyon, but swings by other beautiful destinations as well. For years, Sunset Crater National Monument was a, “I should check this out” off to the right when driving to the Canyon’s east gate.
It wasn’t even one of the original stops, but less than three miles from U.S. 89 on the first morning, it became the first unscheduled wayside. It was worth every one of the 60 minutes spent crunching on pumice and lava rocks, stopping at overlooks to see layer-on-layer of the chocolate and dark cherry colors contrasting with the green forest.
3. Two Gray Hills, Navajo Nation (along U.S. 89, about 90 minutes north of Flagstaff)
It’s not a stop, but a sight from the car. Along U.S. 89, there are rundown trading posts and kiosks where Navajo craftsman offer their handmade jewelry at extraordinarily reasonable prices. Two Gray Hills is the western boundary of the Navajo Nation. This New England-sized semi-independent country in the middle of the American Southwest is a land of its own wonders. The area along U.S. 89 can appear to be a “barren wasteland.” It is a collection of colors and layers like brick sherbet, it’s layers of cream, orange and brown, each set upon the other over geologic time.
4. Marble Canyon (U.S. 89A, 2 hours 30 minutes north of Flagstaff)
Two roads diverge in the desert, and U.S. 89 Alternate is the less-traveled. U.S. 89 heads northeast towards Page and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Travel Note: Through at least 2015, U.S. 89 is closed where it slashes along a cut on the edge of a sandstone cliff. A paved detour, U.S. 89 Temporary, travels over the route of the newly-widened Indian Route 20 around the landslide during its reconstruction in 2014 and 2015 adding a half hour to Lake Powell and Page).
Heading north, U.S. 89A and U.S. 89 wrap around Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and the Paria Canyon Wilderness. This perfectly-named cliff juts up in the distance as U.S. 89A gently winds its way across the Colorado Plateau. Almost without warning, the route arrives at the historic Navajo Bridge over Marble Canyon. The canyon is deep, narrow, and channels a quiet and aquamarine Colorado River between the Glen Canyon Dam and the red rapids of the Grand Canyon.
5. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (45 minutes east of Kanab)
U.S. 89 and U.S. 89A marry again in Kanab. The route turns northwest, skirting Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument on one side and the Kaibab Plateau on the other. The landscape is taking the shape of the rough, rugged and violent rises and falls of Planet Earth over the receding millions of years.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park can be accessed by the narrow, rustic two-lane county road when coming from the east or with a little patience, a state highway is a wider, more “normal” rural road connection. Climb to the observation deck, and in the morning, take off shoes and socks and tromp barefoot in the brilliantly pink sand. With a little energy—and a liter of water—climb one or two of the towering dunes that sit “in the pink” between rising brown and green mountains and the rolling boundary where the Colorado Plateau meets the Great Basin.
What There Wasn’t Time to See
This trip has a route, and although nearly a month on the road to travel over four thousand miles, there are set destinations and dates to be here and there along the way. In the first six hundred miles, there were a number of sights that time kept from being seen:
- Prescott, Arizona – Historic mining town
- Sedona, Arizona – Quaint artist colony set at the base of the red rock Colorado Plateau
- Flagstaff, Arizona – Funky historic railroad and logging town
- Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
- Monument Valley Tribal Park
- Painted Desert National Park
- Wupatki National Monument
- Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim
- Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument