Friday, May 25, 2007
Shortcut through the Chuska Mountains, Arizona
When my wife and I were planning our road trip through the American Southwest a couple of months ago, I noticed an apparent shortcut through the Chuska Mountains in the Navajo Nation of northeast Arizona. Unfortunately, the 2007 atlas we were using showed the road, State Route 13, as unpaved. Remembering the fate of the family who took a wrong turn in Oregon a few months back with fatal consequences for the father, I was reluctant about using this road, especially after I checked Google Earth. This showed the road rising to elevations of around 8500 feet and very twisty.
Still, if the road was usable, it would cut off many miles from our journey from Canyon de Chelly National Monument over to northwest New Mexico and then southeast to Chaco Culture National Historic Park. (Interestingly Chaco Canyon lies due east of Canyon de Chelly, but there are no roads connecting them directly.)
While stopping in the Canyon de Chelly visitor center (near the town of Chinle) on our second day at the park, I asked one of the park rangers about this road and showed her the map. She said the road had been paved about two years before. That was music to my ears!
After we toured the northern leg of the park, we continued on State Route 64 to the small town of Tsaile. There, we got a little something to eat at a convenience store. I had become uncertain at that point if I had inquired about the correct road at the visitor center, so I asked the clerk at the store about this shortcut. He also assured me it was paved.
We then headed north on State Route 12 until we got to the turnoff for Route 13 at the small town of Lukachukai (the name sounds strangely Russian, but it really must be Native American). The first photo shows the view northeast on the outskirts of the town. As we started climbing into the Chuska Mountains (also sounds Russian), we came to a sign that said "road closed ahead." Oh no! Well, there was another car in front of us that had turned into the driveway of a Native American family that was getting ready to leave their home by car. I figured I may as well ask them also about the status of the road. They were very friendly and informed me that they had come through the mountains just two days before, and that of course the road was open. They mentioned that snow had narrowed parts of the road to one lane, but that it was definitely passable.
So we started climbing the twisty road with the natural orange-colored arch formations off to one side, and we encountered Ponderosa pine forests replacing the desert and snow in the forests and sure enough, on the road as we reached higher elevations. The Native American family was right though in that one lane was always dry and completely usable. Near the summit, there was a wayside with a picnic table, so we decided to stop. When we got out and reached the table, we saw the beautiful view spread out before us (last photo). We could see the Four Corners area, so 4 states were visible at one time. Of course, in the foreground was Arizona, while straight ahead with the "volcanic necks" visible was New Mexico. To our left in the distance was Utah and straight ahead on the horizon were the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.
The most famous of the volcanic necks is Shiprock, the largest one visible in the photo and so named because it resembles a 3-masted sailing ship. These volcanic necks are the remnants of upwelling lava from the cores of active volcanoes in prehistoric times. The solidified hard black lava is much more more resistant to the forces of erosion, so long after the volcanic cone has been eroded away, the hard lava "neck" remains, along with long "walls" of hardened lava radiating out from the neck.
This was such a treat, and I'm glad I persisted in asking about this road. It does show that it pays to inquire locally about any shortcut.