Five Different Worlds On The Way To Phoenix

Over our rather long drive from Gallup to Phoenix, we passed through five quite distinct surroundings. An early start got us on our way on this 455 kilometre day (one of our long ones on this trip). It was cold when we left. The minimum overnight temperature (just before dawn) had fallen to -8C and it was still -2C and sunny as we drove out of the hotel car park. The cars in the car park were covered in ice and I managed to shoot this photo of the ice on the black door frame of our Jeep Cherokee.


1. Gallup

Gallup has a population of around 20,000, a substantial percentage of which is Native American – mainly Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni people. The city was founded in 1881 as a railhead for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad, and named after David Gallup, a paymaster for the railroad. Because of the nearby rugged terrain, it was a popular location in the 1940s and 1950s for Hollywood Westerns. We left the town by following Route 66 west until we reached the Interstate Highway that we drove on the day before.

On the right side of the road are the long railway yards where shunting locomotives were assembling sets of freight wagons into long snaking trains that would be hauled by the orange and yellow locomotives of the BNSF railway to the east or the west. On the left hand side of the road were another set of dilapidated buildings, closed gas stations and empty motels. The only things that seemed to be doing well were the Indian Trading Stations and Pawn Shops. Route 66 has an historical culture all of its own. It seems to me to a sad one as it’s based on a time and culture that no longer exists.


2. Painted Desert National Park

After a few miles we crossed into Arizona and then after another hour, we reached the entrance to the southern portion of the Painted Desert National Park.  The Painted Desert area was named by a Spanish explorer on a search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, which he located some forty miles east of The Petrified Forest National Park. Finding the cities were not made of gold, Coronado sent an expedition to find the Colorado River for water. Passing through this wonderland of colors, they named it “El Desierto Pintado” – The Painted Desert.

The desert is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible siltstone, mudstone, and shale of the Triassic Chinle Formation. These fine grained rock layers contain abundant iron and manganese compounds which provide the pigments for the various colors of the region. Thin resistant limestone layers and volcanic flows cap the mesas. The erosion of these layers has resulted in the formation of the badlands topography of the region.

They have a stark appearance, just like we saw in the cowboy movies in the 1950’s when the rustlers stole cattle and the sheriff later captured them.  The road through the park has a number of overlooks, each of which provides a beautiful landscape.



3. The Petrified Forest

An extension of the road through the Painted Desert led us south to a different environment – The Petrified Forest. This desert area is known for its fossils, especially fallen trees that lived in the Late Triassic Period, about 225 million years ago. During this period, the region that is now the park was near the equator on the southwestern edge of the supercontinent Pangaea, and its climate was humid and sub-tropical.

What later became northeastern Arizona was a low plain flanked by mountains to the south and southeast and a sea to the west. Streams flowing across the plain from the highlands deposited inorganic sediment and organic matter, including trees as well as other plants and animals that had entered or fallen into the water. Although most organic matter decays rapidly or is eaten by other organisms, some is buried so quickly that it remains intact and may become fossilised. The sediments containing the fossil logs are part of the widespread and colorful Chinle Formation, from which the Painted Desert gets its name. Beginning about 60 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau, of which the park is part, was pushed upward by tectonic forces and exposed to increased erosion thus exposing these fossilised trees that are now solid rock.  You can still see the woodgrain pattern of the bark and growth rings where the trees have cracked into sections.


4. Tonto Forest

We continued driving though the little town of Payson where we encountered large tracts of pine forest. Payson considers its founding year as 1882, at which time it was known as “Green Valley”. Pioneers originally came looking for minerals but found the pine trees provided much more economic benefit. In 1884, a post office was established with the help of Illinois Representative Levi Joseph Payson. The town was renamed Payson in his honour. Payson had its first rodeo in that year 1884. It now considers its rodeo as the “world’s oldest continuous rodeo”, as it has been held every year since. Zane Grey visited the town frequently and bought property in the area.

We could smell the scent of the pine trees, even with the car windows closed. A rest stop on the top of the Mongolian Ridge provided an opportunity to stretch our legs and grab this photo looking across the hills.


6 Sonoma Desert

Our fifth and final environment was a very dry area that we encountered just north of Phoenix.

There are three deserts in the USA and this one stretches from Southern California, across Arizona and down into Mexico. The highway descended a number of steep hills and dropped over 3000 feet before we reached Phoenix. The desert contains a variety of unique and endemic plants and animals, such as the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) and organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi). We began to see Suguaros when we reached the lower altitudes.  They will not grow in higher places where there is frost. We stopped by the road to try and photograph an isolated specimen only to find that just 50 metres away was an entry into a recreation area where they were growing in their hundreds.

Contrary to our childhood perceptions, none of these cacti have a Mexican wearing a sombrero and singing La Cucaracha at their base!


Our longest driving day turned out to be the most varied day of our trip. The surroundings were extremely varied and there was never a dull moment with so much interesting scenery to view.


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