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Riding a Quasi-Antique Classic in Arizona and New Mexico

Tom CulbertsonDecember 02, 2015
The Tepees area is one of the older layers of the Chinle Formation. Colorful bands are ancient sediment layers of a Triassic river system. Carol is amazed by the area’s barrenness.

The Tepees area is one of the older layers of the Chinle Formation. Colorful bands are ancient sediment layers of a Triassic river system. Carol is amazed by the area’s barrenness.

Ancient Native American shadows and echoes are scattered across central and northeast Arizona. Cruising this region, Carol, my wife, and I are exploring the remains of the ancient pueblos and cliff dwellings. The Anasazi, Sinagua and Ancestral Puebloans settled here, prospered and disappeared, leaving only hints of their existence. To maintain the historical ambiance of the journey, we are riding a quasi-antique classic sidecar rig—my 2013 Ural Retro.

Flagstaff is the starting point for this historical cruise. On a bright sunny morning, taking State Route 89 through thinning residential developments and into stands of evergreen trees, we reach Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument at its southern entrance. The last eruption occurred in 1046, leaving deposits of cinder and lava throughout this area of the park. We find a great two-lane asphalt road with numerous moderate curves weaving through pine-covered terrain.

The Wukoki Pueblo, the largest and best preserved ruin in Wupatki National Monument, has remarkable mansonry craftsmanship.

The Wukoki Pueblo, the largest and best preserved ruin in Wupatki National Monument, has remarkable mansonry craftsmanship.

Farther on, the scenery transitions into stands of pinyon pines and junipers. After Painted Desert Vista, the road drops down onto open plains and runs mostly straight, soon entering Wupatki National Monument. In this northern area, we come upon several striking remains of ancient pueblo structures. The Wukoki Pueblo, considered the best preserved in the park, is three stories tall and has remarkable masonry craftsmanship. Wupatki Pueblo is notable because it is the largest in the monument; it once housed about 100 people. Beyond the Visitor Center heading back to U.S Route 89, passing more junipers and pinyons, we are rewarded with gentle sweepers and moderate curves, great for our sidecar rig.

Back on U.S. Routes 89 and 160 we pass endless vistas of arid yellow rangeland. About 20 miles west of Kayenta, we reach State Route 564 and head to Navajo National Monument. Lined with pinyon and juniper trees, this rough two-lane road sways through easy curves and sweepers. Off the beaten path, Navajo National Monument protects well-preserved large pueblo cliff structures nestled in huge sandstone cliff alcoves. Extensive hiking is required to reach these pueblos, but a 0.7-mile trail to the Betatakin Overlook provides an excellent view into the Betatakin dwellings.

Leaving Navajo National Monument on U.S. 160, passing through Kayenta in the heart of the Navajo Reservation, we are hunting for Indian Route 59 en route to Canyon de Chelly National Monument to view the pueblo and cliff dwelling remnants built by predecessors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi tribes. Route 59, a two-lane asphalt ribbon, is a comfortable cruise for the Ural. We’re surrounded by miles of empty yellow chaparral stretching to a horizon of massive mesas. Occasionally we spot a giant dust devil racing across the range. Reaching the mesas, we weave through gentle curves by vermillion cliffs, then into more open chaparral.

Montezuma Castle National Monument has an incredible five-story, 20-room structure in a cliff alcove 100 feet above the valley. Built between 1100 and 1300, it was named Montezuma because early American settlers thought it was built by the Aztecs.

Montezuma Castle National Monument has an incredible five-story, 20-room structure in a cliff alcove 100 feet above the valley. Built between 1100 and 1300, it was named Montezuma because early American settlers thought it was built by the Aztecs.

After a night in Chinle, we enter the national monument. You can only explore the canyon with local Navajo guides, but the North and South Rim Drives lead to great overlook viewpoints on the 1,000-foot-high cliffs. Today we’re first taking North Rim Drive to view Antelope House Ruin, which has remarkable antelope illustrations on the canyon wall. The antelope pictures are from the early 1800s and are attributed to Navajo artist, Dibe Yazhi. On South Rim Drive, we take in First Ruin, Junction Ruin and White House Ruin—more exquisite cliff dwellings and pueblo structures. Geologic formations in the canyon like Spider Rock are also quite impressive.

Next it’s 100 miles on straight and mundane Highway 191 for the uniquely interesting Petrified Forest National Park. Putting along the 28-mile park road we’re rewarded with beautiful geological sites. Rather than a forest of petrified trees, the Petrified Forest is known for its large deposits of petrified wood, which occur when trees are buried in river sediment and organic material is gradually replaced by silica. Rainbow colors come from traces of iron and manganese oxides. Exiting the park, it’s on to Interstate 40 to battle with 18-wheelers and wind—a challenge with the Ural’s 65-mph top speed. Again we’re served yellow chaparral rangeland while climbing to Flagstaff at 6,900 feet.

Pulling into Walnut Canyon National Monument before Flagstaff, we find numerous cliff dwellings that were inhabited between 1100 and 1250. It always amazes me how inaccessible these structures are, and yet people still lived in them. Be prepared for a strenuous climb down and up 240 steps to and from the Island Trail that passes 25 cliff dwelling rooms. This is a popular destination and worth the visit.

Tuzigoot National Monument has the remains of a large pueblo village built between 1000 and 1400. Originally two stories high, it had 87 rooms.

Tuzigoot National Monument has the remains of a large pueblo village built between 1000 and 1400. Originally two stories high, it had 87 rooms.

Leaving Flagstaff early the next morning, we are enjoying nearly empty Interstate 17, gliding around gentle sweepers through a dense conifer forest under a blue sky. Riding the Ural, I’m more comfortable cruising wide-open Interstate 17 than being pushed by tourist traffic on tight, curvy two-lane State Route 89A. After dropping into open chaparral with scattered pinyons and junipers we reach the Verde Valley.

Farther south, we find the turnoff for Montezuma Castle National Monument. This incredible five-story, 20-room structure in a cliff alcove 100 feet above the valley was built between 1100 and 1300. It was named Montezuma because early American settlers thought the Aztecs built it. About 20 miles northwest of Montezuma is the town of Clarkdale and Tuzigoot National Monument, where we’re rewarded with the remains of a large pueblo village built between 1000 and 1400 that had 87 rooms.

Spider Rock is an 800-foot sandstone spire rising from the Canyon de Chelly floor.

Spider Rock is an 800-foot sandstone spire rising from the Canyon de Chelly floor.

Leaving Flagstaff, we jump on Interstate 40 and begin another battle with 18-wheelers and wind. Since the Ural is a quasi-antique classic, we decide to enjoy the less-traveled Route 66 from Seligman to Kingman. Seligman has the quintessential Route 66 town image and tourists eager to photograph the Ural, thinking it part of the local ambiance. Motoring westward, we initially pass wide-open yellow rangeland and several Burma Shave sign sequences. This scenery continues until around Valentine, when road and scenery become interesting again. Swaying through curvy canyons below high mesas, we pass green junipers and scrub oaks until we reach the eastern extent of Kingman and civilization.

We have taken this ride numerous times and always see and learn something new. Besides its historical significance, it offers a wide spectrum of riding experiences: forested mountains, open plains covered with yellow chaparral, bone-dry deserts, curvy canyon roads and straight-to-the-horizon highways. And if you want to meet people, do it on a Ural sidecar. My wife said she felt like she was in a parade!

At Navajo National Monument, a trail leads to the Betatakin Overlook and provides an excellent view into the Betatakin dwellings set in a deep alcove

At Navajo National Monument, a trail leads to the Betatakin Overlook and provides an excellent view into the Betatakin dwellings set in a deep alcove

Map of the route taken by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

Map of the route taken by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

One comment

  1. Nice article, Tom. This particular loop (or a slight variation of it) was permanently etched in my memory 20 years ago when I rode it several times, albeit not on a Ural. You’re a brave man.

    You were within spittin’ distance of Monument Valley and I’m a little perplexed that you didn’t include that area as part of the loop. But you did manage to squeeze some of the best parts of Northern Arizona into this ride (sans the Grand Canyon).

    In 1995, beginning in Phoenix, I and two buddies rode a massive 1700 mile loop through southern Utah and back, which included an afternoon in Kayenta, AZ when a wheel bearing went south on my friend’s bike some 20 miles south of said town. It was Sunday and despite there being only one auto parts store in Kayenta, we lucked out and found a replacement bearing (the only one the store had AND IT FIT!) and installed it in the parking lot of a gas station. Whew…that was a close one.

    Exploring this part of the Southwest on motorcycle is one of my favorite riding memories. I did nearly 40k miles in a couple years on those Arizona roads. Your article took me back with aplomb and I’m grateful you made the trip and shared your experience here. Thank you.

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