Sunset Crater and Wupatki Loop

On the spur of the moment, I took a friend’s suggestion to go check out Sunset Crater near Flagstaff. I also decided to take the bike, even though this was a fairly long road trip. I hadn’t had a good long ride in a while. Plus temperatures in Tusayan are cool enough that I wasn’t worried about Lister being safe inside the van.

This is one of those trips where I didn’t do nearly enough planning, and I ran into some issues as a result. I started after lunch and took FS 302 east out of town. Thanks to my previous exploration, I knew this would take me down about 20 miles of easy dirt roads into the middle of Grand Canyon National Park, without having to go through the entry gate. I did this partly because it’s a fun ride, and also to save time waiting to get through the gate in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. (I have an annual pass, so I didn’t do it to stiff the National Park Service out of their entry fee.) Then I continued east on Highway 64, out the east gate of the park, and straight into Navajo territory.

There are countless roadside shops all along Highway 64. I stopped at this one to admire the view as well. This one had some nice homemade jewelry and pottery. I didn’t buy any, since I have no one to give jewelry to, and any pottery would break during the rest of my ride.

I did buy gas at the intersection with US 89A. $3.85 per gallon was a whole lot better than paying the tourist tax of $5.49 in Tusayan. Then it was pretty much a superslab run south. At least once the road went to four lanes I didn’t have to worry about being a moving roadblock, with my speed nearly maxed out, yet still not maintaining the 65 mph speed limit at times. This inspires people to make unsafe passes, which is bad news for everyone. It’s one of the reasons I’m seriously considering getting a different bike, one that’s better for the road and faster for conditions like these.

The other problem was the rain, since I didn’t check the area forecast before I left. I could see storms ahead of me over Flagstaff, and even lightning at times. I thought about aborting my mission but decided I wouldn’t melt in a few raindrops and continued on. I did go through a brief downpour, which hurt a bit since my mesh jacket lets the rain right through. I’m going to have to pick up a rain shell to wear over the jacket for times like this. I saw a sign for the Wupatki National Monument, but since it was raining I pressed on toward Sunset Crater, hoping to get out of the rain. This worked.

I whipped out my annual park pass once again to get into Sunset Crater National Monument. The ranger told me not only about Sunset Crater, but also the 35-mile loop road that would take me to Wupatki National Monument, and a bunch of Native pueblo ruins. The top end of this loop is what I bypassed trying to ride out of the rain, and would backtrack a good 20 miles north on US 89A. I wish I’d known that this was a loop before I’d bypassed the north entrance — another bit of poor planning on my part. I’d planned to make this ride a loop to Sunset Crater, then through nearby Flagstaff and back to my campsite the same way I’d driven in, up US 180 to US 64. But pueblo ruins interested me at least as much as the volcano.

I suppose seeing places like Mount St. Helens and Craters of the Moon have spoiled me when it comes to seeing volcanoes. Sunset Crater is pretty cool. It reminds me of the Inferno Cone at Craters of the Moon, except with trees. Plus you’re not allowed to hike up it, unlike the Inferno Cone. After taking a good look at it and reading signs about its history, I felt ready to move on.

Wildfires have taken their toll on this area in recent history. An alert on the Sunset Crater website says that the loop road and some areas — not all — are open as of August 18, not that long ago. As I continued down the loop road, I slowly rode out of the burnt area and into the untouched forest. This morphed into shrubs as the Painted Desert came into sight, and eventually into the desert itself. It was fun to ride through such a profound change in environments. Eventually, I saw a sign pointing toward the Wukoki pueblo. I made the turn, and soon enough I was there.

“Wukoki” is the modern Hopi word for “big house.” This is exactly what this was, a large dwelling for two or three families sometime between 1120 and 1210. Although it’s in ruins, I can’t imagine any home built by Americans, at any point in the country’s history, remaining in this good condition after 900 years.

The doorways to the remaining rooms were only about waist high, and so narrow that I could barely squeeze through, with my shoulder armor rubbing on both sides. Not only were the people who lived here smaller than I am, but they must also have been much more flexible and in better physical shape, too. They also picked an amazing spot to build a house, with spectacular views for miles around in all directions.

Back on the road, I didn’t ride too far before reaching the Wupatki pueblo, the main sight to see here. And what a sight it is.

This was the center of town for an ancient civilization. Also around 900 years old, this place had over 100 rooms, as well as “ballcourts,” the open round areas where they played games and sports and such. Even though much of it is gone to the sands of time, there’s a lot left to see here.

Though some distance away, there’s a direct connection between these dwellings and Sunset Crater. Its last eruption was 100 years before people settled here. What the eruption left behind directly contributed to this area’s habitability — ash made good fertilizer for farming, for example. Over time, it became a dry desert again, and these places were left behind. Local tribes remember the Wupatki and believe the people who lived here remain as spiritual guardians. The place certainly had a strong energy to it, which even I am having trouble finding words to describe. It didn’t feel scary or haunted at all, but I could feel that this place was once something quite special to the people who lived there.

By now it was getting late, and I had to skip the last couple of pueblos so I could get back to camp before dark. I don’t like riding at high speeds at night, particularly without excellent spotlights pointing far down the road. The extra lights I have are floodlights, which light up a large area not too far in front of the bike. This is what I need for off-road travel, but not for night rides on the highway. Also, I decided to go back the way I came rather than make a loop out of it. I don’t like backtracking, but the dark storm clouds over Flagstaff made it look more like Mordor, and the mountains looked more like Mount Doom, so backtracking was the smart move.

It was only 20 miles from the north end of the loop back to the intersection of 89A and 64. I stopped once again for gas, taking advantage of lower Navajo prices, especially since I’d ridden 100 miles in the short time since I was last there. As I fueled up, an older Navajo man walked by, checking out my bike. I couldn’t hear him over all the noise, but he made a hand gesture of handlebars, then pointed out toward the Painted Desert. He knew what was up. I didn’t have the heart to get into a conversation about what permits would be required for me to be allowed to do that. My Arizona OHRV permit, which lets me ride off-road trails, is still valid until December, but it doesn’t apply to sovereign Native lands.

I also spotted this on an abandoned hotel nearby. I can’t argue with that sentiment.

The ride back down Highway 64 was uneventful, except for one guy doing 50 in a 65 zone who sped up to 70 while I tried to pass him on my underpowered motorcycle. Traffic was otherwise light. At Grand Canyon National Park, there were only two cars ahead of me in the single open lane at the east entrance. That gave me time to get my annual pass and ID out to show the ranger. I even had time to put them back in my wallet while he asked how things were in Florida, where Hurricane Ian had just hit. I explained that I haven’t been back there in a while, without getting into the details of being a full-time traveler. I’ve seen a lot of signs in the area prohibiting “residential camping,” which one could argue is what I’m doing. I don’t believe it is, because I’m visiting these places, obeying the 14-day limits just like anyone else, and moving on. But there’s no reason to give any law enforcement officer some rope to hang me with, either.

It’s also interesting to note that this ride took me through three different places where I used my America the Beautiful National Park pass. Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monument would’ve cost me $25 each, while the Grand Canyon is $35. That’s a total of $85 for entrance fees that I didn’t have to pay. The annual pass costs $80, and is good for all parks for an entire year. It doesn’t take many visits to pay for itself. Mine has paid for itself many times over, and I won’t hesitate to buy another when it expires at the end of this month.

My ride back through the park split a gap between two lines of storms. One was to the south of me. I could see its huge puffy clouds even over the trees off to my left. The other was directly over the Grand Canyon. The rain pouring out of it almost completely blocked my view of the North Rim, it was so heavy. Further storm clouds to the west blocked out the sun, so there would be no colorful sunset that night. But I didn’t get wet at all on my way back, so backtracking was definitely the right call. What I really should’ve done was set aside a full day for this trip, and done it on a day without pop-up thunderstorms all over the place. But everything worked out in the end.

It was late, and I didn’t feel like cooking dinner, so I picked up a personal pizza from the Pizza Hut in the visitor’s center before heading back to camp. I was both happy and sad to see it fit perfectly inside my top trunk — happy that it fit without some crazy contraption to strap it to the back seat, but sad that it was smaller than I remember. It didn’t fill me up after eating it.

I gave Lister a little outside time when I got back, even though it was getting dark. He had some serious zoomies from being shut in the van all afternoon, much longer than I’d planned to be away. I felt bad bringing him back inside after such a short time outside, but it was necessary. Before I did, I helped one last car camper find the open site right next to me, which his headlights weren’t lighting up from the road. Then I settled in for the night.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t tired or in the slightest bit of pain from the longest bike ride I’d taken in months. It seems I’ve dialed in the ergonomics perfectly for myself, including the taller handlebars than the originals. But this ride also made the KLR650’s weaknesses for this type of riding quite apparent. While it can do sustained highway speeds, it doesn’t like it. I could make it more road-friendly by switching back to non-knobby tires when the current ones are used up, which would improve cornering performance without giving up too much grip on dirt roads. But that won’t improve the power to keep up with traffic, nor improve the brakes, which are somewhat lacking on all KLRs. Since I prefer setting up a home base in an area, then exploring it on the bike rather than in the van, it’s that much more important that I have a bike that can handle all kinds of roads, paved and otherwise. I’m willing to give up my current capability on trails to get that.

I’m not going to rush to get rid of this bike — I still have to get my printed titles from Florida anyway, which is a story for another time — but I am going to start casually looking for V-Strom 650s for sale just so I don’t miss the perfect one if it comes along. Such a search is how I found my KLR in the first place, and it’s been the perfect bike for me for three years. My wants and needs are just changing.

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