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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Snap Point



What's bumpy, two feet shy of the width of an F250 and goes screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee? The road in to Snap Point, that's what. If you'd like to go, just look for the traces of Island Blue paint coating the branches along the game trail that passes for a road to Snap Point.

The Mog trundles it's way through the pines to the turnoff towards Snap Point.

We left Twin Point after a lazy morning wandering around and trying not to fall off the edge of the canyon. The foliage is pretty dense there, and sometimes you don't know you're on the cliffside until you step through the branches. You develop of sense of space pretty quickly once you do that a few times.  You start to pay more attention to the breeze, and the wind noises; it's always more breezy and the tone changes when you stand next to a giant void.

We got some good photos and congratulated each other on having the place to ourselves. It was a long drive, but having your own private parking space on the edge of the Grand Canyon is priceless.

We packed up and compared notes on our maps and GPS units before we set off. Snap Point is marked on the BLM Arizona Strip maps, but there is no official road drawn there. We knew there was one, because you could make out the trace outlines on Google Earth, it was a matter of turning down the right path once we got close. Craig and Rasa, our trusty rally driver friends, would lead the way while looking for the GPS waypoint they marked on their map.

A snapdragon-like flower that grew in abundance on the mesas above the North Rim.

We chose Snap Point because it looked like a great place to camp, and because of it's proximity to a plane crash that Craig was interested in finding. In 1972, an F111A was doing a training exercise over the Grand Canyon when things went sideways. Mistakes were made, and the student and trainer pilots had to eject. This particular plane was set up so ejection isn't the typical seat that pops out of the plane you see in the movies, but the entire cockpit module. They were able to safely separate from the rest of the plane, and as the body went down into the canyon and slammed into one of the walls, the cockpit parachuted "gently" (as gently as something like that can go) down onto a small plateau jutting out about a quarter of the way down into the canyon. From this precarious perch, they teetered and slid a few hundred feet more until the capsule settled on it's roof. They were injured, but were able to get out of the thing and were rescued, a happy ending that, unfortunately, doesn't come often with these crashes. This would be enough to end my career as a pilot and possibly a passenger, but I doubt that kept these two from flying again.

The F111A (photo credit: aeroflies.com)
Anyway, as we approached the turn off, things were looking pretty good. Nice dense forest cover of juniper, sage and cactus, all blooming in the May sun. Picture perfect. Then we turned onto the road.

I don't think the road was very well traveled by the looks of things. And all the extra rain Arizona had received over the winter was really putting a boost into the foliage growth. The farther we went, the closer the bushes and trees got to the truck, until the occasional low hanging tree branch bumping along the camper turned into a continuous screeeeeeeeee of brush scratching it's way down our flanks. This was only interrupted by the smacking of larger tree branches as they smashed into the camper rails. Mark's intermittent expletive squeezed out through gritted teeth soon became one long string of profanity. Honestly, I'm pretty impressed that he was able put together such a creative array of vulgarity and drive with such skill at the same time. And they say men can't multi-task.

Our glamorous camp on Snap Point

After three long, paint altering miles, we finally arrived at our camp spot. To look at it, you wouldn't be impressed. It was a clearing in the juniper just big enough to fit all three vehicles with a giant fire ring in the middle in which someone had left a big wooden pallet. It was all slightly wet from the recent rains, and there was no view to speak of. Not the Grand Canyon Awesome that we had quickly become accustomed to. After the painful experience we had just been through though, none of us wanted to face that road again so we settled in and made camp. An afternoon thunderstorm blew over and pelted us with a cold rain and hail, making the soft dirt turn to a sticky mud. It was hard to convince ourselves that this place was worth it.

The rain falls mainly on the plain. And sometimes turns to hail. And occasionally turns to snow.


Rasa and Craig had gone ahead to scout the way down to the mesa top below, trying to find the closest place to launch the plane wreck expedition the next day. Soon they joined us, having added their silver to our blue on the road bushes. We all walked up the road just a few more feet (watching the skies for any errant lightning bolts) and, ahhhhhhh, there it was. Another gorgeous perch, this one overlooking a large mesa below our mesa top, the bright red soil and rock of the cliff sides interlaced with white and yellow-tinged stripes. Parts of the cliff face had been eroded into giant hoodoos reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.

The hoodoo-like formations of Snap Point

The mesa top below us was green with recent growth from the rains. The low sun angled itself under the clouds that afternoon and made everything glow richly. We all dragged our camp chairs to the edge to enjoy the best kind of show there is.

It was worth it after all.

Once the weather cleared it was vibrant from the soaking it received.

The next day we rode along with Craig and Rasa down to our hiking launch spot. We passed an old ranch cabin they had seen the day before and I hopped out to take photos and peek inside. One step out of the truck and...rattlesnake! A big fat rattler was sunning himself right on the "porch" of the cabin.  He crawled under the pallet that served as the front step after flicking his tongue at us. No one felt the need to go inside after that so we settled for outdoor shots, keeping our feet well away from the base of the cabin.

The rattlesnake that greeted us at the door of the cabin.
Mark pointing where Mr. Snake went (lurking just beneath the slats of the pallet)
The cabin was decorated appropriately
The road was paved with wildflowers. Luckily, our high clearance vehicles left them intact for others to enjoy.
Deer on the road. Hope they didn't see the decorations on the cabin...
The view back up toward our campsite on the upper mesa.

We hiked across beautiful cactus gardens and artfully arranged rocks (why can't I do this as well in my own yard? It's hard to beat Mother Nature's sense of style) right to the edge of the canyon. We looked down and realized this was a much longer and more technical hike than we were prepared for. In addition, huge clouds were gathering on the horizon, threatening to turn this trip into another rescue mission. Craig and Mark analyzed the possible routes down to the site, then wisely decided this would have to be saved for another day with an earlier start. By the time we made it back to the truck the clouds had moved overhead and you could see the diagonal streaks in the sky over the mesa indicating distant rain. Good call guys.

Nature's composition, Craig and Mark in the background mulling their options. Note the clouds in the distance.

Back at camp, the rain started looking funny, kind of floaty, was this...snow? We all gathered in the Mog for cocktails waiting for the squall to be over. Two hours and several beers later, the snow stopped falling and we all trekked through the mud to the overlook. Still beautiful. Damned cold, but beautiful all the same.
All layers were needed for this chilly spot on the rim.

These are the things I've learned after traveling in the backcountry of Arizona:
  • You can't plan for the weather, but you can and should pack for anything from excessive heat to snow.
  • You can't control the roads, but you can decide for yourself what you're willing to drive over and through.
  • You can't guarantee a good time, but surround yourself with the right people and things will turn out fine.
Thanks guys. We had a hell of a trip.