Flagstaff has a walkable downtown area full of restaurants, brew pubs and independent stores. Just before picking up Patricia at the train station at the center of this area we stopped by a speciality beer store to pick out some treats. As we drove into the beer store parking lot, we noticed a bike store across the street. John does not pass a bike store without walking in, so after placing the beers in the van parked behind the store, we crossed the street to the bike store. The store owner noticed us just as much as we noticed the shop – even though the van was parked out of sight from the bike shop, he had seen us drive by and complimented the van. We then proceeded to have a long conversation about traveling and about what to do in the area. In his words, there are so many beautiful places to hike and bike in around Flagstaff that it is “ridiculous”. He in particular recommended two lava features: Sunset Crater Lava National Monument, which we missed, and Lava River Cave, which we explored on our way back through Flagstaff after leaving the Grand Canyon.
After running errands in Flagstaff, we headed the 15 miles back up the highway to the national forest intending to find a “dispersed camping” spot (“dispersed camping” = free camping with no amenities in designated locations on public land). With no trace of snow around, the possibility that the forest roads would be closed for winter had not occurred to me. I downloaded the motor vehicle use map, spent some time trying to decipher the mess of lines, symbols and tables to finally determine what roads were open for dispersed camping in mid-March only to be thwarted by gates sporting “road closed” signs. At one such site, where the gate was set back about 50 feet from the road, we stopped outside of the gate and were debating parking overnight in the open area before the gate when a car speeded in behind us. John moved the van so the car could get by, though we didn’t understand why anyone would be in such a hurry to stop at a closed gate. The driver got out and unlocked the gate! We got out and talked to her. It turns out some people live up the forest road and have the combination to open the gate. She informed us that usually in winter there are a couple feet of snow and they snowmobile to their homes in the forest. The roads are closed even in a dry winter to prevent people from driving in on a dry road then getting hit by a snowstorm that traps them back there. She also said she thought it would be fine if we parked right there overnight, so we did. We settled in right around dinner time, so we saw her neighbors all coming home. We were surprised at how many people live back there.
The road leading to the Lava River Cave is also closed for the winter, so we parked outside the gate and rode our bicycles four miles on a dirt forest road to get to the cave. While this cave is not as decorated as the limestone caverns in Carlsbad and Kartchner, exploring a cave on our own was a whole new (and fun!) experience. No one was around when we arrived, and we didn’t see anyone else until after we had eaten lunch at the very end of the 3/4 mile underground trail and started heading back out. Walking in the dark through a tube with only one exit is not for the claustrophobic or the monsterphobic. The cave isn’t tight by any means, but it is a little creepy to be alone in a strange dark place.
The darkness is really profound. We spent many minutes with our headlamps off, sitting still in a lack of light that is never encountered in normal life. The brain is confused by the lack of visual input and I continued seeing after-images of lights and phantom shadows the entire time. It was a really interesting experience.
Following the cave exploration we stayed a couple more nights in the Arizona Snowbowl parking lot. The first morning we woke up to a white-coated world and the place briefly lived up to its name. I like the Flagstaff area, and could happily spend even more time there. After all, the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities is “ridiculous”.
March 13, 2014