Travels with Punker & Spunky via Hoover Dam or Rio Grande

Leaving Las Vegas in two cars, with two cats and a destination 735 miles away

Story, photo by Ellen Hamil

Since 1996, when I retired, my husband and I and our two cats, Punker and Spunky, have made the trip between Las Vegas, Nevada, and Taos, New Mexico, (about 735 miles) twice a year.  We have a choice of two routes that are about equal in distance but not in time.  One takes us across Hoover Dam to Kingman, Arizona, where we pick up I-40 east to Albuquerque, N.M, and then I-25 north to Santa Fe and Rte. 285 into Taos.  This can get you to your destination in one long day, about 12 hours of driving.  The other option entails only two hours of interstate driving and then a more relaxed drive on two-lane highways across the Navajo Nation with an overnight stop in Page or Kayenta, Arizona, or Farmington, New Mexico, and then four and one-half hours through Chama, Tres Piedras and across the Rio Grande into Taos, a total of 14 hours. Either way we spend a night on the road.  For a few years we could remember which route we took by the motel we spent the night in because getting two cats into our room is not always easy.  For the past three years we’ve settled on the route across the Navajo Nation with a stopover in Kayenta, about 25 miles from the entrance to Monument Valley.  The towns and scenery on our trip vary from the starkness of the Mojave desert to Rocky Mountain vistas. We invite you to join us on our trip.  We’ll even spare you the plaintive cries of two unhappy cats.  

Punker & Spunky make long trip with reluctance.

Leaving Las Vegas isn’t easy because we’re going to Taos for six months. There are two vehicles to ready and pack.  A collapsible cage for the cats is assembled and goes into my van.  Plastic containers packed with clothes, shoes, loose items, etc. go in along with personal files, laptop, printer, banjo, concertina, and more. On the day of departure, the overnight cases – one for us and one for the cats – are packed, and we’re ready to find the cats, who are wandering around outside taking close notice of our activity. This year Punker, the male, was the first to be caught and sent into the cage.  Once inside, he let known his displeasure that told Spunky, the female, to go and hide.  But, she was soon found and forcefully persuaded to join him.

We turn on our “Talk Abouts”, check for sunglasses, close the garage door, bid the Yellow Rose goodbye and head for Interstate 15.  I drive the van with the cats.  For about the first 30 minutes I listen to their complaints. Eventually they settle down and only occasionally speak up to protest their imprisonment.     
Interstate 15 starts in San Diego and ends at the Canadian border near Sweetgrass, Montana.  At about 9:20 a.m. on Sunday, April 30, we pull onto the freeway.  We live on the south side of the city so our first half hour is driving to the north side of Las Vegas, passing the hotels and casinos on the Strip that runs parallel on our east.  

From here until St. George, Utah, about 112 miles, it’s pretty desolate country. The sky is blue.  Cumulus clouds cast shadows on the treeless mountain range west of the interstate, looking like mountains superimposed upon mountains. March was a cold month so spring is just now arriving in Nevada.  We pass mesquite bushes covered with small yellow blossoms.  Clumps of desert daisies dot the desert drab landscape along with the globe mallow with its spikes of orange flowers reaching skyward.

Slowly we gain elevation.  Las Vegas is at 2000 feet above sea level.  At about 3,000 feet we begin to see Joshua trees, a rather prehistoric looking tree belonging to the Yucca family and native to the Mojave Desert.  Mormon pioneers, sent by Brigham Young, settled Las Vegas and the few towns east and west of the Interstate.  According to the web site The Joshua Tree DesertUSA, they are said to have named the Joshua tree.  They believed the branches mimicked the upraised arms of Old Testament prophet Joshua welcoming them to the promised land.  Nevada was originally part of the Utah Territory and, when it became a state, the Mormons were welcome – but only for a short time.   Nevada was carved out of the Territory but no one was sure of the boundary.  So when Nevada officials imposed taxes on the Mormons, who practiced a barter-type of existence and couldn’t pay them, they left for Utah, with the Joshua trees now waving them goodbye.   

At every Nevada border town you can expect to find a casino.  Mesquite, Nevada, is no exception.  It’s a booming resort town boasting several casinos, golf courses and an increasing number of houses and condos as its popularity grows with retirees and vacation home owners.  

After Mesquite we enter the Virgin River Gorge and a 20-mile stretch of incredible highway engineering.  The road follows the Virgin River and is carved out of massive rock formations.  Anyone with claustrophobia might have a problem here.  The greeter at the Utah State Tourism Center just south of St. George told me the highway cost $1 million per mile when it was built in the early 1960’s.  It is touted as being the most expensive section of Interstate built until the “Big Dig” in Boston was completed in 2003.

Around St. George new colors are introduced into the landscape:  red, from iron ore, shows up on the exposed hillsides and green, because there is more precipitation.  The area was given the nickname “Dixie” because at one time it grew cotton.   On the west side of the city the large, ornate Mormon temple stands out in its white starkness against a backdrop of red cliffs, blue sky and white clouds.  The mountains behind it have white veins of snow dripping from their peaks.  

We are now approximately 295 miles south of Salt Lake City, but in a few miles we will exit Interstate 15 onto Route 7 and head for Hurricane (pronounced Hurrican).  It is a small town with a nice feel to it…rural on the outskirts and quaint in the center with a pretty little courthouse.  We are about 30 miles from Zion National Park, but we don’t have time for sightseeing.  We do have time for lunch though, and we stop at our favorite restaurant.  We notice a family of six at a table nearby.  The two pre-teen girls are dressed in perfectly pressed cotton dresses and both have long blond braids and white stockings. The two younger brothers are wearing blue jeans with blue shirts.  It’s Sunday and they may be coming from church.  We think they are from one of the polygamist towns a short distance away.

From Hurricane the road takes us up a steep hillside to the top of a mesa where the vermilion cliffs the area is known for start to appear.

Next it’s the side-by-side towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, that have recently been in the news.  They are inhabited by the followers of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (polygamists) and their leader, Warren Jeffs, was added to the FBI’s “Most Wanted List” on May 6.   For the past ten years we have watched these towns grow in size.  There was no unusual activity the day we drove through.

We pass Pipe Springs National Monument whose history goes back to the American Indians, early explorers and Mormon settlers who farmed the land and raised crops and cattle.  It was an important way station for travelers crossing the Arizona Strip – the northern part of Arizona above the Grand Canyon National Park.  The Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation surrounds privately owned Pipe Springs.  (

About 15 miles from Kanab we pass a dirt road that leads to Toroweap on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, 61 miles away.  We thought we would visit the North Rim one year when we were exploring the area in late December until a National Park Ranger said we should be prepared with food, water and other survival equipment in case we encountered problems as it was not a road frequently in use that time of year.  His advice and our good judgment prevailed, and we still haven’t been to the North Rim.

At 207 miles from Las Vegas we pass through Fredonia where we pick up route 89A.  We are almost 5000 feet above sea level.  Purple and white lilacs are in full bloom.  The highway crosses back and forth between Arizona and Utah. The towns have painted the first letter of their names high on the hillsides.  

Kanab, Utah, population 6,058 is the county seat.  It is famous for the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary where about 1500 abused or abandoned animals (from dogs, cats, horses, mules, rabbits and birds) have a home with regular meals, special care and lots of love.  Over the years Hollywood has taken a liking to this scenic area and produced many Westerns.  This is a good place to spend a few nights if you’re on vacation as there are many interesting sights in the area.  Kanab is just south of Zion and Bryce and Grand Staircase.  

One year driving into Kanab we encountered an ultra-light fly-in.  The sky was abuzz  with experimental aircraft darting here and there.  We took time to stop at the airport to get a closer look at these unusual planes.  Called the Rutan fly-in, it is an annual event held over Labor Day.  Burt Rutan was a pioneer in designing and building what is called experimental aircraft.

We’re heading for Lake Powell and Page, Arizona, 65 and 79 miles respectively. The red is gone from the landscape substituted by gray, gold and sand colored outcroppings and mesas.  

At 272 miles from Las Vegas we see our first glimpse of Lake Powell.  When the lake was full we used to see it many miles prior to this but since the year 2000 the inflow water has decreased considerably due to the drought in the southwest.  In 2002 the inflow of water was as low as 25% of average, the lowest since the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963.   The lake is at its lowest level since 1980 when it filled in, according to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area web site.  It nevertheless has enough water to allow for safe boating recreation and to fulfill its job of providing the allotted water to the Lower Colorado Region States.

We are back in Arizona and some of the buttes of Monument Valley are in the distance.  We enter Page, founded in 1957 when Glen Canyon Dam was under construction.  We turn south on Rte. 160 and at 312 miles we enter the Navajo Reservation, about 15 miles beyond Page.  Gas in Page on April 30, 2006, was $3.06/gallon for regular unleaded.

Between Page and Old Navajo Route One we climb in elevation to 6,000 feet. The orange and red earth is spotted with an abudance of junipers, Ponderosa pines and pinion trees.  We pass a few towns and villages but many Navajos live in remote areas.  It is not uncommon to see them driving pick-ups with 55 gallon drums in the back to haul water.  Wells here are deep and expensive to drill.  We are careful to watch our speed as we don’t want to be stopped by Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee (two fictional tribal police officers made famous by writer Tony Hillerman).  

It’s about 400 miles from Las Vegas when we enter Kayenta, a little more than halfway to Taos.  Our overnight stop is at the Holiday Inn.  The desk clerk offers us a rate of $98.00 with AAA or AARP membership but we ask about the “Mini Navajo Vacation” rate.  That’s $89.00 and comes with two $15.00 coupons for dinner in their restaurant and two $12.00 coupons for breakfast. We’re going to have a “Mini Navajo Vacation.”  Hope the cats enjoy it.

Next month:   Kayenta, Arizona, to Taos, New Mexico, over a 10,000 ft. mountain pass.  Will there be snow?

June, 2006