Looking down from a small, five-seater airplane, Mikah Meyer felt lucky to be getting such a spectacular -- and unique -- perspective of some of America’s most beautiful and historic land and waterscapes.
The national parks traveler was flying over and around Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service that stretches for hundreds of kilometers from the southwestern state of Arizona to southern Utah.
Mikah described the flight, courtesy of the tour company American Aviation, as “an amazing flyover where we got this bird's-eye view of everything I was about to experience over the next few days.”
The park borders Navajo Indian territory. After the Cherokee, Navajos are the second-largest federally recognized Native American tribe in the United States, with more than 300,000 enrolled tribal members. And, Mikah noted, "as far as land square mileage goes, the Navajo Nation reservation is the largest.”
The “intimate Grand Canyon”
The area Mikah explored includes many sites that are sacred to the Navajos.
One of them - Horseshoe Bend, on the Colorado River - is about eight kilometers from Grand Canyon National Park. It is named for the horseshoe-shaped area of the river, which winds around ancient sandstone canyons.
“It’s an incredible image,” Mikah said, where visitors can “stand right on the edge and see the entire horseshoe shape.”
Flying over Glen Canyon Dam, Mikah had a great view of both the Colorado River and behind it, Lake Powell, the largest man-made lake in North America.
Then it was on to an almost three-hour boat ride around the lake, where the gleaming water appeared against a backdrop of eroded red rock canyons and mesas as he and his tour group wound their way through the narrow waterways leading to the lake.
“You go into these super thin canyons where our large boat barely fit through,” he explained.
“What makes it so incredible is that there really aren't any trees or anything around it. It was desert rock that was filled with water,” Mikah said. “And so you have this amazing stark contrast between this pure blue, and then these white, orange and red rocks right up against the water, for thousands of miles of shoreline…so the juxtaposition of colors is really incredible.”
The boat also gave him access to another important Native American site… Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which is administered by the National Park Service.
Known as one of the world's largest known natural bridges -- its thinnest point at the top is still 13 meters thick -- the park service describes it as “a rainbow turned into stone."
The span has undoubtedly inspired people throughout time -- from the neighboring American Indian tribes who consider Rainbow Bridge sacred, to the 85,000 people from around the world who visit it each year.
“Native Americans believe it's a portal to another world,” Mikah explained. So much so that no one is supposed to walk under or near the ancient structure.
Mikah related a story he read in the park’s brochure that described how former President Theodore Roosevelt, during an expedition with Navajo guides in 1913, “went under the bridge and the guides went around, and he realized he shouldn't have gone underneath it.”
Maintaining a safe distance during his own visit to the site, Mikah said he felt honored to have had the chance to see it in person.
"We often forget that America is a country of rich, diverse religious traditions and so getting to hear the stories of these numerous Native American tribes that I encounter across the country is really fascinating," he said.
After his Rainbow Bridge experience, Mikah took to the air again, this time in a helicopter. Thanks to Grand Canyon Helicopters, he was able to enjoy a close-up view of Tower Butte – an ancient structure which rises more than 300 meters above Lake Powell -- another grand structure sacred to the Navajos.
“Tower Butte is named because it's a very tall piece of rock that sticks out of kind of nothing,” Mikah explained. “It was something I’d seen from the water earlier in the day, you can see it from the airport, you can see it from the town; it’s a very striking feature from the city.”
But the “coolest” experience, he said, was landing on Tower Butte. “I felt much like a bird or Superman must feel because we were flying just a few hundred feet above things.”
“Apparently there had been two expeditions to try to climb it,” Mikah recounted, “and I think one was unsuccessful and one of them was successful but it was very tedious -- so basically helicopter is the way.”
Not to be missed during his time in Arizona was another natural gem on the Navajo Reservation -- Upper Antelope Canyon… which Mikah got to by foot.
Named for the herds of prong-horn antelope that once roamed the area, the ancient sandstone cavern isn’t a National Park Service site, but hundreds of thousands come to marvel at its sheer beauty each year.
Waterfalls of sand
“Upper Antelope Canyon was one of the most stunning canyons I've seen on this entire journey,” Mikah said. “The waves of water that must have worked their way through here to make these intricate shapes really is like nothing I've seen anywhere else in the country… so the fact that I got to experience it and see this raw, incredible beauty up close with my own eyes was a stunning experience.”
Indeed, Mikah, who's on a mission to visit all 417 national parks in the U.S., shared that walking in the footsteps of Native Americans in so many areas of the desert landscape, was powerful.
“It was a privilege to be able to experience these sacred Native American sites and I'm thankful that the National Park Service preserves them in a way that allows myself and so many people to experience them."