7/25/12: I departed Natural Bridges National Monument, continuing on Route 95. The road climbed a little but cut downsection; cliffs of Cedar Mesa Sandstone to the west, Organ Rock Formation to the east. Then a reversal of incline, and descent towards Lake Powell. 10:30 am; 97 degrees, and increasingly humid as I neared the reservoir. I’d never crossed Powell before, avoiding for reasons of direction and homage to Ed Abbey (blowing the Glen Canyon Dam and thus draining the lake is an ultimate aim in The Monkey Wrench Gang). The dam bothered me less now, as I’ve learned that the volcanoes at Toroweap blocked the Canyon much longer, more frequently, and more completely than anything humans have done. And I was curious; I’d only glimpsed the lake before when crossing Navajo Bridge.
So down a long hazy valley to the Hite Bridge Crossing, with a pause at Hite Marina. The area was desolate. Lake Powell is quite low via the current drought cycle, so there was a good 100 foot high gray-white calcareous bathtub ring lining its margin, stark against the red rocks. The marina itself was simply human stuff – pavement and sun-blasted structures – plopped on the alluvium. Minimal vegetation. No horizontal surfaces; the alluvium formed a series of coalesced fans that sloped steeply down to the lake. Disorienting. Only the ranger station looked well-maintained, promising a clean restroom. It was. I went into the station per se – two rooms - for relief from the heat and weather information. The ranger seemed delighted to have company, so we chatted for a while. She was luckily on a rotation through other parts of the National Recreation Area; a permanent station here would be purgatory at best. The weather was going to be: hot, clear, with monsoons in the afternoon.
Back to 95, across the bridge, waving to the Dirty Devil River at the head of the lake. Trixy now paid for the descent to Hite as we climbed back up the 2000 feet we’d dropped, winding up a canyon through the Glen Canyon Group, which here includes the Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Formation, and Wingate Sandstone. Familiar names, familiar cliffs of aeolian sand.
I was tired from the heat and accumulation of travel fatigue. Crossing the slickrock plain east of the lake did not improve things; the rocks were pretty flat-lying in the heat. A turn west onto Route 24 at Hanksville, a stop for the usual fluids for all parties.
Now the geology began to get interesting. A bit clearer away from Lake Powell, even in the midday heat. The road followed the course of the Fremont River, which flows east from Capitol Reef and the Waterpocket Fold, joining Muddy Creek River near Hanksville, ultimately dumping into Lake Powell. An anomalous experience to see healthy streamflow on the Plateau. Trixy and I travelled west through a series of valleys, cut in the Entrada Sandstone (narrow), Morrison Formation (wide – lots of shale), Dakota Sandstone (narrow), Tununk Shale (wide), then I lost track of the stratigraphy, looked more at the scenery and paid attention to driving safely in the informal caravan I was leading. Sigh, I was back onto the tourist route, and some drivers required more speed than I wanted. I stopped and let a series of rentals pass me at autobahn speed.
The Morrison Formation was quite a bit thicker here than where I last saw it on the way to Hovenweep. This much further west, I was further into the Jurassic stream/floodplain systems that the rocks record: more deposition here, more mud, more rock, wider valleys to drive through. The pattern for the Tununk and the Cretaceous rocks above it seemed similar, only here there was enough interbedded sand to create badlands. I suppose hoodoos were possible, but I did not see any from Route 24.
At my courtesy stop, I had a look at the Henry Mountains, one of several larger Tertiary intrusions which dot the Colorado Plateau. Basically, a series of large blobs of magma that rose from wherever they formed and once they reached neutral buoyancy, forced laterally into the surrounding sedimentary rocks. The resulting inflation created large magma domes, and bowed up the surrounding layers. All this took place well below the surface, but present day erosion has removed the overlying material and exposed the igneous core. Diagrams show this called a laccolith (a lovely archaic phrase), with a mushroom-like shape: rounded top, flat bottom, vertical conduit reaching down to the source region. I wondered if this was accurate, especially the flat bottom; the weight of all that magma must have caused some down-bowing. I don’t think that the basal zone of any of the Plateau laccoliths is exposed. Well, this was somebody else’s problem. In other words, the answer to the question is buried.
The road veered from its generally westward course, swinging southward. Trixy and I had been traveling gently uphill and upsection. This now reversed as I approached the Waterpocket Fold and Capitol Reef National Park. The former has to be the coolest geologic name on the Colorado Plateau. Of course, the Waterpocket is a monocline, just like the ones I’ve described before: a more or less north-south trending structure, here on the eastern edge of the Circle Cliffs uplift. This means that the flexure curves up to the west, so as I travelled into it, I was declining stratigraphically, dropping quickly through the Cretaceous and Jurassic rocks I’d seen earlier in the morning.
Geographically, the Waterpocket Fold forms a series of high ridges, as it brings a number of sandstone units like the Navajo to the surface. That’s were the place name Capitol Reef came from. These rocks create a topographic barrier, or reef (another archaic term). One of the blobs of Navajo in the park is supposed to resemble the US Capitol (it didn’t), hence the name. The ridges trend north-south, so the Park is a very elongate shape. The Fremont River carves right through the Reef, hence Route 24. Convenient. I assume, but was never able to confirm that “Waterpocket Fold” comes from the numerous potholes which trap rainwater in the sandstones along the monocline.
I stopped at the eastern park entrance - another well-maintained restroom – to have a look down the Waterpocket. To the south, as series of diamond-shaped ridges receded into the haze. Much more dramatic than the East Kaibab Monocline, which was more swathed in vegetation. I knew gravel roads traversed into the Park, both north and south. I badly wanted to explore them; they would be both scenic and empty. But, like Toroweap, wrong vehicle, wrong amount of time. I pushed on.
|Navajo Sandstone Cliffs, Rt. 12, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah|
The core of the Waterpocket has a little floodplain along the Fremont River, which was settled by Mormons in the 19th century. They called the area Fruita, as it became orchard central for a few decades. A number of settlement structures remained from that era, as well as a much newer Park VC. I planned to overnight here to provide time to explore the paved bits of the park. I anticipated another Park Service campground; lots of people, but enough space and vegetation for some privacy. Wrong; the campground was a converted orchard (I think) hence it was a gently sloping tree-shaded bit of floodplain cut by access lanes and pull-outs, many with the requisite hook-ups for RVs. More grass than I’d seen in months. Well. I cruised the various lanes, looking for a spot that was available, far from RVs, and at the end of a row. Three choices; two were waterlogged; the Fremont River flows right by the campground, so the hosts had enthusiastically watered the grass. The third spot looked OK; end of a row, only the River adjacent.
Lunch, hydration, attended by lack of motivation. Hot morning, accumulated trip fatigue with compound interest. I drank more, and thought I can’t just sit on this table all day, I’ve gotta explore. So back to the VC, which was truly packed with visitors; a nexus of Americans, Europeans, Asians. I was definitely back on the tourist route. I asked the desk ranger where I should go for sunset photography. He told me where to go for “solitude”; such a Park Service word, but it was a good read on his part. He showed me some possible hikes, which I recorded for future visits.
Afternoon, better light to the west, so I went to the Panorama Point pullout. Lovely cliffs of Chinle Formation and Entrada Sandstone, a good 1000 feet of relief. The lower Entrada was fairly fine grained here, so it formed great columns. I returned east, satisfied that I’d captured decent images, at least as good as could be achieved without major contemplation.
|Entrada and Chinle Cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah|
|(More) Entrada and Chinle Cliffs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah|
The ranger had recommended the Scenic Drive for sunset photography. Déjà vu; same stratigraphy, same dramatic elevation gain; he gave me a good steer. I picked out some good spots along the paved road, and then gave into temptation to give Trixy a dust up by driving down Capitol Gorge. I wasn’t alone; the one lane plus gravel road was busy with SUVs and other people stressing their passenger vehicles. The track narrowed quickly as it cut up through the Entrada towards the Navajo Sandstone (I was transiting the monocline). Deeper, cooler, dustier. The Navajo seemed badly jointed; I thought, this would be a bad place to be in a flash flood, but geez, it’s also ripe for landslides. Eventually, enough fractured rock, enough dust, so back to camp.
|Trixy in Capitol Gorge, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah|
As I expected, the campground was now fully populated. I had neighbors across the lane: three campervans of Germans. Oh brother, they were working their way through several cases of beer. Beyond my control, but I hoped they’d all pass out before my bedtime.
Dinner and sunset. I was early for the expected golden light, so I waved to passing cars and found a wash where I could do taiji. The sun dropped, I took pictures, but it wasn’t working right. I wanted to like Capitol Reef, but had not made contact with the heart of the place: maybe the heat, crowd, or fatigue interfered. As pondered on this, I realized this was a matter of scale. While I’d looked at plenty of cliffs and gorges, the lines of sight – here on the Scenic Drive, along Capitol Gorge, and at the Panorama Point - were all compressed along the narrow valleys of the Waterpocket Fold or constrained by high cliffs of sandstone. I couldn’t get an overall sense of what the Park was about. Maybe a future poke down the gravel roads and some hiking will resolve this.
|Chinle Formation cliffs, approaching sunset, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah|
|Entrada Sandstone cliffs, sunset, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah|
Satisfied with sunset efforts, it was time to brave the campground and get some sleep. Bugger, the Germans were still drinking and now playing cards. They weren’t the noisiest aspect of the place. Visitors kept arriving– all French for some reason – and the hosts kept shoehorning them in around me. Lots of tired, annoyed voices, tents set up by vehicle headlight. I fell asleep anyway.
7/26/12: Awake before dawn to a truly quiet campground. There were five more camps around me than when I went to sleep. I was very tempted to play something loud on Trixy’s audio, but went for a hike instead. A nice two miles along the Fremont, with a nice spot for taiji at the edge of a field. Horses for an audience. Breakfast and departure before the Germans were stirring.
On to Torrey, Utah: needed ice, gas and coffee. I cruised the main and only street. Many bed and breakfasts, a lot with German signage. At the north end of town, a police car behind a large sign. As I neared the vehicle, it was clear the driver was a mannequin. Clever. American coffee, oh well.
I’d been contemplating on final trip destinations. I realized that I could finish out the Plateau with quick visits to the big name national parks of the western Grand Staircase: Bryce and Zion. I’d never been to Bryce; I figured I could tolerate the crowds for a few hours.
Torrey to Bryce Canyon junction: geology determined the route I took, which swung southwest around the flank of Boulder, following drainages. Good, an opportunity to drive Route 12, which Utah has labeled “The Journey through Time Scenic Byway”. Amusing: what road in Utah is not a journey through time? Anyway, the road cuts through the same Mesozoic stratigraphy I’d seen earlier on the Plateau; familiar names, colors, and textures. Here they’re largely within Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which I’d visited with my friend Paul in 2004. I was curious to see what had changed.
Another friend had suggested that I shoot video with my Flip video recorder on the trip. I’d discounted this, I’m not good at video and editing it is hard. But here I was on a winding scenic road with greater than 90% rock exposure. Hmmm. I pulled out the Flip and its Gorilla tripod. I was able to mash them between the dashboard and windscreen. Seemed pretty stable, the view seemed about right. Back on the road. The tripod wanted to slide. I could hold it in place. So I did not drive the next thirty miles or so one-handed, leaning forward in my seat. Really.
Through Boulder, Escalante, Henrieville, Cannonville and Tropic. Businesses I recognized, but clearly newer, spiffier outfits as well. I raced on, wanted to get to Bryce Canyon while the sun was still to the East. Up the Gray Cliffs, and south at Bryce Junction towards the park. From my reading, it was clear that the most efficient and least annoying way to see Bryce would be to park Trixy outside and use the free shuttle bus to travel around. So we stopped at Ruby’s Inn (which included a Best Western motel, RV Park and Campground, the Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room, Canyon Diner, Horseback Adventures, ATV Tours, grocery store, gas station and garage and no doubt more). A tenfold increase in population density; lots of Americans and Euros, and for the first time, Asians, most of who appeared to be travelling by bus. Disoriented by all this, I took fifteen minutes to find the shuttle stop.
So into Bryce Canyon National Park, smiling as the shuttle bypassed the long line of vehicles at the entrance station. A quick stop at the VC lengthened as I tried to flow my way through the crowds; the place as genuinely packed to the walls. I’d expected this, but the abundance of clean people, children, and all their shiny stuff was headache inducing.
Back to the bus. I planned a quick hit at Bryce, choosing not to spend a lot of time exploring among the multitudes. I rode to Inspiration Point, and took a 2 mile rim hike north to Sunrise Point.
Bryce Canyon is on the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, near the top of the Grand Staircase. It thus exposes younger rocks than most of what I’d seen to the east, specifically the Claron Formation, which is essentially a thick sequence of Tertiary lake deposits. So again, mud, but unlike the marine muds of the Mesozoic or the swamp deposits at Bisti, these sediments were deposited in a more arid environment and aerobic environment. In other words, the iron in them rusted, given the strata a spectrum of colors from red through orange to light yellow. Enough sandstone and limestone is layered in with this stuff that – you guessed it, this is badlands heaven.
I literally stopped and stared when I first had a look into the Canyon, stunned by the colors and hoodoos. This was truly a place that images could not capture. The scale was just right; the basin I was staring into was less than a couple miles in width, and it was easy to comprehend the textures I was seeing. Moreover, the bulk of Seiver Plateau loomed to the north, so the scene also presented a sense of distance that worked well.
|Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah|
So, to walk and try to take good snapshots. I quickly discovered that while it was hard to not find a charming vista over the badlands, taking a truly meaningful image was virtually impossible. There was just too much nuance and detail, too broad a panorama. It would take much exploring to find the right spot to convey scale and texture, if it’s possible. I didn’t have the time, the trail was busy, and it was hot, even at the 8,000 feet plus elevation where I was hiking. I tried.
|Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah|
Escape from Bryce to the sounds of an extended family arguing about logistics. Trixy looked welcome. Bryce Canyon deserved more time. It has lots of trails and much more geography beyond the hotspots I’d limited myself to exploring. A good spot for a joint visit with Capitol Reef. I was satisfied.
West on Route 12, then north for a spell on Route 89 to Panguitch, finally southwest on Route 143 towards my final stop for the day, Cedar Breaks National Monument. The road climbed into the Dixie National Forest. Panguitch was at about 7,000 feet, so Trixy and I now traveled through forests of ponderosa pine and aspen. Good bye to desert flora for an afternoon. We passed a strange collection of houses and trailers near Panguitch Lake, scattered on the landscape. Winter homes? Maybe, I was near the Brian Head ski area. Felt more downtrodden than that. After gaining 4,000 feet, I reached Cedar Breaks, another park unit I’d wanted to see for decades.
I immediately liked this area. It was quiet, and had the slightly ethereal feel of high elevation; I was above 11,000 feet. I found the little campground. Lots of space with pullouts cleverly sited around a knoll, lots of flowers. I picked a site with a meadow view. No one around. I set up camp, and decided to make the 1.5 mile hike to the VC.
I was definitely at elevation. I could walk, but only slowly. My heart and respiration rates were fast. The trail crossed Route 143, and I saw Cedar Breaks for the first time.
|Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah|
A sign I later saw at the VC said something like, if Cedar Breaks were in any other country, it would be a national landmark. Here, it’s just a lesser known cousin to Bryce and Zion. This is dead accurate. The badlands below me were again in the Claron Formation, but with a western exposure. Rather than the many amphitheatres of Bryce, here only a few embayments of badlands, but they’re deeper and have a more highly eroded and varied suite of hoodoos. This is the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, so the land drops away into the Basin and Range, a good mile of vertical relief. The Breaks were comprehensible.
I eventually made it to the VC, and to the official lookout for some contemplation. There were eight other visitors. A ranger gathered us for a talk on trees, swelling the crowd to fourteen. Wow, this area had bristlecone pines. I stared more, and began to get chilly as the afternoon wore on. Back to my home-for-the-night.
As I walked into the campground, the host approached me and said, you know, we have hot showers. I was stunned for the second time in the afternoon. Here, in the highest, smallest, and most remote park I’d visited, there was hot water. After sweating through Canyon de Chelly, Bisti, Angel Peak, Durango, the San Juans, Hovenweep, Capitol Reef, Glen Canyon, Natural Bridges, and Bryce, I rather needed to wash my hair. Thus refreshed, I ate, and drove back to the lookout for sunset photography, not wanting to spoil the lack of dirt and grime on my skin.
Sunset: golden light on orange cliffs: enough said.
|Sunset in HDR at Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah|
|Sunset at Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah|
The campground host had also told me that there would be an astronomy talk after sunset. Well, I could walk across the campground to the amphitheater. I was in time for the best talk I’ve ever heard in a park. The speaker was another campground host, who was a serious astronomer. He spoke about Saturn, which we later saw through his telescopes. It’s possible that his explanation of the chemical mixing in the Saturnine atmosphere was too much for the kids in attendance, but I thought it was cool. As was the night; I was wearing five layers by the time I finished ablutions.
|Bristlecone pine, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah|
7/27/12: Another pre-dawn, my last on the Colorado Plateau. I was motivated to go for a run, but getting out of my tent and remembering that I was at altitude convinced me that a brisk walk was a sane alternative. Four miles and a good morning to the oldest bristlecone pine in the Monument.
On the road; it was going to be a long day of driving, as I began my commute back to California. Trixy and I dropped down Cedar Canyon to Cedar City, where I finally achieved a good strong cup of coffee in the university district and Trixy got some 87 octane fuel (rare in Utah).
Interstate time, briefly, as twenty minutes brought me to the Kolob Canyons entrance to Zion National Park. A western exposure, and here I was on a hot midmorning with many miles ahead, but I had to look. Another busy VC, but a pleasant drive up the access road to the Kolob Canyons overlook; a series of dramatic gorges cut into the Navajo Sandstone. The light was truly awful.
I-15, skirting the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Lunch in St. George, 102 degrees, then a final drop through Virgin Canyon into the Basin and Range. I’d completed a grand loop in the past two weeks. Fluids in Las Vegas, 111 degrees. Across the border into California in late afternoon; 104 degrees at the stateline rest stop. My camping options decreased with distance from the Plateau, so I had decided to forgo worrying about destination and return to a favorite spot in the Mojave National Preserve, south of Baker. A quick look at Kelso Dunes; any wandering among the sand would have truly been stupid (106 degrees and high albedo), so I waved and went to Mid Hills Campground.
Mid Hills was familiar but desolate; the area burned several years ago, and little vegetation has grown back. It was empty, being a dry camp along a rough dirt track. No worries, plenty of space to kick up dust while doing taiji, once the temperature dropped below 90.
Finally, time and enough darkness for star photography.
7/28-29/12: The remainder of the trip was largely retracing my exfoliation route. A final stop at Carrizo Plain National Monument to have a look at the San Andreas Fault; nice to confirm that the pressure ridges and offset stream valleys that I show my students really exist. A dizzy stop, 102 degrees.