Monday, September 3, 2012

More West, to the End

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.  

Finally, home.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Westward: Ruins to Bridges

7/24/12: A damp morning on Roaring Forks Road.  I’d woken up earlier than usual; the stream beside my tent and the dampness of the air were unusual sensations.  The sky had cleared somewhat, no worries there.  I put on many more clothes than usual (Trixy’s thermometer later told me it was 39 degrees) and began the morning processes: breakfast, ablutions, qi gong, and packing.  My tent was hopelessly wet, but I presumed it would dry rapidly as I headed down and west into drier country. 

Yes, just short of Telluride I’d reached the north-easternmost corner of my trip; now I had the better part of a week to return to California.  Still many sites to visit.

But first a gentle drive down a muddy road.  Plenty of traction; this route was well built, well drained.  Left and west-southwest onto Route 145 towards Dolores.  I had hopes of coffee, but the town was still very quiet at 7:30 am.  Well, I was in the Paradox Basin: sediments shed off the Ancestral Rockies.

My first stop was the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.  This BLM facility is a museum, research center, and the information source for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  Canyons of the Ancients sounded pretty amazing; it has 6,000 known archeology sites, which seems at best an estimate.  Topographically this density made sense: the Monument comprises most of a pair of large drainages without extreme relief like at Navajo or Canyon de Chelly: probably plenty of sites for living and farming. 

The Monument was largely inaccessible to Trixy.  Just as well: the great houses and other sites that had been excavated for research purposes had been backfilled to preserve them.  Little to see, I had read.  I thus planned to skim the southern margin and call it good, en route to Hovenweep National Monument: my real goal for the morning. 

Guidebooks recommended the Center.  I was digging archeology enough to visit.  I arrived at 8:15 am; the Center opened at 9.  No worries, I used Trixy as a platform to dry the various parts of my tent, and sat in the shade (it was now 85 degrees) pondering my future route.  Good to have a rare bit of time not in motion.

The parking lot gradually accumulated a variety of large American vehicles.  Even though Dolores is within maybe 20 miles of Mesa Verde National Park, it seemed to be off the main tourist route.  That is, no Europeans appeared. 

I enjoyed the Center’s permanent exhibits immensely.  Wall panels provided a good chronology Puebloan and pre-Puebloan migrations and settlement.  These were matched by artifact displays.  Somehow, I’d missed or ignored these at earlier stops.  I was most impressed by a deductive presentation addressing the wide range of pottery sizes found in the ruins, such as cups that could hold a teaspoon to ones that would contain a pint or more: all the same shape.  The best explanation, based on cultural analogy, was that the smaller pieces were made by children: training for “adult” work.  A neat connection.  The pottery designs on Mesa Verde work fascinated me; the painted black geometries on white clay were beautiful.  If I had been in an acquiring mode the museum store – good reproductions - would have been a threat.  Another exhibit documented rescue excavations near Dolores triggered by reservoir construction; a hard effort to survey ahead of rising water.  Hmm, I wonder if this provided rationale and/or a dowry for the Center’s construction.  No worries, it was a true asset to the community.

The route past Canyon of the Ancients led through Cortez.  I needed ice, Trixy needed fuel.  Cortez seemed big enough for coffee.  Via my guidebook, I visited The Silver Bean, an Airstream trailer converted into a coffee bar.  Easy recognize by the white picket fence, flamingos, and astroturf yard in front.  A good dark roast.  

Two towns were enough for one day.  Thus, further west on Montezuma County Road G and Indian Route 5068 towards Hovenweep.  Road G traced the floor of McElmo Canyon, cutting downsection through Jurassic rocks: the Junction Creek Sandstone and Morrison Formation.  More terrestrial muds and sands; elsewhere the Morrison is particularly known for its abundance of dinosaur fossils.  Saw a few of those in Montana about thirty years ago.  We called it “The Doors” Formation, which our instructors did not understand.

McElmo was not a deep canyon, but plenty of intermittent cliffs of aeolian sand gave a sense of being enclosed.  The drainage was on the same scale as those in Canyons of the Ancients; there looked to be enough relief to avoid summer heat, plenty of loose rock for building (and mud for mortar), as well as flat land for agriculture. 

Fun driving, a windy and uncrowded road.  Hmmm, I intermittently heard a grinding noise coming from under Trixy.  I stopped.  Nothing caught on any of the plastic or metal bits on her underside.  I revved the engine: no correlation.  I drove slowly: the noise continued slowly, so it was something with the wheels.  Stopped again; looked again.  Nothing obviously caught.  Well, I had not tried reversing.  This produced an immediate clunk.  Going forward again, the noise was absent.  That was too easy.  In my relief I drove away without looking for the whatever that was temporarily attached.

Hovenweep National Monument: late morning, 96 degrees.  The weather forecast I had heard approaching Dolores promised a pair of relatively monsoon-free days.  This was coming true.  Hovenweep includes seven isolated sites.  The visitor-accessible area was the largest: the Square Tower group, in the aptly named Little Ruin Canyon.  This small not too deep drainage housed seven distinct ruins on its rim or within, constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries.  They were clustered around the head of the Canyon; supposedly this reflected increasing arid conditions leading up to the late 13th century megadrought. 

I stopped at the VC, got good orientation from the ranger, and charged out to the two mile loop trail around and through the Canyon.  My first thought was: damn, it’s hot.  I had plenty of water and sunscreen, so not a problem.  My second was: bugger, I wish I were here at sunrise and sunset.  It was clear that the Ruin Canyon structures would have excellent light.  Oh well, at least I had two hours.  I wanted to get to Natural Bridges National Monument for overnight. 

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah: note the structures built into the large boulder on the right.
Hike and photograph, repeat until water depleted.  I meet a couple dozen other visitors on the trail; mostly families, mostly Americans.  Proportional to the remoteness of the locality again, I supposed. 

Like McElmo on the morning drive, Little Ruin Canyon was relatively shallow: maybe 150 feet deep, cut into the Dakota Sandstone and the underlying Burro Canyon Formation.  The accessible ruins were concentrated around a pair of tributaries near the head of the canyon.  These included a check dam, so I bet that the Dakota, being a porous sandstone, had a bunch of springs or seeps when the Puebloans lived here. 

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah, unnamed ruin near Tower Point

The trail guide did not quite correspond to the posted stops.  This made me stop and actually look at the Canyon.  I also picked up the tip that collapsed ruins could be spotted as piles and debris fields of book-sized platy buildings stones.  This was a “duh” moment; as I looked around the drainage these clast concentrations were quite obvious.  Anomalous particles: the rest of the sediment in the drainages was sand, mud, or house-sized boulders. 

The architecture and siting of these structures was different.  The structures on the rim were multi-room “houses” for lack of an accurate term, up to four stories high.  Unlike the one large structure at Betatakin or Aztec Ruins, here several isolated houses dotted the rim.  At least one of these shows evidence of astronomical alignment.  That was cool enough, but then there were the structures below the within the canyon.  At Betatakin and Canyon de Chelly, the builders had adapted their work to the irregular shape of the alcoves where they worked.  Here, this approach was taken to an extreme.  Structures perched on top of large rocks, and were built around and into the crevices between them.  One structure stood by itself: a multi-story tower with a pinnacle-like aspect ratio.  Although square –sided, the walls gradually spiraled with height.  Crazy.  I made well over 100 photographs, again ruing the high sun.  Well, it was a challenge to work with. 

Back to the VC and a few minutes of cooling my core temperature.  I had a question for the ranger: the brochure and stops featured the same motif, a bird, which I assumed was something local like a raven: was I right?  Not even close: the motif is interpreted as a macaw, based on feather and bones found here and at other sites.  Someone kept birds here.  Wow, more evidence of trade and travel: like cocoa, macaws are from well south of the current border.  The ranger clearly enjoyed surprising people with this information.  I would too. 

Lunch on a picnic table, then to the road.  Trixy was noiseless.  I tried to wrap my brain around the Hovenweep site.  The small portion I saw just felt different.  While some of this was the geography and geology, but the abundance and spacing of such small complex structures did not seem like the usual habitation.  Moreover, the rim structures were visible from a distance; all the other ruins I’d seen were concealed.  I’d need to do more reading before more speculation, lacking adequate understanding of Hovenweep’s place in Puebloan time and space.

Trixy and I jogged west on Routes 401, 461, 5099, 414, and 262.  A final transect of the Navajo Reservation, past Hatch Trading Post.  There were quite a number of such attractions, holdovers from the initial American conquest, which seem to serve as a mix of tourist attraction and actual store.  Not being in search of curios of any quality, I did not stop at any.

North on Route 163 to Blanding: my first Mormon town on this trip, manifest in the number of solid brick structures, the expected temple with six steeples and the extremely wide streets.  Residential roads were easily four lanes wide.  Another fluids stop, then west on Route 95 to Natural Bridges.

If you have read The Monkey Wrench Gang, Route 95 should sound familiar.  It crosses Comb Wash and Comb Ridge, a lovely monocline in the Navajo Sandstone, which was the site of destruction of lot of road construction equipment.  I felt both interested and guilty driving the route, which did pierce through beautiful and otherwise desolate country.  A faster way to across the upper end of Lake Powell was needed, I assume. 

Route 95 also passed near a number of Puebloan ruins.  I don't know the overall density of sites here, but the topographic relief was similar to Hovenweep; maybe this was a factor.  I wasn't hot enough, so I stopped at Butler Wash Ruins.  A 101 degree hike over sandstone slickrock: no worries, at least it was light colored.  Butler Wash is a 12th century site, in an alcove setting similar to Betatakin, but a lot smaller as visible from the overlook.  The Navajo Sandstone created deeper canyons with steeper rims than at Hovenweep.  Several kivas and storage rooms tucked into an area well above the drainage floor.  A seep dripped directly down into the Ruin, and another was near the viewing area.  If the hydrology was similar when Butler Wash was occupied, there would have been abundant water.  I swatted mosquitoes and tried to capture images of the slickrock.  Hard in mid afternoon.

Butler Wash Ruins, Utah: note seep above structures.

Butler Wash area: stream in Navajo Sandstone slickrock.
Butler Wash Ruins was my last Puebloan stop.  Investigating these sites and their history added an unplanned dimension to my trip, which I enjoyed.  I moved too fast to build a coherent archeological space/time map; I was content to absorb the bits of information that washed over me.  I've thus tried to limit my observations in these posts to what I could see directly, learn from park rangers and interpretation, and infer from them.  Hopefully I don't sound like I know what I am talking about - yet.

I pulled into Natural Bridges by 3:30.  It was 98 degrees.  I had worried a bit that its small campground would be full, as I was getting back onto the main attractions of the Colorado Plateau route.  I drove the camping.  Bugger, pretty populated, but a decent spot near the entrance with only one neighbor through the trees.  No one was around.  I parked Trixy for a 15 hour rest, set up my tent, and took a nap.

I woke up in a pool of sweat on my Thermarest; noise outside.  My neighbors were back.  A family with several rambunctious children across the way; I was never sure how many.  A couple of college students next door; they seemed quiet and much more interested in each other than anything else.  An RV shoehorned into the space across the road: English accents from within.  The rent-an-RV approach seems popular with foreign visitors; I passed such vehicles of all sizes on this trip, rented by domestic outfits that I’d never heard of before.  Seems practical, but not speedy. 

Downtime: I sorted gear, rehydrated, backed up photographs, read up on upcoming travel, ate dinner, and tried to pretend I was alone.  This was my first night near people on the trip; a necessary choice as it had water and wasn’t reservation land.  No complaints, just adjustment.  I anticipated a similar setting the next night in Capitol Reef National Park. 

Sunset, finally cooler.  The monument map suggested that the three bridges accessible from the loop road: Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo, would be more photogenic in the morning.  I didn’t need an excuse to relax.  I lolled.  The big family across the way trooped off.  I assumed they were going to a ranger program, but then noticed that all were carrying towels and toothbrushes.  I guess that running water in the VC bathrooms was worth a mile walk.

7/25/12: 6 am.  The campground was dead quiet.  I’d woken up early, not the first occurrence.  Well, time to go for a run.  The Monument is at ~6,500 feet; I wanted to do at least four miles.  Best option: go out the loop road.  A lovely run; I made it as far as Sipapu Bridge and its overlooks, and resisted the temptation to circuit.  I was quite distracted by the slickrock exposures of Cedar Mesa Sandstone (Permian, I was going down section); amazed that yet more aeolian deposits weren’t getting boring.  I didn’t bring fluids, and it was getting warm.  I returned via the VC, startling the maintenance crew when I ran into the bathroom for a rinse. 

The campground was beginning to wake.  The small children were up, poking their father (?) where he slept alone in a hammock.  Breakfast and off to see the bridges of Natural Bridges.  I was happy to get out early, before the expected heat, while the sights were empty. 

Trixy and I retraced my run to Sipapu Bridge.  While eating breakfast, I’d watched an RV lumber out of the campground, thinking, they must have a ways to go today.  Wrong: I came across the RV at the first scenic pullout: a German family.  They were having what was clearly a very proper breakfast - tablecloth, china, flowers on the table, etc - in the parking lot next to their RV.  Goodonem.  While this seemed stereotypically Teutonic, what bemused me was the location.  The parking lot had no view other than the road.  I would have made a bowl of fruit, yogurt, granola and supplements and had contemplation at the Bridge while I ate.

I took a healthy look at each bridge.  They were very large and robust structures, but in the morning light, they underwhelmed.  Sipapu and Kachina were shadowed.  Hard for photography, and this uninspired me to make the short access trails to get under them.  But it was also appearance.  The Cedar Mesa Sandstone is essentially flat-lying; the bridges thus have very linear tops, which did not stand out against the surrounding sedimentary layers. 

Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah 
That said, the abundance of bridges in such small area is remarkable.  The park interpretation gave an explanation of bridge formation, related to the various streams in the White Canyon drainage system cutting tight meander beds and then piercing the resulting goosenecks to form the bridges.  This is basic but old school geomorphology.  I assume the particular lithology of the Cedar Mesa and landslides were also important.  I also wondered if there was a newer explanation that particularly explained why the streams cut so quickly through the rock.  A rapid phase of vertical erosion must have been necessary to get the relief needed to make bridges.  Something else to research; likely tied to the most recent uplift of the Colorado Plateau.

Owachomo Bridge was in decent light.  This pleased me; it's also the most delicate, i.e., oldest bridge.  I was a bit stiff from running, so I descended the access trail for a closer look.  Still no one else around.  It was quiet other than bird songs and the tread of my sandals on the slickrock.  Ahh, getting below a bridge was much better; cooler in the shade, and the oblique views of Owachomo were particularly good.  The drainage dropped steeply below the bridge into a rock pool: water and mosquitoes again.  Traversing around the rim of the pool looked like fun; then I remembered I was alone, and that Capitol Reef National Park, my next destination, was several hot hours away.  More pictures, a stop at the VC, and away. 

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Sun behind Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Flakes of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, near Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah