U.S. 395, the California Highway Least Traveled—and Its Most Epic

California is a really long state. In the north-south direction, drivers traditionally traverse the state on either U.S. 101 or Interstate 5. Highway 101 is more picturesque, going through seaside towns and redwood forests and boasting gorgeous coastal scenery and mild weather. It’s also slower. Travelers wanting to make haste take I-5, but south past Redding the penalty is long, boring stretches of flat valleys, farmland and orchards that go on forever.

My wife and I have made the drive from Seattle to Los Angeles (and back) several times to visit family, and each time we’ve taken one of these two routes. Early this month, we drove to L.A. on I-5 in three days over 1,200 miles, not a pace we particularly like. For the trip home, we decided to change things around and take our time on the overlooked easternmost route astride the Sierra Nevada Mountains on U.S. 395. We’d view it as a road trip instead of a way home. Maybe drivers avoid this highway because it crosses desert environments with very few towns along the way. Never before have we taken this way home, previously only having gone as far north as Mammoth Mountain to ski when we lived in L.A. many years ago.

This post is about the drive home, an eye-opener for me that made me rethink future road trips to and from Southern California. There are no big California cities on 395. Reno in Nevada comes closest. It’s an epic drive that the Sierra Nevadas dominate, but also skirts the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) points in the continental U.S. We drove nearly the entire length of Highway 395 through California, from Victorville in Riverside County in the south to Susanville close to the Oregon state line, including the brief portion into Nevada, a drive of 500 miles.

Continue reading

Exploring New Zealand’s Banks Peninsula

How is it that a hilly, almost mountainous peninsula that is an ideal environment for lush forest, surrounded on three sides by the ocean and composed of mineral-rich volcanic soil, seems almost devoid of it? Any drive through the Banks Peninsula reveals a landscape that is tussocky with very few stands of trees. What isn’t covered by grassland seems overtaken by gorse and broom, hardly forest land that you might expect in this setting.

It is an unfortunate fact that old growth forest was destroyed by the Maori who set fire to the canopy to flush out game. After the Europeans arrived, the practice of deliberate burning continued, along with introducing sheep and goats and gorse that didn’t do any favors to the ecology.

It seems incongruous now but the Banks Peninsula was previously the domain of two slightly overlapping, non-contemporaneous volcanoes that were last active approximately 10 million years ago. Because they were shield volcanoes, they released broad lava flows that are now highly eroded. What remains now are ridges with steep sides that radiate from their volcanic centers. The most extraordinary features of the peninsula are its two enormous harbo(u)rs, Lyttelton and Akaroa, which formed from the oceanic flooding of the two volcanic calderas. The peninsula now looks like a giant lobster claw jutting out from the Canterbury Plains.

Banks Peninsula. Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. “The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.”

I got a breathtaking view of Lyttelton Harbour from a viewing platform at the top of the Christchurch gondola. From there, I could also see the town and port of Lyttelton that suffered so much damage in the earthquakes. Other than the views from up here, including one of Christchurch and the Southern Alps beyond it, there is very little to admire. The ground is covered in tussocky grass. All the footpaths are littered with sheep poo as these animals have free rein to graze anywhere among the hills.

Lyttelton Harbour as seen from the top of the gondola attraction

Lyttelton Harbour as seen from the top of the gondola attraction

I saw a more grassy landscape at Godley Head Reserve, which once served as a military defense battery during WWII, the bunkers now abandoned and covered in graffiti. The grasses grow higher here probably because sheep browsing is restricted by fencing. There was no need for careful sidestepping along the walking paths. The headland is surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs that drop off to the ocean.

Godley Head

Godley Head

Godley Head's grassy landscape

Godley Head’s grassy landscape

My wife and I also took a two-day trip to the peninsula’s other side, Akaroa. The scenery changes here with greener hillsides and larger stands of trees, also some second-growth forests that suggest the promising possibilities of regeneration on the Banks. Akaroa is now a resort town, its commercial district divided by an indenting bay, that were once  French and English settlements. The entire township now has a more Gallic character as all the streets and restaurants have French names, though there’s hardly a word of français spoken. A good way to see the lava flows that occurred many times is to take a boat cruise into the harbor. The erosive power of pounding waves becomes apparent when you notice the many sea caves along the cliff faces.

One of numerous caves in Akaroa Harbour.

One of numerous caves in Akaroa Harbour.

The Banks Peninsula experienced many lava flows.

The Banks Peninsula experienced many lava flows.

Hector's dolphins play in the sailing vessel's bow wave.

Hector’s dolphins play in the sailing vessel’s bow wave.

The drive to Akaroa passes by the Kaitorete Spit. Although not technically part of the Banks Peninsula, the spit juts out from its southwestern tip for 25km, separating shallow Lake Ellesmere, larger than either harbor, from the sea. Two weeks ago, we visited Birdling’s Flat which can best be described as a pebble beach. Rockhounds come here to find agates and geology students from UC to identify rock samples. My geologist son-in-law explained to me that this vast accumulation of rock was deposited by a tsunami.

Birdling's Flat

Birdling’s Flat

View to the West (Sun Mountain Lodge, Winthrop, WA)

Part of the scenery in and around the Methow Valley is the spectacular arrangement of mountains and valleys. Looking westward from Sun Mountain Lodge, you can see the steepest peaks in the distance, eroded hillsides in the middle and glacial valleys in the foreground. Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions covered this entire region with lava and ash. The westernmost area of the North Cascades were lifted higher and over time, water erosion, landslides and glacial action removed the volcanic layers to the south and southeast, leaving behind the smoothed hillsides we see near Winthrop today.

On the Trail of the Pacific Northwest’s Ice Age Floods

A rendering of an Ice Age flood (image usage permission granted by Stev Ominski)

One of the biggest surprises about Northwest natural history is that there were many catastrophic floods during recent geological times that dramatically altered the landscape of Washington state. Almost half the state was inundated. This hypothesis was first put forward by geologist J Harlan Bretz in the 1920s.

These floods are thought to have swept through the state many times during periodic ice ages. During the last ice age, a lobe of a Canadian glacier blocked the Clark Fork River drainage in Idaho, causing glacial meltwater to fill up the valleys of the Mission, Bitteroot and Rattlesnake Mountains to form Glacial Lake Missoula, estimated to have been 3,000 square miles. High above Missoula, along the  mountain slopes, there are strandlines of many prehistoric lakes. More than once, when the water level became high enough, the ice dam would be breached and let loose 500 cubic miles of water in 48 hours, a cataclysmic megaflood that drained to the southwest into eastern Washington, down through the Columbia gorge, into parts of western Oregon, even extending as far south as Eugene, and out to the Pacific Ocean via the Columbia River. At one time, present-day Portland was buried under 400ft of water. It is estimated that the flow rate was ten times greater than all of the world’s rivers combined. The onrushing deluge carried with it not only unimaginable amounts of water and debris but enormous boulders, some rafted on icebergs over hundreds of miles before being deposited (glacial erratics). The Willamette Valley in Oregon has erratics up to 40 tons. These repeated inundations stripped off the topsoils of eastern Washington to lay bare the hard basaltic layers underneath (from previous volcanic lava flows as early as 17 million years ago) that earned this area its name, the  channeled scablands (coined by Bretz). To this day, after many thousands of years, you can still see evidence of the flood(s).

The scablands would not be as spectacular if not for the basalt layers. One common form that appears in the Northwest is columnar basalt, vertical cracks forged in the basalt layers as they cooled very slowly. Less resistant to erosion is basalt entablature, usually on top of  columnar basalt, that has cooled more rapidly and therefore don’t readily form clean vertical cracks but show a more random fracture pattern. When monstrous floods attack these layers, columnar basalt can more easily be plucked away, leaving behind steep, vertical channels in the landscape, called coulees. Most coulees are dry, unlike canyons that still have rivers flowing in them.

Example of columnar and entablature basalt, ingredients for creating the flood landscape of the channeled scablands

My wife and I set out on a road trip to see firsthand some of the spectacular evidence that these floods left behind. I picked out a few important sites that we could fit into a three-day trip. Going by car is a great way to visit these places, especially with the help of references such as Bruce Bjornstad’s classic book as a guide. This book

Our first stop was an overlook just outside Quincy. A short half-mile hike to the edge of Babcock Ridge gave us a stunning view of the resort of Crescent Bar over 600ft below and giant flood-produced current ripples on a bar across the Columbia River. These ripples are gigantic in scale, about 20-50ft high and spaced over 300ft apart, estimated to have been submerged under 600ft of water. At that height, the waters overtopped portions of the ridge that we were standing on, carving out the gigantic Potholes Coulee just to the south.

Giant current ripples on West Bar along Columbia River. (Note water vessel for scale)

Another phenomenon that fast-moving water creates are potholes. High-energy tornadoes of water (or kolks, as they are called) tore out huge holes in the bedrock, sometimes more than a mile wide. Some are now lakes and ponds, but most of them are dry. There are many examples of this, including the gigantic one we saw north of the Frog Lake trailhead on Morgan Lake Road in an area called the Drumheller Channels and the lakes below Dry Falls.

A kolk created this giant pothole in the Drumheller Channels. (Note that I’m in the center of the photo which only shows a portion of the pothole.)

Drumheller Channels are an amazing network of interconnected, braided channels that were sculpted out of the earth by the deluges from the northeast. Below is a panorama that I spliced together from seven photos taken along our drive on Morgan Lake Road.

A glimpse of the Drumheller Channels from Morgan Lake Road (click to enlarge)

As dramatic as the landscape looked from the road, we just couldn’t visualize what this area looked like from above. With the help of Google Earth, it can clearly be seen. This area was unique enough that it was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.

Drumheller Channels looking northwest toward Potholes Reservoir (Google Earth)

Along the northern shore of Lake Lenore are a series of caves that were carved out by the swirling flood waters, plucking out the looser columnar basalt more easily than the more resistant entablature above it. You can see them as you’re driving along Hwy 17. A turnoff for the attraction leads to a parking lot where the trailhead is located. Beyond the stone staircase up a short distance, the trail divides to the left and right. Some of the caves were large enough for prehistoric people to have used as shelters.

One of the many flood-cut caves along Lake Lenore

Further, just before Coulee City, is Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, an area used for recreation and a showcase for observing the handiwork of ancient floods. Spanning 3.5 miles wide and averaging 400ft in vertical drop, Dry Falls is the remnant of the largest falls that the world has ever seen, ten times the size of Niagara Falls, but now a dry cataract. You can try to envision this cataclysmic spectacle from the Dry Falls Interpretive Center on Hwy 17, two miles north of the main park entrance. (Un)luckily for us, the center was closed for the entire day due to staff meetings. But, the overlook is open year-round (weather permitting). From here, you can gaze at the immense cataract and the plunge pools, now lakes and ponds, that the waterfalls created.

Satellite view of Dry Falls cataracts  looking south (Google Earth)

Dry Falls panorama from Interpretive Center overlook (click to enlarge)

As we drove past Ephrata toward Moses Lake on Hwy 17, we couldn’t help but notice the vast flood plain littered with boulders. When the flood waters broke free from the Grand Coulee, they spread out into the Quincy Valley and deposited these boulders knocked free from the Grand Coulee and sources upstream, some as high as 60ft. This area is known as the Ephrata Fan, an expansion flood bar, where there is little productive farming.

Glacial erratics along Hwy 17 between Ephrata and Moses Lake (Google)

While almost all flood-cut waterfalls in the channeled scablands are now dry cataracts, there is one that remains, a whisper of its former self, but spectacular nonetheless. Palouse Falls flows year-round, but its most impressive displays are during spring melt when the volume is greatest. At the foot of the falls is a large plunge pool. The falls are part of the Palouse River system, which continues through the breathtaking Palouse River canyon downstream to join the Snake River. Unlike typical canyons, these coulees were sheared by the ice age floods.

The best place to see it is at Palouse Falls State Park, accessed by a spur road from Hwy 261, 17 miles from Washtucna. We enjoyed a picnic lunch here (there are nice picnic tables) and hiked a trail that hugged the edge of the coulee, including one that led to a very narrow ridge directly above the pinnacles to the left of the falls.

Palouse Falls used to tumble over the entire gap but is now a shadow of its former self.

Beyond Palouse Falls lies the Palouse River canyon. Note the vertical walls typical of flood-sculpted coulees.

This illustration by artist Stev Ominski dramatizes what the event probably looked like.

A rendering of the flood through Palouse River Canyon (image usage permission granted by Stev Ominski)

Interestingly, ninety percent of Washington’s vineyards are planted in soil deposited by or as a consequence of the ice age floods. Almost all the silts and minerals that used to cover the scablands got stripped away and laid down in the Columbia and Walla Walla valleys where the state’s finest vineyards are located. The Willamette Valley in Oregon, known for its pinot noir, also has soil similar to that from Lake Lewis, the temporary 1,200-foot flood-produced backwater lake that rose behind Wallula Gap in eastern Washington and covered the Tri-Cities area (Pasco, Richland and Kennewick).

Only three days long, our road trip was certainly not comprehensive enough to see even a fraction of the geological evidence of a megaflood. But, with a new understanding of what took place, I will never look at eastern Washington with the same eyes as before. It was worthwhile and humbling to take the trip.

Update (8-4-15): Lying between McMinnville and Sheridan near Oregon’s Highway 18 are glacial erratics that were left behind by one of the Missoula floods. Erratic Rock State Natural Site showcases a 36-ton argillite specimen that is presumed to have been encased in an iceberg that got rafted by a flood and deposited here when the water receded. It is the largest erratic in Oregon. What makes this particular set of rocks so unusual is that they came from Canada, the only ones known to have traveled beyond our neighbor’s borders.

erratic rock

Like this on Facebook

City of Rocks State Park (Faywood, NM)

Our final night of camping on this road trip was spent at City of Rocks State Park, north of Deming in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, a unique, surreally beautiful area where every campsite is nestled among huge boulders.

City of Rocks features a wide field of boulders created 35 million years ago when a volcanic eruption from the Emory Caldera rained down tuff that hardened and was eroded by wind and water over millions of years. Some of these rocks are 40 feet high and are quite beautiful, ignimbrites of pinks, blue-grays, and browns, and strewn over 1,200 acres in the middle of the Mimbres valley, an odd sight in an otherwise flat and featureless terrain. Some of these upright megaliths reminded me of Stonehenge, but mostly they are randomly scattered, sometimes forming lanes between them that suggest urban pathways. The park also includes an astronomical observatory (one of two in the New Mexico state park system) that has a 14″ telescope. Keeping with the astronomical theme, the various sections of the park, arranged in loops, are named after constellations.

At night, without light pollution, dark-night-sky viewing is possible. On the night of our stay, the skies were clear; we might’ve seen the Milky Way as we did at Chaco Canyon if it weren’t for a bright full moon. We heard coyotes howling overnight and in the early morning.

Among the many desert plants here, the ocotillo stood out as the most unusual, tall and cactus-like with near vertical stems branching at ground-level and spiny appendages all along them. For most of the year, they can appear to be dead, but we were fortunate to have seen them fully leafed out and topped with crimson flowers, a direct result of prior rains.

Too bad we were in a rush to get to the Grand Canyon. This is a campground worthy of a longer stay.

City of Rocks State Park
Faywood, NM

Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM)

Neither of us has ever been to Carlsbad Caverns. We set aside three whole days to explore it since its remoteness in the southeast corner of New Mexico makes it unlikely we’d ever have an opportunity to return. This remoteness is the reason that, although its wonders are many, far fewer visitors show up than at the more popular national parks. It is located in an almost featureless desert, indistinguishable from much of west Texas, but possessing oil deposits underground that supports much of the local economy. You’re more likely to hear a Texas drawl here than not.

The Big Room, Kings Palace, Queen’s Chamber, Papoose Room and others, “rooms” all named by the 16-year-old Jim White who purportedly first discovered the caves, are wondrous to behold. The word cavernous seems to describe The Big Room aptly, an immense chamber big enough to hold six football fields. An almost level, paved walkway allows everyone to enjoy The Big Room. For those so inclined, there are slightly to much-more-strenuous ranger-guided tours that vary from mild climbing, scrambling (sometimes on rocks that seemed coated with candle wax), rope climbing and going through claustrophobic tunnels barely large enough to squeeze through.

Millions of years ago, at a time when the area was more tropical than at present, an ancient reef was transfigured when hydrogen sulfide gas rose from the oil deposits below and mixed with the oxygen in the water from above. The resulting sulfuric acid carved out the caverns in limestone. The decorations we see today—stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, popcorn and the rest (collectively called speleotherms)—are the result of the “normal” process of deposition built up over time by calcium-rich droplets of water. Artfully designed by a Hollywood lighting director many years ago, the major rooms are beautifully illuminated by artificial lights, effects that Jim White never saw that he would likely denounce as removing the “mystery of the caves.” Our favorite tour was the Kings Palace which showcases rooms so elaborately embellished with cave decorations that the word opulence comes to mind.

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

These typify the speleotherms in Carlsbad

The other attraction here are the Mexican free-tail bats that fly out from the so-called Natural Entrance about an hour before sunset. The Park Service has installed some high-tech equipment within the cave that can detect when the bats are ready to emerge; it translates the bats’ echolocation sounds to frequencies that humans can hear. At first, over the amphitheater’s PA system, there was a single click or pop; within seconds, there were so many clicks that it sounded like microwave popcorn. Shortly thereafter, the bats emerged in waves, rather than all at once. No photography (nor turning on of electronic equipment of any kind) was allowed during the bat flight. They disturb the bats as they fly out. The park ranger told us that the more impressive sight is the bats’ return an hour before sunrise, when they swoop back (literally dive bomb) into the cave at about 25 mph or more. On the morning of our departure, we rose early and got to the amphitheater when it was still dark. Try as we might, we couldn’t see the bats, even silhouetted against a lightening sky. But we did hear zipping sounds in the air around us, like bullets whizzing by, which we could only assume were the bats returning so fast that we couldn’t see them. A thickening fog also likely obscured our vision somewhat.

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

Bats fly in and out of the Natural Entrance

The video below from YouTube shows a much larger swarm emerging from the cave than we witnessed. Bat populations ebb and swell, depending on the season.

The closest town with full amenities is Carlsbad City, some 25 miles away from the park entrance. However, right at the intersection of the park road with Highway 62/180, there is a Rodeway Inn and a few services, including an RV park, gas station, convenience store and restaurant. It’s called White’s City, where we chose to stay, only about 6 miles from the visitors center. It’s much more convenient, but which seems to be on most travel sources’ lists of not-recommended places to stay. Our own experience here was not ideal, but not terrible either. Eating at the same restaurant for breakfast and dinner quickly got old.

Viewing the Rio Grande Rift (Taos, NM)

There is no indication as you’re driving northeast along Highway 68 to Taos that the Rio Grande River will reveal itself in the middle of one of Earth’s biggest geologic rifts. About halfway out of Espanola, the river at this time of year was lazy. Several rafters were making their way down river near Rio Grande Gorge State Park.

The Rio Grande is a lazy river in New Mexico

The Rio Grande River flows from Colorado to Texas for almost 2,000 miles. It defines the border between Texas and Mexico all along the southwestern edge of Texas until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Through all of New Mexico, running north-south, the river flows through the middle of a gigantic rift in the earth’s crust, the second largest outside of Africa’s Great Rift, the result of a splitting apart that began 30 million years ago. The rift extends from central Colorado to northern Mexico, part of unstable geological activity that produced the volcanoes and lava flows that are still evident today. Cities to the south, such as Santa Fe and Albuquerque, sit on top of basins that were formed after the split. A spectacular view of this geological phenomenon can be appreciated from Rio Grande Gorge Bridge outside of Taos.

Rio Grande rift

Rio Grande rift (from Apple Maps)

Smith Rock State Park (Terrebonne, OR)

North of Redmond, rock climbers flock to Smith Rock State Park to scale the spectacular vertical walls of hardened volcanic tuff. We made a brief stop here on the way home, even though I was under the weather with chills and body aches. Probably against better judgment, I decided we should take the brief hike down to the Crooked River and watch some rock climbers in action. There are other hiking trails, one of which leads to the top of the rocks, but this will be reserved for another day.

Smith Rock attracts rock climbers from around the world

Smith Rock attracts rock climbers from around the world (note climbers at the base)

These rocks were formed when volcanic eruptions blanketed the area over a half million years ago in a half-mile thickness of ash that eventually welded, then eroded. Rhyolite dykes with their jagged edges are also found in the park, especially dramatic when they intrude into the tuff.

Rhyolite dykes make their appearance throughout the park

Rhyolite dykes make their appearance throughout the park

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there has been a lot of cataclysmic volcanic activity all around us in the distant past. While this fact is not difficult to see where there are fields of hardened lava, such as around Bend only a few miles from here or the basalt layers all over eastern Oregon and Washington, Smith Rock tells the story in a different way, no less spectacular.

Petrified Forest National Park (AZ)

Petrified wood is a mysterious byproduct of geological processes. A petrified log looks just like wood on the outside but is usually a jumble of colorful quartz on the inside. How did this come to be?

Here too in Petrified Forest National Park is the Painted Desert, the name given to the “badlands” whose outrageous colors layer the eroded slopes in the northern part of the park. It’s hard to describe the impact that this riot of colors has on your traditional notions of landscapes. The Painted Desert actually extends beyond the park, reaching as far as the Grand Canyon and the northern part of Arizona, like a giant horseshoe. The intensity of the pastel colors changes depending on the time of day; the most breathtaking canvas is reserved for sunrise and sunset.

Painted Desert

Painted Desert

The biggest log specimens are found in the Giant Logs trail at the park’s southern end, including “Old Faithful,” 9½ feet in diameter. Old Faithful is a good example of permineralized wood (see Geology Notes). Here we came across a collared lizard who was happy to pose for all the photographers.

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

A few miles up the road is the Crystal Forest whose floor is still strewn with petrified fragments and sections of logs, even after years of specimen collecting by thoughtless tourists.

Crystal Forest is still littered with petrified wood and fragments

Crystal Forest is still littered with petrified wood and fragments

The eeriest trail in the park is Blue Mesa where the highly eroded hillsides of blue and gray bentonite clay gives the impression of an alien landscape. Here you can also see petrified wood in rubble piles where they fell from eroding hillsides.

Blue Mesa

Blue Mesa

Since taking specimens from the national park is illegal, you can purchase petrified wood at the many rock shops in the area. These stores presumably get their stock from private land. You can see them along Interstate 40. In Holbrook, where we stayed, Rainbow Rock Shop on Navajo Blvd has two dinosaur models made out of cement and reinforcing bars. There are piles of petrified wood all over the place, including some really nice, polished specimens displayed inside.

Petrified Forest was the last place we visited in the Southwest before returning home.

Geology notes: The geologic layer that is prominently exposed in the park is the Chinle formation. It is probably the easiest formation to identify in the Southwest because of its highly friable, typically sloping sides that result from its composition of siltstone, mudstone and claystone, and because of its characteristic layers of pastel colors. When exposed to wind and rain, it erodes rapidly to form sloping hills and narrow gullies. It is in this layer that petrified wood is typically found. Because Chinle erodes rapidly, new petrified wood is exposed all the time.

Over 200 million years ago, ancient conifers were buried by sediment and volcanic ash. This phenomenon must have been sudden because entire trees were buried and subsequently petrified. This graveyard is devoid of oxygen to hasten the decay of the wood. Then quickly, petrification begins. In some cases, the minerals in the water filled up the very cells of the plant, thereby preserving the very structure of the wood. This process is called permineralization. In most cases, however, large-scale replacement of organic matter took place where very little, if none of the plant’s original structure remained.

Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park (UT)

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome

There is a gaping hole in the earth at the end of the west fork of the Island in the Sky scenic drive. An enormous crater lies ominously in one section of Canyonlands National Park. Upheaval Dome (above) was long thought to be a collapsed salt dome, but many geologists now feel that it is a meteorite impact crater that struck 65 million years ago, which would date it to the extinction of the dinosaurs. It’s hard to imagine what an impact like that would have on life as well as the surroundings. The entire crater is hard to see from the two lookout points close to the parking lot, but a loop hike around the rim provides a better sense of its size. Aerial photographs clearly dramatizes its immensity.

Near Moab, Canyonlands is a showcase for thousands of canyons carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The park is divided into three districts roughly defined by the Colorado and Green Rivers which converge from the northeast and northwest, respectively, to become just the Colorado in the form of a giant “Y” (as this Google map shows): Islands in the Sky in the center of the “Y”, the Maze to the left and the Needles district to the right.

When you gaze at the canyons from the park overlooks, they look as if they were formed suddenly. For instance, the plateau beneath the Grand View Point Overlook seems like it collapsed in places to form the deeply incised finger canyons. The lightly colored plateau was made possible by a relatively hard white sandstone that caps the softer Organ Rock formation beneath. Further afield, looking down to the Colorado River, it isn’t hard to imagine that a tremendous force of some kind caused an implosion to create the outlines of what we see today, perhaps the meteorite that created Upheaval Dome not far away. The current accepted theory is that erosion over millions of years carved out the valleys.

Canyons visible from Grand View Point Overlook

Plateau of hard white sandstone visible from Grand View Point Overlook

Spectacular canyons visible from Grand View Point Overlook

Spectacular canyons visible from Grand View Point Overlook

The park is not visited nearly as much as, say, its neighbor to the south, Arches National Park, but not for the lack of natural wonders. Its remoteness is much to blame; there are no accommodations, other than campgrounds, within 30 miles of the park entrance to Island in the Sky or 50 miles of the entrance to the Needles district. The Maze district might be the most inaccessible area in the U.S. park system. The park’s isolation alone makes it hard to experience any of the its districts within a single day and precluded our taking several more of its hiking trails.

One of the world’s most photographed arches is here in Canyonlands. Mesa Arch is the popular subject of sunrise shots when the rays of the rising sun illuminate the underside of the arch (such as this photo). You have to be a dedicated photographer to get up before dawn, drive over to the trail (from wherever you’re staying — a good distance if you’re not camping), find your way in the dark to a good spot and set up your tripod and camera before the sun makes its appearance over the horizon. Not so ambitious, we were there around noon. While the arch itself is not particularly photogenic from the trail, the view over the rim is impressive.

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch

We did see ancestral Puebloan art and ruins here more than any park we had visited up until then. On the Aztec Butte Trail, there are ancient ruins, including a granary along a narrow ledge overlooking a valley.

Ancient granary

Ancient granary

En route to the Needles district along Route 211, we stopped at a dazzling display of petroglyphs etched on a rock. Newspaper Rock State Historic Park preserves the panel that represents the work of the ancient Puebloan, Navajo, and Mormon settlers. There is even some contemporary graffiti. The rock is now fenced off to prevent vandalism. The term “newspaper” was used to describe possible stories that the ancients carved on the rock.

Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock

Geology notes: Canyonlands lays bare over 300 million years of sedimentary rock. The broad plateau visible from the Grand View Overlook is the White Rim sandstone. It serves as a hard cap that prevents faster erosion of the layers underneath, giving the canyons their distinctive appearance. There are vast salt deposits underground as there are throughout this part of the Southwest, an indication that the area used to be submerged in ancient seas.