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.

Capitol Reef National Park (UT)


Driving down Highway 24 from Torrey, a wall of rock emerges on the horizon as far as the eye can see. It is an impressive sight, the western edge of the Waterpocket Fold, exposed when the Colorado Plateau was formed. Beyond this is a colossal warp (geologists call this a monocline) in the landscape. From Torrey in the west to Hanksville in the east is a downward bend of roughly 2,500 feet. Capitol Reef National Park was established to showcase the Waterpocket Fold, which extends north-south for about a hundred miles.

The inner canyons can be enjoyed on some of the short drives and hiking trails. We took the Grand Wash Trail, an unimproved dirt road open to vehicles. Along its two-mile length that penetrates the interior of the Waterpocket Fold are spectacular views of the canyon. Eventually, the walls on either side close in and you will be mesmerized by possibly the only slot canyon in the Southwest that can be experienced by car.

Another hike at the end of the scenic drive is the one through Capitol Gorge. This trail features petroglyphs carved by the ancient Fremont people and by Mormon settlers and traverses through monumental canyon walls that eventually become narrower. The colossal Navajo sandstone domes for which the park is famous also make their appearance. A short spur trail took us to The Tanks, cisterns or waterpockets (for which the Waterpocket Fold is named) that fill up following rainstorms.

Capitol Gorge trail surrounded by steep cliffs and Navajo sandstone domes

Capitol Gorge trail surrounded by steep cliffs and Navajo sandstone domes

A beautiful natural arch, curiously called Hickman Bridge, can be reached on an easy 1.2-mile trail that passes splendid examples of Navajo sandstone domes. It rises 125 feet and spans 133 feet.

Hickman Bridge

Hickman Bridge

With the increasing value of the euro, Europeans have been finding that travel in America is very affordable. We were surprised at the numbers of European travelers here and elsewhere during our vacation. In the dining room of the motel where we stayed near Capitol Reef, we were practically the only English-speaking patrons. The biggest surprise was the fact that the Germans appeared to be the only drivers of rental motorhomes. And, equally odd, the French were a fair number of Harley bikers. Travelers we met throughout our vacation were also from England, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Russia and other Slavic countries. Some languages we couldn’t identify. Amazing.

Geology notes: One of the visual wonders of the park is the exposure of millions of years of sedimentary rock, sandstone and shale laid down and cemented during the Mesozoic era, thousands of feet thick. The dominating sandstone is the Navajo, which appears tannish white and is the foundation for the many smoothed domes throughout the park (hence, the park’s name). Its layer is about a thousand feet thick. The towering, massive, sharply defined cliffs facing the visitor center and most of the paved road inside the park is Wingate sandstone.

Dramatic columns of Wingate sandstone

Dramatic columns of Wingate sandstone

Geologically, the Waterpocket Fold is classified as a monocline, a rock layer that has been bent or folded by lateral compressive forces resulting in one side dipping, almost buckling down to the other, like a fold in the earth’s crust. I wondered if the immense compression was also involved in the Colorado Plateau uplift. Most of the domes are along the monocline. The interesting thing about the Colorado Plateau area is that monoclines are as common as faulting.

waterpocket-fold-google

Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)


On the afternoon of our arrival, along the Bryce Canyon scenic drive, the temperature was in the 40s and a stiff wind was stinging our faces and blowing dust and sand into our eyes. Snow was clearly visible on the higher slopes. Sound like vacation in the winter? Only a few hours earlier we were basking in sunshine along the Cottonwood Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante, not more than 30 miles away. What gives?

Bryce Canyon National Park sits almost at the top of the Grand Staircase, part of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, which towers over 8,000 feet above sea level. Consequently, it is much younger (geologically speaking) than the escarpments below it far to the south and east. Only Aquarius Plateau sits higher (another 2,000 ft!). At these high elevations, Bryce stays colder here than almost anywhere in the Southwest. As for the wind, it’s not unusual for canyon country to experience howling winds.

In spite of colder temperatures and high elevations, Bryce Canyon draws a considerable number of tourists. Its main attractions are the limestone pinnacles (known as hoodoos) that are everywhere in the park. They are carved by eons of water erosion. Pinnacles have their start as narrow fins that erode over long periods of time. The Paiutes believe that the hoodoos are the Legend People, a human-animal hybrid who were eternally frozen in stone.

Hoodoos seen from Agua Canyon overlook

Hoodoos seen from Agua Canyon overlook

The scenic drive is what most visitors confine themselves to when experiencing the park. Armies of buses and cars ply the paved road that stretches some 18 miles from the visitor center to Yovimpa Point at the southern end. During peak summer months, shuttles provide a more convenient and less stressful way of getting about. The overlooks reveal the majestic hoodoo formations from above, like a million minarets packed into the hillsides. On a sunny day, they glow brilliantly and never fail to enchant the beholder. But, they are at their spectacular best at sunrise and sunset when the colors assume richer tones and the shadows provide mysterious contrast. Each overlook has its unique display, but if you want to get a good look at much of the vast Grand Staircase on a clear day, go to Yovimpa Point at the southern end of the drive from where it is possible to see all the way down to the treeline on the Kaibab Plateau (the north rim of the Grand Canyon).

Wall Street positively glows at noon on a sunny day

Wall Street positively glows at noon on a sunny day

To experience Bryce intimately, you’ll need to do some hiking below the canyon rim. The hordes of people at the overlooks virtually disappear when you take even the shortest hikes. If you want to limit yourself to one relatively easy hike with a huge payoff, definitely do part of the Navajo Loop, which starts at the Sunset Point overlook, by walking down to Wall Street at around noon. The hike drops in elevation fairly quickly, a series of switchbacks that descend over 500 feet. Shortly, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning walk through a narrow canyon between towering fins that glow a luminous orange when the sun is directly overhead. On reaching the towering Douglas firs at the other end, said to be over 750 years old, you can turn around and go back the way you came. To do a bit more exploring, complete the Navajo Loop trail and continue on to Thor’s Hammer by taking the rest of the trail past the firs. We chose instead to combine the Navajo Loop with the Queen’s Garden Trail. This combination is a longer hike and affords excellent close-up views of the hoodoos. The hike includes two tunnels carved through fins. On the return to the rim, the hike ends up at Sunrise Point, from where you can walk only a level half mile back to Sunset.

A 750-year-old Douglas Fir stands at the end of Wall Street

A 750-year-old Douglas Fir stands at the end of Wall Street

We lodged in the town of Tropic, seven miles from the park, a more affordable alternative to Ruby’s Inn. There’s not much to do here and the food is mediocre.

Ruby’s Inn bears special mention. With the closest town miles away from the park, this resort complex has everything: accommodations (Best Western), restaurant, campground, post office, general store, car wash, gas station, and even budget lodging (Bryce View Lodge). It is conveniently located just north of the park boundary. Many guided tours start here. It is an amazing, if over-the-top, complex, though you pay for the convenience. The only other, more convenient place to stay is the park lodge itself.

Part of the Queen's Garden Trail

Part of the Queen’s Garden Trail

Geology notes: Bryce’s hoodoos are composed of Claron formation limestone and softer sandstone layers beneath. The warm colors come from the iron oxide in the stone. Because of the high elevation, the weather is very cold here for most of the year. The freezing and thawing cycle contributes greatly to rock fracturing. This “mechanical weathering” combined with water erosion shape Bryce’s landscape. If it weren’t for the harder dolomite (Claron) limestone that caps the softer layers underneath, the hoodoos would be reduced to sandy rubble and Bryce would not be the attraction it is today.

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Checkerboard Mesa, Zion National Park (UT)


Just east of the Mt. Carmel Tunnel lies Checkerboard Mesa, a remarkable example of crossbedding in Navajo sandstone, a mesa which you can’t help but notice along the highway. Over eons in what used to be a great desert, shifting sands deposited one layer after another, their orientations determined by winds, all eventually cemented over time. The vertical cracks along the mesa were formed by a process called jointing wherein stresses on the rock causes it to split. Weather and cycles of freezing and thawing also contribute to their pronounced expression.

Here, too, you can see the bleaching phenomenon that characterizes thick deposition of Navajo sandstone. Over vast spans of time (we’re talking millions of years), the iron oxide which gives the reddish appearance to the rocks drifts downward, or percolates, leaving the upper portions whitish in color.

Hidden Canyon Trail, Zion NP (UT)


What started out as a hike to Weeping Rock turned into a much longer, splendid hike toward Hidden Canyon. Instead of turning left at the interpretive panel as we should have, we mistakenly turned right. After an hour of hiking that severely tested our legs and lungs, the trail became progressively more challenging, a portion of the trail fashioned from sandstone blocks laid out as steps, the later portion along steep cliffs with support provided only by chains bolted to the rock wall. Anyone with the slightest fear of heights would probably feel quite uncomfortable here. Hidden Canyon itself was still a mile further up, but because we didn’t have enough water (we were equipped only for the short hike to Weeping Rock), we decided to turn back.

Sandstone steps simplify ascents on steeper climbs

Sandstone steps simplify ascents on steeper climbs


Portions of the trail hug the cliffs with sheer drop-offs

Portions of the trail hug the cliffs with sheer drop-offs


Geology notes: All along the way, we became awed by the sheer massiveness of the cliffs, white on the top and rusty red on the bottom. Although different colors, they are all part of the 2000-ft thick Navajo sandstone formation. The white upper portion is “bleached” of iron oxide, most of which has percolated downward. The cliffs in Zion Valley are some of the tallest in the world.

Sheer, massive cliffs typify the Zion landscape

Sheer, massive cliffs typify the Zion landscape


A fascinating feature of Navajo sandstone is the phenomenon called cross-bedding where sections are partially composed of inclined layers. This is thought to have been caused by changes in the environment of sand deposition caused by wind or water on angled surfaces. The Navajo formation is basically an enormous sand dune cemented as rock, a clue that this area was a vast desert.

Crossbedding

Crossbedding