Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion NP


The Canyon Overlook Trail is a nice, moderately difficult hike, but it’s so easy to miss. The trailhead doesn’t start from the valley floor but rather from just east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, 600ft above the valley floor. Entering or exiting Zion will also treat you to spectacular vistas as you take the winding road to reach the valley or tunnel.

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway ascends 600ft from the valley floor

The trail, which is only one-mile long, skirts a narrow ridge winding over and past slickrock that forms all sorts of strange, eroded rock shapes, which are previews to even stranger shapes that we’ll see later on our trip. The dominant geologic layer visible all around is Navajo sandstone showing off banded streaks of various shades of orange. The whitish areas were long ago removed of iron oxide that gives this rock its reddish color. Along the way, the trail ducks under impressive natural excavations.

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

The trail briefly passes under overhangs

From the trail, some examples of blind arches can be seen, formed from sections of rock that millions of years ago fell away to produce these arch-like excavations. The most spectacular one is The Great Arch of Zion that you can see from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. At the end of the trail is a breathtaking overlook of the Zion Canyon looking west. In fact, this overlook sits atop The Great Arch.

Great Arch of Zion

Great Arch of Zion

Probably the most interesting and bizarre sights in the Southwest are the strange, sculpted rock formations called hoodoos, prominently featured at Bryce. But the handiwork of wind and water erosion is everywhere to be seen, taking on various, sometimes fantastical shapes depending on the sandstone material with which natural forces had to work. Even here at Zion, consisting mostly of the very hard Navajo sandstone, these outcroppings, shaped vaguely like mushrooms, are thought to have been created when a stupendous geologic force lifted up the plateau and gave water a faster, more forceful route to lower elevations. Smoothed over millions of years, these formations are a wonder to behold.

Aside from the spectacular geology, we also came across local flora and fauna.

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Virgin River Narrows, Zion NP


We’d been looking forward with some trepidation to this hike. Last time we were here in April 2008, it wasn’t possible because the currents were too strong and water levels too high. The Narrows at Zion National Park is not a hike in the traditional sense because it involves wading in the Virgin River virtually the entire length (save for a few sandbars here and there), in spots chest-deep. Most people do The Narrows in summertime when it’s a lot warmer. The intense Southwest heat gets considerably tempered by the water and high canyon walls that don’t admit as much sunshine.

Today, we finally got to hike The Narrows. First, we rented equipment from a local outfitter in Springdale, which included wooden hiking poles, waterproof boots and neoprene socks. The day didn’t start off so promisingly. A light drizzle was beginning to fall. Sucking it up, we decided to go ahead. The first step into the river took some adjustment, getting our feet entirely wet since the shoes and socks would do little to keep water out. The next mental and physical adjustment was getting used to walking on smooth, slippery rocks, most bigger than your feet, which meant that often we were struggling to keep our ankles straight. Hiking poles helped. I was certain that even the light precipitation overhead was accumulating in the river with thin sheets of water cascading down the canyon walls to raise the water level and boost the power of the current.

After we hiked a short distance upriver, we confronted our first test. A large depression in the river, like a bowl, made the water a lot deeper so that we had to wade chest-deep to get to the other side. At this point, you have to lift your belongings up in the air to keep them above water level, all the while maneuvering against the current. Oh, to be a little taller.

Most people hike to an area called Wall Street which is the deepest slot canyon in the world. Our attempt to reach Wall Street was thwarted by constant heavy drizzle which chilled us to the bone, almost to the point of hypothermia. We would have gone on if not for my wife’s sore ankle and my sore knee. Our lack of conditioning took its toll. We decided to turn back and had to retrace our steps in mild pain. The hike was definitely an experience.

The weather was much better on the following day (sunny with few clouds) so we thought it might have been better to have taken the hike then. But, we learned from a cashier in the Zion Lodge gift shop that, because of yesterday’s rains, the water level was higher and the flow rate stronger. Bottom line: you can never predict hiking conditions just by looking at the weather.

Word to the wise. Keep your electronics in a waterproof bag. I rented one from the outfitter. Dutifully, I took it out as needed when snapping photographs and put it back in when done. As you can imagine, this removes photographic spontaneity. At one point, I decided to chance it by hooking the camera strap over my neck and under one arm and proceeded to wade across the river. Bad idea. I slipped backward and the camera got submerged, though briefly. I yanked it out and hoped for the best. I wound up having to send the camera in for repairs. Human error like this is not covered under warranty. I repeat, keep electronics in a waterproof bag.

Check out this YouTube video of the Narrows hike (photographed by Amazing Places on Our Planet) taken only three weeks after ours. The water appears to be a lot calmer than when we went. Makes me envious.

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A Brief Visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park


It was a surprise to me—and probably a lot of other people, too—when I learned from my wife’s cousin that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in all of America. Even more than Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone. Hard to fathom.

One big reason is that there is no fee to enter the park. Tennessee can be thanked for adding the free-access stipulation when Newfound Gap Road, then the main artery for crossing the southern Appalachians, was transferred to federal jurisdiction. Lying between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park has over 800 square miles of protected land that hosts an incredible bounty of plant and animal life. Ample rainfall exceeded only by my own Pacific Northwest has produced a temperate rain forest. All that moisture gives rise to abundant condensation, giving the appearance of the characteristic blue smoke that seems to hover over the mountains.

One of the best ways to experience this diversity up close is to take a hike among the 800 miles of trails. Being wildflowers enthusiasts, my wife’s cousin and her husband, who live in Asheville, took us on a couple of hikes that showcased some of the over 1,500 wildflowers that bloom during the year.

We were also taken on a drive along the Newfound Gap Road along which are high-elevation lookouts with spectacular views of the Smokies. Their gently sloping sides are indicative of extreme age; geologists estimate 200-300 million years old. In the early summer, the hills are literally covered with spectacular catawba rhododendrons.

Our brief visit here only whetted our appetite for a return visit or two.

Catawba rhododendrons near Grassy Ridge (photo taken by the husband of my wife's cousin)

Catawbas ( June 2011) at Grassy Ridge (photo taken by JB, my wife’s cousin’s husband)

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Mt. Cook National Park (NZ)


At a viewing area along State Highway 80, where the tour bus made a temporary stop, there was a breathtaking vista of a portion of the Southern Alps. Without a doubt, the snow cover made for a most dramatic effect.

The tallest peak is Mount Cook (Aoraki, in Maori), the highest in all of New Zealand, which distinction makes it a favorite destination for mountain climbers, the most famous having been Sir Edmund Hillary, a native Kiwi.

We made a brief stop at Mount Cook National Park to have lunch and admire the scenery, though any views of Mount Cook could not be equalled by what we saw earlier. Still, from the Hermitage Hotel, you could get a glimpse of this towering mountain, one of over 140 peaks in the park and a large number of glaciers. At this time of year, only the cafeteria was open for lunch. On the exit door, a sign read: “Please do not feed the kea.”

Mount Cook from the Hermitage Hotel

Our attempts to take a short hike along some the tracks near the hotel were thwarted by snow cover, except for one. Outside, the most beautiful and delicate ice crystals formed on the plants.

Ice crystals formed delicate patterns on the leaves of plants

The park would certainly be worth a return visit when the weather is nicer.

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.

Mesa Verde National Park (CO)


You hear a lot about the Southwest’s ancient cliff dwellings and wonder what they are about. What possessed the builders to create these permanent and elaborate structures in such inaccessible places? We ventured out to the most famous complex of them all, Mesa Verde National Park, to look at them first hand. To see these complexes up close is a remarkable experience. Fortunately, the warnings to expect huge crowds of tourists never materialized, in all likelihood because the peak season hadn’t quite begun yet.

The drive from Cortez or Mancos, the closest towns, to the park’s attractions is time-consuming. Past the park entrance, it’s another 14 miles and a climb to 8,000 ft on a winding road before reaching the visitors’ center. At the recommended speed limit, this takes about a half hour. If you plan to visit Mesa Verde for a few days and want to avoid this drive every day, my recommendation is to stay at the Far View Lodge in the park. We stayed in Mancos for the first night before getting a room at the Far View. Before moving, we had the good fortune of enjoying a wonderful breakfast at the Absolute Bakery in town.

Three of the ruins require advance ticket purchases ($3 per adult) and are led by park rangers. We were able to get on two tours (Cliff House and Balcony House). Long House is located in a section of the park that was closed due to staffing limitations, no doubt a reflection of the unfortunate budgetary constraints placed on our national park system.

Cliff House (top photo) is said to have 217 rooms and 23 kivas, making it the largest complex. As we wandered through here on the guided tour, we marveled at the size and sophistication of the architecture and the quality of the masonry. Though this and other ruins have endured since their construction in the 13th century, it’s sad that before their protection many artifacts were removed and many of the walls vandalized, some even knocked down, by thoughtless tourists.

One of 23 kivas at Cliff House

One of 23 kivas at Cliff House

Balcony House was built on a smaller scale than Cliff House. It has far fewer rooms, about 35 to 40 and is so named because of its preserved balcony. The other unique aspects of this tour are the modes of ingress and egress. To get to the ruins, you descend a 32-foot ladder that vertically scales the cliffside. And, in order to leave, you crawl on hands and knees through a tight space (claustrophobes beware!) and finally climb a 60-foot ladder.

Balcony House

Balcony House

Spruce Tree House is experienced on a self-guided tour (no charge) that features a kiva with a restored roof. It is the third largest complex with about 130 rooms and 8 kivas.

In Mesa Verde, it is possible to see the evolution of the types of community construction. The park’s various archaeological sites clearly show a progression from the sixth-century pithouses …

Sixth-century pithouse

Sixth-century pithouse

… to the more elaborate pithouses of the 8th- through 10th-centuries …

8th- to 10th-century pithouse

8th- to 10th-century pithouse

… to the final forms — the rooms, towers and kivas — for which the Puebloans are now famous.

Final pithouse construction built into cliffsides

Final pithouse construction built into cliffsides

Archaeologists are still not sure why the more elaborate structures were built in virtually inaccessible alcoves just below the mesa tops. Though there is evidence that people lived on the mesa tops, did conditions change during the 13th-century to force families to move to protected alcoves, a possible hint that warfare became more prominent?

mesa_verde_alcove
There are other mysteries, too. Why, for example, were many openings built T-shaped? One proffered explanation is to provide easy passage for people carrying loads on their backs, but really no one knows for sure.

Why were some openings T-shaped?

Why were some openings T-shaped?

And why were the axis-lines through the firepit, ventilator hole and sipapu aligned precisely south? To serve an astronomical function?

Kivas may have possible astronomical alignments

Kivas may have possible astronomical alignments

Incredibly, there are some 4,700 known archeological sites in the park.

The Puzzling Departure: No one knows for sure where the Ancient Puebloans went after they abandoned their cliff communities. The current thinking is that they migrated to lower ground and became the pueblo tribes of today. But the mystery of their departure remains. Although the theory of a serious drought has been popular, many archaeologists now have doubts that this is a viable single reason.

The emergence from an extinction event: You can’t help but be astonished that legends the world over tell of a series of catastrophic events that took place within recent human memory. Massive flooding, conflagrations, and extreme weather conditions are all described in tales that have been handed down orally for a very long time. The outlines of what took place are remarkably similar among all cultures. All of them describe the near extinction of humankind. The modern-day Native Americans, who include the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni, all have traditions that describe the survivors’ emergence into the present world after the catastrophe. The sipapu is a Hopi word for the “place of emergence” and is symbolically represented as a hole in the floor of all the kivas of the ancient Puebloans (for example, the hole at the bottom center of the very last photo above).

Needles District, Canyonlands National Park (UT)


Canyonlands is a sprawling national park. It has three distinct districts, separated by great distances. There is no way you can see all three in a single day. Staying in Moab is the best way to experience the two most popular. Even still, you have to do some driving.

The distance between the Island in the Sky and Needles districts of Canyonlands is over 130 miles. From Moab alone, it took us 1.5 hours south on Hwy 191, then west on Hwy 121 to reach the Needles visitors center. Island in the Sky is in the opposite direction from Moab, another hour from there. Island in the Sky affords panoramic, spectacular views of the canyons from vistas along the high plateau. Needles is lower in elevation and has trails that get you up close to many interesting rock formations, including arches, spires and domes.

What makes the rocks at Needles interesting are its alternating layers of contrasting colors, red and white, both Cedar Mesa sandstones formed from two different sources of sand that was deposited here over 250 millions years ago. About 15mya, uplifts caused the Cedar Mesa sandstone to crack and form square joints that water later penetrated and eroded into the current pillar and spire shapes.

The Needles has many trails, some very short, others much longer that require overnighting. We only had time for the short ones.

The Roadside Ruin trail, only 0.3 mile long, led us past an ancient granary nestled under an alcove, which you cannot approach except by camera.

Ancient granary

Ancient granary

The Cave Spring Trail is more interesting, only because you can walk up to ancient Indian rock art and cowboy camp exhibit, both under large, cave-like hollows in the mushroom-shaped rock formations. The caves not only supplied shelter but were important sources of water that was captured and percolated through the sandstone after rains. The camp, similar to others like it, provided a comfortable environment for cowboys who could spend months tending to their livestock in pasture. Many of the original furniture and implements are still on display. The loop trail (0.6 mile) includes two ladders that you must climb in order to complete it. The trail also goes past interesting rock pillars, desert plants (including the yucca, a most important resource for the ancestral Puebloans) and cryptobiotic soil. The last portion of the trail finishes over hard slickrock that provides views to the surrounding scenery and mountains.

Remnants of a cowboy camp

Remnants of a cowboy camp

Ancient Puebloan pictograph

Ancient Puebloan pictograph

Shelter provided under eroded rock formation

Shelter provided under eroded rock formation

Yucca plant in the midst of cryptobiotic soil

Yucca plant in the midst of cryptobiotic soil

Side-blotched lizard

Side-blotched lizard

Potholes are featured along the Pothole Point Trail (0.6 mile) that were formed on the slickrock by abrasion, erosion and water. Potholes are basins or depressions in the sandstone where storm water can collect, providing an enclosed ecosystem for tiny crustaceans and toads whose life cycles are compressed to the time it takes for the potholes to dry up. In other words, these buggers have to get down in a hurry to procreate. Remarkably, they lay drought-resistant eggs that wait for the next rainstorm.

Now dry potholes await the next rain for tiny life to hatch

Now dry potholes await the next rain for tiny life to hatch

Various layers of Cedar Mesa sandstone erode at different rates to create these unusual rock formations

Various layers of Cedar Mesa sandstone erode at different rates to create these unusual rock formations

At the end of these short hikes, we piled into the car to make the drive back to Moab. The longer hikes in the Needles district promise more spectacular rewards, but these will have to wait for another time.

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.

Arches National Park (UT)


You’d never know this about canyon country (unless of course you’re a geologist) but there is a lot of salt under the surface — a  humongous amount of it, as much as 15,000 feet thick in places. This fact isn’t so unusual when places like the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats come to mind. It’s just that you don’t see it in southern Utah. Here is a clue that millions of years ago, this area was a vast sea bed.

The interesting thing about salt is this: it acts like a liquid when under tremendous pressure, in this case provided by the massive weight of the sedimentary rocks above, and like liquid it gets shoved around wherever there is little resistance. Where the crust is thin or weak, the salt will push up to create enormous domes or fracture the overlying rock along faults. Both of these phenomena happened in Arches National Park.

This beautiful park has the highest concentration of natural stone arches in the world with over 2,000 already counted. Only a handful of them are accessible by short trails, including one (Landscape Arch) whose span exceeds three football fields in length.

Our first hike at Arches was alongside a soaring, eroded fin called Park Avenue, named presumably for its resemblance to a row of high-rises. The trail slowly descends over slickrock before it ends up a mile away at Courthouse Towers. The Three Gossips are nearby, as is Sheep Rock for its likeness to, you guessed it, a sheep.

Park Avenue

Park Avenue

Our first introduction to an arch was Delicate Arch (top photo). It is so iconic that it appears on Utah’s license plates. What is unusual is its free-standing shape, sort of McDonald’s-style. Some have commented that it also looks like cowboy chaps. The climb up to the arch meanders over broad expanses of slickrock. Across the canyon you can see salt domes. A narrow ledge over 100 ft above a dry wash is the final leg of the hike before Delicate Arch comes into view. In front of it, a large sandstone amphitheater carved out like a giant bowl invites hikers to rest and ponder this geological specimen. The arch itself, 52 feet high, sits precariously on the rim of a deep canyon.

The Devils Garden Trail rewards the hiker with eight arches along its 3-mile length, including the expansive and fragile Landscape Arch. This hike, possibly the best in the park, took us the entire afternoon. Portions of it were moderately difficult with a fair amount of climbing.

Landscape Arch

Landscape Arch

In 1991, a large section of Landscape Arch collapsed, making it thinner and emphasizing the ephemeral nature of arches. For safety’s sake, you can no longer hike up to it; the loop trail underneath has been closed by the Park Service. Landscape will eventually fall down and the world’s longest rock span will disappear forever.

Wall Arch

In fact, one of the arches along this trail (Wall Arch) collapsed recently on August 4 and is now gone. We were fortunate to have seen it. Other arches along the Devils Garden trail include Skyline, Tunnel, Pine Tree, Partition, Navajo, Private and Double O. As part of the trail to Double O Arch, you must walk along the ridge of a fin, a really unique experience. It used to be that a walk like this would’ve been considered a journey into remote areas, but nowadays you’re likely to see, as we did, hikers jabbering on their cell phones.

Here, in the northern section of the park, you can clearly see the amazing concentration of eroded fins, both from the road and on the Devils Garden hike. Though not readily apparent at ground-level, an aerial view shows their startlingly parallel alignment (also see Geology notes below).

Eroded fins at Arches are clearly visible from the road

Eroded fins at Arches are clearly visible from the road

Edward Abbey: His experiences at Arches as a park ranger was the basis for Edward Abbey’s iconoclastic, radical views on environmentalism and federal land management policies. Some say that his writings inspired the current eco-terrorism movement. Interestingly though, his books are widely available at the national park bookstores.

Geology notes: Arches National Park showcases Entrada sandstone, a vivid salmon-colored formation. The brittle composition of sandstone contributed to its fracturing in rows parallel to the direction of travel long ago of the vast salt deposits underneath. Normal erosion wore away the sandstone along the fracture lines to further sculpt the fins. Through a combination of weak spots, ice wedging and water erosion, lower sections of fins fell away, leaving voids that signal the onset of arch building.

At about the time the Rockies were being formed, a vast portion of crust got pushed downward in an area known as the Paradox Basin. The seawater that filled the basin eventually got cut off and evaporation left behind the immense salt beds. Geologists think this process took place many times. The results of the upward pressure of salt deposits can be seen from the Salt Valley and the Fiery Furnace overlooks. Bulges in the exposed Morrison, Dakota and Mancos formations in the valley are eroded mounds painted in striped layers of unearthly pale greens and grays. From above, the salt valley looks oddly out-of-place.

Salt domes in the valley push up under the valley floor. The La Sal Mountains are in the background.

Salt domes in the valley push up under the valley floor. The La Sal Mountains are in the background.

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