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

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (UT)


At 1.9 million acres, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) is the largest park in the Southwest, but one of the least visited. This is one big mother of a park, complete with all the geologic wonders that make the Southwest so visually stunning—hoodoos, slot canyons, buttes, mesas, towering cliffs, all in brilliant colors of vermillion, burnt orange, golds, pinks, purples—and man-made ones (ruins and petroglyphs). Its sprawling size and points-of-interest that are widely spaced apart, not to mention the largely undeveloped roads, make it unlikely to become a tourist magnet anytime soon. Most of the secondary roads become impassable in heavy rain or snow. Its national monument status was conferred by President Clinton only in 1996. As its name suggests, the park is part of the enormous and geologically unique formation, spread over two states, called the Grand Staircase. Think of it literally as a stairway that, at its lowest point, starts at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stepping in ever higher elevations through the North Rim, Chocolate Cliffs, Escalante, Zion National Park, Bryce, and ending up the Aquarius Plateau at a dizzying 11,000 feet in elevation.

Image from wikipedia (click to enlarge)

To get to Bryce from Page, we had to backtrack westward on Highway 89 along the southern edge of GSENM, then cut through the national monument along the unimproved Cottonwood Canyon Road, which parallels a geologic formation known as the Cockscomb Monocline. This is not really just a way to get to Bryce but another spectacular Southwest scenic area.

Specializing in paleontology, the Big Water Visitor Center on the southern end of Highway 89 is a fascinating place to visit. Inside, there are a 30-foot mural that depicts the Cretaceous period and a complete dinosaur fossil. The enthusiastic ranger there told us that a complete dinosaur fossil is found on average once a month in the park.

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Big Water Visitors Center specializes in paleontology

Here we picked up a handout that identified the points-of-interest along 47-mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road, including a 90-million-year-old oyster bed, some slot canyons, Grosvenor Arch and Kodachrome Basin State Park.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old.

Oyster fossils are 95 million years old

Most of these were very hard to find; in fact, the handout relies on using your car’s odometer to locate them. Signs along the road were also not very explicit. A couple of the hikes were fruitless because they weren’t well marked. We wandered around without finding anything that resembled a trail. At least, attempting to find the trail to Lower Hackberry canyon, there was an sandstone upthrust that was immense.

Uplift along Cottonwood

Our car is dwarfed by this uplift

Another trail led to a boulder-littered slot canyon, definitely not conducive to an easy hike.

Boulder-strewn slot canyon

Boulder-strewn slot canyon

We finally salvaged something out of the day when we found Grosvenor Arch, the first arch (a double arch, in fact) we saw on our trip.

Grosvenor Arch

The double arches of Grosvenor Arch

The Cockscomb, more formally known as the East Kaibab Monocline, is so named for the alternating layers of white and red rock, like a rooster’s cockscomb, that lie almost vertically along the Cottonwood Canyon Road, as if these layers were tilted from folding over.

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

Cockscomb layering along the East Kaibab Monocline

You can easily spend a week to explore the many geological wonders here. If you’re willing to do considerable off-roading, hiking and canyoneering, there are many splendors to experience that many visitors to the park will never see.