Island in the Sky

The 528 square miles of Canyonlands National Park is divided into four distinct districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers – the Colorado and Green Rivers that wind through the park and helped shape the land.  Island in the Sky is closest to the town of Moab and Arches National Park, so it’s the most visited part of Canyonlands.  Entrance to the Needles district is about 100 miles to the south, and the Maze district entrance is around to the west, accessible only by 4 wheel drive and backcountry hiking.  We’ve been to the overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab several times to look down into this part of Canyonlands, but we were anxious to explore at least the Island in the Sky district a little more closely.  Here’s a map to help you see where things are in relation to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, and so you can see how close Arches and Canyonlands are to each other.Island in the Sky is a flat mesa at an altitude of 5900′ on the Colorado Plateau, 2200′ above the Colorado and Green Rivers.  Sheer cliffs drop 1200′ to a plateau topped by white sandstone carved by the mighty rivers another 1000′ below.Monuments, buttes, spires, fins and arches are all found in this improbable landscape, though so much of the park is very difficult to access.  The sweeping views from the rim of the Island mesa are breathtaking, and there were several shorter hikes that we took to see some of the highlights, such as the Mesa Arch…

…and the Grand Overlook…

…and the Upheaval Crater – which has two possible theories about its creation, but no one can agree……but we wanted to see more.  The rangers told us that we would be able to negotiate a short section of the famed White Rim Trail (1200′ below the mesa top) in our long 4 wheel drive truck, and that we should be able to ascend the steep switchbacks of the Shafer Trail to get back up on top.  Armed with a backcountry permit and the ranger’s assurances, we set out for a day trip onto the lower rim.

From the town of Moab we picked up the Potash Road on the north side of the Colorado River, traveling along a dirt road that slowly climbed higher to give us nice views of the river’s muddy flow.The road leads past potash (potassium salts used primarily in fertilizers) drying pools and railroad sidings, a reminder that this area has a great deal of mining (including uranium) in its history.  The 4 wheel drive trails in this area are outside the park boundary and are popular with OHVs – Off Highway Vehicles with beefy suspensions and big tires that can tackle the rough terrain with impunity.  We were jealous at how easily they zipped along, but going slow gave us more time to appreciate the magical scenery.

We reached the lower entry (a cattle gate with a sign) to Canyonlands, and connected with the White Rim Trail – for mountain bikes or sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicles only.  It takes 2-3 days to traverse the entire 100 miles of the trail in a 4 wheel drive, and several more days to do it on mountain bikes.  We took the ranger’s advice and only traveled about 15 miles to the Musselman Arch – by then we were ready to turn back.  The road hugs the rim of white sandstone, and there were limited places where we could pull off to the side to allow other trucks or mountain bikes to pass.

Whew!  Now we just had to get out of the canyon and we had two choices: return on the long rough dirt road back the way we came, or take the shorter, scenic, challenging Shafer Trail that climbs 1200′ to the top of the mesa.  That tan line in the middle of the photo above is the beginning of the Shafer – the easy part.  The photo below shows some of the switchbacks on the not-so-easy part.The challenge with the switchbacks is that our 21′ long truck was a little too long to make the sharp turns, and the road is narrow, dirt, and it has no guardrails.  Jim had to drive up and almost kiss the cliff face, then back up a few feet in order to make each tight turn.  I really didn’t like the backing up part!  Passing another vehicle is something you’d like to avoid, but it happens.  You just have to choose a spot that feels wider and pull the side mirrors in.  Next time, maybe we’ll rent a small jeep.  But it was an adventure, we had a great time… and I had a big glass of wine when we got back to the camper.  We loved what we saw of Canyonlands, and we hope to explore more of it on another trip.

Here’s a little video that Jim shot with a camera mounted on the dashboard.  The switchback section has been sped up to 4x normal speed – we took it slow and easy in real life.

Arches National Park

In the early 90s we were in graduate school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and that gave us an opportunity to explore some of the wondrous parks in the southern part of the state.  Arches National Park was always our favorite, with glowing red rock in surreal formations.  There are over 2000 arches in the park, though we only saw about 15 of them since many are difficult to access. 

The landscape was formed by deposits of sand and silt many millions of years ago when the state was part of a massive inland sea, drying and flooding multiple times.  Sandstone formed over salt domes, and the domes eventually bulged, causing the rock to crack in parallel lines.  Water and wind began the erosion process, shaping rock into fins and dissolving some of the “glue” between grains of Entrada sandstone to form arches… like the Window arches……the Landscape arch……and the iconic Delicate arch, just to name a few.Geologic forces are also responsible for shaping Arches, starting with the Moab Fault which split the rock face and shifted the west side 2600′ higher than the east side.The road just outside the park follows the fault, which means that if the earth starts to shift again it could make for some dicey driving!  In addition to arches, flat panels of sandstone stand proudly in the landscape such as Park Avenue……and the Courthouse.Balanced Rock is another well-known formation – we’re always glad to see its 128′ still standing……and we keep wondering what the Three Gossips are whispering about.While some of the arches are easy to get to and lots of fun to climb around, such as the Double Arch……some are a short hike through the improbable landscape at the Devil’s Garden… …to see the Sand Dune arch……and the Broken arch.We also wanted to see some of the more remote arches, and first on our list was Tower arch.  This arch can be reached by a very rocky 4-wheel drive road and a short hike (we found the road to be too rough for us) or a 9 mile dirt road and a moderately difficult 2.5 mile hike, scrambling up to a rock ridge and a brutal slog on a few steep sand dunes – but it was worth it!  Can you spot Jim under the arch?The view from the arch to the west was gorgeous, and we loved scrambling around underneath it.The next day we got a backcountry permit to venture into the Fiery Furnace area – a more challenging part of the park requiring a lot more rock scrambling, where trails don’t exist, and with a risk of getting disoriented.  We took it slowly and carefully, backtracking often to find our way among the tall fins to discover a small arch we could crawl through, and eventually we found Surprise arch after making our way carefully along a narrow ledge.Arches never ceases to amaze and delight with its many shapes and hidden treats, and I think it’s still our favorite of Utah’s treasures.

Zion’s East Side

Although the beauty of Zion’s main canyon is compelling, the Spring Break crowds were a little discouraging, so we drove into the narrow 1930s era tunnel through a mountain to explore the very different east side of the park.  Checkerboard Mesa is one of the features on this side, as well as slickrock sandstone mountains instead of the vertical cliffs found in the main canyon.We found the east side to be much less crowded, and although there are few formal hiking trails there is plenty of territory to explore off the beaten path.  Our favorite exploration scrambled down into a wash with steep walls shaped by raging water.  With clear skies and weeks without rain in the forecast we felt safe down there, finding interesting rocks and shapes in the sandstone that showed the effects of wind and water.  Rocks look like waves or ripples on a beach!We had a steep scramble to get out of the wash and back up to the road, but we had the entire area all to ourselves and we loved having some quiet time to enjoy the landscape.After a brief snowball fight near Checkerboard Mesa, we spotted a hoodoo (rock spire) up on a hillside, so we found a place to park and headed up the slickrock to check it out.We couldn’t figure out what caused the black on top of the hoodoo, but there were other chunks of the black rock nearby that really popped against the red and yellow sandstone.A few other spots caught our eyes and we had a ball wandering around the odd landscape, wondering at the forces of nature that created this amazing place in the high desert.  But there was one final treat – desert bighorn sheep!  Just as we were driving back towards the tunnel, we spotted a small herd of sheep on the mountainside that stayed around long enough for me to change lenses and get to a good vantage point.There were several lambs……and they wagged their tails like crazy when they could get their mother to pause long enough for them to nurse.Wonderful!  It was the perfect way to wrap up our first visit back to Zion in 25 years.

Zion National Park – Part 1

Soaring cliffs of sandstone narrowing to slot canyons cut by the Virgin River are some of the special features of the popular Zion National Park, located in the southwestern corner of Utah.  Zion sits at the edge of the Colorado Plateau that has been uplifted and tilted by plate tectonics, then shaped by wind and water into amazing shapes.  Just to bend your mind a little – the bottom layer of rock in Zion is the top layer of rock at the Grand Canyon to the south. 

The park has three main sections to explore – the less visited Kolob Canyons to the north, the main (popular) section that runs along the Virgin River, and the East Canyon accessible by road through a mountain tunnel.  Of course, we explored them all.We arrived to the area on a weekend so we headed to Kolob Canyons on the NW corner to avoid crowds in the main part of the park.  Kolob has a 5 mile scenic drive with gorgeous views at the end, even better from the viewpoint that’s a mile-long hike from the parking area.Photographs could never do justice to reality – they just don’t convey the sense of majesty here.

Farther down the canyon we took a 5 mile hike into the finger canyon at Taylor Creek, surrounded by red Navajo sandstone cliffs… …that gradually narrow to a double-arched alcove at the end.  The sun lit up the wall of one side of the narrow canyon, and the reflected light made the wall in shade glow a deep fiery red – stunning.We were a little early for spring – a few willows started sprouting their fuzzy gray pods, but ice chunks were still falling from the little waterfall at the alcove.  I’ll bet it’s especially beautiful in the fall.

The next day we ventured into the main part of Zion, now so popular that no cars are permitted in the main canyon from mid-March through late November.  We last visited Zion 25 years ago, and the increase in popularity shocked us.  People are loving many of these parks to death!  The bus system is very efficient, but with Spring Break crowds we were a little disappointed in the lack of solitude to appreciate this very special place.The views in the main canyon are breathtaking, and would have been even more beautiful if the cottonwoods along the Virgin River had more spring color.  We were about two weeks too early!There are a number of hikes in the canyon – we chose to make an early start to see the Emerald Pools, though the trail to the lowest one was closed because of a rock fall.  The upper pool was a perfect spot for a lunch break.  Beautiful!We did a few other short hikes in the afternoon, skipping the famous but strenuous climb to Angel’s Landing.  We did that hike 25 years ago with our friend Dave, though I never made the final scramble (which is done while clinging to a chain to keep from falling off the cliff) because I had bronchitis.  Jim did it carrying a 20 lb. knapsack full of camera gear and tripod. 

We capped off our day walking up to the end of the canyon called The Narrows.  We were hoping to hike up The Narrows, which involves wading in the river and keeping a very sharp eye on the weather – flash floods can occur from storms even far away, and there have been fatalities here.  Unfortunately the spring runoff and recent rain turned the Virgin River into a muddy torrent so the Park Service closed the area for safety.  Autumn would be a better time to try.  Regardless of the little disappointments, the main canyon was still a treat to see and explore.Although we prefer the solitude and quiet of wild places, it has been fun encountering other people on the hiking trails.  Despite the current political climate and negative tone on the news, virtually everyone we met on the trails was considerate and polite.  Smiles and greetings were genuine and warm, people who patiently stood off to the side to let others pass were rewarded with lots of thank you’s.  It made us feel good about our fellow humans – I wish more of the news stories would focus on the many things that are positive.

Lots of Sand, No Beach

From Las Vegas we headed into Utah to make an extensive exploration of “color country” – a swath of state and national parks that spans the southern part of Utah from west to east.  We started with a little gem of a state park – Coral Pink Sand Dunes not far from the town of Kanab.We were surprised to see large sand dunes in Death Valley, and were equally surprised to find an area with nearly 6 square miles of dunes here.  Pink colored Navajo sandstone, eroded by wind, is concentrated in this area by a pinch between two mountains, producing natural sand dunes that are between 10,000 and 15,000 years old.Wind is constantly funneling, blowing and moving the sand, erasing traces of man-made tracks within minutes.  Desert animals, lizards and insects make their home near the edges of the dunes where grasses and other plants create some shade, leaving odd tracks and trails as evidence of their movements.We didn’t see the endemic Coral Pink Tiger Beetle, but we did spot a funny little beetle near the top of a tall dune, clinging to the sand despite the strong wind.The dunes made a wonderful playground for children and families, as well as bigger kids like us…  climbing up and down the dunes……exploring the patterns in the extremely fine, soft sand.The other big attraction at the dunes is the chance to run around in various types of motorized vehicles – ATVs and OHVs (off highway vehicles).  It looked like great fun!We checked out the campground for a future visit, and we enjoyed talking with the ranger and seeing the huge collection of clear bottles with sand from all over the world… showing how very fine this park’s coral pink sand really is.  You can also borrow a sand board (like a snow board) from the ranger station, and surf the dunes… but it’s a long, hard slog back up the dune.

Viva Las Vegas

Driving east out of Death Valley we crossed into Nevada, keeping an eye out for wild burros as the road signs warned.  Sure enough, we spotted several on our way to Las Vegas.  Las Vegas is not my kind of place so I was dubious when Jim suggested adding it to our road trip plans, but he assured me that there were interesting things to see (the Hoover Dam) and wilderness places to explore (Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire).  I never knew there were such neat places to see just outside the city, though I confess that we set foot in a casino on one evening – but only to meet a friend for dinner. 

Hoover Dam is really quite interesting, and we spent most of a day there thinking nerdly thoughts and appreciating the feats of engineering required to build this massive dam in the 1930s.We took the full tour of the dam, getting inside the structure to learn about power generation……and even walking hunched over to a ventilation grate in the middle of the dam to shoot a few photos from an unusual location.The most interesting thing we learned in our big dam day was that the dam is strictly there to control the flow of water downstream (to agriculture and population centers primarily in southern California).  We thought power generation was important, but it’s entirely secondary to the water control.  If there’s a need for water downstream then power will be produced, otherwise most of the generators remain offline.In the photo above you can see the light colored mud line on the shores of Lake Mead – it’s 142′ above the current lake level.  The annual draw on the lake level is about 16′ and the average increase in lake level is 11′, so the dam has been running a 5′ deficit per year.  Sobering.

On a lighter note, we spent two days hiking and exploring the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – a splash of red and tan “calico” rock formations less than 30 minutes from downtown Las Vegas.There’s a superb visitor center with excellent displays and views, a 13 mile scenic drive, hiking trails and petroglyphs.  With glorious 80 degree weather the canyon was very popular, even on weekdays, but we enjoyed the hiking and the striking colorful scenery.The season was still a little early for the desert tortoises to appear, but we saw a number of lizards and a kit fox – a nice surprise.While we thought the dam and Red Rock were really neat, Valley of Fire State Park was the most impressive.  It’s smaller than Red Rock Canyon, more compact, but we liked that there were a number of shorter hikes on a variety of terrain so we could sample different things in just one day.  Oh, the colors!Pinks, yellows, reds… sand as fine as powdered sugar… sweeping vistas…We kept an eye out for desert bighorn sheep that are known to be in the area though we didn’t see any.  But we did share a picnic table with a young family, and the husband turned out to be the #6 Opposing Solo pilot on the Air Force’s Thunderbirds!  Jim enjoyed talking airplanes with him, and it was just a very cool thing.  (He’s much cuter in person than in his official photo.)

I think that going to wild places like Valley of Fire is most fun if you unleash your sense of wonder – imagining things in the odd rock shapes, marveling at the colors, pondering the forces of wind and water and uplift that created this beautiful desert landscape.Petroglyphs were scrawled like ancient graffiti in some sections of the park, and although we couldn’t decipher many of them, the bighorn sheep were easy to see.I know some people love the glittering lights and action in the city of Las Vegas, but we think we found the best that Vegas has to offer.