Friday, August 3, 2012

Utah 1: Big Rocks Around Moab

The Corona Arch, west of Moab, along the Potash Road, which for a few miles is paved and runs along the north bank of the Colorado River. This picture has been cropped by about a third so that you can see the little people (in the original photo they just looked like tiny dots). Note the climber on top, and the two people below. When this picture was taken, the man walking across the span was about to fix a rope on top of the arch and then descend off of it.  

This is, I think, the soonest after the fact that I've ever started working on a blog post. The picture above was only taken about a week ago. I've just come back from Utah, where me and my family (along with my brother's friend D.J.) visited the Red Rock Country around the surreal little adventure-nut-mecca of Moab. With only a limited amount of time, being rather at the end of our tether and out of our element, I think we did a hell of a job exploring the region. 

I wound up taking a whole bunch of pictures, so I'm diving this into three sections. This first post is going to deal with things we saw in Arches National Park and in the area immediately surrounding Moab. The second is going to be on the Island in the Sky District and the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park, while the third will be on the less visited Needles District in the southern part of the park. 

A sunset view from the La-Sal view point in Arches National Park, looking roughly east.

The Moab area is located in the southeastern portion of Utah, not far from the Colorado border. It lies in the center of one of the very most spectacular sections of the Colorado Plateau, where the Colorado and the Green river flow together, carving a vast labyrinth of deep redrock canyons. 

The Colorado Plateau itself is a region where layers of flat sedimentary rocks have been pushed straight up several thousand feet by the same tectonic forces that created the Rocky Mountains, but, rather than buckling or being forced up onto their sides, the layers of rock have remained relatively level. The effect is almost the direct opposite of what one sees in the Himalayas, where the various layers of rock are often virtually standing side by side. At the same time, water courses flowing down from the Rockies, such as the Green and Colorado Rivers, which were extant before the plateau came into existence, cut into the rock as it rose higher and higher.

The result is one of Earth's great landscapes, where huge canyons separate giant flat topped mesas bordered by sheer redrock cliffs. Each rock layer has a very distinct, and yet from place to place highly variable character. Travelling across the Plateau, and encountering the different rock layers in varying thicknesses and being subjected to varying  patterns of erosion, is something like listened to a long piece of music where a number of themes are played throughout but in a number of variations: you're usually able to identify the theme, but each time it's different; some times it's only hinted at, but at others it completely dominates. Adding an additional ingredient to the geology of the area are a large number of volcanic features, such as the La-Sal mountains just a few miles east of Moab, which make an already amazing landscape that much more wild. 

The region boasts one of the highest concentrations of National Parks and Monuments in the U.S., such as Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Escalante National Monument, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, ect., but even after these, the region is full of features that, had they occurred on the other side of the Mississippi, would have been the pride of the east coast. 

Around Moab, you have Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky and Needles Districts), Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and a whole number of areas, such as the Gemini Bridges, the Corona Arch, and the Fisher Towers, which are on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (or, BLM).

Anyway, the central attraction of the area is great big rocks.

Giant Goblin face on the way to the Double Arch, in Arches National Park. The lumpy, melted looking rock is part of what is known as the Carmel Formation, which was laid down in the Jurassic Period. There are three main rock layers in Arches National Park, the first being Navajo sandstone, which tends to make up the base of the formations, and then the Entrada Sandstone, in which most of the arches form, with the irregular, gooey looking Carmel Formation making up the space between them. 

The Double Arch (Though it's actually three arches. There's one in the middle of the span that's closest to us, though this picture is'nt at the right angle to see it), one of the most accessible spots in Arches National Park. It you've ever seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the cave River Phoenix winds up in in the beginning up the movie seems to be sort of under these arches (the cave is, of course, an invention of the scriptwriter).  You can easily make out the demarcation between the Carmel Formation and the Entrada Sandstone.

Under the Arches. Any visit to the more accessible parts of Arches National Park is a highly multicultural experience. When we were at the double arch, it was full of German, French, and Tamil people. I would say that in Arches only around 30% of the tourists you see are Americans. If anything, the area seems to be better known by Europeans than it is by Americans. Nothing against the Europeans (and, incidentally, Dravidians), but it seems rather a shame that Americans aren't more interested in their own back yard. Another thing which I saw this year (this is my third visit to the area), were huge tour buses full of Chinese tourists, a sign of changing times.

This is looking through the opening at the far side of the Double Arch, across the formations that make up the side of what is known as Elephant Butte.

A close to the wall arch. Apparently a majority of the arches in the park are like this one, in that, in order to actually see the arch at all, you'd have to put your head right up against the rock wall. This picture was taken right around noon, and at any other time of day it's unlikely that I would have noticed that there was an arch there at all. 

Turret Arch. This view is due west. There is a Hindi movie called Pukar with Madhuri Dixit and Anil Kapoor where Anil Kapoor goes and dances around this arch, seemingly without the National Park service's approval, as it's not mentioned in the official list of films shot's a pretty good movie though. Here much of the arch appears to have worn through the Carmel Formation. There's another, circular opening to the left of the main Arch, though this photo isn't quite at the right angle to see it.

South Window Arch, with a little person placed perfectly for scale. Again, you can easily make out the demacation between the Carmel formation and the Entrada Sandstone, as here the Carmel Formation borders the lower edge of the opening, while the smoother Entrada Sandstone makes up the top. It appears as though with many of the arches, they actually begin to form at the seam between the two layers.

One of the more famous Arches in the Park, Landscape Arch, which, at 290 feet across, is considered by some the longest natural arch in the world. This is further north from the area around the Double Arch, in the Devil's Garden area. As best as I understand it, the geological explanation for why Arches is so full of arches is as follows: The whole area is underlain by a huge salt deposit, laid down when what would become the Colorado Plateau was covered by salt water seas. After the salts were deposited, a sequence of other sedimentary layers were laid down over the sea salt. Salt, when placed under high pressure, is sort of plastic, so over time as the rock layers above became heavier and heavier, the salt shifted underneath them, sinking in places and rising in others, the process of which caused fractures to develop in the overlaying rock. Over time, due to water erosion, the fractures widened, creating huge parallel lines of narrow Entrada Sandstone fins. Once these fins had developed, the action of small amounts of water ice expanding and contracting on the surfaces of the rock wore then down further, in places boring holes all the way through the fins, therefore creating a natural least, that's what they say...

Looking directly up at the thinnest point of the span of Landscape Arch, which is here no more than six feet across. It doesn't seem that the Landscape Arch will be with us much longer, as in the early nineties large sections of the span fell off, prompting the National Park Service to close the small loop trail that led under it.  However, there are some who speculate that, since the pieces that fell off were not integral to the structure as a whole, losing the weight of the extra chunks may have in fact strengthened the Arch. When we visited in 2007 me and my family climbed up onto an arch called Wall Arch, which was in the same part of the park. The next year, the arch collapsed. One of the things one notices in the Colorado Plateau region is how impermanent all the features of the land are. Everything is in the process of being destroyed. 

My brother with his Camelback, standing in Frame Arch, on the way to the most famous of all the arches in Arches National Park, the Delicate Arch. Frame Arch is so named because when you look through it you see the Delicate Arch, which is located on the edge of a basin on the other side.

Delicate Arch framing Mt. Tukuhnikivats (12,482 ft.) , of the La-Sal Mountains. The Delicate Arch is probably the most famous natural arch in the world, and in the running for the most famous rock formation as well. Among other things, a picture of it features on the Utah license plate. That being the case, it's a good thing that the National Park Service did not apply one of the various local cowboy monikers for the feature as its official designation, which included: "The Chaps," "The Old Women's Bloomers," and "The Schoolmarms Bloomers." I prefer "Big Pants Arch" myself.

Looking straight up at the narrowest portion of the span. Apparently, back in the 1950's the National Park service contemplated applying a thin plastic coating over the arch so that it would last longer. Obviously, that would have been silly, the primary attraction of the area being erosion.

This is a view from the trail that leads up to the Delicate Arch, back towards the South Window Arch, across Salt Valley, which is a huge depression that runs north to south across the length of the park, and is where the salt deposit that underlies the area has subsided, creating a giant ditch.

Looking through the Gemini Bridges. This is actually a few days later, though I'm going to cover that time in my next blog post. Anyway, this not a natural arch, but rather a natural bridge, which is where a stream has cut an arch out underneath an over-hanging rock. The Gemini Bridges (there are two separate spans), are located north west of Moab, along a four wheel drive road that comes off the paved road that leads into the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. I've heard of at least three people who have been killed here in the past twenty years: two died while trying to jump the six foot gap that separates the two spans and missing, plummeting to their deaths. Another guy accidentally drove his jeep off them. There is a small plaque dedicated to his memory located nearby. Apparently for a long time you could see his destroyed jeep laying at the bottom of the pit in this picture. Besides being incredibly good looking, the area around Moab is also extremely deadly. I get the impression people are getting killed there every other day. 127 Hours, the James Franco movie which is set nearby, is, after all, a true story. Of course, if it couldn't kill you, it wouldn't be as interesting. 

Looking East, down Bull Canyon, towards the Behind the Rocks area, and then the La-Sal Mountains, with storm clouds beginning to gather on them. Bull Canyon is formed by the stream that cut out the Gemini Bridges. There is actually a huge amount of arch forming, Entrada Sandstone slickrock located outside of Arches National Park. Much of it lies to the west of route 191. 

Monitor Butte, from a pullout off of route 313, the road which leads to Dead Horse State Park and Canyonlands National Park. It's named after the Union ironclad warship that engaged the Confederate Ironclad Merrimack at the battle of Hampton roads. If you see a picture of the Monitor, the gun turret on top resembles this formation. There's another isolated Butte nearby that has been named the Merrimack after the Confederate vessel. 

A view along the Tower Arch Trail, back in Arches National Park, in the Klondike Bluffs area. The Klondike Bluffs are a group of little visited sandstone fins in the northern part of the park. To get to them, if you're driving along the main park road, you take the unpaved turn just opposite Sand Dune Arch. The Klodike Bluffs are the one area in Arches National Park (at least with a road out to it) that is not overrun with hundreds of tourists. In fact, when we were there, we had the whole expanse of redrock entirely to ourselves, and unusual experience in Arches. The Salt Valley Road, which is the road you take to get out to them, was fairly badly washborded, but was otherwise in fairly good condition. The Tower Arch trail-head is about 8 miles down the road. Oddly enough, despite it being one of the more remote regions of the park, the Klondike Bluffs area was apparently what inspired the creation of the original arches National Monument (which was later upgraded into the National Park) in the first place. 

Tower Arch in the Klondike Bluffs, one of the most spectacular Arches in the Park (at least that I have seen), though it's difficult to photograph it properly, without the opening looking much smaller than it actually is. The sandstone fin that's being cut though Tower Arch is much thicker than most, which creates something like a huge cavern. The arch is 92 feet wide, and 43 feet high. On the southern base of the Arch, there are two inscriptions, one of which reads: "Discov'd by M. and Mrs. Alex Ringhoeffer and sons, 1922-23." Apparently this has been a cause of some confusion, as there was a "Ringhoffer" family that was engaged in mining in the Salt Valley area, but, as you can see, the spelling was different. Also, that the arch was "Discov'd" in 1922-23 is an odd way of putting it. The other inscription reads "Minaret Bridge, H.S. Bell, 1927." The name Minaret Bridge was later dropped in favor of Tower Arch.

The tower of Tower Arch. The white cap-rock on top of the tower is clearly a remnant of some other, younger, more erosion resistant type of rock that once existed in greater quantities above the Entrada Sandstone.

My brother in the Klondike Bluffs slick-rock. Once you reach Tower Arch (which is only a 1.5 mile hike from the parking lot), you can walk through the arch and climb up onto the tops of the sandstone fins behind it, which affords you a panoramic view of the area around Moab.

The best I could do for a shot looking West, through the opening of the arch. Once again, rather like Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park, Tower Arch is one of these places where you have to actually be there to get any real impression of how interesting it is. In the case of Tower Arch, there simply don't appear to be any really good angles to photograph it from.

My brother's friend D.J. having wedged himself into an extremely narrow Entrada sandstone fissure. Where he went, none of us could follow, on account of his stick-figurish proportions. It's cracks like this that ultimately widen out, resulting in the distinct, arch forming fins that characterize Arches National Park.

Descending from the Corona Arch. No, it's not named for the beer, but rather for Coronal Mass Ejections (which are something else entirely). 

The same guy, descending again. The Corona Arch is well known as an extreme sports destination.  One of the most popular activities is to climb up onto the span, affix a rope, jump off, and then swing back and fourth in the opening.  The National Park Service, spoilsports that they are (though not really) won't even let you climb on the arches in Arches National Park, so natural arch swinging enthusiasts have to go elsewhere to get their kicks. Fortunately for the Arch Swingers, the Bureau of Land Management has plenty of giant arches on its land, and it doesn't seem to care what you do with them (within reason).

The Fisher Towers. This area looks like it shouldn't exist on the same state, let alone the same planet, as the Arches area, but in fact it's right next door, just a thirty minute drive down the south bank of the Colorado. The Fisher Towers, and nearby Castle Valley, are another famous Hollywood filming location. In fact, there seem to have been nearly as movies shot in the Castle Valley Area as in more famous Monument Valley. Of course there's a number of Western's that were shot here, including "The Comancheros" and the very similar "Rio Conchos,"  along with a John Ford Movie called "Wagon Master," the screen play of which called for the protagonists to be travelling for hundreds of miles, though in every other shot you saw the Fisher Towers in background, giving one the impression that our heroes were going around and around in a roughly three mile wide circle. More recently, parts of the film "John Carter" were shot here (most of that movie was shot in Utah). There's also a documentary on the Science Channel about Saturn's Moon Titan, where the Fisher Towers stand in for the alien world, with the help of digital technology.

A most improbable Hoodoo, hoodoo being the term for a rock pillar where erosion resistant caprock has protected the more easily eroding material below, often resulting in a structure where the top is wider than the parts lower down. It was this process which created the Fisher Towers. The area is composed of two main rock layers: on top, the Moenkopi, and below it, the blood red, melty, Cutler Formation. The Moenkopi Formation is much harder than the Cutler Formation, so as water wore into the cliff face that the Fisher Towers stick out of, the Cutler Formation rock was eroded out from under the Moenkopi Formation,    except in places where a bit of the Moenkopi rock managed to stay precariously balanced on top of ever heightening pillars of Cutler Rock. However, the rock pedestal in the picture above is a special case. In this instance, a flake of Moenkopi Rock fell from above, and then protected the Cultler Formation rock below the point where it landed. Over time most of the rock below the flake was cut out from under it, creating the current, Dr. Seuss-ish, effect.

A massive, Cutler Formation Tower along the trail to "The Titan."

Looking straight up at one of the towers.

The effect at times is almost as though the features are man-made, in this case like the world's most ambitious (and red) south Indian Temple.

The Cutler Formation certainly produces some of the strangest looking rock formations in the Moab area. There's a whole lot more of it over in Canyonlands National Park, though in those areas it's not nearly as accessible as it is in Castle Valley.

The Titan, which at 900 feet is the tallest of the Fisher Towers.

Looking straight up at the lumpy side of one of the lesser Fisher Towers (though I think this one is still in the vicinity of 600-700 feet tall). Apparently this stuff is good rock to climb on. Clearly it provides lots of handholds, though I would have thought the rock would have been too crumbly to be safe, but evidently not. There's a Citibank add that came out  just this year that shows a woman climbing to the top of one of these, though she changes location from shot to shot: One second she's climbing in Dead Horse Point State Park, which is 40 miles away, and the next she's in the Fisher Towers. Movie (or, television) Magic.

The view over Castle Valley. Those spires and buttes in the background have been in so many movies that they're nearly as iconic as the Mittens in Monument Valley. 

That's all for now. Next I'll do a post on the more adventurous parts of our trip in Island in the Sky and the White Rim Road in Canyonlands National Park. Stay tuned!

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