Friday, August 17, 2012

Utah 2: Dead Horse Point and the White Rim Road

A view looking northeast, from one of the first viewpoints along the White Rim Road in Utah's Canyonlands National Park. The river in this picture is the Colorado.

This post is going to cover the the most ambitious park of the trip my family and I took out to Utah last month, namely, the long drive along the White Rim Road, a four wheel drive path that I think ranks up there as maybe the most adventurous thing the Rogers Family has done as a complete unit. Actually, I would say that the drive turned out to be rather more of an adventure than we had been led to expect. Perhaps if one has lived for much of one's life in Utah, and is used to driving four wheel drive roads on a regular basis, the White Rim Road wouldn't seem like all that much of a challenge. However, we're all from Delaware, which, needless to say, is known for its chickens and banks, and not as four-wheel drive destination.  Also, we didn't have the right kind of vehicle (we needed something with a higher wheel base) and it was the wrong time of year to be doing what we were doing. In truth, we didn't know it at the time, but driving the road in mid to late July was probably not a good idea at all, even for an experienced four wheel driver, the reason being that, in the southwest you have a monsoon season that usually begins in late June or early July. Though by "Monsoon Season" its only meant that each day there's an increased likelihood of late afternoon thunderstorms (Assam it's not), the area still seems to get a fairly heavy downpour every few days. Due to the fact that there's little ground cover, these thunderstorms can easily create heavy flash floods. During such conditions, travel along the White-Rim Road would be impossible, as the route passes by the mouths of a number of large canyons, out of which, whenever there's any significant rainfall at all, comes hundreds of thousands of gallons of raging, silty, debris-filled water.

I learned later that one of the sections that we had the most difficulty with, which is where the road crosses over the stream bed that flows out of Upheaval Canyon, had been totally impassable only a few days before, due too mud and quicksand. We reached that spot just as traveling across it became feasible (though, still, crossing it was no joke...I'll get into that later) Then, later in our trip, we had another heavy downpour, which I assume must have again made travel on the road impossible. Thus, we got there right on time....

Mr. Scorpion, in the campground in Dead Horse Point State Park. Practically every night I was there, I would sleep out under the stars, the only drawback of which being that you might wake up with one of these in your sleeping bag. 

For our whole time in the Moab area, our base of operations was a nifty, very small state park called Dead Horse Point. If you've ever seen the movie "Thelma and Louise", this is what they use to stand in for the Grand Canyon (which it actually isn't very much like). The park itself is situated on a little peninsula that sticks off of Island in the Sky, which you access from the road that leads into Canyonlands. From the park campground,  if you walk a quarter mile east or west, you wind up at the edges of 1500 foot red-rock cliffs. If you go beyond the campground, the peninsula narrows, until at one point it seems like it must be around 60 or 70 feet feet across. Beyond that point, it widens out a little, but then abruptly comes to an end, again at edge of giant cliff. This is the Point of Dead Horse Point, and from here you get an unimpeded view out over much of Southeastern Utah.

Horns at dawn, viewed from the western side of the primitive rim trail that leads around the perimeter of the park. One of the great things about camping in a place like Dead Horse Point is that you don't have to get into a car to get views like this. The down side is that you have to go for the duration of your stay without a shower....but it's worth it.

A sunset view due south, from Dead Horse Point, in roughly the direction that we would be travelling the next day. The mountains in the upper left of the picture are called the Abajos. The road which you can see cutting across the lower portion of the picture is the Potash Road. You can just make out the Colorado River above the center of the picture. All of the canyons in this picture are either formed by the Colorado or are tributaries of it.

The Dead Horse Point postcard shot, looking roughly southwest. I've heard two explantions for how Dead Horse Point got its name. One is that cowboys wound keep horses corralled there, the narrow neck of land being easy to fence off so the horses couldn't escape. As the story goes, one time the cowboys left the gate open so that some of the horses they had been keeping but no longer wanted could leave. But the unwanted horses, for some unknown reason, didn't leave, and all died of thirst at the end of the point. The other explanation is that the point is named after the White Rim Sandstone rock formation that you can see in the lower left-hand corner of this photo, which looks something like a (unusually large) horse lying on its side. As of now, both stories seem to be circulating. The park literature still claims the cowboy story is the truth, but I'm inclined to think the latter story is more plausible.

This is a view from the end of the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, from the appropriately named Grandview Point, looking south over Monument Basin and the White Rim Road. Island in the Sky is the primary attraction in Canyonlands, and gets more visitors than any other part of the park. What it is is a huge triangular shaped mesa with 1500 foot drops on two sides, which runs north to south, the mesa becoming rapidly narrower the further south one goes, that is, until you hit Grandview Point and the land drops away entirely. The mesa was cut by tributaries of the Green and Colorado Rivers, which flow into each other only about ten miles south of Grandview Point. But, as you can see from the picture, the land doesn't drop directly to the rivers from the point to the rivers. Instead, there is a sort of intermediate shelf that runs around the perimeter of Island in the Sky, which is what the White Rim Road goes along.  The white caprock that you can see in this picture is where the White Rim Road gets its name. You can just make out the road itself on the right hand side of the picture. Like the vast majority of the roads into the more remote parts of Southeastern Utah, the White Rim Road was originally built by uranium miners. Moab had something of a boom in the 1940s and 50s, when it was discovered that fairly large quantities of uranium existed in the area. In fact the material that was used in the first nuclear bombs came from (relatively) nearby Temple Mountain in the San Rafael swell. However, the boom ended when much larger sources of Uranium were found in Canada. I get the impression that, now that the only significant economic activity in this part of the world is tourism, that many places are actually less well traveled now than they were back in the 40s and 50s.  

Looking back towards Dead Horse Point from the White Rim Road, at the Gooseneck Overlook, after coming down the Shafer Trail. Dead Horse Point is at the end of the large square mesa above and to the left of the center of this photo. The Shafer Trail is where the road rapidly descends from the top of Island in the Sky in a series of switchbacks. Usually, when people drive the White Rim Road, this is where they start. This view is looking across the canyon of the Colorado. The rock formation in the center of the picture is part of the Cutler Formation, and is on top of a large river bend simply called The Gooseneck. 

The Musselman Arch, a striking example of White Rim Sandstone. Its about 120 feet across. I'm not sure what it has to do with Islam. I seem to remember hearing somewhere that the arch was named after somebody named Musselman, though I can't verify that. This was at about the point where it became apparent that the White Rim Road would be more difficult than we were led to expect. It was also after seeing the very last other human beings we would see for the next 24 hours. There was a professional tour group that had obviously gone about as far as the arch, and had called it a day and were heading back into Moab. They looked a little bit surprised to see us, and warned us about our sidebars, which were a problem, as we needed a vehicle with rather higher clearance then what we were driving. Along large stretches of the route, the White Rim Road isn't really a road at all, but just a sort of trail over the top of bare rock. Often, the only thing to mark the route will be lines of deliberately placed stones on top of slick rock. Frequently you find yourself driving along the edge of a cliff with an 800 foot drop on one side and no clear idea of where the road is going. People with a fear of heights would hate it. 

Airport Tower, a major landmark, from Airport Camp, one of the largest campgrounds along the road. From this view, it looks as if it was clear that day, but in the opposite direction the the sky was filling with threatening looking rain clouds. When we got to airport camp, there was absolutely nobody there. In fact, the only camp along the 100 miles of road with anybody camping in it was ours. Obviously, mid-July isn't the peak season out there, I guess because of the temperature. However, since the monsoon season had set in, and it was cloudy much of the time, the heat just wasn't that much of a problem. But the total lack of other human beings for miles and miles made it feel very much as though we had entered the very back of beyond. It was quite a difference experience from being in Arches National Park, which, these days at least, is something of a very cosmopolitan Red-Rock theme park (and that's not something I necessarily hold against it). But being alone in the rocky wilderness of Canyonlands is unquestionably more of an adventure. 

Sad Jesus Tower. Well...that's what it looks like.

Monument Basin, as seen from the White Rim Road. The Navajo Sandstone that makes up the White Rim is a relatively thin, but very erosion resistant layer of rock, while the Cutler Formation Organ Rock below it is much softer, which results in huge hoodoos with White Rim Formation "Hats."  I would say that these towers are in the vicinity of 700 feet high. And they're every bit as spectacular as the Fisher Towers, though they're vastly more inaccessible. This is one of the most spectacular points along the road, where the route passes right next to the edge of the canyon in the picture. The road is generally worse at the points where it goes around the edges of canyons, the reason being that there's no dirt at these point, so the route takes you directly over bare rock.

At the White Crack, looking south. The White Crack Campground (I wish it were named something else) is on a narrow peninsula of rock at the very southernmost tip of the bench that runs around Island in the Sky. This is where we broke our journey at the end of our first day of driving. We had only gone around 38 miles, but that had taken us (with stops) around five hours. The White Crack is one of the very most spectacular areas of Canyonlands National Park, and, in the peak season, the campground is in high demand from people travelling along the White Rim Road. There's only one site, and usually you have to book it well in advance, though, for us, since there was nobody out there at the time, this wasn't a problem.

Natural Potholes (or, as the Canyonlands National Park website calls them, "ephemeral pools") in the White Rim sandstone, just beyond the White Crack Campground. As you can see, the area had been getting quite a bit of rain. These potholes support weird little communities of  short-lived desert organisms, such as.....

...Tadpole shrimp. These are a very ancient kind of organism that have been around since over 300 million years ago, and have remained largely unchanged for around 250 million years. This particular variety lays its eggs in the dirt that collects in the bottom of rocky pools that exist for brief periods of time during the rainy season. Their eggs can dry out almost completely, and then will hatch when there's just enough water in the pool for the adult organism to develop. This animal is (or, rather,'s dead now) about and inch and a half long. Note that it's outer shell is transparent,  and rather like a contact lens.

Busy Tadpole Shrimp. These guys have no time to spare, as these pools don't last for more than a few weeks, at most. But, apparently, as little as ten days is enough for them to hatch, grow, and breed. As proof of how delicate these creature's existence is, the morning after I took this picture, this pool had dried out, and all the shrimp were dead...sad.... The sand at the bottom of the pot-hole was completely dried up, and the only visible remains of the once thriving crustacean community were a bunch of little transparent shells. Still, I guess that the next time that it rained a whole new generation of Tadpole Shrimp hatched.

A Red Spotted Toad, another denizen of ephemeral pools. This picture was taken at night, using a flash. Out at the white crack campground, in the middle of the night, these toad's croaking was the only sound other than distant thunder.

A huge rock pedestal, which is located at the end of a different rock promontory that is about a twenty minute hike from the White Crack. 

Looking towards the Maze District, with thin rain bands moving in. Canyonlands has three districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and the Maze. The Maze is one of the most remote parts of the lower 48, requiring hours and hours of driving along four wheel drive roads to access. You can't really tell from this picture, but the canyon of the Green River is in-between the foreground and the background.

Incredibly complex canyon country to the west of the White Crack. Frequently, this area is so full of detail that it's hard to take a photo that looks like anything at all. Apparently in the 1950s a Uranium Mining Road was built down into this area, which these days constitutes a feasible hiking route down to the Colorado River. However, I saw no trace of it while I was there, despite being on the lookout for it.

Looking back towards Island in the Sky. In this photo you can clearly see both the White Rim, and numerous hoodoos that have been created as the rock erodes. The mesa is a former piece of Island in the Sky called Junction Butte.

Sunset from the end of the White Crack Promontory, looking towards the Needles District of Canyonlands. The triangular peak in the center of the photo is called North Sixshooter Peak. We were, quite literally, the only people for miles and miles, there being apparently nobody else camping on the White Rim Road. The only other sign of human life that we saw were headlights, probably about 20 miles off, in the Needles District. 

Being out in Southern Utah during the Monsoon season does have its drawbacks (namely, the threat of flash-floods). However, it does produce about the best western skies that you possibly could hope for.  

That night camping at the White Crack was a weird one. Of course, just being isolated in the wilderness of the Colorado Plateau has a strange vibe about it. But, at around 2 A.M. as I remember, we started to hear this odd scrabbling sound coming from our SUV. Either a mouse or a Kangaroo Rat had crawled into the vehicle, and seemed to be chewing on something. And it wasn't inside the passenger seemed to have gotten itself into one of the tail lights. We weren't exactly sure what happened to the little critter: it may have escaped from the car, or it might have just died there in the tail light. We had been warned beforehand about Kangaroo Rats at the White Crack trying to steal food. Still, for all we know, it might still be in our former rental car, in which case I feel bad for the next people who rented it out.

Morning at the White Crack Campground, looking northeast towards the La-Sals. 

Dawn view, again looking west towards the Maze District. 

This is looking out from the end of the White Crack. I had seen a number of pictures of that fin before on the internet. Obviously that's the feature that people who visit this area seem to focus in on.

Looking east, across the canyon of the Colorado. I believe that bend is an entrenched meander called, simply, "The Loop." An entrenched meander is where there was a bend in a river, and then the ground started to rise, causing the river to carve out a canyon in the shape of the river bend. 

More White Rim sandstone hoodoos, a few miles beyond the turnout to the White Crack, where the road starts to head north west, on the opposite side of Island in the Sky from the Shafer Trail. On this side of the road, the White Rim sandstone gets progressively thicker, while the road dips down into the canyon of the Green River. If anything, the road beyond the White Crack is more spectacular than the stretch before it, though it also contains the most challenging sections (Murphy's Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, the entrance to Upheaval Canyon).

Going down Murphy's Hogback. This picture was taken by my brother. You can just see my head sticking out the window. Murphy's Hogback is one of the most famous stretches on the White Rim Road, on account of it being really steep. However, we got up and over it with little difficulty. We did, however, get a few dings and scratches on the reverse side of it, but since we had insurance on our rental car, that wasn't much of a problem.

Candlestick Tower, across a side Canyon of the Green River.

A slot canyon, in an area that seems like a part of Escalante National Monument. We were able to explore this canyon a little, though we weren't able to get that far on account of there being potholes full of muddy water at the bottom. 

The approach to Hardscrabble Hill, which was a hardscrabble (a little worse that Murphy's Hogback), though we made it up alright. There was a small outcropping of petrified wood at the top. By this point along the road, the White Rim sandstone has largely disappeared. 

The view from the top of Hardscrabble Hill, looking almost due south along the Green River. The flat area is known as Potato Bottom (there's another campground down there, which was, like all the others, empty). That stretch of green is almost entirely composed of Tamarisk Trees. In places like that, they grow so thickly that they're almost impenetrable. Tamarisks were imported from the Old World to the New (many during the Dust Bowl to help stabilize loose soil). The plants thrived in North America, crowding out native species and and worrying conservationists. These days, you can count on seeing Tamarisks in the riparian zones in the Colorado Plateau region. They're rather ugly trees when you see them up close.

Looking towards the edge of island in the sky from the top of Hardscrabble Hill. 

Near the end of the White Rim drive, looking up Upheaval Canyon. Upheaval Canyon gets its name from the nearby Upheaval Dome, which is a huge circular deformity of rock on Island in the Sky caused either by a giant  collapsed salt bubble or a meteor impact.  Less than a week before we crossed this point there had been a huge flash flood down this canyon. As the White Rim Road crosses the mouth of Upheaval Canyon, it goes over the (usually) dry stream bed that flows out of it. When we came to this section, the sand on top of the stream bed had dried out, but the dirt under it was nothing but mud all the way down. The only way to get through it was to hit the gas as hard as possible and hope not to get stuck. The route took us about 300 feet directly up the stream bed, our wheels kicking out mud the whole time. For a couple of seconds, it wasn't at all apparent where the road was, but if we stopped, or missed a turn, the car would get stuck, which would mean, at the very least, that a National Park rescue crew would have to come down and get us...luckily, we found the turn out of the stream bed, and everything turned out fine.Still, this was by far the worst part of the White Rim Road in terms of "Oh My God We're Going to get Stranded in the Desert" stuff. I would later learn that that particular section of road had been impassible only a few days before. Later in our trip, the area had another big thunderstorm, and I can only assume that the road got washed out again. We were there just in time not to get stuck in the mud...

After getting out of the dry-wash, it was only a few miles to the northern border of the park, and given that we didn't have much in the way of food, we were all glad to be nearing the end of our journey. However, the drive had one more shocking bit of business to offer: As you're heading back up onto Island in the Sky, you go up the Horsethief Trail switchbacks. The road heads nearly straight up the side of a talus slope, and at one of the bends, it looks like four or five cars have driven right off the side of the road , crashing and getting stuck on the slope below. It didn't look like the drivers could have survived. It was a good final image for the White Rim Road to leave one with....    

Storms covering Dead Horse Point, looking towards the La-Sals, later the same day. Those bodies of water are evaporation pools that are part of the process used for mining a variety of potassium called Potash, which is used mostly in fertilizers. I had been taking a walk when I got caught in this rained heavily enough that afternoon that I felt like I had taken a shower...

A view from the western edge of the Dead Horse Point rim trail, as the same storm from the picture above passes east. The rainbow seems to be shooting out of that large piece of the Cutler Formation. I think that people don't tend to associate rainbows with the desert, but during this time of year, at least in southern Utah, you see quite a few of them. 

Junction Butte at sunset, from Grandview Point, at the end of Island in the Sky. 

A Lizard...

OK, so, that was Dead Horse Point and the White Rim Road. Hopefully I'll have the third part of this (on the Needles District) done before I go back to India in a few weeks, and have a totally different sort of adventure...

Stay tuned......

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