Sunday, May 13, 2007

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur NM was originally established to protect a site where many sauroid bones were found. The Jurassic stratum they died on got kicked up by a tremendous upheaval that set the normally horizontal layers on their ears. This left the bones sort of mounted vertically on a rock face. Earl Douglass, a paleontologist working for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, discovered this find in 1909. He worked the face for a number of years, removing fossilized bones and sending them back to Pittsburgh, where I guess you can go see them. In 1915, to preserve what was left, the site became a national monument, and later on, the Green River and Yampa River canyons were added to protect some extraordinary scenery.

An airy glass filled museum was constructed over the bones site to protect it and the visitors. But it started falling apart very soon after it was completed. It was built on a subterranean layer of Bentonite, which swells when it gets wet. After many attempts to stabilize, the building was declared unsafe and closed in 2006. Sadly, they only have a few fossils in cases in a small room in the visitor’s center, and have moved the gift shop into a temporary building, but beyond that, no bones to be seen. They are moving in the direction of a new building, but it will be years.

Which is all fine, since I don’t particularly care about dinosaurs, and the geology of the place is amazing.

We are camped right next to the Green River, with a lush pasture full of cattle across the water, and the tortured white rocks of Split Mountain above us. It is called Split Mountain because the Green River goes right through it running fast and taking a sharp turn. This is still all limestone, and although the hardness does vary, it is still rock that a river worth its salt can cut through like butter given enough time.. But here the river only cut through this mountain, and not the rest of the limestone. Geologists are still arguing over how this happened, but the result is a white upheaval of swirly meringue like rock that is sliced by the river. In the morning light it glows, and one evening there were some clouds and fog and it shimmered pale like moonlight. I thought I was tired of baroque rocks, but this is terrific. The campground for tenters is full of a bike club and it is right under the cliff left by the river cut.

The interpretive autoroute on the west side of the park has stops to explain the bones, the upheaval and the Split, as well as several petroglyph sites. I am fascinated by these orphaned images that stare back at me from the past. Human figures with odd headgear, and sheep. We have several lizard images here, which are new to me, and spiral suns. Nobody has more than vague theories of why they are there and what they mean. The experts can tell generally how old and which ancient culture made them, but that’s about it. Are they history? Are they a to-do list? Are they prayers or offerings to some deity? Life was not easy for the artists, they must have spent most of their time just getting enough to eat and wear, so it is amazing that they spent hours of precious time carving and pecking these designs. And in later times, painting. The figures have presence, and power. They are a little menacing, if I was an evil spirit, I would at least take notice and maybe rethink whatever mayhem I was planning.

At the end of this Tour of the Tilted Rocks, we come to the homestead of Josie Bassett Morris. A small 4 room log cabin, beside a spring and creek. Here Josie came to live by herself at the age of 52. And died at 82 from complications of a broken hip from falling on the ice. She apparently had children as grandchildren came to visit. Got to find out the whole story on her. Her little hideaway up the canyon is heaven, I can see why she stayed, probably against the wishes of her family.

The second tour is called Harper’s Corner, in the Colorado portion of the park, and it takes you up behind the tilted rocks onto a series of high rolling parklands that are covered with lush grass. There are a lot of cattle guards, so I suspect that cattle are brought up here for the summer grazing. This high mesa gradually narrows as we near the pale canyons where the Green River and the Yampa River come together. At the turnouts we can see for miles over more tilted mountains, green plateaus and the cuts of the rivers through the white rock. It feels very familiar, it is a lot like the Big Horn Mountains of WY and MT, and it is gracefully covered by trees and grass for the most part. I imagine that if Monument Valley is the aftermath of some cataclysm, it must have looked like this before everything was blasted away down to the naked red rocks way down below.

It is cloudy with spits of rain and snow, but now and then a shaft of sunlight will give us a spotlight on some distant feature. We come up to a higher park and are suddenly on the edge of a herd of elk, all running away from something, probably us, but they ran across the road in front of us. They are big and ungainly, closer to a moose than a deer, and hold their heads up as they run, sort of like camels. We are very thrilled to see them so close. We turn away to a lookout point and then we come back out onto the main road, they are there again, running in another direction. Further down the road, we run into yet another herd, also running. The truck does make a racket, and we didn’t see anything else they would have been running from. It reminded me of the dream sequence in the movie Never Cry Wolf where the biologist runs naked, hunting caribou with a pack of wolves.

When we get down to the end, we can see the rivers and the canyons all laid out at our feet, everything darkened by the rain except the white sides of the canyons. Echo Park, which lies to our right, was the location of a proposed dam that would have drowned all this lovely country especially the lush parkland as well as the white canyon. There was a pretty stiff fight, and the tree huggers won.

Next day, we head out dropping down to and across Flaming Gorge Dam, which was the alternate dam site to Echo Park. Up the other side and into WY where we hit the flat oil and gas country.

Most towns through here are all oil and gas, the businesses service it, big trailer parks for the pipeline guys, and not very many cattle. We hardly see any vehicles that are not the white pickup trucks of the oil/gas companies. It is dry here and bleak. We stop for the night in Alcova, where dams have created some recreation opportunities, but it is still a kind of forlorn place.

We are on our last day out, and that afternoon we pulled into Hart Ranch. This is as close to home as we have, a familiar place and a beautiful spot for the summer of work.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Rock of Ages

The jeep rental place allows us to pick the little red beast up the night before so that we can get an early start on our adventure.

It is brand new, only 4000 miles on it, they sell them off after 12,000 miles. This is known in the 4x4 world as a stocker. It has bigger more aggressive tires than normal and it has some lift, meaning the body is higher off the ground. Kind of like picking up your skirts to get over a mud puddle. It does not have lockers, which lock the differential and make all 4 tires work all the time, and it does not have the extra body armor that the extreme jeeps do, nor the special transmissions that make it slower and more powerful. The really extreme jeeps don’t go on regular roads, they come in on trailers and their fancy tires never have to touch pavement or go to the grocery store.

In CO, we went along on a jeep trip with a club, and the guys could talk for hours about the things they did to their 4x4’s or the things they wanted to do. I’m able to talk about wheels pretty good for a girl, but I understood maybe one word in 10. Now I’m down to one in 5. It always interests me that people like to have an impenetrable jargon to use while talking about their hobby/job/obsession. I have been told that this is due to need for precision in communication, but I have my doubts.

We have been approaching the choice of trail with a little wariness. Don is an experienced off road driver, he took truckloads of tourists on some of the most hair raising trails in the San Juan Mountains, and in his stock small pickup took me on some of them. However, those trails weren’t really chosen for their technical difficulty, they just went to gorgeous places, albeit with some heart stopping drop offs. Here, some of the trails are for to get to gorgeous, but a lot of them are to see if you have the cojones and skill to try anything.

We settle on a trail that the book calls Fins and Things that is rated difficult, but we are told is OK for a stocker. This trail is up in the rocks above the town, past the dump, where the really bad trails are. We drive off with our map and our book, up into the dirt. A little way in, we see a fin, a solid smooth lump of rock that shows the faint black marks of tires and has the white stegosaurus stencil that is the trail marker on it, going up and out of sight. We are apparently supposed to drive up it. We have seen pictures of doing this. Talk about a distant elephant. Deep breath, tighten butt, hold on, and we slowly, yes, yikes, the little red jeep does climb up the rock. Wow. OK, now we are on top of the rock and we can’t see where to go because the nose of the jeep hides the road down, off, Yikes again. We get out and look over the edge of the rock which is nice a smooth and goes down just as steeply as the up side. Once again, we grab hold, take a deep breath and s-l-o-w-l-y ease our way down. Another deep breath. Wow, yahoo, we did it!

We spent the rest of the day happily crawling up and down slick rock fins, and scrabbling down rocky ledges and climbing up bolder fields with a happy grin on both faces. Having actually done it we have a great time. There are one or two places where the drop off gives me paws, but in general what a blast. I can see why all these people are here to play on this stuff. We go on to Gemini Bridges trail with more ledges to crawl over. These leads to another double set of arches, and this time we are on the top of them. One peek at the big drop and I go back to the jeep.

For our final run, we go after some caches that sort of needed a 4x4, and sadly give the jeep back to his father.

The scenery while we were climbing around was pretty spectacular, with the La Sal mountains completely clear and snow capped, and all the other red bluffs and orange cliffs being really almost too picturesque. We are getting a little jaded about all this extravagant red rock. It is pretty imperious scenery, demanding attention and adulation at every turn of the road..

Next day we drive the truck out to Dead Horse Point State Park. The Colorado River charges its way through the red canyons and meets the Green River which is charging through its own canyon, so there is a vast maze of canyons to see out here and in Canyonlands National Monument. Dead Horse Point is a narrow spit of land on top of the level mesa. According to local legend, some wranglers built a horse trap out on the end of it by blocking off the 30’ wide spit. They apparently took some of the horses and left the others to die there in the natural corral with a 2000’ drop on all sides. Not very nice, I’m guessing the wranglers came to a bad end on the way out with the first group of horses, at least that makes me feel better than them just leaving them.

The view is astonishing. A sharp drop to what is called the White Rim, a strata of pale and slightly tougher sandstone. This white rim edges the rest of the canyons which goes down through to the deep red rock. The strata look like one of those contour models made from layers of cardboard to show the elevation.

On the way back, we daringly took the truck on a trail that is billed as easy and OK for 2 wheel drive. The truck has plenty of ground clearance, but it is a big stout diesel with way too much power, and no weight in the back to speak of. But we clunked our way through Pucker Pass, had to pull in the mirrors in a couple of places so we didn’t scrape the mountain side while we tried to keep the outside tires on the road, but the truck was great.

Next day we drove into the Canyonlands National Monument which is really in the middle of the confluence of the two rivers, and affords endless wide vistas and dark red abysses. We can see the White Rim Trail going all around the high point we are on. This trail doesn’t have many evil places, and is 92 miles long and would be a two or three day camping jeep tour. I am plotting how to do this in my 4x4 truck . It would be so grand to sleep out there in the great stillness of these canyons.

At this point I am really tired of red rocks. They are just too much. And there are way too many of them and too many buttes and needles and canyons and yes arches. So for a change, we drive up into the La Sal Mountains to look for some geocaches on our list. We pass through yet another series of red and yellow canyons, into a lovely green valley that has a red rock “Castle”, so of course it is called Castle Valley. But in the distance, the slopes of the La Sals are gray! Oh joy, a mountain that is a proper color. As we switchback our way up, we are in stunted oak forests that are not leaved out, so they are a dark gray, and soon we have the lighter gray of the aspens drifting like smoke up the mountain side. We stop for lunch at a primitive CG and underfoot I can see what will be a riot of spring flowers, but it is too soon, and quite chilly. The clouds come in, the road to two of the caches is not open, and soon it begins to snow very lightly.

So we come back down to Moab, and avert our eyes from the Technicolor rocks and the fit and furious bikers and the jeepers whom we are jealous off.

Next day, after a long pull through the totally last red canyon, we are up on the dry plateau and the only rocks we can see are pale tan and lie quietly as rocks should. We cross Douglas Pass, a climb of 4,000 feet, with no red rocks. It is a long hard climb, and the truck just keeps on keeping on. We cross into CO for a bit and then back into UT for a stop at Dinosaur National Monument, which has nice tan and pale yellow rocks as well as dinosaur bones.


Moab is a play town. The recreation opportunities here are endless, and most of them are for the young and strong.

We have lots of steel legged mountain bikers staying here. When we are way up on some overlook we can see them churning up the switchbacks out of a canyon, or flying along the dirt roads. We pass them on steep grades as they pedal in a low gear, and they pass us on the down grades. There are bikes to rent , bike tours to go on and lots of bike repair shops. Then there are all the intrepid back packers who disappear into the canyons with their tents and think nothing of a 1000’ climb up to the canyon’s rim. And the Colorado is there for rafting trips too, although the rapids that are interesting are a ways to the south. But the real centerpiece is off road running in either jeeps or ATV’s.

Moab was a small farming community, raising fruit until the 1950’s when the fuel of the future, uranium, was discovered and Moab became a boom town. This lasted until the demand for uranium slacked in the 60’s. A potash mining operation is in operation today, but tourism is the big deal. The main street is lined with businesses that cater to those who want to go play on the rocks or the water, and the gift stores that wait for tourists everywhere.

Our first visit is to Arches National Monument, since 1929, an easy way to get up close and personal with weird rocks. The stars of the show are the arches, there are 18 of them in the park and plenty more in the area. The trails, from a short amble to a 7 mile rock scramble are all designed to get you to as many as arches as possible. I still don’t get it but we dutifully drove the loop and did some of the hikes, and duly admired the arches. Much more impressive is the switchback road up to the main area, where you are climbing right up through the shoulder of the fault that the river goes through with the La Sal mountains towering to the east, and the ramparts of the remaining high cliffs to the south.

Up above, you drive around huge mesas, two called Courthouse, because they do have an architectural quality to them, past the Tower of Babel, the Organ, the Balanced Rock, the Ham Rock and so on, oh and an Elephant Butte too. My favorite part is called fiery furnace, a wilderness of red fins that lights up in the sunset, hence the name. The fins are vast parallel cracked and eroded but smooth ridgelets. They are the precursor to the arches when the underside of the fin is eroded away. From a distance they look as though they were made of bread dough, sliced and then baked light tan. The tops look smooth the way risen bread does. Caused by the same collapsed underground salt dome that made the big Moab fault, they are oddly mechanical because they are so regularly parallel at 90 degrees to the horizontal lines of the strata in the limestone. Well mostly horizontal anyway. I also like some of the lumpy “needles” in this area which are red with white tops.

We go last to the north and south windows, arches up on a mesa that overlook the mountains and the wide upland plain. We can see some distance blue mesas, but the big holes are hidden. I have seen so many pictures of these two holes that I feel a little funny to be standing in front of them, actually under them. The view from up there is the best yet.

The next day we geocached around town and along the river, including a hike up Negro Bill’s canyon, with a nice stream that did little water falls and pools, while we walked through sand or climbed over rocks. We met lots of people. If you want to hike by yourself, you have to get further away from town. And a number of people brought their dogs along, without leashes, which makes me VERY cranky.

This town is entirely too full of young, fit, rabidly active people. Even the folks with their kids (it’s school vacation week in parts of UT) were off on bikes or climbing canyons. Maybe people in UT have a healthier lifestyle, but I think this place just draws people who like to exhaust themselves.

We, on the other hand, are going to do the (physically) easy stuff, the 4X4 part. You have probably seen pictures of people trying to drive up rocks, over rocks or off cliffs. Moab is the place for this. They have meets and safaris and competitions on some of the most outrageous excuses for a road in the US. There are jeeps everywhere, and Hummers and short pickups way up in the air on lumpy tires, new shiny ones and dirty crunched ones. I would guess half the people in this campground have a jeep, literally. We bought a jeep trail book and have been reading up on trails that are called Hell’s Revenge, Steel Bender, Metal Masher, Cliff Hanger, Moab Rim, and, picture it if you can, Potato Salad. Oh and Poison Spider Mesa. The book has pictures of the high points, some of them are very high, and some of the roads are just boulder fields.

Obviously, if we are at a world class weird rock place, the only thing to do is to try and drive on them. Tomorrow, we will go arrange to rent a jeep, something we are both looking forward to with much glee.