Monday, November 5, 2012

Playing in the Slots

I say "slots" and you think "casino".  Not us - we won't visit a casino except to check out the buffet.  For those of you who know us (me especially), we don't like crowds, we don't like big cities, we prefer to be surrounded by peace and quiet and nature.  No, my friends, when I say "slots", you should think "narrow canyons".

Slot canyons are very special, and Utah has the most slot canyons in the world.  We are on our way to Capitol Reef National Park, when we decide to stop first near Goblin Valley State Park in what is identified on the map as the San Rafael Swell.  Here there are several slot canyons to hike.  First, let's talk about the State Park and the San Rafael Reef & Swell.

We visited Goblin Valley State Park three years ago, before we started RVing.  The park takes its name from the hoodoo-like formations of rock which resemble goblins.  We walked amongst these rounded rock pillars, which are about 20 to 30 feet in height.  Our plan for this trip is to visit the areas outside the state park that we missed on that first trip.

A relief map in the State Park Visitors Center shows us what the San Rafael Swell looks like if you were able to see it from the air.  It is an ancient reef which tectonic forces have thrust up at about a 45 degree angle in an oval shape about 75 miles by 40 miles.  This jagged edge of rock surrounds the swell in the center, the desert land resembling particle board that has gotten wet and swollen.  It is a bizarre sight.  On the ground, it is full of canyons, some of them slot canyons, which are defined as being significantly deeper than they are wide.  You have to be very careful when entering a slot canyon.  Rainfall many miles away can cause a flash flood though the canyon - that's how they were formed in the first place, by very fast-moving water.  We check the weather forecast and, although it's supposed to be a bit cloudy today, no rain is forecast.

Brad & Marilyn in Little Wild Horse (slot) Canyon
We hike into Little Wild Horse Canyon which is supposed to be the narrowest and most colourful in the San Rafael Swell area.  It is fantastic.  The walls are orange stripes on crazy angles, sometimes swirling in all directions.  We are amazed at how these layers of sediments and sandstone can twist like that.  What forces nature imposes on our planet!  This realization always leaves us feeling a little insignificant.  The canyon narrows in two long stretches, at one point being only wide enough for our shoulders; in fact, we have to bend to the side to pass for about 15 feet.  At the bottom, the canyon is a V at its narrowest meaning we have to walk on the sides of the walls.  Good thing Brad's ankle has healed well, although he wears his brace today for extra support.  In several sections, we have to scramble over boulders that have wedged between the canyon walls, using our arms on the side walls to shimmy up.  These are muscle groups we haven't been using much and we are sore the next day.  Since we are in a canyon, all of the views are up or horizontal, but we are not disappointed.  We are compelled to touch the smooth sandstone which has been polished by eons of rushing water, sand and stones.  In many places, tiny caverns interrupt the smooth walls where stones or just water have whirlpooled, or the walls are rippled by some strange current.  A loop trail will take us into another canyon, Bell Canyon, but after we exit the last narrow section, we turn around and head back the way we came.  We can't get enough of a good thing!  Now we get to climb DOWN all of the wedged boulders, which is actually somewhat more difficult.  All-in-all, we hike about 5 miles - enough for me!
Brad & Marilyn in Little Wild Horse Canyon - note the water pockets in the walls
Miner's cabin ruin with Temple Mountain in the background
Some days we have surprise finds, like the day we come across the ruins at Temple Mountain and the incredible slot canyon of Crack Canyon.  Here's how it happened - we decide to drive a bit further up Temple Mountain Road where we are camping to see what's there and within a mile come to a large parking/camping area with a sign providing a description of the mining operations that occurred here from the 1880s to the 1970s.  A small town used to exist on the site where the parking lot is now, and a stone ruin up the hill has survived.  Uranium and vanadium were mined here; radium was extracted from the uranium and was sent to France for experiments done by Madame Curie - yes, THAT Madame Curie - two time Nobel Prize winner in physics and chemistry.  It is rumoured that she stayed in the stone house (pictured) that is now a ruin during a trip to see the origin of the excellent grade of ore she was receiving.  We can see the holes in Temple Mountain that were once mine shafts, with the rubble tailings spilling from the openings.  The many ATV roads here were built for the trucks that carried the mined ore out.

Cave-like holes in the wall in Crack Canyon - Brad at the bottom middle
Our map shows us that Behind the Reef Road, a dirt road traveling to the west from the parking lot at Temple Mountain, will take us to a viewpoint of the swell from the top of the reef.  Well, the views are amazing all along the road and after about 4 miles, we see a small parking lot with a sign - Crack Canyon Trailhead.  Well, why not!  We have all day!  Crack Canyon, another slot canyon of the San Rafael Reef, turns out to be better in our opinion than Little Wild Horse Canyon.  The rock of the reef is incredibly porous, resembling swiss cheese.  In one section, cave-like openings have eroded the cliff walls in two horizontal rows.  Just further along the trail the walls are full of these strangely-shaped water pockets in yellow and orange sandstone, and we have our picnic lunch in view of these.  About 1.5 miles in, there are several sections of the trail (really, the dry stream wash) which are choked with large boulders, and we have to do a lot of rock scrambling.  Some drops are about 8 feet, and we hope we can get back up.  We finally stop and turn around where the drop is about 10 feet and the bottom filled with a pool of water - we will go no further.  Scrambling back up some of the boulders we slid or climbed down is much more difficult, especially for the shorter me.  Brad has to boost me up in one place, but we make it back out.  This canyon, and the minimg ruins at Temple Mountain are unexpected, but we enjoy this day immensely.
Marilyn about to enter the "tunnel" - sides are not joined on the ceiling

Brad in Crack Canyon - very porous sandstone

Marilyn climbing down a boulder jam
Grady buried in the sand
Grady really likes our campsite, which is in a very large gravel "OHV Staging Area" (OHV=ATV) parking lot with fire rings.  We are alone most nights except on weekends and even then it's not busy.  We camp right beside Wild Horse Creek, now dry so technically a "wash" and it is very sandy.  It turns out that Grady loves the sand.  He actually lets Brad bury him in it several times, with only his head stuck out.  Crazy cat!  We don't see any snake paths in the sand, so we figure he's safe.  There are several tiny footprints that are probably from mice or Kangaroo Rats, one of which we get in the trailer for a couple of days.  We can hear him chewing on something in our storage compartment under our bedroom, and one night Grady chases something around the kitchen floor, but it gets away.  Brad finally catches it in a trap which doesn't even injure it because it's so big - as big as Brad's fist!  We let it go and don't see it again.

Oh yeah, so our "fuzzy plan" changed and we're not going to be heading back down Hwy 24 and east on Hwy 95 to Natural Bridges, Valley of the Gods and the Moki Dugway - all places where we've been before.  We'll continue to head west on 24 through Capitol Reef National Park and eventually to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and hope the great weather holds out for the next few weeks while we hike around there.

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