Saturday, November 7, 2015

Cedar Mesa, Utah

Cedar Mesa is an area in south-eastern Utah, given its name for the many mesas (hills rising from 200 to 1,500 feet with flat tops) covered with red sand/clay, cedar bushes and pinion pines. It's a large area and encompasses part of Glen Canyon National Monument (Lake Powell), Natural Bridges National Monument, national forests, federal wilderness lands and only a few very small towns - Mexican Hat, Bluff, Blanding and Monticello. A gaze over the landscape registers mostly red and green; the soil is a deep reddish-brown, the sandstone cliffs are a rich reddish-orange, and the cedars are lush and green this year thanks to the heavy rains this summer and fall. White Canyon and Grand Gulch dominate much of the area with their creamy white capstone snaking between the red mesas. Cedar Mesa is also full of ancient native ruins and artifacts. Petroglyphs (drawings on the stone using coloured dyes), pictographs (drawings chiseled or picked into the stone) and crumbling dwellings can be found in numerous locations along the many creeks and rivers, which all end in the Colorado River or Lake Powell.

We camp for nearly 2 weeks on Jacob's Chair Road just off Highway 95 between Hite (now a dry, unused Lake Powell marina) and Natural Bridges National Monument. Our visiting resident geologist, Dolores, is still with us these first few days, although the weather is not cooperative during her stay here at this location with us before she drives the 2,000 miles back home.
Along Scenic Highway 95

The drive from Hanksville to Natural Bridges along Highway 95 is a scenic ice cream sundae. We drive past the base of the Henry Mountains with snow-capped peaks over 11,000 feet, through a narrow canyon lined with orange sandstone emerging high above the Hite Marina on Lake Powell (although the lake no longer reaches here due to low water levels), crossing the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers, and finally arriving at the vast maze of canyons in Cedar Mesa. In this photo, Brad sits atop the Hite Overlook.

We stop briefly at the Little Egypt Geological Area, with hoodoos similar to Goblin Valley but more colourful.

This cyclist, with whom we chatted a bit at a highway turnout, began his journey on May 24th in New York City. He is cycling across America! Why? No reason, he just needed a break. He has no set plan, just riding lesser highways through interesting places, stopping when he's tired. He's heading to California, where his journey will end. We think of him often in the weeks to come, wondering where he is now.
Jacob's Chair and White Canyon

The day after we set up camp along White Canyon at a dispersed campsite on Jacob's Chair Road, it rains heavily upstream (probably at Natural Bridges with its higher elevation of 6,000 feet). The stream in the canyon is merely trickling when we arrive on Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon has risen several feet. Jacob's Chair Road, which crosses the stream just behind me, is now invisible and impassible. I wouldn't want to be stranded on the other side. This is a flash flood, although here the canyon is wide enough to handle the water easily enough. By the time Brad and I leave this campsite a week and a half later, the stream is dry, and we realize we haven't heard it running for several days.

Where a canyon narrows to a mere foot or two wide, as seen here where White Canyon passes under Highway 95, the water can rise 10 to 30 feet in just a few minutes. This is why we stay out of slot canyons and canyon narrows when rain is forecast. Roads are impassible too as the red sand is mixed with clay and quickly fills the treads in any tire, shoe or boot, preventing any form of travel. (See me in the top right?)

Brad, Dolores and I enjoying an early evening fire at our campsite on Jacob's Chair Road. The rock formation, known as Jacob's Chair, is in the background, top left.

What's particularly interesting about the top of White Canyon is these petrified trees still embedded in the rock. Many of them are filled with large quartz crystals like this one. Yes, I've super-enhanced this photo to distinguish the lichen and other organisms growing on the rock. That's the toe of my boot at the bottom so you can get a size perspective.

Another thing we see in the southwest a lot is this cryptobiotic soil. Fungi and other organisms grow on top of the soil, usually in blackened peaks as seen here. State and National Park brochures warn against treading on this soil as it grows very slowly and is important for plant regeneration.
Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural bridges are similar to arches except that they form differently. Bridges form by rivers or streams eroding the stone at the base until the bottom and middle collapse leaving only the top layer connected by walls of stone on each side. Arches are formed by freeze and thaw, with water infiltrating cracks and expanding them, causing the stone to crumble and eventually collapse leaving an arch. From the loop drive, we look down at all three bridges, so Brad and I hike down into the canyon to see them from below. Here I'm looking straight up at the first bridge, Sipapu (see-PAH-poo). Note the jet stream.

We arrive at the second bridge, Kachina (ka-CHEE-nah) after hiking about 3.5 miles through the canyon bottom. The cottonwood trees are full of colour, and the smell of the fallen leaves combined with the dampness of the stream reminds us of fall hikes back home.

The third and final bridge, Owachomo (o-WAH-cho-mo). I'm standing under the bridge, in the middle of the dry stream bed.
Muley Point and Valley of the Gods

A driving day takes us south of Highway 95 to Muley Point where we check out possible camping locations (and we do find a nice one). Here we are at the top of Cedar Mesa and Muley Point, looking down about 1,200 feet to the valley below, although it is still some 1,000 feet further down to the meandering San Juan River. From Muley Point, we can see the infamous landmark "W" formation of Monument Valley in the distance to the southwest (top right), perhaps 50 miles away as the crow flies.

The only way down are the switchbacks of the Moki Dugway, where pioneers dug a single track for their uphill wagon wheels to prevent sliding off the steep slope. Today, it is a good dirt road driven easily by vehicles, but not large RVs, especially pulling a trailer.

At the bottom of the Dugway is Valley of the Gods, and for the first time (we have been here before in 2009, pre-retirement and pre-blog), we drive the 17-mile loop road that winds through the rock formations.

Don't worry.  They'll buff right out!
A phenomenon called "Texas pinstripes", and it's what happens when you drive narrow 4x4 roads through desert bushes. I'm glad we don't have a dually. We have many scratches and dents from driving these southwestern "roads" and now consider them to be badges of honour, a testament to the crazy things we do. I'm proud to point to the dented step rail and claim "That's mine, from 2012 on the Callville Wash Road in Lake Mead National Rec Area."
Fry Canyon

Fry Canyon is just a few miles east on Highway 95 from our campsite. We would have driven past it every time we traveled up and down this highway had it not been for an RV friend who told us it's his favourite canyon in Utah. So we set off one day to hike it. Surprisingly, it's a little slot canyon right under the highway, although because of the season's rains, it's full of water and not hike-able today. So we follow it along the top south towards the high mesas and are immediately rewarded with beautifully coloured and striated canyon walls.

The canyon quickly forks into two; we follow the right fork but the canyon simply opens up into the typical sandy wash and cedar bushes. We retreat and follow the left fork which again narrows and forces us to do a bit of scrambling until we finally reach at 12-foot dryfall which is impassible due to deep water pooled at the top.

Since the day is still young (it's not even lunch-time!), we drive up the dirt road from the Fry Canyon Lodge (now abandoned) to the high mesa. We climb up about 1,000 feet above the valley floor with incredible views of Cedar Mesa to the north, east and west. We attempt to take a loop 4x4 road around the formation known as Tables of the Sun, and it is soon after turning onto this side road that we discover not only exceptional views facing west, but petrified wood eroding out of the bentonite clay mounds. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces litter the ground. We can't walk without stepping on fragments. Some of the pieces are beautiful, with gold, brown, black and white colouring. Unfortunately, the road deteriorates half-way around, and we don't find the right 4x4 track to lead us around the loop, but instead find ourselves heading back down the mesa towards the highway. And this road, different from the one we drove up, has been washed out recently in several places so we have to strategically place flat rocks to rebuild sections so the truck doesn't hit bottom and destroy the transmission oil pan. Don't you think Brad should be building the road and I should be taking pictures? It takes us one hour to cover a mere 3 miles of this road, but make it down safely we do, and home to our hungry kitty. Yet another Gris adventure successfully completed.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to let you know that I'm watching you. I get tired just reading about your hiking. Good for you. Hope to see you in Arizona.