Sunday, 25 August 2013

A big loop through Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion

We are now heading back towards LA but on the way, we intend to visit three more national parks. To get to the first, Arches National park at Moab, we have a long drive north through Indian owned land which is still in the geological area known as the Colorado Plateau. We have learnt a lot about the Geology of the area over the past few weeks.

Colorado Plateau Map

A summary would be that the area spread over four states (with more National Parks than any other area in the USA) has a common geology because it has been under the same sea (in past geological time). Hence there are a lot of common geological features including that we are seeing a lot of sandstone and that red is a very predominant colour because of the (rusting) iron in the sand.

We knew nothing about the Colorado Plateau before we came here but we are rapidly learning about it now.

Iconic View 1

Leaving Monument Valley gives us two more views of the iconic place – the first is a silhouette of the valley between two stone outcrops with some rather nasty buildings at the side. Unfortunately, those that live in the area do not seem to regard protecting their environment as important and much of the developments which we notice as new since we were last here is ugly and dumped in the middle of a major tourist site. Obviously people have to live here, but tourism is the major source of income and it is the valley which brings them.

Iconic View 2

Some miles north, the road passes through the town of Mexican Hat which gets its name

Mexican Hat Close

from a rock formation said to be similar to a Sombrero. The top is about 60 feet across

Mexican Hat

and the whole assemblage stands on a sandstone outcrop. The town tries to make much of its stone hat – there is not much else in the area to sing about.

Church Rock Moab

As we continued up US191 towards Moab, we came across this rather peculiar sandstone block sitting in isolation in the middle of a field. Its notable feature is a small hole in the bottom. Depending on which story you wish to believe, the hole was either carved out by a group of religious followers of Marie Ogden's Home of the Truth or it was a hole made by a farmer who wanted a cave within which to store salt for a cattle salt lick. I prefer the first story but have no idea if it is true.

Another site on the road to Moab is Wilson’s Arch which gives us a first taste of what is to come. Named after someone who lived nearby, it is 91 feet wide and 46 feet high (and we are at an elevation of 6150 ft) – my apologies for the imperial units, the US has never heard of metric measurements.

South Window

It is made from Entrada Sandstone (also expressed as Entrada Formation) and this type of sandstone is very common in the Colorado Plateau.

Arches National Park

The name gives it away, this national park near Moab has more sandstone arches in it than any other – the current catalogue lists over 2500 arches and they keep discovering more.

Moab Rift

We are now officially interested in Geology (Mrs Kirk please note) and hence the above picture which is of the entrance to The Arches National Park is of an interest greater than it just being a picture of a very steep winding road up from the main highway. It shows the Moab Fault which was created when the rocks on the right sank because of a fault in the crust. The actual fault line runs along the left hand side of the main road (although we would not have spotted its location unless we had been told).

General View-1

Within the park, the landscape is covered with sandstone outcrops which change colour throughout the day as the sun moves.

General View

Hence you can stand in one spot and see numerous images throughout the day as the

Arch Landscape

rock changes colour and the shadows change.

Fallen Arch

Fallen Arch is said to be a good example of how, perhaps, an arch was created and destroyed over time.

Fallen Arch explanationIt is said that the original arch shape was that in the above diagram and as the supporting pillar eroded, it became progressively unstable and eventually collapsed.

The Park’s most famous arch is Landscape Arch which is 290 ft (88 metres) and because its colour is the same as its background, its features and shape are quite hard to see from a distance.

Landscape Arch 1

but as you get closer, its features and slimness appears.

Landscape Arch

It used to be much thicker but a large chunk

Landscape Arch Collapse

fell off a few years ago leaving a much slimmer arch

Landscape Arch 2

whose days, like those of all of the arches in the park, are numbered. Erosion takes its toll on the all and since the 1970s. over 40 have collapsed.

There seems to be a need to name each arch and hence these two are called Windows

Windows Arches     Turret Arch 2

this one is called Turret (and is very large which can be seen from the size of the hole and the small size of the people going through it.

Tunnel Arch

This one is called Tunnel Arch, presumably because the arch is deeper than most. 

Pine Tree Arch-2

Pine Tree Arch was our favourite arch because there were no other walkers about and it was quiet (apart from the two walkers who suddenly appeared and spoilt the right hand picture below)

Pine Tree Arch-1 Pine Tree Arch 

and the view through the quiet arch was simply lovely although the very high temperature was not.

Delicate Arch is another of the Parks famous landmarks. It stands on a plateau of arches – it is 65 feet (20 metres) tall

Delicate Arch-2 Delicate Arch-1

and is so iconic it appears on Moab License Plates.

Delicate Arch

Rocks in the area known as Courthouse display the strata which create the park

Courthouse Towers-3

Apart from many very large massive rocks,

Courthouse Towers-2

Courthouse Towers

Courthouse Towers-1

the strata line is very clear with a much harder rock layer support sedimentary sandstone layers above.

Courthouse Towers Base

Apart from arches, there also are rocks such as Balanced Rock which is an unlikely large rock appearing to be balanced on the top of a large pillar. There used to be another rock like this but it collapsed a few years ago.

Balanced Rock

Walking in the Arches Park is very popular and hence we had to get there by 8 am in order to find somewhere to park the RV.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Some distance by road but not by the crow flies is Bryce Canyon National Park which everyone says is like nothing else in America. On the way there we pass through the

San Rafaeul Swell

San Rafael Reef which is described as “the distinctive edge to the San Rafael Swell”. The Interstate was cut through a canyon in the swell around 50 years ago and driving through it is an experience in that the canyon walls tower high above a curving road which rises steeply on to the top of the swell.

The Swell is best imagined as a rock bubble on the top of the Colorado Plateau caused by geological movements underneath. Over time it has been eroded into canyons

Canyons of the San Rafael

and other geological features

Black Dragon Canyon

and it is a most bleak and unwelcoming place

A place nobody wanted near Ferron

which exactly suited the early Mormon Pioneers who were charged with leaving Salt Lake City and finding an area of land which nobody else wanted. This meets that description perfectly and all that greeted the early pioneers was a land covered with prickly pears and sage brush with little water.

Never-the-less, it is a surprisingly spectacular place with a most unusual landscape.

As we approached Bryce Canyon, the familiar red sandstone reappeared at a place called The Red Canyon which gives a taste of what is to comeRed Canyon

but Bryce had other things in store for us as well.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce has a long (about 17 miles) dead end road running up it with numerous viewing and stopping places. Immediately after arrival we nipped up to Sunset Point to get a taste of what was there

Sunset Point

and even though there were lots of forest fires downwind (some hundreds of miles away), the view was still pretty spectacular.

First Hoodoos

It also offers us our first Hoodoos – there is more information about them here.

There is a little publicised free three hour tour around the park offered by the National Parks Service. The bus drives to the top of the park and then works its way down the park, stopping at all sites where there is something of interest. You also get a constant explanation of the flora and fauna in the park. This is a far better way of seeing the park than trying to work out what you are seeing from a guidebook. Click here for more information.

Yovimpa Point-1 

Yovimpa Point At the top of the park (as far as the road goes and over 9000 ft up) at Yovimpa Point, there are examples of the superb and strange geology in the park plus some of the trees in the park such as the slow growing Bristlecone Pine – the oldest growing Bristlecone Pine in the park is about 4750 years old.

Bristle Cone Pine Bristlecone Pine 

This pine is only about 100 years old

Bristle COne Pine Close up with pinecone

and has a (rare for its position on a walkers trail) pine cone growing on the end of one branch.

Rainbow Point

Rainbow point offers large views with a long

Rainbow Point-1

line of hoodoos going off towards the distance.

Rainbow Point Poodle

This outcrop is called “The Poodle” – it takes some imagination to spot it.

Ponderosa Point

Ponderosa Point has some superb colours with ranks of Hoodoos.

Rainbow Point-2

apparently the lighter colours result from the iron oxide being washed out of the sandstone.

Natural Bridge

Natural Bridge is one of the great views in the park. Apart from being an arch, it offers a superb view through the arch and down the valley.

Fairyland Canyon

Hoodoos usually have a harder capstone on top and in Fairyland Canyon there are some very good examples of where the capstone remains on the top of columns of softer sandstone.

Bryce Canyon is an usual park and certainly offers geology which we have not seen before. It is also a very small park and a park where the road rises to over 9000 ft – hence breathlessness is common if you over exert yourself.

Zion National Park

The entrance into the park from the east is spectacular and involves driving through some astonishing rock formations, then a long narrow tunnel, then the most winding of steep roads down the mountainside before you get to the centre of the park.

The rock formations include the Checkerboard Mesa which was probably

Checkerboard Mesa

formed when sand layers were created from windblown sand dunes and the vertical lines from fracturing of the rock planes because of temperature changes, erosion and all of the

Planes Closer

usual elements affecting rock over geological time.

Thin Laminars

Some of the planes are relatively thin and create a strange effect.

Arch being fomred

Also there are large arches being formed along the cliff walls. It was very difficult for the driver (me) to see a lot of this because the road was so windy and steep and one wrong turn would lead to a very short and quick trip down the mountainside.

Valley View Road into park

There is no doubt that the valley road into the park takes you through the most dramatic of scenery.

As we headed south towards Zion National Park (Utah has more National Parks than any other state in the US), we saw very heavy rain all about us

Heavy Rain on way to Bryce

and that night it hit hard. The Weather Channel went into excited overdrive and the

Zion Rain and Floods

weather map for the area we were in showed large green masses depicting rain – we were being affected by Hurricane Ivo

Swollen River

which droped vast quantities of rain in a very short time. The area where we were camping went into “Flash Flood Alert” and evacuation plans were prepared - ours was to put our diaries, medicines and travel teddies into a grab bag which we could take with us in an instant if we had to run for it.

But although it rained all night, we were not evacuated and in the morning we found out that we had survived the third worst rainstorm in local history. The Virgin River which flows nearby and through the Park rose from 1ft depth to 8 ft depth and increased 36 times in water flow volume. Roads around the area were covered in red mud which had washed down the hillsides but the National Parks Service had their diggers out clearing the roads and we were able to set off into the park to take part on a Ranger Led tour.

Zion is one of the parks where cars are banned during the summer months and all visitors have to use the shuttle buses which run up and down the park every 10 minutes. At Zion there are free Ranger led tours of the park every day, all you have to do is to sign up the day before. The way it worked was that we met the ranger at an agreed spot and then boarded one of the Park Shuttle Buses which has been set aside for our tour and off we went.

Enthusiasm The drive up the park road to its end involved many stops at places of interest with very enthusiastic talks at each place on the flora, fauna, history, geological formations and everything else related to the park. As is always the case, our Ranger was passionate about her park, what it represented, what it meant and why it was so vital that it was preserved for posterity.

Big bend 1

One of the most interesting stopping points

Big Bend 2

was the middle of Big Bend where the cliffs were very high, massive and almost overpowering. This was where traces of habitation from the earliest years when the park was lived in had been found

Big Bend Arch

In the bottom left hand corner of this arch

Big Bend Arch Store

is a food store which was built by the earliest people to live in the park. It was built high up to keep it away from passing animals and also other passing inhabitants and dates back around 1000 years.  There was also traces of much later occupation by Mormon families who had attempted to establish a farm there and the remnants of a Ropeway which was used to lower cut pine trees down from the tops of the cliffs to the valley bottom.


One thing which we are shown which we have never seen before are examples of Beaver damage to trees. Here, beavers have eaten all of the bark around the base of the tree up

Beaver Damage

to as far as they can reach. As a consequence

Beaver Damage-1

the tree dies and falls over when there is a strong wind. That is why foresters do not like beavers.

So impressive was this park, we can see ourselves returning here in the future for a much longer time.

Happy Pat

And here is a picture of Pat looking happy despite the rain and mud – it has nothing really to do with the blog but I thought I would include it for all of her fans.

Next stop Las Vegas.

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