Zion, Cedar, and Bryce–oh my!

Congratulations to Doug Sadtler (no relation) for winning the trivia question from a few days ago. The highest elevation that the Monroetorhome has achieved was driving around the rim of Crater Lake NP. Doug’s first answer (read his comment attached to the 8/1 post) was the Basin and Range. However, he did posit a second guess, and that guess is correct. And since he’s the only one to have answered the question correctly, he wins the day’s prize! A keychain from Cedar Breaks National Monument. This 1 ½ inch “Impact” keychain features a panoramic picture of the Cedar Breaks topography, as well as a compass and thermometer, perfect since Doug is always complaining about the temperature and can never find his keys!! (I’ll let you all think about that last one for a minute.) Congrats to Doug and fie on all of you who didn’t even bother to answer a multiple choice question! Jean, I don’t think they took your bullying seriously.

I’m sure if we took a poll to see which is the “crown jewel” in the National Park Service , I’m sure that many people would say Yellowstone–and for good reason. It is by far among the most varied, scenic, and iconic. For my money, I would have said Arches, but out of mere sentimentality. That is, until I hopped on the free shuttle bound for the Temple of Sinawava and The Narrows in Zion National Park. Before I go into our events for the day, let me explain Zion.

Zion is a canyon composed entirely of sedimentary rock carved almost exclusively by the Virgin River, the one I frolicked in two days ago. There are two routes entering the park, the South Entrance and the North Entrance. It is possible to drive these routes, however, both are patrolled by a fleet of propane-fueled shuttle buses which stop at every stop, and encourage passengers to embark and disembark at their whimsy.

What makes Zion singularly superior to all other parks (it has herewith been so determined, sorry Yellowstone fans) is the combination of the scenery, the variety of activities, and above all, the community atmosphere brought about by the use of the shuttle system. A journey to Zion National Park is a SHARED experience. There is very much a sense that we are all in this together. You run into the same groups over and over again, whether it’s two miles into The Narrows, or in the line for soft serve at Zion Lodge. Part of the experience you share externally (hike together, talk with one another), and part of it is shared internally (the mutual acknowledgement that you want this to be a personal experience, wish to hike/eat/read/gawk in silence). By the time I left, I wished I could see the German couple, the two Italian couples, the veteran in a wheelchair, and the four teachers one last time so I could say “Goodbye” and “Enjoy the rest of you trip.” Finally, the most charming element to Zion is the large lawn (with the most immense and beautiful cottonwood tree right in the center) outside Zion Lodge. There people ate, relaxed, threw Frisbees and baseballs. Whether this was the intended effect, when you step off the bus from your satisfactorily exhausting hike, you feel like you have reached “home base,” even if you aren’t staying there. This atmosphere of community, rather than competitive advantage, makes Zion, in my experience, unique among all other parks.

Now, the rocks. While on the shuttle, you are treated to a recorded narration by a park naturalist. It is very well done and very well synched to each viewpoint, drop-off, and turn in the road. From this narration, I learned that Zion represents the “mid-point” in the geologic lifespan of what is known as the “Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau.” During the last several hundreds of millions of years, a shallow sea, then a desert covered the western US from Wyoming to California. At some point, the sediment laid down during that time was covered by water, compacted, physically and chemically bonded to form various sedimentary rocks (sandstone, shale, limestone, conglomerate, mainly). Then one day about 70 million years ago, a large chunk of this former desert began to uplift. I don’t know what caused it, but since the Rocky Mountains are 75 million years old, I have to suspect that the two events are related. Anyway, a large portion of the western US (which looked nothing like it does now) began to uplift slowly. So slowly, in fact, that one river was able to keep pace with the uplift, and throughout millions of years continue its path to the sea while carving into the uplifting rock, fulfilling its course from the northeast corner of this uplift, from present day Rocky Mountain National Park, all the way through the southwestern edge of the plateau to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Why the “Colorado Plateau,” you ask? After all, most of the plateau is in Utah. The river that cuts through this plateau from start to finish was named by the Spaniards for the bright red rocks they encountered in her canyons. They named it the “Red River” or “Río Colorado.”

So, back to the narration. The “Grand Staircase” is just what it sounds like: a series of cliffs whose lowest “step” is the Grand Canyon, middle “step” is Zion Canyon, and upper “step” is Bryce Canyon. In fact, if you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, you may have heard that the Kaibab Limestone formation serves as the rimrock for the canyon. The dry conditions in the desert make it difficult for the limestone to erode, so it holds the whole thing in place. It turns out that the Kaibab Limestone is the bottom-most formation in Zion NP. The tippy-top layer in Zion is the Navajo Sandstone. Guess what serves as the floor of Bryce Canyon? You got it—Navajo Sandstone. So, the highest formation in GCNP is the lowest In ZNP. The highest formation in ZNP is the lowest in BCNP. Part of this gradation is probably due to the uplift of the the plateau (and several secondary plateaus on top of the main one. But added to this drama are several normal faults that cause additional displacement of once-contiguous rock formations.

My vague recollection from my trip to GCNP in 2002 is that 1 billion of the earth’s geologic history is exposed in the Grand Canyon. If you add the strata found in Zion and Bryce, you’re probably talking about 1.25 or 1.5 billion more years added to the rock record. And all of it uplifted, tilted, faulted and now slowly eroding, creating formations that even the mind cannot conjure.

Since the Zion shuttle encourages independent travel, the Monroetorhomers decided to strike out independently. Mom took the Riverside hike, then walked out on the rocks at the beginning of The Narrows. Then she cased out Zion Lodge (she’s compiling an exhaustive survey entitled, “Comfort of and View from Leather Chairs in National Park Lodge Great Rooms”, due to be published when she can sit no longer). Following her stint of analytical sitting, she hiked to the Lower Emerald Pool. On her way down the canyon she stopped at the Natural History museum and took in the movie and a ranger talk. As she was about to board the bus for home, her obnoxious son jumped out of a bus fresh from a hike, and annoyed her into attending another ranger talk (ask us about the horsehair worm). After the talk, she went back to the RV.

Earl took his time on the shuttle ride, taking the round trip, then headed back to the RV in time for lunch, and sank into one of the captain’s chairs to engage in what has become one of our most favorite guilty pleasures—people watching. His observations about RV campground behavior are insightful. I encourage you to pry details out of him.

I headed out early for a hike in The Narrows, which is a canyon about 100 feet wide at its mouth. The exercise involves walking upstream in water that can be anywhere from a few inches deep to shoulder deep. The 16-mile canyon requires a backcountry permit, and a death wish. So I wandered upstream until the canyon reached its minimum width, about 20 feet. After 2 miles and 2.5 hours I decided enough was enough, and covering the return distance in only an hour. At the mouth of the Narrows, under the curious and watchful eye of a bunch of Germans, I took a dozen or so pictures of my shoes in celebration (see slideshow).

I headed for the museum where my mother ran over to me, embarrassing me in front of all these people, and made me attend a ranger talk and watch a movie. Following the movie I hiked the Emerald Pools, returning Zion Lodge for a hot dog (pic o’ the day?) and an ice cream cone. While lying in the grass under the cottonwood tree, I decided to abandon ambitions of my third intended hike (Watchman trail, affording views of the canyon, and Springdale below). I returned to the Visitor Center, purchased a large can of Budweiser (doing it for the family, Earl owns Anheuser stock). Although late to cocktail hour, arriving around 7:30, I was not truant.

Today we went park hopping. Leaving Zion, we descended the Colorado Plateau, only to climb it again in the northern section of the park called Kolob Canyons. A nice driving tour offering more great examples of erosional retreat was the highlight, although several hikes are possible. After Kolob, we got off the plateau, headed north and back up the plateau to Cedar Breaks National Monument. Here we achieved our all-time altitude record: 10,350 feet. The folks at Ford deserve props; this little V8 engine has weathered lots of “ups and downs,” literally. Cedar Breaks is an amphitheater of eroded sedimentary rock, famous for hoodoos and spires, much the same stuff that we will see tomorrow at Bryce.

We are now in Bryce Canyon, UT at Ruby’s Inn, a ticky-tacky complex of campgrounds, hotels, ersatz villages and such. Tomorrow we’ll case out Bryce Canyon NP, and make our way over the north side of the Grand Staircase, touching down in Escalante or Torrey, UT, on our way to Mexican Hat and eventually Chinle, AZ.

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Southwestern Utah. Canyon Country. Abbey’s Country. The Rimrock. The Desert Southwest. Drive down any one of the criss-crossing roads in southern Utah, northern Arizona, southwestern Colorado, or northwestern New Mexico, and you will be treated to an innumerable combinations of shape, shade, size, color, and texture. No single minute is the same as the one previous, especially in your automobile doing 75 down I-15.

But would you believe me that if you slowed down, perhaps even got out of your car and walked around, the scenery would change even MORE often? It’s paradoxical, but true. The sandstone and shale cliffs of this region are immense, but not the least bit uniform. The closer you look, the longer you look, the more you will see, and the more the rock will reveal itself to you.

This region is special to me because it taught me a great lesson in humility at the age of 25. After undergrad and grad school, then teaching for a few years, I had pretty much surmised that I knew everything that was worth knowing. In 2001 I agreed to chaperone a summer course at Westminster called “Field Geology.” It was a good fit since I considered myself a hiker and outdoorsman, and it paid me to travel. Offered to rising 9th graders, the course, through its many iterations covered geology, ecology, biology, botany, meteorology, astrology (etc.) in one form or another, but geology was the focus. The course consisted of a 3-4 week trip out west through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. In a caravan of passenger vans, armed with steno pads and walkie-talkies, students would conduct a “mobile classroom” including lecture, discussion, and field problems. To this day, this high school geology course, of which I was merely a spectator, comprises the greatest educational experience I have ever known. My everyday life, from the books that I read to the hikes that I take, is affected by my experiences with the students and teachers that were involved in this course. I wound up coordinating the trip the next year, then for the following two years I dabbled in teaching sections (the easy ones). It’s been four years since my last stint with Field Geology, and it’s good to be back in the “classroom.”

Anywho, we departed Ely, Nevada yesterday morning and had a delightful drive through the waning ranges of the Nevada desert, and quickly found ourselves in a decidedly different element! At first the vegetation thinned out. The only substantial vegetation left was that which clung to southwest-facing slopes (more moisture and sunlight). At varying points on our journey nothing remained but sage and needlegrass for miles around. And then shades of red began to appear in certain rock strata high up in the mountains. You wouldn’t notice it unless you were expecting it, and even then it might appear as shadow play. We crossed the Utah border, came out of the Needle Range that straddles the state line, and there at the bottom of this long, downward sloping grade rose a jumble of red, pink, yellow, brown and green rock that (feel free to corroborate or contradict me on this, cuz I’d really like to know) HAD to be the western border of the Colorado Plateau. THE COLORADO PLATEAU!! That massive expanse of uplifted earth that covers four sizeable states actually has a beginning and end, and this may be one of them!!! From then on, the scenery just got better, and better, and better.

The rock got redder, the angles more peculiar, the formations more curious. We missed our exit on I-15 for Springdale, and thank Heaven we did. It led us to Exit 16, Utah Rte. 9, which passes through Hurricane and Rockville before it reaches Springdale. As soon as we turned the corner off the exit we entered an anticline, a formation in which an uplifted rock erodes in the middle, leaving only the upward and opposite pointing remnants at the base. Another hand gesture activity. hold your hands out in front of you, facing each other, palms facing down. Now raise both hands as if they are pointing to an imaginary point above. Draw with your eye an imaginary curved line connecting both hands. All that imaginary stuff in the middle has eroded away, been picked up and moved toward the ocean. What remains (your hands and all the rock under your hands) is called an anticline. The strata of the rock is identical, yet nothing but thin air between (or in the case of Hurricane, UT, a Wal-Mart is there).

We checked in to our campground and were thrilled to discover that we were but feet from the Virgin River, one of the main rivers that flows through Zion NP upstream. The 102 degree heat did little to dampen our enthusiasm because our campsite, and basically everything within a few miles is surrounded by gorgeous redrock! See the pics in the slideshow below for a visual. While Earl and Barbara relaxed in the RV’s air-conditioning, I headed up to the laundromat for some household duties. How to kill 45 minutes while you’re waiting for your laundry? Strap on your Keens and head for the river. The Virgin River is about twenty feet wide and no more than 2-2.5 feet deep in any location. It burbles along at a decent pace losing a foot of elevation every few hundred feet. A few outfits rent innertubes so you can float down the river. But since I had my Keens, I just sat in the middle of the river and let the world float by me. It was the perfect relief from the heat. After a changing of the laundry, I returned to my spot on the river and chose to lay rather than sit. The river carried me some fifty yards or so until it dumped me on a rock that I found too comfortable to pass up. So I remained there, people watching and playing with the sand and silt that I dredged up with my hand. “Did you enjoy Zion National Park?” I asked this handful of goo. It didn’t reply. I can assume that it’s taken hundreds if not thousands of years for it to get this far, and therefore has no recollection of the parkso it opted for silence.

Tomorrow we will get to explore the park ourselves, and if so inclined, we will consult some silt that is better informed.

Ely, Nevada: 368 miles round-trip from the nearest Wal-Mart

Sorry for the prolonged absence. One word: Nevada.

Actually, our last post came from Diamond Lake, OR as we prepared for our visit to Crater Lake. We were just a few minutes’ walk from Diamond Lake, a pristine mountain lake nestled between Diamond Peak and Mt. Thielsen. The day at Crater Lake was sublime. When the weather is right, so they say, the water in Crater Lake is cobalt blue. Ask them why and the rangers will whip out their crinkled posterboard display and tell you all about it. If I may borrow from 1980’s songstress Debbie Gibson (she goes by Deborah now that she’s on Broadway), the water was “electric blue.” I’m usually the type to put away my camera while I hike, but I just couldn’t stop taking pictures of this otherworldly scene. I was convinced that the sun would set or the clouds would shift, causing this rare brand of blue to fade. Alas, from 10:30 until 3:00 with varying cloud cover, Crater Lake’s 2000 ft deep waters (the deepest in the nation) remained an inimitable shade of deep, bright blue. While Ted hiked Garfield Peak, Earl and Barbara visited the lodge and attended a ranger talk. Both yield high marks. And Earl and Barbara are a discerning audience.

Departing Crater Lake, the drive to Klamath Falls was pleasant enough, but we were probably on sensory overload from the lake. The day prior we tottered around Mt St Helens, so we are all about volcanoes now. However, since we lost two days of WiFi access, I’ll spare you my diatribe on why I love volcanoes so much. (Thanks, Julie for warning everyone about my “geology talks.”) I will simply tell you that volcanoes are sneaky little bastards. Pliny the Younger (or Elder, whichever) called Vesuvius long before it buried Pompeii and Herculaneum several meters of ash, but sometimes you just can’t tell what they’re going to do. Mt St Helens caused quite a fuss in the 80’s, but that was predicted a month or two ahead of time, yet 50 some people still perished. Crater Lake, however, was not caused by an eruption, rather a collapse.

Mt. Mazama was a massive (read dozens of miles in diameter) stratovolcano (the nasty kind) that did begin erupting 7000 years ago. Accounts still exist in Native American oral tradition of the event. Several vents formed and the volcano belched and erupted over a long period of time. At some point the volcano evacuated so much of the magma stored below, that the entire mountain collapsed under its own weight. The caldera that remained filled with water, hence Crater Lake. A rover was recently deployed to the depths of the lake where they found beds of moss 20 ft thick and at the very bottom (dun, dun, dun, dun…) a bubbling, broiling hot spring. Sneaky little bastard.

But surely the grandpappy of all sinister volcanoes is Yellowstone. Unleashing cataclysmic eruptions every 600,000 years or so, the last one was 600,000 years ago. Visit the park sooner than later.

Well, after getting our kicks fantasizing about the relative destruction of the Northwest (nothing against you guys up in Washington and Idaho, but it’s just too cool not to contemplate), we headed south into Nevada and the Basin and Range. The Basin and Range is as it is described, a series of mountain ranges alternated with a series of basins. (A basin is a valley whose waters do not reach an ocean, but you can interpret “basin” as “valley.”) The Basin and Range, in form, is no different than the ranges in the U.S. (The Boise crowd can probably recite the MT/ID ranges in order, but among them are the Bitterroot, Sawtooth, etc., all interrupted by river valleys) or the many Appalachian ranges (in central Applachia for example, the Taconics rise up from the Catoctin which rise from the Allegheny, etc.). What makes the Basin and Range unique is the forces that created them.

Typically, a mountain range is formed by compression, that is, the smashing together of the earth’s crust. Wanna make a mountain? Here’s a fun experiment: Hold your hands out so that your fingertips are touching and your palms are facing the ground. Now, with millions of pounds per square inch at the ready, start to push your hands together. Ah, ah, ah! Both fingertips can’t go up. That’s cheating. Instead, push your hands together until your left hand begins to push beneath the other. That hand wins. It’s now a mountain builder. What becomes of the right hand? Does it just slide along the top? Nonsense! Your fingernails probably got in the way. No, the left hand that pushed under the right hand, in the process of doing so, dragged the right hand with it. The fingers of the right hand begin to curl, gnarl, get twisted and bent. But wait! Look at your knuckles! They’re pointing up! Quick name them before some twitchy British explorer gives them a name from his boat far off the shore (I’m looking at you, Vancouver). If you gave names to those little pointy things, then you have just named various peaks in a range of mountains created by a process known as subduction. Oh, and try to come up with something more creative than “One Little Piggy, Two Little Piggy…”

This is how the vast majority of mountains came into being: an oceanic plate (Pacific) subducted under a continental plate (North American plate), and VOILA! In the case of the Himalayas, it was two terrestrial plates (Indian and Asian), but the result was the same.

Now to the Basin and Range. To the best of my recollection (the reading of “Basin and Range” by John McPhee some five or six years ago, so my rendering may in no way reflect modern geologic theory, but hey, I’m sitting in a motorhome in the middle of the desert, so I’ll make it up), the Basin and Range is formed when the terrestrial plate “relaxes.” Now, keep in mind that throughout geologic history, nothing really “stops,” it just puts its energy elsewhere. In the case of the North American Plate, at some point it extended, stretched, probably as a reaction to hundreds of millions of years of being compressed (I think it’s called isostatic or isometric rebound, and it’s akin to what happens when you press down on a couch cushion—it lurches back up). So, when the earth’s crust “stretched,” gaps were formed. Gaps in crust are called faults, and you probably remember from Junior High Physical Science that faults cause mountains (displacement, uplift, however you wish to define it), one part of the crust goes this way, and the other part of the crust goes that way. And you now have a mountain range.

If you were to Google “physiographic map of the US”, you would probably be prompted to a USGS or NOAA site that has physiographic maps (a map that shows differences in elevation). If you were to look to the west, you’d see the following: Pacific coast/Coastal Range/California’s Central Valley/Sierra Mountains. Then, to the east of the Sierras, you would see what looks like a small army of snakes oriented to the northeast, as if they were trying to invade the Snake River Plain in southern Idaho. (funny side note: When our beloved late Wray Monroe visited Marilyn in Boise in the 80’s, he traveled via southern Idaho. According to the story I heard, she opened the door and he said, “This is the ugliest state I’ve ever seen!.” Marilyn challenged him to come back another time and she’d show him northern Idaho. With that, the “Mostly Monroe” adventures had begun.)

Anyway, these snakes slithering through Nevada are, in fact, the alternating ranges and basins of the creatively named Basin and Range. You know what, after I submit this post, I’ll see if I can google it, and if I can find it, I’ll post the map in the slideshow (for those of you new to the blog, there’s a slideshow of pictures to the bottom right. It hasn’t been updated for sometime due to upload restrictions on the WiFi connections at these campgrounds.

Well, Julie, as it turns out I did babble on about geology. Sorry everyone, but I think it was Wallace Stegner who said (and I paraphrase), being surrounded by nature and not learning of its origins is akin to walking through a great museum with all of the paintings facing the wall.*

“Why didn’t you write about what you guys did during the last two days?” you might ask. I did. We drove. The end.

Tomorrow we’re on to Zion National Park, and from there we hit a spate of state and national parks (“spate” is the technical term for more than one public park). Among them are Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and maybe Capitol Reef NP. Please feel encouraged to post a comment on these parks, as we know very little about them from personal experience.

I will leave you with a trivia question. The first person to post their answer wins the first of many prizes!!

Question:

At what site did the Monroetorhome achieve its highest elevation?

a. Glacier National Park

b. A mountain pass in the Idaho Rockies

c. Crater Lake National Park

d. A mountain pass in the Basin and Range

The answer in tomorrow’s post.

*Editorial Note: Fellow Field Geology teacher and resident know-it-all Clark Meyer was good enough to point out that this quote is attributed to Thomas Henry Huxley, not Wallace Stegner. Thanks for keeping me honest.