Friday, May 07, 2021

Red Rock Utah, Part 2: Bryce and Zion, April 2021

April 11, continued:  We took Highway 12 from Torrey to Bryce, a spectacular ride.  Many years ago, we had driven the southern part of this road, in the Escalante area, but we had never seen the northern portion.  The road climbed to more than 9000 feet and overlooked a huge expanse of red rock country, from Capitol Reef to the Henry Mountains to Navajo Mountain to Boulder.  We stopped at several of the scenic overlooks.

The infamous "hogback" portion of the road, which is twisty and narrow with sheer cliffs dropping down from either side of the highway, was a piece of cake.  Great views, but not scary at all.  However, in snow, ice, fog, or rain, this would be a cake best left uneaten.

We had hoped to find boondocking near Bryce, but suspected (correctly) that the wet forest roads would still be closed due to melting ice and snow.  We found an opening at a small RV park not far from Bryce, where we had stayed in 2006.

We took a quick ride into Bryce to watch the sunset, but it was too cloudy.  But when we got back to the trailer, the view from the RV park was better:


April 12:  We hiked the Queen's Garden trail at Bryce -- lots of folks, just as at Capitol Reef.  There was still some snow in the deeper crevices of the hoodoos along the rim:




Close up, the surfaces of many of the hoodoos looked like a child's "drip castle:"


After the hike, we took a ride on the bike trail, which climbs south along the rim.  The surface was great, and it was fun to glide back down the hill without having to worry about the traffic.

April 13:  We left Bryce and headed toward Zion.  (Ordinarily, we would spend more than a day at a given location, but we have been to Bryce several times.). Instead of taking Highway 89 south to Highway 9 and then through the infamously-slow tunnel, we went north on 89 and took 20 over the top to I-15, an easy and scenic drive.

We found a one-night opening at an RV park in Hurricane, parked the trailer, and then went up to Kolob Terrace and the Cave Valley to look for boondocking.  I had marked several promising sites near Lambs Knoll on BLM land, just outside the Zion boundary.

The area was very beautiful -- but when we parked the truck and walked up the access roads to evaluate the campsites, we discovered that the "roads" consisted of deep, powdery sand, with hugely uneven two-track surfaces.  These campsites might have been reachable with a big truck with balloon tires pulling a tiny teardrop trailer with a low center of gravity.  But they were clearly not for us -- too much risk of getting stuck.  This was a real disappointment, since the Cave Valley was so enticing.  (Discretion is the better part of boondocking.)

The next morning, we looked for boondocking in the Sheep Bridge area, a huge and popular expanse of BLM land between Highway 9 and Highway 59.  Usually, I would not identify a boondocking area with such specificity; that is considered to be a breach of etiquette.  But this area is no secret.  

We got lucky and found a nice level site a few miles southwest of Virgin, Utah.  The access roads were very bumpy and rutted, requiring high ground clearance.  As a result, our neighbors were about a quarter mile away.  (Other parts of Sheep Bridge were more densely occupied.)

After setting up the campsite, we drove into Springdale, intending to take a bike ride along the Virgin River trail into Zion itself.  Springdale was jammed with people -- we had never seen it so busy.  In the old days, there was plenty of free parking.  Now, though, the town and the park service have begun charging for parking, and it is not cheap.

But all was forgiven as soon as we got onto that amazing bike trail -- to give some idea of the scale, Felice is in red at the bottom center of this shot:


Although the photos of the bike trail are enticing, they don't show the swarms of electric bikes on the trail, a new phenomenon.  Tourist rent the bikes in town and then zoom around the hikers and bikers using the trail.  The e-bikes are fast -- up to 30 mph -- and most of the tourists are unfamiliar with the controls.  We saw several near-accidents.

But never mind.  It was a cool and breezy afternoon, a perfect time to see if I could still lift my heavy mountain bike overhead despite my advanced years:



Since the shuttles were running, there was no car traffic on the canyon road, and we could glide down slowly while admiring the scenery:
 

We sat for a short while next to the river.  Although the river looks pretty, there were signs everywhere warning that the river contained cyanobacteria and was unsafe to touch.  A ranger told us that the failure of the monsoon in the summer of 2020 meant that the bacteria had not been flushed out:


Back at the trailer, we found that the front window formed a perfect frame around Gooseberry Mesa to our south -- this photo was taken from the kitchen table:


This campsite was not great for landscape astrophotography -- there were small domes of light pollution in every direction, created by the cluster of small towns near Zion.  This is Smith Mesa, north of our campsite:



April 15:  It was a great morning for photography -- cool, windy, partly cloudy.  We had thought that by camping at Sheep Bridge instead of a more remote location, we would lose out on the scenic beauty of the Zion area and would be stuck in a featureless desert.  Instead, this wide-open location put us right in the middle of the Virgin River valley, with colorful mesas and mountains all around us -- a pleasant surprise.

There was a range of high mountains to the northwest, with some snow still in the higher gullies -- I think this is the Signal Peak/Pine Valley area.  Signal Peak is over 10,000 feet high:


The distinctive skyline of Zion Canyon was to our east:


And this is what Smith Mesa (to our north) looks like in the daytime:


We headed into Zion, to ride the entire length of the canyon (maybe 8 miles each way).  The road runs along the river:


The rock formations toward the top of the cliff are called "blind arches:"


At the north end of the canyon, we parked the bikes and walked along the riverbank toward the Narrows.  The trees had just "leafed out," and the backlit neon green foliage was brilliant against the dark canyon walls:


After pedaling up to the head of the canyon (which is not really arduous at all), the big payoff is the slow glide back down:


By the time we got back to the trailer, the clouds had begun to gather:


Although the clouds were pretty, we were hoping that the predicted 20% chance of light showers would not turn into a real rainstorm -- the soil in the Sheep Bridge area is a type of clay that forms a thick, slippery gumbo when it gets wet.  There were deep ruts of dried mud next to our campsite, to remind us of the danger:


The wind picked up, and streaks of virga appeared over Gooseberry Mesa:


And there was also virga over both Smith Mesa and Zion Canyon:



The storm blew over -- no rain for us -- and Gooseberry Mesa lit up in the evening sunshine: 


This was a 20 second shot of the stars over Smith Mesa, ISO 3200 -- I like the way that the fast-moving clouds were slightly blurred by the time exposure:



April 16:  This was our last day at Zion -- we rode our bikes up the canyon to the Emerald Pools hike.  As a result of the severe drought, the pools were very small, and they were more brown than emerald.

But it was still a nice hike -- there were some wildflowers along the way:


And there was some water in the falls:


This shot is emblematic of April in Zion -- new green leaves against the red rock walls:


No photo essay about Zion is complete without a shot of the Watchman:



As sunset approached, the cliffs of Zion started to glow:


Fittingly, the last sunset of the trip was the best of the bunch:




April 17:   As we left the campsite for home, we took a short video of the trailer going over the ruts and the potholes:


Our long trip home was aided by a lucky (and rare) northeasterly tailwind. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Red Rock Utah, Part 1: Capitol Reef, April 2021

We're fully vaxxed, so let's go to the Red Rock country!  (Carefully, of course: masked in public, socially distanced, lots of Purell.).  But even a little taste of freedom is wonderful, after a year of quasi-captivity.

April 5:   We enjoyed a southwestern tailwind all day and stopped for the night in Leeds, Utah.  Fortunately, we had made reservations, something we almost never do.  But this year, there is unprecedented demand for campground space.  

April 6:  To get to Capitol Reef, we took I-15 to Highway 20 (and then to 89, 62, and 24).  It was a great ride -- still some snow on the north-facing mountainsides, a sunny, cold, and windy day.  The countryside was mostly rolling high desert pinyon and juniper -- not spectacular, but wide-open and cinematically Western.

I had previously mapped out several possible boondocking sites on BLM land east of the national park, so we spent the afternoon putting "boots on the ground" to evaluate them.  We chose a remote site with a bumpy and sandy access road.  There were a couple of short patches of deep powdery sand (maybe 20 feet long), but the truck had no trouble pulling the trailer through those places.

Although the campsite was very private and silent, there was a lot of blowing dust every afternoon that made it impossible for us to sit outside at snack time.  That's one of the drawbacks of boondocking:  in a paved campground, there is a lot less dust and dirt.

That night, after it had gotten completely dark, we went outside to look at the stars.  There were so many stars that it was hard to see the constellations.  In this shot, Orion's sword is directly over the trailer.  Sirius is in the upper left.  And there is a faint meteor trail near Betelgeuse, which we did not see until we got home and viewed the photo on the computer.  


We stayed outside for quite a while, letting our eyes fully adapt to the darkness.  Eventually, we could see pretty well, just by starlight alone, even though the bright galactic center of the Milky Way had not yet risen above the horizon.  There was no light pollution at all at this campsite -- some of the darkest skies we've ever seen.  It's very rare that the only light to be seen is starlight, all the way down to the horizon, with no artificial light at all. 

April 7:  We were camped within sight of the Waterpocket Fold, the geologic feature that makes up the entire Capitol Reef area.  It's called a fold because that's what it is:  the earth's crust is pushed over itself from the west toward the east, like a bad wrinkle in a carpet, along a north-south axis that runs for about a hundred miles.  And the early settlers called it the "Waterpocket Fold" because the eroded sandstone formed pockets or pools that stored rainwater.  (Technically, it's a "monocline," a step-like fold in the rock.)

The highest peaks of the Fold (which we later learned were in the "Golden Throne" area of the national park) were several miles west of our campsite:


Notice that the layers of the mountains are all tilted jauntily toward the east (toward the camera), a product of the monoclinal fold:

Later, we drove into Capitol Reef and took the Hickman Arch trail.  Lots of folks, and only some of them masked.  The trail climbed through several layers of sedimentary rock.  We soon came to a layer dominated by huge rounded volcanic boulders, an anomaly among the sandstone:

The literature from the park service speculated that these boulders were the result of debris flows coming down from the nearby mountains.  In my wholly-unprofessional opinion, these are much more like huge river cobbles, perhaps from a glacial outwash river, rounded after years of tumbling.  They are not at all angular, unlike the typically craggy rocks swept away in episodic debris flows.  And the layer of volcanic cobbles is pretty uniform throughout the park, indicating orderly deposition in a river delta, rather than the chaotic pattern of a debris flow. 

Hickman Arch itself was actually pretty impressive -- for scale, Felice is in the lower left:


The arch is 133 feet long and 125 feet high:


We climbed beyond the arch and then looked back to the east -- the snow-capped Henry Mountains are just visible on the horizon in the center of the shot:


Along the trail, we came across several patches of spherical objects embedded in the sandstone:


With the help of Google, I think that these are a form of "Moqui marbles," iron concretions within the sandstone.  Water percolates through the sandstone and dissolves the iron; I'm not sure why the iron then precipitates and forms these spheres.  (Often, the spheres remain when the sandstone is completely worn away.)

Compare that shot to this one:


Capitol Reef?  Nope.  Mars.  Those little round things embedded in the rock are called (no kidding) "Martian Blueberries."  Apparently, the same chemical process is (or was) at work on Mars as in Utah.  The hole was drilled by the Curiosity rover.  NASA calls the iron balls blueberries because a scientist noted that they were embedded in the rock "like blueberries in a muffin."

Speaking of colorful names, Capitol Reef is called "Capitol Reef" because of Capitol Dome.  The guidebooks say that the dome looks like the United States Capitol building, but the resemblance was not obvious until we viewed the dome from across the canyon on the Hickman Arch trail:


And just to finish the thought:  the whole Waterpocket area is called a "reef" because it reminded the early settlers of a huge underwater rock formation.  Just as a reef is a barrier to navigation, the Waterpocket Fold was a barrier to east-west travel.

Later that afternoon, we drove over to the Panorama Point/Sunset Trail area on the west side of the park.  There were quite a few of these flat "swiss cheese" rocks:


Google tells me that these are "tafoni," an erosional feature.  There is disagreement about the origin of tafoni, but it seems pretty clear that rainwater and meltwater have dissolved the minerals.   I don't know why the erosion forms this dappled texture, rather than uniformly wearing away the surface of the slab.  ("Tafoni" sounds like it should be something delicious -- it looks like cinnamon-flavored chocolate, right?  And "tafone" is the singular, but how can there be just one singular hole in a rock full of holes?)

The slanting late-afternoon sun brought out the tilted and richly colored strata of the Waterpocket Fold -- everything seemed out of kilter, like in a carnival fun house.  This photo was taken with an absolutely level camera.  Note the snowy Henry Mountains in the far distance.  And yes, the colors were really this vivid -- the light of "golden hour" on a clear day is magical:


We had brought along a bouquet of spring flowers from our garden at home.  The roses did not survive the ride, but the freesias were very happy campers.  They looked their best when backlit, and they lasted for several more days, perfuming the trailer.  The Waterpocket Fold is just visible in the doorway, beyond the mask, a symbol of the Covid era:


This was a very quiet campsite, except when the wind was blowing.  To illustrate:  on this afternoon, our pre-dinner snack was accompanied by a little gin and a lot of tonic and sparkling water.  (RV camping is so rugged.). We opened the cans of tonic and soda, poured our drinks over ice, put the cans on the kitchen table, and kicked back to enjoy the utter silence.

After a few minutes, I noticed something odd:  there was a distinct hollow tinkling noise, like light rain on the roof of the trailer.  Not a cloud in the sky.  What could it be?

It took us a minute to figure it out:  the microscopic bubbles of carbon dioxide were popping in the half-empty cans and echoing inside the cans! The campsite was so silent that this tiny noise was surprisingly loud.

We have often experienced absolute silence while boondocking -- no air traffic, no vehicles, no hum of machinery.  Sometimes, it is so quiet that we can hear our own heartbeats pulsing in our ears, sounding a lot like a pre-natal ultrasound exam:  whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.  

There was a little hill conveniently located just to the east of our campsite, so we climbed up and watched the sunset:




April 8:  In the morning, we took a short hike to the west of the campsite to get a better view of the Waterpocket Fold.  The climate in this area is so dry that the bare earth looks like piles of dirt at a construction site:


Near the trailer, there were several narrow veins of translucent crystals poking up out of the desert soil - I think this is selenite, but it might be calcite.  These crystals were about six inches long -- I got this shot by holding the camera at ground level:


There was a big red mesa just to the north of the campsite -- in any other setting, it would have been the focus of our view.  In the Capitol Reef area, though, it was unremarkable.  (This is another in a series of "Little Trailer in a Big Landscape" photos.)  



In that shot, notice the spindly green bush in the foreground.  We were told by a ranger that it is called "Mormon Tea," or ephedra nevadensis.  It does not contain ephedrine, unlike other types of ephedra.  The early settlers made an astringent tea from the stems of this plant.

We then drove into the park to take the Grand Wash trail.  (We had originally planned to ride our bikes on the park's Scenic Drive, but it was too narrow and there were too many cars and RVs.)

Grand Wash is a dry gravel streambed that cuts through the Fold.  Even though it was a fairly cool day, the hike was pretty warm due to the heat radiating from the rock walls:


Unlike the walls of Zion (which are smooth and sheer), these tended to be a lumpy jumble of strata: 



At one point, the gulch cut through a fossil dune field -- note that the layers are not parallel but intersecting, as one set of dunes overlapped another:


Note the similar pattern of the overlapping "mini-dunes" in the lower left corner of this shot -- these wind-blown sand ripples have not yet been fossilized.  The robot on the right is the Mars Curiosity rover:


The "downstream" end of the Grand Wash ends at the Fremont River, which also cuts through the entire Fold.  We soaked our bandanas in the river to cool ourselves off.  Although the river was full of sediment, it is easy to image how grateful the settlers were to find a reliable source of water in this arid region:


The shady "narrows" portion of the Grand Wash was nice and cool:


 
That evening, an intricate lenticular cloud parked itself over the crest of the Fold:


April 9:  Boots don't last forever; this old friend had guest-starred in many dramatic "boot shots."  May its sole rest in peace:


On our way into the park, we stopped at a fruit orchard in blossom -- many of the trees are over a hundred years old and are still bearing fruit:


We took the Cassidy Arch trail -- it was crowded but worthwhile.  Just as we got there, the members of a Search and Rescue climbing crew were practicing their rappelling skills.  Felice inched close to the edge of the cliff and caught this climber in mid-descent -- note the climber's shadow on the left leg of the arch:


 After carefully surveying the route, Felice was able to walk out onto the top of the arch itself:



We had lunch sitting near (not on) the edge of the cliff:


The feature on the right side of the shot is known as "Fern's Nipple:" 


April 10:  We hiked to the Golden Throne.  It was a pleasant hike but not particularly picture-worthy -- the trail followed the edge of the cliff until it arrived at the base of the Golden Throne.  (We did see some bighorn sheep, but they were molting and refused to pose for us.)

The Golden Throne is the peak on the right -- it was unusual to see yellow rock, instead of tan or red:


To us, the most interesting part of this hike was that the trailer was parked just on the other side of the Throne, about four miles distant and two thousand feet below.  We had been admiring those "interesting mountains" all week, without realizing that the peaks were a featured attraction in Capitol Reef.

April 11:  This is a view of the Golden Throne from the trailer in the early morning light -- the Throne is on the left side of the shot:


Our original plan was to go directly from Capitol Reef to Zion.  But Felice looked again at the map and realized that Bryce Canyon was only a little bit out of the way.  So we called an "audible" at the line of scrimmage and changed our plans on the fly -- it's very liberating to be able to do that!

As we left our campsite, I requested a shot of the truck and the trailer slowly and carefully negotiating the twisty dirt road.  Fortunately, the trailer has a very low center of gravity:


 And off to Bryce (and later Zion) in Part 2.