Thursday, November 27, 2014

Utah Rocks and Stars: November, 2014

(You can click on a picture to enlarge it and then hit "escape" to get back to the text.  Also, the video is in HD -- feel free to click on the gear symbol and select HD and full screen.  In the interests of full disclosure, please note that many of these shots were taken by Felice, although I will take credit for the photo editing.)

We decided to make a quick trip to Southern Utah in mid-November -- the Leonid meteor shower was on the way, and the weather was nice and cool, so off we went.  On the first day, November 14, we intended to stop in Mesquite, Nevada, but ended up in Zion National Park at Watchman Campground after dark: 430 miles in 8 hours, which is pretty fast when towing a trailer.

Saturday, November 15:  Since we had parked the trailer in the dark, we could not see the great view until the morning -- a pleasant surprise:

Before heading out to Kodachrome Basin (east of Bryce), we took a short walk on the Virgin River trail:

As we headed out of Zion, we passed through the eastern area of the park -- the cliffs displayed fossilized dune beds.  This shot shows the intersection of two dunes (the "chevron" pattern).  A ranger told me that this cross-bedding was the result of a change in the direction of the wind, causing one dune to bury another:

It took three leisurely hours to get from Zion to Kodachrome Basin State Park.  The campsites were excellent -- spacious gravel pads with full hookups in a beautiful box canyon, and we had it virtually to ourselves:

Felice went out for a walk at sunset -- the rocks (and even the dirt) near the campground were on fire:

This very distinctive spire loomed over the campground -- Kodachrome is known for its spires (almost 70 of them), which are thought to be the remains of geysers that deposited columns of erosion-resistant minerals. The surrounding softer rock has eroded away, leaving the columns:

That night, we thought about going out to look at the stars, but when we opened the trailer door, it was snowing lightly:

Sunday, November 16:   The snow did not stick.  Based on some very helpful tips from the park ranger, we took the Panorama Trail, which winds through the western portion of Kodachrome.  (The ranger was really terrific -- throughout our stay, he provided a lot of useful guidance for other hikes in the area, road conditions, etc.)  We did not see anyone else on the trail that whole day, which is my idea of Heaven.  It was cold (in the mid-30s most of the day), clear, and very windy, perfect hiking weather. The trail passed by several of the spires:

This spire is called the "Ballerina" -- this appears to be just her toe, and most of her body must be underground, upside down:

This portly spire is called (no kidding) “Fred Flintstone” -- I am next to the left side of the base:

This feature is called the “Indian Cave” -- the archaeologists are not sure what the incised handprints are supposed to represent, or even if the Indians created them:

At one point, the trail passes through a small slot canyon called the "Secret Passage:"

Perhaps the best part of the hike was the “Cool Cave,” which is not really a cave -- it is a gouge carved into the hillside by a stream flowing through a slot canyon.  The entrance was very dramatic -- Felice caught the glow of the rock walls:

Inside the cave, Felice found a comfortable rock and looked up at the slot in the ceiling:

We took our usual tripod-mounted timer shot:

The slot canyon on the way out of the cave was lit up by the sun coming in through the gap at the top:

From several points along the trail, we could see the pink cliffs of Bryce Canyon in the distance:

There was a lot of well-developed “cryptobiotic” soil along the trail -- it is created when micro-organisms grow under a fragile crust of dirt, holding the soil in place:

The trail climbed the hills to provide a great panorama of the park:

Although these pictures come fairly close to the real thing, it is hard to capture the thrilling expanse and wild freedom of the high desert in Utah -- unlimited horizons, scrubbed sky, seemingly endless and wide open:

Because of the season, the sunlight was very slanty and golden, almost all day long, making it very easy to take decent photos.  Back at the trailer, the sunset lit up the cliffs during cocktail hour.  The black frame around this shot is the edge of the kitchen window:

In the bottom of that picture, notice the thick sagebrush -- the sage in this part of Utah was very fragrant and bushy.

That night, we bundled up and sat outside for a while, hoping to see a few meteors.  It was in the low 20s, with a 20 mph breeze -- very refreshing.  We had an electric blanket (hurrah for hookups!), covered with a heavy sleeping bag.  Although the meteors were a bit of a disappointment, the stars were excellent -- the sky was very dark and clear.

The night was so cold (down to nine degrees above zero outside!) that our water bottles froze inside the truck, which taught us to bring the bottles inside every night.  Fortunately, we bought some freeze-proof windshield washer fluid in Nevada, so the truck was not damaged.  (This special fluid is not available in most of California.)  Most significantly, the water lines inside the trailer did not freeze, even though it was 23 degrees INSIDE the trailer when we woke up.  (One night, the pipe leading to the cold water faucet in the kitchen did freeze, but it thawed in a few hours.)  We were worried that the pipes would freeze and burst and that we would have to cut the trip short -- we were greatly encouraged by the trailer's ability to withstand extreme cold.  These were the coldest temperatures we had ever experienced while camping.  More snow camping is in our future!

Every morning at Kodachrome, it was about the same temperature inside the trailer -- well below freezing, despite thick insulation on all six sides of the trailer.  We were very comfortable in our bed (with a comforter and four blankets!), but it was a little tough to get out of bed.  Also, every morning we had to wipe the ice off the inside of the windows and the window frames; otherwise, the ice would melt and drip on the blankets.  Each morning, the furnace quickly raised the temperature to the mid-sixties, but we did not want to run the furnace at night -- too noisy.  Since the trailer was so cold and dark and silent, we slept very well, far better than we do at home.

Monday, November 17:  We took Cottonwood Canyon Road to Cottonwood Narrows.  We had read and heard horror stories about this road -- another camper told us that they had turned around because it was too bumpy for their full-size pickup truck!  As it turns out, it was a piece of cake, far smoother than most of the dirt roads in the Sierra.  (I was disappointed -- no big adventure.)  There were a few places where we had to slow down and steer around rocks and potholes, and there was one river crossing where we had to take a detour to a shallow ford.  The river was full of ice, but the crossing was no problem -- less than a foot deep.  I would not take a passenger car on this road, and I would avoid it in wet weather (because of the slippery clay surface), but it was easy in dry weather with a high-clearance 4WD truck.  It was a lot of fun to be in a remote area, far away from smooth pavement, at least for a while.

The Narrows are in an area called the “Cockscomb,” because the upturned layers resemble a rooster’s comb:

We entered through the northern part of the Narrows -- instead of clambering over a steep pour-off, we took the easy way and hiked in through a shallow wash.  The sunlight bouncing back and forth between the walls lit up the rock -- we made very slow progress because we could not stop taking photos:

The hike was easy -- we just walked along the sandy bottom of the canyon.  There were some “blind arches” cut deeply into the walls:

Toward the south end of the narrows, the canyon opened up a little -- Felice zoomed in on the arches at the top of the walls:

Her zoom lens caught the thin “cockscomb” fins above the canyon:

Some of the walls contained intricate fossil dune beds:

Interestingly, it looked to us as though there were fossil spires embedded in the walls, unlike the freestanding spires at Kodachrome -- these were hundreds of feet overhead:

We explored some tributary slot canyons that branched off to the west of the narrows -- Felice is the tiny reddish dot (bottom center) at the base of this huge rockfall choking the slot.  It's hard to see her, but this photo provides an accurate sense of the scale of the canyon:

In some places, the sheer rock walls contained rows of potholes that had been gouged out by the periodic flash floods:

Some of the potholes revealed hidden layers within the rock:

In another slot canyon back at the north end of the narrows, Felice took this shot of a big dried mud puddle, well on its way to becoming mudstone -- note the polygonal shapes of the layered red-purple mud fragments:

The walls of the upper canyon were very tight -- Felice looks like she is an experienced and daring canyoneer “stemming” ten feet above the canyon floor, but she was really only about a foot off the ground:

Late in the afternoon, we left the narrows and drove to Grosvenor Arch.  The arch is about 150 feet high:

We walked up to the base of the arch to see it from directly below:

On the road back to Kodachrome, we stopped at a saddle and took this shot of the Big Dry Valley, with the Aquarius Plateau and Powell Point in the background on the northern horizon:

This is a quick video panorama of the same area -- I was trying to capture the sweep and breadth of this big countryside:

Back at the campground, we could not resist another shot of the trailer at sunset:

Late that evening, we sat outside looking for meteors, and saw a few.  It was just as cold as the previous night, but the wind had died down.  The Milky Way was bright -- we “painted” the spire near our campsite with a flashlight during this long exposure:

This shot of Orion coming up over the east wall of the canyon is not particularly noteworthy, and that is exactly the point:  I have tried to replicate what the night sky at Kodachrome actually looks like to the unaided eye -- a mass of glittering stars spread over a deep black sky.  There are so many stars that familiar bright constellations, such as Orion (at the bottom center) or the Pleiades (at the top center), are harder to find than they would be from a location with some light pollution, just because they are surrounded by thick clusters of usually-invisible stars:

Tuesday, November 18:  We took the Skutumpah Road (rhymes with “scoot him, Pa!”) to Willis Creek, a slot canyon southwest of Kodachrome.  Skutumpah is another infamously difficult dirt road, and once again we had no trouble at all.  This is another road that is not passenger-car friendly -- some deep ruts and steep hills.  As we drove, we could see ice in the creek crossings, and there was some ice at Willis Creek.  At the trailhead, we dug out our microspikes “just in case” and clipped them to our backpacks.  (Microspikes are strap-on crampons for better traction on ice.)

As soon as we walked down into the slot, we could see that although the water was not deep (just a few inches), it filled the slot from side to side; usually, there is a ribbon of dry gravel on one side or the other.  We later found out that many of the creeks were higher than usual because of the heavy rain in this area during September, when two Baja hurricanes unloaded on Southern Utah.)  At first, I tried placing stepping stones to keep our boots dry:

But after a few minutes of tiptoeing carefully down the slot, we came to a sheet of ice.  Not solid ice, but plenty of it.  So we sat on a dry rock and slipped on our microspikes -- very fashionable:

The microspikes enabled us to walk, slowly, down the icy slot:

The bright rock at the top of the slot was reflected in the mix of ice and water:

Because the canyon was so narrow, the sound of the flowing water echoed between the walls -- this short clip captures the gurgle:

The buttery light in the slot canyon was bouncing off the walls, illuminating every surface.  The top of the slot projected out over the streambed.  The polished rock looked almost like gleaming copper or brass:

Unfortunately, when we got a few hundred yards downstream from the slot, the ice had melted in the wider portion of the canyon -- there was no way to walk downstream without getting soaking wet in ice water.  So we retraced our steps and hiked to the very top of the canyon.  We found a consolation prize when we came to the point at which the flat creek suddenly carved down into the rock.  This is the unremarkable flat wash just upstream from the start of the slot:

And then this is where the stream dives down into the slot:

This is a short clip showing how the flat creek changes to a slot canyon:

That afternoon, we headed back to Kodachrome and took the Angel’s Palace trail, which wanders around atop the mesa high above the campground.  (There is some dispute among the experts about the placement of the apostrophe in “Angel’s.”  It could be a plural possessive.  Some people even omit the apostrophe; those peoples opinion's can be disregarded.)  In this shot, the trailer is the little white box under Felice’s right hand:

The hills surrounding the Kodachrome campground are streaked with red layers of bentonite clay -- Felice’s poles are pointing up at those layers:

At one point, a peninsula on the mesa jutted out across an amphitheater, and we noticed that our shadows fell on a wall, far across the canyon.  Felice could not resist creating her own Indian pictograph:

At one point, the trail overlooked the spires in the southern portion of Kodachrome Basin:

Late that afternoon, after we came down from the mesa, we got this shot of the same group of spires, just as the sun was going down:

And, once again, this is the rather distinctive (!) spire right near our campsite, just after sundown:

Wednesday, November 19:  Yet another cold and windy morning!  (Coming from balmy Southern California, we really enjoyed the novelty of actual weather.)  In fact, we found an icicle on the trailer, extending from the rain gutter down to the underbelly, something we have never seen before.

After our usual big “camping breakfast” of scrambled eggs and cheese, Starbucks coffee, and coffee cake (of course), we headed over to Bryce Canyon, which took less than 45 minutes from Kodachrome.  It looked as though it was going to snow a little, but unfortunately it didn’t.  (Another non-adventure.)  However, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground from the little storm over the weekend, especially at the higher elevations.  We took the Peekaboo Trail, which starts at 8300 feet and then winds down and around the hoodoos.

The trail involved some steep drop-offs, but Felice’s vertigo was not a problem, since the trail was wide and well-graded.  She felt confident enough to throw a snowball and to stand in the snow at the edge of the cliff:

The trail is called “Peekaboo” because it winds through tunnels and around sharp corners, providing sudden views of the canyon walls:

Anyone who has been to Bryce will recognize the hoodoos, which look like gremlins or elves:

The hoodoos on the right look like they were built by Dr. Seuss:

Around mid-day, it cleared up a little.  We stopped for lunch in a sunny dry wash and sat on a gravel bank to eat our traditional peanut butter sandwiches.  Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the "dry" creek bottom was composed of very sticky red clay covered with pine needles -- this is a messy variation on Felice’s usual “boot shot:”

It took a long time to get that gumbo out of the treads on our hiking boots; we stomped around with clay on our boots the rest of the day, until we got back to the truck.  I had mounted pieces of Astro-Turf to the “nerf bars” (side steps) on my truck, for just such an occasion.  The dried clay was even more tenacious than the wet stuff.

After lunch, we came across a canyon filled with hoodoos that looked a lot like the “Rocket Pops” sold from ice cream trucks.  In case anyone has forgotten, this is what a Rocket Pop looks like:

And here are the Rocket-Pop Hoodoos:

Late that afternoon, the trail passed below the “Wall of Windows.”  In this shot, Felice is the little red dot on the snowy trail in the lower left corner:

Felice zoomed in on the Wall itself:

Just after leaving the Wall, we came to a place where the top of the trail could be seen from the bottom -- my pole is pointing to Bryce Point, where the truck was parked.  It looks like a long way up, and it was -- about 1500 feet:

Thursday, November 20:  Since the weather in Utah was looking iffy over the weekend, we decided to head back to Zion, at a lower elevation.  But first, we took the Shakespeare Arch hike at Kodachrome.  The arch itself was not terribly impressive:

But the hike took us out onto some cliffs with a great view of the pink cliffs of Bryce Canyon, far in the distance:

Throughout our entire trip, the air in Southern Utah was unbelievably clear -- visibility was unlimited.  From various peaks, we could easily see mountains and other terrain features that were more than a hundred miles away.

Before we left Kodachrome, we had to get one more shot of the trailer in this terrific setting -- Felice is the little blue dot by the door of the trailer:

Back at Zion, we scored a campsite in South Campground (no hookups) with a great view of the nearby cliffs -- this shot was taken from inside the door of the trailer:

That evening, just after sundown, we walked along the river trail near the bottom of Zion Canyon:

Later that night, the stars were excellent (although not quite as bright as at Kodachrome, because of some minor light pollution).  Ironically, the light from the nearby town of Springdale really enhanced this shot of Orion coming up over the mountains -- the light provided just a little color for the red rocks.  The bright pink star left of center is Betelgeuse; the bright blue star on the right is Rigel.  This shot was taken from our campsite:

(In case anyone is wondering, I first processed this shot in Lightroom, then passed it through a pseudo-HDR app, then reprocessed it in Lightroom to tone it down a little.  The goal of all of this was to replicate, as closely as I could, the way it really looked.)

Friday, November 21:  We took several short hikes in Zion Canyon, starting with the Emerald Pools.  At the lower pool, we walked behind the waterfall.  Because of the low sun angle, we could see the shadow of a tree on the waterfall itself:

There were some small oak trees with red leaves on the other edge of the pool:

We hiked to the upper pool.  The canyon walls bend around the pool -- this is what you see if you tilt your head all the way back and look straight up.  Those massive vertical cliffs are over a thousand feet high:

This is a short clip of those walls:

Instead of taking the Emerald Pools trail back to Zion Lodge, we took the Kayenta Trail north from the pools.  The trail looks out over the canyon:

In the northern reaches of the canyon, the yellow leaves of the cottonwoods contrasted with the red rock walls:

We took the Riverside Walk to the Narrows and then climbed down onto the rocks to sit by the river:

At sundown, we persuaded the trailer to sit still for another portrait:

Late that night, after dinner, Felice suggested that we drive back to the far northern end of the canyon to look at the stars -- great idea!  This formation is called the “Pulpit of the Temple of Sinawava” (I am not making this up) -- we “painted’ the rock with a flashlight during a long exposure:

Saturday, November 22:  We drove home, thinking we might stop in the Valley of Fire in Nevada.  But the park was very crowded (since it was a sunny weekend).  Also, although the rock formations in the Valley were great, they were somewhat overshadowed by what we had just seen in Utah.  So we drove all the way home, ten hours with the long detour to Valley of Fire.

That night, the moment that we stepped out of the truck in front of our house in suburban, light-polluted Orange County, we both saw a very bright green fireball streak across the western sky and explode.  Felice just started to laugh, and I got the joke immediately:  we had driven to Utah and back, a round-trip of over a thousand miles, to watch a few meteors.  And then we saw the brightest fireball we had ever seen, right in front of our house!