Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Sand Hills - Not Just Another Pretty Place

Although there is growing recognition of the features contained within and around the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, most people simply overlook the area as a whole because it is large, remote, and can be difficult to access.

Additionally, the few relatively well known places (The Wave and South Coyote Buttes) receive the majority of the attention but are subject to strict limitations on the number of daily visitors.

But what most people miss is literally the big picture.  The Paria Plateau (aka the Sand Hills) is big, and has a variety of beautiful and seldom seen sandstone formations scattered throughout the area.  The challenge of course is having a suitable vehicle to reach more isolated sections, and then having the time, ability, and desire to explore large ridges and bluffs on foot to discover these hidden gems.

The pictures here are from a day trip to an area known as Kid Pen Valley, named in reference to the early pioneer days when Mormon ranchers brought goats to the Plateau to graze on the semi-arid desert shrubs and grasses.  I spent several hours walking around a single outcropping of Navajo sandstone, and barely saw the half of it.

Rock pillars exist in abundance

Toadstools resulting from preferential erosion

Cross bedded sandstone twisted by soft sediment deformation and striking forms created by preferential erosion dominate the landscape.  Vibrant reddish orange colors resulting from iron and manganese saturated water percolating down through the sediments provide contrast and color, adding another dimension to the scene.

Cross bedded sandstone captures ancient dunes

Mineral rich waters seeped into sand layers from prehistoric seas

Moki marbles and iron rich concretions surround hardy plant life

Miniature arch

Getting permits to visit the Wave and South Coyote Buttes is difficult at best, but there are countless other alternatives available with comparable scenery.  Of course driving in the Sand Hills requires an appropriate vehicle and a willingness to explore off the beaten path.  For me that in and of itself is really what it's all about anyway.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Havasupai - Paradise Lost?

Land of Blue Green Waters

Ask people for a "bucket list" of things they want to see and it's likely a fair number of them will mention the turquoise blue waters of Havasupai Falls.

Because of countless pictures of this idyllic paradise found in travel magazines and the internet, the waterfalls found in this tributary of Grand Canyon have become one of the most recognized scenic wonders in the western U.S.

Accordingly this well deserved reputation as a must see destination has led to a dramatic increase in visitation in recent years.  Like many popular attractions, demand has exceeded the carrying capacity of what is essentially a finite space.

This post will offer a look at not only the iconic landscape but a few of the challenges that surround getting to see it.

The Havasupai ("Havasu 'Baaja") People

For nearly 800 years the Havasupai people have called the Cataract Canyon region of the Grand Canyon their home.  As hunters, foragers, and farmers the people lived on the rim and in the canyons as seasons changed, ranging over a wide area.

By James, George Wharton
Like most native tribes, the arrival of white settlers in the 19th century meant being displaced from their territory.  In the 1880's all but 518 acres of  land was usurped by Federal decree, leaving the small band of natives with only a limited area along Havasu Creek.  Through hard fought litigation from mid-century into 1975 the tribe gradually regained control of 185,000 acres of land in and around the west rim of Grand Canyon.

Today nearly 650 people live and work in and around Havasu Canyon, with an emphasis on tourism surrounding the scenic environment.

Havasu (Cataract) Canyon

Havasu (also sometimes called Cataract) Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River and begins as a trickle on the south side of Grand Canyon. It flows for nearly 50 miles to the north before entering Havasu Canyon where it is supplemented by Havasu Springs, which flows year-round.

Because of dissolved calcium carbonate minerals, the water appears bluish or turquoise colored in the canyon bottom.  The calcium laden water also forms deposits known as travertine, leading to terraces and pools associated with major waterfalls along the creek.

The Cataract Creek drainage is the second largest tributary system on the south side of Grand Canyon, with a network of many smaller canyons that collect rainwater and snowmelt from a large area.  Consequently Havasu Canyon and the creek are subjected to large and relatively frequent floods during the summer thunderstorm season.

Getting There

All visits to Havasu Canyon begin at Hualapai Hilltop - a remote location that offers no services other than a starting point for the journey.  The village of Supai (tribal headquarters) is located in Havasu Canyon, 8 miles in and 2000 feet below the rim.

To get there you can do as the vast majority do and make the trek on foot.  Alternatively you can try securing a seat on a helicopter flying from the Hilltop, or hiring a horse to take you and your belongings into the canyon.


All visitors must secure a permit from the tribe before visiting, a process that has become so difficult for the average person that it is the subject of media articles and internet discussions.  As pictures of the incredible scenery have circulated widely on the web, the popularity of the falls has increased exponentially.

As a result when reservation phone lines (no web bookings) are opened up in February for the coming year, those seeking permits can expect constant busy signals and disappointment as permits for peak seasons (March - October) go quickly.

If you are successful in securing a permit, expect to pay $40.00 as the entry fee, with a charge of $17.00 per person per night for camping.  As most people spend 3 days to make the trip on foot, that means a visit will cost around $74.00 per person.

The Hike

To see the waterfalls and pools of blue green water, be prepared as a hiker to make a challenging journey.  From Hualapai Hilltop to the campground it is 10 miles and 2200 feet of vertical descent in what is primarily a hot, dry desert environment.

Once you reach the creek at 6 miles you'll have water and shade, but prior to that you'll be hiking in a canyon with limited cover and summer temperatures that linger at or above 100 degrees.

If you can make arrangements to do the trip in spring or fall that will help, but colder weather can mean limitations on desires and abilities to play in the water.

If your trip occurs during the warmer months, you can mitigate some of the unpleasantness by not hiking during the hottest part of the day, i.e. starting before sunrise.  Temperatures usually peak around noon to 4 p.m., and begin to decline as the sun disappears behind canyon walls.

Another key to a successful hike is to stay hydrated and eat plenty of snacks to maintain electrolyte balance.  It may also be desirable for some to hire a horse to pack in camping gear, thus lightening the load on the hike.

All visitors should be aware that summer is also the season for flooding.  Thunderstorms occurring generally from July to September can produce significant rain upstream - it is possible to experience floods even if skies above the main canyon are clear.  As mentioned earlier the Havasu Canyon watershed is very large, and storms anywhere in the drainage are reason enough to be on alert.

Beginning of the trail

Hualapai Canyon

The hike begins with a moderate descent of the canyon rim, dropping 1000 feet into Hualapai Canyon in just about a mile.

Switchbacks into Hualapai Canyon
On this section in particular hikers will want to be watching for pack animals used by the tribe to transport gear and supplies into the canyon.

Unlike Grand Canyon trail mules used in the National Park, these animals are usually not tethered together and they travel at a faster clip.  They also sometimes have very large, bulky coolers or packs which take up a great deal of width, and inattentive hikers could be pushed off the trail or injured in a collision.

Untethered pack animals
Once the trail reaches the canyon bottom, the next few miles feature a relatively uninteresting walk in a broad sandy wash.  Little to no shade will be found along the way, and it won't be uncommon to share the trail with other hikers and pack animals.

The further downstream one goes, the more scenic the surroundings become.  At first modest walls of sandstone begin to climb above the dry streambed, eventually reaching several hundred feet high.

Additionally the wash bottom becomes narrower - this is definitely where you want to be sure of a good weather forecast.

At around the 6 mile mark, large cottonwood trees and other riparian vegetation mark the junction of Hualapai Canyon with Havasu Canyon.  Here is where the warm (usually around 72 degrees), bluish waters of Havasu Creek flow year round, providing people and animals with a necessary resource.

Soon afterwards, the nearly level trail reaches the village of Supai, home of the tribe and seat of Havasupai government.  It is here that visitors must register with the Tourist Office.

Anyone who comes here should recognize that all outsiders are guests of the Havasupai, and should behave accordingly.  The tribe has its' own government and rules, and operates as a sovereign entity.  Please respect the privacy of tribe members, and remember that people who live here tolerate the hundreds of thousands of tourists in order to generate vital revenue for the tribe.

There is a lodge in the village that offers accomodations if camping is not your thing.  Supai also has a variety of other services including a small market and emergency clinic.  To reach the campground you must follow the trail another 2 miles into the canyon.

Along the way you'll come to the first waterfall at about 1.25 miles - Upper and Lower Navajo Falls.  Prior to 2008, there was only one set of falls at this location, but flash flooding rerouted the creek and created 2 sets of cascades.  The main falls here are roughly 50 feet high.

At 1.5 miles the trail passes by the third set of falls - Havasu Falls.  Consisting of a single plume falling 100 feet into a travertine pool, Havasu Falls is one of the easiest accessed and more scenic attractions in the canyon.

The campground is 1/2 mile beyond Havasu Falls.  Sites are primitive, with a few outhouses and spring fed sources of potable water.  Continue hiking through the campground for an additional .25 of a mile and you will arrive at Mooney Falls, named for a white miner who plunged to his death in 1882.

Although easy to view from above, the approach to the base of the 200 foot falls is challenging, especially for anyone with a fear of heights.  Climbing down a steep and rugged cliff is required, and the rock face is often slippery from mist coming off the falls.  Although chains, ladders and handholds exist it's a precarious slope, with the added challenge of traffic moving in both directions.

The pool at the base of Mooney Falls is the largest of the three upper features, so getting to the base is definitely worthwhile.

It's possible to continue downstream all the way to the Colorado River by hiking an additional 8 miles.  The trail is often faint and rugged and requires multiple crossings of the creek.  About 4 miles downstream of Mooney Falls you will reach the last of the 5 falls in the canyon - Beaver Falls.

Most visitors only get to the 4 uppermost falls, and few ever make the complete round trip to the Colorado River and back due to the distance and difficulty involved.  Still ambitious hikers with multiple days can make the journey and visit more remote parts of Havasu Canyon.

My most recent visit was in June of 2016, and my overall impression was less than favorable.  Despite the beautiful natural setting I experienced crowding and congestion at both Mooney and Havasu Falls, and finding solitude and quiet was nearly impossible in the upper canyon.

There was significant amounts of litter along the trail, from both visitors and tribal members.  And given the cost of fees for entry and the size of the campground, it's hard to believe the tribe is not generating enough money to make much needed improvements to water, sanitation, and other campground infrastructure.

Setting sun rays above canyon walls
It is too bad that such spectacular natural features become victims of their own inherent beauty, and that providing access to such grandeur for the masses means diluting or in some cases eliminating much of what makes a place worthwhile.  While it's true that nothing diminishes the natural character of the waterfalls, it is sad to witness the commercialization of the canyon.  

Of course what often makes a place special is the challenge of reaching it, and the unique character of the environment.  Havasu Creek and the now famous waterfalls certainly fit that criteria - Just don't expect to have it all to yourself. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Get to the Point!

Powell Point - 10,188 feet
If the Colorado Plateau has a heart, it's probably located near one of the most recognizable landmarks in the region - Powell Point.  As the prominent and highly visible face of the highest step in the Grand Staircase, the feature referred to by locals as "Pink Point" towers over the surrounding landscape.

Powell Point is part of the Aquarius Plateau, the highest such landform in North America, where the uppermost elevations exceed 11,000 feet above sea level.  At the southernmost extension where the Point is found the heights are slightly more modest at just over 10,000 feet.

Before continuing, I would like to mention that you can visit the Point itself and experience truly incredible views of a vast area extending west, south, and east.  In fact during summer months it is possible to drive (with an appropriate vehicle) on unimproved roads to within 3/4 of a mile of the Point, then hike on a moderate trail to the edge of the plateau.

The rest of the year depending on snowfall it may even be possible to hike a strenuous 2 mile trail to the top of the plateau and then ski or snowshoe another 2.75 miles out to the Point, but that story is for another time.  This post focuses on another equally delightful aspect of the Point - just being in proximity to it.

Stump Springs Trailhead (aka The Under the Point Trail)

Most of the region around and atop the plateau is located in the Escalante Ranger District of the Dixie National Forest.  A great place to begin a visit to this beautiful region is at the Interagency Visitor Center on Highway 12 just outside Escalante, Utah.

This cooperative enterprise among multiple federal offices has a great deal of information about the many things to do on public lands all throughout the area, and can provide maps, trail guides, and current road condition updates (very important on Utah backroads!).

During many trips to the area over the years, I had driven by the Forest Service sign pointing out the Stump Springs trailhead - mostly because the name itself did nothing to inspire me to check it out, and there were many other places to see that clamored for my attention.

On a recent visit I found myself seeking to expand my horizons and dropped by the Escalante Visitor Center for additional ideas.  There I was given a map of the district showing several possibilities for hiking.  This led to my discovering a very cool and appealing trail known as Under the Point (previously disguised by the somewhat obscure name of Stump Springs).

Using a series of well maintained Forest Service roads getting there is straightforward.  At the end I found a large parking area with some information kiosks, and no one else around.

The trail departs the parking area heading directly for the Point with outstanding panoramas of the towering cliffs right out of the box.

The elevation here is relatively high, and the vegetation is a mix of ponderosa pine, subalpine fir and spruce, and low growing clumps of manzanita.  The best time of year to hike would be the warmer summer months, and milder spring and fall seasons.  During my visit in late May I actually experienced brief snow showers, but by and large it was extremely pleasant.

The Under the Point trail can be hiked as a simple "in and out" excursion, or for those with more time be done in conjunction with a series of trails to make a long loop hike.  To basically go as far the junction with the Henderson Canyon Trail is 4 miles each way, and this would likely be sufficient for most people.

Map of trails in the area
If you want a simple explanation of what this trail is all about, the name says it all - the path basically contours beneath the sheer walls of the plateau edge, traversing undulating terrain for several miles in a general northwest/southeast direction.

But don't be fooled - even though the trail does not ascend the cliffs, there are some fairly significant ups and downs.  This is of course only natural since the route stays near the base of the cliffs, negotiating broad alluvial fans of sedimentary debris that have accumulated over time.

The rock here is fairly young from a geologic perspective.  Sixty million years ago a large inland lake accumulated deposits of limestone, shale, sandstone, and conglomerate.  When the uplift of the region occurred these layers were elevated above the surrounding terrain, and a variety of forces have since been sculpting the formations.

As part of the uplift process, large vertical fractures appeared in the rock.  These cracks allow water to penetrate, and through the action of dissolution (weak carbonic acids), freeze/thaw cycles, and preferential erosion the rock weathers into the spires and hoodoos for which the Claron Formation is famous.

The color of the rock layers is dependent primarily on iron and iron oxide content.  The uppermost layers (the White element of the Claron) have little to no iron, while subsequent levels have greater degrees of, well, rust.

Regardless of the process, there is something really magical about pillars of stone shaped into many weirdly wonderful forms, and so richly colored in hues of white, pink, red, and orange.

Across to the west is the ultimate manifestation of this magnificent erosion - Bryce Canyon carved into the eastern flanks of the Paunsagunt Plateau.

Here are some great examples of conglomerate - a sedimentary rock that has many inclusions of rounded gravels.  Note the layers of sandstone in conjunction with the conglomerate.

The trail itself is not difficult, with the exception of the aforementioned ups and downs.  The path is easy to follow, and although there are some spots which present a challenge, overall the hiking is easy to moderate.

One spot that does merit mentioning occurs early on in the hike.  As the trail winds around the cliffs, there are outcrops of different geological layers.  Most are stable and easy to negotiate (although may be challenging when muddy) but one in particular is especially nasty when wet, and not that much fun when dry.  Combine that with many small ravines which plunge off the steeper terrain above and you've got an obstacle.

Channel cutting across the trail into shale layer

Closeup of the shale and trail crossing
This section has a deep channel cut through a shale layer, and the trail all but disappears as this easily eroded material washes away with each cycle of rain/snow.  If dry, crossing requires some scrambling as the ravine has gotten fairly deep, and climbing the bank on the opposite side can be a challenge since the soil is very soft and loose.  If wet, well good luck.

Once past that section the rest of the way is relatively easy.

The trail climbs gradually to a ridge, then descends into a valley on the other side.  If you don't have a lot of time it's best to turn around at the top of the ridge.  For a longer outing you can continue to the Henderson Canyon junction or go even farther if so desired.  Once you reach the valley floor there are several large drainages to cross, some of which may have flowing water.

The views are somewhat less spectacular on the north side of the ridge, but as far as I'm concerned any day spent outdoors in the forest is a good day.

On this outing the turnaround point is the trail junction at 4 miles in.  Going back includes a vigorous climb to the ridge, but the scenery is just as good going as it was coming.  Here is a look from the ridge to the west and Mt. Dutton.

For me Powell Point is more than a landmark.  From it's lofty perch it is visible over an amazingly large area, and I can be many miles away and still see it.  It's a beacon of beauty, one that tells me I am right where I want to be - in the heart of all that I hold dear.

Powell Point from Cottonwood Canyon Road