Friday, April 28, 2017

The BIG (Mostly) Yellow Rock

When I first heard of the place called Yellow Rock, I was not expecting to find a massive sandstone monolith rising from an already spectacular formation known as the Cockscomb (which in geologically correct terms is called the East Kaibab Monocline).

Located in what is arguably one of the most diverse and scenic landscapes on the Colorado Plateau, the Cockscomb is a textbook illustration of various faults, folds, and uplifts that interrupt the normally "tranquil" sequence of sedimentary layers found throughout the region.

Yellow Rock is a singular manifestation of Navajo sandstone, nearly 1/2 miles across and several hundred feet in elevation.  While mostly yellowish in hue, the stone is striped and swirled with multiple shades of red, purple, orange, and white.  The "staining" of the rock by chemicals such as iron and manganese does not always follow the bedding plane of the rock, resulting in wonderfully abstract patterns.

While not as popular (yet) as other nearby places such as White Pocket or the Wave, more photographers and slickrock enthusiasts are making their way to this relatively remote landmark for pictures and exploration.  In my humble opinion, there is more to see in this one area than either of the aforementioned locations, and there are certainly less hassles (no permits or difficult drives through deep sand) to get here.  Having said that, there is some effort involved.

Cottonwood Canyon and the Cockscomb
I won't give specific driving instructions here, since there are guidebooks and online resources that provide detailed information.  I will say that making the trip involves traveling the fairly well known Cottonwood Canyon Road, one of only three routes bisecting the Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument.

This 46 mile dirt road is usually maintained, although conditions can vary greatly from season to season, and I'll repeat my frequent refrain about NEVER using a Utah backroad when rain or snow is in the forecast.  Check current conditions with one of several BLM field offices located around the Monument before heading out.

Anyone visiting the area needs to be aware of environmental hazards, specifically weather.  Summer temperatures regularly approach and sometimes exceed 100 degrees, and water is scarce. Thunderstorms are common from July to September, and lightning can be a significant threat along the higher terrain.

Flash floods can happen without warning, and rock near the edge is frequently fragile and unstable.  Cell phones almost never work out here - this is truly wilderness, and help can be hours away if something happens.  Be prepared for the unexpected, and use appropriate caution.

Once you are on the road, park your vehicle at the Brigham Plains road junction.  If you are planning on spending the night there are a few excellent camping spots just up the road to the east, around 1/4 mile or so.

Brigham Plains road marker
When you're ready, walk directly across the road to the west to find a faint trail heading for Cottonwood Wash.  There are several different paths as people pick their own way through the brush, but basically head for the wash and find a place to cross the very shallow stream.

Looking west towards the Cockscomb from the road

Cottonwood Wash
Once across the wash, look for a shallow canyon in the Cockscomb - it's the first one due south of the Lower Hackberry Canyon opening.  By now a more defined trail appears heading into the canyon.

Beginning of Yellow Rock trail
The path quickly begins a steep ascent of the slope to the right (north).  Wasting no time and not bothering with such refined constructions techniques like switchbacks, the trail climbs quickly to a narrow ridge connecting the outer canyon wall to the rim.

Up and more up

The good news is that the views more than compensate for the strenuous effort required to reach this point.  Take a few minutes to look across the valley, and soak in the panorama stretching to the north and south.

Brigham Plains road climbs steeply up the east rim

Looking north

...and to the south
The trail heads west, and the bulk of Yellow Rock soon appears over the horizon.  Cairns mark the path over slickrock sections, while the way is obvious through sand and soil areas.

The trail to Yellow Rock

Yellow Rock is not the only interesting formation

Cliffrose perfumes the air with heavenly scents

Altogether the hike out to Yellow Rock is about a mile, with the most challenging section being the swift climb at the beginning.  Once you reach the base, there is no trail, just unlimited slickrock scrambling.

Yellow Rock is larger than it first appears, and of course is fairly high as well.  Pick a line that allows you to explore the different features while climbing to the summit.  You'll probably want at least an hour or two to check out the various aspects and angles found all over the rock.  Here are some pictures of my visit:


The views from the top of Yellow Rock are pretty amazing as well.  One well known feature on the northern horizon is Castle Rock, a pinnacled dome of white Navajo sandstone.  Just on the northern edge of Yellow Rock you'll spot Lower Hackberry Canyon, where a nearly 20 mile long crevasse cuts into the Cockscomb.

Castle Rock
The southern end of Hackberry Canyon

To the south another canyon leads to the Paria Box, where the muddy and sluggish Paria River cuts through the Cockscomb.

After discovering the wonders of Yellow Rock proper, take some extra time and detour south towards the canyon there.  With some scrambling and off trail route finding there is much more to see.  Some examples:

Turtle Rock?

The Artist used the full palette here
While Yellow Rock may be the main attraction, in half a day of wandering I found more unusual and striking rock formations in a relatively small area than just about anywhere else I've seen.  And I have so much more I want to see on subsequent visits that I may have to live another 50 years to make it happen.  I'm working on it.

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.