Friday, October 22, 2010

Cathedral Valley - A Trip Through Nature's Gothic Splendor

Taking leisurely trips on backroads in the West is a marvelous way to spend a lifetime. There are many places to go, and each demands the traveler stop and appreciate the majesty of the land. And while Man has demonstrated through architecture and engineering that fabulous structures can be designed and built, there's no comparison when the forces of nature working with geography combine to produce sublime masterpieces of form and beauty. A journey into Cathedral Valley is proof of that.

Cathedral Valley is part of Capitol Reef National Park, which is one of Utah's geological crown jewels. Located to the east of Waterpocket Fold, the Valley is reached by traveling all or part of a 60 mile dirt road which makes a loop through amazing badlands and high desert landscapes. As the road is not regularly maintained, a high clearance vehicle is a necessity. And although four wheel drive is not required, like many Utah backways there are times when the road will be impassable due to storms.

There are a few different ways to access the loop road, with the main one being the River Ford, found 11.5 miles east of the Park Visitor Center on Utah Highway 24. The road is so named because it crosses the relatively shallow Fremont River soon after leaving the highway. This passage of the river may not be possible due to runoff from spring snowmelt or when thunderstorms drop heavy rain across the high country, so visitors should be prepared to use an alternate way in.

My preferred route departs Utah Highway 24 just west of the hamlet of Caineville. Called the Caineville Wash Road on maps, the turnoff to the north is not well signed, and anyone unfamiliar with the area should get good directions before attempting to locate this approach.

At first the road parallels the normally dry wash for which it is named, with North Caineville Mesa looming high on the east and the southern end of Caineville Reef rising to the west. Soon the path begins a climb through colorful bentonite clay hills before emerging onto a cap of sandstone covering the reef. The bentonite layer is a remnant of fine volcanic ash and silt deposited in swamps during the Jurassic era, and when wet forms a greasy, gummy material that renders even four wheel drive useless.

As the road climbs out of the valley, views of the surrounding area improve, with the panorama of North Caineville Mesa, the Henry Mountains, Waterpocket Fold, and Factory Butte all rising above the horizon.

Reaching the apex of the reef the road begins to head westward where classic badland hills of clay and silt dominate the foreground, and the road winds in and out of countless small drainages.

Beyond the tortured geography of the reef the road becomes less rocky and more level, although now sandy and with frequent dry wash crossings. Ahead lies the escarpment of Entrada sandstone which birthed many of the monoliths of the Valley. Higher still on the horizon are Boulder and Thousand Lake Mountain, where lofty forest clad plateaus collect abundant amounts of winter snow to feed rivers and springs.

The rolling badlands soon give way to sharply vertical walls carved into fluted columns. The fine grained Entrada sandstone erodes easily and is quickly removed by wind and water, so little or no talus slopes form at the base. As a result the sheer formations rise abruptly from the desert floor, seemingly thrust straight up from the earth's interior. Early anglo explorers noted the unique resemblance to the Gothic architecture of Europe, hence the name Cathedral Valley.

Perhaps the most well known formations in the valley are the Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Glass Mountain. The giant monoliths of the temples are visible long before the sign indicating the turnoff appears, although the more humble but no less interesting Glass Mountain is harder to spot.

Glass Mountain is not a mountain at all, but a large outcropping of selenite, a form of gypsum. The unusually large crystals here create a multifaceted mound that reflects the rays of the sun, thus earning the name.

Continuing on, the eye is drawn to many different shapes and textures. One example is the stark black volcanic extrusions in the foreground. Called dikes or sills, they are remnants of a time when the earth disgorged massive amounts of lava to cover the land.

Another striking visual is the multitude of layers displayed in this fin of sandstone, an intricate record of shallow seas, swamps, and deserts from the distant past.

The valley narrows ahead as the road begins a gradual climb to the flanks of Thousand Lake Mountain.

At Cathedral Valley Junction, the Baker Ranch road comes in from Interstate 70, 27 miles to the north. This road is usually open all year, making it a good choice when flooding on the Fremont River or in Caineville Wash prevents access to the valley from the south.

The scale and majesty of the spires, pinnacles and columns becomes easier to appreciate as the walls close in on either side.

At the head of the valley, the road begins a short but steep climb onto the lower slopes of the mountain. Looking back into the upper valley provides a sweeping panorama of the Upper Cathedrals.

At the top of the rise, the only campground in this part of the National Park appears. Located at 6800 feet above sea level and offering primitive sites, this is a good place to escape the worst of the summer heat while enjoying scenic views of the surrounding country.

Nearby is Hartnet Junction, where visitors must decide which of two routes to take. Heading south here returns to Utah 24 about 27 miles away, and offers more opportunities to experience lofty views of the valley from the Upper and Lower South Desert Overlook spurs.

If you are like me you'll want to head for higher ground, especially during the warmer months. This leg travels a somewhat rocky road which climbs to 9500 feet over the north side of Thousand Lake Mountain. There are excellent camping spots high on the flanks offering great views east towards the valley and the Henry Mountains, while farther north you can spot the labyrinth of the San Rafael Swell.

After traversing the high mountain the road ends at Utah Highway 72, which connects Utah 24 near Loa with Interstate 70. This relatively short and infrequently traveled route is also a scenic drive well worth the time.

Of course it doesn't really matter which path you choose. As I said at the beginning of this post, taking time to travel the backroads and byways in this part of the country is time well spent - so pick one and enjoy!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Horseshoe Canyon - A Division of Canyonlands

Although the title of this post sounds suggestive of a business relationship with Canyonlands National Park, the reality is that Horseshoe Canyon is simply a piece of real estate detached from the main body of the Park. Contained within this small but beautiful tributary is some of North America's most significant rock art.

Once called Barrier Canyon, this remote and rugged area was home to people as long ago as 9000 B.C. These first inhabitants were nomads who hunted large animals such as mammoth and mastodons, and they left scant evidence of their daily lives. Only after later cultures such as the desert Archaic peoples arrived around 2000 B.C. do we have a more significant record of human presence.

Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands NP in 1971 to protect outstanding examples of prehistoric rock art left by these early humans. Rendered in a style called Barrier Canyon after the place where they were first studied, these otherworldly images have even been used by some to suggest that ancient peoples were visited by space aliens.

The area sees little visitation primarily due to the remoteness. Just reaching the rim of the canyon requires driving 30 miles on a dirt road subject to washouts and drifting sand. Additionally, the art panels are located deep in a canyon where a fair amount of effort is required to see them. It's easy to understand why only the most determined explorers make the journey.

The easiest route for those willing to make the trip begins off Utah Highway 24 between Hanksville and Green River. Referred to as "Hans Flat" road, this usually graded dirt track travels through the open high desert where wind swept dunes often obscure the road.

At about 22 miles in, the road splits with the southeastern leg leading to the Hans Flat Ranger station found at the remote west entrance to the Maze District of Canyonlands. There is an information kiosk at the junction with useful information for travelers heading in either direction.

Six miles later you'll arrive at the parking area, where visitors will find little in the way of amenities other than a nicely maintained pit toilet and information board specifically about Horseshoe Canyon. Although the canyon itself is administered by the National Park and no overnight camping is allowed below the rim, the area adjacent to the trailhead is managed by the BLM, and car camping is permitted.

The actual canyon is well camouflaged by the folds and wrinkles of the terrain, and not until one begins hiking does it become apparent that a deep chasm lies ahead. The trail begins at the parking area, and is 6.5 miles round-trip to the Great Gallery panel. The way into the canyon utilizes an old road, a legacy of the ranching and mining history of the last century.

The elevation change from rim to canyon bottom is 750 feet, however the grade is moderate as the trail was improved in the 40's to accommodate motor vehicles. As I hike down the unbelievably rough and uneven surface of the slickrock, I marvel that any kind of automobile was able to negotiate the ledges, drops, and twists.

The picture below shows the road continuing on the opposite side as it climbs back out of the canyon. When Horseshoe Canyon was added to the Park in the 70's all mining and ranching activity ceased, leaving old roads to live on as foot trails.

Soon the dry streambed at the bottom appears, although the presence of cottonwood trees and other green vegetation reveals water must be nearby, even if it is underground.

When the trail reaches the wash bottom, it turns south following the bed of the canyon. When I visited in early 2010, notices were posted warning of extended periods of difficult hiking in deep sand due to extended drought. While there were stretches where it was an decided effort to trudge across loose and shifting terrain, I did not find it especially arduous.

The weather was very pleasant during my visit, although I can see where in summer high temperatures, lack of water, and little or no shade might make the hike more of an ordeal. Like much of canyon country, spring, fall, and mild winters are the best times to explore the high desert.

The first panel is located along the east wall, and though not signed there are obvious side trails leading to it. This panel is called "High Gallery".

The Barrier Canyon pictographs are notable for stylized figures like those seen here. Although there are variations and embellishments, the majority of images feature anthropomorphic beings with long torsos and wide shoulders, often with no arms. Paleontologists have theories about the symbology, but no definitive answers to the actual intention of the artists.

Continuing down canyon, there are a variety of beautiful scenes as sheer walls of sandstone painted with desert varnish in stark patterns are framed by vibrant green spring leaves and soaring vaults of blue sky.

The next panel has some of the most striking images of all, barring the Great Gallery. Here are a variety of human and animal shapes including one called the "curly tailed canine". To my eye, it actually looks more like a cat, but I don't believe prehistoric people were in the habit of keeping mountain lions as pets.

Some of the figures depicted here are so bizarre it's easy to see how some people might conclude that early cultures were visited by extra-terrestrials, but I think the human imagination is fertile enough to conjure up outlandish beings without a celestial influence.

The third panel is located deep in an alcove, and is called appropriately enough Alcove Gallery. The pictographs found here have suffered more than others from the elements, and also from ignorant visitors who in their thoughtlessness have added meaningless graffiti. Even so, there are some interesting figures to be seen.

Once again the trek resumes down canyon, and vigilant hikers may spot evidence in the wash bed of another ancient inhabitant of the area.

The last panel is the grand-daddy of the four. Known as the Great Gallery, the figures found here approach life size proportions, and the pictographs stretch across a wide tapestry of sandstone.

Perhaps the most widely photographed figure of all the images found here is the Great Ghost. This somewhat supernatural looking being is clearly an important figure, but what does it signify?

There are many other interesting pictographs, and one petroglyph of what appears to be bighorn sheep.

Modern humans have no reference or context to understand what life was like for the earliest inhabitants. Even so, I believe the surroundings must have inspired those people the same way it makes me feel today. Soaring cliff walls, blue sky checkered with white clouds, and stillness broken only by the rustle of leaves in a gentle breeze or the drip of water from a canyon seep all combine to leave me with reverence and awe for the world.

At times like these, I can sense the presence of mystery and feel the forces that shaped how early peoples might have seen their home.