Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wolverine Canyon - How Nature Preserves Wood

Cruising scenic backroads is definitely a great way to spend the day, but an even better option is to stop and check out places of interest as you go. This includes a recent visit to the Wolverine Loop Road, a spur found off the Burr Trail in southeastern Utah. On this lonely high desert trail there are many opportunities to park the vehicle and hike one of several tributary canyons that converge on the Escalante River.

Among the choices is Wolverine Canyon, located between Horse Canyon to the north and Little Death Hollow to the south. This area is probably better known (and listed on maps) as Wolverine Petrified Area, as it preserves the second largest collection of fossilized wood in North America. While I don't need any excuses to go for a walk in canyon country, I think it's pretty cool to have ancient wood from 225 million years ago as an added attraction.

Beginning at an inconspicuous turnout along the road, the trail at first meanders through open country bounded by colorful buttes of Chinle badlands. The wide sandy stream bed loops back and forth across the shallow valley, leading in its own convoluted way to the mouth of the canyon.

The first mile or so passes with open sky, low hills, and sagebrush filled benches dominating the landscape. Soon however walls of Wingate sandstone begin to rise and converge from north and south. Talus slopes at the base of cliffs are strewn with rubble and detritus from the ceaseless efforts of the elements as they work to recycle the bones of the earth.

As the wash narrows, the trail takes up residence in the wide sandy drainage. Sporadic Fremont Cottonwood trees appear, divulging the presence of subterranean water.

The best examples of petrified wood occur after a mile or so, and careful observation reveals scattered chunks eroding out of the Chinle formation. While it may hard to distinguish smaller fragments, larger pieces clearly display the texture and patterning of bark, and sections that look as though they were sliced out of trunks with a crosscut saw exhibit tell-tale concentric rings. The trees preserved here were believed to have once been 10 feet or more in diameter at the base, and up to 180 feet tall, making them rival redwood trees of today's forests.

After pausing to admire wood turned to stone, the canyon walls downstream invite more exploring. Walking down the wash reveals new panoramas with each twist and turn.

Damp patches of sand appear more and more frequently as underlying formations that resist permeation rise closer to the surface. Soon a thin trickle of water surfaces along with more riparian vegetation.

Burnt orange walls of sandstone rise dramatically on either side, and rocks cleaved in appealing shapes along fracture lines draw the eye in all directions. The silence is absolute, broken only by the rustle of cottonwood leaves or the laughing call of a canyon wren.

Ahead lies a massive alcove suitable for an orchestra hall. For me this large shaded recess makes for a good place to rest, eat lunch, and contemplate the majesty of rock that surrounds me before heading back.

Returning the way I came offers new opportunities to see some formations from a different point of view. This delicate arch is one such example.

In this image I see a fierce hawk casting a relentless gaze upon the canyon below.

This canyon wall with the solution holes creates the impression of a skull emerging from the rock. Spooky.

Had I elected to continue a bit further on from where I turned around, I would have found some decent narrows in the canyon just before the intersection with Horse Canyon. I will come back in the future to extend my journey deeper into Wolverine Canyon, possibly as a loop with Little Death Hollow. But for now my curiosity is satisfied, and another mystery spot on my map has been filled - just one of many places on my to do list.

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