Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cedar Breaks - Wildflowers On The Edge

An interruption of continuity or uniformity. That's the best I can do in finding a meaning for the use of the word "breaks" to describe a geographical feature, and I suppose it fits in a way. Cedar Breaks National Monument exists as a massive amphitheater on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau. This lofty spectacle showcases eroded badlands and hoodoos rivaling Bryce Canyon not in size but in color and complexity. And it has another dimension in which a superlative comparison exists; Cedar Breaks is located at 10,000 feet above sea level, with a drop to the valley floor exceeding 2500 vertical feet.

The geography alone is marvelous to behold, but Cedar Breaks has other charms, most notably a summer long bonanza of alpine wildflowers that display the full range of natures color palette. These perennial showoffs emerge with the thaw in spring, peak in late June, continue through August into early September, then disappear under heavy white blankets of snow to await another cycle.

Visiting Cedar Breaks is a pleasant diversion from the crowds of Bryce and Zion National Parks, which are well known and heavily trafficked by tourists in the warmer months. Located about halfway between the two, getting there requires a modest but pleasant detour on one of two state highways that cross the plateau. The southern leg is Highway 14 connecting Cedar City at I-15 with Long Valley Junction on U.S. Highway 89. The northern route stretches between Parowan on I-15 and Panguitch at U.S. 89. Each route offers a long, twisting climb through a very scenic forested landscape.

The Monument itself is located on Highway 148, a spur road linking Highway 14 and 143, and is open (weather permitting) during the period from late May to mid-October. In winter a volunteer staff provides limited services on weekends from a yurt located a mile from the parking area. During the summer season the Visitor Center offers information and a bookstore, and a small but well developed campground that has 28 first-come, first-served sites. In addition there are 4 hiking trails offering a range of experiences from easy rim strolls to strenuous descents over 2500 feet into the amphitheater.

Most people experience Cedar Breaks from a few viewpoints along the rim. Those who want a more in-depth look at what there is to see should consider hiking either the Alpine Pond Nature trail or the Spectra/Ramparts trail. Both offer excellent views from different vantage points, although the Ramparts trail is considered moderately strenuous. Remember, the elevation here is much higher than what most folks are accustomed to, and the lack of oxygen can make some people feel ill. Visitors should take it easy and make sure to drink plenty of water.

At the highest elevations in and around the Monument sub-alpine species like aspen, spruce, and fir co-mingle in gladed islands dotting open meadows. There is a massive number of standing dead trees from the onslaught of the spruce bark beetle, but the beauty of the environment remains undiminished. When I visited in early August, the profusion of wildflowers caught my attention, and I spent most of a day digitally capturing the ephemeral glory of plants. I offer some of the pictures here:

Indian Paintbrush and Fireweed

Markagunt Penstemon and Ryan's Penstemon

Colorado Columbine and Mountain Larkspur

Richardson's Geranium and Buckwheat

There were a number of species neither I nor Park personnel could readily identify, despite an extensive catalog at the Visitor Center. And would you believe, there's now an "app for that" featuring Cedar Breaks wildflowers available on ITunes for download. I'm not going there, uh-uh, no how, no way.....

There is also a species of plant I had never seen before known as Elkweed. This unassuming basal rosette of leaves has a lifespan of nearly 80 years. At the end of its life, it sends up a flowering stalk that can reach 6 feet or more, reproduces then dies.

Everywhere you look, the forest is speckled in bright primary colors.

And wasn't there supposed to be some incredible geology around here somewhere? Oh right. I almost forgot about the Breaks. Because of the western facing exposure, sunset here is an amazing place to be. The already vivid red, pink, and white rocks are suffused with a lambent glow as the last golden rays of light bathe the scene.

Along the Ramparts trail you'll find excellent examples of one of the oldest trees in the world, the gnarled and ancient Bristlecone Pine.

Cedar Breaks is not a large place, but it's a very special place. Because it is not as well known as its much larger cousins in the neighborhood, it's easy to find peace and tranquility even at the height of summer tourist season. And if you enjoy the delicate beauty of the botanical world, there's no better place to stop and smell the flowers.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Eric. What an amazing place. That's my kind of place, beautiful and hardly any tourists.