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