Thursday 19 December 2013


Looking South from Grand View Point Overlook on Island in the Sky
If you – like me – have kept a certain sense of boyish wonderment, you may have delved into Science Fiction books now and then and be familiar with the work of Pratchett. His is an elaborate vision of an alternative world, not a globe like ours, but flat and with a distinctive edge where it ends. If you were standing at that world's end, you would look down a vertical cliff of indefinite height, with mist and distant fog hiding the down yonder.

This vision came to mind when I was clinging to the edge you are seeing above, in company with the ant sized persons standing in the upper right of the picture. What were we seeing, when looking beyond and below this impressive red precipice? Precipice is the right word for it, since it is sloping down for almost half a kilometer, before ending in a flat basin of White Rim Sandstone (actually, the color is more brown-like) that stretches many kilometers to the South.

About halfway into that basin, a mighty river, the Colorado, has cut a meandering deep valley into the White Rim Sandstone, called The Loop. At the opposite side, you can barely glance, in the mist, a wall that must be about the same height as the one we are standing on top of. Further out, plateau upon plateau is filling the void, with the odd higher mountain or two towering over it all.

Colorado Meander ("The Loop") South of Island in the Sky
The edge we are standing on belongs to a small and narrow tableland, called Island in the Sky. This plateau is jutting out, like a peninsula, into a broad and wide basin shaped by the eroding confluence of two mighty rivers, the Green River and the Colorado. We are in the very core of an immense collection of tablelands, called the Colorado Plateau, one of the utmost wonders in the world. The Colorado Plateau is about twice the size of Sweden. From where we are standing, and looking South in the direction of the picture above, it reaches out for another 60 miles or so – and we are talking SWEDISH MILES here, not paltry Imperial ones.

How did this immense region of flatland upon flatland, situated at an average 2 kilometers above sea level, come to be? That expanse is something of an anomaly in the geologic scheme of things. It consists of a single, very (many kilometers) thick block of Earth crust that has remained remarkably stable over the eons (the past 600 million years), with very little disruption like faulting or folding of rock layers; this in stark contrast to all surrounding regions in America.

About 30 million years ago, this whole block, essentially flat, was lifted some 3 kilometers upward, by forces still uncertain. It was raised as a unified "table", albeit with a slight upward tilt towards the North. The main rivers already existed before that and could resume their eroding tasks with a vengeance at the increased altitude. The result we can nowadays admire as an immense region of flat tablelands at differing altitude, interspersed with canyons and wide basins; all caused by eroding streams, helped by their friends the wind, rain, snow, ice and sand.

Rim of Island in the Sky
We had reached the view point mentioned above on our way to Upheaval Dome (Bubble or Trouble?). On the way there, our guide made a brief stop at Island in the Sky's Visitor Center, to give us hikers a chance to get acquainted with the National Park. There we were told that a Ranger would give a presentation at eleven am at the Grand View Point Overlook. Now, Rangers are generally excellent presenters, with many acting out an impressive performance so, off we rushed, eager to partake in the experience.

And we were not disappointed. The view from up there was extraordinary, as already described above, and the Ranger was busy preparing his lecture.

Ranger and hikers at Grand View Point Overlookt, Island in the Sky
And what a performance he gave! The theme of the day was the Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 . John Wesley Powell was a one armed Civil War veteran, with some experience of river rafting, as well as a solid education in natural sciences. He decided to be the first to raft the waterway of the Green and Colorado Rivers, from Wyoming to the confluence of Virgin River and Colorado in Southwestern Utah. In this way, he intended to pass through and chart a major part of the Colorado Plateau.

He had nine companions with him, five of which made it to the end. One of the others, an Englishman, had enough early on and went on to more mundane things. The three remaining, experienced trappers and hunters all, gave up towards the end of Grand Canyon, fearing that they would not survive the rapids they saw ahead of them. They hiked out of the canyon, never to be seen again, whereas Powell forced the remaining narrows successfully and arrived at his destination, the Virgin River, unharmed two days later.

Ranger acting out Powell
Hearing the Ranger speak about this remarkable venture made you almost believe that Powell himself was standing before us. The man's exploits speak for themselves, but the presentation touched upon many interesting details not usually mentioned in the summaries made about his expedition. For instance, Powell had the habit of climbing the canyon walls, one armed, in order to gauge their height. This was done by measuring the difference in air pressure between bottom and top, so he also had to balance a delicate barometer in his pocket during each climb!

For us weaklings, just looking DOWN one of those slopes causes you vertigo, not to speak of climbing them with one hand in your pocket! This is a man of dedication for you! He also preserved many views of his trip for posterity in remarkably well made pictures.

Looking down Cataract Canyon     Courtesy: Bancroft Library
This picture, for which he also had to take a CAMERA AND TRIPOD with him, when climbing the canyon wall – isn't it amazing? –, shows a view of Cataract Canyon, a canyon just South of Island in the Sky, and carved by the Colorado soon after having been joined by the Green River. The river looks rather peaceful from above, doesn't it? In fact, this is the steepest and wildest reach of the Colorado, containing 64 rapids. No wonder Powell wanted to document it before daring its descent. 

Enheartend by these tales, we rushed onwards to our exploit of Upheaval Dome (Bubble or Trouble?). Another outer worldly experience! But the day was far from over. Upon our return from this big "hole in the ground" we stopped at another view point on Island in the Sky, called Green River Overlook. I am mentioning this brief interlude since it provided me with a vista already documented from a slightly different angle in the previous post.

The Anderson Bottom Rincon of Green River, seen from Green River Overlook
We are again standing on the Island's rim, but this time on its Western side, and looking in a Westnorthwest direection. The basin we see at our feet is carved out by the Green River, which at that stage is as mighty as the Colorado. The dark configuration on the upper left is intriguing. The river used there to run through a loop canyon cut out be itself, just like The Loop of the Colorado, seen earlier. However, it does not run through the loop anymore, since it has found a much shorter way by eroding down a dividing canyon wall. We are here admiring the so called Anderson Bottom Rincon.

You may recall an earlier picture taken along the trail to Upheaval Dome (Bubble or Trouble?). It was taken much further North on this Western Rim of Island in the Sky, at a lower altitude, and heading the camera towards Northwest. Therefore it does not show the Anderson Rincon any longer, rather, a stretch of the river basin further North.

Time to leave Island in the Sky, you think? "Yes!", in a way. But on that same day's afternoon we had rushed on to a further hike – weren't we hardy? – that took place on a small side-peninsula, jutting out southward from the Island at its Northeastern end. It has a rather narrow start, being only 30 meters broad there, and has its end-viewpoint just on top of a very scenic loop of the Colorado. It is called Dead Horse Point.

Hiking the Eastern flank of Dead Horse Peninsula 
Our hike started at the Visttor Center (it is a State Park), which is located at the narrow neck of the small peninsula. From there we went South on its Eastern side, all the way down to the view point. It was getting later in the afternoon, so we had to hurry, but there was still time to take a nice panoramic picture of the gorge below us.

I invite you to double click on the picture below, so that you can get it at full size. In mid-afternoon, the "light is getting right" for landscape pictures and you can see far on this one. On the upper left you are looking at the La Sal mountains, which we could admire already in Arches National Park (A City Built on Salt), although most of the snow on top had melted away since. Speaking of Arches, you can just about locate it as the light brown piece of land on the upper left under the La Sal. Below it you can also discover the huge red wall (partly hidden by the tower located in mid-distance) we had to climb with the car to get up there from Moab.

Looking North from Basin Overlook
Further down, let me point out to you to the two lakes located in the upper basin. You may have guessed already that those cannot be natural, with their azure color and incongruous location. And your guess would be right. We are seeing here a huge mining compound, which is producing Potash (potassium carbonate). This is done by pumping water with high pressure into the mines, thereby leaching out the salts in question. The resulting brine is then kept in the two large reservoirs we are seeing and left to dry. After the water has evaporated, the potash can easily be collected. A primitive but effective manner of production, and probably not very poisonous either. After all, we are talking about some kind of baking powder here.

But it is getting late in the afternoon, so let's hurry on the the main Viewpoint, which permits us a look straight down on the Colorado, as it is carving its curvy route through the wide plain.

Colorado neck seen from Dead Horse Point
At this stage spectators use to put two questions: Why "Dead Horse Point"? And where does the road lead, that you can glance winding around on the plain rounding the river? As to the first, there is an intriguing story behind it. The small peninsula in the sky we are standing on, was used, in olden times, by cowboys to corral in wild horse, the "mustangs" they caught in this wild landscape. Since the peninsula had a small neck, only 30 meters wide, you could easily fence it off there and keep the mustangs enclosed. The saying is that the cowboys selected only the best horses for sale and left the rest to die; there is no water up here so they either had to die of thirst on the spot, or die trying to climb down to the big river.

The road you are seeing is really a dirt trail, the White Rim Trail of fame. It circles all around the Island in the Sky – including its sidekick, the Dead Horse Peninsula – and mainly follows the winding courses of the Green and the Colorado. It was originally built by the State as an access road for miners, looking for promising stakes, but is nowadays a cult track for bicyclists and four-wheel drivers. If you feel the urge to go down there and join them, why not have a look at a famous blog describing a cycle tour along the road, with pictures and all. The picture below is borrowed from that blog.

Cycling the White Rim Road       Source: Anthony Sloan
That gotten out of the way, we can concentrate on our return hike, this time along the Western Rim of Dead Horse Peninsula. Again we were confronted with marvelous views, but this time quite different. What we were admiring here was a comparatively narrow canyon separating this small peninsula from the main Island in the Sky. Furthermore, the sun was now approaching an angle sufficiently low to get me excited as photographer!

Shafer Canyon Overlook, Dead Horse Point
So let's polish off our overlook pictures with a cosy panorama, actually my favorite picture from this trip to Utah. This time, I got even myself into the view, but don't ask me how! Only two of our group are missing, the rest busy with admiring the scenario. I said above that there was a narrow canyon separating us from the greater Island in the Sky. Let me emphasize this by pointing out to you the great wall on the horizon. It is cut off rather abruptly towards the upper left of this picture. This is nought but the Western Rim of Island in the Sky! This is were I was standing, a bit to the right of the cut-off, when taking the title picture of this blog post at eleven am that very morning.

Rim Overlook, Dead Horse Point. Island in the Sky in the background
You may think that the canyon in between is not as small as that! This may be true, but size is relative. Compared to the basin carved out by the two mighty rivers, it stands indeed as a small, and narrow feature of Canyonlands. And rightly so, since it was not created by either great river. Its creation must rather be sought in small rivulets of water trickling down from the upper plateaus, and getting substantial only in periods of heavy raining. But it does not take much to create a canyon! Imagine a small rivulet that is cutting off half a millimeter of sandstone beneath itself once a year, after a heavy rain. This makes a cut half a meter deep in a thousand years, but HALF A KILOMETER DEEP in a million years. And a million years is to geology what a blink of the eye is to us!

But we are still humans and to us it is important to get a nice meal once the sun has set. Fortunately, there were only 20 minutes left to hike back to the Visitor Center, where our car was parked. In the mean-time the sun had already settled behind low clouds, and a beautiful mellow light was shining over the sagebrush and the pinyon pines we had to sidestep along the way.

Hikers on Dead Horse Neck
It must have rained or snowed rather heavily a week or so prior to our arrival – shaving off another half a millimeter from the canyon floors –, since the sagebrush was showing off its very best bloomings. But, to brush off this blog post that has concentrated on big stones most of the time, below is a portrait of the Pinyon Pine, since I suspect most of you readers have scant an idea of what it looks like at closer range.

Pinyon Pine on Dead Horse Neck

Wednesday 11 December 2013


Standing at the Abyss
What is the Group of Eight – well, five of its Members – looking at here or, rather, turning its back on? We are all standing close to a steep decline on the edge of an enormous hole in the ground, somewhat surprisingly called "Upheaval Dome". The hole, which more appropriately could be called "Superbowl", is vaguely circular, has a diameter of five kilometers and is close to half a kilometer deep. If you were to put your mind to it, you could easily fit in there the largest man-made amphitheater on Earth, the Collosseum. Did I say ONE Collosseum? In fact, more than 80 of them could find their place in this vast expanse. Playing with the notion of setting up an opera on its bottom, the whole population of Utah would be able to attend the performance, with room to spare.

Upheaval Dome is located in Canyonlands National Park, and is accessible through a road starting from Moab Valley opposite the entrance to Arches National Park. As in the latter, your car has to climb a steep ascent, but on the Southwestern wall bordering the huge Salt Valley of Moab (see A City Built on Salt) in order to arrive at this new section of the high plateaus. I will have more to tell about the plateau itself in the next blog, so let's concentrate for now on our visit to the Dome.

Hiking towards Upheaval Dome
After having climbed the plateau's steep promontory, another half an hour's drive brings you to the trailhead. From there, you have to climb a steep slope for 15 minutes or so – isn't that always the case in the hikes I am reporting here? –, but after that it is a relatively easy hike of a few kilometers to the Dome. The terrain reminds you a bit of the trail to Delicate Arch (God's Delicate Fingers), leading you along on huge slates of tilting sandstone; the main difference being that you are treading on Navajo Sandstone here, instead of on Entrada Stone.

Still, when you the least expect it, wide panoramas open up along the trail. Have a look at the picture above: deep down below lies, towards the West, a basin that is bordered on the far side by another plateau, quite like the one we are standing on. Looking more closely down at the lowlands (you have to click twice on the picture to enlarge it!), you can just about glance some brown declines, that have been burrowed by the Green River on its way to meet the Colorado, some kilometers farther South. In fact, this whole basin must be the result of erosion following that river's burrowing, with rain, wind and ice keeping on the good work once started by the river.

Standing on a giant footstep
Coming back to our hike, the access to the Dome equals descending an oversized staircase of three steps of sandstone, with width and height of step as adapted to a giant. Once you have climbed down the last step, you arrive at a narrow ledge and, just a few paces beyond, an immense void is opening up at your feet. First you have problems of grasping the immensity of it. You are looking at this circular bowl carved out of layers upon layers of sandstone and it is not looking much different to you than the odd stone quarry or two that you have visited over the years.

Only gradually it dawns on you that the ants crawling on the gravel down yonder are actually fellow hikers ambling around huge boulders! Your brain is catching up with your eyes and your mind is rejoicing at the experience. How to convey this sense of wonder to you readers in a picture? I was standing there in the middle of the day – not the best time for portraying landscapes – and the camera could, even with the widest angle of the zoom lens, only capture about 1/6 of the expanse. Well, a wonder of nature deserves some consideration. So I took 8 pictures and pieced them together in a humble panorama. Even so, I was able to catch only about half the diameter of this underground bowl for you to look at.

Panorama of Upheaval Dome – about half of its expanse!
How was this "Superbowl" created? Surprisingly enough, scientists are of two minds about it. Early on, they believed that it was the result of a huge Salt Dome having been formed eons ago by tectonic pressure (like the salt wallowing I mentioned in A City Built on Salt, which had caused the formations in Arches National Monument, as well as the Moab Salt Valley). What a sight it would have been to behold it, a dome of pure salt, glistening in the sun, and surrounded by sandstone slates – disrupted and shoved aside during the dome's formation – like worshippers of a Goddess of White. Of course, such a dome would not have been able to withstand the powers of erosion for long and only the void left after its dissolution would have remained.

This hypothesis, romantic as it is, has – to our regret – succumbed to a more prosaic explanation. Geologists now believe the crater to have been caused by a meteorite, a "boulder" with about 500 meters in diameter that had crashed onto the plateau about 60 million years ago. This conclusion originally arose through a comparison of this crater with similar ones known to have been caused by meteorite collision, on Earth as well as on the moon.

One feature in particular singles out such a crater – if it is large –, namely that its very bottom is not level. Rather, there is a central uplift: the stone layers at this bottom of the initial impact suddenly find themselves bereaved of the huge wedge of stone on top of them that has weighed them down before the impact, but has now suddenly evaporated. This causes them to rise. If you have difficulties understanding this process, just think at the time when you had broken a bone in your arm and had to keep it in plaster for a month or so. Immediately after the plaster is removed, the arm will rise of its own, relieved from a weight it had to support for so long.

Complex crater after meteorite impact   Source: Center for Lunar Science and Exploration
If you care to take a look at the panorama again, you are seeing some white stone layers, seemingly embedded in the opposite rim. But in fact, these are miniature mountain peaks, ragged like splintered teeth in a boxer's mouth, located smack in the middle of the crater and rising some 200 meters from its bottom. Sometimes you have to look at an object from very far away to grasp its intrinsic structure. So why not look at the crater from the space station; modern technics permit us to do so without effort. That view shows us clearly the inner void of the crater, with the small mountain, clad in white, rising from its bottom center.

You can also see the staircase formation – which our group was descending whilst following the trail to the crater – as three semi-eroded ejection layers stemming from the original impact. In fact, if you double click on the picture below, to get it larger, you will actually see the hiking path we used to access the crater rim. It looks like a thin white ribbon on the upper left.

Upheaval Dome seen from Space Station         Courtesy: NASA
Still, even with these persuasive views, a clearly settling evidence for this hypothesis was long in arriving. Proponents of the Salt Hypothesis could point out that no trace of meteorite material ever had been found in the crater. Their opponents could respond, with glee, that no single grain of salt had ever been seen lodging either on its rim or bottom. After decades of dispute, the issue was finally settled in 2007, when two German scientists, Elmar Buchner and Thomas Kenkmann, found a host of tiny quartz crystals at the bottom, that showed clear signs of having been subjected to high pressure of a meteorite impact. So there, one mystery less in the world! A pity, isn't it?

Of course, when our group was standing at the rim, admiring the view, we had scant inkling of this decades-long scientific discourse. We were off to a nice hiking trip, after all! Soon it was time to retrace our steps, since we had another, longer hike ahead of us that afternoon!

Retracing our steps on the Upheaval Dome Trail
But there is one more tale to tell, before we end this post, hi-jacked hitherto by scientific arguments. On the way back to our car I had for some time company with a nice American lady, of a certain age. As it happens all the time in the US, we soon were immersed in a nice chat that made us forget the labors of the hike.

From discussing the wonders we had just witnessed, the discussion rambled on to our great luck of getting access to that wonder despite all. Just a few days before our arrival from Sweden in Utah, President Obama had reopened the National Parks and Monuments, after a month's hiatus due to his budget conflict with Congress. After congratulating ourselves for the good timing of our visits, the lady, to my great surprise, went on by putting all the blame for this shut-down squarely on the President.

Somewhat astounded by this rash conclusion, I asked her whether the Congress did not have to share part of the blame, too. "No!", was her firm answer, the President was the origin, not only of the recently resolved budget conflict, but of all the problems that had pestered US politics ever since his assuming office.

The descent to the trailhead just beyond the horizon
This emotional answer got me thinking. If even a pleasant and well-educated lady could entertain such fiery sentiments, how must the more fundamental members of the conservative class in the US feel about their Leader? Is there a murky undercurrent poisoning the soul of the conservatives, leading to strong negative feelings towards their President, akin to those we could observe in Sweden's conservatives vis-à-vis Prime Minister Palme decades ago?

In Palme's case, these feelings of – let's face it – hatred had been caused by a sense of betrayal. Was Palme not born into nobility and had he not disavowed his birthright by pretending to be a radical socialist, like a simple agitator from the working classes?

In the US, similar feelings could be at play, but caused by another form of perceived betrayal. Was Obama not, due to his colored skin, predestined to be of the class of servants to, and entertainers of, their "betters"? How dare he be better educated, and more eloquent, than even the best among the upper classes? And, insult upon injury, how dare he become Master of his masters?

Better stop here, lest I get accused of being a busybody, ignorant in US issues at large or, more importantly, to curb the megalomaniac tendencies in my personality. It would take years of solid sociologic research, like the one having been carried out by Myrdal, to judge class sentiments in a society other than our own. My thoughts are just simple musings, based on a short conversation along a pleasant hike.

Monday 25 November 2013


Entrada Sandstone Fins at Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park. Salt made it happen!

Moab was an ancient kingdom situated along the East shore of the Dead Sea, a lake of salty brine in Palestine. But it is not the subject of this post. We are dealing here with a more recently founded place, settled by Mormons at the outset, as so many other cities in the Four-corners region. It is the only city in Utah placed in the Colorado valley. What has this latter-day Moab, a tourist center, got to do with salt, you may well ask?

In fact, salt lies at the bottom of Moab's whole existence, in many respects. You may be surprised to hear that the town is situated in the middle of a piece of real estate, with a a radius of some 150 kilometers, which harbors one of the biggest deposits of mineral salt in the world. Covered by sandstone, there lies resting, some 150 meters below the surface, a layer of that crystalline medium almost TWO KILOMETERS thick. This is the Paradox Basin we are talking about here, stretching South almost to the border with New Mexico, and encompassing both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

A salt layer of such enormity has some peculiar geologic properties, which were discovered by the experts only recently. You will find no mentioning of salt in early brochures of the National Park Service (Yes, I am still safeguarding the booklets we received upon our visits more than 30 years ago), whereas the modern brochures all take care to explain the role salt has played in shaping the environment hereabouts.

Moab Valley. Created by salt!
Over the eons, the Earth crust is subjected to a lot of pressures, as tectonic plates shift, collide and are shoved underneath each other. This has affected the gigantic layer of salt mightily. Salt is of a consistency in between rock and sirup, a geologic toothpaste so to speak. When horizontal pressure is applied to it, it tends to swell upwards, just like – well – the toothpaste in the tube you are squeezing in the morning, just at a greater, geologic scale.

Huge domes of salt have been created this way, hidden under their roof of sandstone. But the latter is not as plastic as salt, so when lifted up by the rising salt dome, it fractures into fissures. Eventually, the sandstone cupola (that can have a radius of several kilometers) breaks up into upward standing slates and would to us, flying above it, look a bit like enormous stones fitted into a valve or valved bridge.

As water starts siphoning through all those cracks between the vertical slates, the salt beneath starts dissolving and the bubble sinks back to itself. In many cases, this process comes to a halt, when the overlaying crust of sandstone gets back to its horizontal position. However, the cracks have remained and erosion continues. Eventually, the slates´sides will be shaved off and they start standing freely as so called Fins, as in the title picture. Over time, some of them are ground down completely and the remaining getting sanded down by the wind into sleeker and sleeker shapes. Holes start to appear in those fins and – Voilá! – an Arch is born. Delicate Arch is a good example of just one of many on the plateau.

Balanced Rock, Arches. La Sal mountains in background
But those arches don't hold forever either. As the hole under the arch gets bigger, the bridge above eventually collapses and only free standing hoodoos are left. Balanced Rock is a good example of this. Even those hoodoos are getting ground down over the year millions and the end result is a reasonably level plain of sandstone, when entropy has won the fight at long last. Look at the little stubble to the right of Balanced Rock. This is the fundament of a smaller balanced rock that fell down in the early 1970s. Precious little is left and soon what is left will have melted down to a heap of sand.

We said above that the salt bubble usually stops sinking back when the upper layer retains its roughly horizontal  position. But there are exceptions. If the original fissures are large and remain to feed the underlying salt with water even then, the dissolving continues and the sandstone layer eventually is hanging freely over a void. Of course, it collapses soon after and the result can sometimes be a huge valley, several kilometers long and up to one kilometer broad. These are the so called Salt Valleys. Moab Valley, which you can see above, is an example of such a construct.

When you journey to Moab for the first time, you may believe that the Valley has been shaped by the Colorado River, like so many canyons in the area. It is true that the Colorado runs through it. But it does so at an angle. The aerial view shown below demonstrates, how it has cut its way through the sandstone layer, coming from Colorado in the West and is now flowing into Moab Valley, which has been shaped by other forces. The valley is seen in green, with the town in the lower part of that green.

Aerial view of the Colorado entering Moab Valley       Source: Grand County, Utah
This takes care of our usual geologic outburst. Time to get back to the story we have to tell. You may recall that we had an intermission after Delicate Arch in the previous blog (God's Delicate Fingers). The last big iconic experience left to explore in Arches National Park is the fabulous landscape called Devil's Garden. In these surroundings we really can get our fill of Sandstone Fins, since the whole area is just built up by them.

Besides the fins, there are also numerous arches to admire, I count at least ten of them. However, as usual, we concentrate on the most scenic ones, Landscape Arch and Double O Arch. To see them both, you have to take a hike of some 5 hours (roundtrip), but it is worth it. So let's get on with it and tell about the trail's wonders as we go.

Devil's Garden Trailhead, Arches. La Sal mountains in the background
The trail starts in a cosy area, where Alice and I had been camping, back in 1980, so this is well treaded terrain for me. As you can see, visitors are being lured into the hike by a spacious path, which actually continues all the way up to Landscape Arch. But soon you come to a tight passage between cliffs glowing in intensive red in the shade. This is a foreboding of things to come, even if the terrain thereafter is widening again.

Sandstone Glow, Devil's Garden, Arches
But not to worry, the path is wide, the air is clear and the number of co-hikers is far from that on the way to Delicate Arch. This is a hike for aficionados, not for the creti and pleti among tourists!

Looking back at the "Narrows". Trail on upper right
It takes just about half an hour's walk to come to the main attraction of this hike, Landscape Arch. This wonder of slimness is said to be the longest natural bridge in the world. Looking at it, high above your head, and thinned out to almost nothing, you wonder how it can hold together at all. But hold together it does. In the old days, when I was young, I had climbed up there and treaded across – can you believe it? I have to say that it was kind of a balancing act in places, with the bridge not even granting you a meter of plane surface to cling to with your sandals.

Nowadays you are completely forbidden to repeat this act – not that I had thought of doing it again! You can't even go near the Arch anymore, not to speak of rambling under it to admire its span. There is now a only a fenced-in path at a distance, allowing you to inspect it without getting too close.

Fenced in Trail below Landscape Arch
How come that this most enticing bow of them all has been put completely off limits? There are ecological and safety reasons for it. There is a lot of sandy soil in the area; if left in peace, it is gradually gaining a fragile cover of vegetation, consisting of a very rare cohabitation of fungus, algae and lichen, found nowhere else in the world. Trampling the soil with your feet is destroying it for a hundred years. So better leave it alone!

The safety reason is less subtle: In 1991, a slab of rock the size of a large bus was falling of the Arch with a tremendous tremble and noise. The few lucky enough to see it reported that they feared the whole structure to come down. No one was hiking below or on the spider-thin bow just then, so no deadly accidents to report here, I am afraid. But it woke up the authorities and, ever since, access to the Arch is strictly forbidden. Will the Arch last throughout my lifetime? I doubt it. It really looks dangerously slim to me now; don't you agree?

Landscape Arch, Arches. The slimmest of the slim, but also the longest in the world
But we have still some challenges ahead of us, even if of smaller magnitude! When leaving the Arch, you start treading on uncharted terrain, so to speak. The National Park authorities characterize the continuing hike as "primitive trail"; in fact, there is no trail to speak of at all, just a few small stones lumped together here and there to show you where you are supposed to take a new direction.

The trail starts with a steep incline, where you have to climb one of the many Fins adorning the environment here. They are not as fine limbed as the ones you see in the title picture, more like whales with broad shoulders, but with VERY STEEP SIDES to climb and descend, which makes some awkward going forward now and then. The picture shows this first ascent. Fortunately it will dissuade any disabled old geezer to dare continue, even if I myself did not show any hesitance at that moment. The climb does not look very arduous from above, where I was standing, but the upward slope is actually rather pronounced. In the far back, you can see once again the "narrows" that started the whole exercise.

Arduous start of the "Primitive Trail"
After this first heart beater you arrive at a plateau where the view is wide and the "whale fins" spaciously laid out. The trail (as far as you can discern it) meanders its way alongside the fins and sometimes crosses over them. I have said it already, but let me re-emphasize that their flanks looked easy enough to access, seen from a distance, but arduous enough once you got close and had to do the real climbing or descending. Still, there were huge rewards awaiting you, once on top. The view was exhilarating from up there. I think the picture here exemplifies both the exhilarating views and the troubles of getting up or down the fins.

On top of a "whale fin". Tavaputs Plateau on the horizon
I chose this picture deliberately, among many fine ones taken on the fins, since it shows where Arches National Park (as well as the Paradox Basin) reaches its end towards the North. Let your eyes, after lingering on and admiring the multitude of red colored fins, sweep like an eagle towards the far horizon. There reign the ponderous cliffs of a plateau which is already known to you. Naught else but the high plateau of the Tavaputs do we rediscover here, known to us since the post Devil's Due.

I have to admit that I fell in love with the fins and the marvelous views they had to offer. Luckily, a fellow traveller was kind enough to take my picture, when I was standing on my absolute favorite, with red cumuli all around me and the La Sal mountains glistening in the background against an azure sky.

Emil Ems on Sandstone Fin in Devil's Garden, Arches. La Sal mountains in background
I had to almost tear myself away from climbing up and down those "whales". It was getting afternoon and time to come to the final goal of the hike, the Double O Arch. This is a funny name and you only get to grips with it when you have seen the object in question. It is a wondrous construct of red stone, fashioned a bit like an antique Greek "Lyra", at least if seen from the backside. It looks not quite as imposing when you approach it on the trail. You simply stand to close to it to appreciate it in its all embracing stature. Here is a picture of it, with the Group of Eight just arriving at the right spot.

Approaching Double O Arch, Arches      Courtesy Lars Ljungberg    
You say that I am in the picture, laboring after my hiking companions? You are perfectly right! I did this hike TWICE, once within the Group of Eight, but without camera, and once alone with the camera. Lars Ljungberg from the group was so kind as to lend me one of his pictures from the first hike, which I find marvelous.

Now to the somewhat embarrassing part of the story. It is difficult to see on the picture, but underneath the lower "O" of the Arch is a vertical ledge, almost two meters high, which you have to climb in order to pass over to the Arch's other side; only there will you enjoy its magnificent fullness.

I did not bother to climb that ledge on the first hike; what is the use of a magnificent vista, if you cannot catch it on film? But I forgot my limitations as climber! On the second hike, when I went alone, I simply could not find ways and means of climbing that damn ledge. It proved simply too much for me! I waited under it for at least half an hour, hoping for a strong youngster to come along and give me a shove. But nobody came! At long last, I was forced to admit defeat and take the long hike back. To show you what I have missed, National Park Services have come to rescue. They have a huge stock of pictures from their parks on Internet, all of them excellent, and I am really grateful to be able to show this one:

Double O Arch, Arches          Courtesy National Park Services
What else is there to tell from this exhilarating hike? Well, there were many nice views again on the way back, especially since it was getting on in the afternoon and "light was getting right" for a true photographer. But let's make a long story short and just illustrate this with a last picture from Devil's Garden. We are back on the broad and well prepared path that started at Landscape Arch and will soon arrive back at the Trail Head.

Devil's Garden, Arches. Path back to Trailhead
You can imagine that I was a bit tired when I regained the rented car at the Parking Lot. Still, this did not prevent me from stopping the car many a time on the trip back through the Park. The sun was slanting towards the horizon at a leisurely rate, permitting me to take in many more vistas of this marvelous plateau, created by salt. So let's end this post not with words, but with pictures, saying "Goodbye!", through them, to a place of sheer beauty that I won't see again in my lifetime!

Cotton Wood on Courthouse Wash in late afternoon, Arches

The Organ, Arches

The Courthouse Towers, Arches

Friday 22 November 2013


A Divine Vision?

In early August 1980, my wife Alice and I were driving across wide sagebrush plains and river canyons from Bryce Canyon Eastward all the way to the Colorado River valley.

Towards late afternoon, a thunderstorm was developing over the plains and lasted until our arrival in Moab (the gateway to Arches National Park). Since it was raining heavily, we decided to take in at a motel in down (the Apache Motel), instead of camping in the Park, as originally foreseen.

We were both tired from the long trip along curvy and sometimes unpaved side roads. Still, the rain abated towards evening and I got my spirits back soon enough. So, on the spur of the moment, I jumped into the car and rushed over to Arches National Park, my wife being quite content with resting on her bed. How lucky I was to have taken this decision. I was all alone on the Park's high ranges. Clouds were still hanging heavily over the red wonders of that park, but here and there the sun broke through and painted the rocks like a spotlight.

Suddenly, I just HAD to put on the breaks and hasten out of the car. It was like a vision had materialized before my eyes. "This surely must be God's fingers, showing me the way to Promised Land!", I almost convinced myself. But after a quick "Clicketyclick" by the camera I was sobering up soon enough and regaining my agnostic view of the world.

Arches view in 2013
Still, this experience, and the picture I had taken at that moment and cherished since then, kept my interest in the Four-courner region alive through all these years, and greatly contributed to my decision to dare fate and undertake the present trip to Utah despite my advanced age.

Between us "connoisseurs" of the slick rock country, Arches National Park is commonly held to be the most beautiful to behold, with a manifold of interesting and intriguing stone formations. I would not like to spoil this post with geologic explanations. Let's leave those to the chapter that will follow soon enough. Why not focus today on the iconic wonders of that red wonderland. After all, nature has worked hard at creating them, over the eons, by letting the land rise and thereafter being eroded by the joint forces of wind, ice and water.

Even if you were to spend a year in the park, rambling all over the place, you would never cease to discover new formations to tickle your aesthetic senses. But space is limited even here on internet, so let's just get to a few examples: Balanced Rock; The Window Section with Double Arch; Delicate Arch; and Devil's Playground (with Landscape and Double-O Arch). We will look at them in the order in which they were visited by me, driving a rented car, whilst the rest of the Group of Eight were enjoying a challenging river boating trip).

"Park Avenue", Arches       Courtesy National Park Service
The entrance to Arches National Park is just five minutes' drive away from the town of Moab. Once inside, you take a winding road upwards a steep rampart of fiery red stone until you arrive at a high plateau with views as wide as the eye can focus. You feel transported to a different planet, profusely red as if given light by a dying sun. Driving there feels like journeying on the Mars of our imagination, back when we were reading with eager young eyes about adventures of superhuman heroes on that reddest of planets, composed by our most creative writers.

But let's not get carried away. We are still on Earth, even if on one of its places of utmost and outer-worldly beauty. This high plateau is delightful to behold for us tourists sweeping along on paved roads, but we should not forget that it is mostly a barren desert, with only scant access to water. Granted there are a few washes that save water from sparse raining and provide sustenance for lovely cottonwood; but overall, this is sagebrush country, which leaves the beautiful colors of earth and stone uncovered and observable to our admiring eyes.

Cottonwoods at Courthouse Wash, Arches
Now on to our iconic views: the first you see – after driving along the road glanced in the above picture, and rounding that promontory in the far distance – is Balanced Rock. This impressive Hoodoo is among the most photographed features of National Parks of all times. One reason being, of course, that it does not take many steps from the car to approach and circumvent it.

It is difficult for me to provide you with an original view of this balancing act, it has been portraited from all possible angles and at all possible seasons and hours of the day. But just to show you that I have been there and taken the short hike all around this monument, here are two pictures taken at opposite angles.

Balanced Rock, Arches
How to judge the scale of this monument, lacking some human sized objects to compare with? We should not under-estimate the rock's stature. Its boulder, balancing on top of the column, is of the size of THREE SCHOOLBUSES. The whole structure looks considerably more portly nowadays than it did back in 1980. Apparently, the top is gradually grinding down its support, without toppling over however. Nature's most balanced road towards entropy, if there ever was one!

To illustrate how difficult it is to maintain that balance, there was a much smaller balancing rock standing just aside the big one, but that one toppled down in 1976, despite the fact that it didn't weigh more than maybe a tenth of the larger. It was called "Chip of the Old Block"; to our regret, we never had a chance to admire it.

Now on to the next wonder view in Arches, the Double Arch. This most impressive of all stone structures in the Park lies in a section called Windows. Actually, there are at least five arches in that part of the Park, along with other interesting structures, but no need for arches overload in this short post. Let's just stay with this the most imposing one. The more so since it figured in a famous movie with Harrison Ford (in a scene where his younger self is played by River Phoenix), called Indiana Jones: The Last Cruisade. There is a small video showing young River on site, but it is not very spectacular. But if you are curious, why not have a go at the video, scrolling 32 seconds into the action?

Double Arch, Arches
You can reach this arch by taking just a few steps from the car, but it is impressive enough even from there. For the more enterprising of us (me too, 33 years ago), there is always the possibility of climbing up and through the structure, a far more advanced hike. You are not impressed by the size of this cathedral-sized monument from the above picture? Not to worry, I risked my life climbing up there halfways, in order to clarify to you its impressiveness;-)

Double Arch, Upper Bows, Arches
So there: impressive enough, isn't it? It does not quite reach the height of the Cathedral Dome in Florence, but still comes close to 2/3 of that Dome's rise above the Cathedral.

But size is not all, any aestheticist can tell you that. Furthermore, the Park is giving you the choice between impressive and delicate/beautiful. This leads us to the last monument to investigate in this post, the Delicate Arch.

This beautifully crafted act of nature is not as easily accessible as the earlier monuments, but this is to its advantage. The more effort you have to spend to experience beauty, the more you appreciate it of course. In the present age of Internet, we are only too spoiled by having effortless access to pictures of all places on Earth with a click of our pinkie. But a picture on the screen is nothing compared to the real thing, especially if you have to take an arduous hike to experience it.

The path towards Delicate Arch is starting out pleasantly enough. You pass by an ancient cottage, more than 110 years old, which gives you a good impression of life as small farmer in the Southwest in those days. It was built by John Wolfe, a civil war veteran who moved out here in 1898, at age 69 – almost my age, imagine! – and established his ranch in those barren fields.

Wolfe Cabin, Arches
The cottage was built out of cottonwood logs, that he had to move here from Cottonwood Wash no doubt (se earlier picture), which lies at a distance of about 10 kilometers from his ranch. Where did the water necessary for him and his cattle come from? Actually, there is a wash just five minutes from the cottage – called Salt Wash, I believe –, but it did not seem to have drinkable water in it when I took the picture below. But maybe he had a barrel that he filled from the wash immediately, whenever it rained, to have clean drinking water for himself and his family. Furthermore, he had built a primitive earth dam across the wash, which certainly kept more water in there than I saw. The dam is long gone, of course.

Salt Wash behind Wolfe Cottage, Arches
After this brief interlude, it iwas mainly a question of laborious trudging uphill, for an hour or so, depending on your stamina. You first have to climb a steep cliff on a serpentine path, but this path is well maintained. Thereafter, you soon come to a large slate of pure slick rock, slanting rashly uphill, and taking your breath away for a kilometer or so. You can see the beginning of this large slate in the far distance on the picture here.

The laborious path to Delicate Arch, Arches
You don't think that this looks very arduous? Well, if you take a picture with your camera slanting upwards, the slope appears mightily diminished. Let's give it another try to show you what you are climbing there: pure slick rock angling sharply upwards and doing this at great length.

Entrada Sandstone slick rock on the path to Delicate Arch, Arches
You may be surprised by the number of people who marched alongside myself on that path. But you would be even more surprised, had you seen the marked number of grey haired veterans, older than even myself, some of them almost creeping uphill on crutches, all striving to reach the ultimate in aesthetics. For many of them, this uphill struggle must have likened a pilgrimage to a holy place, so intent were they to keep going, whatever the price in sweat, tears, torn limbs or heart ache. Was it worth it, you may ask? Well, let me continue the story and you will soon get the answer.

After this steep incline, it is only a question of navigating a narrow path of some 100 meters, hoed into a cliff with an almost vertical facade. Now we come to the interesting part of our story. Back in 1980, I had of course no difficulties in ascending this path. Clad in sandals, I was almost running uphill, having left my wife Alice in the camping ground, since she did not feel like hiking that day.  Once arrived at the narrow path hoed into the cliff, I started to relax, feeling that the goal was close.

As an aside, you can see me, in the picture below, laboring behind my colleagues from the Group of Eight on that same path three weeks ago. But didn't I say before that I was in Arches on my own, with a rented car? Sure enough, but I took this hike TWICE, once within the Group of Eight, but without a camera, and, the day after, on my own, and WITH the camera.

But back to 1980: As I was ambling along that path, just some 10 meters back of where the picture above puts me, I suddenly seemed to notice a bit of sky and the odd ray of light shining through the cliff above me. Still young and curious then, I felt the urge to investigate. But how to get up to that opening in the cliff, however small it might be?

Delicate Arch ahead, just around the corner       Courtesy Gert-Inge Persson     
Fortunately, at that section of the path, the wall had a mild backward slant, starting about 1.5 meters above the path, and it seemed plausible that I could climb up from there. But how to get up the first vertical section? Well – remember that I had sandals at my feet then – I went backwards as many steps as the path permitted and, starting from there, RAN UP this vertical section with schwung, just barely getting hold of the stones above it. From then on, it was quite easy to continue the climb.

And what did I see up there? A huge window in the wall, with the most wondrous vista of the valley beyond. At the far distance, huge mountains beckoned in light blue, dominating the horizon. In the medium distance, a large cliff divided up the plain into two great scenes, as made for performing an imposing theater play. And, now comes the clue, to the very left of the foreground scene an object of sheer beauty was grasping my attention. A bow of glowing red – as if Hepahistos himself had forged it as a wedding ring for Aphrodite, his betrothed – was standing, delicately poised, on an amphitheater formed of bold orange sandstone.

With this glorious memory still lodging firmly in my brain, I felt the strong urge to get up there again this year, as soon as passing by the very same spot on the path. But, to my great regret and however I tried, it appeared simply impossible to heave myself up over the first vertical section. This is what it means to get old; your options dwindle as you approach the inevitable end.

Should I give up? Not so fast! Along came a youngster, much bigger and muscular than myself, even in younger years, and I hastened to ask him to give me a heave. And heave he did, almost throwing me up the cliff, with my 90 kilos and all! Thanks to him I was able to freshen up a dear memory and, furthermore, document this fabulous scene with all the verve that modern equipment can provide.

Delicate Arch seen through window in 2013, Arches
Didn't I have the good sense of documenting the view from that window already back in 1980? Sure I did and I had good reason to do so. For back in those days I had never read or heard about this special view before. And neither did I see it mentioned in any publications that I studied afterwards. I may well have been among the first Park visitors ever having climbed up there and seen this marvelous scenery. I felt like a mighty explorer, when documenting this view for posterity! Here is the picture I took in 1980:

Delicate Arch seen through window in 1980, Arches
Of course this is a well known – and photographed – view of Delicate Arch nowadays. There is no way this type of view could have remained undiscovered in our times of Internet, where people are eager to share their experiences with pictures. As soon as one person has put a picture into the Cloud, thousands will follow.

Should I show you a close-up version of the Delicate Arch, to really emphasize it in all its glory? I would feel uncomfortable doing so; for each picture I have taken, I can easily recall at least ten others, taken from the same position and time of day by far greater photographers, which outperform my own humble efforts. What I will do, instead, is show you the first picture ever made of this Arch. It was taken by the daughter of John Wolfe, of all persons. She had moved to her father's farm in 1906 and he spared no effort to make her feel comfortable in the desert, including buying her a camera to document it all; imagine!

First picture of Delicate Arch, taken in 1907     Photographer: Flora Stanley
You may notice that, already in those days, people longed to have their picture taken standing close to, or even under the Arch. We may presume that the two persons here are Flora Stanley's husband and brother. I don't believe her father would, at the age of 78, have bothered to take the walk up to Delicate Arch just to be portrayed under it.

Interestingly enough, when I was hiking up there in early August 1980, I did not meet or see a soul. I was all alone in this enticing landscape. If you look closely at the two views from the window, you will discover plenty of people in the Arch's vicinity in the 2013 picture. In the 1980 version, there are none! And neither were there many in the Park at large in those days! And most of those never ventured far from their cars. It appears, that people have discovered America's national parks since then and started to love them with abandon!

Let me just emphasize this point by taking a closer look at the Arch after all. When I took this picture, I was in good company. I could count more than a hundred people lingering around that arc, about half of them standing in line to have their picture taken standing smash under it.

Picture taking session under Delicate Arch, Arches
But I shouldn't complain. Am I not myself one of those eager beavers, going wherever I am still able to go, and taking pictures of the icons of our day? Thinking those thoughts, whilst ambling around in that mellow amphitheater, I was, to my great surprise, constantly addressed by small groups of young and enticing girls, that absolutely wanted me to stand in their midst whilst they had their picture taken. This was kind of puzzling, since I really cannot see myself as very attractive to the youngest of the fairer sex. But maybe there is some superior wisdom residing in those fresh brains. Does not every object of beauty need a counterpoint, to emphasize its merits? Seen in that way, I probably did a lot of emphasizing that day, to the pleasure of many youngsters, as well as to mine.

With this encouraging thought, I think we should call it a day and deal with remaining Arches issues in the following blog post.