Saturday 15 February 2014


Early morning on Colorado River near Moab
This is the last post in the Colorado Plateau sequence. It is only fitting that it starts with a view of the Colorado itself, in one of its more peaceful moods, winding its way in a broad and shallow valley towards Moab. 

Looking upwards to the cliffs bordering the stream you may get the impression that this Lord of the Plateau is timeless, that he always has flowed and shaped the great landscape around it. This would be wrong, of course, since he has been running along only the past 100 million years or so of Earth' existence. Still, this appears a heck of a time for a river, even a great, long and deep-cut as this one. 

Geologists believe that the Colorado has streamed across the plains already at a time when this land was still at sea-level. Signs of this can yet be glanced in the many meanders, quasi fossiled into the plateau, and stemming from a time when the land was almost level. As the plateau started to rise gradually, around 60 million years ago, and began to tilt, the river just continued to dig itself down into the meanders, even if an increasing gradient would have dictated a more direct course. 

Colarado River Meander in Canyonlands National Park
Ever since I first visited the Colorado Plateau, back in 1976, I have been fascinated by the grand formations in stone carved by that river. But not only that, as we drove our car through the colorful landscape, I gradually got to grasp the immensity of Earth' history that lies behind the manifold of "scriptures", carved in stone, embellishing the wide ranges around us, be it within river valleys or without.

As a youngster, my main interest centered firmly – you should not be surprised – on challenging adventures, like climbing red walls, descending deep gorges and generally having nature close to my skin. As I have grown older, my imagination has become more far ranging, and I have begun to understand and appreciate the Great Story of Earth written in stone in the Colorado Geologic "Schoolbook".

Pondering this "book", it gradually dawns on you that geologic progress on Earth – barely noticeable while it is on-going, observable only through its effects – is governed by two grand principles only: the principle of upheaval and the principal of restoring. Over the eons, as the great shelves – which constitute Earth' crust – are moving and grinding at each other, their collision causes great uprises, forming mountains and high plateaus, as well as forming deep abysses – where the shelves move apart. As soon as these upheavals appear, the ever-lasting power of erosion sets in, grinding down mountains and high plateaus and filling in the voids. It is as if a strict mother were perpetually flattening a bed sheet's creases created continuously by her eager children. On the Colorado Plateau, we can observe just about the mid-point of that grinding down process. 

Midday view of Colorado Valley, seen from the Fisher Towers. Arches N P on the Plateau
This everlasting process of creation and destruction may lead some of us to the question "What is the meaning of all this?". As far as I am concerned, the only meaning I can grasp is that there is none. Or, if you prefer, that the process provides its own meaning. Does this sound far fetched to you? Well, don't we like to say that the journey is its own meaning, irrespective of purpose and goal?

To my mind, our life is a mirror image – although in infinitesimal miniature – of that great process of upheaval and leveling. We are born, which is a great act of uprising, creating new life. But even in our growing-up stage, we are already subject to the powers of degradation, which come more and more to the foreground, the older we get. Eventually we have to succumb to those powers, which leads to our ultimate end and decay. On a geologic scale, this is nothing, but for us as individuals, our life is everything. 

Hence, I believe that our own life has meaning only insofar, as we ourselves take charge and make the most of it. There is no higher power looking out for us. When we were young, we did this without thinking. Our instincts were guiding us to lead an active and fulfilling life. At the more mature stages of our stay on Earth we have to be more deliberate in seeking fulfillment. I myself tend nowadays to look at my life – which is mostly gone – as a story I have to bring to a good end, with deeds that speak for me whilst I am still alive and, if possible, a while thereafter. Hence, the importance for me of having an internet presence. 

Hoodoo in Arches National Park
It saddens me to say that the present blog post marks not only the end of the Utah Sequence, but also the end of the overall blog "Déjà vu …". It forms thus the Epilogue to a larger adventure. The most hardy readers among you may have noticed that this is not the first epilogue in the series. I had planned to finish the blog already twice before (Epilogue; and Magic in the Unexpected). But, as we say in Sweden, "Tredje gången gillt" (Third time around is final).

By now, and within the past four years, I have written fully 64 Chapters within the blog, containing almost 800 pictures. In retrospect, I am compelled to consider this as one of the major tasks completed in my life. When I started this work, little did I suspect that such a wide ranging story would leave my fingers; so I am glad that the story grew on me as time went on.

Permit me to extend a sincere "Thank You" to all you faithful readers that have been following me along the journey. For some time now, each new post has been opened by around 150 viewers within two days of its appearance. Within a week, this usually rises above 250 visits. The most popular Chapters have attracted more than a thousand visitors. To my great pleasure, around 50 visitors have been following the blog faithfully throughout these four years. It is especially pleasing to me that many among those have written numerous comments on my humble posts. All in all, I have received some 300 Comments.

Salt Wash near Delicate Arch Trailhead, Arches National Park
I am especially thankful to those commentators that have encouraged me to turn (the first half of) the blog into a book. Without their moral support, I would never have managed to spend two years of my life to finalize the publication "Fiat Lux! Down Memory Lane in California". For that reason, permit me to single out these heroes of persuasion: Professors Lars Werin and Per Wijkman, as well as my good friends H C Cars, Klaus Bröning, Heidi Harman, Kari Lantto and Richard Murray.

Still, there remains the task to pay a final tribute to a great institution and a great landscape:

The first is due to the most endearing academic institution known to man. UC Berkeley, you welcomed me with warm generosity; not only once, when I approached you as a timid youngster, but even a second time, when I dared to come back as an old man to savor the fullness of your splendor. This blog is for you! Fiat Lux!

Last but not least, I will always keep the wonderful nature in the Four Corners region in fond memory. You invited me to your mountain tops and deep valleys, for me to explore as a young man, and you opened up your grand book of Earth' history for me, when I returned, too weak and fumbling to repeat the adventures of my youth. Colorado Plateau, let me praise you, you are a treasure to mankind!

The great explorer
It is only fitting to end this blog with some words of Colorado's great explorer, who in a sentence or two captured more of the Plateau's essence than I was able to do in more than ten blog posts.

"The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock – cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock – ten thousand strangely carved forms; rocks everywhere, and no vegetation, no soil, no sand. . . . When thinking of these rocks one must not conceive of piles of boulders or heaps of fragments, but of a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it: cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds of thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance, with vast, hollow domes and tall pinnacles and shafts set on the verge overhead; and all highly colored – buff, gray, red, brown, and chocolate – never lichened, never moss covered, but bare, and often polished."

Castle Towers seen from Fisher Towers Trail

Saturday 8 February 2014


Climbing the Corkscrew, Ancient Art Formation, Fisher Towers
There is a very special place to be found near Moab, that seems to bring out the most vigorous in us, youngster and veteran alike. It is a landscape of gothic spires, full of Gaudi-esque delicacy and statuesque grandeur, and of a color not unlike the brown baked bricks on church towers you can observe in ancient cities on the Southern Baltic coast. Walking amongst surreal sculptures, ambling below towers as large as skyscrapers and descending into canyons like avenues on Manhattan, and all of that in the clear air of nature unencumbered by the activities of modern city life, renders you hilarious and eager to exploit your physical capacity to the fullest.

Kingfisher Tower and Ancient Art Formation in early morning shade
If your are still young, your dearest wish is to acclaim the crest of any vertical incline you meet along the way, however funky and difficult. But climbing is just the beginning of your exercise. Why not add to it by jumping from the highest tops, parachute or glider at your back, and fully savoring the red cliffs you pass by on your way down, as well as, in the far distance, vermillion plateaus beckoning you to come closer, and even the silver ribbon of the Colorado resting in lazy slings along high cliffs to the West.

If that would prove too easy, why not put a line between some high tops and test your slack-lining skills by balancing from peak to peak? There is no end to activities to satisfy your thirst for adventure in between those miracle towers! You don't believe me? Well, take a look at this VIDEO! Pictures say more than a thousand words.

By now you could have guessed that I am talking about the Fisher Towers of fame, reachable in just half an hour by car from Moab, following a beautiful road upstreams the Colorado river.

Travelling North on Utah Route 128 in the Colorado River Valley 
The closeness to civilization of this fountain of youth, as well as the compactness of the scenery (there is but one trail to see it all, taking only 4 hours roundtrip), is very tempting for anyone, not only the youngsters. Even us veterans get wings under our feet when treading under those brick red giants and, believe it or not, doddlers flatly refuse to be carried by their parents, insisting on walking the walk, on unsteady small paddies and being blessedly unconcerned with the dangers of slanting slick rock and unsecured crevices. As proof, why not click on this BLOG POST to watch a baby girl having fun on the slopes!

There is only one drawback, and it concerns dog owners. About mid-distance on the trail, there is a deep cleft to cross, where the park services have put a ladder, so you can descend easily on the slippery stones. This proves a ladder too far for men's best friend and many a master has been forced to cut short his adventure tour so as not to miss the company of his dear companion.

Where dogs won't tread
With all this excitement going on, does it surprise you that companies have joined in, to get recognition for themselves with commercials from the area? Indeed, there is an iconic video, produced by Citibank, that you may wish to have a glance at. In particular, Members of the fairer sex among you readers should definitely click on this PIECE. It will tickle your feminist sensitivities, I am sure!

Climber on top of "Corkscrew". Screenshot from Citbank Commercial
But enough of these trivia. Time is too short to neglect the grand scheme of geologic progress! The Fisher Towers can be understood to be the last outpost, on its Northeastern side, of the grand Colorado Plateau. It is as if nature, with its powers of erosion, had decided to make there a last big effort in creating beauty and amazing scenery, before moving on to the task of grinding away at the Rockies in Colorado to the East.

The towers are mainly built up of the so called Organ Rock sandstone formation. This is a very old stone stratum, contained within the Cutler Sandstone Group. Those of you readers that crave a deeper understanding of this intriguing stratum, are encouraged to study this pedagogical ARTICLE. The lesser mortals among you may still be interested to hear that Organ Rock sandstone has about the same age (just a bit less) as the Mesa Verde Sandstone and (just a bit more than) the White Rim Sandstone. In fact, all three strata are contained in the Cutler family, which was formed in Earth' old age, in the Permian Period. So we have covered almost the whole Cutler group within three blog posts, quite a substantial achievement, don't you think?

Organ Rock stone is rather brittle and easily eroded by the forces of the seasons. This explains, why the towers' sides have a muddy look to them, as if a giant were constantly occupied with throwing big slabs of that sticky material at them.

Kingfisher Tower, "mud"-clad, with highest top protected by Moenkopi "cap"
How is it possible for large spires of Organ Rock to survive, despite the material's brittleness? Well, it is precisely that characteristic that helped to form them in the first place. The tops of the tallest spires look a bit darker than their main body. The reason is that they consist of a younger, but much hardier stone strait, from the Moenkopi Formation. These hardened "caps" are protecting the spires from above, whilst the seasons are busy with eating away at the sides. As result, we can admire not only the slimmest, but also the tallest free-standing natural towers in the Americas. Does it still surprise you that visitors get exhilarated simply by approaching them?


None of the above I knew, of course, when starting our last hike in Utah on an early morning, still dewy from nightly chill. I do not usually indulge in research prior to a trip, be it hiking or otherwise, much preferring to get fresh impressions from any activity about to engage in. So, at the outset, the Fisher Towers were an unknown entity for yours truly.

We were off to an early start from Moab, that morning, but I still managed to take a quick memorial shot of the garden in back of our cosy inn, as a "Goodbye" to a nice place where we had spent five pleasant nights. 

Autumn morning in garden of Sunflower Hill Inn, Moab
The trip to the Fisher Towers was pleasant enough, presenting us with fresh morning views of the Colorado River valley, this time from below, so to speak. But soon we had to leave the river, taking a dirt road towards the right, which was winding its way lazily Eastward. Then came the first surprise: in the clear morning air, suddenly, around a bend, emerged a group of voluptuous red spires and walls, like the ruins of an ages old Babylonian city state. They appeared almost pink in color when you glanced at them with squinting eyes – due to the sun shining against us and the towers being in shade.

As soon as we arrived at the trail head I rushed out of the car and started shooting off with the camera. One of the shots turned out quite nicely, you can perceive the result as the second picture from the top above.

I will never forget the views that met us that morning in the lucid light engulfing the scenery. Unfortunately, I was too carried away to get really good compositions with the camera to show for it. Let me nonetheless present you with an additional view, this time away from the towers, in an Easterly direction. This view shows the plateau lying thither of Onyon Valley, the latter putting an abrupt end to the Towers region, as you will see further on in the story.

View Northeast from Fisher Towers Trailhead
After having climbed a bit upwards from the trailhead (as usual, I am tempted to state), we reached the basin you see above, which stretched widely Eastward; to our surprise the trail seemed to tend in the same direction, away from the mighty towers we by then were eager to explore. Still, it provided us with a marvelous view, even if it took us away from the main scenery.

Far on the horizon, we could glance some vermillion formations that border on Castle Valley. These rocks are famous among climbers who have tired of getting excited about the Fisher Towers. The lonely tower to the far left there is called Castleton Tower, and the formation just to the right of it consists of the Refectory. It has a slim tower at its right, called The Priest. Another tower, Sister Superior, is almost hidden behind the next hill, showing only its top over it. Here is another treat for the fairer sex: don't hesitate to click on this VIDEO. You may wish to jump directly to minute 6.15, to see an engaging young lady climb Castleton Tower without ropes and thereupon jump off the top.

The hike begins: Castle Valley towers on the horizon
To our delight, the trail soon turned around and led us to the feet of the great towers we were looking forward to investigate. There began an arduous half hour of clawing our way upwards, but we hardly noticed the hardship since the high risers started to beckon behind each curve, getting more visible by the minute.

Approaching the Fisher Towers. Kingfisher Tower in the background
Still, there was a long way yet to climb. We had to round the towers at their "root" towards the right and start the main access from the opposite side of those walls. Whereas they beckoned pink in the shade, they would soon start to shine in brick-red when lighted by the sun, after we had arrived at their frontside at long last. And now came the first reward for our troubles. Before us the huge amphitheater of cathedral towers was opening up, and the wonderland of gothic spires became ours to enjoy!

Fisher Towers Amphitheater: Ancient Art Formation at left, Kingfisher Tower at center
Our trail would eventually arrive at the towers towards the right – and not even yet in the picture. But there was yet a lot of climbing to do and distance to cover. Now and then, I turned around and took pictures in the opposite direction. Here is the last one still showing Castle Valley, wishing us for now "Goodbye and Au Revoir".

Backward look at Castle Valley
After half an hour's continuing navigation along tower flanks, over and around large boulders, we arrived at one of the highlights of the trip, Cottontail Tower. It was time for a little snack by then, since the trail, all in all, is not overly long, but rather strenuous, at least for this old-timer. Whilst munching on a sandwich, I couldn't help feeling rather small, sitting under this enormous spire, with neck aching from constantly angling the head upwards to take it all in. 

The picture does not really give the structure credit; all tall towers appear small with the camera angling upwards when taking their portrait. Especially if taken on the forefront, like here. But, to give you a general idea of its height, I was looking at a top at least 300 meters above me, a bit like admiring the Empire State Building from below.

The Group of Eight picnicking at the front of Cottontail Tower. Kingfisher Tower  to the left
And a good idea it was to take a rest under that top. The continued journey would prove the most adventurous part of the hike. Once having approached the right flank of the tower, there yawned a deep canyon we had to navigate, by first climbing down along the Tower's base and than bridging a gulch, ultimately the cleft where dogs will not tread. You can see the start of this precarious descent in the picture below. Please note that I could only get about half of the Tower's height into the picture. This confirms what I meant earlier, the Cottontail Tower being one hell of a tower!

Right flank of  Cottontail Tower
Start of canyon trail along Cottontail Tower's foot
Let me shortly interrupt this engaging story by a lament and condemnation! Have a look at the picture below, taken of a fellow hiker from our group just when she ascended out of the cleft where dogs will not tread. It looks a bit strange doesn't it, as if an amateur was trying to mimic the artistic flair of a painter in watercolors!

I assure you that I had nothing to do with this. My otherwise trusty Nikon suddenly chose to get difficult on me and started to produce only these watercolor imitations whilst I was busy documenting our descent into the void. This destroyed a lot of engaging pictures for me, I can tell you! Those pictures have been "baked" by the Nikon and there is nothing I can do to change them back.

Nikon camera getting funky on me!
How is it possible for a camera to disobey its Master in such an atrocious manner? It appears that there is a wheel on top of the camera (a Nikon D5200), with which to choose various modes of exposure. I always leave that wheel on "A", which means that I choose the opening of the lens and the camera chooses the shutter speed. By the way, I can recommend this method for anyone, it works smoothly most of the time. Just put your lens opening at f 8 and fire away with exposure mode "A". 

But Nikon has decided to go much further in the range of possible exposure modes, in fact they offer fully 13 modes. A bit over the top, I think. But the important issue is that this wheel is easily turned around. Many a times, when I am in a hurry to lift the camera out of its holder and shoot away, the lifting of the camera will inadvertently turn the wheel and give me a funky exposure mode like the one we see an example of above. What a design miss! Shame on you, Nikon, for not putting a safety lock on that wheel. It wouldn't be that much of an effort, would it?

View Northeast from Cottontail Canyon
Let's console ourselves with the only real picture the camera chose to offer me whilst we were toiling ahead in the deep canyon. It is taken in a Northeast direction, about to where the trail is heading towards its bitter end. With the mid-day sun shining against me at an angle, the sun-lit cliff took on a very special red shine, contrasted by the vermillion glow of the shadowed cliffs in the background. Nothing compares with the powers of a real picture!

With this, we can leave the canyon behind us and get on to greater things. For, as we stumbled over the ridge bordering the void, the main attraction of the day came to sight: the Mother of all Towers rose before us in its red majesty! None less than The Titan greated us with solemn calm. Make no mistake, this is the tallest – natural – free-standing spire in the Americas. I had to add the word "natural", since there are skyscrapers taller than the Titan, but only three of them in the Americas!

The Titan in all his majesty!
It almost hurt the eyes – and mind – to stand close to it and being forced to lean your head backward as far as you could, so as not to miss one single inch of this red giant. It is so forbidding that nobody dared to try its ascent until the early 1960s. First after several timid exploratory efforts, a group of three very experienced climbers, Layton Kor, Huntley Ingalls and George Hurley finally managed the deed and arrived at the top on 13 May 1962. 

As example of the difficulties they had to face, they later told an amazed audience that they often had to dig almost half a meter through mud-like surface before being able to fasten their piton on solid rock. They climbed the last stretch of the route together and, after reaching the top, Ingalls later wrote: "It was a strange, awesomely isolated place, a flat, rough area of bare orange sandstone about 70 feet [21 meters] long and 40 feet [12 meters] wide. Its boundary was the free air. It overhung the body of the tower below it, which plunged in rippling bulges and converging fluted ribs to the distant desert floor." (National Geographic Magazine, November 1962) 

Even if much water has run under the bridge since then, this 1962 first ascent of the Titan is considered a landmark in American desert climbing. It showed that skilled and brave climbers, using techniques developed in much firmer granite stone in Yosemite Valley at that time, could successfully climb the most fearsome sandstone towers. Nowadays, of course, everyone and his grandmother is following their lead, sometimes even without piton and rope. 

The Group of Eight dwarfed by The Titan. Peak of Cottontail Tower at far left
Does it surprise you that we made haste to put some space between us and this cathedral among towers, the more so since the trail led us to a nice viewpoint, from which we could study the behemoth from a safe distance? The tower's uphill position, as well as its height lead it to dominate all other structures in the vicinity. Look how small Cottontail Tower appears in comparison, even if we had perceived it as a monster of a tower just half an hour earlier!

But let us not dally here, time to get on with our hike! There followed a long stretch of relatively easy trampling on a level, but gravely surface, until it was time for the next wonder of nature: a tiny natural arch we had to bow under, the only one to exist in this region of giants.

And here it is, in all its humble splendor! Anyone wishing to follow the trail to Trail's End has actually to go through this trap. There is no other way to continue the trip! After the passage you tend downhills for a hundred meters, before ascending the goal of the hike, a ridge the top of which you can just about glance on the upper left of the picture, and to the left of the two towers you can notice there.

The "Big Bro Arch", tiny but shiny! 

Isn't it nice to pay homage to a small wonder of nature for a change?

Bowing under Big Bro Arch
The continuing hike was somewhat embarrassing. We clearly could see the ridge to reach in front of us, but the trail had disappeared mysteriously. Even our guide had to amble around a while until he found a path upwards that appeared to be the right one. But not to worry, upwards we trotted and arrived eventually at the ridge.

This gave us a marvelous view of the Towers, as well as the valley below, all the way down to the Colorado. Unfortunately, since this was midday with a clear sky, there were no contrasts to be found in that direction, so I don't have any pictures to show for it. You just have to trust my word that this was indeed an outstanding panorama.

It seemed that we had reached the end of the trail, since the ridge ended rather abruptly on a huge boulder that seemingly barred all further progress. I was very surprised to see this, since, some ten meters below us, there was another ridge, angled towards our's at about 90 degrees. Furthermore, there were people on that ridge, that seemed much more eager than us to enjoy the scenery!

"Nu var goda råd dyra!" (Good advice was sorely needed); but there was no one to help us out of this one way trap. Eventually, the most adventurous member of our Group of Eight stepped forth and started to slide around the boulder on its left hand side; slightly counter-intuitively, since the lower ridge we sought was angling off towards the right, and an almost vertical void opened up on the left.

Void bordering the boulder's left hand side
Soon he had rounded the boulder and disappeared from sight. A few moments later came his triumphant call: there was a path down to the lower ridge! I would never had dared this slide-around on my own, had not a trusted "expert" shown me the way. But soon, all of us were sliding along the wall, trying not look down towards the left and – Voilá! – just around the corner there was a split in the boulder, through which we could squeeze and thereafter descend down to the treasured viewpoint.

And it was well worth it to dare fate in such a manner, since we now had arrived at the very end of the way. Just a wee bit further rose what only can be described as the outlier tower rounding off the last rampart of an enormous medieval fortification. Book two of "Lord of the Rings" comes to mind.

View down Onyon Valley

To show you what I mean, have a look at this model of Hornburg, made in Lego by an intriguing artist.

Hornburg, from Tolkien's Tale of Two Towers. Lego model   Source: Danieldt
Did I walk the walk all the way to the last round-point in my picture above, looking down "on the armies besieging the castle"? I could well have done so, but what would have been the point, from a photographer's view? Hadn't I got my picture already. How could I have improved it by shooting straight down into Onyon valley from the round top?

Much better to let other, more vigorous Members of our Group of Eight do the task for me. Let me take a picture of them striving to the very end, so as to provide scale to the deep and formidable landscape! Seen from the valley floor, this outpust must have looked like another giant tower, positioned as it was at least 300 meters above it.

Hikers on last outpost to Onyon Valley
This scene spoke to me like the deep clang of a gong, the grand finish of a great symphony. How could this scene, letting my deepest sensitivities vibrate like a violin string, possibly be surpassed by just back-tracking my steps down again to the trailhead in the valley? Surely not; but rest consoled, dear readers. Even if we on our return would re-visit all the views already described, their appearance would have greatly changed in the mean-time.

It would be later in the day, with the sun at a different angle, and we would look forward upon scenery we hitherto had left at our back! So there was plenty yet to experience and document. Still, I fear that your patience is running thin by now; so let me concentrate on four highlights from our back trip, before coming to the grand finale.

The first picture shows a small marvel already well known to you. That notwithstanding, I feel the urge to present another view of it, lest this brown delicacy fades from your memory amidst the manifold of red giants.

The Big Bro an hour later
The view below leads us back to the land of grand scenes. After passing by The Titan on our way back, we eventually arrived on the rim of the canyon that borders Cottontail Tower. You may recall the pictures I took from that Polypheme among towers, both from the forefront and at an angle (with hikers entering the canyon at its feet).

I trust you admit, that this view of its flank conveys a completely different impression of the giant's stature and grandeur! It is not so much a spire we are looking at here; rather, it resembles a giant fin, like the one you can see – at a much smaller scale – on an aircraft's tail or a shark's sharp-end.

Hikers on flank of Cottontale Tower
Now back to a more humane scale! Further on along the trail I suddenly stumbled on a charming scene that had completely escaped my lazy eyes in the morning. A group of intricate stone "goblins" stood assembled on the slope underneath Kingfisher Tower, as if to constitute an entourage for this king of towers. If the tower were indeed a king, these would seem like toy soldiers to him, so much smaller in scale they are, compared to his mass. I gather none of them to be taller than, say, some fifty meters.

But what they lack in scale they more than make up for in pleasing shape. I found the statue below especially endearing. It looked to me like a cobra, slithering its way upwards – as if charmed by Baba Gulabgir –, whilst balancing a small tablet on its head. Later on, I discovered that I was not alone in that interpretation, this goblin is called "The Cobra" and – does it surprise you? – is the structure to climb, if you are an enterprising youngster.

An intriguing "goblin", called The Cobra. The Corkscrew on upper right
How can we explain this garden of goblins? Well, there is an interesting story behind it. As erosion continues to eat away at the giants, small slabs of their caps – of hardened Moenkopi sandstone – keep falling down from "heaven". Wherever they land, they are protecting the meeker Organ Rock sandstone on the ground underneath. Since erosion never stops, the land around those small caps keeps melting away and leaves the goblins for us to admire! We stand aghast at nature's creative imagination!

Let us round up this hefty adventure trip by showing a last scenery, which met the weary hiker, when almost back at the trailhead. By then, I was rather exhausted and had left my fellow hikers far ahead of me. But the end was near and I trusted them to wait for me patiently at the car. So I still took some minutes to preserve this view for posterity (or at least for this blog!). This being the last day of the hiking trip and all!

View of Castle Rocks towards end of Fisher trail
But let's not finish this tale too soon. Why not put some extra views in there, taken through the windshield of our car? The first shows the dirt road from the Fisher Towers to route 128. And the second illustrates the many beautiful scenes, with delightful greenery, we could admire in late afternoon sun, whilst cruising along that route in the Colorado Valley, on our way back to Moab.

Dirt road from Fisher Towers to Route 128

Colorado Valley, seen from Route 128

Monday 20 January 2014


Elephant Canyon, Needles, Canyonlands NP
Just three months ago, I was ambling along avenue du Grand-Pré in Geneva, up from Gare Cornavin (the Central Station) where I had arrived minutes before. I was on my way to my former working place, the EFTA Secretariat, were I had spent five challenging years in the beginning of the 'nineties. Those were tumultuous times, when European history took a sharp bend, and I had been right in the middle of events. So, after all these years, I felt the urge to return to relive those ancient memories.

Suddenly, I came to an abrupt stop. At my left, the former orderly apartment houses on the avenue had been torn down and, instead, there rose a helter-shelter collection of strange artifacts. No straight walls or doors, all curved and "organic". Roofs shaped like mushrooms and colors ranging from light green to light mauve. I had discovered a modern city block, called "Quartier des Schtroumpfs" (Village of the Smurfs), that was in stark contrast to more conformist modern architecture.

One month later, I got a strong feeling of déjà vu, when standing at the bottom of a deep cleft in Canyonlands National Park, glancing upwards at some curiously curved hoodoos, reminding me strongly of the mushroom houses in Geneva.

Our hiking Group of Eight had arrived in Needles – a district of the park to the Southeast of Island in the Sky –, lying just opposite the big Loop of the Colorado that we had seen from the Grand Viewpoint Overlook the day before. The distance, as the crow flies, is not large, some 10 kilometers or so, but it takes more than two hours to drive there, since it is quite impossible to go the straight route by car.

On foot, it would take you at least two weeks to go straight across, provided you can get passage across the Colorado. In olden times, a wagon train would certainly take at least a month to navigate the same distance. "Yes!", the Mormons did some tracking of that kind, urged on by their Prophets  to establish new settlements across hitherto uncharted desert terrain. You may be interested in reading about such a venture, telling the story of a Canyonlands crossing by Mormons South of Needles.

Approaching Needles on route 211
For our small hiking group the access proved much easier. You drive your car on US Highway 191, South from Moab, until it intersects with Utah Highway 211. Turning West on the latter, the road leads you directly to the district of Needles.

On the picture above, you see an impressive promontory in the far distance. This is the high plateau of Needles, the ascending of which would be the goal of our hiking trip that day. Looking at this pompous skyline of gothic spires, it suddenly became clear to me how the district got its name, even if the plateau itself constitutes only about a third of the whole area.

Although the access looks rather easy, with the asphalt road pointing in the right direction, visiting Needles is far more difficult than driving along on paved roads on the Island of the Sky, where you hardly have to leave your car to benefit from the various outlooks. Route 211 loses its coating soon after the Park entrance. From there on it is a question of driving VERY carefully on a dirt road to the trail head, called Elephant Hill.

After that, we are not speaking of a proper road anymore, rather, a dirt path navigable only by rough four wheel drivers, and that only if you can negate the harsh admonishments to desist, uttered by any ranger that happens to stand in your way. 

The rise upwards from Elephant Hill
So this is a hikers' terrain and PARADISE. Rough it is to navigate in this beautiful land of hoodoos, but rich are the rewards. Instead of standing on top of the world, as you seem to do on Island in the Sky, you start your hike here deep down in a cleft, about as half as deep down as the Colorado (who is grinding its path just a few kilometers to the Northwest). Going from there, it is a question of striving forever upwards, upwards, until you arrive at the high pass granting access to the Needles Plateau.

You better carry enough water for the trip, for there is scant access to that essential fluid along the way, and NONE, once you are on top of the plateau. Still, there are brave and sturdy hikers who come fully equipped for a several days' hike in this astounding wilderness.

Two ladies fully equipped for a lengthy hike
But enough of preliminaries! Let's get on with our story. After having parked the car at Elephant Hill, the trail head, we had to overcome a steep incline, which took us about 20 minutes. Thereafter, a wide panorama opened up for us, since we had arrived at the seemingly endless expanse of the lower basin, that we could observe already from the various outlooks at Island in the Sky.

The trail was winding its lazy way towards a wide gray-to-white broad ledge that we could glance in the distance and that we would be following. We had arrived at the world of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, among the oldest sandstone formations on the globe. In the far distance, the Needles Plateau beckoned us welcome with its manifold of spires, looking mauve from the distance.

Unfortunately, the weather did not appear promising. There was the threat of rain in the air and, in spite of the splendid surroundings, I could not avoid feeling gloomy.

End of first ascent, Needles beckoning in the far background
Most of the hike henceforth would be carried out in the realm of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. At the outset, this used to be a layer, almost 600 meters thick, compressed and hardened by the enormous mass of almost two kilometers of stone layers above it, the latter formed during the middle and new ages of the globe. 

In the Needles district of Canyonlands, the two kilometers of upper and younger stone have been eroded away completely during the past 30 million years, leaving the remaining hardened Cedar Mesa shell wide open to  the onslaught of the seasons.

Cedar Mesa stone is gray-to-white in its virgin state, but takes on various shades of red, depending on how much iron was contained in the waters originally filtering through it. Erosion is eating away also at this layer with a vengeance, the results showing as gothic spires, rounded hoodoos and even flat ledges, depending on the way seasonal influences are allowed to play on the rock.

Hiking on Cedar Mesa sandstone ledge. Barrier of Cedar Mesa hoodoos in the distance
After having trudged along a flat ledge for half an hour or so, we were approaching a barrier of hoodoos that seemed quite difficult to penetrate, seen from a distance. And, indeed, this would prove to be difficult. But before we came close to it, something else caught my interest. I suddenly saw a group of youngsters busy with preparing their breakfast on one of the hoodoos.

I believe that they had spent the night on this lofty hill; if so, I hope they had down-feathered sleeping bags with them. Morning temperatures had hovered around zero, when we had left Moab in the morning! Still, spirits seemed to be high on top of the hill and the group saluted me with glee when discovering that I was taking their picture. What youthful exuberance! How could I abstain from  following their example and recovering my spirits?

Hikers rising from their sleep on Cedar Mesa hoodoo
On to the barrier now! It turned out that the only passage through was a very narrow crack in one of the huge hoodoos. So narrow was the passage that I had to take off my rucksack and slide through sideways in the most constricted section of the slot.

The picture below does not really convey the full sense of claustrophobia you could feel when navigating this passage. Fortunately, there is a video on Youtube that can let you partake in a similar venture. I would encourage you to have a look at it. Just click on the word VIDEO here!

Entering the Crack
Mumbling to myself "Durch diese hohle Gasse muss er kommen!" I slowly navigated through this narrow slot. There was a downward slant in it and eventually, it widened into a cave-like opening, through which we could discern Elephant Canyon down below and, between the hoodoos, the rampart of the Needles Plateau, this time already closer.

Exiting the Crack into Elephant Canyon. In the distance Needles Ramparrt
After having slided down the canyon slope, our guide decided that we had done enough for the morning and chose a nice spot for lunch. A nice spot it was indeed, we were resting on a rise above the trail, surrounded by hoodoos, watching fellow hikers passing by and munching contentedly on our sandwiches. In the mean-time, our guide Ingemar was busy studying the map, since, as he told us, there was a confusion of trails on the Needles Plateau and it was a challenge to identify the right path across.

Our guide contemplating the map, whilst the group was having lunch
This turned out to be the last quiet moment of the day! For, ahead of us now lay the arduous task of surmounting a rise in altitude of almost 800 meters, in order to gain access to the high plateau. Step by step, we labored upwards, always encouraged by the marvelous scenery that was ever changing in color and shape.

Now and then I found, nonetheless, the time to glance backwards and gauge the distance we had already covered. In the picture below you can see, not only three hikers that had to take a rest from the hard exercise, but also, in the far distance, Island in the Sky and Dead Horsepoint, two plateaus we had been standing on only the day before!

Hikers on hoodoo. In the far distance Island in the Sky and Dead Horse Point
Our energetic Group of Eight was carrying on without respite, that is, until we found a pictorial setting on which to show off before engaging in the final onslaught. What a group of hardy hikers we were! Not a drop of sweat visible on our relaxed faces ;-) More importantly, the picture also shows a glimpse of the high pass that would grant us access to the high plateau. It is located on the far right of the picture, where a large dominant stone group tapers off into an opening in the rampart.

The Group of Eight gearing up for the final onslaught
The following picture was taken when walking along that high pass. It also demonstrates the massive resistance to access provided by the wall of "needles" surrounding the plateau.

Along the pass to Needles Plateau
After this looong climbing exercise, it was a relieve to arrive at the saddle and begin the descent towards the inner section of the plateau. Below you see the first section of the path towards the within.

First steps into the interior of Needles Plateau
Just after having taking this picture and turning around, I was suddenly overcome by the scenery opening up to me. The sky lightened up, the sun started to shine and the landscape suddenly sprang to life! I hate to admit it, but at this moment, I LOST IT, getting overcome by an intense experience of photographic frenzy. 

This happens to me only rarely, but when it does, it lets me completely lose my sense of time and space. The only thing that counts in such a rare occasion of spiritual excess is the rectangle of the camera viewer catching piece after piece of landscape, like a fisherman catching fish with his net. 

For about fifteen minutes, I was click-clicking away at the scenery around me, getting ever more excited by the exquisite compositions I imagined myself catching on film. I must have taken at least a hundred pictures in quick succession within those minutes and many of them turned out to be rather swell, I am proud to say. Let me show you a small collection of the outcome.

When I woke up from my photographic rapture I discovered, to my dismay, that I was all alone in this wide landscape of hoodoo, sagebrush, pinyon and juniper. No fellow hikers to be seen, not even on the horizon! I started to get worried; would I be able to trace the right path to follow? Fortunately, there was only one, even if barely discernible in all this splendor.

View of Chesler Park from the Plateau Rim
So I started to run along that sandy path, hoping to soon regain my fellow hikers. Unfortunately, the landscape got the better of me, forcing me to stop more often than not to take additional pictures. Still, in between the takes, I was pushing on with speed. Eventually, to my great relief, I saw a lonely member of our group standing between some huge boulders, no doubt left as sentinel to watch out for me, the straying outlier!

Lonely Member of the Group of Eight, waiting for the straying outlier
Soon I was able to join the full group again, which was standing at an outlook just at rampart's fringe, where one could get a marvelous view towards the East of the wide basin underneath. Here the guide welcomed me with a slightly furrowed brow – for a Swede this means that he is quite upset – querying me with deceptively mild voice whether I would prefer to retrace the route back to the trail head rather than continuing with the group (since far more than half of the distance still had to be covered on the trail planned by him).

I assured him that I would behave forthwith and not stray behind in the continuing journey. Thus placated, the guide urged us on, leaving me, unfortunately, no time to take compositions of the view. Still, you can see the hoodoo guarding the outlook, as well as a wee bit of the plane underneath – at the picture's far right.

Voodoo at Needles Plateau rim, guarding the Eastern Outlook
From this outlook we went straight West, into the interior of the Needles Plateau, which is called Chesler Park. Surprisingly, landscape and nature in the plateau's interior is nothing like that on top of Island in the Sky. Instead, there lies a bowl-shaped prairie, beautiful to behold from a distance and hiking within. This used to be even grazing grounds for a ranch, before the district became part of the National Park of Canyonlands. Imagine this, in the middle of sagebrush desert! And without any discernible source of water!

Chesler Park, with beautiful bunch grass
The grass you can see in the picture looked nowhere like the grass known to us in Europe. It is in fact the native American sort, called Bunch Grass. This blue green variant has deep roots and is evergreen, in contrast to our sort. Despite its hardened nature, it is almost extinct in the Southwestern US, since our grass has taken over, ever since it was imported, hidden in the hide of cows, by the Spaniards in the 16th century (see The Green, Green Grass of Ho-ome). I was surprised to see it here, reigning in sovereignty, despite Chesler Park having been grazed by cattle for many decades.

Most probably, the chemical composition of the soil, or the lack of shallow ground water, has protected it from the more delicate European grasses. Either way, I was delighted to see this prairie that must have looked the same since before white man invaded the continent.

Let us continue the discussion on a scientific vein for a while. How come that the top of a plateau in the Canyonlands is shaped like a bowl and has a prairie to show for it? To answer this, take a look at the picture below, which was taken by Doug Sherman, a fellow photographer with a keen interest in geology.

Air view of Chesler Park      Photographer: Doug Sherman
Let our imagination play for a while. Some 60 million years ago, the Cedar Mesa stone layer was hidden underneath almost two kilometers of other stone ayers. Around that time, the outer crust of this enormous mass was still located at sea level. Gradually (geologically speaking), and before the general rise of the Colorado Plateau, a section of it got an uplift, which started just North of Needles and, as a result, tilted a section of the Plateau Westward all the way down to what now is Monument Valley. This rise, called the Monument Lift, resulted in a deep fault on its Eastern flank, which brought the venerable layers of Mesa Verde sandstone closer to the surface.

Now remember that underneath the oldest sandstone layers on the Plateau resides the so called Paradox Formation, a thick layer of salt with very peculiar characteristics (see A City Built on Salt). Subject to high pressure, it becomes almost viscous (geologically speaking). Into the multitude of "cracks", having appeared in the overlaying stone layers due to the uplift, salt started to percolate from below, following the road of least resistance. In rare occasions this penetration was so powerful as to shove aside large fractured masses of stone and form a sizable "bubble" (This was occurring deep down in the interior of the crust, not visible from the surface at the outset).

This probably has happened when Chesler Park was created. A giant bubble of salt, a globe rather, could have formed, shoving aside the fractured Mesa Verde stone above it. This salty blob would have been substantial, measuring almost 1.5 kilometers in diameter, but residing for eons underneath a thick layer of covering stone.

Island of rock in mid-Chester Park
However, after the general uplift of the Colorado Plateau, around 30 million years ago, erosion took off with a vengeance and razed off almost 2 kilometers of stone from the thick crust, eventually exposing the salt bubble to the erosive powers of the seasons. The salt would have melted quickly, leaving behind it a half-dome shaped empty underbelly. But nature abhors vacuum and this hollow bowl would have been filled in an instant (geologically speaking) with alluvial soil, giving rise to the present parkland, fecund enough for grass to grow in. Amazing, isn't it?

Salt continues to play a role in sculpturing the landscape in Needles. To the West of Chesler Park, salt, after having penetrated fractures, as described above, continues to gradually dissolve and disappear into the neighboring Colorado River, widening the fractures in question and rendering them into deeper valleys, called Grabens.

Having thus satisfied our thirst for geologic interpretation, time to return to our hike! After a prolonged promenade through blue-green grass, and having had a look at an isolated island of rock in the middle of Chesler Park, it was time to retrace our steps Eastward and regain the plateau rim. We chose, however, to take a more adventurous descent than ascent route, starting about half a kilometer South of the saddle we had traversed on the way up.

Descending Chesler Park down to Elephant Canyon
This part of the hike proved to be of almost alpine quality, leading us down around and below huge rock boulders and steep slick rock slopes. All in all, a delight for yours truly, as a former mountain hiker. I was lucky to be clad in shoes with a good rubbery grip, permitting me to navigate also the slanting slick rock with relative ease. Some other group members were not so lucky and had to spend some effort to descend on those rocks! But we all made it down in good spirits, helped by some refreshing stops now and then among those delicately colored rocks.

Hikers resting on descent to Elephant Canyon
All in all, we made good speed downwards and arrived soon in the upper reaches of Elephant Canyon. Up there, the canyon was a relatively shallow wash, with huge stone slabs at the bottom. The title picture shows this part of the canyon. Along and through the slabs you can see in the picture, water would quickly gush down at full speed, as soon as it started to rain.

Fortunately, the threatening clouds of that morning had turned off South, the sun having chased away all risks of flash flood. So we could continue our journey down the canyon in peace and at a reasonable pace. This was to the best, since we had still some six kilometers of rough terrain to navigate and the hour was getting late.

Hikers in upper reaches of Elephant Canyon
The further down the canyon we trudged, the more bucolic became the surroundings. Eventually, the canyon started to open up and, after some more circling among slabs, sand and grovel, we found ourselves back were we had eaten our lunch, so many hours and experiences since.

Elephant Canyon widening
Now we really had to rush, so as to return to the trailhead in good time; this left scarce time for picture taking! Let's just take a quick look back at the barrier with its crack we had to pass through one more time. If you look closely at the picture below, you can actually get a glimpse of it, located as it is between the two large red boulders in the background.

Needles mesa. In the background the barrier with narrow passage to Elephant Canyon
After this picture, the end of the trail was near. But at that stage, I began to feel the burden of age and low sugar level. I simply had to stop for a while and could not continue the hike at a good pace. Slowly moving ahead, I could but watch my fellow hikers disappear in the distance; still, the track ahead was clear and I knew that our Group of Eight usually took a leisurely 15 minutes of rest at the end of a hike before urging our guide onwards.

Slowly but surely, I tumbled down the final descent towards the trailhead. I was glad to take my time about it, however, since this let me observe a strange object on the opposite wall of the Elephant Hill wash. I did not trust my eyes at first: could there really be a car sitting on one of the large boulders opposite my position? Sure enough, this was a four-wheeler, attempting the VERY ROUGH trail onwards from Elephant Hill, and stopping after the first ascent to let the travelers ponder whether to continue the trip. After ten minutes' discussion, they decided to turn back and disappeared behind the boulders on their way down the cliff.

Four-wheeler on Elephant Hill
This about wraps it up for us. But I should not forget that we had a nice return trip back to Moab in late evening sun! So let me round up this over-long tale by showing some pictures from route 211, about where the grazing ground of a famous old farm, the Dugout Ranch, is meeting the highway in the picturesque Indian Creek Valley.

Utah Highway 211 in Indian Creek Valley

Cattle from Dugout Ranch. The two Six-Shooter Peaks to the right 

Cattle from Dugout Ranch in Indian Creek Valley
Finally, to show you the difference between conservation activities in federal/state reserves and commercial activities, have a look at this abomination along route 191.

Back to "civilisation" on US Highway 191 towards Moab