Monday, May 4, 2009

May 4, 2009 – On a ridgetop – off BLM road 420 –Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument

The wind is howling all around us, and the camper is gently rocking in response to the wind’s caress. We’ve moved inside to escape the grit being carried in the air, but the view is no less stunning from inside the cabin. To my right, just 30 feet from where we are parked, is a deep gorge of over 1,500 feet leading my eyes to the horizon with variegated layers of alluvial deposits off the ridge tops. This gorge is all hues of blacks and grays, with pinion pines gallantly clinging sporadically to the slopes wherever water has had a chance to pool and the roots have had a chance to dig in deep enough to afford sufficient foundation for the plant’s precarious existence. The narrow draw at the base of the canyon winds back and forth as it climbs towards the canyon’s head. Through the binoculars we can see down into the wash and large boulders often choke the narrow water course, making shade for stands of ash and willow bushes. The Morman’s Tea plants offer some yellow color, and Indian paintbrush dots the river’s edge with dashes of bright red. Directly ahead of us – off 90 degrees from the view I just described is a high desert plateau, stretching at least 20 miles to the horizon. This is the “upper landing” of the “Grand Staircase” imagined by the namers of this monument, spread out before us.

From 12 May 2009 - Southern Utah

From 12 May 2009 - Southern Utah

Beyond the plateau, the escarpment of Bryce Canyon National Park is illuminated by the reflected light off the bottom of the clouds. In this direction (and elevation) the rocks are primarily red and rust colored. Out the left side of the cab we look to a closer horizon, that suddenly comes to an abrupt end as the slope plummets beyond to the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and ultimately the base of the Grand Canyon.

This morning we explored the Cottonwood canyon, a slot canyon 15 miles further down the rutted dirt road. Once we had forded a streambed - concerned about getting stuck - the rest of the drive was bumpy and a bit nerve racking as the narrow roadway and its very soft shoulders pushed its way up, over and down the undulating high desert landscape. For a few hours we wandered by foot down the base of an ever shrinking canyon, dotted with wildflowers, butterflies and swooping swallows making their siren type calls. Small lizards darted into the shadows just ahead of us and we stopped often to study the tracks in the dried mud canyon bottom. The canyon bottom narrowed to just over 10 feet, with sculpted walls towering above seeming to reach the clouds. At the bottom of the walls we could see recent evidence of water erosion and scouring, but as our eyes scanned up the height of the orange and brown walls we could see more plants taking hold, and side canyons being formed I imagined holding hidden pools. Our campsite tonight is just the opposite – wide open and on the roof of the visible world.

Yesterday we camped at Kodachrome Basin State Park in southern Utah, just beyond the edge of this monument. This basin is remarkable in and of it’s own right, with fluted rust and tan colored geologic features rising from the end of a canyon. In the space of a few minutes we see a cottontail rabbit, a desert hare, and some unusual birds we have yet to key out. Our campsite neighbors saw two antelope crossing the road on their way in. However, like kids on the beach looking out over a vast ocean, the high desert plateau and hidden slot canyons of GSENM called to us from all the vista points.

This adjacent “monument” (actually a tract of land of 1.9 million acres – the largest US national monument outside of Alaska) which was finally brought under federal protection between the two Clinton terms of office is relatively undeveloped compared to other federal parks of this genre. Roosevelt originally envisioned this area (actually a much larger area) as a national park, but local logging and mining interests blocked this designation until the mid-90s. Several conglomerates had proposed to strip mine coal from this region, and had already begun systematic logging in preparation of the building of roadways and other infrastructure. It is now managed by the BLM rather than the National Park Service, so a very different approach has been used to make it accessible to visitors. There are only a few visitor centers, and no paved roadways penetrate into the heart of the park. Instead there are a collection of undeveloped dirt tracks which, depending on weather and previous traffic, are passable to vehicles such as ours. Once onto the dirt roads, camping is “distributed” – not in formal campgrounds. We are allowed to camp anywhere as long as there is some evidence of previous campers at the same site. Taking advantage of this liberty, we’ve driven the camper out an unremarkable dirt road – a small spur off a more traveled dirt road, until we came to this overlook spot and decided to stop here for the night.

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