Thursday, June 26, 2014

Another World, Part 2 - Zion National Park

Virgin River, looking south toward the Watchman formation

                                                                             We're marching to Zion,
                                                              Beautiful, beautiful Zion . . .

                                                                                    -- Christian hymn (Watts/Lowry)

Zion, Utah's first national park, was created as a national monument in 1909 and elevated to national park status in 1919.  Ironically, though not called a canyon, Zion's principal features are canyons and cliffs cut by rivers and streams.  

The biggest, and most visited, canyon was created by the Virgin River on the west side of the park.  The river carries about 3 million tons of rock and sediment out of the park every year.

The river cuts through deep formations of sandstone that were deposited over a period of about 10 million years around 175 million years ago, when the area was a huge desert.  Consequently, the walls of the Virgin River canyon rise steeply up to 2,000 feet above the canyon floor.

To give you a sense of the scale, look closely at the photo below and see if you can spot the two rock climbers: 

In the east side of the park, the predominant feature is gigantic mountains of Navajo sandstone.  You can easily see these as frozen versions of enormous desert sand dunes.

Some of the mountains have a feature called cross-bedding, where layers were deposited in different directions due to changes in the prevailing wind direction over the millennia.  

Checkerboard Mesa

We will see additional examples of cross-bedding in our visit to White Pocket, the subject of a future post in this series, "Another World."

Although the size of the sandstone mountains and cliffs in Zion is staggering, you can also find beauty in small things:  tenacious and sometimes delicate plants growing right out of the rock . . .

Pockets and pools of water . . .

Textures, patterns, and colors . . .


Inevitably, however, Zion reminds us of how very small we are in the great scheme of things:

If you would like to see these images and more in a larger format, visit my photography website -- Todos Juntos Photography -- by clicking here.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Another World, Part 1 - Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon looking south just before sunrise.

                                     I have been to another world, and come back.  Listen to me.

                                                                            -- Epigraph from Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

In south-central Utah there is an amazing, other-worldly landscape known as Bryce Canyon.  It's a national park, but it's not a canyon.  It's actually a series of about a dozen gigantic amphitheater-like areas created by erosion of the east side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

Paunsaugunt is one of the large plateaus that comprise the Colorado Plateau which includes 130,000 square miles of western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southern and central Utah. 

Map courtesy of Wikipedia

The Colorado Plateau area contains 10 national parks (including Bryce, Zion, Arches, the Grand Canyon and more) and 17 national monuments, most because of their unique geological formations.  The formations create a wide range of strange and beautiful landscapes.

Bryce Canyon's signature features are its walls of limestone, with windows, fins, and spires called "hoodoos."  These features are created by a combination of erosion by weak carbolic acid (water + carbon dioxide) and frost wedging.

Diagram courtesy of Wikipedia

In late April and early May, I visited Bryce Canyon twice -- first on a day hike with my friend Duke Breitenbach, and four days later with a group under the auspices of Road Scholar.

We begin at sunrise, as the walls and spires amphitheaters on the east side of the plateau begin to catch the light:

Distant hoodoos begin to glow:

Trees cast gigantic shadows on the massive limestone walls:


Then the entire amphitheater is illuminated by brilliant sunlight:

The top of the plateau is 8,000 ft. above sea level, so the views out across the amphitheaters are magnificent:

But the more awesome and amazing landscapes are found by hiking down into the amphitheaters on switchback trails that descend first along the face of the plateau wall:


The fins and hoodoos begin to tower above you:

Then you descend on another switchback trail between two massive fin walls:

The walls get higher and higher . . .


Looking back up the trail:

Finally, you reach the bottom:

From there, we chose a three-mile loop that took us up and down through one of the amphitheaters.

Here's a brief tour:

In places the walls look like the facade of the great cathedral in Milan, or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the Cambodian temples of Angkor:

In other places, the rows of hoodoos reminded me of the terracotta army buried near Xi'an in China:

The trail winds around the base of the walls . . .

through narrow passes . . .

. . . that open up to vistas of walls extending for miles, like a colossal fortress built thousands of years ago, abandoned and crumbling:

In two places the trail even goes through the walls . . .

Around every turn in the trail new features appear, each more fantastic than the one just behind:

Eventually, we closed the loop and headed to the switchback trail that would take us back to where we began:

Nearing the top, naturally we encountered the usual tourists blocking the trail for a final photo . . .

 . . . of Thor's Hammer (tall feature on the left) and the view beyond:

Although it was still a few hours from sunset, the amphitheaters fell quickly into shadow:

The sun highlighted strange structures . . .

. . . until only one tall hoodoo remained in the light:

. . . and the day was done.

If you would like to see these images (and more) in a larger format, visit my photography website -- Todos Juntos Photography -- by clicking here.