The Salmon Arches

While today is technically the antepenultimate day of the trip it is, for all practical purposes, the next to last day because Monday is almost entirely a travel day. I’ll have to drive several hours to reach my first and principal stop for the day  – Arches National Park but the route brings me close to a pair of roadside attraction stops. I’ll end the day at the Stone Lizard Inn in Blanding and, in addition to visiting Arches will backtrack to Dead Horse Point State Park. With my visit to Arches, I will have dropped in on three of the five national parks – Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion deemed by some as Utah’s “Mighty Five”. Given its proximity to both Arches and Dead Horse Point I could have easily included Canyonlands but, as odd as this might seem, I was teetering on the verge of canyon super saturation and, while Dead Horse Point is also a canyon, I had a very specific reason for wanting to visit there.

Both of the intermediate stops were merely of the photo op variety and I didn’t anticipate they’d cause any significant delay in arriving at Arches. As things turned out, I found the first so disappointing I didn’t even bother to take a picture. (This was at the headquarters of Blendtec in Orem to see “the world’s largest blender”. It was just a glass structure with a faux handle above the entrance. If it had had blades…)

I made stop number two in Helper, Utah where, had I arrived later in the morning, I could have spent some time visiting the Western Mining & Railroad Museum. The museum has a simulated coal mine in the basement and a room on the third floor dedicated to the 1924 Castle Gate Mine disaster that killed more than 200 miners. However, the museum didn’t open until 10:00 or about half an hour after I arrived. Still, I was able to see the 18 foot tall statue called Big John so I had my photo op.

The town built Big John in 1964 about the same time they were planning the museum. He’s made of rails, spires and plates from the Castle Gate Mine. For those of you who are wondering, he is, indeed, named for Jimmy Dean’s 1961 hit song.

At fault but not at fault

Helper is about the halfway point between Salt Lake City and Arches and, with a strong signal from KUER (Salt Lake City’s NPR affiliate) combined with my feeling that I was running a bit ahead of schedule, I eased up on the gas pedal and drove at a relaxed pace enjoying the feeling of leisure even if it wasn’t the most beautiful road of the trip. I don’t know if 20 minutes or half an hour would have made a difference but as it turned out, I should have taken the Zion lesson more to heart.  More on that shortly. While I’m driving, I’ll tell you how Arches came to be.

You can find natural stone arches in many places around the world. One of the more famous on the east coast of the U.S., Natural Bridge, Virginia is about 200 miles southwest of my home in Silver Spring a bit less than halfway between Harrisonburg and Roanoke. Another, known as the Azure Window on the Maltese island of Gozo (and that I visited in 2012), showed us just how fragile these formations can be when it collapsed during a storm earlier this year.

Fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones might recognize it:

As I write this, there are, according to the Park Service, more than 2,000 documented arches in the National Park making it the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. Now, you might have some trouble finding all of them if you went on such a quest. While the largest arch spans a distance more than 300 feet, the National Park Service website officially describes others as “sliver-thin cracks.”

Many of the same forces working throughout the region – and with which you are now familiar –  played supporting roles in creating the landscape at Arches. But other forces, beginning with the composition of the rocks, formed an ensemble cast centered around one star in this geologic drama. Those begin with the age of the rocks.

There are places in Arches where the vista certainly evokes Monument Valley. For example, there’s a formation called the Three Gossips

that somewhat calls to mind the Three Sisters. However, you may recall that all of the formations in Monument Valley are part of the Cutler Group sandstone. That’s not the case at Arches. The sandstone of the Cutler Group was laid down in the Permian Age roughly between 250 million and 300 million years ago. Arches is far younger. In fact, the oldest sandstone we see there is Navajo Sandstone which dates to the early Jurassic of 190 million years ago. This sandstone will be buff colored.

But there’s another, more prominent type of sandstone in Arches. This is Entrada Sandstone which was deposited in a conforming layer (recall the Great Unconformity we saw in the Grand Canyon) atop the Navajo Sandstone between 180 million and 140 million years ago. Entrada Sandstone has a color akin to salmon flesh. Nearly all the park’s visible formations are comprised of one or both of these materials. (So, if you want to visit a real Jurassic Park, Arches is your place.)

The rest of the supporting cast

More than 100 million years before the Entrada Sandstone formed as part of a massive desert, this area was a foreland marine basin that was a large evaporative sea covering much of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado.  When the sea evaporated, it was replaced by shifting dunes of fine-grained sand. The grains were nearly spherical so, when they packed together, they formed a type of rock that’s very porous (think of marbles in a jar).

By contrast, the Navajo layer beneath it contains a mix of sand and clay. Because clay particles are much smaller than sand grains, a lot of them can pack together and fill in gaps between the sand grains. This makes the rock denser and less porous than a purer sandstone.

Dig deep enough below the surface and you’ll find a thick layer of salts in a specialized salt bed called an evaporite. An evaporite is basically what it sounds like it would be – a mineral found in the sedimentary deposit of soluble salts that results from the evaporation of water. And where do you find most evaporites? If you answered, “a marine basin where evaporation exceeds inflow,” you aced the quiz.

Under pressure, salt is unstable. At Arches, as the tons of rock above it squeezed the salt, it flowed and bulged upward, in an anticline which is a type of fold in the earth that is an arch-like shape with its oldest beds at its core. A typical anticline is convex. For the more visual among you, here’s an example of an anticline (the photo is from Wikimedia and was taken on Route 23 in New Jersey).

The hinge or crest is the location where the curvature is greatest, and the limbs are the sides of the fold that dip away from the hinge. Here’s where the evaporites played their part in Arches. Their presence formed more unusual salt anticlines or linear regions of uplift creating long domes that cracked the rock layers.

I don’t know if it was simply a matter of coincidental timing or my dawdling driving had sufficiently delayed my arrival at the park entrance but when I reached it I encountered a delay even longer than the one I’d faced at Zion. Fortunately, once I got through the entrance station and made a brief orientation stop at the Visitor’s Center, the traffic thinned fairly quickly.

Once in the park, the first viewpoint gives you a chance to view the Moab fault. I’m not great at spotting these but I have a picture from the website that shows the fault. And this is where we learn to hope that Godot (in the form of an earthquake) will continue to keep us waiting.

You see, while there is a fault line clearly visible, and earthquakes played a crucial role in uplifting the Colorado Plateau, one reason the arches are still standing is the long geological stability – or lack of seismic activity in the region. A temblor would cause the collapse of many, if not all, of the arches as easily as London Bridge falls in song. Fortunately for those who enjoy places like this, there hasn’t been an earthquake here for at least 50,000 years.

Where is everybody?

Before I bring on the star of the show in making Arches, I’d like to take a short intermission and bring up another point that makes Arches different from other parks I’ve visited. People lived in the Grand Canyon. People lived in Canyon de Chelly and people lived in Zion. Ancestral people passed through Arches but there’s almost no evidence that they lived here.

Here’s the evidence we do have. Hunter-gatherers migrated into the area about 10,000 years ago – a millennium or so after the end of the most recent glacial age. In Arches, they found pockets of chert and chalcedony which are two forms of microcrystalline quartz they used to make stone tools but that’s all the evidence they left behind. It appears they made their tools, left their dross and moved on.

It wasn’t until sometime between two thousand and three thousand years ago that the regional nomadic hunters and gatherers began cultivating such plants as domesticated maize, beans, and squash. However, most evidence locates the closest settlements of Ancestral Puebloans in the Four Corners region which is 150 miles south of Arches and places the villages of Ancestral Fremont and Utes closer to today’s central Utah.

Very few dwellings have been found in Arches or in nearby Canyonlands National Park but these ancestors did leave behind a noteworthy amount of rock art by chipping away the desert varnish on exposed rock surfaces to create petroglyphs similar to those we saw first in the Petrified Forest.

And now, the star of the show – Water!

Although the area is considered a desert, the 8-10 inches of precipitation that falls every year is the star in this rock shaping show. Here’s how: Drops of rainwater easily soak into the porous Entrada sandstone and then slowly dissolve the calcite bonding the sand. This effectively rots the rock from the inside out and creates water puddles just above the denser layer. Just as food caught in an inconvenient place in your teeth can erode them to the point where it creates a cavity, the trapped water in the clay and sandstone acts in similar fashion.

Rain erodes the rock and carries sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River which forms much of southern boundary of the park. Any winter precipitation eventually melts and, as the winter snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities it freezes, expands and breaks off chunks of sandstone in the process generating a type of frost weathering akin to what we saw at Bryce. Small recesses develop and grow bigger with each storm. Little by little, this turns fractured rock layers into fins. The fins enlarge and rock falls away in one of the two processes that ultimately create the arches. Arches also emerge when potholes near cliff edges grow deeper and deeper until they wear through the cliff wall below them.

While I was able to see a few of the park’s more iconic formations, many others weren’t accessible because sections of the park were closed to traffic and I had long since passed the point of considering any strenuous hiking on this trip. Still, before I wrap up this visit, I’ll drop one more photo  – of the iconic Delicate Arch here

and the link to the rest here. (Had I made the hike to and beyond the Delicate Arch, I might have had a look into Seven Mile Canyon where the they filmed the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Didn’t do it.)

I leave you with this fact: The arches themselves are fragile and impermanent. Even with no seismic activity, 43 arches are known to have collapsed since 1977.  As will be the case with the hoodoos in Bryce over time, the same forces that create the arches of Arches will continue to widen them until they suffer the same fate as the Azure Window and crumble.

No Beating a Dead Horse

As I left Arches to drive the short 26 miles to Dead Horse Point, (probably half that distance for a bird), in another demonstration of the importance of timing, there was no backup at the park’s entrance. I still had the option of visiting Canyonlands because so close are the two parks that, the first 22 miles of the 26 mile trip from arches is identical. To reach Dead Horse Point, you turn right to stay on Utah 313 for four miles. Eschew the right turn and continue onto Grand View Point Road (called on some maps Island in the Sky Road) for a similar distance and you enter Canyonlands.

And it was certainly a tempting option. Canyonlands is by far the largest of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks. It’s more than twice the size of Zion, nearly five times larger than Arches and dwarfs Bryce Canyon covering more than 10 times the acreage of it’s relatively tiny companion.  (Of the 59 areas officially designated National Parks, only nine are smaller than Bryce Canyon while about 20 are larger than Canyonlands. Don’t confuse National Parks with National Monuments such as Organ Pipe or any of the 417 other units the NPS oversees.)

Canyonlands is divided into four major districts two of which – the Island in the Sky and the Needles – are accessible by car. While I’m certain that enough daylight remained for me to make a quick pass through the closer of the two – Islands in the Sky –  it seemed that such a visit would give short shrift to a place that the environmentalist Edward Abbey called “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth”.

Two other factors came into play as well. First, while it might be hard to believe, as I noted above, I’d about reached what I’ll call my canyon saturation point for this trip. While there’s enough difference between them that the canyons hadn’t quite morphed into full on ooh-aah status, my reactions to their majestic scenery had grown perilously close to that status. Of greater importance was my long standing mental date with the small nearby state park.

This 5,300 acre Dead Horse Point State Park sits atop a peninsula of land extending off the same section of the Colorado plateau as the Island in the Sky district at Canyonlands but it is at a higher elevation than the White Rim Trail of its giant neighbor.

So why my obsession with Dead Horse Point? Well, it does have some impressive views like the one with the Colorado River below (or the others here)

but that wasn’t the reason at the top of the list. Before I reveal that, I’ll tell you how it came to have such an unusual name. (I was curious so I assume you might be, too.) This is from the park’s website:

According to one legend, around the turn of the century the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. Cowboys rounded up these horses, herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the point. The neck, which is only 30-yards-wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broomtails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

Now, the main reason I wanted to come to Dead Horse Point was to take a picture like this one:

Some of you might make the connection but I suspect most of you are still baffled. Although I couldn’t quite match the camera angle (mine from the rim, the movie from the floor), this is the backdrop for the final scene from a 1991 movie – and you know how I love visiting movie sites. So, let me show you a screen capture.

  And, for those of you who still don’t recognize it, it’s Thelma and Louise.

No news

You may recall that four trip days and eight trip posts ago when I visited Petrified Forest I wrote, “My next stop at Newspaper Rock would affect the Utah portion of my trip.” Getting close up to the petroglyphs in Monument Valley also played a part in my next decision.

It’s about a two hour drive from Dead Horse Point to Blanding and when I initially planned the trip, I’d included a small 25 mile round trip detour that comes up about two thirds of the way between the two. That stop was to have been at Utah’s Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument. In Navajo, the rock is called “Tse’ Hone” (rock that tells a story) and the website has this description:

Newspaper Rock is a petroglyph panel etched in sandstone that records perhaps 2,000 years of human activity in the area. Etched into the desert varnish are symbols’ representing the Fremont, Anasazi, Navajo and Anglo cultures. The exact nature of these symbols meaning is still not clearly understood. But they are typical of many sites throughout the U.S. in their use of universal symbols, be it graffiti or a true “newspaper,” recording events of the times and earlier.

One aspect that makes this worth a detour is that unlike in Petrified Forest, here, one can approach very near the rock face and get a clear sense of the symbols chipped into it. The main attraction, though, is the sheer number – more than 650 – of the images in a concentrated space.

However, just as the very young can become quickly bored in some situations, as I’ve aged, I find that I can become relatively quickly jaded. I’d seen a dense concentration of petroglyphs in the Petrified Forest and seen them in close-up in Monument Valley. Nearing the end of this two week journey the detour to see more rock carvings seemed much less enticing than it had when I first learned about the site. Ooh-aah.

For me, the decision was relatively easy. Drive on. Check in at the motel. Chill out.





This entry was posted in Arizona - Utah May and June 2017. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Salmon Arches

  1. Connie bevitt says:

    Amazing views, Todd. I was wondering how pioneers may have reacted to this if they were so unfortunately to venture that way. (Any commentary about wagon train crossings?).

    It looks both majestic and bleak.

    I didn’t realize this was one of the location that Game/Thrones used. (as a fan, I appreciate the illustration.)

    • Todd C. says:

      The route of the LDS Pioneers wouldn’t have brought them near Arches. They followed the Platte River north through Nebraska and into Wyoming going as far north as Casper before continuing west and turning south through Fort Bridger more or less following the route traversed by I-80 from, say, Rock Springs, WY into SLC.

      This crossing was something of a wagon train but people were also in horseback, in buggies, etc. I suspect that this was, because of the skills and insight of Brigham Young, better organized and provisioned then most similar crossings.

      As for GOT, you might recall that Dubrovnik also serves (served?) as a location. If you missed it, I wrote about it in this post:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *