Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Labor Day trip to north rim of GCNP- Part I: getting there

One of the most joyous things about returning back in the southwest is once again being close to the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.  I love the mountains of the San Juans here in Durango, but the canyons and landscape of northern AZ and southern Utah are truly where my heart and soul belong.   To my eye, it is the most beautiful and fascinating landscape in this country, if not the world.  The earth's skin is exposed, not covered by endless forests or oceans or pavement or malls, and able to be experienced in all its glory.

Rock layers formed over hundreds of millions of years from shallow seas, mudflats, and sweeping sand dunes, long before mammals (let alone humans) were even a blip on the evolutionary map.  After they were formed, time, water, wind and plate tectonics worked to carve and sculpt the most amazing forms out of the earth.  And, wherever you go within the geologic province known as the Colorado Plateau, there will always be something different and uniquely beautiful to see.

During the eight years I lived in Flagstaff and Prescott, I made countless trips to my favorite destination:  the Grand Canyon.  I hiked, ran and backpacked along the many trails and routes found within its depths, and never once did the novelty wear off; in fact, the more I was there, the more I *wanted* to return and immerse myself within it.   It remains, and will always remain my favorite place on this earth to be.   During the time I lived in CT, I was terribly homesick for this landscape.

So, when Flagstaff friends Dave and Eva sent out an Evite for a Labor Day car camping trip to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, it didn't take long for Wayne and I to agree come!

The drive from Durango to the Grand Canyon is without a doubt one of my all time favorites.   It's what road trips are all about.   For closet geologists like myself, it's a never-ending, always changing wonder of the earth's beauty.  It goes through a good portion of the Navajo Nation as well, which means never worrying about large, ugly tracts of cities or suburbia or, for that matter, much human influence at all.  Most of the ugly is confined to the perfunctory HUD prefab junk homes or run-down single-wide trailers so 'graciously' provided to the Navajo by the "ever-so-generous" federal government, in small, scattered pockets throughout the reservation.  An occasional hogan made from local materials is a comforting reminder that not all native culture has been completely squeezed out of the area.

I have decided to spit this into two separate blog posts.  I took over 400 photos during the trip, most of the drive itself, because it was just amazing.  So, it needs its own post, as does the Canyon.  I hope you enjoy the trip through this photo essay, and perhaps can understand why I love this country so much.

Church Rock and Comb Ridge pano
Church Rock is one of the many volcanic necks, or diatremes, in the area.  These form when lava and gases erupt through a weak point in the earth's crust.  Shiprock, in northern NM,  is another, larger example.  Comb Ridge is an example of a monocline, or one-sided tilted fold, in the earth.  Click on the photo to see the uplifted rock of Comb Ridge, formed from Jurassic period Navajo sandstone.  It looks small in the photo, but each of those notched uplifts of rock are probably over 200 feet high.

These unusually eroded forms of Entrada sandstone are known as the "Baby Rocks", and are at the base of Baby Rocks Mesa, on the south side of Hwy 160.  This photo was actually taken on the way home when I could shoot through an open window.
Whimsical formations like these, found commonly throughout the CP region, are also generically known as "hoodoos". 

Hwy 160 towards Kayenta.   Black Mesa, seen to the left, is formed of Cretaceous period deposits, ranging from sandstone to shale and the flammable rock known as coal.  To the right, Organ rock monocline, is visible as large pink arcs of rock.  The town of Kayenta is to the right and barely visible.  Monument Valley is also to the right, approximately 22 miles to the north.

Close-up of Organ Rock monocline
.  Composed of Navajo sandstone, as it abuts the Shonto platform to the north.  Navajo sandstone is the principal rock that forms the dramatic cliffs present in Glen Canyon/Lake Powell.  It is also prone to forming natural arches, and suggestions of arch formation can even be seen in this photo.
Painted Desert along Hwy 89.  
Ten miles past Tuba City, Hwy 160 terminates into Hwy 89.  We are now headed north, and this view is to the east.     These colorful rocks, known as the Chinle formation, formed from Triassic-period mudstones deposited over 200 million years ago, and are what make up the Painted Desert region of northern AZ.  The rock is soft and easily eroded; often, a small harder cap of rock is all that keeps it from eroding into the surrounding alluvial deposits.
Echo Cliffs along Hwy 89.  The Echo Cliff monocline is to the east side of the highway, running over 30 miles and across the UT border.  It is formed from the Glen Canyon group of Navajo sandstone (top layer), Kayenta formation and Wingate sandstone.    These cliffs apparently got their name from a member of the second Powell expedition, after hearing his voice echo after.  Marble Canyon and the Colorado River are to the left/west a few miles.  

Vermillion Cliffs towards Marble Canyon.  This is the view right before the road drops and heads over the bridge crossing the Colorado river and near Lee's Ferry.  Lee's Ferry is named after a Mormon, John D. Lee, who was made a scapegoat for the infamous Mountain Meadow Massacre, where almost 150 settlers headed from Missouri to CA were killed by Mormon zealots under the leadership of Brigham Young.  It is now a popular fishing area and put-in location for all boat trips through the Grand Canyon.

 Monocline meets Plateau.  More enigmatic geology.  To the right, we have the Vermillion Cliffs, which form the southern border of the Paria plateau, made of up of Chinle and Moenkopi formations (both Triassic).  To the left is the beginning of the East Kaibab Monocline.  Its surface rock is Kaibab limestone (or formation), a Permian-period rock of 245 million years.  This is the rock you stand on at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  All the younger Triassic rock, deposited over millions of years, has eroded away.  How?  Why?  Now, a small rift valley separates the two, filled with alluvial deposits of rock, old and new.

 On the Kaibab Plateau.  After leaving House Rock Valley (shown above), Hwy 89 winds up the monocline through pinon-juniper to Ponderosa pine on top of what now becomes the Kaibab Plateau.  At Jacob Lake, Hwy 67 now heads due south and towards the rim.  It continues to climb in elevation, and soon the predominate trees become aspen, fir and spruce.  The road soon opens into a long meadow.  Unlike the east coast, where essentially all meadows and fields are man-made, these meadows are natural.  Filled with grasses, wildflowers and occasional outcroppings of rock, they add to the scenic drive towards the rim.

Along FSR 22.   This shot was actually taken the morning we left, but I include it here as it shows the roads taken to arrive at our final destination on the north rim:  Timp Point.

Aspen and ponderosa pine make up most of the forest along the FS roads, as shown in this photo.    On the north rim, many locations at the rim itself are on FS land vs. NPS.  Camping is at-large and there are no fees to camp (but no facilities, either).  It also means no crowds...and that is one of the things that makes the north rim so special.

Next post:  Three days at the north rim.

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