Monday, May 29, 2017

The Stars and Dinosaurs of Moab

In the Land of the Dinosaurs

In the original Ute language, "Utah" actually means "Land of the Dinosaurs."

Ok... No it doesn't. I just completely made that up.

It doesn't mean that, but...

Our time in Utah did take us through many prehistoric landscapes that are a vivid reminder of the intense geologic forces that shape our planet. While driving on the high-elevation plateau between Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon, you’ll often see large fields of black igneous rock and the telltale outlines of cinder cone volcanoes in the distance. We saw the canyons shaped by millions of years of erosion, and the arches, and the unique monocline of Waterpocket Fold. Perhaps most dramatically, there’s also Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands, evidence of a massive impact event a long, long time ago.

But at none of our stops was the past more visible and “alive” than the little piece of BLM land outside of Moab: The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite.

There’s only one of those brown BLM signs to mark the spot where you turn off the main (paved) road onto a semi-maintained unpaved road. You drive along for a while, until you reach a large parking area.

Educational sign at Moab's Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite

Standing in front of some of the fossilized algae beds

You walk along the sidewalk until you see these... Lots of these:

A long, long time ago this now bone-dry area was swampy and temperate.

Some of the tracks are more obvious than others, but signs helpfully explained the origins of the tracks and pointed out which tracks belonged to which dinosaurs (or crocodiles, in one case.)

Further along the road there’s apparently a spot where you can see fossils embedded in the cliff side. Unfortunately, the trail got dustier and dustier, and eventually my little rental car couldn’t make it any further.

As in, I got stuck.

Fortunately, in spite of the fact that it was nearly dark at this point, a pickup driver was coming back along the same road and the driver was able to push us out of the deepest dirt, giving us enough leverage to turn around and head back out the way we came (as quickly as possible.)

I just like this picture.

Dark Skies

We came back to Arches after nightfall to try our hand(s) at star photography again.

It’s impressive how much quieter (and even slightly creepy) the park gets after dark (though there are still just enough cars driving by on the road below to mess up most extended shots.)

I got bored waiting for the Milky Way to rise...

Ok, so most of my photos didn't turn out all that well - but from looking at dinosaur tracks to looking at the galaxy. I'd say it was a pretty good day. 

In Summary

One frustrating aspect of a whirlwind trip of an area as large as Southern Utah is all the places we have to miss along the way. We’re able to hit all the national parks—but then there are all the smaller spots we don’t have time for: various slot canyons in the Zion area, numerous stops along Route 12 (especially Calf Creek Falls), Grand Staircase National Monument, Goblin Valley, Dead Horse Point, Scenic Highway 128 out of Moab (which runs along the Colorado River), and so on.

Plus, I would have liked to take a 4x4 tour deeper into the heart of Capitol Reef.

And even outside the parks and monuments, Utah is filled with strange and memorable landscapes. One area that particularly stood out to me was the section of I-70 between (approximately) Richfield and the interstate’s beginning (or end) in Cove Fort. You drive up mountains, and past strange and twisted canyons and ravines that sometimes seem to stretch far off into the distance. It’s alien and remote, but beautiful. I want to go back and pull off at all the scenic overlooks and take lots of pictures.

But I guess that’s what “next time” is for.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Arches and Canyonlands (Moab, Part II)

When making your way around Moab—eating at restaurants, shopping at grocery stores, hiking the trails—you’re likely to hear a lot of different languages. That’s because this tiny town in the desolate Utah desert is something of a recreational mecca, due to its proximity to not one but two iconic and world-famous national parks. People come from all across the globe to bike the slickrock trails, hike the slot canyons, see the arches, ride ATVs, and enjoy all the other recreational opportunities the area has to offer.

And... Well, I don't really have anything else to say about that. Let's start over.

So it comes to this: The last two parks in our grand tour of Utah’s “Big Five.”

At this point, we’ve been traveling for five days straight, and we’re both pretty tired of driving and moving from hotel to hotel every night.

But still, we’ve got to drive the full Arches scenic route.

I think I saw these in Cappadocia...
And we’ve got to climb up to enjoy the mind-boggling view of Double Arch.

An adorable baby arch just beginning its journey into full archhood

And catch a glimpse (from afar) of Delicate Arch.

There’s not much to say about Arches, other than to comment on how otherworldly the whole landscape feels once you climb up that slope and enter the plateau. So many geological wonders abound in such a compact space.

We don’t have enough time—but, fortunately, this is one of the two Utah parks (the other being Bryce Canyon) that I managed to explore more in-depth before moving away.


The next morning—and our final day of the trip—we drive into Canyonlands. We’re in a rush at this point—we have to check out of our hotel, and then make it back to Las Vegas to catch some sleep before our early morning flight. So we take a whirlwind tour to end our whirlwind trip—and we’re more or less running from place to place.

First we take the short hike to Mesa Arch, another iconic spot. Unfortunately, it's swarming with people—and the intense sun lessened the impact of what could have been some really cool shots. Fortunately, a million other photographers have already taken all these pictures.

I love how desolate the landscape looks beyond the arch

Then we’re off to Upheaval Dome—a giant hole in the ground that they're now pretty certain was formed by a large meteor impact many millions of years ago. For a long time, scientists weren't sure whether it was formed by a collapsed salt dome (?) or the aforementioned asteroid—but then, a few years ago, some researchers discovered "shocked quartz," which can only be formed by a high-velocity and high-pressure impact. So the impact crater theory is confirmed. (Sorry, my geology nerd is coming out again.)

You can't really get the scale of the thing in the photograph—but if you google Upheaval Dome, you'll get some really cool aerial pictures that show the series of concentric rings around the crater. In fact, click here for a good one.

I know I've said this a few times while blogging my Utah trip, but I’m fascinated by spots like this that reveal our planet’s dynamic history and the immense forces that have impacted (sometimes literally) and shaped it. The surrounding desolate landscape—there’s not a car or town in sight, just an endless vista of sun-drenched rock—makes it even more impressive, and briefly you feel like you might have actually traveled back to some primordial era.

I’d like to walk the full rim of the crater, but unfortunately it’s time to get going. I run back along the trail, jump into the car, and we get back to Moab just in time to check out of our hotel and hit the long, long road back to Vegas.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Xtreme 4x4 Tours (or: A Moab Thrill Ride)

Let's say you're an adventurous outdoors type, and you want to start a business. You also happen to know a thing or two about cars. What do you do?

You build your own vehicle—complete with roll cage and 5-point harnesses—custom-designed for traveling over Moab's steep and rocky terrain, and then you start driving tourists around Moab's plentiful trails.

I've been to Moab a few times, but this time I decided to do something I'd never done—take a 4x4 tour.

So after a quick safety tutorial in the parking lot of the Moab City Market, we got strapped into our seats and headed off to our first destination—a scenic overlook on a cliff to the southeast of town.

But first... We take a quick detour to some more petroglyphs. There are a lot of these scattered throughout the region—this one is easily accessible from the roadside.

After viewing the petroglyphs, we leave the paved road and start traveling straight up the mountain on what looks like a trail designed for hiking, not driving. At times we seem to have arrived at a dead end as we face a three foot rock ledge—but then, somehow, the “car” manages to climb over the wall.

Unfortunately, it was hard to capture the steepness of these barriers and the sometimes crazy angles we were sometimes driving at.

That's the path we're driving up
Driving uncomfortably close to the edge

Notice how I'm quite a bit higher up than the driver...

We keep going up and up, and... it’s actually quite exhilarating. Soon we’re a few thousand feet above the Colorado River and the canyon road where we started.

After about twenty minutes or so of driving, we reach our destination—a scenic overlook of Moab and the surrounding countryside (with the lovely La Sal Mountains still snow-capped in the distance.)

But this isn't the end point of our journey.

Once we’ve had a few minutes to stretch our legs, admire the view, and hear a little about the history of the area, we head back down the way we came—and then across Moab once more to the attractively named Hell’s Revenge trail.

Notice the art on the rear rock

Hell's Revenge

This is where it gets fun. Hell’s Revenge is essentially a giant rock playground for ATVers. There are all sorts of different paths you can take through this slickrock maze—ranging from the gentle and easy to tough technical slopes and “potholes.” There are a number of deceptively dangerous spots, and people do occasionally die from rollovers (or, in a sad case just a few weeks before we arrived, from a rollover followed by spontaneous combustion of the 4-wheeler the passengers were pinned under.)

Our driver, wanting to show off his vehicle and his driving skills—and give us a few thrills in the process—takes us along the most treacherous route.

And it’s incredibly fun.

At times, as we travel down what seems to be a 70-degree slope into a hole, I’m freaked out—and grinning from ear to ear. We do make a few stops—for pictures in a spot that overlooks the river and Arches, or for lunch in a hidden grotto.

The shady grotto where we ate lunch

But mostly it’s just a nonstop ride along the trails, into and out of potholes, and up and down the steepest slopes you wouldn’t expect to be able to manage in any sort of vehicle.

See the people at the top? We're driving straight toward them

Of course we're gonna drive into that hole

Yep, we drove down that too.

When I'm not holding my breath wondering if we'll make it up a slope, I admire the distinctive Moab scenery.

A cyclist takes a break on the trail

The other ATVs seem so wimpy in comparison...

It’s thrilling, and I don’t want it to end. After a while, I start to feel something approaching euphoria. It’s the most enjoyable experience I’ve had in a long time, and the most enjoyable part of my trip.

But, like all good things, it does eventually come to an end.


Before heading back into town, we make one last stop to admire some dinosaur tracks that are preserved in the open air on the top of the cliff. They aren’t the only tracks we’ll see in the area (more on that in the next post), but they’re a vivid reminder of the natural history of the area and the radically different landscape of tens of millions of years ago.

Tiny indentations of ancient tracks

Our guide poured water into the track to make it more visible (and "photographable")

Geology Detour (No Non-Nerds Allowed)

Though I've never taken a geology class, I've long been fascinated by the history of the Earth and concepts like geologic time, and I've (voluntarily) read a few books (and, well... Wikipedia articles) on the subject. In few places is the history of the Earth on more open display than in Utah, where tens of millions of years of Earth's history can be exposed on a single cliff face. 

Which all leads me to a little "nerd moment" I had when our driver pointed out a feature of the rock we were crossing. 

See the parallel black bands on the rock in these two pictures?

That's the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) Boundary. It's the (literal) line in the geologic record that marks the most recent mass extinction event in Earth's history—the one that killed off the dinosaurs (and most other species alive at the time.)

Below the line, you can find dinosaur fossils. Above the line... You can't. So that exact point marks rock that is about 66 million years old (give or take a few million.)

The date of the boundary matches the date of the impact of the several-kilometer wide asteroid that formed the massive Chicxulub crater in Mexico—an impact which would have sent huge amounts of matter into the atmosphere, and which would then end up falling as rain and ashfall throughout the world. And, as mentioned, both the boundary—and the crater—coincide with the time period that marks the start of the Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction event. In other words, this band of rock is a remnant of the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs.

Why is it darker? Because it contains a certain mineral (iridium) at a concentration many times higher than you usually find on Earth. The same layer—the K-Pg Boundary—is found in the same spot in the geologic record throughout the world.

Ok, maybe that's only cool to me.