Utah’s Desert Paradox

Utah's Desert Paradox: Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Upheaval Dome
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Have you ever wondered why the redrock landscape of Southeastern Utah ebbs and flows, why the exposed layers of sedimentary rock seem to rise and fall in crests and troughs like so many waves across the surface of the sea? Well, the answer, surprisingly enough, can be found through investigating the ancient seas that once covered vast swathes of Southeast Utah more than 300 million years ago.

Utah's Desert Paradox: Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com
Salt Diapir
Courtesy Geology.com
Back then, the allotment of Earth’s crust that would one day become the Beehive State was located along the western edge of a chain of islands that rose above a shallow, equatorial sea. 15 million years of sea level rise, recession, and evaporation left behind layer upon layer of salt deposits that would eventually measure nearly a mile thick. These salt deposits were subsequently covered and crushed by vast layers of sediment, rock, and debris eroded from the flanks of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Under the tremendous weight of these additional layers, the now lithified layers of salty stone softened and squirted west like toothpaste through a tube until they collided with deep tectonic faults. Here, they erupted upward, forcing the younger, denser rock layers into anticlinal arched domes, called diapirs, resembling the crests of waves. This phenomenon works much like a waterbed across the landscape: heavier rock layers squirting salt into thinner layers of rock that then bulge upward before they are subsequently squashed downward again by even more sediment, rock, and debris. The subterranean movement of salt through rock layers becomes a game of geologic whack-a-mole.

Utah's Desert Paradox: Cane Creek Anticline Canyonlands National Park Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
Cane Creek Anticline
Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
I recently visited Dead Horse Point State Park between the town of Moab and Canyonlands National Park. On the eastern edge of the rising mesa on which the park is located, one can look out across millions of years’ worth of sedimentary deposits toward the Cane Creek Anticline, an obvious salt diapir that seems to rise straight out of the Colorado River. Perhaps the most famous (and most contested) salt diapir in the area, though, is that of Upheaval Dome, located in Canyonlands National Park. An alternative theory to the creation of Upheaval Dome maintains that an ancient meteor impact created the crater where Upheaval Dome is located. However, the fracturing of the younger Wingate Sandstone that occupies the higher rock layers is indicative of a salt diapir formation. Yet, debate rages on!

Utah's Desert Paradox: Paradox Basin Overview Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Paradox Basin Overview
Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Funnily enough, the discovery of this layer of ancient salt deposits that wreaks so much havoc below the Earth’s surface was made in the collapsed center of an ancient salt diapir. In 1875, geologist and surveyor Albert Charles Peale, at the time yet unaware of the salt tectonics at work beneath the Colorado Plateau, noted the paradoxical course of the Delores River. As Peale and his colleagues would find out, the geography of the collapsed salt diapir caused the river to chart a perpendicular course through its valley as opposed to a parallel course as is most often taken by rivers. This paradox of fluvial geomorphology gave the place its name, Paradox Valley. Likewise, the subsequent discovery of an entire basin of ancient salt deposits borrowed the name “Paradox.” Now, we know the salty layer as the Paradox Formation of rocks found throughout the Paradox Basin of the Colorado Plateau.

Paradox Valley Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
Paradox Valley
Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
This paradox of fluvial geomorphology can also be found where the Colorado River cuts a perpendicular course across the Spanish Valley of Moab and is indicative of a vast layer of ancient salts below the surface, waiting to further morph the landscape into crests and troughs of rocky waves that ebb and flow across the landscape. The next time you venture into this part of our great state, stop and consider the remnants of ancient seas below your feet that project their image into the surface of the redrock above.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Paradox Basin Overview, Courtesy and Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UpheavalDomePanorama.jpg
Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com, https://geology.com/stories/13/salt-domes/
Paradox Valley Courtesy GJhikes.com, https://www.gjhikes.com/2017/10/long-park.html
Cane Creek Anticline Courtesy USGS (Photo id: 249988 – Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Cane Creek anticline, looking northeast toward the La Sal Mountains from Dead Horse Point. The Colorado River cuts across the crest at the middle right, above which is Anticline Overlook. A jeep trail and part of Shafer dome lie below. Figure 13, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1327. – ID. Lohman, S.W. 10cp – lswc0010 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image)
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Davis, Jim, Glad You Asked: Why Does A River Run Through It?, Glad You Asked, Utah Geological Survey, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/glad-you-asked/why-does-a-river-run-through-it/

What is a Salt Dome?. Geology.com, https://geology.com/stories/13/salt-domes/

The Colorado Plateau

000000The Colorado Plateau: Colorado Plateaus Province US Physiographic Province Courtesy US National Park Service
US National Parksbr />
Colorado Plateaus Province
US Physiographic Province
Courtesy US National Park Service

If you have ever been to a museum you have witnessed historical items that may be hundreds, or thousands of years old. When we look outdoors at the natural geology of our planet earth, we may be witnessing things that are hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years old.

I realize that there are some people who disagree with the aging with which some scientists label various mountains and canyons, so let’s just settle on the fact that some of these places are very, very old.

There is only one place in the United States where a person can put his feet and hands in four different States at the same time, and that place is called The Four Corners. The story behind this incredible area deals with the formation of what is known as the Colorado Plateau. This area covers 130,000 square miles in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. If you have ever been to any of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks you are on the Colorado Plateau, but it’s much more than that. There are 3 national recreation areas, 10 national parks, and 16 national monuments all included in that amazing geologic formation.

Scientists say that millions of years ago tropical seas covered the Plateau region where layers of limestone, sandstone, silt and shale were continually deposited. When upheavals began to lift the plateau, and mountain-building events occurred, volcanic eruptions also accented the western area. Eras of various rivers, lakes, and inland seas continued to leave sediment deposits known as the Chinle, Moenave and Kayenta layers. Later, a huge desert formed the Navajo, Temple-Cap and Carmel formations.

Tectonic activity began to uplift the Plateau nearly two miles high and slightly tilt it to the west. Rivers and streams responded with increased downcutting and erosion which revealed scenic wonders from narrow slot-canyons to huge cuts in the earth’s surface. Perhaps you have heard the term “Grand Staircase” which describes the descent in altitude from Bryce Canyon down to Zion Canyon and further down to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. About ninety percent of the area is drained by just a few rivers including the Colorado, Green, San Juan, Little Colorado and the Rio Grand.

Why emphasize the geology? Besides climate, think how the soil and rock formations determine water retention and flow directions. How water and soil then determines the plant life in an area. And finally, how all three of those components determine what wildlife will exist in that same area.

So the next time you visit Utah’s Mighty Five: Arches, Bryce Canyon. Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, or Zion Canyon, try to picture yourself atop a huge natural table-top with incomparable scenery.

This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Colorado Plateaus Province, Physiographic Provinces, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/coloradoplateaus.htm

Geologic Provinces of the United States: Colorado Plateau Province, USGS Geology in the Parks, USGS, https://archive.usgs.gov/archive/sites/geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/parks/province/coloplat.html

Annerino, John, Colorado Plateau Wild and Beautiful, Farcounty Press, April 1, 2014, https://www.amazon.com/Colorado-Plateau-Wild-Beautiful-Annerino/dp/156037585X

The Canyon

The Canyon: Grand Canyon of the Colorado Courtesy Pixabay, Public Domain
Grand Canyon of the Colorado
Courtesy Pixabay, Public Domain
Here it’s just called, The Canyon, like there is no other. It’s a place we go to get away from, or get into, it. It’s a place that still lets us trust each other’s word, and have plans on when we should be back. For those waiting on The Canyon, we practice patience and balance with our expectations.

For those of us in The Canyon though, we have entered a different, older world. Out here, once up and away from the road, we find what keeps us out late, what drives us home early, and why we go back.

Free from the paved groan, the threshold is passed, and the stories are all in front of us now. We hike old trails, finding new turns, flowers, and shades. We scout new paths blazed by others, leading to timeless vistas, stands, and grounds. We hear strange ancient birds. We smell new familiar fires. We taste life’s grit.

The repetition is not the kind that gets old, going out and discovering; getting dirty, thirsty, hungry, bit up, rained on, or suddenly freezing mid-stride when you hear a branch snap in the wood aside from you and you like that you still have some of that good instinct left, especially in this age.

The Canyon as we know it though did not begin as it now is, nor will remain. In its long winding life thus far, The Canyon has been sculpted by water, want, and what some call westward expansion.

For some of us, we know the story like it was passed down every winter. For others, we quickly learn that it’s worth the stillness.

Trees now grow on what was once an oceanic graveyard: the floor of a great sea. The very stone and rock that lifts dramatically upwards is an elaborate crosscut in geologic history taking place over millions of years. We find deposits of shells, fish, and other oddities as we ascend The Canyon, travelling through time as if in some wonder of which all museums aspire to be.

On and into this grand mountainous slab came Guinavah, The River. The Canyon’s deep V-shape has been carved from Guinavah flowing water over the forgotten seabed once more, finely eroding a channel through, giving The Canyon it’s great bends; perfect for catching an eddied trout or fleeing a pesky cell signal.

The River has been essential for humans as well for thousands of years. When the valley was settled, this time by Easterners in the mid-19th century, Guinavah became known to these settlers eventually as Logan River.

Historically, these lush environs once donned The Canyon’s many great iconic mammals, but the iconic do not easily survive in the limelight. 100 years after Eastern settlement, the once-abundant bison, bighorn sheep, and brown bears were gone. To mark their absence, we have Ephraim’s grave and the imagination.

This said, there is certainly no general void of wildlife in The Canyon. Seeing another traveler is always a blending of curiosity at what they’re up to, and of gratitude that they’re out here too. From here our paths diverge. Some of us continue the hike. Some of us continue the hunt. Some of us back away slowly and keep an eye on the company.

This is the world of The Canyon, a product of its many stories. For us who see the Canyon but have yet to venture in, there are ways in all seasons to experience it. Try a trail, Fork, or any number of Hollows, and visit one of the last quiet places in any one of the unnamed corners of your 1.6 million acre backyard.

It’s a good place out here. Many go out to experience how The Canyon is now, many go out to experience how it All once was, this is an invitation to go and experience of how It can all still be tomorrow.

I’ll see you at the trailhead.

I’m Patrick Kelly and I’m Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Grand Canyon Image Courtesy Pixabay, Public Domain
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Strand, Holly, A Grand Old River, Wild About Utah, July 9, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/a-grand-old-river/

Strand, Holly, Last Blank Spots on the Map, Wild About Utah, Oct 29, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/last-blank-spots-on-the-map/

Grand Canyon National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm
Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrandCanyonNPS

Ross, John F., The little-known story of how one man turned the Grand Canyon into an icon, AZ Central, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., Gannett…, https://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/2019/01/27/grand-canyon-national-park-icon-john-wesley-powell-history/2651251002/

Hikes, Colorado Plateau Explorer, Grand Canyon Trust, https://www.grandcanyontrust.org/hikes/



Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur: Visitors can see over 1,500 dinosaur fossils exposed on the cliff face inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Dinosaur National Monument. Image courtesy NPS, Dinosaur National Monument
Visitors can see over 1,500 dinosaur fossils exposed on the cliff face inside the Quarry Exhibit Hall. Dinosaur National Monument.
Image courtesy NPS, Dinosaur National Monument
My last WAU described the glories of the Colorado Plateau, to which I must return. The very northern reach of the plateau intersects the mighty Uintah Mountains and the Uintah Basin. This magnificent landscape also intersects with a complexity of cultures including Utah Natives, Utah State University, hard core birders, naturalists, paleontologists, mineral extraction, outlaws, and prospectors. This very “out of the way” part of the plateau (meaning well away from an interstate highway and large urban areas) offers scenery and rugged wildlands equal to Southern Utah with far lower numbers of tourists.

Douglass Quarry
Dinosaur National Monument
Courtesy National Parks Service
When my USU students and I first met the enclosed cliff covered with an array of dinosaur debris, our senses were overwhelmed with what stood before us. This incredible display has caught on internationally. Everything remains imbedded in the rock where these giant beasts drew their final breath. Parts of eleven different species are scattered about as you gaze upon this marvel.

A eye popping drive to the Echo Park overlook, view 300 square miles of sublime deeply cut canyons by the Green and Yampa rivers rivaling the grandeur of Canyonlands National Park. Gaze down on the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers, and far above the Gates of Lodore where Powell’s “Voyage of Discovery” met their first gnarly rapids that laid waste to boats and supplies.

“Advancing and prancing and glancing and dancing, Recoiling, turmoiling, and toiling, and boiling” quoted by a crew member from a poem by Robert Southy.

The Green River enters Dinosaur at the monument’s northern boundary and flows out of the monument 58.5 miles later, just south of Split Mountain. 47 miles upstream from Dinosaur’s boundary, Flaming Gorge Dam has regulated the Green since November 1962. The impoundment has severely altered the river’s natural regime below the dam. Before Flaming Gorge Dam, the Green River was often clouded by dirt, silt, and other sediments; was subject to high spring flows fed by snow melt; and the water temperature could range from near freezing in winter to almost 70°F in summer.
With the opening of the dam, these conditions largely disappeared. Spring flows, temperature fluctuation, and turbidity (the cloudiness of the water) were all reduced. The Green River downstream from the dam became a much clearer, cooler, and calmer river which added four species of fish to the endangered species list.

The Yampa is the only remaining free-flowing tributary in the Colorado River system. It harbors outstanding examples of remnant native cottonwood willow and box elder riparian communities, and it provides critical habitat for these endangered fish.

Prior to November 1962, the Yampa and Green rivers were very similar in their discharge, water chemistry, sediment load, and fish communities. Pre-dam similarity between the Yampa and the upper Green creates offer an unparalleled opportunity for comparison studies that help guide restoration efforts in riparian systems far beyond the monument’s boundaries.

Include Josie Basset Morris’s historic cabin in your itinerary. Josie was a female maverick who set up shop in the eastern Utah wilds. Josie brewed illegal chokecherry wine during the 1920’s and 30s prohibition era. Excellent birding exists in the large cottonwood trees surrounding the cabin and Cub Creek riparian area. From The Hog Canyon trail begins here which leads to a box canyon for more of nature’s delights.

Jack Greene- I’m totally Wild About Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US National Park Service, Dinosaur National Monument
Audio:
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, Earl Douglass and Dinosaur National Monument, Wild About Utah, Oct 2, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/earl-douglass-and-dinosaur-national-monument/

Strand, Holly, Paleontological Paradise, Wild About Utah, Sep 23, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/paleontological-paradise/