Zion, Cedar, and Bryce–oh my!

Congratulations to Doug Sadtler (no relation) for winning the trivia question from a few days ago. The highest elevation that the Monroetorhome has achieved was driving around the rim of Crater Lake NP. Doug’s first answer (read his comment attached to the 8/1 post) was the Basin and Range. However, he did posit a second guess, and that guess is correct. And since he’s the only one to have answered the question correctly, he wins the day’s prize! A keychain from Cedar Breaks National Monument. This 1 ½ inch “Impact” keychain features a panoramic picture of the Cedar Breaks topography, as well as a compass and thermometer, perfect since Doug is always complaining about the temperature and can never find his keys!! (I’ll let you all think about that last one for a minute.) Congrats to Doug and fie on all of you who didn’t even bother to answer a multiple choice question! Jean, I don’t think they took your bullying seriously.

I’m sure if we took a poll to see which is the “crown jewel” in the National Park Service , I’m sure that many people would say Yellowstone–and for good reason. It is by far among the most varied, scenic, and iconic. For my money, I would have said Arches, but out of mere sentimentality. That is, until I hopped on the free shuttle bound for the Temple of Sinawava and The Narrows in Zion National Park. Before I go into our events for the day, let me explain Zion.

Zion is a canyon composed entirely of sedimentary rock carved almost exclusively by the Virgin River, the one I frolicked in two days ago. There are two routes entering the park, the South Entrance and the North Entrance. It is possible to drive these routes, however, both are patrolled by a fleet of propane-fueled shuttle buses which stop at every stop, and encourage passengers to embark and disembark at their whimsy.

What makes Zion singularly superior to all other parks (it has herewith been so determined, sorry Yellowstone fans) is the combination of the scenery, the variety of activities, and above all, the community atmosphere brought about by the use of the shuttle system. A journey to Zion National Park is a SHARED experience. There is very much a sense that we are all in this together. You run into the same groups over and over again, whether it’s two miles into The Narrows, or in the line for soft serve at Zion Lodge. Part of the experience you share externally (hike together, talk with one another), and part of it is shared internally (the mutual acknowledgement that you want this to be a personal experience, wish to hike/eat/read/gawk in silence). By the time I left, I wished I could see the German couple, the two Italian couples, the veteran in a wheelchair, and the four teachers one last time so I could say “Goodbye” and “Enjoy the rest of you trip.” Finally, the most charming element to Zion is the large lawn (with the most immense and beautiful cottonwood tree right in the center) outside Zion Lodge. There people ate, relaxed, threw Frisbees and baseballs. Whether this was the intended effect, when you step off the bus from your satisfactorily exhausting hike, you feel like you have reached “home base,” even if you aren’t staying there. This atmosphere of community, rather than competitive advantage, makes Zion, in my experience, unique among all other parks.

Now, the rocks. While on the shuttle, you are treated to a recorded narration by a park naturalist. It is very well done and very well synched to each viewpoint, drop-off, and turn in the road. From this narration, I learned that Zion represents the “mid-point” in the geologic lifespan of what is known as the “Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau.” During the last several hundreds of millions of years, a shallow sea, then a desert covered the western US from Wyoming to California. At some point, the sediment laid down during that time was covered by water, compacted, physically and chemically bonded to form various sedimentary rocks (sandstone, shale, limestone, conglomerate, mainly). Then one day about 70 million years ago, a large chunk of this former desert began to uplift. I don’t know what caused it, but since the Rocky Mountains are 75 million years old, I have to suspect that the two events are related. Anyway, a large portion of the western US (which looked nothing like it does now) began to uplift slowly. So slowly, in fact, that one river was able to keep pace with the uplift, and throughout millions of years continue its path to the sea while carving into the uplifting rock, fulfilling its course from the northeast corner of this uplift, from present day Rocky Mountain National Park, all the way through the southwestern edge of the plateau to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. Why the “Colorado Plateau,” you ask? After all, most of the plateau is in Utah. The river that cuts through this plateau from start to finish was named by the Spaniards for the bright red rocks they encountered in her canyons. They named it the “Red River” or “Río Colorado.”

So, back to the narration. The “Grand Staircase” is just what it sounds like: a series of cliffs whose lowest “step” is the Grand Canyon, middle “step” is Zion Canyon, and upper “step” is Bryce Canyon. In fact, if you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, you may have heard that the Kaibab Limestone formation serves as the rimrock for the canyon. The dry conditions in the desert make it difficult for the limestone to erode, so it holds the whole thing in place. It turns out that the Kaibab Limestone is the bottom-most formation in Zion NP. The tippy-top layer in Zion is the Navajo Sandstone. Guess what serves as the floor of Bryce Canyon? You got it—Navajo Sandstone. So, the highest formation in GCNP is the lowest In ZNP. The highest formation in ZNP is the lowest in BCNP. Part of this gradation is probably due to the uplift of the the plateau (and several secondary plateaus on top of the main one. But added to this drama are several normal faults that cause additional displacement of once-contiguous rock formations.

My vague recollection from my trip to GCNP in 2002 is that 1 billion of the earth’s geologic history is exposed in the Grand Canyon. If you add the strata found in Zion and Bryce, you’re probably talking about 1.25 or 1.5 billion more years added to the rock record. And all of it uplifted, tilted, faulted and now slowly eroding, creating formations that even the mind cannot conjure.

Since the Zion shuttle encourages independent travel, the Monroetorhomers decided to strike out independently. Mom took the Riverside hike, then walked out on the rocks at the beginning of The Narrows. Then she cased out Zion Lodge (she’s compiling an exhaustive survey entitled, “Comfort of and View from Leather Chairs in National Park Lodge Great Rooms”, due to be published when she can sit no longer). Following her stint of analytical sitting, she hiked to the Lower Emerald Pool. On her way down the canyon she stopped at the Natural History museum and took in the movie and a ranger talk. As she was about to board the bus for home, her obnoxious son jumped out of a bus fresh from a hike, and annoyed her into attending another ranger talk (ask us about the horsehair worm). After the talk, she went back to the RV.

Earl took his time on the shuttle ride, taking the round trip, then headed back to the RV in time for lunch, and sank into one of the captain’s chairs to engage in what has become one of our most favorite guilty pleasures—people watching. His observations about RV campground behavior are insightful. I encourage you to pry details out of him.

I headed out early for a hike in The Narrows, which is a canyon about 100 feet wide at its mouth. The exercise involves walking upstream in water that can be anywhere from a few inches deep to shoulder deep. The 16-mile canyon requires a backcountry permit, and a death wish. So I wandered upstream until the canyon reached its minimum width, about 20 feet. After 2 miles and 2.5 hours I decided enough was enough, and covering the return distance in only an hour. At the mouth of the Narrows, under the curious and watchful eye of a bunch of Germans, I took a dozen or so pictures of my shoes in celebration (see slideshow).

I headed for the museum where my mother ran over to me, embarrassing me in front of all these people, and made me attend a ranger talk and watch a movie. Following the movie I hiked the Emerald Pools, returning Zion Lodge for a hot dog (pic o’ the day?) and an ice cream cone. While lying in the grass under the cottonwood tree, I decided to abandon ambitions of my third intended hike (Watchman trail, affording views of the canyon, and Springdale below). I returned to the Visitor Center, purchased a large can of Budweiser (doing it for the family, Earl owns Anheuser stock). Although late to cocktail hour, arriving around 7:30, I was not truant.

Today we went park hopping. Leaving Zion, we descended the Colorado Plateau, only to climb it again in the northern section of the park called Kolob Canyons. A nice driving tour offering more great examples of erosional retreat was the highlight, although several hikes are possible. After Kolob, we got off the plateau, headed north and back up the plateau to Cedar Breaks National Monument. Here we achieved our all-time altitude record: 10,350 feet. The folks at Ford deserve props; this little V8 engine has weathered lots of “ups and downs,” literally. Cedar Breaks is an amphitheater of eroded sedimentary rock, famous for hoodoos and spires, much the same stuff that we will see tomorrow at Bryce.

We are now in Bryce Canyon, UT at Ruby’s Inn, a ticky-tacky complex of campgrounds, hotels, ersatz villages and such. Tomorrow we’ll case out Bryce Canyon NP, and make our way over the north side of the Grand Staircase, touching down in Escalante or Torrey, UT, on our way to Mexican Hat and eventually Chinle, AZ.

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2 Responses to Zion, Cedar, and Bryce–oh my!

  1. Charlie C says:

    Ted – Many thanks for the discourse in the mechanics of geology and its resulting wonderous views and incredible formations. As you are well aware, the earth retains gobs of geo-thermal energy. Some of this energy is close to the surface. Here in the USA, many of these “hot spots” lie in several western states. A small company, US Geothermal, has developed power producing sites in both Idaho and Oregon. In Idaho they are already selling 11 megawatts of power to a utility, Idaho Power Co. They are publicly traded (HTM) but are small and considered a “penny stock,” so any investment in this company would be very speculative. You can learn more about them at: http://www.usgeothermal.com/index.aspx. The site has a short video to give one an idea of what they are up to. Keep up your good work feeding the blog-o-sphere. We do find the reports interesting and entertaining.

  2. Anonymous says:

    We have enjoyed reading your travel log (we check for updates every day) and I am delighted that you are now approaching Arizona – my old stomping grounds during the mid/late 50s. I applied for a job as a comic map maker there, but was told “no” because I had no sense of Yuma.

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