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Southwestern Winter Deserts

Canyons of the ancients

A snowstorm was predicted to hit Durango this morning and so we left as early as we could to get out of its way. Fortunately, we were heading north, which was the direction the storm was coming from; it passed over without a flake of snow falling on us. We in fact glided on an electromagnetic wave into deep blue, clear skies.

Our first stop of the day was at the canyons of the ancient's historic monument. Here, by a frozen lake, we discovered another ancient Pueblo People's 10th century building. The Puebloans were certainly industrious and spread about the four corners area effortlessly. Unfortunately, the informative-looking historic monument center was shut, but we still managed to see the amazing handy work of these skilled prehistoric people by walking a frozen path to the top of a small hill.

Lowry Pueblo

Back on the road we drove a short distance to another amazing archaeological site: the Lowry Pueblo. It is at the far end of a remote and lonely farming road. This paved road soon turned into a frozen dirt track that wondered on endlessly into the icy corn fields. Traveling on this dirt road worried us immensely given our flat tire experience on a similar road in Tucson. However, the Puebloans' grand architecture drew us on.

This once bustling village was well worth the risk of a flat tire to see. It was a later construction in the Pueblo People's history and still had evidence of plastered walls and murals, which we had not seen at the other sites. Simply amazing.

Wilson Arch

We continued our comparatively short journey today and left Colorado behind, to cross into the land of the Ute People: Utah. As we did this, the vast Colorado Plateau became more apparent and the scenery began to change. This is what Wikipedia has to say about this stunning place:

"The Colorado Plateau is largely made up of high desert, with scattered areas of forests. In the southwest corner of the Colorado Plateau lies the Grand Canyon carved by the relentless Colorado River. Much of the Plateau's landscape is related, in both appearance and geologic history, to the Grand Canyon. The nickname 'Red Rock Country' suggests the brightly colored rock left bare to the view by dryness and erosion. Domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, river narrows, natural bridges, and slot canyons are only some of the features typical of the Plateau."

As we became overwhelmed with the many red rock structures along our drive north, we were suddenly confronted by the stupendous Wilson Arch. This red rock sculpture is massive, stunning, and breathtaking, and the very reason why we have driven 4,000 miles from home.

Moab Utah

We soon arrived at our destination: the remote town of Moab. We found our hotel, fell into a deep sleep, and dreamed of the red rock world surrounding us.

Moab, and the area around it, are part of the geology of Grand Canyon, hence the ubiquitous red rocks. And Moab is located close to the Arches and Canyon Lands National Parks, which is why we chose it as our new home for a few days. These parks are filled with copious red rock sculptures that have sat waiting patiently for millions of years for Julia and me to photograph them. I cannot wait to experience them.


One hundred and sixty million years ago a nearly six-foot-tall creature (Eubrontes) was walking slowly with another creature (Grallator) on an ancient mud flat. Their footprints were fossilized and now appear at the beginning of the Poison Spider Trail in Moab Utah. Their prehistoric stroll is preserved for us, to inspire us and educate us about a world that existed before humanity. A world where dinosaurs were the dominant species and not hairless apes. To see the footprints with my own eyes makes the idea of dinosaurs so much more tangible, so much more impactive.

Many millions of years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, hairless apes began to record their thoughts, ideas, and observations on rock walls and inside caves. These early communications have given us much insight into what our early ancestors were like. Coincidentally, at this superb hiking trail just a few feet from the fossilized dinosaur footprints are some amazing examples of these scribbles of the hairless apes: petroglyphs.

Julia and I reluctantly left all these ancient artifacts behind and continued this terrific hike. We were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful and perplexing geology of the area. The Colorado River winds through the region cutting a deep chasm into the extremely compressed and hard sandstone. But this does not explain the unendingly complex shapes and structures of the rocks. It turns out that the many domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, river narrows, natural bridges, arches, and slot canyons on this hike are due to a very unusual geology.

A million millennia ago, an ancient evaporated sea left behind a thick layer of salt. After many millions of years other bodies of water formed over the salt layer. These bodies of water deposited layer upon layer of sediments on top of this salt bed and in turn receded exposing these layers. The salt layer eventually could no longer support the weight of these sedimentary layers and they began to sink into the salt. It was this sinking, along with terrestrial erosion, that formed the amazing and stunningly beautiful rock structures we see today.

Arches National Park

It is our emotions that are peaked by the incredible rock structures in and around Moab. These magnificent red and beige rock sculptures carved from sand by wind and water overload our senses, because of their massive scale and their tortured beauty. We feel small around them and we certainly are.

Just outside of the town of Moab is the stupendous Arches National Park. Here this day we drove the winding road that leeds one through this wonderland of stone. In amongst the red and beige rock are splashes of green and yellow. No artist could enlist the passions that this place conjures up in those who cast their eyes on it. We fell in love with Arches National Park and must one day return to this hypnotic place, where the precariously balancing rocks perched high on pillars of sandstone taunt us to return.

Canyon Lands National Parks

Just when we had thought we could not experience any more beauty from rock and geological formations, it was then we went to Canyon Lands National Parks. Here everything we had seen before paled into insignificance as our hearts where lifted by the grandeur and magnificence that is found in this spectacular place. Vast red rock canyons on a scale not unlike Grand Canyon itself are found here.

Though, unlike Grand Canyon where one arrives at the edge of the 6,000-foot rim of the massive canyon, at Canyon Lands one starts at the bottom of the vast valley system and climbs up to the 6,000-foot top of the extensive mesas in this labyrinthic system.

Canyon Lands National Parks is immense and has three main entrances, which are separated by many miles. The closest to Moab is the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Here Julia and I wanted to get up close and personal with the rock and so we chose a hike called: The Neck Spring Trail. This 6-mile loop is well used, and is located just south of the visitor center, opposite Shafer Canyon overlook. It drops down from the rim and winds around some upper tributaries of Taylor Canyon. It also passes Cabin Spring, which was frozen on our hike, and various old cattle ranching relics. The trail has spectacular views westwards, towards the Green River.

Of course, this time of the year (winter) the hike is complicated by snow and ice that cover the sandy and rocky path. We reveled in the beauty of these canyons, the deafening silence, the sandy mud, the soft and thick white snow, and the frozen rivers and creeks that dangled long cold icicles like glass filaments on a chandelier. All around us the wet sand had formed into intricate fractal patterns as extensive colonies of cyanobacteria and fungi clumped the sand together. Such magnificence is difficult to verbalize.

We truly love this place and must return some day. Goodbye, for now, Canyon Lands National Parks.


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