Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

canyons

Slots of Fun in Cottonwood Canyon

Multicolored sandstone ridges on Yellow Rock
Multicolored sandstone ridges on Yellow Rock

Multicolored Navajo Sandstone at Yellow Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

The 47 mile-long Cottonwood Canyon Road slices through some of the most otherworldly terrain in Southern Utah, connecting Highway 89 in the south with the Bryce Canyon region in the north. Mostly unpaved, some GPS devices have been known to lead travelers down this road in the name of a shortcut to Bryce Canyon National Park. When dry, Cottonwood Canyon makes for a wonderful scenic drive and is indeed a shortcut. But in the days following rain or snow, the layer of clay-rich shale the road follows for most of its length turns into a veritable morass, and renders the road impassible regardless of how many-wheel drive your vehicle might possess. Coming from the south, the road initially follows the broad valley of the Paria River drainage, before leaving the river behind and heading up the narrower valley of Cottonwood Creek. This portion of the road passes through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; other sections used to as well before the monument experienced its recent “downsizing.”

We recently took a three-night camping trip to explore Cottonwood Canyon and some nearby areas. Our first stop was Yellow Rock, near the south end of the road about 13 miles from Hwy 89. Yellow Rock is a massive dome of Navajo Sandstone, easily visible from the road as is rises high above the jumble of rock layers alongside Cottonwood Creek. While the hike to its summit is not long, getting there requires a moderately-difficult scramble up a hidden rocky chute littered with loose boulders. Hiking poles/sticks highly recommended. After scrambling to the base of the rock, the real fun begins. After a few years living in Southern Utah, it is natural to assume that you’ve seen every color, pattern, and texture of sandstone that can possibly exist, but then Yellow Rock comes along and proves you wrong:

Yelow, red, orange, and pink swirls in the Navajo Sandstone

Walking up the east flank of Yellow Rock, enjoying the outdoor art gallery of beautiful colors, shapes, and patterns in the Navajo Sandstone. 

Multicolored sandstone and a view looking north along Cottonwood Canyon

Colorful sandstone near the summit of Yellow Rock, looking north towards Hackberry Canyon. 

Yelow, red, orange, and pink swirls in the Navajo Sandstone

Mesmerizing soft-serve patterns. 

While the abundant cottonwood trees lining the canyon bottom were still quite leafless, even in early April other signs of spring were beginning to show in this high desert. Traversing across Yellow Rock, we encountered many pockets of Desert Paintbrush, Anderson’s Buttercup, and Manzanita in sandy stream bottoms or in crevices in the sandstone, already in full bloom:

Bright red desert paintbrush plant.

Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa) growing in deep sand. The flower of this showy plant is actually the inconspicuous green spike at right; the bright red parts are the bracts and sepals. 

Orange and white spotted butterfly atop a yellow flower.

A orangetip butterfly enjoys the wild mustard buffet in the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows. 

Alternating bands of white and red rock.

For over a dozen miles, the Cottonwood Canyon road parallels the “Cockscomb”, a jagged ridge of resistant sandstone tilted to near-vertical. Here, varicolored rocks of the Carmel and Entrada Formations line the road near the Cottonwood Canyon Narrows trailhead. 

On our final night, we camped near the north end of the road, not far from Kodachrome Basin State Park, where we were treated to a spectacular sunset and even more stunning dark, moonless night skies:

Pink clouds and a band of pink rocky cliffs at sunset

Sunset from our campsite overlooking Kodachrome Basin.

Photo of the spring night sky with zodiacal light and Orion

Three landmarks of the winter night sky, Sirius (left), Orion (center, in flashlight beam), and the Pleiades (right) make their way towards the western horizon, where the bright band of the zodiacal light juts into the sky. 

No Southern Utah camping trip would be complete without a saunter through a slot canyon, so on the way home in the morning, we made a quick detour to Willis Creek Canyon. At the beginning of our trip, we had briefly probed the famous Buckskin Gulch, just south of Cottonwood Canyon in Arizona, but were quickly turned back by waist-deep mud & debris pools that were emanating quite possibly the most foul stench to ever besmirch this Earth. In contrast, Willis Creek Canyon is a rare bird in Southern Utah; a beautifully sculpted slot with no technical obstacles to rappel over, and no putrid cesspools to wade through. Instead, a small babbling brook winds through the sandstone narrows, seemingly oblivious to its own high-quality handiwork:

white and black streaked sandstone canyon walls

Narrows section of Willis Creek Canyon

A small stream flows between narrow sandstone canyon walls

Approaching a wide portion of the canyon. 

Narrow sandstone canyon walls

Back in the narrows!


Coyote Gulch in Pictures

ALcove and Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch, Utah

Jacob Hamblin Arch and a series of deep alcoves cut into the Navajo Sandstone are the highlights of a trip through Coyote Gulch.

This past weekend we made our first foray into the interior of the Colorado Plateau since moving to Utah. Our destination was Coyote Gulch, a well-known tributary of the Escalante River that straddles the boundary of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recereation Area. Below are some photos from the trip:

Trail through Hurricane Wash, Utah

The hike begins with a nearly six mile slog through the desert along, and often in, Hurricane Wash. Toward the end it gets interesting, but mostly it looks like this. Nice, but nothing to write home about.

Sign along Hurricane Wash, Utah

After about three miles of walking along Hurricane Wash, the trail leaves Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and enters Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is here that things start to get more interesting.

Cliffs in Hurricane Wash, Utah

Soon, cliffs of Navajo Sandstone begin to rise up along the wash and become progressively higher as you head downstream. Eventually a small stream appears in the canyon bottom, after passing through several short sections of dry narrows like this one.

Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

Eventually, Hurricane Wash meets Coyote Gulch, which is perhaps best known for a series of enormous undercuts carved into the smooth and sheer walls of pink Navajo Sandstone.

Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

This was the largest alcove we encountered and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp in its shadow. For most of the trip, the air was incredibly calm and still and standing inside these alcoves felt like being inside a great rotunda or cathedral.

Large alcove with hiker for scale, Coyote Gulch, Utah

The scale of the alcoves is truly incredible and difficult to grasp without being there. Note Michelle for scale in the lower left.

Star Trails as seen from an Alcove along Coyote Gulch, Utah

A group camped directly beneath the alcove on our first night spent several hours messing around with some extremely bright flashlights and spotlights. It was rather annoying when we were trying to fall asleep, but it actually made the star-trail sequence I was shooting come out rather nice.

Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Utah

Just a few hundred yards downstream from the large alcove where we camped was Jacob Hamblin Arch (also see photo at top of page). The creek makes a tight meander around the fin of rock containing the arch, allowing it to be seen from both sides.

Coyote Natural Bridge, Coyote Gulch, Utah

On day two, we day-hiked from our campsite near Jacob Hamblin Arch down to the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River, a distance of about 13 miles round trip. One of the many attractions en route was Coyote Natural Bridge.

Green grass and trees in spring, Coyote Gulch, Utah

It was mid-April and the canyon was incredibly lush and green. Many of the stream terraces alongside the creek were resplendent with green grasses and wildflowers.

Spring and rock formations, Coyote Gulch, Utah

Numerous springs emerge from the canyon walls along Coyote Gulch. Do you see the “T-Rex” in the upper left?

Lower Coyote Gulch, Utah

Moving downstream, Coyote Gulch leaves the Navajo Sandstone behind and carves into deeper and older layers of rock. Near the confluence with the Escalante River, the canyon walls are in the bright orange Wingate Sandstone.

Confluence of Escalante River with Coyote Gulch, Utah

Looking downstream along the Escalante River at its confluence with Coyote Gulch.

Stevens Arch, Escalante River Canyon, Utah

A ford of the waist-deep Escalante and a short walk upstream from the confluence reveals the impressive Stevens Arch high on the canyon wall.

Stevens Arch

Another view of Stevens Arch.

The surface elevation of Lake Powell when full is about 3,700 feet, almost exactly the elevation at the confluence of Coyote Gulch and the Escalante River, as shown by this Bureau of Reclamation benchmark.

At various times in Lake Powell’s history, most recently in the 1980s, the lake surface rose just high enough to flood the lowest reaches of Coyote Gulch and inundate the confluence under shallow water. The remnant water level lines are still faintly visible in lower Coyote Gulch.

Rocks, trees, and desert varnish, Coyote Gulch, Utah

The hike to the Escalante and back was a long one, but views like this around pretty much every bend made it seem shorter!

As a final note, Coyote Gulch has, for good reason, become an extremely popular destination over the years. We actually had some second thoughts about going after reading guidebooks that implored us not to visit on a holiday weekend in the spring (it was Easter) and after the BLM employee who issued our permit told us we would be “joining a party.” In the end, we found the over-crowding hype to be somewhat overblown. While there were more folks down there than you might expect to find in such a remote location, it could hardly be called a party. We camped in the most popular half-mile section of the gulch and couldn’t see anyone else from our site along the banks of the creek. We met just a handful of other groups on our hikes in and out of the gulch, and only occasionally encountered other people on our all-day hike down to the Escalante River and back. If you are seeking complete and total solitude or isolation, this is probably not the place for you. But we didn’t feel like the crowds detracted from the experience much if at all.

The increase in visitation to Coyote Gulch certainly creates challenges for the future. Hikers are now required to carry out all human waste, which seems to be a step in the right direction. However challenging keeping the gulch in pristine condition might be, I tend to believe that this situation is better, in the long-term at least, than the alternative. Coyote Gulch has been described as one of the last remaining echos of Glen Canyon, a small remnant of the scenic wonders that were submerged after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and the filling of Lake Powell in the 1960s. Glen Canyon was lost ultimately because it was “the place no one knew.” The same cannot be said of Coyote Gulch. It is one of those places where the term “loved to death” gets thrown around, but ultimately we only fight to protect places that we love and value and it is hard to truly appreciate a place like Coyote Gulch solely through pictures. Hopefully the more people that go to Coyote Gulch and experience its majesty first-hand, the more people there will be to stand-up for it against future threats that are assuredly to come.


The “Caves” of Cathedral Gorge State Park

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The badlands of Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

Next time you find yourself in extreme eastern Nevada with time to spare, I highly recommend checking out Cathedral Gorge State Park. This gem lies tucked away on the floor of Meadow Valley, about halfway between Las Vegas and Great Basin National Park, not far from the bustling hub of Panaca, Nevada. In other words, for a place fully accessible by paved roads, Cathedral Gorge is about as off-the-beaten path as you’re going to get.

Despite its under-the-radar status, Cathedral Gorge was established all the way back in 1935, and was one of Nevada’s four original state parks (along with the more well-known Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas). The highlight here is a shallow valley excavated out of a layer of soft lake sediments by Meadow Valley Wash and numerous small tributary streams. The sediment was originally deposited in a freshwater lake that called Meadow Valley home during wetter times in the Pliocene epoch (~2.5-5 million years ago). This area has been the epicenter for some pretty extensive volcanic activity over the past few dozen million years, so the sediment that accumulated in the lake was rich in volcanic ash.

Today, with the lake gone, the exposed sediment is so soft that it erodes extremely rapidly. Few plants can gain a foothold in earth that is crumbling so rapidly, so the water (and to a lesser extent, wind) have created a intricate landscape of badlands along the margin of the valley. The scenery is bizarre and not all that unlike what you might find in the famous badlands of South Dakota and the Great Plains. It definitely feels out of place in the sagebrush expanses of the Great Basin. While Cathedral Gorge bakes in the summertime, during our visit it was cold, windy, and virtually empty. We saw not another soul on a four mile loop hike around the perimeter of the valley.

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Miller Point Overlook, Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

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The terminus of one of the narrow “mud slot canyons” in Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada

While the loop hike around the valley was enjoyable (if a bit windy), we didn’t stumble upon the highlight of our visit until we started poking around the rock formations adjacent to the trailhead parking lot. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves exploring a landform that I still don’t have the right words to describe.

At the edge of the valley, runoff has carved a series of deep, extremely narrow, and almost perfectly vertical crevices into the soft sediments. The park calls them “caves” but the words cave, crevice, gully, crevasse, gorge, and ravine all fail to accurately capture their bizarre and truly unique nature. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as “slot canyons of mud.”

They evoke the sandstone slot canyons of Utah in the sense that they were so narrow that in many spots only a tiny sliver of blue sky could be seen overhead. Unlike most slot canyons though, whose delicate curves are clearly the result of flowing water, the walls here were angular and almost perfectly vertical. It was as if someone had carved huge blocks out of the mud with a chainsaw and then splattered the walks with mud to cover their tracks. Each little mud slot terminated abruptly in a roughly circular chamber whose walls were lined with linear grooves etched into the mud, extending all the way up to the rim. These chambers were clearly the work of waterfalls that spill into the canyons with each heavy rain.

As fragile and precarious as the mud walls looked, there were surprisingly few signs of catastrophic collapse. We explored about a half dozen of these little canyons, all of which were located right along the main road into the park. There were surely more that we missed, good enough reason to make the drive back to Meadow Valley another day.

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Water flowing into the gullies erodes and redeposits mud, creating intricate shapes and patterns that line the walls.

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Light streaming into a deep “mud slot canyon” in Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada