Why would anyone become so obsessed with the Colorado Plateau?

In summer of the year 2000 I had helped set up a Henderson Family reunion to be held in Ft. Collins, Colorado (where both my parents had lived in their youths, and in the vicinity of which a number of my father's kin still resided). Helen and I decided that, since we had never seen Bryce Canyon in Utah, we would drive into south-central Utah and see Bryce, then go across the southeastern part of the state to Grand Junction, Colorado and then over the Rockies on to Ft. Collins.

This was also a time of my growing interest in photography, which had taken the form of a video camcorder (beginning with a Canon ES-1000, then moving to a Sony), both fairly expensive and good quality for the time but with very poor still-image resolution. I used the camcorder on that trip, so I must have old footage from it at hand, but it would take a while to find and re-examine that now. Suffice it to say that the pivotal moment in that trip was our decision to drive from Bryce to Grand Junction by way of State Highway 12, which took us across the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, established by President Clinton as one of the late acts of his presidency.

In the Map above, the new monument is marked in yellow, and you can see Bryce Canyon NP in pink to its west. The towns of Escalante and Boulder are shown in non-park lands, marked in white. Note also how Capitol Reef NP bounds the Staircase Monument on the northeast. Map drawn from Doelling et al., 2000; note that you can now download some of these fine articles from his edited book on the web, as this one. Click on the image to enlarge it.

The roadmap below (drawn from the same source) shows the three major sections of the Monument in different colors. Note how Highway 12 skirts the northern end of the Kaiparowits Basin section and then, after passing through Escalante, runs through what is called the "Escalante Canyons section" to Boulder:

This led us to many vivid visual experiences, but the one which astounded me most of all was the trip from the town of Escalante to that of Boulder, Utah, across a portion of Highway 12 where the roadway extended north-south along a ridge that was only a few yards wider that was the road along both sides, with steep, deep stream-cuts on each side and an apparent labyrhinth of washes and ridges running beyond in all directions to the horizon. Since I cannot retrieve my Camcorder record at this time, see this image taken from Google Earth (which provides a partially 3-dimensional perspective):

Actually, the Web enables us to do considerably better than this. For a much more vivid viewing, see this Youtube "Knife-Edge Highway" video. For me (coming from a Casper, Wyoming boyhood that included plenty of dangerous-highway driving), it was not a particularly scary voyage, but the visual excitement was overwhelming: in all directions, a complex wonderland, mostly rendered in monumental white. I have never been able to get it out of my mind. How odd it seems to me now, that having had a video camera at the time, it never occurred to me to use it in motion like these folks did! Calf Creek, on the west side of the road, has beautiful waterfalls.




Now I understand the obsession better. The whole area is mainly exposed as Navajo Sandstone (in the image from shown at left, "Jn" is the Navajo Formation; everything painted in pale green at left is a Member of the Navajo Formation.). Click on the image to enlarge it. In southwestern Utah, it reaches thickness of more than 2,000 feet.

Navajo Sandstone is that mighty geological Formation that dominates much of the Colorado Plateau and well beyond it, extending in fact from southeastern California into Central Wyoming (not far from where I was born!).. Geologist Kocurek (2003) says that its present distribution implies a great sand sea, well more than twice its currently observable dimensions on our western grounds, and which existed from the time when the end-Paleozoic continent of Pangea began to break apart, well into the Mesozoic. The current Sahaara sand sea will leave little trace in the rock record, since it is being blown away into the Atlantic without compensatory sediment influx. The Navajo did however have such influx, and over very long periods of time. In some parts of it at some times, it appears to have experienced Monsoons, and in this particular area marbles are found, apparently deriving from ironstone concretions formed near the water table during deposition as iron-froth-coated air bubbles in water-saturated sand.


In all of the geological light, the Navajo sand sea was the largest known to exist on earth. Its probable dimensions dwarf those of the current Sahara, much of which is anyway not sand dunes, but exposed bedrock.


So bewitched by these views was I that when we traveled on through Capitol Reef in 2000, I hardly noticed it. I must have noticed it somewhat, because it became the later focus of return. The main thing I remember recording there were the petroglyphs, which we entirely missed this last visit. Now, returning at last to Capitol Reef, and seeing what we have seen on this trip, I understand my obsession better. See Part 3 for more details, especially on the Navajo Formation. My obsession continues; it has not yet been assuaged, and maybe it never will be.