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  • Peggy Simonsen

Spectacular Geology in Utah

After we cancelled a planned trip to the Baltics and St Petersburg, Russia for this fall because of the war in Ukraine and concern about travel in the area, my friend Barb and I decided on a US trip for November. Too late for a color trip to the northeast, too cold to go north, we headed to Utah to hike in a couple of national preserves we had not been to. So we flew to Salt Lake City, rented a car and headed south to Torrey, at the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park. It is known for its amazing rock formations, especially the “waterpocket fold” that runs 100 miles the length of the park. (See photo below). A video at the visitors’ center explains the amazing geology formed over millions of years by water, before the uplifts and erosion caused the enormous red cliffs and rock walls. The reason it is called Capitol Reef is because of the white sandstone domes, like the US Capitol building, and the abruptness of the rock formations like reefs at the edge of oceans.


Just driving thru the park on highway 12 is amazing, including Gooseneck Overlook, peering down a deep canyon with Sulphur Creek winding back and forth in “gooseneck” turns. Even better is the scenic drive through the remains of an early Morman settlement and ending at Capitol Gorge, where we hiked a trail at the bottom of the canyon, looking up at amazing walls of multicolored stone. We stayed at Cowboy Homestead cabins, little upscale units with spectacular views. The next day we hiked the more challenging climb to the Hickman Bridge, a couple of miles up to a land arch, and then down. I had an annoying but not dangerous equipment failure, when the sole of my hiking boot pulled loose. So I flapped my way down the rocky cliffside and found a general store in Torrey to buy super glue that evening. The area was empty after the crowds of late summer and fall were gone. In fact, the week we were there was the last weekend before most of Torrey closed for the winter. Our weather was beautiful, cool in the morning, but warming to the 60s by the sun in the cloudless skies.


Grand Staircase Escalante is a few miles down highway 12, but the drive goes over Boulder Mountain-a windy road to the 9,000 ft summit with steep drops on either side- to

Boulder, where we stayed at the Boulder Mountain Lodge. Our first exploration there was on the Burr trail to a slot canyon, jaw-dropping awesome with slick, red rock walls. That is where we saw an endangered Mexican Spotted Owl, The whole trail is spectacular through red canyons. Another, very different geology found after a long, washboard dirt road, is Devil’s Garden, with hoodoos of eroded rock pillars, spires and domes.


We learned why the geology is called a grand staircase, as the layers of different limestones and sandstone form steps-broad layered bands across the mountainsides. We hiked the Calf Creek trail but short of time, didn’t get all the three miles to the waterfall. We visited Anasazi State Park Museum on the site of a 1000+ year-old ancient Puebloan settlement where many artifacts and foundations of buildings have been excavated. Heading into the town of Escalante with is extensive visitor center, we explored Petrified Forest State Park nearby, and hiked up to the top of the mesa where the ancient logs were left after being submerged in a primeval acid swamp that kept them from rotting.


A unique and special part of the trip was a gourmet restaurant in tiny Boulder, Hells Backbone Grill, named for a hogback trail in the park. It is an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant in one of the most isolated parts of the country. All the deliciously prepared food is locally grown or raised and prepared with care for the environment.


It is regenerating for me to be out in spectacular nature, not just driving through but hiking back in, and in November with no crowds. The rocks are vivid red against a deep blue sky, the sun is warming but not hot, the pace is leisurely and just a bit challenging. I am thankful that Bill Clinton designated the Grand Staircase Escalante as a national monument in 2000, and that President Biden saved it from destruction that Donald Trump allowed for mining leases. We need to carefully save amazing spaces like this for generations to come to be awestruck by their beauty and public enjoyment, in addition to their value in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


“The elders were wise. They knew that man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard; they knew that lack of respect for growing, living things, soon leads to a lack of respect for humans, too.” – Chief Luther Standing Bear, Sicangu and Oglala Lakota Chief.



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