November 15, 2013

Wolfman Panel, Butler Wash Road, Bluff, UT

The Wolfman Panel is a series of petroglyphs located just 1 mile up Butler Wash Road neat Bluff, UT. It is easy to reach and find and represents an outstanding display of ancient Puebloan rock art. In addition, you can also see an old cliffside ruin on the far side of the deeply carved canyon of Butler Wash.

To access the site, head 4 miles west of Bluff, UT on US-191. Butler Wash Road is not signed on the highway, but there is a sign on the fence crossing this well-maintained dirt road at the top of the slope just before the highway descends steeply down to cross the Butler Wash ravine. Upon reaching the road, pass through the unlocked fence and drive 1 mile.

The turnoff for the Wolfman panel is located on a small dirt track on the nearside of a fence. There is a BLM sign with information on the farside the same fence. Drive down this track about 300 feet to a parking area. The trail follows an old track dug into the slickrock. 

Wavey layers of Navajo sandstone indicate these are fossilized sand dunes

Just continue until reaching the edge of the ravine and then look for cairns marking the route down into the canyon. As you descend, you will see the old ruins against the cliff face on the far side. It's less than 1/2 mile to the site.

The route will pass a small alcove with some smoke scars on its roof and some leftover abode foundations. Just beyond that are the petroglyphs.

In addition to the wolfman himself, there is also a sandhill crane with wings extended, some other animals and humanoid characters, some "alien" looking creatures, and something that looks like a tree planted in a pot, although it might be some corn?

Return the way you came and enjoy the view across the Navajo sandstone slickrock in this beautiful area of Southern Utah.

The Abajo Mountains can be seen in the distance

July 7, 2013

Death Valley National Park, California

With the recent heat wave in the west and Death Valley setting an all-time June world record temperature of 129.9 degrees F, only 4 shy of its all-time world record, I thought it would be a good time to reflect upon our two visits to Death Valley National Park.

Death Valley National Park is a fascinating place or geologic formations and to study how life struggles to survive in such an inhospitable place. Located in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada and California coast ranges, Death Valley would already be a very dry place. But, include the fact it is within the high pressure zone of the North American deserts and at such a low elevation, and this makes it the hottest and driest place in North America. But, just because it is so hot and dry, doesn't mean nothing can survive there.

And in both of our visits there, once in December and once in March, we found out that it isn't always dry. In fact, on both occasions, we were hit with major rainstorms that dropped nearly an inch of rain and made up abandon our camping plans. Thus, if we concluded based on our experiences alone, Death Valley is a very wet place indeed.

Nonetheless, the heat and aridity, have prevented vegetation from covering the land and have exposed the soils and bedrock below to the erosional effects of the occasional torrential rain. This has exposed some spectacular geologic features, including the Artist's Palette, where minerals of different types, expose rocks of different colors including the greens and blues of copper, reds of iron, purple of manganese, and various others.

Artist's Palette
Of course, one of the most famous spots is Badwater Basin, where salty/alkaline springs emerge at the lowest spot in North America at 282 feet below sea level. While it was called Badwater due to the inability of people or livestock to drink the water, amazingly it does support an ecosystem of specialized aquatic insects and the endemic Badwater snail.

Badwater Basin in the morning with shadows of the mountains still on it
Another interesting location just north of Badwater Basin is the Devil's Golf Course. This large expanse consists of huge chunks of of salt-covered mud. The Devil's Golf Course is the dry lake bed of the ancient Lake Manly that occupied the entire valley to a depth of 30 feet during the Ice Age. 

Devil's Golf Course

While the mud layer is some 1000 feet deep, due to it being slightly higher than Badwater Basin, it remains above the water table and is usually dry. But, the wind-resistant salt crystals have allowed the flat lake bed materials to be eroded into sharp and chunky shapes.

Golden Canyon
Next on the trip is the Golden Canyon. This easy one mile loop hike through the canyon is extremely beautiful. The golden and yellow hues contrast with the reddish rocks on the cliffs above. In addition, within the rocks, you can see white layers of halite.

Hiking in Golden Canyon
Another interesting canyon to explore is Mosaic Canyon, just past Stovepipe Wells. Mosaic Canyon is called that because it is filled with dense conglomerate breccia rocks embedded with large and colorful stones. This route is up to 2 miles long before it ends at a dry waterfall.

Mosaic Canyon
Be aware, like we were, that if a big winter storm is rolling in, Mosaic canyon is prone to flash flooding. We escaped just before the rain began to dump and we had to give up our camping plans and head to Las Vegas. It is during such rare storms, that strong winds push the rocks across the thinly wettened mud of the Racetrack. No one has actually seen the rocks move, especially since being on the mud during a rainstorm would cause you to get stuck. But, during its normally dry conditions, it is an interesting sight.

Exiting Mosaic Canyon with big rainstorm moving in

One place we didn't get to go on either trip was 11,000 foot Telescope Peak. This large mountain rises high above the floor of Death Valley and indicates the shear scale of the Basin-and-Range extension that drops valley floors and raises mountain ranges. In both occasions it was covered by snow and impending storms made hiking it impossible. But, it even maintains a forest of limber pine and mountain mahogany on its slopes. Sometime we'll get up there to see the panoramic view.

A view of the 11,000 foot snow-covered Telescope Peak in the morning

One last place of interest at Death Valley National Park is not actually in the main part of the park. It is Devil's Hole, home to the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish. Devil's Hole is actually located in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, but the pool itself is part of Death Valley National Park. The Devil's Hole pupfish has the smallest range of any vertebrate in the world. The hole is only about 15 ft x 5 feet. While the hole itself drops for some 1000 feet, the pupfish can only live in the top 2-3 feet of it where the algae they feed on grows.

Devil's Hole
The pupfish found this site during the Ice Age when much of the region was covered in pluvial lakes and connecting streams, like Lake Manly in Death Valley. When the climate warmed and dried, the populations of pupfish became isolated from each other and this one found this refugia. They are adapted to the contant 92 degree thermal waters and alkaline pH of the limestone caverns. While their population has normally ranged from 150-500 individuals, following the "tsunami" of March 2012 (caused by an earthquake in Mexico) and several flood events, the population was measured to be just 35 in April 2013. The population may go extinct. We'll have to wait and see...

July 6, 2013

Hiking the La Plata Range, Colorado

When visitors arrive at Mesa Verde and climb the big slope up onto the mesa from the visitor center, they are often awed by the view of the the mountains just across the Mancos Valley. This southwestern-most segment of the Rocky Mountains is the La Plata Range. This small range is often overlooked by hikers by the larger San Juan Mountains to the east and north. But, with elevations up to over 13,000 feet on Hesperus Mountain, it is definitely work to side trip to get some real alpine experience.

View of the La Plata Range from Mesa Verde National Park

The La Plata Range is the closest area of the Rocky Mountains geographically to Flagstaff, and we had a desire to get a little "alpine" experience in before the summer monsoons and their associated lightning storms really got underway. There are a number of trails in the La Plata Range and the 500-mile long Colorado Trail crosses the range. In addition, it's highest peak, Hesperus Mountain at 13,237 ft is the "Navajo's Sacred Mountain of the North"

A view of 13,237 foot Hesperus Mountain

As you drive east from Cortez to Durango on US-160, there will be a turnoff to the La Plata Range just after passing the Hesperus Ski Area. The road starts off paved as it passes a number of summer homes and ranchettes, then is good dirt as it enters the La Plata Canyon, passing a number of camping areas and additional summer cabins. But, once it leaves the camping zone, it become a rough rocky road with a high clearance vehicle recommended.

Looking down La Plata Canyon

Most people will brave the road up to the intersection of the Colorado Trail, where they can hike 1.4-mile up to Taylor Lake, located  at about 11,400 feet. From the edge of the lake, you can admire beautiful wildflowers and the entire Cumberland Basin that makes up this portion of the range. But, standing some 600 feet above you is the headwall to the ridgetop where the real views are.

Climbing an old mining track

The trail is pretty easy going up the slope above Taylor Lake. The only sketchy part is the final 50 feet on a steep and slippery rocky face. But, upon reaching the top you instantly get a view of Hesperus Mountain and back across the Cumberland Basin. But, since the saddle is not at the ridgetop and there are dense willows blocking the view in other directions, you will need to follow the trail to the right through the brush to the highest point a few hundred feet further.

Approaching Taylor Lake, in the basin above

There, you will be able to look out across the Mancos Valley to Mesa Verde National Park, and north toward the Lizard Head Peaks and into the San Juans in the distance. In June, the wildflowers are spectacular.

The creek draining out of Taylor Lake into Cumberland Basin
The trail you are on is the Colorado Trail and it heads 500 miles from Durango to Denver, weaving through the La Plata Range, San Juan Mountains, and other alpine environments. Keep on it until it drops into a little saddle between two higher ridges to get the most panoramic views. This is where I turned around, but you can continue on the ridgetop for a couple more miles before it drops back down into the montane forest of Engelmann spruce and subalpine firs.

Be aware that Colorado has the monsoons in summer which result in regular afternoon thunderstorms. Do not go above treeline if it appears as though lightning will occur. We did our hike in mid-June realizing it was a bit before the monsoons would really get going and knowing it was a light snowpack this year so most of the snow was melted off. In another year, this hike would not yet have been possible in June. If you do go in the summer when thunderstorms are brewing, get a really early start.

A view down onto Taylor Lake in the La Plata Range

I've heard that hikers who do the 14'ers have to start their hikes at 4:30am to reach the summit just after sunrise so they can get down before noon when the thunderstorms get going. But, we knew the humidity was low and storm development was unlikely this day. Thus, all we saw by mid-afternoon were a few poofy clouds passing by.

Sophie at 12,400 feet with Hesperus Mountain beyond
So, if you live in Arizona and want to get to the closest set of Rocky Mountain alpine, then the La Plata Range may be the place to go.

A view back toward Mesa Verde National Park (mesa in far distance left)

A wooly sunflower at 12,000 feet

The saddle where I stopped to get the view out to the San Juan Mountains

Sophie preparing to head back down

May 3, 2013

Schuerman Mountain Trail, Sedona Area, Arizona

Looking for a nice, relatively easy, family friendly hike to do while visiting Sedona that is actually almost completely devoid of the crowds and pink jeeps you have come to expect? Schuerman Mountain may be just the hike for you.

Located over in West Sedona right next to Sedona Red Rocks High School is a neat little hike that will take you into a rare Desert Grassland habitat and offer beautiful views of Bear Mountain and other scenic areas of the Sedona area.  The trail leaves from a small parking lot just behind the high school and near a large area of solar panels. The trail climbs up the slope through typical semi-arid scrub vegetation of the area. But, reaching the top of the mesa, the ecosystem shifts into a rare desert grassland.

Desert grasslands used to be one of the most abundant ecosystems of the region, fueled by light winter rains, but heavy monsoons in summer. However, ranchers long ago overgrazed these areas, resulting in bare ground or a conversion to hardier shrubs, cacti, and yuccas in most of Central Arizona. Where cattle still run, there is virtually no grass to be found and the soil has been so degraded and eroded they probably will not return. This is obvious off I-17 on the way past Cordes Junction until Camp Verde.

While I do not know the history of this particular mesa, there was no evidence of cattle grazing I could see, thus is appears as though this site has avoided the wrath of so many hooves and teeth. As you hike across the summit you approach some interesting columnar basalts associated with the House Mountain Shield Volcano, located not far away across the Oak Creek basin. That hike is detailed here.

As you head out to the edge of the mesa, you can look out across the area including down into the basin where Oak Creek winds its way around various red rock mesas and pinnacles. In spring, the lime green colors of cottonwoods and sycamores contrast greatly against a backdrop of dark gray-green junipers and brownish-red rocks.

As you down and out into the Verde Valley realize that the summit of this mesa would have been near the shoreline of a great lake that filled the entire basin a few million years ago. On the way back and just before you descend back down to the high school, be sure to take the short side to the left to another view point. 

From here you can look across most of West Sedona, including down into Dry Creek, out across to the summits of Mount Wilson, with some of the canyons dissecting into the Mogollon Rim also visible such as Long Canyon, Brins Mesa, and the Teapot.

This is a great short family hike to do almost any day of the year while visiting Sedona.