A Day in the West Desert

Southern Utah is famous for its canyons and arches. Utah’s West Desert, on the other hand, is not as well-known and is perhaps not as easy to appreciate. It encompasses a large area, containing entire mountain ranges that are virtually unknown (ever heard of the Confusion Range or the Wah Wahs?). It is also very remote: services are hard to come by and in many areas you could go weeks or months without seeing another person.

Yesterday Matthew Flatt and I drove to the House Range with our combined children. The main goal was to look for trilobite fossils: Isaac, my four-year-old, has become obsessed with them. Being completely clueless about fossil hunting we decided to make things easy by visiting U-DigĀ  Fossils, a privately owned quarry where they use machines to remove the overburden and break up the rocks somewhat. This turned out to be a great idea. The fossil-finding process is to select a thick piece of shale and repeatedly split it using a rock hammer. This is not hard since the shale has a distinct bedding plane — the kids could do it too, by selecting smaller rocks that had already weathered a bit. Nineteen times out of 20, the split rock reveals nothing, but every now and then a happy little trilobite is hiding inside — having waited in the dark for half a billion years.

After a couple hours’ fossil hunting and a picnic lunch, we drove through Marjum Canyon on the original unpaved road connecting Delta Utah with Nevada, superseded by Highway 6 in the 1950s. We hiked a short distance up a side canyon to see the cave where a hermit lived from the 1920s to 40s. It was a lot more comfortable-looking than we’d expected, with a concrete floor, stove, shelves, and two windows.

After exiting Marjum Canyon we entered Tule Valley, a bleak basin between the House Range and the Confusion Range. The main thing I wanted to do is see Notch Peak’s west face, which at 4450 vertical feet is one of the highest cliffs in North America. I had climbed this mountain (from the other side, obviously) in 2006 but had never seen it from the west. I’m not especially afraid of heights but had found myself totally incapable of looking directly over the edge of these cliffs.

We got back to Delta around dinner time, had pizza, and got home around dusk. A fun trip.

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