Cedar Mesa

For years I’d heard people talk about Cedar Mesa, a remote part of southern Utah containing so many Anazazi ruins that it’s basically a huge outdoor museum. Recently my family spent a few days exploring this area. Despite the fact that Cedar Mesa is well-known — it was popularized, in large part, by a book by David Roberts in the 1990s — as far as we could tell nobody was camped within several miles of our campsite off of a high-clearance track near the head of Lime Canyon, seen here in the evening light:

April is a great time to be in the desert but this area is pretty high elevation (6400 feet or almost 2000 m) and it was well below freezing on our first night out. Here the sun is finally starting to warm us up the next morning:

Yep, the kids are wearing their snow pants. Later that morning we visited the Moon House, one of the larger ruins in the area. Although the hike to it is short, the route is circuitous, first dropping over a small pouroff, following a ledge around a corner, and then following a talus slope to the bottom of the canyon, passing between some huge boulders in the bottom of the canyon, climbing most of the way up the other side, and following another ledge behind a big pinnacle. There are good views along the way:

The ruins are impressive:

Life in the desert, though a bit sparse, is often pretty:

The next day we hiked in Natural Bridges National Monument; as you might expect it contains some big natural bridges:

And there were other things to see as well:

Although metates (stone mortars) are a common sight on the Colorado Plateau, something I haven’t seen elsewhere are the manos (grinding stones) since they are so easy to pick up and carry away:

We had great weather in the early part of the trip but got chased home a day early by a rainy night with a forecast for more rain: the roads in this part of the world tend to turn into grease that is impassable even with 4WD when they get wet enough, and we really did not want to get stuck while pulling our tent trailer:

All in all a nice short vacation.

I’m slowly ratcheting down the number of personal blog posts but I will continue to throw in this sort of thing every now and then.

A Few Panoramas

In the early 2000s, decent digital cameras were new and I was obsessed with stitching photos into panoramas. At the time the software sucked and doing a good job was a lot of work. However, I assembled plenty of them and figured out how to get them printed and my house is somewhat littered with panos. In 2013, stitching a good panorama using Photoshop is more or less trivial and paradoxically I’ve largely lost interest. Even so, a recent trip to canyon country resulted in so many good views that I assembled some panoramas for your enjoyment. I’ll just note in passing (now that Utah’s national parks have re-opened, though the government is still shut down) that all of these views are from locations many miles from any kind of park. One of these is from a state highway; the others required more or less serious hikes. If any of my 4400 students are reading this, I hope you will appreciate that I based this trip out of a motel instead of camping so I could respond to your questions at night.

From the top of South Caineville Mesa:

Dirty Devil River from Sam’s Mesa:

Towards the San Rafael Reef from Highway 24:

Looking down on the Mexican Mountain area of the San Rafael Swell:

Partway up a hike to the top of the San Rafael Reef:


Jay Lepreau died five years ago today; I wanted to share a few thoughts about him.

In spring 2000 I had a year of school left. Sarah had graduated and gotten several job offers; Utah was one of them. This seemed like a bit of an odd choice for us except that Jay flew me out and subsequently offered me a postdoc position once I finished up — the chance to work with Jay and his group was one of the main deciding factors for us to move to Utah.

My friend Alastair, who worked for Jay at the same time I did, talked about “the spotlight.” If the spotlight was shining on you, then you had Jay’s full attention; if not, then you might not be able to get his attention at all. Jay was very intense and spent many nights in the office, where he kept a ratty sleeping bag. Routine tasks such as ordering office furniture were put off literally for years, but on the other hand when papers and grant proposals went out, they had a sense of purpose and vision that I’ve spent an awful lot of time trying to recreate on my own.

The best memories I have of working with Jay are of a handful of times where a two or three hour meeting with him resulted in some substantial change in the direction in my work. In particular, I remember one time we met at a cafe near campus, probably in 2002. I showed up in sort of a confused and frustrated state about some piece of work (I don’t even remember what it was) and we just sat out in the sun on this warm day and talked things out for most of the afternoon. Afterward somehow I was no longer frustrated and confused.

Unfortunately I never managed to go on a desert trip with Jay; this short piece, written by a long-time friend of his, gives a sense of what that would have been like. The last time I saw Jay outside of the hospital was in Spring 2008; he and Caroline came over to my house for dinner, I remember it being a really nice evening.

Great Salt Lake Desert Road Trip

A few weeks ago, Matthew Flatt and I took a short road trip to the area west of the Great Salt Lake. We arrived at the Bonneville Salt Flats before dawn.

Unexpectedly, there were plenty of people out on the playa; it turned out to be “Speed Week” where drivers from all over the world show up to test out really fast vehicles. You can see some of their infrastructure here.

Since we had accidentally parked near where the vehicles were starting their speed runs, we watched for a while. People were driving a surprisingly wide variety of vehicles: street-legal motorcycles, 1920s roadsters, cars that looked completely home-made out of sheet metal, extremely fast race cars with parachutes — all sharing the same track. These vehicles were very loud, could barely idle, and were generally incapable of starting from a stop; several needed to be pushed to about 50 MPH before their engines could engage, at which point they roared away. This early in the morning there were very few spectators.

My new obsession is doing a long bike ride across the salt flats.

Next we had 50 miles of driving on dirt roads on a low bench between the salt flats and a small mountain range.

This is a seriously remote area and we didn’t see any other vehicles. Our destination was the Sun Tunnels near the ghost town of Lucin, Utah.

We had an early lunch in the shade of one of the tunnels and then headed home. On the way back I wanted to look for the obscure “Red Man” pictograph in Timpie Valley at the northern end of the Stansbury mountain range. We spent quite a long time hiking up and down steep hillsides in 95 degree heat, looking for caves; we were about to give up when Matthew spotted the right one.

This shot shows the scale; I do not know of any similar pictographs in this part of Utah.

Overall it was good to do a bit of traveling before classes got going.

Foothill Sunset

I went for a hike last night to celebrate being out from under whatever virus made me more or less sick for most of the last month.

The foothill wildflowers are more subdued than the ones that will cover the big mountains in July and August.

Four mountain ranges and the Great Salt Lake.

Looking down at the university.

I stopped a little below 7000′ and sat on a rock for 45 minutes waiting for sunset.

It was full night by the time I got home; should have brought a headlamp!

Labyrinth Rims

The Green River’s Labyrinth Canyon begins south of the town of Green River UT; the Labyrinth Rims refers to the area of BLM land on either side of this canyon. We spent four days in this somewhat isolated area of the San Rafael Desert without seeing any other people except for a group in the now-popular Bluejohn Canyon. Although this area is only about 30 miles from Moab, it’s at least 1.5 hours away by car.

On the first day of this trip we explored upper Keg Spring Canyon, which was pretty but a bit nondescript as canyons go, which perhaps explains why we saw no evidence of recent human traffic. We camped for three nights off a 4wd track near the head of Keg Spring Canyon.

Generally this campsite was perfect, with a bit of shelter from the wind, soft dirt to sleep on, and a large area of flat slickrock for parking and cooking. However, on our last night some cows moved through and one of them woke me up around 4am by licking my tent. In a befuddled state I tried to scare it off without scaring it so much that it trampled me and the tent.

On the second day of this trip we drove down to Bluejohn Canyon. Although this is most often done as a technical canyoneering route, much of the canyon can be hiked. The hiking route, however, crosses some confusing terrain before dropping into the canyon; map and compass are definitely needed here.

The main fork of Bluejohn is maybe the best slot canyon I’ve seen so far. Here, a chockstone some 20′ above the canyon bottom has a bunch of tree limbs and other debris jammed around it due to flash floods.

This is another of Bill’s pictures; he’s a better photographer than I am and shooting in slot canyons is not so easy due to the enormous dynamic range. A lot of slot canyons have a sense of intimacy; Bluejohn is more about grandeur and this photo captures that aspect nicely. For reference, I believe the chockstone is the same 20′ one from the previous picture.

There were plenty of minor obstacles like this before we finally got stopped by technical climbing.

A little bit of snow and a little bit of sun.

Here’s John Veranth in the “cathedral” section of Bluejohn where it’s maybe 150′ deep and only 1-2′ wide at the top. For a very short time, sun makes it to the bottom.

Anyway, Bluejohn was fantastic. The next day we explored the area around Bowknot Bend, a huge meander in the Green River. Like many things in this part of the world, it was named by John Wesley Powell or another member of his expedition. One interesting feature in this area is a large arch with five openings.

This is Labyrinth Canyon with the La Sal mountains beyond. We didn’t see any boaters on the Green, perhaps March is too early.

Finally we are overlooking Bowknot Bend. If you’re floating the river, it’s 7 miles from the left side of this photo to the right side. Although it’s only ~4 miles hiking each way to this overlook from the end of the 4wd track, we made a full day out of it by taking a couple of detours and a couple of wrong turns.

On our last day we explored Moonshine Wash, another slot canyon. This one is supposed to be nontechnical but after downclimbing a couple of short drops like the one shown here, we got stopped by a 20′ drop that did not look super easy to reverse.

Moonshine is really pretty.

A sheep bridge crosses Moonshine Wash near its deepest, narrowest point. Given my general dislike of heights (probably more than 100′ to the bottom here) this is as close as I was able to get to the bridge, which is generally falling apart and unsafe.

The Labyrinth Rims area is relatively easy to get to given how remote it feels. Much of this area could be explored with a 2wd vehicle, although in that case you’d end up doing more walking.

Around Zion National Park

Zion NP makes a great destination for a quick weekend trip in winter (and not just for people living nearby—Zion is only about a 2.5 hour drive from Las Vegas). Since the main canyon is 800 m deep, some parts of it don’t get much sun in winter. On the other hand, the east side of the park has some nice south-facing drainages that typically warm up nicely on a sunny day in January or February.

Spiral Jetty

Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is often totally submerged, or else high and dry as it was when I last saw it. Today a favorable lake level as well as warm weather and a feeling of having spent maybe one too many days around the house motivated us to take a day trip. The hazy air and calm water created an otherworldly effect. Afterwards, we stopped by the Golden Spike site and also the Thiokol rocket garden.

Around Hanksville Utah

Last weekend Sarah had a work trip so the boys and I spent a few days in the desert. The area around Hanksville–a tiny town right in the middle of Utah’s southeast quadrant that got electricity only in 1960–contains a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen yet, so we operated out of a motel there. Camping would have been more interesting, but I figured the short days and cold nights that we get in the high desert in late October might not be that fun for the kids. Or me for that matter, though I’m generally totally happy to sit there in the dark in a down jacket, drinking whiskey and reading a book by headlamp.

Just northwest of Hanksville is an area of Mars-like badlands that I wanted to poke around in. Fittingly, this area contains the Mars Desert Research Station, a facility used by the Mars Society to let crews simulate being on Mars. That recent stupid John Carter movie had some scenes filmed not far away. Also nearby is the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, a recently discovered treasure trove of fossil bones. Visiting this site turned out to be not that interesting; the people working there had taken a lot of care to hide their ongoing work under foil and sand, leaving only a few random (and presumably uninteresting) bones exposed. With any luck, next time we’ll be able to visit while they’re working.

I tried to explain to the boys the complex rules for collecting rocks and fossils which depend on what kind of land you’re on (BLM, wilderness study area, national park, national monument, etc.), who you are (land owner, person given permission by land owner, holder of mining claim, etc.), what methods you are using (collecting surface material, using hand tools, etc.), for what purpose you are collecting (personal use vs. commercial), type of material being collected (vertebrate fossils, invertebrate fossils, human artifacts, minerals, etc.), how much material you collect (“BLM regulations allow the collection of 25 pounds per day of petrified wood plus one piece, provided that the total removed by one person does not exceed 250 pounds in one calendar year”), etc. Of course at some point what happens is a boy rolls his eyes, holds up some pebble, and says “Dad… just tell me if I can take this rock home.”

On Saturday I had planned to spend the day exploring the area around Cowboy Cave, a (misnamed) alcove in a remote tributary of Horseshoe Canyon that was first inhabited by humans more than 8000 years ago. The bottom layer of organic debris in Cowboy Cave, 13,000 years old, contains dung from mammoth, bison, horse, camels, and sloth—it’s wild to think about these animals wandering around Utah. Also I have heard there are little-known dinosaur trackways nearby and I wanted to look for those. However, although the kids admitted that all of this sounded kind of cool, they were unimpressed by the prospect of 3 hours of driving on bumpy dirt roads and vetoed the plan.

We got up early and our first stop was a location near Caineville where I had read about zillions of fossil oyster shells weathering out of the shale. This turned out to be the case and we picked up a few souvenirs. After that I wanted to kill some time while the sun got higher so we’d have more light and warmth in a slot canyon, so we visited Little Egypt, a great area of hoodoos in the foothills of the Henry Mountains. It was a lot like a smaller Goblin Valley but without the people. We ended up having lunch there; for some reason the kids totally love backpacking food so I fired up the Jetboil and made us some Mountain House chili mac.

Just a few miles down the road from Little Egypt is a collection of popular technical slot canyons with a nasty reputation for narrowness. We hiked up Leprechaun Canyon from the bottom, stopping at a point where none of us felt comfortable continuing, and in any case it was so dark we’d have needed headlamps to do so. We had a funny moment where one of the boys, who had repeatedly proclaimed we had to stop and turn around, noticed that he had forgotten to remove his sunglasses.

On our last day I wanted something kind of short so we could do most of the drive home in daylight. Crack Canyon is one that I’ve wanted to see for some time but I got intimidated by some of the descriptions of its obstacles, so we headed for the easier Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons. It used to be the case that these canyons had a slightly remote feel but since I had last been there, the road to their trailhead had been paved and the toilet facilities improved. LWH is spectacular, easy, and easy to get to, making it the most popular canyon in the San Rafael Swell. Even so, thanks perhaps to getting a bit of an early start, we saw few people. We did the eight mile loop hike which ascends LWH through the San Rafael Reef, walks a couple of miles behind the reef, and then descends Bell Canyon. We hadn’t been to Bell before but it turned out to be totally great: it’s fairly short, contains great narrows, we saw no people, and there were numerous kid-sized obstacles that provided them with entertaining climbing problems. Next time I think we’ll just go up and down Bell and give the more popular canyon a miss. The only not-entertaining obstacles were a couple of 30′ sections of cold, muddy water knee-deep for me and with slippery and uneven footing. I managed to carry both boys over these sections.

Capitol Reef Rock Art

Last weekend we spent a day poking around Pleasant Creek Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park, which contains a permanent stream and a lot of rock art. The art was left by the Fremont people, who lived in the area until about 700 years ago; it isn’t clear why they left (or died out) but climate change is suspected. Pictures towards the bottom of the page are from the following day in an unnamed hoodoo field just outside Teasdale, UT.