Geography 101 with Ranger Erin
Dinosaur National Monument is probably the coolest thing in America for dinophiles. I don’t mean because of the kitschy colored brontosauruses advertising every roadside establishment within 100 miles. I mean because it has 1,500 actual fossilized dinosaur bones on display, still embedded in the rock quarry where they were found. For real!
Driving up to the park entrance, you can see right away that these rock formations are unusual. They look so much older and seem to be at an odd angle compared to the surrounding mountains. If I were simply scanning the landscape for a dinosaur bone, I might pick this spot just because it looks…likely. It turns out there’s a good reason to look here. The deep layers of rock stick up at a 70 degree angle, giving a vertical look at hundreds of millions of years of history.
Picking a particular age is like selecting a product in a grocery aisle, according to Ranger Erin. And how did these layers become exposed like this? Ranger Erin demonstrated with a thick catalog of pages, striped horizontally on the edge. Pressure from the movement of the Rocky Mountains in the east and the Uinta Mountains in the west squeezed this section of Earth’s crust up into a kind of bell curve shape. Then the top was sliced off over time by the Green River. This provides unique access to layer upon layer of fossil history. It’s called the Morrison Formation.
In 1909, Andrew Carnegie hired Earl Douglass to hunt for a dinosaur skeleton for his museum. Douglass (who was really into mammal fossils) went out to the Morrison Formation and found 8 tailbones of what came to be known as Apatasaurus louisae (named after Carnegie’s wife).
“This discovery was the beginning of a dinosaur quarry that achieved worldwide fame. In 1915, Dinosaur National Monument was established to protect and conserve that dinosaur quarry.”
Erin called it a “dinosaur logjam”. I call it breathtaking.
There is so much here to learn, so much to imagine, so much to study. This one slice of Earth is fascinating, ancient, and full of stories yet to be discovered. I had to wonder at all the young children running through the exhibit. How much do they comprehend about dinosaurs? What is popularity of dinosaurs about, really, to them? How might their visit to Dinosaur National Monument inspire them?
Memorial Day weekend around Moab, Utah was amazingly congested. This year, the Colorado river ran higher than usual from the recent snowstorm. Recreational sites dot Highway 128 at regular intervals, and they all seemed to be full of boaters, campers, and bikers – humans with big, metal toys. We were searching for an entirely different kind of adventure, so we drove on north…and ended up at Dinosaur National Monument on the Green River.
However, the campsites with shade and accessible by our 2-wheel drive sedan were full up, and we didn’t have the energy to search for dispersed camping in the Ashley National Forest. We decided to break down and spend the night in an inn. After nine days, a hot bath was just too tempting! I have to say, I have a hard time ignoring my appreciation for plumbing. I can do it, but I can too easily undo it, too. Just 6 days into our adventure, I boiled some water on the campfire to wash our hair. The feel of water on my thirsty scalp out there on the canyon edge was exhilarating! Steve and I both have hair that grows almost down to our waists, though. Washing it and rinsing it thoroughly takes a lot of water. Without a handy renewable supply, it seems a poor choice.
But here’s another chance for awareness: how do I use water? What do I use it for? How much do I use? Can I use less? Should I use less?
We left our mountain camp very early and made breakfast at a picnic table beside the Visitor Center. The early morning light was gorgeous, and it was still quite cool. I was eager to get started!
We drove to the trailhead on a dirt road of switchbacks and wondered how more than one car could be accommodated on such a narrow thoroughfare. The parking lot was occupied by several vehicles, and hikers were checking their gear and getting started. After clamoring up the initial ascent on the trail, though, we slowed to allow others to pass and to feel the expanse of the place and let its still beauty sink in. I took a big breath and felt the tears sting in my eyes. The clouds were opening up, the sun was rising through them, the quiet sentinels invited us to enter holy ground. I felt welcomed and embraced and deeply happy.
I thought of my first trip out West when I was ten years old. My father was fond of exclaiming throughout our journey, “Look! Geology sticking out all over!” I had seen the exhibit at the Visitor Center explaining how all this was formed, but it did not compare to the feeling of being in this living landscape. I began to feel the sentience of the rocks, the sage, and the open spaces. How can I share that? I fear that photos don’t even give you a hint. But perhaps they do. (click on the first to view a slide show of larger images)
As we topped the pass into the Chesler Park area, a small family of hikers passed us. The father was carrying his daughter in a backpack…and she looked to be about 6 years old. I was impressed! I was gratified to see more families hiking together as we made our way back to the car, couples with babies in packs and even a pregnant Mom trailing a very quizzical boy and his Dad at enough distance to give her a break (as she explained)! A hiker with service dog carrying fitted water packs also passed us. Closer to the parking lot, a troupe of costumed folk began the steep ascent. I was amazed to see a hiker in top hat and butterfly wings coming up the trail toward me. (So amazed that I didn’t get a good photo.)
When we reached the car lot, it was full. Overfull. Cars lined the narrow roadway back to the last switchback. It was just past noon on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Which made us think about park usage. Who visits the National Parks? What motivates them to come out? How do they relate to this place? Now that I’m back in Wisconsin, I’m eager to hear Terry Tempest Williams lecture at the Madison Public Library on July 7 on her book The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. I trust that she will share some answers.
We entered Canyonlands National Park in The Needles district on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend and sought to get ourselves acquainted with the short trails along the main road before heavier traffic arrived. There is a self-guided nature trail showing typical flora & fauna and a Native granary and a trail to a cowboy campground just off the paved road. All around are the beautiful layered and eroded rock formations that give this section of the park its name.
All of these seemed to serve as an introduction to the landscape, but every long view we got that day made us eager to leave the paved road and the congested trail loops and get out further and deeper into this tremendous terrain.
So we decided to head up to our cooler campground for the afternoon and get a very early start the next day on a longer hike.
Canyonlands National Park
Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer season for travel, and desert areas draw big crowds early, before it gets blistering hot. New park staff are learning the ropes, and kids clamor for their attention to complete the Junior Ranger workbooks. We were warned by a Forest Service ranger at the district headquarters that road construction, park development and crowds had created a 5-mile traffic jam between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
We decided to adjust our goals. We camped in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in the Abajo Mountains south of the Visitor Center in The Needles district of Canyonlands. We didn’t go to the Island in the Sky area or to Arches at all. This turned out to be a great compromise, I think. It meant that after hiking in the hot, dusty canyons, we could drive uphill to our campground in the forest where it was much cooler. The temperature difference between the canyon high and the mountain low in one day was 40 degrees.
It also meant that we could drive through a stunning change in ecosystems, both ways. It was absolutely breath-taking. Our tent was pitched under aspen and oak, in view of a snow field atop the mountain.
From around the bend in the road, we could see down into the canyonlands. As we descended down into the Indian Creek valley, the exposed red and white sandstone layers and the dramatic effects of erosion captured my attention.
This part of the country is more vast and wild than any I had ever seen. I was acutely aware of its majesty and vulnerability.
As you read this, consider your ideas of land use and ownership. This was and is a continual topic of conversation for me and Steve.
Steve has been telling me about Hovenweep National Monument for as long as I’ve known him. It’s his favorite. He hadn’t seen it for 26 years, though, and was anxious to know how “progress” had changed it. What he remembered was a sort of shack out in the middle of “nowhere” staffed by a few Park Service rangers and visiting archaeologists. The roads were unpaved, and the ruin sites widely spread apart. We discovered that the roads were updated, because our map dates from 1990. Signs clearly mark the way, but it is still far from any town. The rural school bus was just ahead of us, and free-grazing livestock lined the roadway.
The Visitor Center is new. And the rangers are young and have no memory or pictures of what it used to be like.
The roads connecting the ruin sites are still dirt roads, though. We elected to walk the trails instead, and set off on an 8-mile (round trip) desert walk…which ended up to be a 10-mile one because we veered off the path down a wash and ended up at a barbed wire fence and then retraced our steps. That was an interesting part of the journey of awareness as well. How do you feel when you suspect you’re off the trail? How does your mental state effect your pace, your energy? What does a well-traveled path offer you psychologically and physically? When we had completed this hike, which was the longest of our trip, I felt truly exhilarated. My face was pretty red, I had gnat bites on my calves (that haven’t faded yet), and my knees and hips were a bit sore, but I was thrilled! This desert is a vibrant ecosystem, hosting many interesting plants and animals…including around 2500 human animals at one point, about 750 years ago. Have a look:
We walked the interpretive trail at Sand Canyon, imagining pueblo life on the Colorado Plateau. Steve’s previous work in the archaeology of the area made him an excellent guide. I could picture a lively community centered around the spring of water, foraging and farming, hunting and harvesting on a scale that the surrounding resources could sustain. He found a potsherd by the side of the trail and showed me how the designs were made with a thumbnail. Working with hand tools and simple technology, their lives seemed gracefully balanced. What a contrast to the ways of the motorized, air-conditioned, insta-tech 21st Century! Taking the foot path down the canyon, we tried to match our pace with the Ancients, mentally and physically, and be more aware of the choices we have made. For example, what makes us concerned about “being prepared”? Did the people who lived here carry water with them or did they know where to get it along the way? How did they perceive themselves in this environment? Were they “adventurers”, “survivors”, “explorers” or inhabitants, belonging to their surroundings? And what kinds of attitude arise out of those perceptions?
Here is a gallery of photos from that walk. (to see them in a larger format, as a slide-show, just click on the first one)
Canyons of the Ancients
Initially, when I proposed this trip to Steve, I said I wanted to see “Canyonlands”. I had just finished reading another Ed Abbey novel, The Fool’s Progress, after having submerged myself in Desert Solitaire late last summer. What I began to realize as our journey went on is that the American West is full of canyons of many descriptions. The rock type, the elevation, the water speed and volume – lots of things effect how a canyon is formed and what kind of environment is created around it.
Our campsite in the Black Canyon was visited by mule deer (just as we were setting about making dinner – obviously they were not shy!) foraging for vegetation and shaded by pinyon pines and serviceberry bushes at an elevation of about 9,000 feet. Our next campsite was on B.L.M. (Bureau of Land Management) land near Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, one canyon west of Sand Canyon. We were on a rock outcropping surrounded by juniper and yucca at an elevation of about 6,500 feet.
Oh, but before we got down to that level, we drove through Telluride. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a swanky ski resort town. The storm the week before had left the mountaintops covered in white, while the spring green aspen leaves were bright in the sunlight. It was a truly spectacular drive!
Descending to drier, warmer temperatures near the Four Corners region brought a dramatic change in the landscape. Steve started getting really excited; this is the country of his heart – the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. He became enamored of this place more than 25 years ago while volunteering on archaeology projects. He seems to thrive in the heat, both physically and emotionally.
We scouted through BLM roads and discovered a campsite on the rim of this little canyon. This is public land. There is no fee for camping here. Cattle were grazing in the area, but this side of the dirt road didn’t have much grass. There were some trails for ATVs and dirt bikes in the area, too, but not near the rim. It was Monday, so weekend recreation was over; we saw only three vehicles in three days. There’s no running water and no latrine, but someone had already made a fire circle and there was plenty of juniper and Gambel oak to gather for firewood. This is just what we look for in dispersed camping.
It’s ironic that most people think of the desert as uninhabitable. The truth is, this is where ancient peoples set up robust communities: pueblos. In the next two days, we visited some. And we enjoyed this place and its hospitality more than any other this trip.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
I was 9 years old and seeing the mountains of Colorado for the first time the last time I was here. Frankly, the only thing I remember of it from back then is the name. It kind of scared me.