Canaan Mountain, a towering plateau of Navajo Sandstone is a classic southern Utah adventure through red sand, forested canyons and over ancient sand dune slickrock. Located south of Zion National Park, it is wild and beautiful.
Ponderosa Pine and petrified sand dune on plateau below Canaan Mountain
"It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space."
- Edward Abbey
Driving Directions (from Hurricane, Utah)
Traveling east/southeast on Utah Highway 59, turn left (east) onto Utah Avenue (right before Subway restaurant in 2018) in Hildale. Continue on pavement for ~ 2 miles, then Utah Avenue curves left (north) and becomes Canyon Street. At 2.5 miles from highway 59, turn right onto Water Canyon Road (road becomes dirt). Travel ~ 1 mile to a sign on the right of the road that reads "Squirrel Canyon Trailhead". Trailhead parking is just ahead.
Our route up Squirrel Canyon to lower elevation of Canaan Mountain
We ascended to 6,900 feet; the summit is 7,363 feet
(note: profile illustrates trail starting at our highest point and descending back to trailhead)
Our route up Short Canyon to Squirrel Canyon to summit of Canaan Mountain at 6,900 feet. The highest elevation of the summit is to the left (west) at 7,363 feet
Beginning of trail at Squirrel Canyon Trailhead in foreground, red arrow points to trail that bears right around red bluff on left to go down into Short Creek in ~ 0.5 miles
Once in awhile, we spend more time than we would like just trying to find our trail. It happens to the best of adventurers. This costs precious time, especially when days are short and the hike to the summit is long. Fred and I briefly started in the wrong direction, then had to backtrack to the Squirrel Canyon trailhead. Another look at compass, map, and hike directions to re-orient, then we were on our way, paying close attention to which canyon we were hiking through. There are no signs or trail markers until the climb up Squirrel Canyon, as this a wilderness area (an advantage: not many people on the trail!) We would still make Canaan Mountain, but not the highest point on its summit which is a longer hike.
We stayed in Hurricane, Utah for Thanksgiving weekend in an old Zion NP ranger's cabin. Hiking in and near Zion National Park is a great way to celebrate the holidays. I have been hiking in Zion since the early 1990's. We avoided crowds this time by choosing hikes outside of the park. I was very impressed by the Canaan Mountain Wilderness because of its rugged beauty and all of the sandstone features throughout, and the fact that we basically had the place to ourselves. My kind of holiday!
Entrance into Short Creek
Entrance to Squirrel Canyon one mile upstream from this - hike along ATV road on right side of creek
We chose the Squirrel Canyon Trail instead of Water Canyon Trail, another approach to Canaan Mountain because we read that the hike goes through water in Water Canyon and the temps were only in the 30's and 40's. There must be neoprene boots for wading up streams. I plan on doing this hike again via the Water Canyon approach.
The hike starts by descending through deep orange sand, across a wash, and continues on the orange sand straight ahead. It rounds the red bluff to the left and then drops into Short Creek, ~ 0.5 miles from trailhead. There were a few people riding ATVs on the trails and washes; they looked like they were having fun. The steep canyon walls shaded Short Creek and its huge Cottonwood trees in the morning. This scene looked much different in the afternoon on the way back to the trailhead with the yellow leaves brightly glowing in the direct sunlight streaming through the canyon.
The brief walk up the creek before the trail scrambles up a small bank under a huge grove of Cottonwoods is beautiful. Sand ripples alternating red and black lie under shallow water reflecting the sky. The trail then follows a 4 WD road along the creek, passing by plenty of grey rabbitbrush shrubs whose flower heads glow a cream color in the sun. Patches of white sand are deposited on the bank above the stream, possibly sediment from the white Navajo Sandstone layer further upstream.
The entrance into Squirrel Canyon, about one mile upstream is obvious, as the ATV/hiking trail crosses Short Creek. A wide and relatively flat area at the entrance was covered with autumn leaves. The trail ascends Squirrel via the 4WD road and then a single track trail as the canyon narrows. Oak and maple trees surround and form an autumn canopy of red, brown and green, while green moss and maidenhair ferns dripped water seeping from vertical sandstone walls. The trail transitions from the soft tread of seasons of leaves to hard and angular slabs of sandstone to soft white sand as it emerges from the canyon then tops out on a beautiful plateau underneath The Beehive, an ancient sand dune. In a short distance from emerging, the canyon trail intersects with the Sawmill Trail with a pile of rocks marking this point. As we turned left at this point (west), I glanced back to make sure I wouldn't miss this intersection on the way down.
A somewhat ominous entrance into Squirrel Canyon
The Beehive, elevation 6,476 feet
Seen as Squirrel Canyon Trail opens up onto plateau above canyon
website for climbing The Beehive
Cairns mark route over sandstone while going up Squirrel Canyon
An excellent feature of this hike is that it gains enough elevation to walk through at least two geologic formations. The top of Canaan Mountain consists of the massive Navajo Sandstone which is also observed in the towering walls of Zion National Park. The hike appears to be starting in the red cliffs of the Kayenta Formation (mudstone) that lies below the Navajo Sandstone. The transition I noticed was in leaving the red sands and cliffs behind in Squirrel Canyon and ending up on the white rocks and white sand on the plateau above.
The upper walls of Canaan Mountain are the White Cliffs of Navajo Sandstone, and at the base are the Vermilion Cliffs which can be seen at the trailhead. These cliffs are widespread throughout southern Utah and Northern Arizona. At this location, they face southeast, and in the morning sun the walls are ablaze with intense orange, yellow and red (read more about geology of this area below).
The plateau above the canyon is a wondrous world of layered, cross-bedded, curving cream-colored and orange sandstone, with never-ending examples of eroded Navajo Sandstone features. Huge junipers make you wonder how old they are. Dark and light-striped hoo-doos, domes and platforms in all shapes and sizes are so plentiful - I wished that I was camping up there so I could spend more time looking. Ponderosa pine and juniper contrast against the frozen-in-time deeply angled and curving sand dune cross-beds. The spectacular dark and forested V-shape of the entrance into Water Canyon looms to the south. Time was getting short. We left Sawmill Trail and scrambled up ledges of slickrock to the highest point on the summit north of us, which is not the highest on Canaan Mountain. We found ourselves in yet another world of a flat-topped forested plateau with soft white sand. Only a few hours of daylight left - we had to get back.
Sawmill Trail required close attention because it was marked by cairns sparsely at best, requiring us to "hunt" for the trail sometimes. The trail alternated between soft sand and slickrock, steep in parts. Tire tread from a recent jeep was helpful to navigate the way. With each turn, rise and descent, there is almost an overload of beautiful, stark, weird, unusual sights along with the feeling of elevated space and expanse in every direction.
At this point on Sawmill Trail, the only marker for the trail was these scrapes in the slickrock. It rose steeply over the rocks on this rise
Sawmill Trail weaves in and out of soft sand and cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone
Sand of Sawmill Trail lower left hand corner. We hiked to the right, up to the top
At 6,500 feet with view of the Notch toward the south
Leaves found on Squirrel Canyon floor
Common trees of southern Utah canyons are Canyon Maple, Boxelder, Fremont Cottonwood, Gambel Oak, Shrub Oak.
Ponderosa Pine, Pinyon Pine, Gambel Oak, Manzanita, and Douglas Fir grow on slickrock.
Heading down Squirrel Canyon
Beautiful canyon with bright green moss, clear pools and waterfalls, thick canopy of oak and maple trees
We saw no one else in the canyon and on the slickrock plateau. It was easy to get sidetracked in Squirrel Canyon while getting almost hypnotized by watching oak leaves floating in clear pools that had ripples on the bottom. As we made our way back to the trailhead, on the ATV trail that runs along Short Creek, a large group of young backpackers were plodding towards us in the deep red sand, laughing and smiling, silhouetted by the late afternoon sun. Huge Cottonwoods, strong and rooted along the white-sand bank with leaves glowing yellow lined our way back down Short Creek. These had massive trunks - the vegetation in this area is so robust and healthy. I'm going back - I can see why the party of backpackers looked so joyous! Next time - Water Canyon!
Geology and History
The age of rocks on Canaan Mountain are Lower Jurassic (201 - 174 Ma). It is capped by 1,300-foot cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. The Kayenta Formation underlies the Navajo. The Kayenta is then underlain by the Moenave Formation. The base of the White Cliffs of Canaan Mountain is part of the greater extent of the Vermilion Cliffs, which extend over a large area of Utah and Arizona.
Key to stratigraphic units in above photo: Eroded Navajo Sandstone on cap of Canaan Mountain 1,200 feet thick; Canaan Mountain is ~ 2,000 feet higher than the plain (Jn). Kayenta Formation (Jk), Moenave Formation consisting of the Springdale Sandstone member (Jms), Whitmore Point and Dinosaur Canyon members (Jmwd). (From Geologic Map of the Smithsonian Butte Quadrangle, cited below).
Temps in the 20's at night at ~ 6,200 feet in late November
Sawmill Trail treks through sand and sandstone
Cairns mark first trail off of Sawmill Trail that treks to the lower reaches of Canaan Mountain summit
Pool in Squirrel Canyon
Along Short Creek
Hike the remote cross-country route of the last mule U.S. mail delivery in the Phipps Death Hollow Wilderness Study Area through slickrock sandstone and sagebrush flats
Descending into Death Hollow from northern route of Old Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route
"If ever monuments are erected to unsung heroes, probably the tallest should be for those who brought the mail."
- Nethella Woolsey, Escalante historian
Northern section of Old Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route travels southwest from trailhead near Boulder Landing Strip to Death Hollow. This trail descends to Sand Creek, climbs to Slickrock Saddle, then descends again to Death Hollow.
It was the vivid colors in Death Hollow that I remember most when Fred and I hiked the Boulder Mail Trail 18 years ago. Bright blue skies, red rounded rocks, orange and yellow cut walls, verdant willows: the whole scene reminded me of the hues on the art class color wheel. We saw only two other people on the trail that day - two guys swimming and splashing joyfully under steep walls. So extraordinarily different this hollow was from other streams I had hiked before whose colors, albeit beautiful, are usually various shades of brown, grey and green. Here, in the middle of an immense sandstone sea, we had color combinations only the desert can produce.
On a very warm day in June this year, Fred and I hiked this trail again. The sandstone wall of Death Hollow as the Boulder Mail Trail enters it from the north is bright yellow and grey. I wondered if that rock surface could really be that colorful, and checked the colors of vegetation in the images I was taking. Maybe it was a reflection of the sun? Sandstones can be yellow due to dissolving of calcium carbonate, a common cementing material. The grey vertical stripes looked like weathering stains to me.
Death Hollow where Boulder Mail Trail enters from the north
These days, the Boulder Mail Trail trailhead is generously marked. The first 1.5 miles trek steadily down a bench through a pinyon/juniper/sagebrush forest. Views suddenly open up as the trail drops down into sandstone hills and gulches of the Sand Creek tributaries. Rock cairns mark the trail for the remaining trek to Death Hollow (and then on to Escalante), except for a few sandy stretches where the trail is marked initially by a cairn.
Boulder Mail Trail trailhead sign and register
Nearing transition from plateau to shallow Navajo Sandstone canyon. Look at that marvelous open country in the distance that we get to walk through!
The trail zig-zags through a sandy opening of a shelf of eroded orange sandstone layers and deposits you onto the immense slickrock. As you leave the plateau behind, two and even three cairns can be seen ahead, linking the trail to Sand Creek. So much to see in such a stark landscape: grey lichen, aged wood, sand pockets, and water-smoothed channels.
You never know what you may find on slickrock
At 2.7 miles, cross Sand Creek, flowing in mid-June. Walk on right (west) side of creek through willows for ~ 0.2 - 0.3 miles to cairns that climb out of creek bottom and briefly switchback over a knob. We had to backtrack here because we followed the creek too closely to the shore. The climb from Sand Creek to the highest point on Slickrock Saddle is ~ 500 feet. The initial climb out of the creek is steep, then alternates between less steep and steep rises (see profile chart, above), trekking around the northwest side of a large dome with hoodoos on top.
Telephone wire installed 108 years ago runs along the trail as it treks through long stretches of deep sand in a pinyon/juniper forest. This segment leads to the summit of Slickrock Saddle Bench at 6,600 feet and the first view of Death Hollow.
Telephone line installed in 1910 runs along trail - insulators attached to trees like this one above in a dead Ponderosa Pine
First view of Death Hollow from top of Slickrock Saddle Bench - last bit of sand hiking in foreground
As you make your way off Slickrock Saddle Bench, the shadowy chasm of Death Hollow becomes deeper and deeper; you know it's there, but it just won't reveal itself right away. It's tempting to stare in awe at this unique sight, but stay focused on the cairns, too, because the trail swings south and skirts around a knob at 6,617 feet, heading for the best way off the bench. Next, the trail switchbacks and treks in a northwest direction. The steepest part lies ahead, and you wonder how mules delivering mail in the early 1900's walked across this precarious descent. A passage from the book "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante" reads:
"To a reader sitting in a comfortable arm chair it is hard to describe the beauty of the Death Hollow Trail or the fear caused while sitting astride a horse trying to make its way safely over the rough terrain. It is said that horses' legs literally quivered as they gingerly picked their way down the trail."
- Jerry C. Roundy, Escalante resident and author of "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante"
This trail was known in the early 1900's as the Death Hollow Trail, and it was the shortest route between Boulder and Escalante. It was the fastest route if one was in a hurry, for the wagon road between the towns was a longer distance. Parts of this trail were "blasted out" in order for safe horse passage. Tales of cream cans and eggs being delivered via the Death Hollow Trail among other trail experiences are described in Jerry Roundy's book. The residents of Boulder and Escalante finally received the mail service they had been petitioning for in 1902 when the first government mail carrier's contract was given to an Escalante resident, who would deliver mail using the Death Hollow Trail twice per week.
I'm more aware of my balance on the steep slickrock; most of the texture of the rock enables my boots to grip well, but there are smoother patches to look out for. I imagine what it was like to lead horses and mules over this section. Did they slip? During the winter was there ice? What would this place look like with several inches of snow? Or under a full moon? I believe the Death Hollow Trail mail carriers were pretty tough, and they got to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Starting at ~ 5.25 miles, the well-marked trail switchbacks and descends 600 feet in 3/4 of a mile to the thick vegetation of the flowing creek in Death Hollow. Some moss-covered rocks were slippery to step onto. There's a sweet tent spot at the terminus, and from the paths seen on the treeless part of the shore on the descent, there are probably more tent spaces available.
This time we didn't hike down Death Hollow as we did 18 years ago, although the water would have cooled us off in the mid-80's temperature. Vegetation along water seemed thicker this time, but the colors and textures no less beautiful. The cool shade, chatter of water over rocks, sudden splash of colors and tall vertical walls in Death Hollow contrast with the bright and open, mostly shadeless trek across sandstone country.
After resting in the shade, we started the 6-mile hike back, looking forward to the largest elevation gain of the trip - 1,450 feet. On the way back, we took a break at Sand Creek, near huge rounded basalt boulders, probably from Boulder Mountain, whose basalt age is 6 - 16 Ma, and whose run-off streams provide water for Sand Creek.
There's always numerous adventures awaiting me, and seeing Fred walk across the slickrock is even more fulfilling than the hike, which is hard to beat. One of the best parts of life is the hope of future adventures in the beautiful American West. Next time - the entire Boulder Mail Trail!
Two days earlier, Fred and I hiked from Escalante to Mamie Creek along the Boulder Mail Trail (the southern portion). Although we didn't get all the way to Death Hollow, I feel that portion of the trail is even more gorgeous. We had the Phipps Death Hollow Wilderness all to ourselves that day, as we saw no one else. It's days like these that I will remember reverently - forever.
Below are some images of the portion of the Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route south of Death Hollow.
We ran into a retired biologist who took this photo of us after a detailed discussion of Fe+3, ferric iron in the rocks - very interesting to me, but Fred not so much!
Thank goodness for cairns!
Slickrock Saddle Bench
Basalt boulders near Sand Creek
Images from south portion of Boulder Mail Trail Cross Country Route - Escalante to Mamie Creek
Prickly pear near junction of Pine Creek and Old Boulder Mail Trail
Heading up to Antone Flat
South end of Boulder Mail Trail from Escalante trailhead
Trail goes to the left of large drainage and then treks to the right in this photo on the smooth portion at the base of plateau
Boggs, S. Jr. 2012. Principles of Sedimentology and Stratigraphy, Fifth Ed. Pearson Education, Inc.
Hackman, R.J., and Wyant, D.G., 1973, Geology, structure, and uranium deposits of the Escalante quadrangle, Utah and Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey, Miscellaneous Geologic Investigations Map I-744, scale 1:250,000.
Parry, W. T. 2016. Geology of Utah's Mountain, Peaks and Plateaus. Friesen Press, Victoria, B.C., Canada.
Roundy, J. C. 2000. "Advised them to Call the Place Escalante". Art City Publishing, Springville, Utah. 355 pp.
A unique opportunity to see a near-relict, pristine desert ecosystem on the most inaccessible mesa in Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument: No Mans Mesa, accessed from Lick Wash trail is solitary, remote, and undisturbed.
View of Park Wash and Navajo sandstone cliffs from rock fan of No Mans Mesa
This hike follows the 4-WD road to the right of wash
"In sublimity - the superlative degree of beauty -
what land can equal the desert?"
- John C. Van Dyke
Lick Wash Trailhead sign 18 miles down Skutumpah Road; large ponderosa pine and Navajo Sandstone walls ~ 1/2 mile down Lick Wash
Hike route and elevation profile - Lick Wash trailhead to top of No Mans Mesa
Route travels southeast down Lick Wash, then meets with Park Wash to travel northeast to northern tip of No Mans Mesa
Entrance into Lick Wash, shortly after trailhead
Towering sandstone walls dominate on the first mile of Lick Wash hike
I was excited to get to the top of No Mans Mesa, since I do field work surveying ecological sites, work on conservation of a rare plant, and volunteer for habitat restoration. Fred and I had attempted to hike to this mesa 3 years ago, but the condition of Skutumpah Road was too risky after a few rainstorms.
At a bend in Lick Wash about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, after steep walls had given way to a wider, less-constrained channel, Fred and I got our first view of No Mans Mesa. It's long length and towering 1,200-foot white walls were just emerging from morning shadows. Like a fortress it stood, looking impenetrable, at least to this first view. There's a small passage, however that climbs through the walls to the top, and we were hoping to find it. The next goal for this journey was to find the intersection of Lick Wash and Park Wash, and locate the trail that would take us past the LeFevre line cabin, through the sagebrush flat of Park Wash, then to the bottom of the rock debris fan located on the north side of No Mans Mesa in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
We had driven 18 miles down Skutumpah Road to the Lick Wash trailhead and hiked the wash in a southeastward direction. I was prepared with the excellent hiking route directions from the website Earthline: The American West. Sure enough, at 4.0 miles, we reached the large Park Wash that continues the hike in a northeast direction between the walls of Calf Pasture Point and No Mans Mesa. Massive white Navajo Sandstone walls of Calf Pasture Point kept us in shade but only briefly, then we merged into the blazing sunlight of wide Park Wash, walking on a sandy trail that shortly intersected with an even sandier four-wheel-drive road. What a unique place to be in this remote wilderness! We trudged up the road that parallels the wash to the first shade we could find under a juniper and took a break. It was here that we saw what was unmistakably the rock debris fan that we would have to ascend.
First view of No Mans Mesa 2.5 miles down Lick Wash
View of debris fan (rockslide) on northernmost point of No Mans Mesa from 4-WD road
At 4.5 miles into the hike, we reached the dramatic scene of the LeFevre cabin dwarfed against the bleached Navajo Sandstone overhang of Calf Pasture Point, and tucked under ponderosa pines. At ~ 4.9 miles, trudging in the sand, we passed a fence line, walked a few more minutes and found a defined stock (and human?) trail leading toward the debris slide. We crossed deep Park Wash, wove around sagebrush and found ourselves at the bottom of the debris fan.
From this point, Fred and I gazed at the top of the steep cliffs 800 feet above, squinting into the sun. Somewhere up there was our only passage to the nearly pristine crest of No Mans Mesa. We followed a faint trail and located our first rock cairn trail marker a few hundred feet up the rock slide and after this, the cairns were usually easily seen and numerous enough to follow the trail (June 2018). Back and forth the trail switchbacks to the top of the fan. The transition point from exiting the debris fan to entering the steep cliff walls is a rock "bridge" ~ 20 feet across with a steep and loose gully tumbling down to the right.
LeFevre cabin in Park Wash - 4.5 miles from Lick Wash trailhead
Cairn marking trail up debris fan. Park Wash with trail below
Eroded bedding provides a staircase as you walk on more solid ground. The trail gets steeper and more exposed. Stunning views open up. It appears that in some places sandstone has been chiseled to make the trail, probably by Jepson, the goat herder in 1927. From the wash floor, the cliff walls looked impenetrable - now we were squeezing through the only known passage to the top.
Then suddenly we were taking the first steps into the relict, almost surreal world of No Mans Mesa with its relatively long and flat terrain, nothing but blue sky above. Savoring each step, I felt grateful to the Mesa for letting me in. Fred and I lunched in pinyon pine shade near a ledge of burnt orange rock with hints of blue-grey - part of the Carmel Formation. It was rather warm in the sun and many wildflowers were in seed. There were no cheatgrass seeds getting stuck in my socks, only open bright sand weaving around healthy bunch grasses and small sand dunes sprouting native Arizona thistle. On a short walk around the top, I found chert debitage, a white rock flake that shows evidence of stone tool-making. Surprised by the presence of sand dunes, I then realized that in fact, Navajo Sandstone was created by deposition of wind-blown sand into large dunes (eolian environment). It was originally red: it was turned to a brilliant white color after reducing fluids dissolved the iron oxide from the grains of the deeply buried sandstone.
Trail shortly after crossing "bridge" between talus of debris fan and entrance into cliff rocks
Nearing top through break in cliff to No Mans Mesa
Trail appears to be chiseled into the rock at a few places
Finally at the top!
View from top of No Mans Mesa of Park Wash and Pink Cliffs
According to the study A Comparison of a near-relict site and a grazed site in a pinyon-juniper community in the Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah, no non-native species were found on the study plots on No Mans Mesa. This study compares vegetation species cover and richness, cryptobiotic crust cover and soil on No Mans Mesa and Deer Spring Point, ~ 2 km southwest of No Mans Mesa. Deer Spring Point is accessed by a road branching from Skutumpah Road and is grazed in the summer by domestic livestock. Characteristics for these two study sites are similar: same geology, elevation, soil, aspect and plant community type.
Major findings comparing plant communities in the grazed site and the non-grazed, near-relict site:
Sue holding chert flake on top of No Mans Mesa
In our short exploration of the top, I was aware of just about every step on that isolated, ecologically "pure" mesa elevated above lands that held invasive plants in this remote wilderness. I felt I was taking steps about 200 years back in time before invasive species were introduced.
Reluctantly, I walked out of that beautiful land and committing to memory what this place looks like. We found our steep entrance and hiked down past the rusty mangled fence that Jepson must have used to keep his goats on the mesa. Still not a cloud in the sky on this mid-June day. White wash and trails curved their way through the dark sagebrush flat 800 feet below us. This time, as we neared the lower section of the debris fan, we veered north and found a less rocky and more sandy descent to the valley floor.
By this time we were hiking in full blazing sun - it was getting pretty darn hot. Pausing to rest under any shade we could find, we bypassed side canyons that would have to wait until next time we were here. At last we reached the cooler narrows of Lick Wash and shed our sweat-soaked shirts for awhile.
I wish I were in the shade of those sandstone walls, sliding my hands over the ancient and eroded beds, hearing the crunch of the purple-hued trail, and smelling the ponderosa pines. We will be back here, but time keeps ticking. A recently retired friend, talking about his planned adventures, said to me, "I don't know if I have enough money, but I sure as hell don't have enough time!"
Lick Wash narrows
Native Arizona thistle
Northern No Mans Mesa
Arizona thistle (Cirsium arizonicum) against Navajo Sandstone
No Mans Mesa
Loamy sand of No Mans Mesa
Making our way down - a few loose rocks
North tip of No Mans Mesa
Ascend left side (northernmost point)
Navajo Sandstone cliffs of Calf Pasture Point
Atkison, Ron. Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region. 1998. Falcon Publishing. pp 288-292.
Gregory, Herbert E. 1951. The Geology and Geography of the Paunsaugunt Region Utah. Geological Survey Professional Paper 226. United States Government Printing Office.
Guenther, D., Stohlgren, Thomas J., Evangelista, P. 2003. A Comparison of a near-relict site and a grazed site in a pinyon-juniper community in the Grand Staircase National Monument, Utah, In book: The Colorado Plateau: cultural, biological and physical research. The University of Arizona Press, pp. 153-162.
Mason, Lamar R., Andrews, Horace M., Carley, James A., Haacke, E. Dwain. 1967. Vegetation and Soils of No Man's Mesa Relict Area, Utah. Journal of Range Management 20: 45-49.
Double Arch Alcove, Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park
Navajo Sandstone of the Double Arch Alcove - Kolob Canyons - Zion National Park
Taylor Creek Trail to Double Arch Alcove contains a treasure-trove of exposed geologic features in a relatively short distance. In the 450 feet of elevation from trailhead to alcove, the hike passes through three geologic formations. Like most box canyons, the hike starts at the lower, wider part of the canyon and climbs to narrower, higher walls on both sides. The towering wall seen from the north side of the canyon is Tucupit Point, and the wall seen from the south side is Paria Point. The hike ends at the alcove carved into Navajo Sandstone.
Geology aside, you can enjoy the sheer beauty of this hike because of the creek's waterfalls, the pines and junipers, and the colors and patterns on the rock. The Larson homestead cabin, built in 1930, lies at the confluence of the Middle Fork and North Fork of Taylor Creek. The Fife homestead cabin is located further up the trail. Both are preserved well, and you can imagine what it might be like living through cold winter nights in this canyon.
Early morning is the best time to hike along the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek to Double Arch Alcove because of the quality of the light. As the rising sun shines on towering red rock walls along the creek, it reflects an orange glow onto everything in the canyon. I feel like I'm enveloped in a soft light that relaxes me as I hike further. Everything is still, devoid of harsh shadows and colors are vibrant. The orange sand is soft underfoot and the creek crossings don't create an interruption in our stride.
Small pond near creek where leaves were slowly circling together in a counter-clockwise direction
Kanarraville Fold seen in Middle Fork Taylor Creek in the Dinosaur Canyon member of the Moenave Formation
- note chevron structure of folds due to compressional stresses placed on the rock
During the Mesozoic Era, Western North America was in a mountain-building phase with compressional forces due to the Pacific Plate sliding underneath the North American Plate. The rocks of the Kolob Canyons were squeezed, compressed and uplifted. In the Middle Fork Taylor Creek Canyon, this resulted in the Taylor Creek Thrust-Fault Zone and the Kanarraville Fold. The photo above was taken on Thanksgiving 4 years ago when Fred and I first hiked this canyon.
Gray limestone with bivalve fossils probably from the lower Carmel Formation
Gustive Larson Cabin circa 1930
Early Morning in Late November
Taylor Creek - Kolob Canyons
Reflection from Tucupit Point into Middle Fork of Taylor Creek
Middle Fork of Taylor Creek - Kolob Canyons - Zion National Park
Double Arch Alcove
Maidenhair fern on moist sandstone wall
The scenery becomes more intense as you walk up the canyon. Then suddenly a wall of orange and red Navajo sandstone with black mineral stains looms above. The lower arch provides a wide alcove with water seeping from its walls. This is in fact what probably the impetus for the lower arch formation. Ground water seepage weakens and dissolves the cement between sandgrains, breaking down the sandstone. Blocks of sandstone then fall from the arch, accumulating below it only to be carried away by wind and water.
The blind upper arch appears high above the lower arch.
The whole scene is enveloped in a warm orange glow that is a reflection of light from the north canyon wall. The terrain is devoid of footfalls because of the soft orange sand. The green trees contrast with the orange and red. And to have some snow along the way as we did when we hiked this trail on Thanksgiving 2013 was an added bonus.
Yucca in Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, Utah
Biek, R. F., Geologic Trail Guides to Zion National Park, Utah - Kolob Canyon Trails - Middle Fork of Taylor Creek Trail. Utah Geological Survey
Website - "Watching for Rocks - Travels of a Sharp-eyed Geologist". Blog post April 21, 2011
Website - "Zion National Park - Plate Tectonics"
Fred at cowbell at top of Dead Ringer trail climb
Last weekend Fred and I got out of our Boise mountain bike trail comfort zone and rode some Utah trails near Hurricane. The Boise ride we're used to is a steady gravelly climb up of mostly non-technical trails. Although this ride was not technical, we found our legs getting adjusted to riding over blocks of limestone and up and down roller-coaster-like arroyos and small hills that ran along the base of towering cliffs and then out into a valley. These trails were singletrack cruisin' and so fun as to bring a grin to our faces. Utah bikers must have a "soft tail" or a suspended seat post, we concluded. But we talked to a few other bikers and they all said they thought their hard tails were actually better. So, we concluded that our bikes are just fine and we need to get down to Utah for more mountain biking. The terrain can be challenging and it is so beautiful!
The initial descent down J.E.M. trail that puts you riding alongside a gorge was a little sketchy for me, so I walked a few of the steep switchbacks, while two young and fast kids whizzed past and out of sight (maybe I've seen too many physical therapy patients with broken bones and sprained ligaments as a result of bike crashes!).
Trails from J.E.M. trailhead (bottom of map) in the Hurricane Rim trail system, near Hurricane, Utah
Our Loop ~ 10 miles (J.E.M., Goosebumps, Cryptobionic, Dead Ringer and More Cowbell trails)
Cryptobionic trail sign and cryptobiotic soil
It seemed fitting that in a sea of cryptobiotic soil we would be riding on Cryptobionic trail. We admired the "geology-mindedness" and a play on words that the trail builders provided us. Cryptobiotic soil crusts consist of soil cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses. In arid areas, these crusts help prevent soil erosion, increase water infiltration, and are good sources of fixed carbon. A large percentage of the soil in this trail system had cryptobiotic crusts. One source I read said that it takes an estimated minimum of 45 years to for damaged cryptobiotic soil in Southern Utah to be restored if crushed.
Dead Ringer trail leading south toward J.E.M. trailhead and cowbell
The cowbell hanging from a post at the top of Dead Ringer trail is within easy reach as you get to the top. As we took a break at the top, several bikers hit the bell as they rode past it. The story, we heard is that the cowbell was found on/near a cow skeleton while the trails were being built. At the cowbell, you can keep going to the trailhead or you can take a left and cruise on More Cowbell trail. Of course, we opted to keep cruisin' on this great trail that traces the edge of the mesa we had just climbed.
Tarantula on gravel road in Snow Canyon State Park
The joy of riding More Cowbell trail and the beautiful single track behind me!
So much to explore in the St. George, Utah area, so little time. We'll get back on these trails, that's for sure! Longer loop next time!
Belnap, J., Cryptobiotic Soils: Holding the Place in Place
Breathtaking view of Zion Canyon in Zion National Park; if you don't mind steep drop-offs, this hike's for you!
Angels Landing - Zion National Park
Looking down Zion Canyon
Angels Landing, the summit of a towering slab of orange and yellow Navajo Sandstone rises almost 1,500 feet from the floor of Zion Canyon in Zion National Monument. At first glance, it looks as if someone took a flat chunk of rock and tilted it up 90 degrees to rest on its side; however, if you study the rock more closely, you can see the relatively horizontal cross-bedding of sand layers that were laid down 180 million years ago. When you stand at almost the highest elevation in the park, Observation Point, you can look down onto Angels Landing, 700 feet below your boots. From this vantage point, Angels Landing is a fin of vertical sandstone. From any vantage point, it seems impossible that there would be a hiking trail to the top, but in fact, people have been hiking Angels Landing since the trail was built in 1926.
Warning sign at the West Rim trailhead in Zion Canyon, with Angels Landing in background
Fred and I were fortunate enough to hike Angels Landing the Monday before Thanksgiving. We were trying to remember how many times each of us had been to the top. I did my first Angels Landing hike nearly 20 years ago, and Fred the same. We have done it about 3 or 4 times since, and each time we are reminded what a special and spectacular hike it is. However, 20 years later, a lot more people know about the trail, and it has become a destination for many a Zion hiker.
At the trailhead, a sign warns hikers of the perils that lie ahead. The sign reads: “Since 2004, six people have died falling from the cliffs on this route. The 1.1 mile round-trip route from Scout Lookout to Angels Landing is a strenuous climb on a narrow ridge over 1,400 feet above the canyon floor. This route is not recommended during high winds, storms, or if snow or ice is present.”
Waterfall in Refrigerator Canyon in November
Base of Angels Landing in Zion National Park as viewed from West Rim Trail
After hiking a short distance along the Virgin River, the erosive force mostly responsible for the creation of Zion Canyon, the trail ascends steeply up switchbacks to enter Refrigerator Canyon. I can see how this canyon got its name because even in warmer months, it is still a cool and welcome change from the sun-baked trail below. While still in this canyon, the next task is to hike up through “Walter’s Wiggles”, named for Zion’s first superintendant, who helped build the trail in 1926. There are 21 short, very steep, heart-pounding switchbacks. Upon exiting Refrigerator Canyon and the “wiggles”, the first close-up view of the vertical walls of Angels Landing comes into view. It is here that your heart pounds for a different reason: there before you lies a spectacular site of a narrow straight-up trail with lots of people holding onto thick metal chains that have been placed on most of the route.
Fred on West Rim Trail past Scout Lookout and the trailhead to Angels Landing
Heavy steel chain bolted into sandstone - Angels Landing at left on top of sandstone fin
Yea! Look what we get to climb! This is the turn-around point for many hikers.
The chains drilled into the sandstone make this exposed, dizzying hike much more manageable. In fact, there was a trail crew working on the chains, replacing some clamps that attached the chains to the poles. As we waited for them to complete their task, I made sure not to look at the 1,200 foot sheer drop-off just a few feet to my left.
Refigerator Canyon with cross-bedded sandstone
On Angels Landing - view to the north, toward the narrows of the Virgin River
Oh glorious summit! The reward is worth the guts, nerves, and courage of the adventurer. There are about 15 people on the sun-drenched summit, all smiling and taking photos.
To the north, the Virgin River snakes through the top of the canyon, and to the south, famous Zion Canyon landmarks can be seen, such as the Great White Throne.
Fred walking down Walter's Wiggles - switchbacks in Refrigerator Canyon named after Zion's first superintendent, who helped build this trail in 1926
Zion Canyon is the remnant of ancient sand dunes that covered a huge portion of North America, and formed about 175 million years ago. It is at Zion that these ancient sand dunes are the greatest thickness.
We head back down, and find many more hikers coming up, and since trail etiquette dictates that uphill hikers have the right of way, we pause a few times to encourage climbers. At one point, a woman sees what lies ahead of her and wants to turn back, muttering something about just eating lunch. I tell her that “it’s not as bad as it looks” and she bravely goes on. Because it’s true, it’s really not as scary as it looks. We will be back someday.
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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