Sunday, July 29, 2012

Tropic Ditch, the Edge of Bryce Canyon

    If you have never been to Southern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park will absolutely blow your mind.  The first time I was there was the Summer of 2010.  Brett and I were making our way across the country with California as our ultimate goal, but we were sidetracked many times, awe-struck and taken aback by such unparalleled beauty.  Just when you think you know the country you live in, you come upon a certain unexpected place and realize how naive you have been.  

     Bryce Canyon is one of those places.  It opened up our eyes to a different world that we had no idea existed, a world of orange rock set against a seamless blue sky, hoodoos and spires that take the shape of mysterious figures at dawn and dusk, a world where the passage of time reveals itself not in layers as does the Grand Canyon, but in bizarre and unusual colors.   

     During our first trip to the Colorado Plateau, we were heading towards Bryce after a stay at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  A few miles after leaving the boundaries of Grand Canyon NP, we began to see what were the beginnings of the Grand Staircase Escalante.  
     Though the Staircase can seem somewhat vague in nature, you will know it when you see it.  The way it rises up from the ground like a colorful petrified stone wave, as you drive through it the scenery changes from one mile to the next.
     No matter if you are coming North on 89 from the Grand Canyon, East on 9 or 14 from Zion, or West on American Scenic Byway 12, you are in for the scenic treat of a lifetime.  All the roads surrounding Bryce are some of the most versatile in the country, a web of multicolored beauty, with Bryce Canyon National Park acting as a sort of vibrant nucleus.   
     On May 19th, 2012 we arrived at Bryce Canyon for the second time in our lives, just as captivated as we had been the first time we were there.  Although it wasn’t brand new to our eyes, this time around it was exiting in a different way because we knew what was in store for us.  
     We decided to camp at the same campground we’d found in 2010, which is the KOA just outside Cannonville, Utah, located on Scenic Byway 12.  As fate would have it, they put us in the exact same spot we had the first time we were there, a big sandy square of earth nestled into the side of a generous hill and open to the sky with views of the Staircase in the distance. For anyone who wants to camp outside of the National Park to have a little more peace and quiet as well as great amenities, this is the place to do it.  
     After setting up our tent, we knew that the first thing we wanted to do was return to Tropic Ditch.  Tropic Ditch will turn up as the Mossy Cave Trail on your Bryce Canyon map.  It is located outside of the official park entrance on Highway 12.  There is a good sized pull-out on the East side of the Highway with a sign that would be hard to spot if you were driving fast, but if you keep your eyes peeled you’ll have no problem finding it.  
     The trail to the Mossy Cave is only about a mile long, and is an easy and rewarding hike.  You begin by following the creek which flows with a blueish hue that is offset by the dazzling plethora of orange colors in the rocks.  Within minutes you’ve disappeared from sight and sound of the Highway and have stepped into a different realm entirely, the realm of Bryce, of mysterious hoodoos and cavernous rocks.  

     The colors range from pale yellow to orange, from pink to maroon.  Being May, we were treated to even more splendor as the wildflowers were in full bloom.  

     The Mossy Cave isn’t much more than a dark grotto of stone, the underside of a rocky shelf created by a natural spring.  In the warm months it is filled with thick green moss and sits in perpetual shade, a cool retreat from the blistering sun, drops of water falling individually, echoing off the stone in a cadence like a liquid metronome.  In the wintertime, the cave is filled with icicles.  
     What really draws crowds even more than the cave, I believe, is the water and the waterfalls.  Though they are small and not naturally made, they are still incredibly charming.  Falling in soft cascades as you venture up the creek, their color is a lucid greenish-blue.  And there is always that undeniable allure of water in the middle of an arid place. 
     Brett is climbing up to meet the hoodoos:

     The creek, the mini-cascades that rush through it, and the different colors on its bed:

     Here is perhaps the third or fourth notable cascade as you venture up the creek:

     By now you’re probably wondering why it’s called Tropic Ditch.  Over a century ago, Mormon pioneers hacked and toiled away to carve out a pathway to divert water from the Sevier River.  It took them three years using the most primitive tools.  This “ditch” is over 15 miles long.  Without it, the town of Tropic never could have existed, and neither would this orange oasis. 
     At an endearing point where about 6 feet of water flows diagonally off the sharp edge of a shelf of rock, we stopped and did not continue on any further.  I can only wonder what I might have found had we continued on up the creek.   
     This little waterfall is probably two miles from the very beginning of the hike, and I was quite fond of it:

     This section of Bryce is also referred to as Water Canyon, although the term “canyon” is used loosely.  A proper canyon by definition is one that is created by flowing water, whereas Bryce was created by ice forming in cracks.  This is known as “frost wedging”.  It is the process that creates the fascinating, personable shapes of the hoodoos.  The circumstances of flowing water at the bottom of the “canyon” and hoodoos spiraling into the sky above your eyes could only ever be brought about by the ingenuity of man.  One day, thousands of years from now when the  hoodoos and spires erode away and crumble, this will one day become an actual canyon.  
     Due to the water, many trees and plants flourish here that don’t at any other place in Bryce such as the Mountain Death-camas, a lovely but poisonous member of the lily family. 

     As the water has been flowing through here for only a century, nature is taking its time catching up.  One day the bottom of this canyon will be filled with cottonwoods and willow trees.
     The first and most striking waterfall you will see is just downstream from the Mossy Cave.  Although it is no more than 20 feet tall, it is still a beautiful sight to behold.  Being born and raised in Iowa, I can honestly say that this is the first real waterfall I have ever truly experienced.  When I was here back in July 2010 it was such a joy to stand in the waterfall, intensified by the fact that it was my first ever.  It was hot that day, probably close to 100 degrees, and to stand in the little pool in the shaded grotto as the water tumbled over the edge was an amazing feeling that I’ll never forget.  
     This time around in May, the water felt icy cold and wasn’t much suitable for wading in, but was still a nice reprieve from the hot desert sun.

     This is me alongside the waterfall that started my love affair with so many more of them for years to come:

     The colors of the water intensify as the sun disappears from the sky:

     Mossy Cave Waterfall from a distance, the creek meandering towards me:

     These are commonly referred to as the “windows”.  They will be to your West  as you stand next to the waterfall.  There is a defined yet steep trail leading up to them and if you have the energy and the spunk, it’s definitely worth it to climb up and see what the view is like peering through a hoodoo-window, viewing the Staircase Escalante in the distance. 

     Tropic Ditch attracts many different species of wildlife.  If you are visiting during some of the quietest hours such as dusk or dawn, you might be lucky enough to get to see some of them.  The abundant water source regularly draws Elk, Pronghorn, and Mule Deer.  Mountain lions, an array of lizards, and the Peregrine Falcon also roam these lands.   As for myself, I didn’t see any of the aforementioned but I felt pretty fortunate that this brave little ground squirrel was willing to come out of his hiding place among the rocks and search for his dinner right in front of me.

     Tropic Ditch is the perfect name for this section of Bryce.  Tropic seems to evoke the exotic beauty of the general splendor, and Ditch portrays it for what it is in all practicality.  Don’t let the strange name or the fact that the entrance lies on the outside of the main portion of Bryce’s most visited roads deter you from stopping by to walk through the water.  You won’t regret it. 
     It’s hard to imagine the lives that the Pioneers led over a century ago.  It’s also hard to imagine that this place was once called “The Land that No One Wanted.”  What isn’t hard to imagine is how their scenery might have looked.  Although they played a dominant role shaping the land that is now Southern Utah, in many fortunate ways, Bryce has been allowed to remain the same, to stay solid in its natural beauty, to remain lovely and untouched for new eyes to explore and fall in love with.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Emerald Pools of Zion

     It seems I have been cursed to never  get enough time at Zion National Park.  The first time I visited was in July 2010 and my timeline only allowed me to spend the better part of a morning there.  This time around, on May 18th, 2012, I only got to spend the better part of an afternoon and evening.  I figured since I didn’t have that much time, I would rather spend all of it at one place than try and rush through a few.  So I chose the Emerald Pools.  Unfortunately, while we were visiting, the Middle Emerald Pool was closed due to a landslide, so we were only able to explore the Lower and Upper.
     The full trail is about 3 miles round trip, and is one of the most popular in the entire park due to its easy access and ethereal green pools.  There is just something undeniably irresistible about water in the middle of a desert; people flock there as though under some divine quest.  I think it's only natural, but interesting to note just the same.

     At Zion National Park, everyone must take the shuttle if you are visiting between April 1st and October 31st.  At first it might seem like a hassle but you will quickly get used to it and even learn to appreciate it.  The park would be devastatingly congested with cars if it wasn’t for the Shuttle.  

     Zion is one of the most easily recognized places in the United States.  Nothing quite compares to the serene oasis of lush green trees and crystal clear water, the dark contrasting mountains surrounding it like a fortress against the harsh Mojave Desert.

     Zion National Park is located approximately 120 miles north of The Grand Canyon and is a part of what is known as The Grand Staircase.  The Grand Staircase is more of a state of mind than an exact place.  It is essentially what makes up the riveting beauty of the Southwest, generally spanning the land between Zion and Bryce National Parks, stretching as far South as The Grand Canyon.  It is made up of thousands of rock and sediment layers, each one representing a different place in time.  Erosion made possible by wind, water, and countless days is what has created the unique shapes of mountains and spires and cliff sides while simultaneously exposing the beauty of the earth’s life.  Whereas The Grand Canyon exposes rocks that are 2 billion years old, Zion’s show closer to 150 million.  Interestingly enough, that bottom layer of rock at Zion is the top layer of  The Grand Canyon.

     In the early Spring as the Winter snow melts, the Lower Emerald Pool can be a full fledged waterfall on a good year.  The day we were there, this is what we got:

     Though it wasn’t much, there is still something incredibly enchanting about falling water, even if it is just one small feather’s worth:

     The waterfall at Lower Emerald pool falls about 100 feet or so onto the rocks below.

     The hike to the lower pool is short and easy, a perfect family hike or the perfect hike to do if you are on a time-budget.  But if you have the time and energy, it’s more than worth it to continue to the Upper Emerald Pool and do the complete loop.  Hopefully when you visit, the Middle will be open once more.  
     As you continue up the trail, you get a fine view of the lower pool's waterfall from a distance:

     The trail onward consists of many stone stairways such as these:

     Your heart rate will no doubt increase as you climb the steps and maneuver over boulders and through sand, but it's relatively short and we saw people of all ages on the hike, including young kids.

     My favorite part of the trail is when the canyon narrows and yet there are trees like this managing to grow and thrive in such an intricate environment:

     Not much more than a mile later and you will arrive at Upper Emerald Pool:

     Emerald pool is the perfect name for this place, as the water is the most alluring shade of green due to algae and helped along by the reflections of hovering trees.  In it you will see reflections accurate and still as a mirror:

     This is Zion National Park at its finest.  The colors, the secret recesses of water that give life to the oasis and abundance of trees, the contrasting layers of rock:

     Once the sun headed over the top of the canyon for the night, the crowds began to clear out and for a little while we had this pool to ourselves.  There is an immense stillness that lays upon you heavily, like a lid over the top of some smaller world.  
     It was heavy dusk when we emerged from the trailhead and stepped back on the footbridge that takes you across the Virgin River.  We stayed there until it got dark, enjoying the sights and sounds of nightfall while exploring a shallow section of the riverbed.

     By using my polarizing filter and the impending darkness, I got an unnaturally long exposure on the water which gives it a silky sort of look.  It allowed me capture the precise emotions I felt in that moment, as though I could stand in that spot unchanged forever while the beauty of everything else would continue on around me in a fluid ribbon; the trees, the water, the mountains, the night.
     Here is a view of the footbridge that you will cross to get to the Pools trailhead.  The chasmic cliffs and green trees make Zion emblematic, but it is the Virgin River which made it all possible to begin with.

     I could never get enough time at this park.  The Emerald Pools are barely glancing the surface of all that this desert oasis has to offer.  Angel’s Landing, Weeping Rock, Kolob Arch, and The Narrows are just a few spots to visit and explore, each offering their own unique gifts and sights.  

     Fall appears to be the best time of year to visit, as Summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees.  I've looked at many photographs of Zion in the Fall and the Aspens change into the loveliest golden color, adding even more depth to the already dazzling scenery.  The weather is also the kindest and crowds are fewer.  It bears repeating that another trip to Zion is in store in my hopeful future.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Valley of Fire

     The scenic path to Valley of Fire State Park is 70 miles Northeast of Las Vegas.  In Henderson, Nevada, turn onto Hwy 564, and that leads you onto a road called Northshore which follows the edge of Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  It is a peaceful road that winds through white dome-like mountains and every once in a while you get a glimpse of the shocking blue lake next to you.  If you’d rather get to the park quicker and avoid the 10 dollar NRA fee, take Interstate 15 North of Las Vegas until you see the Valley of Fire Highway; this route will get you there in about 55 miles.
     We left from a hotel 5 miles from The Strip called Sam’s Town.  It was the nicest room for 30 bucks that I’ve ever gotten.  That’s one good thing about Vegas, since they are counting on the money that you’re more than likely going to spend at their restaurants and casinos, a vast majority of the rooms are high quality and given away at a very competitive price.
     It was the middle of May and the concrete Highway was baking by mid-morning.  We turned off on the Valley of Fire Highway and immediately Las Vegas faded away like last night’s dream.  Bright orange fins sprouted up from the flat desert plains right before our eyes, and from a distance in the hot glowing sun, they did indeed look like flames on the horizon.  
     Valley of Fire is a burning jewel in the middle of the desert.  A quick turn off of screaming, congested Interstate 15 and you’re driving down a road surrounded by red sandstone that was created when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  Inside the park you can explore 3,000 year old petroglyphs and hundreds of unique rock formations such as The Poodle, The Piano, Elephant Rock, an Arch and something that looks a little like the famous Wave in Southern Utah.
     There is a primitive campground in the park which we did not stay at but would be a beautiful place to set up camp, especially in the cooler months as it does not offer much shade.  There are several shaded picnic sites strewn about.  There is a neat Visitor Center where you can look around at the plant and wildlife exhibits as well as local art, and if nothing else, it’s a great place to cool off.  
     Valley of Fire is home to many lizards and snakes as well as the rare desert tortoise.  I was really hoping to get a lucky glimpse of one of them but unfortunately we didn’t come across any.
     The Anasazi people lived in this area from 300 BC to 1500.  They were believed to have been farmers in nearby Moapa Valley and their visits to Valley of Fire were mainly for hunting and religious purposes.  Climb a high metal staircase that hugs a tall orange fin to get a good look at some of their ancient writings at Atlatl Rock, a place where they may have held religious ceremonies:

     The day we were there it was nearly 100 degrees, so come prepared with a lot of water, especially if you’re going to hit the trails.  In the Winter it can be anywhere from freezing to 75 degrees, and in the Summer it can get as hot as 120.  We didn’t come to The Valley as well prepared that day so we only got a little ways down a few of the trails, but what scenery we did take part in was astonishing.  Here are some views from a valley-like trail heading towards The Mouse Tank:

     Rainbow Vista is a lovely expanse of multilayered rock which was made even more beautiful that day with the Spring wildflowers surrounding it:

     One of the best sections of the park was where we pulled over to take a look at The Piano:

     From where you stand at The Piano, you will have a prime view of Poodle Rock:

     The formation that isn’t listed on the map but I thought deserved noting was this Fire Cave:

     What is incredibly innate about The Valley of Fire is all the individual exploring that you can do there.  There are stairways of rock leading to dark mini-caves, there are trails that end in the middle of nowhere, there are dozens of shaded niches all over the place, making it a would-be perfect spot for a massive game of  hide-and-seek.  Climbing isn’t allowed just anywhere so you have to look out for the signs but for the most part, I’m pretty sure we were all right:

     Arch Rock is a charming little arch exposed to the sun and sky on the far Western portion of the park:

     I’m not sure if we were allowed to but we climbed up to it because I had to get a better view.  After losing all my Arches NP photos, this little one seemed to me like a parting gift:

     It’s just not the same viewing an arch from so far down below:

     Here is what I like to call Valley of Fire’s Wave:

     Incredibly, this rock looks exactly like an Elephant, which is why (big surprise) it has been given the name Elephant Rock:

     Because of Las Vegas being only 60 miles away, the sky does not have the sapphire-blue quality that the majority of the Southwest does.  There is just too much leftover haze from the city hanging in the air, but this more subdued blue is still a startling contrast against the blazing orange and red rock.  
     From what we learned in the Visitor Center, the park is an excellent spot for star-gazing.  For anyone taking a trip to Vegas who wants to get out of the city for a day or two and experience the stark and alluring land of Nevada, Valley of Fire is the perfect place to go.
     Valley of Fire is Nevada’s oldest state park, made so in 1935.  It is rare to find a place with so much contrast, filled with a rugged beauty and so many secrets.  If you’re in the Las Vegas area there are two things I would suggest not missing, especially if you don’t reside in the Southwest region of the US.  The first place being the Grand Canyon, and the second Valley of Fire State Park.  This park is on the list of places that I did not get nearly enough time at and must return to explore one day.