Saturday, May 31, 2014


Have you ever noticed that, once you’ve become aware of a new thing or phenomenon, you are more likely to encounter it? Case in point: some friends of ours recently bought a Ford Escape. Now I see the SUV everywhere whereas a few months ago I noticed none. Psychologists probably have a name for this tendency to notice things that have meaning for us, but I call it RIB, short for Recently Introduced Bird.

I concocted this moniker based on our experience with the yellow-breasted chat. Rex and I have much to learn about birds, but even so we should have identified this large, common warbler long ago. During the summer it resides in almost every state, including Texas and Kansas. And yet it was only this month, on an organized bird walk in Capitol Reef, that we learned about the secretive chat. On Thursday, we found the bird again--this time along the North Fork of the Virgin River here in Zion National Park, not far from the lodge.

For your information, three characteristics set the chat apart: 1) an amazingly bright, almost iridescent yellow breast; 2) very loud and varied vocalizations and 3) elusiveness. Chats almost always move about in dense vegetation at water's edge. Several times on Thursday we could not have been more than 10 feet away from the noisy bird, but we could only find it in our glasses when it was 20 yards or more away. Almost as if it was teasing us, the bird seemed to throw its voice within the brush. That's just anthropomorphism, of course. In reality, there were probably several chats in the vicinity who were much more preoccupied with each other than with us.

In spite of the bird’s stealthy tendencies, it does sometimes sit high on a perch to sing. In both instances when we have seen the bird, we first recognized its sound then waited as its call moved around within the thick willows. After about ten minutes—perhaps because the birds no longer were concerned for their safety—a chat took up a very visible positions and loudly announced its presence. The bird (or birds?) continued to move to different promontories and allowed us excellent views--so good we could see the bird's throat protrude with each vocalization. You can see see the same thing in this short video.

If you did not already know about chats, now you might have a case of RIB, too. Good luck!

Friday, May 30, 2014

House Divided

Rex and I went separate ways in Zion this morning then met later for some birding and an evening tour. I'll explain our respective adventures below and say more about the ranger-led excursion in another post.

This morning the king of our castle completed Angel's Landing, the most infamous and perhaps most popular hike in the park. It's second only to the Narrows, which Rex walked earlier in the week. Neither of these hikes appeal to me because they are so heavily traveled. In fact, walking in Wal-Mart comes to mind. But Angel's Landing also includes a 1/4-mile of narrow "path" (really a slick rock with some cables) and a 1,400-foot drop on either side. I could have done it, but I would not have enjoyed it so why do it? Rex at least had the right idea: be on Angel's Landing by 7:30 a.m., before 80 percent of Landing hikers are out of bed. Rex promises photos at a later date, and he claims to have been the first one to the top today--save one German half his age.

Meanwhile, I went for a run then strolled the two miles out and back to the Narrows. The path I took, at the end of Zion Canyon scenic drive, leads hikers to a spot where they must walk in the river to continue--and many, many do so that they can see the cliff walls narrow to about 20 feet apart and nearly 2,000 feet high. The crowds erased any interest I might have had in the Narrows, but only wild horses would keep me from seeing an American dipper and that is why I walked, very slowly, the first paved mile this morning.

 Beginning of the Narrows hike up Zion Canyon, in the North Fork of the Virgin River

According to park literature, American dippers are common in Zion. Even so, I've only see them three times in my life and each was thrilling. This morning was no different. Despite assurances from a ranger that the bird frequents the river above the Temple of Sinawava, after 90 minutes of walking and looking I saw none. Finally I spotted one and was rewarded with a long look at a dipper foraging in the middle of the river. Only when a small child ran by on the path, screaming, did the dipper disappear. So much for wilderness.

Anyway, seeing the bird was euphoria. If you've ever watched this creature, which looks like a chunky robin but is actually a wren, you might understand my excitement. It has the most unusual habit of walking on the stream bed while chasing down insects. In deeper waters it runs along the bank and dives in, disappearing for several seconds at a time.

I appreciate that Rex loves a scary, challenging hike, and I am thankful that he also gets a kick from waiting out a beautiful bird, as we did yesterday. More on that, the chat, tomorrow.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Strange Noises

Cable Mountain along the Observation Point Trail where the route follows Echo Canyon
CORRECTION: We hiked to Observation Point, not Observation Peak as I incorrectly stated below. FYI.

Our first serious hike in Zion National Park--Observation Peak--lived up to its billing. At four miles up and four miles back and 2,000 feet of elevation gain in-between, it gave us plenty of challenge. But it offered even greater panoramas, majestic sandstone, and enough birding to satisfy. We recorded one new feathered friend, that being the Virginia's warbler. Even more special were the desert bighorn sheep that surprised us about 1.5 miles into the hike.

But our most bizarre encounter was with something that sounded like a cross between bleating sheep and an underwater jackhammer. We were sitting near the edge of Echo Canyon, which is a slot about 10 feet deep at this location with several pools in the bottom. We suspected frogs, but the noise sounded unlike any frog we had ever heard. Today, while reading a placard somewhere in the park, we put two and two together: canyon tree frog. Apparently the amphibian thrives in the Southwest, and we were somewhat lucky to hear it since it's usually nocturnal.
Canyon tree frog. Photo from the NPS website.
I recorded of the frogs we heard, but here is a link to a higher-quality recording:

For the record, we also encountered singing frogs on a Capitol Reef hike, while coming down from Navajo Knobs, just before the junction with the Hickman Bridge trail. We never thought to ask a ranger what kind of frogs they might have been. I can say with certainty that they were not canyon tree frogs.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Best for Last?

The Watchman, guarding Pa'rus Trail, Zion Canyon National Park.

As we made our way to Zion, the fifth and our last Utah national park, fellow travelers told us of the canyon’s beauty. You’ll love it, they encouraged. In spite of the positive reviews I’ve been dreading the crowds and the hikes, which are notoriously crowded, too. 

We have now arrived, and we can say that it is indeed stunning. Rex said it reminds him of a desert version of Yosemite Valley. That does not fully capture the place but it is a good comparison. Most to its credit there are birds everywhere in the park, especially along the river and near our campground.

By 9 am this morning we had secured a spot in South Campground.  You can find the place on this map of the canyon area of the park. Close to the river, the visitor’s center, and the shuttle buses, we could not ask for more in a campsite. Then again, perhaps we could ask for a few more trees: It was 96 degrees today, and will be at least that tomorrow and Wednesday. Thankfully, we have a very nifty fan to pull outside air inside the TI; here’s hoping we can cool it down enough to sleep well tonight.

We’re off on another bird walk tomorrow and have several short and moderate-length hikes planned for later in the week. With the town of Springdale literally just outside the park gates, we have all the groceries, beer, and lattes that we could want--way more of the lattes than we would ever want, actually. But with civilization comes phone service and internet, so please call or text if you need us. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nice Run

Last photo I took of Bryce Canyon, taken from Paria View.
Status update: We drove away from Bryce Canyon National Park at 11:00 a.m. today.  

Tonight, we are at the corner of Hwys. 9 and 89. The place has a name--Mount Carmel--but it's not an incorporated town. It's really just a junction with several restaurants, a couple hotels, a golf course, and 12 RV spots backed up to the river. Perfect.

We break for Zion National Park tomorrow. We're now only 13 miles west of the park, but before we come to the campground we must negotiate the 1.1-mile Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. Rigs of our size may only pass through with an escort. Then we must secure a spot in one the busiest parks in the country. Stay tuned for details.

In the interim, here are two photos taken from my afternoon run. I went up and down Muddy Creek Road, and I highly recommend it to other runners. But please know that pedestrians must pass through someone's cow-calf yard as they run the road, so be alert for aggressive stock. I encountered no such animals and only loveliness.

Public Service

I'm dedicating today's post to two outstanding park rangers, which is completely unfair because we've met dozens of helpful, knowledgeable, patient, and dedicated rangers. But these two employees distinguished themselves in an important regard--you guessed it: birds.

On May 17th, Capitol Reef park biologist Sandy Borthwick led a 2-1/2 hour bird walk, held in honor of International Migratory Bird Day. Several park employees came along on this hike, which started at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday. We're grateful to all who represented the park service and especially young Sidney, who found the elusive yellow-breasted chat for us to see. Overall, the group bird walk was one of the best we have done, largely because of the 20 or so birders who participated. To a person, they were pleasant and helpful companions who shared our love for all things aviary. Great, great hike, Sandy, and thanks for the excellent birthday gift.
Bird nerds doing their thing at Capitol Reef National Park, Fruita.

On May 23rd, Rex and I attended what turned out to be the best ranger talk we've ever attended. Ranger Kevin Doxstater of Bryce Canyon National Park lectured on bird migration for almost an hour. He was riveting. Even the couple beside us, who showed no special interest in birds, was enthralled.

I can't begin to properly summarize Ranger Doxstater's talk, but here's an example of the fascinating things we learned: How can the arctic tern, which migrates from the Arctic to Antarctica, possibly achieve this feat? Doesn't it sleep? Yes, but only one hemisphere at a time: The bird has evolved the ability to continue flying while one side of its brain gets the needed rest, then it switches, putting the other half to bed. Gives a whole new dimension to bird brain, no?

Birding, of course, is not the sole or even the main duty of either of these rangers. You can read more here about Ranger Borthwick's work to protect park plants, specifically a rare cactus that is being poached. When we left Ranger Doxstater on Friday night at 9:30, he was still answering questions of the small crowd gathered around him. We saw him again at 7:55 am the next day--a Saturday--opening the Bryce Canyon visitor's center. Rangers must wear many hats, apparently.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Happy news: We were able to squeeze in a second walk in Bryce Canyon in spite of the threat of rain. Today, we hiked a modified version of the "Figure 8," which is what the park calls the combination of three popular trails: The Navajo Loop, the Peekaboo Loop, and the Queen's Garden Trail.

UPDATE: Told you I missed the geology talk! The hoodoos are made of limestone, not sandstone as I incorrectly stated below. My apologies for spreading misinformation.

Those who have visited Bryce Canyon might remember the popular Sunset and Sunrise viewpoints. This hike descends into the canyon from one and returns to the Rim Trail from the other.

In the linked photos, you can see that we shared the trail with horses. They were actually less onerous than some of the other hikers, of which there were many. But as usual, most folks were great. This is the first time I would have seriously considered taking a guided ride in a national park. The canyon seems to be an ideal place for it.

On Thursday, we followed the Fairyland Loop through the canyon on the northern end of the famous amphitheater.

The hoodoos--the colorful sandstone formations in these photos--steal the show at Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately, I can't report anything about their geology because the ranger talk was rained out.

I do want to point out the differences in lighting in my photos. Today was overcast, and it's striking how much more vibrantly the colors stand out in today's pictures as compared to Thursday's. Photos from our first hike are more typical: the early shots are hazy and washed-out, with too little morning light for our inexpensive cameras. As the sun gets higher in the sky, the sharpness of the photos increases and the shadows disappear, but especially here at Bryce, the bright sun erases much of the differences in colors. In their literature the park emphasizes that the hoodoos change in appearance as the day progresses. But from my experience, there are only a few times when the canyon is well-captured with the camera. In general, I have a lot more appreciation for talented photographers because it takes a great amount of experience and patience to find and wait for the right lighting.

In other happy news, we've logged a new bird in Bryce Canyon: the Townsend's solitaire. I've been wanting to see this bird for a long time, and it's quite easy to find in the park. Nor did it disappoint. While a rather drab bird at first blush, its white eye-ring is mesmerizing and the buffy patches on its wings are unique. Plus its song is incredible--reminiscent of a mockingbird, only brighter. You can listen to it here.

Four days were not enough in this park; shame on the fellow who told us we could do it in one day. Even so, onward.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Conservative Case for the Parks

It rained most of the day in Bryce Canyon National Park, where Rex and I have been camping since Wednesday. Thankfully, we went for an excellent walk yesterday on the Fairyland Loop. But with a 70 percent chance of rain tonight, Saturday, and Saturday night,  our planned walk around the “Figure 8” seems doubtful. We shall see.

While stuck in the TI for most of the day (for which I am grateful—poor tent campers!) I stumbled upon the Department of Interior’s Instagram account. Rex and I have collected many incredible photos while trekking across the West, but none compare to the images found on this feed. Please check them out. As I explained to my friend Soo Hye this week, different things provoke feelings of patrotism in various people. The displays of nationalism at our sporting contests (think of fighter jets flying over the football stadium, for example) leave me cold. But these pictures make me very proud of the United States.

The only thing more moving than seeing these places is experiencing them, and I feel more committed to our country for having done so. Perhaps those who cannot accept the value of land conservation for the sake of sharing beauty with future generations could support protecting public places for this reason. To my way of thinking, our national parks and monuments are just as important to the health of our civic culture and public values as are the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, and Independence Hall.

Happy Memorial Day weekend!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Capitol Reef

I admit it: I’ve been procrastinating this blog post. It’s just that doing Capitol Reef National Park justice will take more than my words can achieve. So instead, our photographs must do the heavy lifting.

I will say that our love for this park is not necessarily because of the hiking, although it does offer amazing scenery. The views to and from Navajo Knobs, for example, take second place to nothing else. Our combination of the Cohab Canyon, Frying Pan, and Grand Wash trails made for an excellent day hike, too. Capitol Reef also gave us our first experience in a slot canyon, and we found Pleasant Creek to be aptly named. 

Even so, hiking is not the Reef’s secret ingredient. For us, Fruita sets Capitol Reef apart, and that’s hard to admit because the parks are supposed to be protecting wilderness and Fruita is not wild. A bucolic Garden of Eden, yes, but not wilderness. This magical place is nestled in a valley along the western edge of the Reef at the confluence of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River. In addition to protecting the unique geology of the Reef, the park service also conveys the recent history of Fruita as a Mormon farming community. Hundreds of fruit trees planted by the settlers and maintained by the park service surround the Fruita campground. It’s an idyllic setting and for these two farm kids, well, I guess you cannot completely remove our cultivating impulse.

I hope to tell more stories here about Fruita and the people we met there—but if not on these pages, then we will share these tales elsewhere. Later, for example, you can ask me about my full-moon hike, or our outdoor viewing of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or the singing biologist. For now I’ll let the pictures say how special Capitol Reef is.
Capitol Reef, geology classroom. The Reef is a 100-mile long monocline, or fold in the earth. The fold becomes more obvious the more altitude one gains, as we did on the Navajo Knobs hike. 

View of the Reef, looking north from Fremont River Trail overlook

From the Fremont River Trail overlook

Returning to Fruita 

Looking over the Fremont River from Johnson's Mesa

New snow on May 11th in the northern reaches of the park
Lovely Fruita campground

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


It’s a shame that we only have one day for hiking in Grand Staircase-Escalante, the largest national monument in the country with more than 1.8 million acres in its boundaries. But at least we found a great spot to explore: the slots near Dry Fork Wash, including Peekaboo and Spooky Gulch. And today was the day.

New friends Tom and Peggy, whom we met in Captiol Reef National Park, suggested insisted that we hike these slot canyons off Hole in the Rock Road. The road itself—a 50-mile teeth-knocker down to Lake Powell—deserves mention. We drove only 26 miles before turning on BLM road 252 for Dry Fork Wash; it took us more than 90 minutes and subtracted at least 5 years from our truck’s life. 

But Tom and Peggy were right: these easy (no ropes required) slot canyons proved to be magnificent. Please click through to see some of what we saw, and I will upload more when Rex unloads the photos from his camera. 

Monday, May 19, 2014


Earlier, I promised to say something about Moab. Now would be a good time to do so, before I move on to Capitol Reef.

Please know that my observations are tentative, incomplete, and pretty superficial. We stayed in town only two nights and shopped in Moab a few more times. Any other visitor, including myself, might have a completely different experience on another visit.

Downtown Moab
Moab made a poor first impression on me. We arrived on a Saturday in the middle of classic car show that consumed the town. We were lucky to find a RV spot thought by my estimate there were at least 750 sites within the city limits plus all the BLM campgrounds and dispersed camping close by. The crush of people and cars and dirt-crawling machines subsided on Monday, but locals assured us that the next weekend would be just as crazy. So long as the weather stays mild, the people come. And when the heat slows outdoor activities, then the tour buses arrive.

Moab's main thoroughfare, Utah Highway 191
After the crush and congestion, the next thing that impressed me was all the stuff: Mountain bicycles and road bicycles; off-road vehicles and Jeeps; motorcycles of every kind; dune buggies and all manner of ATVs. Throw in a few huge, Frankenstein-like, camping/rock-crawling/desert-rat rigs. And don’t forget the whitewater rafts, kayaks, and canoes. Plus more Jeeps. And hundreds of motor homes, toy-hauling fifth wheels, truck campers, and tents. Rock climbers don’t have an official vehicle, but I did spot their ropes, harnesses, and slipper-like shoes later in the week. There were backpackers with boots and day hikers with trekking poles and view-point pedestrians with long camera lens protruding from their bellies. The only thing missing from Moab is the sedan: Everyone drives a SUV or truck.
More downtown Moab

Except for the dune buggies and monster crawlers, none of this equipment by itself seems bizarre. What is strange is that it can be found all together in one little town—often in the same parking lot. The only the label “outdoor adventure” can capture it all.

Over time, Moab grew on me. We struggled to find good beer; disappointingly, its not at the Moab Brewery. Later in the week we found a pizza place that served a good selection of craft beers. The state liquor store stocked a fair selection of microbrews, too. We also found a local coffee roaster and had a great meal at a new Mediterranean place. This eatery was quiet, and I overheard half of the diners order vegetarian. Earlier in the week, I would not have guessed that there were ten vegetarians in the county. Apparently, Moab’s diversity goes beyond the cacophony of outdoors activities.
The supermarket parking lot on a Friday morning. See any sedans? I saw one.

And this impressed me the most about Moab: it all seems to hang together. Maybe it can be explained by the live-and-let live ethic of the American West. Or perhaps the capitalistic drive keeps a lid on the cultural divisions. Either way, it’s an impressive feat, because what is best for nature lovers is not necessarily what makes for great four-wheeling, and it can be hard to square land preservation with outdoor tourism, and I’ve seen mountain bikers and hikers nearly come to blows. Perhaps these clicks avoid confrontation by doing their things in different places around Moab. But surely the diverse peoples who converge on this town, with their different hobbies, tastes, styles, politics, and values, do sometimes collide.
We didn't make it to this place.

In the end, Moab intrigues me. At a time when the media tell us that political and social divisions have reached a breaking point in the United States, how has this town managed to transform itself into a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes and hold them together—at least on the surface? What tensions might be seen by a more faithful Moab observer, and how are theses conflicts resolved? Maybe someday I’ll get to hang around longer and listen for answers.  
Moab, like many other towns, has new subdivisions, a brand new medical complex, and a thriving downtown. But not many rural communities have theses things.

Moab, like many other towns, also has trailer homes.

But how many have parks?

There's no shortage of green fescue in Moab. Which is interesting, because I know there's a water shortage in the West. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Canyonlands Wrap-Up

Dear Readers, 

I had to take a break from blogging due to our wonderful eight-night stay in Capitol Reef National Park, where we had no cell phone or Internet access. Today we left Capitol Reef and are now restocking groceries, cleaning the TI, and doing our laundry in Escalante, Utah.

We really, really enjoyed our time in Capitol Reef. But before I try to explain this special place, I need to quickly re-cap our time in Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. We spent six days in the park unit south and west of Moab. If photos interest you more than does my blah, blah, blah, then click on the hotlinks below to see additional photos. Otherwise, here's the bullet points:
  • We walked the Syncline Loop, a fantastic trail. Rex and I agree that it ranks in our top ten hikes ever, and Rex puts it even higher. The trail circles Upheaval Dome, which causes geological controversy: Some hypothesize that a meteorite created this syncline, or circular fold in the rock strata, while others argue that a “bubble” rose and collapsed in the layer of Paradox Salt deep beneath the dome. Either way, the Syncline is popular yet we saw only six other people in nine hours on the trail, as well as 25 different birds--which might be a record for us while day hiking.
  • We also walked the Neck Spring loop, a shorter but very lovely trail that rewarded us with fantastic views of Shafer Canyon and the La Sals.
  • We drove a few terrifying yards down the ShaferTrail road toward the White Rim road. I don't know when the Shafer Trail was created, but I suspect that, like the White Rim road, it was built during the uranium boom of the late 1940s and 1950s. Before Canyonlands was a national park, the Atomic Energy Commission encouraged prospecting by building roads like the White Rim. Now the 100-mile White Rim, a remnant of the Cold War, draws dirt bikers and four-wheelers.
  • We took a half-day trip to Dead Horse Point State Park, situated just to the northeast of the Island in the Sky. The view from Dead Horse Point is famous, but we found the rim walk to be more interesting than the drive-up view. On the west, one can look into the national park’s Shafer Canyon from the east. On the west side of Dead Horse Point the Moab potash mine stands out and so do the La Sal mountains.
  • We went to several ranger talks, as we always do. Consequently, I now know two grown men who go by Robby. Robby the park ranger has a very goofy sense of humor but represents the park exceptionally well. He serves as an interpretive guide by day and an on-call EMT by night. We greatly enjoyed our extended conversation with him.
  • We took several shorter hikes and went to all the must-see view points and overlooks, including Grand View, Green River Overlook, Mesa Arch, and Whale Rock. And we were birding the entire time, of course. Three highlights include the Western tanager, the green-tailed towhee, and the lark sparrow.
Ranger Robby talks geology in a 40-mph gale near Grand View Point. We forgive him for removing his hat. We trust his employer will, too.
Even so, we only scratched the surface, which is an appropriate cliche when speaking of a former mining patch. For example, we missed the Murphy Loop Trail and the Aztec Butte Trail. If we had the right bikes, we would have ridden the Shafer Trail into Moab. We would have loved to have taken a float trip on the river, but that takes a minimum of three days. We missed the ranger talk on bighorn sheep! You get the idea: There’s never enough time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Two weeks ago, we were in Canyonlands National Park. We spent last week in the town of Moab as well as Arches National Park. This week, we’re back in Canyonlands National Park, but not the same park we were in two weeks ago.

Here’s where I might have lost you: Canyonlands consists of three districts and one unit. When we first came to Utah, we spent six days in the Needles District. This week, we stayed in the Island in the Sky District. Only four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles can reach the Maze, the third district.

 Each section resembles a park within a park. Thanks to the very rough terrain and two major rivers of the American West—the Green and the Colorado—none of the districts can be reached directly from the other—unless one is willing to swim or paddle. In fact, we drove 104 miles from the Needles entrance to the Island in the Sky entrance.

Island in the Sky is aptly named. It consists of the thin, high sliver of land between the rivers. One can drive to the very southern tip of the Island, Grand View Point, and see glimpses of the Colorado on the left and the Green on the right more than 2,400 feet below.
The Green River, looking west from the Green River overlook, just south of our campsite

The end of the Green River Basin, taken from Murphy Point looking southwest. Note Junction Butte on the left and the Maze District in the distance.
From Grand View, one could also see the confluence of the rivers—if only the canyon wasn’t so deep. It is much easier to pick out the Needles, which are the unique sandstone formations for which the district is named. Different erosion rates in the Needles' sedimentary rock, plus uplift and collapse on the Colorado Plateau, created these oddly elegant structures.  
The Colorado River basin just before it meets the Green; taken from Grand View Point, looking south/southeast; note Monument Basin in the foreground and the Needles District in the distance on the right

In addition to the three districts, there is also a small unit—Horseshoe Canyon—that is completely disconnected from the rest of the park. It protects one of the largest and best examples of Native American rock art in the world.

To add to the confusion, park employees consider the Green and Colorado Rivers to be a fourth, unofficial district. The Green is very calm as it nears its end while the Colorado is as white as it gets south of the confluence. Both sections are popular rafting trips. One must navigate a separate permitting system to camp on or near the river, and rangers patrol the waterways by boat.

For the record, we unexpectedly found a wonderful campsite, #10, here in Island in the Sky in the Willow Flat Campground. It’s the only drive-in camping in the park, with 12 first-come sites. We’ve been enjoying Aztec Butte in our backyard since Saturday night. Thought there are only half as many sites in Island in the Sky, we found it easier to secure a spot here, perhaps because most Island visitors stay in Moab while Needles hikers have few options. Even so, all spots were always gone by noon. 

Our backyard; Aztec Butte in the Distance

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


Over and over, I’ve been impressed with the opportunities for science education provided by our national park service. Today, Rex and I met a young person doing science in the parks. Allison, a master’s student in geophysics at the University of Utah, is camping next to us here in Canyonlands. She’s collecting data on several arches in the area, including the very popular Mesa Arch.  
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky District

Applying the same techniques that engineers use to detect cracks in buildings after earthquakes, she analyzes the natural resonances in the arches, noting changes that indicate a structural weakness. It’s a new use of the technology, and she hopes to indicate which arches might soon collapse. 

All of the sandstone arches will eventually give way, but with so many people visiting Arches National Park and Canyonlands each day, Allison’s research could save lives. In 2008, Wall Arch collapsed during the night. If it had fallen during the day, it surely would have taken people with it, as visitors regularly picnicked beneath its span. 

I am sharing Allison’s research because I want the park service to accommodate projects like hers—and even studies that do not offer direct potential benefits to the parks. As always, a balance must be found: Allison’s equipment must be placed near the arches, which arguably detracts from the aesthetics, but only for a few days at a time. And honestly, what could be uglier than all the humans who invariable crawl over, on, and through the arches? Even so, I recognize that scientific research is not the primary mission of the park service, but it just makes sense that visitors be slightly inconvenienced for research’s sake.

And if you’re wondering, Allison is still collecting and analyzing data, but she's finding some interesting things. So word to the wise: Do not climb on the arches, and find another spot to eat your lunch!

Double O Arch, Arches National Park, on the Devil's Garden Loop Hike

Monday, May 5, 2014

Fiery Furnace

We spent last Tuesday and Thursday at Arches National Park. This very busy, small preserve lies close to Interstate 70 and Moab, which probably explains the bulk of the visitors. But the sandstone arches and other striking rock formations found in the park surely draw people, too. We drove around the main attractions—Double Arch, north and south Window Arches, Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, and so on—but you can see stunning photos of these features all over the web. We also took a very nice walk through Devil’s Garden, a 7-mile loop on the park’s north end. It was a great hike, and I’ve posted some photos from that walk here.

But our highlight from Arches was Fiery Furnace. It wasn’t necessarily the amazing scenery that put this hike at the top of our list. It is beautiful, but it’s not that much different than what you can see elsewhere in the park and Red Rock country. The same geologic forces created this place and the Needles in the southern unit of Canyonlands National Park. Nor did we experience any great physical challenge or go to great lengths to find this place: We walked only 2 miles over 3 hours, and, as the park ranger told us, we were never more than ½ mile from the parking lot.

Ranger Jon Classen, an educator wise beyond his years, second from right.
Only those with a ranger or a special permit are allowed into the Furnace for fear that people will get lost, and that’s not far-fetched from what we experienced. Being at the bottom of these joints completely disorients. Most visitors make reservations months in advance because of the unique experience, and rightful so. One must squeeze through tight cervices, shinny down steep ledges, and otherwise contort one’s body in some awkward ways to navigate the Fiery Furnace. Most any able-bodied person can do it, and it was a lot of fun. 

But for me it was the tour that made the experience well worth it. Never have three hours passed faster in my life. I thought plodding along at a snail’s pace with 20 strangers would be torture, but of course everyone was pleasant and interesting. Apparently the park service weeds out the jerks when they take reservations. Or maybe we were all well-behaved because the twenty-something ranger commanded our attention in the most fun-hearted yet serious manner. He proved to be an model educator.

And that's what I thought about most as we moved along: My own impending gig as an educator. Ranger Jon admitted that he had led more than 300 groups through the Furnace. Even so, I was amazed at his clear and simple explanations, his use of a consistent theme and repetition, his ability to capture his listeners' attention, and, most importantly, the way he met his audience where they were--rather than where he was or where he wished his audience to be. I found it inspiring.

But then again, he did have great material to work with.

The "waddling" maneuver.

Surprise Arch