How Hot Does it Get in the Grand Canyon?
With the summer months officially upon us, it has come time to discuss one of the most-asked questions this time of year: how hot does it actually get in Grand Canyon? The answer is one word, three letters: H-O-T. The Inner Gorge regularly sees temperatures hovering over 110 degrees, and the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station, a popular destination any time of the year, has recorded temperatures as high as 116 degrees. Grand Canyon is one hot spot in the summertime, my friends.
Why is it so hot?
Several reasons contribute to temperatures in the depths of Grand Canyon. They may seem fairly obvious, but our bet is that some may be surprising. Many of our guests are not accustomed to traveling in the American Southwest, and are sometimes surprised at the heat. The temperatures may be doubly surprising given that elevations at either rim are well over 7000 feet above sea level. Let’s examine the culprits.
First of all, and most simply, it’s a desert. Grand Canyon sits on the Colorado Plateau, a saucer-shaped uplift in the Earth’s crust. The Plateau is sandwiched between two mighty mountain ranges, the Rockies and Sierras, both of which impound much of the moisture in the region. The Colorado Desert, as it is known to ecologists, lies adjacent to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mojave Desert of California.
Though not as arid as its cousins to the south, the Colorado Desert is a desert nonetheless. Average annual precipitation across the Plateau is just 10″ in the lowest, hottest spots, The region is studded with laccoltith (granitic dome) mountains that receive snow, but the lowlands are hot and dry places, indeed.
Given its desert nature, much of the Colorado Plateau is a wilderness of naked rock. Vegetation in the lower elevations is sparse, lending very little shade. The bare rocks “breathe” heat, inhaling the solar radiation, then exhaling back out into the atmosphere. The darker and more dense the rock, the more inhaling and exhaling take place.
The rocks of Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge, known as the Vishnu Metamorphic Complex, are prime candidates for this breathing action. Their color (very dark, essentially black in most places) and density (metamorphic rocks are extremely dense) make them enormously susceptible to heat absorption. Given their location in the depths of Grand Canyon, it is no wonder why the inner canyon can feel like a blast furnace in the hottest months.
Even the lighter-colored, less dense sedimentary rocks found in Grand Canyon such as sandstone, shale, and limestone, are very inefficient cooling centers. No matter where they are in the canyon, the rocks cannot escape the sun, and hikers in Grand Canyon cannot escape the rocks (yay!).
In essence, Grand Canyon behaves like a giant, incredibly scenic parking lot. The same action that occurs in the vast expanses of concrete jungles known as cities, also occurs here in Grand Canyon and across the naked rock wilderness of the Colorado Plateau.
Grand Canyon is a massive, inverted mountain. The summit of this mountain, the Colorado River, lies at roughly 2000 feet elevation. The base, respectively North and South Rims, are at impressive elevations of 7500 and 8500 feet. As you may imagine, this creates significant differences in temperature. The rule of thumb climbing mountains in in the upward direction is 5 degrees for every thousand feet. This same rule of thumb applies to inverted mountains.
A nice summer day on the North Rim might be 80 degrees. This same day temperatures on the South Rim may be a warm, but still relatively comfortable 85+ degrees Six thousand feet below at Phantom Ranch it will be a balmy 110 degrees. Temperatures in the sun may exceed 130 degrees.
The forested rims, particularly the lush North Rim, are in climate zones more similar to places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Park. In contrast, the Inner Gorge lies in a climate zone similar to that of Saguaro and Joshua Tree National Parks which are located in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, respectively.
Is there any way to beat the heat?
Staying in the cool pine forests near the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims is the best bet to beat the heat in the summer. South Rim regularly sees temperatures in the 90s, but shade is easy to find. Cool breezes often blow through the stands of ponderosa pine, making a picnic overlooking the canyon very pleasant.
The North Rim is cooler, typically seeing high temperatures in the low-to-mid 80’s. Stands of aspen forest tremble in the breeze, and at 8500 feet nights get quite cool. A trip to North Rim is a great way to spend a summer day. Summertime stars at either rim are a sight to behold.
But I still want to hike….
Hiking in Grand Canyon in the summertime, as you may gather, can be a interesting proposition. The Goat’s advice is to get out early. Starting a hike before dawn is a summer rite-of-passage in Grand Canyon. Avoid hiking during the hottest times of the day (10AM-4PM). If you are out on the trail during those times, it is a good idea to seek shade where available. Drink plenty of water (3-4L/person), and eat salty snacks that help your body to retain moisture. Nuts, Jerky, and cheese make a fantastic meal on the trail, but avoid food high in sugar.
Is it a good idea (or even fun) to go backpacking in the summer?
If you are planning a backpacking trip below the rim during the summer, know what you are in for and prepare for it. Following the general hiking guidelines outlined earlier is a great start. Plan your trip so that you will be near water, if possible. Many hikes from the North Rim have water along the trail, and the Colorado River makes a wonderful and very welcome swimming hole.
Packing correctly is quite helpful as well. A wide-brimmed hat is key, along with sunglasses and clothing material that wicks moisture. Synthetic garments work well, and avoid wearing anything that absorbs moisture such as denim or cotton.
What is the best time of year to hike in Grand Canyon?
If you can swing it, Grand Canyon hiking is best enjoyed during the cooler months. October to April are the best times, with November to March being particularly spectacular. Although it may be chilly on the rim, hiking in the canyon during these months presents daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s, absolutely perfect for hiking.
Be advised that North Rim is open from May 15 – October 15. In the off-season there are no services available, and access is quite limited. In order to access North Rim during the winter, hikers must approach the rim on foot, in snowshoes, or on cross country skies.
Despite summer being warmer, there is no such thing as a bad time to visit Grand Canyon. Simply hiking along the rim to take in the astounding views is a great summertime activity, but hiking below the rim can be highly enjoyable too. Following our hiking guidelines will ensure that your backpacking trip or day hike is a safe and fun experience that yields stories and memories to last a lifetime.
Exploring Grand Canyon with a guide service is hands-down the best way to enjoy the canyon. This is true any time of the year, but is especially true when the temperature starts to rise. Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism’s guides are certified in CPR and backcountry medicine in addition to being degreed geologists. This depth of medical knowledge is the key to keeping our guests safe on the trail, particularly when the conditions are not ideal. Hit us up for more information, or to join an epic backpacking or basecamp hiking tour.
Hiring an outfitter has several benefits. Namely, we worry about all the other stuff while you enjoy your adventure! Food, navigation, top-of-the-line gear, and deep knowledge of the landscape is the coup de gras.
The Goat’s Final Word
Grand Canyon presents the intrepid adventurer extraordinary experiences with unique challenges. Even without the heat, hiking in Grand Canyon can be demanding and requires preparation paired with realistic goals. Summer heat is certainly among the challenges one will find here, but it can be managed fairly easily by hiking smart.
In fact, the heat offers hikers the opportunity to really slow down and enjoy the vistas unraveling before their eyes. Hiking by moonlight is an extraordinary experience that not only beats the heat, but presents an altogether different perspective on this wondrous place. Trust me, wandering through a moonlight-bathed gorge while a Great Horned Owl hoots from the cliffs above is a sublime experience.
Slow down, find some shade, drink some water, and chill. Post up under a sprawling cottonwood tree. Have a well-deserved splash in the river or under a waterfall. Take cues from Grand Canyon wildlife. Do you see them going hard in the heat? No? Then you shouldn’t either. Above all, don’t force anything. If you feel hot, slow down. Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself, your body will thank you.
Contact us for information about Grand Canyon hiking, or step into a geologic time machine on one of our epic Grand Canyon hiking tours
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How Long is the Havasupai Falls Hike?
Hiking down to the shimmering waters of Havasu Falls is on the bucket list of most outdoor enthusiasts. Who wouldn’t want to take the plunge into some of the most iconic waters of the American Southwest? Inviting as they seem, however, getting to Havasu Falls is not particularly easy, cheap, or for the faint of heart. The trail is quite long, steep in places, and mostly in the sun. This is not to mention the sometimes dizzying exposures along two ridges.
Here are the best ways to get to Havasu Falls, as dictated by The Goat:
Hiking, as usual, is The Goat’s recommended method of travel. It allows one to truly experience nature and the wilderness was meant to be; unobstructed by whirring motors, and metal boxes on wheels. Though there are other means of travel to reach Havasu Falls (two of which are covered later in this post), hiking is by far the most rewarding. In addition to the physical rewards, the scenery is outstanding, and a multi-day backpacking trip allows hikers to explore the area deeply, which is not to be missed.
Several small tributaries to Havasu creek have carved intricate canyons of their own. Though the waterfalls and turquoise waters are the main attraction, the creeks, chives, falls, slots, and defiles off the beaten path are well worth the time to explore. Here, we outline the particulars of the main hike from its main (read: only) trailhead. Please do not attempt to reach the falls by any other routes or trails.
Length: 10 miles one-way
Difficulty: Strenuous, especially coming out of the canyon in the summer
If you can get a permit, GO! (Read more about Havasupai Permits here). This is one of the most coveted permits in the world, and getting one is no easy task. The best season to go is the date your permit says.
As of 2019, the Havasupai Tribe has changed and streamlined its permit process. You MUST reserve permits online, there is no longer a number to call.
Once again, the tribe has changed things up a bit. New in 2019, the only kind of trip available to reserve as 4 days/3 nights. You can no longer customize your trip length. The rates are $100/night during the week (mon-thurs) and $125/night on the weekends (fri-sun). This means, on average, a 4 day/3 night trip the Havasu Falls will cost you somewhere between $300-$375 per person on the permit.
Hiking down to the village of Supai and Havasu Falls is absolutely the way to do it. The 10-mile hike from Hualapai Hilltop to the campgrounds is reasonably difficult, so plan on hiking 4-5 hours down, and 7-8 hours back up. The weather can be very warm, and there is NO water along the trail. Bring at least 3 liters of personal drinking water, and remember there is no water until you reach the village of Supai, 8 miles down the canyon.
The trail starts quickly, with 1 mile of switchbacks descending 2000 feet into the canyon. Be aware of mules and horses on the trail as you make your way, they can be unpredictable. Always yield to animals. One of the most unfortunate things along the trail is the observation of animal caracasses; the pack animal situation here has become untenable (more on this later). You may reserve pack animals in the village of Supai, or at the campground. Stay on the side of the trail to avoid spooking the animals, and respect their handlers instructions..
Animals and Wildlife
There can be other wildlife (as if pack animals are wildlife) on the trail the you will want to stay aware of. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, and poisonous spiders are part of the desert ecosystem here. Do not put your hands in a place where you can’t see them. Do not, under any circumstances approach or in any way disturb rattlesnakes in particular. The most commonly-treated snakebite injury is on the hand. Would you like to guess how a rattlesnake bites a person on the hand?
Hikers may also catch a glimpse of bighorn sheep, California condors, Red-tailed Hawks, and copious numbers of lizards and rodents such as chipmunks and ground squirrels. Do not approach or attempt to feed wildlife. The rodents may carry the Hantavirus, which is a particularly horrific, Ebola-like virus that can result in death. Also, keeping wildlife wild is what makes wilderness what it is and was meant to be!
Continuing Down the Canyon…..
The hike meanders on the trail for 7 miles before reaching the village of Supai. The first 3 miles of this trek offers very little shelter from the sun. At length, hikers reach the terminus of Hualapai Canyon at the junction of Havasu Canyon, where the famous turquoise waters of Havasu Creek first appear. From this junction, you have just 1.5 miles to reach the village of Supai.
The Village of Supai
The village of Supai, where the Havasuapai Tribe has made their home for the better part of the last 800 years, is a small and quaint place. Services are very limited. There is no cell phone reception (but you probably knew this from the moment your phone lost reception below the canyon rim), and even the mail comes by mule train to this day.
There are some options for supplies, however. In addition to the campground office, there is a convenience store stocked with items like chips, jerky, gatorade/water, and other snacks provisions (bacon!). This a great place to recharge for the last 2 miles of the trek to the campgrounds. There is also a diner, grocery store, and more in the town, so take a moment to explore.
The Last Leg to the Falls
Departing from Supai, hikers descend for an additional 1.5 miles down Havasu Canyon. Come around a bend, and wait for a figurative punch in the face. The outstanding scene around the corner, the famous Havasu Falls, comes into view. Cascading nearly 150 feet over cliffs of travertine, Havasu Falls plunges into the blue-green waters with a thunderous might. This view alone will make every step of the journey worth it.
If you can, pry yourself away from the mesmerizing view and continue to the campground, a short half-mile beyond the falls. The campground has running water and trash receptacles, please use them both responsibly (more on this later). Bringing additional water bladders and water bottles can cut down on the time spent at the faucet. There is but one faucet, and lines will form at any time of year. Be smart, plan ahead, save time.
While at the Campground
Havasu Falls and the surrounding area is a very popular place. Do not come here expecting solitude, or anything that could be considered a “wilderness experience”. While it is intensely beautiful, it is that beauty that makes it very crowded. On any given night, during all times of the year, expect to share the campground with somewhere between 300-400 other people. Also expect a nearly constant din of helicopters landing and taking off, as this has become a very popular method of reaching the falls.
There are several things you can do while at Havasu Campground to minimize your personal impact. Rule one: Pack it in, pack it out. If you bring it, take it the hell out (please). Do not flick cigarette butts, toss napkins or do your dishes in the creek. Do not act a fool. Over the years, especially as the popularity of this place has grown, guests here have acted fools; don’t be them.
There are trash receptacles at the campground itself, along with more in Supai. Don’t be one of the rubes who comes to this beautiful place only to treat it as their personal dumping grounds. Please contribute positively towards a future where everyone that comes here can enjoy its pristine beauty and granduer without having to stare a pools full of popped intertubes, discarded bras, cigarette butts, and beer cans.
Hualapai Hilltop to Campgrounds – 10 Miles
Hualapai Hilltop to Supai – 8 Miles
Supai to Campground – 2 Miles
Campground to Mooney Falls – 0.5 Miles
Mooney Falls To Colorado River – 8 Miles
Mules and other pack animals such as horses have long been used to transport gear, supplies, and people up and down the canyon walls of Havasu. In recent years, this practice has been adopted by several private outfitters that run trips to Havasu Falls. Due to crowding, jostling, and overall irresponsibility and disregard, this pack animal situation has become untenable. What exactly does that mean? It means that there have been numerous cases of serious animal abuses, from dehydration and starvation, to squalid trail and living conditions, to outright physical abuse and death.
The Goat strongly advises against using any company that offers pack animal-supported tours. The long list of serious offenders (which we won’t mention here out of professional respect), reflects a culture of lack of accountability. There are ZERO companies that offer pack animal-supported tours that have a 100% clean sheet of responsibility. You may contact us directly for more information on this malpractice.
There has been a massive increase in the popularity of getting to Havasu Falls by skipping the hike, instead opting to ride a helicopter. The Goat cannot stress how much he detests this practice, and bids adieu to anyone wishing to do it. You may do what you please, but we cannot and will not instruct, offer information to, or otherwise involve ourselves in an industry that actively degrades and disrespects the sanctity of wilderness. Also, get off your lazy butt and walk down if you want to see something beautiful.
****As of 2019, the Havasupai Tribe has placed a moratorium on all commercial guiding into Havasu Canyon. Due to overwhelming popularity, overcrowding, and lack of regulation, the tribe thought it best to place a hold on all guided tours until a proper management plan can be outlined. Contact us for information regarding self-guided tours, and other means of support for trips to Havasu Falls.
The Goat’s Final Word
Havasu Falls and the four azure waterfalls that accompany, are some of the most beautiful, unique, and stunning scenes the world has to offer. The journey to reach it is challenging, but extraordinarily rewarding. Please follow and respect the permit regulations and requirements, and once there please have reverence and respect for this truly special landscape. The tribe has significantly altered the permit process, and placed restrictions on commercial guiding companies in order to combat the overrunning of their homeland.
Going to Havasu Falls and exploring the fantasy-like landscape is an absolute bucket list destination; a destination that any hiker who wishes to explore Earth’s most special landscapes would want to check off. However, getting there takes advance planning, commitment, and respect.
For more information on the Permit Process, visit the Havasupai Tribal Website
Like our blog? Check out our guided tours through geologic time to Grand Canyon, Utah Canyon Country, and Arizona Red Rock Country!
The Bucket List Countdown
Everyone has a list. A daily list, a chore list, a grocery list, an assignment list, a to do list, a list of…..? None of these lists are fun, nor do they really do anything to further joy and appreciation of the beauty of the natural world. This is where the bucket list comes in. A life to do list, a list of things that if we accomplished them we would pass into time and space as happy souls; souls that knew there was nothing more that they needed to accomplish. That, my friends, is the only to-do list that you should really pay any mind.
What we have here is the Top 10 places to see in the American Southwest before time and space claims you for their own. These 10 locations not only encompass everything that makes the Southwest special, but are places that fill us with wonder, joy, mystery, energy, beauty, and a sense of being that can only be achieved by realizing just how special a place our Earth is.
The foundational specialty of the top 10 is the mind-bending geologic scales that they present to us. This is not a comprehensive list but rather one compiled of The Goat’s personal tastes and experiences. Come along on a journey through time!
10. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area provides almost limitless opportunities to hike, backpack, boat, swim, and recreate (hence the name). Though much of its splendor has been covered by the waters of Lake Powell behind Glen Canyon Dam, the area remains a splendrous wonderland of rock and scenery. Coursing from the seasonally-populated town of Hite in the north to Glen Canyon Dam itself, GCNRA traverses a stark and beautiful land along the former path of the Colorado River.
Among these fabulous places are Coyote Gulch, Choprock and Neon Canyons, and West Canyon among others. These canyons in particular still display the outrageous scenery and fairy tale-esque environments that Glen Canyon held before being impounded by the “beavers”.
Slickrock country abounds here, with canyons carved into orange and red-hued Navajo Sandstone and the aptly-named Glen Canyon Group. The rocks here are of Jurassic age, and record tidal mud flats and incredibly vast wind-blown desert sand dunes, which is thought to be the largest desert in recorded geologic history.
The Goat’s advice: get off the lake and into the canyons if you truly want to see this fantastic place. The Canyons of the Escalante, part of the northwesterly arm that extends from the Colorado, holds many remnants of the entombed wonderland. However, many features (such as the famous Rainbow Bridge) can be reached by boat which is a fun way to see this stark rock paradise set against the blue waters of Lake Powell.
Deep, sinewy slickrock canyons replete with arches, natural bridges, waterfalls, ancient ruins, and Lake Powell.
How to Get There:
For the easiest lake access, head to the town of Page, Arizona and one of the many marinas. From nearly anywhere else along its boundaries in southern Utah, GCNRA can be accessed by foot via countless canyons.
Hiking in Glen Canyon is best enjoyed from March to June, and late September to November. Lake Powell is a wonderful summertime destination.
9. Bryce Canyon National Park
Set in south-central Utah, Bryce Canyon contains deeply carved amphitheaters and ubiquitous hoodoos draped in orange. Erosional remainders of ancient freshwater lakes, these hoodoos create a fairyland of rocks that is extraordinarily unique. Many of the hoodoos sit in deep basins that appear almost like large theaters, beckoning to audiences to watch their show.
Bryce Canyon checks in as one of the smaller National Parks at just over 50,000 acres, but contained within it is jaw-dropping scenery that will surprise and delight. Before you leave, you may feel as though you have 100,000 new hoodoo friends, as each one of them seems to take on a certain unique persona.
This area was covered by large, freshwater lakes in the Pleistocene between 8-10 million years ago. Regional tectonic uplift and and erosion by dripping water, wind, and time has sculpted this outstanding landscape.
A veritable forest of the geologic oddity known as the hoodoo. The hoodoos here are erosional remains of once-cohesive blocks of sandy limestone that have been carved slowly by the forces of geologic time. Other features, such as spires and buttes, tower above the trails that snake their way through the golden-tinted hoodoos into secret grottos and cavernous alcoves. Truly stupendous!
How to Get There:
Take Utah Highway 12, a National Scenic Byway, south from Escalante, or north from Panguitch, Utah. The nearest major airport is in St. George, Utah, about 4 hours from the park.
The best season in Bryce Canyon is late spring to early fall, but winter brings snow and chilly weather.
8. Bears Ears National Monument, Utah
In the southeast corner of the state lies one of our newest National Monuments, Bears Ears. Conferred by President Barack Obama in December of 2016, the designation of Bears Ears has been a source of controversy and conflict. This controversy boiled into a nearly 85% reduction of the monument in 2017 by the current White House occupant, Donald Trump. The reduction is being litigated in Federal Court, and a final decision on the boundaries of Bears Ears awaits a judges gavel.
Bears Ears, named for twin buttes that stand sentinel over the 1.6-million acre Monument, is an absolute treasure trove of cultural, geologic, and ecological resources. Though its claim to fame are the thousands of ruins and relics left behind by generations of Anasazi Puebloans, the landscape itself is incredibly diverse and nearly unrivaled in its scenic value.
Bears Ears contains three distinct provinces: the lowlands of the Valley of the Gods, Cedar Mesa and its gashing Grand Gulch, and the Fable Plateau home of spectacular Dark Canyon and the famous Bears Ears. A short climb up the Bears Ears reveals sprawling views across much of the Grand Staircase to the southwest, north to the Canyonlands and the Orange Cliffs.
Valley of the Gods and San Juan River Country
Sitting at the base of Cedar Mesa and the historic Moki Dugway is the Valley of the Gods. Sometimes referred to as “Little Monument Valley”, Valley of the Gods is filled with large buttes and mesas sculpted into shapes that truly resemble sitting deities watching over their domain. Slightly to the southwest flows the San Juan River on its way to meet the Colorado River, goosenecking through the Monument Upwarp. The Upwarp is a massive wrinkle in Earth’s crust, remnant structure of the forces that built the Rocky Mountains. The core of this structure has been eroded and dissected, leaving the landscape beheld today.
Up the Moki Dugway, a twisting, narrow “highway” climbing the sheer sandstone cliffs, sits Cedar Mesa. This is the most popular place in the Bears Ears, with many miles of well-trod trails into Grand Gulch, its canyon. Contained within Grand Gulch is the hundreds, if not thousands or ruin sites left by its former denizens, the Anasazi. The tribes abandoned the area under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind structures, petroglyphs, and pottery; many of these relics are in excellent condition.
The Fable Plateau
The final northernmost slice of Bears Ears is the Fable Plateau, a soaring mesa topping out at nearly 9000 feet. The mesa is carpeted with forests of aspens, fir trees, and wildflowers in the summer. Hidden in the back of beyond, a stunning landscape awaits.
Dark Canyon, perhaps America’s last wilderness frontier, is a little-explored and deep defile rivaling Grand Canyon in its scale and beauty. Sheer red and orange walls dive precipitously to its depths, where the narrows rarely see full sun; thus Dark Canyon. Revealed in this utterly surreal canyon is 100 million years of Earth’s history, recording sand-blown deserts to large rivers, and ancient seas that teemed with life. Set directly east of Canyonlands National Park, Dark Canyon is a hidden gem that rivals the most popular National Parks for scenery, and far surpasses them for wilderness solitude.
Bears Ears boasts looming buttes in the Valley of the Gods, ancient ruins in Grand Gulch, and wild, wooly, spectacular scenery in Dark Canyon. All of this can be see unencumbered and without a soul in sight.
How to Get There:
The small towns of Bluff and Blanding in Utah provide good jump-off points to the Fable Plateau and Cedar Mesa via Highway 95 west. valley of the Gods is best accessed by heading south from 95 down the Moki Dugway. The nearest airports are Grand Junction, Colorado or Flagstaff, Arizona.
Bears Ears can be enjoyed any time of year, but spring and fall are best. Summers are hot, but tolerable. Winters can bring snow to the Fable area, but is generally tolerable.
7. Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The Colorado Plateau is a geologist’s paradise for several reasons. It is the preeminent showcase of relatively undisturbed sedimentary strata on the globe. Bound by mountains on all sides, including the mighty Rockies, The Plateau has somewhat mysteriously remained largely intact and undeformed since at least the Triassic, or roughly 250 million years. However, there are deformation structures within the province. The largest, most spectacular of these is a monocline known as The Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park of Utah.
The Waterpocket Fold is a 100-mile long upwarp in the Earth’s crust, remnants of the powerful geologic forces that built the Rocky Mountains. These tectonic forces, known as the Laramide Orogeny, resulted in numerous monoclines, or single-flexure folds, across The Plateau. The Waterpocket Fold is by far the most impressive. To see this fold is to truly behold the power of Earth’s processes; those that can thrust mountains thousands of feet into the sky, and those that can bend hard rocks like silly putty.
The names of this surprising feature come from two histories:
The fold gets its name from the countless divots on its domed head that collect water after rain; thus water pockets. It is also called “Capitol Reef”: “Capitol” from the Navajo Sandstone domes resembling government buildings in Washington DC, and “Reef” from its standing as an incredibly formidable barrier to travel similar to coral reefs impeding boat travel in the ocean.
The Waterpocket Fold is the particular feature of interest in, or better yet is, the Capitol Reef. Within its impenetrable cliffs are arches, natural bridges, creeks with waterfalls, ruins, petroglyphs, deep canyons, and outstanding natural scenery. The fold gets its name from the countless divots on its domed head that collect water after rain; thus water pockets.
How to Get There:
Capitol Reef National Park is near the town of Fremont in central Utah. Highway 24 runs directly through the park.
Spring and fall are best, but Capitol Reef is nice any time of year. Summers are warm, but tolerable. Winter can bring snow and cold, although this brings intense beauty,
6. Zion National Park, Utah
How does one describe perhaps the most dramatic cliff and canyon topography on the planet? Try this: it’s like walking into the most dramatic cliff and canyon topography on the planet. The walls of Zion Canyon stretch up nearly 2000 feet over its floor. With its main access being from the bottom-up, very unique in the world of canyons, Zion presents an astonishing perspective that truly makes one feel minute. Zion owes its drama to (what else), its geology and the incredibly specific sequence of events that occurred.
What happened here?
Zion sits on the southwest margin of the Colorado Plateau Province, directly at its border with the Basin and Range Province. The Basin and Range is a vast area of the southwest from essentially Las Vegas down to Phoenix and out west to Los Angeles that has been subjected to extensional tectonics. That is, the crust is literally pulling itself apart like silly putty. Zion’s location is the reason for its existence. With the Basin and Range faulting and pulling downwards to the southwest, the Virgin River has been forced to flow out and down at a high rate while the margins of the Plateau “bounce” back up in buoyant resistance to the gravitational pull of the Basin and Range.
This dual-headed action has resulted in the extraordinary and incredibly dramatic landscape, and is also the reason that access is from the bottom instead of the top, like most canyons. Zion is an incredibly special place that presents a spectacle nearly unmatched on the planet. Why is it only #6 on this list, you ask? Crowds, plain and simple. Summer is when the throngs of people descend like locusts, when it’s over 100 degrees most days. Despite being one of the smaller National Parks, it receives roughly the same visitation as much larger parks like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Ever tried to jam yourself into the crawlspace of your attic in the summer? Welcome to Zion! If you would truly like to enjoy this place fully, visit in the off-seasons such as spring or fall. Winter, when the cliffs are covered in snow, is particularly special.
Zion Canyon is the main attraction here, with massive, soaring walls of red-orange sandstone glowering down at the valleys below. “Yosemite Dressed in Red” also boasts arches, mesas, buttes, exhilarating cliff hiking, and in the northern Kolob Canyon part of the park, less crowds.
How to Get There:
Zion can be accessed easily from Las Vegas via I-15, which is partly why it’s so popular. The towns of Rockdale and Springdale are quaint, if not touristy, little towns right at the mouth of the canyon.
Summers are hot and crowded. Winter can be snowy and chilly, but drives away the crowds and drapes the red walls in crisp white. Spring and fall are the best seasons.
5. Arches National Park, Utah
Made famous in Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire, the Arches is an intensely special and truly one-of-a-kind place. Home to the largest concentration of natural rock arches in the world, Arches National Park is a stunning and mind-bending. Over 2000 arches have been discovered here, and more wait in the wilderness. The iconic symbol of Utah, if not the entire canyon country, is Delicate Arch. Presiding over a large amphitheater and framing the La Sal mountains to the east, Delicate Arch is truly magnificent.
Like most of the places on this list, Arches is the result of a very specific set of geologic events. First (and most importantly) vast deposits of salt were laid down as ancient seas filled and evaporated in ceaseless cycles of oscillating climate. Salt behaves strangely, not like other rocks as you might imagine. It “flows” when subjected to pressure, and deforms very easily. This deformation combined with upward flow has resulted in the incredibly and precisely sculpted arches, which would not exist without it.
Simply put: the Arches. Arches National Park also contains other incredibly unique salt deformation structures such as domes, strike valleys, grabens, and undrinkable saline springs.
How to Get There:
The Arches are easily accessed from the town of Moab, Utah. Moab has an airport and many amenities like hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Avoid the summers, as it is interminably hot and crowded. Winter can be chilly, but Delicate Arch draped in snow is a sight to behold. Spring and fall are the best seasons.
4. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah and Arizona
A rose by any name is still a rose. Nowhere is this saying more true than at The Staircase, or The Escalante if you prefer. The scale and twisted geology of this place is almost overwhelming at times, and its remoteness only adds to its splendor. Despite having 1.3 millions acres contained within the monument, it only houses 15-20 developed trails. making backcountry travel and navigation skills a must to see much of the area. The Staircase is about as wild as it gets in the Lower 48.
Wild sandstone hoodoos, mesas, and almost hauntingly twisted sedimentary formations greet visitors at every turn. The sediments in the Grand Staircase, named for its star-step like appearance from afar, record geologic history from the Permian to the late Cretaceous, or about 175 million years.
Recently this monument has come under attack from the Trump “administration”. Like Bears Ears, the Grand Staircase has seen a reduction in its size by over 50%. Surprising to nobody, mining companies have moved in to claim areas once made off-limits by the monument. Contact us to find out how you can help this special place be saved.
The Grand Staircase has it all. Here, explorers can find the heart of canyon country. From deeply-incised canyons to 10000 foot mountains, there is something for every adventure appetite here. Several new species of dinosaurs have been discovered here, as well as 650 species of bees, some endemic to GSENM.
How to Get There:
There are several points of access into the Grand Staircase. The town of Kanab, UT is the largest and provides the most amenities. The towns of Escalante and Boulder are classic canyon country towns. Page, AZ also offers good access.
There is a place for every season in the Grand Staircase, although summers are pretty warm. However, summer can be fabulous in the watery canyons, and cooling off under a showering spring is an excellent activity. Spring and fall are the best times to visit, and winter should probably be avoided.
3. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
This is where the canyon country puts on its grandest display. Canyonlands National Park can be described in one sentence: this place is nuts! From the Island in the Sky to The Needles to The Maze, Canyonlands forcefully makes a case for the most spectacular scenery on the planet.
This massive park, one of the largest in the National Park system, is divided into three distinct provinces. We’ll begin there.
Island in the Sky
This district is wonderful for first-time visitors to the park. It provides expansive views to the other two, more remote districts and contains many easily-explored and very famous features. Mesa Arch and Upheaval Dome are wonderful features to explore. Grandview Point elicits outstanding, sweeping views from atop vertical cliffs plunging 1000 feet straight down.
The Needles District explores carefully-sculpted geologic features known as hoodoos. Cut into multi-hued Permian-aged (280Ma) rock, this district retains the distinct look of a giant pincushion. Hikers can approach the Colorado River from here via a few different, rugged trails.
Perhaps the most remote place in the lower 48, The Maze is precisely what it sounds like. A dizzying network of canyons and rock, The Maze is reserved for the most adventurous canyon country explorers. Not to be missed here is the Chocolate Drops, the Alligators Teeth, and the Land of the Standing Rocks.
There are too many to list here. Canyonlands is impossible to experience in a day or two, especially with the incredible variation between the districts. The Maze is easily the least popular, and Island in the Sky the most popular. If you have one day, do overlooks at Island in the Sky. Upheaval Dome is also not to be missed.
The Needles contains outrageous arches and rock formations, though most are accessed by relatively long (4+ mile one-way) trails.
The Maze is the absolute definition of wilderness and requires commitment just to get there. Enjoy!
How to Get There:
The easiest access into Canyonlands is from Moab, UT. Moab provides access to Island in the Sky and the Needles. If you want to access The Maze, be prepared to drive for at least 3-4 hours over 4WD roads.
Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit the Canyonlands (noticing a pattern?). Island in the Sky can be a fine summer destination, but the Needles and Maze should be approached carefully. Winter can be a dramatically-fabulous time to visit, but stay out of the water.
2. Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Home to perhaps the most famous geologic formation in the world, Vermillion Cliffs is one of the most sought after destinations in the southwest. Known for its difficult access, remote location, and stunning geology, this is one place that cannot be missed.
Look at your screensaver right now. Pick up a postcard. There’s a good chance the picture on it is from the Vermillion Cliffs. The Wave, the most famous, graces much of the marketing material for the American Southwest.
How Was the Wave Formed?
Although it is named “The Wave”, water has little to do with this feature. It is carved in the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, interpreted as a massive, Sahara-like desert. Wind, time, and small amounts of seaonally-flowing water has sculpted The Wave to its current beauty. Permits to see this feature can be hard to come by, but it is certainly worth the wait. Read our blog covering how to get permits to see this feature.
There are several other destinations here, however, including the longest, deepest slot canyon in the United States (Buckskin Gulch), the outstanding White Pocket, and Paria Canyon.
Nakedly exposed geology is on tap here, and The Wave itself, along with the mind-bending formations found all across this outstanding wilderness, are musts for anyone interested in beauty.
How to Get There:
Best access is from the towns of Page, AZ or Kanab, UT, but all access requires 4WD and knowledge of how to use it.
Spring and fall are the best times of the year to visit (once again). Summers are very hot, but if a permit to The Wave is involved the date on your permit is the optimal season. Winters are chilly and can bring snow, but also create rare and fantastic photo opportunities.
1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Truly the Grandaddy of them all, The Grand Canyon does and will always reign supreme as the jewel of the American Southwest. Overwhelming in its grandeur, humbling in its splendor, inspiring in its presence, this canyon is absolutely nothing short of grand.
There is very little to say about The Grand that has not been said in hyperbole for over 100 years. Teddy Roosevelt immediately designated it for protection shortly after his visit in 1904, and people have been coming in droves to gaze upon one of the official natural wonders of the world. Nearly 6 million people per year Grand Canyon, but it is not hard to find solitude on the trails and away from the busy parts of the park.
As one walks down the trails here, keep in mind that for each step is worth nearly 100,000 years. The rocks at the rim are roughly 260 million years old, and the rocks at the Colorado River in the inner gorge are roughly 1.9 billion years old. That means with 16,000 steps, you will have traveled 1.6 billion years back in time when you reach the river. Not bad for a day.
There is a lifetime’s worth of hikes, backpacking trips, and even scenic drives that await for the novice to the seasoned traveler. This is most certainly THE bucket list item.
A giant freaking hole in the ground, but a ridiculously beautiful hole.
How to Get Here:
Access South Rim from Flagstaff or Tusayan, AZ, and access to North Rim is best from Kanab, UT or Jacob Lake, AZ.
Seasons vary depending on activity and location. Late spring to early fall are optimal times on both rims, but fall to spring is best for being in the Inner Gorge.
Oftentimes the best way to experience these nearly overwhelming places is on a guided tour. Guides provide several things: safety, security, logistics, transportation, food, water, and a depth of knowledge gained over years of experience in these wild lands.
Many of the places listed here require keen navigation skills, lack water, and can present difficult challenges with climate, wildlife, exposure to heights, and elevation changes. Hiring a guide can eliminate all of those potential issues, and allow guests to simply enjoy their surroundings. Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism provides outstanding service, top-of-the-line-gear, professional geologist/guides, and handles all logistics. Guarantee your best trip ever! Go Guided!
The Goat’s Final Word
There it is, the best geologic adventures in the West. The naked rock wildernesses of the Colorado Plateau provide limitless and life-changing experiences. These 10 locations are not only the best adventures in the southwest, they represent some of the best adventure and scenery in the world.
The bottom line: immediately drop that foolish chore list you are holding and start dreaming beyond your gutters. The greater world waits for you, but don’t wait for it.
Like our blog? Check out one of our guided tours through geologic time to Grand Canyon, Utah Canyon Country, and Arizona Red Rock Country.
Explore Further, Be Wild, See Through Time — Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism
Pack Right and Hit the Trail!
One of the most frequent questions I get asked is “what should I pack?” This is a very important question for beginning hikers, as it nags at the hiker’s eternal struggle: What is necessary vs. what is extraneous weight? In almost every guidebook one can find a list of sometimes nearly 100 pieces of gear that you should own and pack. How are you supposed to sift through to figure out what is the most important? Don’t worry, The Goat is here to help!
Prioritizing gear is essentially the same as prioritizing life. What does one need to absolutely survive? Water, food, shelter. Though hopefully you never run into a situation where something becomes life and death, this is the basic rule of thumb on the trail: Pack things that will give you the greatest chance of staying safe. This becomes more in-depth the longer and more remote the trip, but for the purposes of this article we will focus on a 7-mile day hike in our region of the Colorado Plateau.
The Colorado Plateau is hot in the summer, cold in the winter, generally arid, rugged, and remote country. Route-finding can become difficult in places, and most hikes lack perennial water sources. Cell phone service can be spotty, and the wildlife, even the plant life, can be dangerous. Sounds like fun!
I will assume that you have a small (25-40L) daypack, that you are dressed appropriately for your adventure (hat, sunglasses, sturdy close-toed shoes/boots, light rain jacket), and that you will be bringing your camera.
1. Map & Compass (And the knowledge to use them) — This may very well save you life. It is difficult to stress the importance of knowing exactly where you are, and how to get from here to there. Should you become lost or disoriented, your map and navigating skills will be the thing upon which you rely to stay alive and find your way home. We advise taking a map-reading course (typically offered at most outdoor shops in 1-2 hour courses), and know how to use and understand how your compass can help you navigate on your map.
2. Water Bladder— We recommend a 3.0L bladder, which you can pick up for $15-25 at most outdoor stores. Your bladder should be puncture-resistant and provide easy drinking access in the form of an adjustable mouthpiece. Bladders are much more effective in keeping you hydrated, as they do not require stopping and fetching from your pack like a water bottle, and typically fit easily and snugly in a pouch in your daypack.
3. First-Aid Kit— This kit should include disinfectant, tweezers, blister relief, sutures, scissors, pain relief (Ibuprofen) and a few types of bandages (band-aids, gauze). It will cover all basic backcountry injuries such as cuts, bruises, and soreness.
4. Knife/Multi-tool— Either one is fine, but a multi-tool can be more useful as it may contain tweezers, scissors, a screwdriver, etc. all of which can be quite helpful in a pinch. In either case, your knife should be sharp, and the tool should be free of rust and in good working condition with all parts. This can be used for almost any backcountry task, including self-defense, fire-starting, cooking, first-aid, and gear-rigging.
5. Small Flashlight or Headlamp— Lights are necessary for navigation in dark places, and at night (obviously!). These are typically small and very lightweight, and you will be glad you have one if your adventure runs long, or if you are forced to spend a night out. It is also a good idea to have extra batteries for your light.
6. Water Purification— This can come in the form of iodine tablets, which are inexpensive and lightweight, or a full-blown apparatus, which can be more expensive but yields very safe, clean, and tasty water through filtered purification. Once again, you will be happy to have this in the event that you run out of water or need to provide water for pets, companions, etc.
7. Firestarting Materials— This can include almost anything that can start a fire. A flint, lighter, matches, or a spark generator are handy, and some kind of dry matter that can be used as kindling such as cotton balls, old man’s beard (that dry, green, mossy stuff on pine trees), or basically any very dry material. You can also pack a tube of fire paste. This should be very lightweight and compact, and you should practice starting a fire from scratch if it is something you have never done.
8. Cell Phone with a Location App— Any smartphone should be equipped with a way to track it should it become lost or stolen. This can be very handy if you become lost with it, as people will be easily able to track you movements. In the case you do not have a smartphone, a personal locator beacon, or simply telling people where you are going and when you will be back can be the difference between being found and not.
9. Small Survival Kit— This should include a small, loud, whistle, an insulating bivy sack (typically those shiny jobs), and a signaling mirror. This should be lightweight and compact. If you do happen to be stuck outside overnight, remember that lying directly on the ground will suck all your warmth away. It is a good idea to help your insulating apparatus with pine needles or some other way of staying off the ground.
10. Food Stuff — This should be a good mix of proteins, carbohydrates, and tasty, tasty fats. You will be burning plenty of calories on your adventure, so don’t be concerned with nutrition labels. Nuts, chocolates, peanut butter, granola, protein bars, and lunchmeat sandwiches are great trail foods.
Other Gear Ideas
- Doggie Bags for your pet waste (or your own) — Pack it in, pack it out people 🙂
- Toilet paper and trowel — see above
- Emergency contact info – Driver’s license or other photo ID, list of people to contact, medical info including allergies, blood type, etc. I wear dog tags that have all this information.
Clothing Do’s and Don’ts
Avoid cotton and denim on the trail. They do not breathe well, do not dry well, do not insulate well, and can literally kill you if they become wet and the temperature turns cold. If possible, wear synthetics and wool, as they do all the things that cotton and denim do not. Be sure you dress appropriately for the season and forecast, and be aware that weather is unpredictable, and that rain on the Colorado Plateau is just a cloud away.
Have fun, and I’ll see you out there!
May The Goat be always with you
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