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How was the Grand Staircase Formed?

How was the Grand Staircase Formed?

How was the Grand Staircase formed?

Why is the Grand Staircase called the Grand Staircase?  Because it sounds cool?  Well, of course because it sounds cool, but the name actually represents a very unique and important geological phenomenon that has been built over hundreds of millions of years.  Starting from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the hoodoo wonderland that is Bryce Canyon National Park, the Grand Staircase represents progressively younger and higher cliffs that quite literally form a staircase, as though a giant was looking for an easy way to step up to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  There are five stairs in this grandest of staircases, each a different color, a different piece of rock, and a different age from Permian to Cretaceous, a span of over 200 million years.

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Step Zero:  Kaibab Limestone, North Rim Grand Canyon National Park

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Before you being to climb any staircase, you must first stand below it and contemplate your climb.  This is step zero.  The best part about this step is that there it also serves as a foyer, with stairs above and below.  The stairs below?  2 billion years of Earth’s history and 5000 vertical feet down to the Colorado River and its Grand Canyon.  The top step of this staircase is the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and the Kaibab Limestone, a Permian formation packed with marine fossils that serves as the hard, protective layer of the Kaibab Plateau and the soft sandstones and shales that make up the red and orange walls you will see when hiking in Grand Canyon

Step One:  The Chocolate Cliffs:  Moenave and Chinle Formations

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The first official step in the Grand Staircase is the Chocolate Cliffs, located near the town of Fredonia, AZ and seen prominently on US hwy 89 near the Arizona/Utah Border.  The Chocolate Cliffs can also be seen below Glen Canyon Dam.  Aptly named, these velvet brown cliffs of the Moenave Formation, a variably sandy and silty sandstone/shale that represents a proximal marine fluvial (river) system of early Jurassic age, are part of the greater Glen Canyon Group that includes all the Jurassic-aged units of the Grand Staircase (Wingate, Moenave, Kayenta, Navajo).  The Chocolate Cliffs are home to thousands of dinosaur fossil fragments, though no full specimens have been recovered.

Step Two:  The Vermillion Cliffs:  Kayenta Formation and Navajo Sandstone, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

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The Vermillion Cliffs, perhaps more famous geologically for their National Monument that contains such features as “The Wave“, White Pocket, and Buckskin Gulch, are the second step in the layercake of geologic time that forms the Grand Staircase.  Laid down during the mid Jurassic, Vermillion is composed of two distinct rock units that are married to one another across the Colorado Plateau.  The Kayenta Formation, which is sandwiched between the older Wingate and younger Navajo Sandstones, is a terrifically diverse and interesting unit that represents a wetter transition period with a howling and vast desert on each chronological side.

A veritable melange of lithology, Kayenta has just about everything from thin lenses of limestone and muddy shales to cross-bedded sandstones similar to its stratigraphic neighbors.  It records almost seasonal changes with its mud cracks, as well as large scale climatic changes indicated by sand dunes, river beds, and even the occasional shallow lake bed.  Kayenta and Navajo are almost always found together, and oftentimes form dramatic cliffs and canyons together as seen in the Vermillion Cliffs and Zion National Park.

Step Three: The White Cliffs:  Navajo Sandstone, Zion National Park

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The third step in the Grand Staircase are perhaps some of the most most famous and photographed cliffs in the world, creating Zion National Park in southwest Utah.  Soaring red and white Navajo Sandstone, formed by a massive windblown desert in the middle Jurassic, have made Zion National Park one of the most sought-after destinations in the Utah, the American Southwest, and even the world as people travel from thousands of miles and from every corner of the globe to behold the epic grandeur showcased by these rocks.

Step 4: The Gray Cliffs/Straight Cliffs, Straight Cliffs Formation/Mancos Shale, Grand Staircase National Monument 

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Though often overlooked for its wildly famous famous neighbors, the fourth step Gray Cliffs are nothing if not spectacular.  Though not as celebrated as the White and Pink Cliffs contained within the boundaries of Bryce and Zion Canyons and their National Parks, the Gray Cliffs contains some of the most wild, scenic, unspoiled, and lightly explored wilderness in North America.  Think that sounds ridiculous?  Consider this: the Kaiparowits Plateau, wherein the Gray Cliffs are most prominent, receives less visitors in one year than Zion does in one day, and that’s just the beginning.  The Gray Cliffs and the canyons below them contain some of the most complete and celebrated archaeological finds in the United States.  Want to see a T-Rex?  Want to walk in Apatosuar footprints?  The Gray Cliffs house all these wonders and more in their Cretaceous-era shales.

Step 5:  The Pink Cliffs, Claron Formation, Bryce Canyon National Park

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Our climb ends in some of the most famous scenery in the entire world, the pink and orange hoodoos of the Claron Formation and Bryce Canyon National Park.  Remnants of shallow, salty inland lakes of the late Cretaceous, the Pink Cliffs have eroded into outrageously spectacular natural amphitheaters, mesas, and wild canyons.  Cedar Breaks National Monument also displays the Pinks and receives far fewer visitors.

Visitors to the entire Grand Staircase area, from its namesake National Monument to the soaring cliffs of its three National Parks, will be treated to some of the most special, most spectacular, and most geologically important scenery in the entire world.  There is no better way to explore the Kaiparowits Plateau, The Grand Canyon, or the rest of the Grand Staircase than with our geologist/guides, who will take care of your every need while giving you an in-depth glimpse into the geologic secrets hidden in this outstanding place.

Going Guided

Hiking and exploring Grand Staircase-Escalante, or any of the National Parks, is a special experience.  Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guide is a great idea.  For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip.  They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.

Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with expert geologist/guides.  Our backcountry meals use fresh ingredients, and are planned by a professional chef.  Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore.  In conclusion, you can visit National Parks, but going with a guide can create and even more memorable experience.  Don’t be shy, and call us!

Read our blog!

For adventure hiking vacations in a geologic time machine, see our epic tours in Grand Canyon, Utah, and Arizona!

For geological musings read The Goat’s geology blog.

Follow us on Facebookand Instagram

Explore Further, Be Wild, See Through Time — Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism

Top 5 Camping Trips in the Southwest

Top 5 Camping Trips in the Southwest

Top 5 Basecamping Trips in the Southwest

Basecamping can provide a truly wonderful experience that explores the best of both worlds in the outdoors: excellent hiking adventures by day, and comfortable accommodations by night.  Hiking in the southwestern United States provides the adventurer with endless opportunities to see outrageous and iconic scenery, experience world-famous geology, and enjoy the whimsical color tapestry that pulls at the senses.  The Goat has decided to let you in on his personal favorite hiking and camping adventures in the American Southwest, so load the car, strap in, and grab the camera ’cause we’re going outside!

5.  Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, California

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Though just the name evokes a barren wasteland of intense heat and suffering, long-time westerners know that Death Valley is one of the most fabulous places on the face of the Earth.  It is a land of extremes, but one of those extremes is intense beauty.  Being in Death Valley confronts the hiker with the dichotomy of life itself, in one breath being the lowest, hottest place in North America, in the other breath being a place with 11,000 foot mountains that receive feet of snow every winter.

In one breath being a howling desert, in the other being a place with flowing natural springs and over 1,000 different species of animal, including several like the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, that are indigenous to Death Valley and only Death Valley.  To the east of Death Valley lies the Mojave National Preserve, a little-known slice of desert heaven that holds its own distinctions.

Think the largest, densest stand of Joshua Tree, icon of the Mojave, lies in Joshua Tree National Park?  Think again.  That belongs to Mojave National Preserve.  Think the tallest sand dune in the United States lies in Great Sand Dunes National Park?  Think again.  Kelso Dune, which rises nearly 900 feet above the desert floor reigns supreme, right in the heart of the Mojave National Preserve.  Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve is a southwestern adventure that is not to be underestimated in its grandeur, taken for granted in its diversity, or passed up by the outdoor adventurer.

4.  North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

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The visitation to Grand Canyon is well-documented.  Last year alone (2015) Grand Canyon National Park received over 6 million visitors for the first time in its history, breaking the string of a decade at over 5 million.  To say it is well-loved is a bit of an understatement, and for good reason; It’s the Grand Canyon.  However, over 90% of people that visit Grand Canyon visit the easily accessible South Rim, and only 5% of total people that visit actually go below the rim, given that the average visit time to this fabulous natural wonder is about 2.5 hours.

This leaves us with the isolated, lonely North Rim.  Grand Canyon’s North Rim, which soars to over 8,500 feet on the Coconino Plateau, sees about 1/10 of the visitors that flock to the South Rim; good news for you.  From the North Rim, hikers and campers are treated to all the dramatic vistas, epic geology, and fantasy of the Grand Canyon, but with a sense of solitude that can be hard to bargain for at the South Rim.  North Rim contains some of the park’s most thrilling hiking adventures, outrageous fall colors, and even brings a sense of the pioneer spirit to any of its adventures.

3.  Superstition Mountains, Arizona Sonoran Desert

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Some say it’s the views.  Some say it’s the ancient spirits.  Some say it’s the lost gold mine.  The Goat says he’s just lucky.  The Superstition Mountains, located just 45 minutes east of the heart of Phoenix, Arizona, provide some of the best hiking and backpacking opportunities near a large metropolitan area in the United States, and perhaps the world.  Hiking and exploring this fantastic wilderness from a basecamp, however, may just be the best way to see it.

Legend has it that within the Superstition Mountains lies an incredibly rich gold mine, the likes of which Arizona has never seen.  The Dutchman, Mr. Jakob Waltz (who was actually German) gave clues on his deathbed as to its whereabouts, but it has yet to be located.  Camping near the wilderness and tackling its hundreds of miles of excellent trails gives the outdoor adventurer a wonderful opportunity to search high and low, through deep canyons to 5,000 foot peaks.  Meanwhile, sweeping views, excellent and explosive geology, and in the heart of the wilderness, solitude await as you dive deep into the legends and lore of the fabulous Superstition Wilderness.

2.  Sedona, Arizona Red Rock Country

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Sedona is world famous for its grand red rock monoliths, spiritual healing power, and upscale tourist traps.  However, we geologists think of Sedona as the “Pangean Riviera”, as the beautiful rocks here tell a wonderful story of a paradise by the sea.

Though it’s lost its ocean views over the eons, Sedona is still one of the most gorgeous places in the American Southwest, and a base camping trip here will give the intrepid hiker and explorer all they can handle, from rugged red rock cliffs and world-class rock climbing, to intimate canyons, to soaring spires and outrageous sunsets whose colors can only be matched any the rocks themselves!

1.  Capitol Reef National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah Canyon Country

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This tour de force of South Central Utah’s two epic parks will forever change your vision of what Utah’s Canyon Country is truly all about.  Think you’ve seen it all?  We think you’ve seen almost nothing until you behold the majesty contained within Capitol Reef and the Grand Staircase.  Capitol Reef, home to the largest geologic structure in the southwest, harbors towering sunset red cliffs, arches, canyons, and utter solitude, with some of the best star-gazing in the lower 48.  Grand Staircase is home to some of the most rugged, thrilling, and scenic canyons and slots on the Colorado Plateau and the entire world.

Placing your basecamp near the town of Boulder, Utah will lend you, the intrepid hiking adventurer, an opportunity to ping-pong between these two giants.  The close proximity, beauty, and above all the unspoiled wilderness experience you are highly likely to obtain in these two outstanding places was the deciding factor in our countdown.  The Goat approves!

So there you have it ladies and gentleman, the Top 5 Camping and Hiking Trips in the American Southwest.  You can tackle them yourself, or to enhance your experience, you may choose to tackle them with our fabulous geologist/guides that will school you on every whit and whimsy in these beautiful rocks.  See you on the trail!

Going Guided

Hiking and exploring Grand Canyon, or any of the National Parks, is a special experience.  Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guide is a great idea.  For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip.  They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.

Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with expert geologist/guides.  Our backcountry meals use fresh ingredients, and are planned by a professional chef.  Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore.  In conclusion, you can visit National Parks, but going with a guide can create and even more memorable experience.  Don’t be shy, and call us!

Read our blog!

For adventure hiking vacations in a geologic time machine, see our epic tours in Grand Canyon, Utah, and Arizona!

For geological musings read The Goat’s geology blog.

Follow us on Facebookand Instagram

Explore Further, Be Wild, See Through Time — Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism

 

Top 5 Backpacking Trips in the Southwest

Top 5 Backpacking Trips in the Southwest

Top 5 Backpacking Trips in the Southwest

The American Southwest is a veritable buffet of life-list adventures.  From the tame to the rugged, there is something for everyone here.  Whether you are hiking and backpacking in Utah, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, or the wild Sonoran Desert, The Goat has compiled his top 5 backpacking trips in the American Southwest just for you.  Follow along with us as we take you on a dream tour of our epic backyard.

5.  Bucksin Gulch to Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Utah Canyon Country

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Simply put, this is one of the finest canyon hiking experiences in the world.  This 43-mile, multi-day point-to-point takes hikers through the longest, deepest slot canyon in North America (and perhaps the world) the Buckskin Gulch.  Towering sunset sandstone walls lead you through this coursing labyrinth, crossing the Paria River over 50 times before it dumps you out at Lee’s Ferry, the official beginning of the Grand Canyon.  Along the way hikers are treated to epic canyon scenery, including several soaring natural arches, waterfalls, natural springs, the dreaded “Cesspools,” and a pleasant grade that makes it easy to revel in the scenic and geologic wonders.  Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch can be done separately, but it is The Goat’s preference to get them both done in this fabulous backpacking tour of quintessential canyon hiking.

4.  Sundance Trail to Dark Canyon, Dark Canyon Primitive Wilderness, Utah Canyon Country

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Potentially the best part of this fantastic hiking and backpacking experience in the depths of Utah’s Canyon Country is that you may have Dark Canyon all to yourself.  Intrepid hikers will travel at least 2-3 hours in any direction across 4×4 roads just to reach the trailhead, which makes getting here a fabulous adventure in and of itself.  Once here, Dark Canyon presents hikers with some of the most unspoiled scenery and geology in Utah and all of the American Southwest.  Often referred to as “the Little Grand Canyon” due to its ever-changing hues and sheer cliff walls, Dark Canyon is one of the premier canyon hiking destinations in the United States.  The Sundance Trail descends a particularly rugged and thrilling ridge down into the depths of Dark Canyon, and once there, gives nearly limitless opportunities for hiking into side canyons and tributaries, each more stunning than the last.  The Sundance Trail can also serve as a simple day hike, but The Goat recommends at least two or more days in this outstanding Utah canyon wilderness.

3.  Marble Canyon via Cottonwood Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California

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Death Valley: hot, barren, and boring, right?  Wrong.  Death Valley is perhaps the most ecologically diverse and geologically astounding place in North America, and the Marble Canyon via Cottonwood Canyon backpacking route puts that on full display.  Running natural springs surrounded by towering cottonwood trees?  Check.  Polished billion year-old marble?  Check.  Slot canyons?  Check.  Solitude?  Check.  Adventurous route-finding and scrambling?  Double Check.  Backpackers and hikers typically do Marble Canyon only, however, The Goat prefers to make the Cottonwood to Marble Canyon traverse via Dead Horse Canyon, a rugged and wild adventure that will truly give you appreciation for the grandeur and diversity of Death Valley.

2.  West Canyon, Arizona Red Rock Country

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West Canyon is regarded by many (including The Goat) as the finest slot canyon on the Colorado Plateau.  It does not hold any particular distinction as far as length, depth, or width, but its scenery and slot canyoning experience is absolutely second-to-none.  Backpacking through West Canyon, the hiker is almost immediately confronted with swimming opportunities, old hogans, several dry falls that require exciting scrambling, and all this within the first mile of the canyon.  As the backpacking continues, the hiker will reach waterfalls, enormous and outrageous alcoves, and numerous opportunities for hiking into side canyons, ducking through thrilling narrows that often require a headlamp, and quintessential sunset sandstone walls that seem to bathe in the soft sunlight that reaches into the depths of the canyon.  What really puts this adventure over the top, however, is the boat trip required to reach the canyon, making West Canyon a unique and powerful experience in Red Rock Canyon Country.

1.  Tanner Trail to Grandview Point via the Escalante Route, Grand Canyon, Arizona

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This is the #1 backpacking trip in the American Southwest for one simple reason: the ultimate combination of geology and scenery.  As with any hike in the Grand Canyon, hikers are confronted with nearly 2 billion years of Earth’s history painted on the walls.  However, on the Escalante Route, hikers and backpackers get up close and personal with two of the Grand Canyon’s greatest scenic and geologic features, the Great Unconformity and the Butte Fault.  We’ll leave one of our geologist/guides to walk you through the finer points of these fabulous features, but let’s just say that they add a fabulous spice to this outrageously scenic hike that includes a class 3 scramble up the Papago Wall, delving into a slot canyon, camping at the beach, and utter solitude.  The Escalante Route presents exciting challenges and sweeping grandeur, all in the eastern part of Grand Canyon before the Colorado River enters the Inner Gorge.  This wide-open expanse will give you a true perspective on the grand scale of Grand Canyon, as you confront literal mountains within the canyon, all the way down to narrow slots and three separate Colorado River-side camps that do not disappoint.

So there you have it ladies and gentleman, the Top 5 Backpacking Trips in the American Southwest.  You can tackle them yourself, or to enhance your experience, you may choose to tackle them with our fabulous geologist/guides that will school you on every whit and whimsy in these beautiful rocks.  See you on the trail!

Going Guided

Hiking and exploring Grand Canyon, or any of the National Parks, is a special experience.  Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guide is a great idea.  For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip.  They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.

Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with expert geologist/guides.  Our backcountry meals use fresh ingredients, and are planned by a professional chef.  Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore.  In conclusion, you can visit National Parks, but going with a guide can create and even more memorable experience.  Don’t be shy, and call us!

Read our blog!

For adventure hiking vacations in a geologic time machine, see our epic tours in Grand Canyon, Utah, and Arizona!

For geological musings read The Goat’s geology blog.

Follow us on Facebookand Instagram

Explore Further, Be Wild, See Through Time — Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism

 

 

Top 10 Geologic Adventures of a Lifetime in the American Southwest

Top 10 Geologic Adventures of a Lifetime in the American Southwest

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.

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Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Seasons:

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Tent camping at the Dark Canyon in the Grand Canyon

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.

Cedar Mesa

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Main Attraction:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Seasons:

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

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.

The Maze

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Main Attractions:

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.

Optimal Season:

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.

Grand Canyon Colorado River

Main Attraction:

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.

Optimal Seasons:

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.

Going Guided

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