Note: This one is long. I probably should have broken it up into multiple parts, but since it’s already a part of a longer series, I felt that would be hierarchically problematic. And anyway, I just felt like banging it out. Oh, and sorry about the title- I guess I’ve driven past one too many KOAs…
Two cool things about sleeping outside close to the solstice is that 1) you wake up early naturally, and 2) it’s not particularly cold when you wake, so you don’t procrastinate around getting out of the bag and moving. So I was fed, packed up, back in the car and rolling before 7AM on Saturday. Dropping back down through Red Canyon to join US89, I followed the Sevier River South, and gradually up. As the land rose the fields and meadows by the river- really more of a stream now- became greener, and the trees alongside taller. At around 7400 feet, a mile before the junction of US89 and Highway 14, the Sevier splits into 2 tributaries, Minnie Creek and Tyler Creek, veering away/upstream from the road at roughly 45 degrees on either side. About another mile up, just before the crest of the hill, a final little spring, Gravel Spring lies downhill a few hundred feet to the left, the very last, uppermost, teeniest water source of the mighty Sevier Basin.
Long Valley Junction is a 3-way junction with a restaurant/gas station, like a gazillion others in the rural West, but it marks a border. On the North side of the hill, all water flows down into the Great Basin, specifically Sevier Basin, which after the Great Salt Lake and Humboldt basins, is one of the most extensive and varied drainage basins in all of the Great Basin. From here a spilled cup of water will wind its way up past Red Canyon, through Panguitch, Junction and Richfield, before bending to the West, crossing under I-15 North of Scipio, the angling Southwest past Delta and out into the emptiest and bleakest of valleys, an ephemeral playa called “Sevier Lake”, evaporating in the hot sun under the watchful crags of the House Range.
On the South side of the hill, all water flows down into a small stream that will become the Virgin River, which will wind its way down through the rolling hills, across the Kolob terrace, into the spectacular narrows of Zion National Park, past La Verkin and St. George, passing under cliffs scrawled with ancient rock art, through the awesome Virgin River Gorge in Arizona and then into Nevada, where it will join the Colorado just West of the Grand Canyon before continuing through Lake Mead, Lake Havasu, and eventually- what few drops don’t get evaporated or siphoned off for irrigation- into the Sea of Cortez. This divide is like a gateway to so many worlds, as much so as any international airport, like C.S. Lewis’ “Wood Between The Worlds.” And it all starts right here, in little Long Valley Junction.
Side Note: After you blog for a while, you have posts you think back on as good or not-so-good. And then there are some that you thought were just an amazingly great idea, but didn’t materialize the way you had hoped. One of my early posts in this third category was this post, where I described a road trip across US50 in Nevada in terms of hydrological basins we passed through over a 2-day road trip. I’m not sure it ever really clicked with any readers (and in fairness pretty much nobody read this thing back then) but I always felt that the idea for the post was terrific; I think a hydrological view of the West turns our traditional mental maps inside out, as we think about watercourses, connections, the paths they form and the places they lead to.
Down I drove on 89, through Orderville, Glendale and in Kanab, where I gassed up before continuing into Arizona, then angling East toward the Kaibab.
I love driving up onto the Kaibab Plateau. Over the course of maybe 15 minutes you go from wide-open desert-scrub dotted with Prickly Poppies, to shady, cool Ponderosa forest. By the time you pull into Jacob Lake, the desert is already fading into memory.
Botanical Side Note: Those papery-looking flowers with the daisy-esque color scheme (yellow center, white petals) lining the roadside down on the desert flats in summer are Prickly Poppies, genus = Argemone. There are a bunch of species; those in Utah and Arizona with this yellow/white color scheme include: A. munita, A. pleicantha, and A. corymbosa. Sometimes this flower is called “Cowboy’s Fried Egg.” Prickly Poppies are true poppies (family = Papaveraceae) and so are closely-related to things like Opium Poppies, Papaver somniferum, and those exotic red Asian Poppies that are blooming along the East side of I-215 around Olympus Cove right now. More distantly, poppies belong to the same order (Ranunculales) as does the Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and so are related to things like Columbines and Utah Buttercups.
Virtually all parts- stems, leaves, flowers, roots- of Prickly Poppies are loaded with alkaloids and that’s why they’re often the only flower around in heavily-grazed areas- cattle won’t touch them.
Biologically, the Kaibab Plateau is an island, bounded an all side by deserts and/or canyons, most notably the Grand Canyon on its Southern flank, and its isolation is more complete than the various Southern Utah plateaus we’ve spent time one. Most folks who know a bit about the Grand Canyon know that the North Rim is higher and cooler than the South Rim, which is why it’s more thickly-forested, and is home to a number of plant species absent on the South Rim. But what most casual visitors don’t know is that the plateaus is domed in such a way that the species comprising, and the character of the forest in the central plateau, are/is much different from those/that on the fringes. At Jacob Lake, you’re still in the fringes, in solid Ponderosa forest, with ground cover dominated by things like Manzanita and Lupine (pic above, right). But as you drive South toward the national park, the forest changes, becoming cooler and dark, marked by Firs* and Spruce**. Interspersed through this central forest are lovely alpine meadows, which the road follows for miles (pic left). By the time you reach the DeMotte store, ~20 miles South of Jacob Lake, the forest looks and feel far more like the heart of the Aquarius Plateau than the pines of Jacob Lake.
*Both White Fir, which we know well from the Wasatch, and Corkbark Fir, Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica, which we don’t get here in Utah.
**Primarily Engelman, but some Blue Spruce as well.
But as you turn off of the highway and start working you way through the maze of dirt roads toward the Western rim of the plateau, if you pay attention, you’ll notice you’re trending gradually but steadily downward. It’s about 17 miles from Demotte to Timp Point. By about 3-5 miles from Timp Point, the forest is a mix of Ponderosa and Aspens, and in the last mile to the rim the Aspens disappear almost entirely as well. The rim forest is mainly tall Ponderosas dotted with stands of our old friend Gambel Oak, plus a couple of other things we’ll come to in a moment.
The Rainbow Rim trail, which was built in the late 90’s, is an 18 mile-long singletrack connecting 5 “points”, or extensions, of the plateau. Upon hearing of the trail, many first-time visitors assume (as did I) that it hugs the rim, providing near-constant views of the Grand Canyon, which isn’t the case. Rather it’s a forest ride, passing across open pine groves and weaving its way in and out of one minor draw after another. But every 15-20 minutes, rounding one of the “points”, it provides a spectacular view of the Canyon. The trail is fast and fun; a typical stretch looks something like this:
When you pass by/round one of the points*, the sudden vista reminds you where you are and what you’re doing- zipping along the rim of the world’s greatest canyon on a bicycle. It’s hard to stay on the trail then, and well worth stopping for a moment. But something else changes besides the view at each point, and that’s the forest.
*The trail takes in 5 major “points”- Timp, North Timp, Locust, Fence and Parrisawampitts. But in between are several minor points, each with an inspiring canyon view. I didn’t keep count, but I’d guess that there are 10-12 decent canyon viewpoints along the entire trail.
Immediately below the rim, the North Rim Ponderosa forest gives way to a Piñon-Juniper belt, dominated by Colorado Piñon, Utah Juniper and associated shrubs and shrees such as Cliffrose. But out on the tippy-tips of the exposed, sun-baked points this P-J-Cliffrose Woodland actually makes it up over the rim and onto the plateau itself.
Side Note: The Ponderosa/P-J division at the rim is somewhat of a generalization, as the forest type boundaries vary locally by aspect. In this photo (below), I’m looking South from my campsite on Stina Point toward the North-facing slope of Two Springs Ridge, on which we can see extensive groves of PLTs (probably Douglas Firs.)
Here’s a clip that shows everything. At the beginning, I’m rolling generally West/Southwest through Ponderosa Pines, interspersed with stands of Gambel Oak. Around 1:40, you see the first hint of a change of flora- a few scattered blooming Cliffrose on the left. At about 2:00, the forest starts to open up, the Ponderosas thinning, and you can start to catch glimpses of the canyon, the rim of the next point North, off to the right. At 2:18, we pass a Piñon on the right, and suddenly the trail is lined with Cliffrose. We pass a Juniper on the right at 2:28. Just before then, at 2:26, I swing my head far enough to the right for the camera to catch the view into the canyon.
But wait- the best is yet to come! At 2:44, as we’re angling around to the East/Southeast, we pass through a virtual corridor of blooming Cliffrose. How lovely is that? The clip ends with us re-entering the Ponderosa forest.
Side Note: This ride was quite possibly the best-smelling ride I’ve ever been on. The dominating scent was the rich pine-smell of the Ponderosa forest, brought out in force by the mid-afternoon sun, and spiced with the occasional hint of vanilla*. But on the occasions where the trail passed through a blooming Cliffrose corridor, an almost sickly-sweet honey-like smell washed over me, and for a moment on each of the points, I caught the hot dry, Juniper-y scents of the benches and draws below. About a year ago I did a post on smell. After this ride I found myself wishing I’d saved the topic for the Kaibab.
*A number of websites and guidebooks will tell you that only Jeffrey Pine- and not Ponderosa- smells of vanilla, and that this is a certain way to tell the 2 apart. It’s not true. Though the vanilla smell is more common and generally stronger in Jeffrey Pine, you can often pick it up in Ponderosas on a warm day, especially (so it seems) from larger trees.
In describing the flora of the Kaibab, I’ve been mostly mentioning standard Southwest Uplands-type flora we’ve looked at before. But there was new stuff as well. The most prominent example was a modest-sized deciduous tree I passed near a couple of the points, and which on occasion, reach out and scratched me. About an hour into the ride I began to notice that some of the pink blooms I was passing by weren’t Wild Rose, but something else, and that this something else not only bloomed at alongside the trail, but sometimes 15 or 20 feet up in the forest canopy. When I finally pulled over to check one out, I recognized the tell-tale keel-banner floral architecture common to members of Fabaceae, the Pea Family. My new tree was New Mexican Locust, Robinia neomexicana, and I was glad to meet it in full bloom.
We keep bumping into the Pea Family, usually in shrubby/forby form such as Lupine, Milkvetch and Sweetpea. But down in the Sonoran we looked at Mesquite, a veritable pea-tree, and down in Puerto Vallarta we encountered full-on Pea forests. Locusts are also pea-trees. There are about 10 species, all native to North America, but only R. neomexicana is native to the Southwest. In addition to their distinctive flowers, they exhibit a couple of other common features with Mesquite, including pinnately-compound* leaves (pic above, left) and thorns**pic right). (Around the Grand Canyon, one of my guides states that R. neomexicana occurs only on the North (and not South) rim, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.)
**But the thorns of the Kaibab locusts are nowhere near as problematic as Mesquite, and certainly nothing like the nightmare of the various Southwest acacias. One guidebook to the Rainbow Rim recommends wearing long sleeves when cycling past Locust Point (where the namesake trees are especially profuse) but the warning’s totally overblown. Besides, thorns grab and shred soft fabric much more readily than they do skin. Basic info on the structure of thorns, BTW, I covered in this post. (Man, it is like I have a post for everything.)
Later in the summer, the fertilized flowers will develop into peapods. But like Lupine, you can’t eat them- they’re poisonous. Which brings me to…
If Only I Had Known…
Here’s something that’s happened at least a dozen times over the course of this project: I’ll see something interesting far from home and take a photo. I’ll go home and ID it, then get curious and read all about it. And oftentimes, when I do, I’ll find out something really interesting about the plant or bug or bird or rock or whatever in question, and I’ll think, “Damn! If I’d only I’d known that when I was in front of it…”
The interesting thing about NM locust is this: Like so many Pea family members, it’s seeds are toxic. So are its leaves, bark, pretty much everything, really, with one exception- the flowers. They’re fine to eat raw, right off the tree, and in times past Indians regularly did so, as do both cattle and wildlife today. At home 2 days later, I smacked my forehead- I was right there, with blooms all around!
We’ll come back to the Kaibab’s biological isolation in a moment, but first let’s return to that point we pedaled past, and the amazing view we glimpsed. Everybody knows of course that one of the most remarkable things about the Grand Canyon is the geology it exposes*. I won’t give the canyon’s geology a full treatment in this post**, but it’s worth pausing at the points and thinking for a moment about what we’re riding on.
*What? You didn’t know that?? OK, I’m sorry- you’re not smart enough to be reading this blog.
**For 3 reasons: 1) This post is long enough. 2) the geology of the Grand Canyon totally deserves its own post (which I will not have time to get to this week) and 3) Arizona Steve and I are cooking up a Grand Canyon backpack for the Fall which will provide a much better, up-close opportunity for a Grand Canyon geo-post. I am telling you, the secret of happiness in the West is to be always scheming your next adventure. Tickets on the fridge, baby!
The top geologic layer of the Grand Canyon, and the rock atop which you’re standing on either North or South Rim, is Kaibab Limestone, a sandy limestone mixed with sandstone, shale, sprinkled liberally with marine fossils, which was formed ~250 million years ago under a shallow sea. That’s it. That’s the newest rock in the whole Grand Canyon.
To an amateur- like me- who learned most of his geology in Southern Utah, this is the single weirdest thing about the Canyon- the rocks are all wrong! Everything I know from Southern Utah- the Entrada Sandstone of Arches and Bartlett Wash, the Navajo Sansdtone of Robber’s Roost, Zion and the Slickrock trail, the Wingate cliffs of Twin Corral Box, the Shinarump of Gooseberry and the the Moenkopi formation of JEM trail- gone. Gone, gone, gone. The rock I was riding on riding on yesterday up on the Pausaugunt- at the same altitude and just ~100 miles or so North- the Claron Formation, was laid down 200 million years later than that what I’m riding on the Rainbow Rim. This same Kaibab Limestone was up there as well yesterday, but it was about a mile and a half under my wheels!
This effect, of older rock layers being exposed at the surface as one moves South down through Utah and into Northern Arizona is the “Grand Staircase” referenced in our namesake national monument. By the time you get down to the Kaibab Plateau, the rocks newer than 250 million years have all been eroded away.
When you look down into the canyon, you’re looking at dozens of stories like this- of erosion, of seas and deserts past, all the way down to the very spines of once-Himalayan-sized mountain ranges so ancient as to pre-date multicellular life itself.
Extra Detail: Just 2 layers below the Kaibab Limestone, you can see a prominent vertical layer of beige cliffs. This is the Coconino Sandstone, which was a Sahara-like desert of sand dunes some 270 million years ago. Further on down several layers more, the high red cliffs- generally the tallest and most vertical throughout the canyon- are the Redwall Formation, formed at the bottom of an another ancient- but longer-lasting- sea.
Still further down are 2 significant “unconformities”- geospeak for “missing layers of rock.” The first is between around 550 million and 800 million years ago, the second between 1.25 and 1.7 billion years ago. The likeliest reason for these unconformities is extended periods of erosion, such as that which has more recently eroded away everything above the Kaibab Limestone. In other words, if a new ocean or sea suddenly flooded Arizona tomorrow, and a new sedimentary layer started forming atop the Kaibab Plateau, geologists millions of years in the future would see another unconformity of some 250 million years…
One of the most interesting aspects of GC geology is how the canyon formed- not just the rocks, but the canyon itself. There’s not a 100% agreed-upon answer, but it seems likely that some number and combination of major rivers has been eroding down through the rock layers for around 17 million years. The current course of the Colorado River is only thought to have been in place for some ~5 million years. Before this time the Eastern and Western portions of the canyon were different drainages being eroded by different rivers, until the Western/lower river “captured” the Eastern/upper river. The route- and even direction- of the ancestral Eastern/upper river is unclear, but most geologists feel that part of its course was through Marble Canyon and the Little Colorado River.
Down at the bottom of the canyon- the very bottom*- the dark gray cliffs alongside the river are Vishnu Schist**, the worn-down, ~2 billion year old core of long-since forgotten, soaring range of mountains. Every layer of rock in the GC has a fantastic story to tell.
*If you haven’t been to the bottom of the canyon, you should put it on your bucket list. Hike down, take a river trip, whatever. Just don’t do a mule*** trip. I swear the tourists on those things always look freaking miserable.
**I just love this name- “Vishnu Schist.” It’s cryptic and forbidding and enticing all at the same time. All week long I’ve been looking for an opening to use it in a conversation.
***Someday I will do a post on mules.
*Seriously, that section could’ve been a post in itself. This blog is so chock-full of value, it makes my head spin. (It’s also why it takes me so damn long to finish a post.)
The biological isolation of the plateau impacts animal life as well, a good example being the Kaibab Squirrel, Sciurus aberti kaibabensis, a subspecies of a familiar friend from my old home in Colorado, Abert’s Squirrel. A Kaibab Squirrel basically is an Abert’s Squirrel- a large, pointy-eared Sciurid that feeds on the seeds, buds and inner bark of Ponderosas- with a different color scheme. It has the same bushy tail and tufted ears (though the ear tufts often aren’t noticeable in summer), but the tail is light gray/white, the body dark gray and the belly black. Abert’s Squirrel is common on the South Rim, and across Northern Arizona, New Mexico and much of Colorado. But the Kaibab Squirrel lives on the Kaibab plateau- specifically in the Ponderosa belt of the plateau- and no where else in the world.
Extra Detail: The subspecific phylogeny of S. aberti is a lot more complex than the simple Kaibab vs. Abert division implied by the guidebooks. The Kaibab Squirrel is actually one of 6 generally recognized subspecies. The all-black version I was familiar with in Colorado is S. aberti ferreus. The Abert’s Squirrels of the South Rim, which look very different with white belly and grey body, are S. aberti aberti. There’s another subspecies in Northwestern New Mexico, and then 2 more down in Northern Mexico. It used to be assumed that the 6 subspecies diverged fairly recently during the Wisconsin Glacial Episode, or roughly within the last 100,000 years or so. But genetic research indicates that the subspecies diverged much earlier, probably somewhere between 900,000 and 1.5 million years ago.
But the more interesting thing is this: The Kaibab and South-Rim Abert’s Squirrels (S. aberti aberti) appear to be more closely-related (and recently diverged) to one another than they are to any of the other subspecies, which is curious, because the leading cause of such divergences was thought to be geographic barriers, and it’s hard to imagine a much more formidable barrier in the North American West than the Grand Canyon*…
*Which has been at its current depth for the last 1.2 million years.
Anyway, I’ve read about the Abert/Kaibab/South/North Rim thing in probably a dozen different books, guides and pamphlets over the years, and it so it’s annoyed me for a while that I’ve been down to the North Rim several times over the past 20 years and never spotted one. I mean seriously, here I am, Mr. Nature, always out in the boonies and spotting interesting blooms and birds and bugs and rocks and lichens, but I can’t spot a damn squirrel?
On the ride back, my heart leapt at a possible quick glimpse, which you can (barely) spot here dashing across the trail and in to the stump.
But a clear sighting/photo- for the moment- eluded me. I re-mounted and pedaled the last couple of miles back to Timp Point.
I wanted to camp on/near the rim, but the choice spots at Timp Point were full up. I’d spotted several open sites at North Timp Point, and had it in my mind to drive back up there for the night, but on a whim I headed for the next point South- Stina Point.
Stina Point is still on Forest Service- not Park Service- land, but has no trail access, and so sees minimal visitor traffic. The “road*” out to the point has a center strip overgrown with tall grasses that brush against the underside of your vehicle as you drive through- the sure sign of a lightly-traveled road.
*Probably not suitable for a passenger car, though a Subaru-type vehicle would make it easily.
Tangent: There was another thought on my mind as I drive out to Stina Point- the Watchermobile. The Watchermobile is a 2000 Toyota 4Runner. I love the vehicle. Though the paint is pocked and the seats cracked, it’s been reliable, versatile and taken me to all sorts of places. I take great care of it* and am meticulous about scheduled maintenance. But it’s 11 years old and has 156,000 miles. Like a human body, no matter how well cared for it is, eventually something will break. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that I often take it to some pretty remote, lightly-traveled places.
*By “great care”, I mean mechanical care, not making love to it with a bottle of Turtlewax. If you ever encounter the Watchermobile, you will likely notice that a) it is dusty/muddy and b) the interior smells a bit like bike grease and sweaty outdoor clothing/gear (in other words- sort of like me toward the end of a road trip). But it runs great.
Now at this point in the tangent, you’re probably thinking, “Oh yeah, I get it- he’s worried about being stranded out in the boonies…” But that’s not what I’m worried about at all - I’m worried about totaling my vehicle. Not through an accident- but through towing charges. Let me explain:
In the backcountry I almost always have a mountain bike and plenty of water with me, and I’m almost never more than 50 “road” miles from pavement. If I get stuck I’ll just ride out*. But the thornier issue I what to do with the 4Runner.
*Mud would be more problematic. But with adequate water and a sleeping bag, waiting 2 or 3 days for the ground to dry out or freeze wouldn’t be life-threatening.
From time to time tourists break down in really remote locations, like the Maze (in Canyonlands National Park) for instance. When they do, there are towing services in towns like Moab and Kanab that have high-clearance 4WD wreckers that can come get them out. But these outfits charge on an hourly basis, and the going in many of these locations is slow. So when your Tahoe or Landcruiser or Hummer breaks down on the White Rim or at the bottom of the Flint Trail, it’s not inconceivable that the tow out could end up costing you a few thousand dollars.
Painful as this is, ultimately to get your $40,000 SUV out, it’s worth spending $3K or so- there’s no other practical option. But when your SUV is 11 years old and worth more like 5 or 6K, the math starts to get more problematic. And this brings me to the point- eventually, in the not-too-distant future, should I keep my beloved 4Runner, the cost of a tow could “total” the vehicle.
Driving slowly along through the late afternoon light, I spotted it- another Kaibab Squirrel zipping across the road. And this time it paused long enough atop a log for me to grab camera and snap a photo (pic right). Picking the road less-traveled paid off.
I parked in a wide Ponderosa Grove overlooking a side canyon a couple hundred yards from the point, marked only by a fire ring that hadn’t been used in years. I cooked dinner in the fading, golden light*, walked out to the point to watch the sun go down, then lay in my bag on the floor of the pine grove, struggling to stay awake long enough to catch a few stars popping out…
*Here’s something else cool about pine forests: the needles filter sunlight such that in late afternoon or early morning, as the low-angled sun passes through many trees to reach your eyes, the light seems slightly yellower than normal- sort of a mini-sunset effect. PLTs don’t create this effect- their needles aren’t long enough. Only (long-needled) pines do it.
Note about sources: Most of the geological info in this post came from Bob Ribokas’ Grand Canyon Explorer site, Annabelle Foos’ Geology of Grand Canyon National Park, North Rim, Stephen Whitney’s Field Guide to the Grand Canyon, and Halka Chronic’s Roadside Geology of Utah. Info on S. aberti genetics and subspecies came from the paper Phylogeny of Six Sciurus aberti Subspecies Based on Nucleotide Sequences of Cytochrome b, Peter Wettstein et al, 1994. Thanks to friend and fellow nature blogger KB for research assistance.
If you’re interested in learning more about squirrels in general, I recommend Christopher’s recent post over at Catalogue of Organisms. Closer to home, I blogged about Red Squirrels here in the Wasatch in the Fall of 2008.