Speaking of filling in blank spots, that’s what I did last Tuesday. KanyonKris and I played hooky from work, meeting up before dawn at the Orem Park & Ride and heading South, then Southeast, over to Price, then South to Castle Dale, where we turned off the highway and drove East toward the San Rafael Swell.
Geo-Side-Note: This was my first time heading South on Highway 10 from Price. The road follows a broad valley across the Mancos Shale which has a similarly drab appearance and ground-cover to the (unnamed) valley between Green River and Price. These 2 valleys make sort of a big crescent, in which Price sits at the junction. On the West side of the valley are high cliffs, and in fact these are the very same Book Cliffs we looked at in the last geo-post, which run up to the Northwest from Green River, then bend clear around Price and start heading South past Huntington and Cast Dale, where they form the Eastern edge of the Wasatch Plateau. So when you’re driving up out of Price toward Soldier Summit on your way back to the Wasatch Front, you’re driving up through the Book Cliffs.
According to “Fuzzy”, the owner/proprietor of Fuzzy’s BicycleWorks in Price, this bend in the Book Cliffs creates a sort of precipitation “hole” right around Price, such that they rarely get snow in and around town. But we’ll get to Price riding and Fuzzy in a little bit…
Like most Utahns, my usual exposure to the SR Swell is via the Eastern edge, which is specifically the San Rafael Reef. The SR Swell is a large (40 x 75 miles), 2,000 foot high, ovaloid uplift in Central Utah. On the Western edge, this uplift has tilted and cracked huge wedges of Navajo sandstone in a nearly 75 mile-long line of giant cliffs and “flatirons”. This wall/reef has been eroded by countless little stream/washes into dozens of fantastic, tight slot canyons*.
*I blogged about a hike with Bird Whisperer through 2 of these- Ding and Dang Canyons- a couple years back.
Extra Detail: The Swell was uplifted during a geologic episode known as the Laramide Orogeny, which was a 30 million year-long period of mountain-building in Western North America starting around 75 million years ago. The Laramide Orogeny produced the Rocky Mountains, as well as- closer to home- the Uinta Range.*
*Interesting geo-factoid: the Uintas are roughly 4 times as old as the modern Wasatch Range. But that’s a story for another post.
But when you approach the Swell from the Western side (Castle Dale), your introduction to it is very different. Instead of sighting this massive wall on the horizon, you just sort of roll along through open scrublands, first over Mancos Shale, then down onto the Cedar Mountain formation, working your way gradually lower, but mostly just rolling along over a not very interesting gray & brown landscape. Then you get a little lower still, the road gets a titch more squiggly*, and Junipers and a few Piñons appear, and then all of a sudden, the world… falls… away…
*But still graded and excellent. The roads in this area are the best-condition unpaved roads in the state.
No really, I mean it. The road ends at a spot called the Wedge Overlook, where what you are overlooking is the so-called Little Grand Canyon. No, it’s not as “grand” as the actual Grand Canyon, but it’s still absolutely, thoroughly and spectacularly awesome. Here it is:
OK, now at this point in the post, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: “Why does this photo suck so badly? If the view is that great, shouldn’t he have taken a decent photo instead of just cropping some still from his helmet-cam?” To which the answer is yes, I should have and indeed did so. In fact I took a dozen+ wonderful shots. But, later in the day, I lost- yes lost- my camera. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
Tangent: Long-time readers will recall that I have a long, sad history of losing/ destroying cameras. In fact when I purchased this one, I broke my own rule and bought the super-duper extended warranty* that would cover any kind of impact/breakage.**
*Because warranties are a form of gambling, with the odds similarly stacked against you. So is insurance, I guess, but I do buy that because not doing so- ironically- turns out to be a bigger gamble. Still, I actually have a long, complicated and reasonably-well-thought-out (for me at least) Half-Baked Theory as to why we’d all be better off if automobile insurance were outlawed***, but I’ll save that for another footnote in another tangent in another post.
**Unfortunately you need the actual camera to collect on the warranty. KanyonKris helpfully pointed out that broken cameras are often offered for parts, etc. on eBay, and that I could possibly procure a “stand-in” on the cheap, but that would’ve broken my Rule of Crime****.
***In my younger days, I actually- and I am not making this up- had an extended version of this Half-Baked Theory that applied to banks, but it fell apart once I managed to accumulate $100 and needed to put it someplace.
****Which is not what you might assume. My Rule of Crime has absolutely nothing to do with ethics or morality (although I am personally ethically and morally opposed to crime- that’s beside the point) but rather the logic of crime. The Rule is that you should only commit crimes that you will only need to commit once. One time. So for instance, stealing $10 million out of a bank vault, or the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre***** is a sensible crime, because you do it and then presumably you’re set for life. On the other end of the spectrum, holding up a liquor store is right out, because you’d need to rob them practically weekly to maintain any sort of a reasonable income, and then the odds would doom you to death or incarceration in short order. Similarly, petty fraud sits down on this Low/No end of the Crime-Rule spectrum. I should point out BTW that KanyonKris strikes me as exactly the kind of logical, creative, smart and ultra-resourceful guy who would make a Fantastic Master Criminal if only he weren’t So Darn Nice.
*****Leaving aside the whole fencing issue, of course.
But here I am, losing yet another camera. So if you don’t know me in real life, you are probably thinking, “I am never loaning him anything…” but really, this only happens to me with cameras. And in my defense, I bring my camera absolutely everywhere and take tons of photos with it. So I think you should give me a little bit of slack, at least until you read how I lost it.
The Little Grand Canyon looks so different than the Eastern edge of the Swell- the Reef- because it’s not all crazy-tilted. It’s just been eroded down into countless little draws and canyons as the Swell has uplifted. It’s sort of a little Colorado-Plateau-within-a-Colorado-Plateau (which in this case happens to the actual Colorado Plateau.) The geology here includes a number of formations we’ve looked at previously; I’ve marked the main ones in this photo*.
*Courtesy of KanyonKris, who is exactly the kind of guy who doesn’t lose things like cameras.
Our reason for visiting the Wedge Overlook wasn’t just to see the view, but also check out a new mtn bike trail we’d heard about. The Good Water Rim trail departs from the overlook and follows the rim of Good Water Canyon- a network of small canyons feeding into a bigger tributary to the main San Rafael Little Grand Canyon- for 15 miles of singletrack. The ride was mostly level*, not at all difficult, and provided wonderful views. Sometimes the views would be of the deep canyon reaching out to the San Rafael River…
*Would be a great singlespeed ride.
…and other times it would just be of the shallow Navajo-lined side washes.
Side Note: Utahmountainbiking.com, whose reviews of trails are usually spot on, gives this trail borderline-ecstatic reviews. KanyonKris and I enjoyed it very much, but were not quite as enthusiastic. While interesting, the trail is almost completely non-technical. The views are great, but after 30 miles out & back, well, you’ve seen the same view quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong- it’s a very enjoyable trail. But if you’re a mtn biker planning a first trip to Utah, there are a few dozen trails I’d ride before of this one.
Regardless of aspect, the trail stuck to the same geologic layer: the Carmel Formation. The Carmel is a “mid-Jurassic” formation, separating the (early-Jurassic) Navajo from the (late-Jurassic) Entrada. It formed in a shallow marine and peritidal environments in seven distinct “depositional cycles”. The marine environment which led to its creation was a shallow inland sea extending from Southern Utah to Southern Alberta, called the Carmel Seaway. The formation consists of various layers of limestone, siltstone, sandstone and evaporates*.
*Mineral sediments concentrated by evaporation. Closer to home, the mud flats around Great Salt Lake are full of ‘em.
So wait a minute. If the Carmel separates the Navajo from the Entrada, why didn’t I mention it back over in Moab, when I was going on and on about those formations? Because it doesn’t occur over there; the Carmel Seaway didn’t reach that far East*. In any case, the trail rides over, and makes good use of, an abundance of remarkably flat gray slabs- limestone members of the formation. Some are small- like dinner plates, and clatter, jump and sometimes even flip under a bicycle tire. Others are massive, living-room-sized slabs. How are they all so flat, and on the same level?
*“East” is relative here, since what is now Utah was in a different spot on the globe in the Jurassic than it is today.
Extra Detail: I couldn’t figure out which limestone member; there are 3. A big one occurs near the tippy-top of the formation, an even bigger one in the middle, and a small/narrow one down at the bottom.
The answer becomes obvious when you look at the breaking-away chunks of the rim. Each massive car-sized boulder is comprised of a series of 2-3” thick horizontal plates. When one is eroded away, the next is right there to take its place.
The Carmel as a whole is relatively erosion-resistant layer when compared with the softer underlying Navajo. When the Carmel is finally removed, the Navajo quickly erodes into deep washes and canyons.
The Carmel and Ancient Marine Life
The Carmel appears to have played an interesting role in the evolutionary history of marine life. The limestone layers created what geologists carbonate hardground, which means a lithified (turned to rock) seafloor. These hard seafloors favored life forms that with hard, protective exteriors, and/or “encrusters” that formed hard, protective shelters or tubes, over critters that burrowed into softer/sandier soils for protection. The Carmel- and other Jurassic period hardgrounds- saw an explosion of various bivalves (oysters, clams, scallops, etc.) and other encrusters, such as serpulid worms, which construct and reside in hard little tubes.
The Carmel was one of a number of Jurassic carbonate hardgrounds that formed during the Jurassic, and later the Cretaceous. But for a long, long time before- throughout the Triassic and Permian, practically no such hardgrounds were formed. The next most recent hardground-forming era was back in the Silurian* and earlier Ordovician periods, and interestingly, this was the time-span that saw the rise of the echinoderms**, which include all sorts of spiny things, such as sea stars, sea urchins.
*We looked at the supernova hypothesis for the Silurian extinction back in this post.
After the ride, while we were in the area, we drove down to the bottom of the Little Grand Canyon and the San Rafael River crossing, an easy drive which I strongly recommend. This whole area is both beautiful and remarkably accessible; come Spring I’ll be returning with the Watcher family for sure.
On the drive down we passed one of the best rock art sites in this part of the state- Buckhorn Wash. Buckhorn is a huge cliff-side panel, some 160 feet long, chock-full of large anthropomorphic figures dating back several thousand years. The style/period is Barrier Canyon, which we’ve looked at previously, so I won’t repeat the background here, but mention just a couple of cool/unusual things about this site.
Several of the figures are holding curious staves, snakes or other objects. Some of the anthropomorphs are winged, like weird, shamanistic archaic angels. 2 of the figures, oddly, seem to be over-painted with a yellow pigment; it’s not clear when or by whom, or even whether it was in historic or prehistoric times. (This site BTW is almost all pictographs, meaning painted figures, as opposed to petroglyphs, which are pecked/carved figures. The last rock art site we visited, Thompson Wash in the Book Cliffs, features a mix of both types, consistent with the multiple styles/periods found there.)
But the weirdest thing is that most of the anthropomorphs have later, deliberately-pecked holes in their chests. What does this mean? Were later visitors trying somehow to deface the site, or remove or later it’s significance or power?
Extra Detail: Buckhorn, like Thompson Wash, is another restoration success story. The site was similarly trashed until the mid-90’s. There also another, unmarked, Barrier Canyon site some 3 miles up-canyon of the main Buckhorn panel of which KanyonKris and I were unaware, and which I’ll be sure to visit on my next trip. Slifer’s book has detailed directions.
We headed back to the highway at Castle Dale, gassed up and did “lunch” at the Huntington Maverik, then raced North toward Price to catch a quick ride while we still had daylight.
Ode to Maverik
Tangent: Lunch was Crunchy Cheetoes, a Rock Star and a Maverik chocolate chip cookie. It is time for a trailer-trash Confession: I love Maverik (pic right, not mine*). I love the cheap gas, I love that the sunglass tree is always well-stocked (for the countless times I have forgotten/lost/destroyed sunglasses in the backcountry) and I love their fresh-baked cookies**. There. I said it. I love Maverik and I don’t care who knows it. When I roll into the outskirts of a rural Utah hamlet after days camping, backpacking or biking in the backcountry, and I spot that cheesy red and white sign ahead in the distance, my little heart practically sings for joy; there it is, everything I need in the civilized world, a proud little bastion of organization, resources and logistics, the very essence and ultimate triumph of Western civilization, conveniently packed into one little store. I swear, if I’m ever camped out alone in the desert and a flying saucer lands and aliens get out and ask me to show them the crowing achievement of our civilization, I am taking them straight to the nearest Maverik. Ah, Maverik! (If only they stocked better beer…)
*I pulled it from the Convenience Store News website. Man, it is like there is a website for everything.
**99 cents, and totally, decadently and awesomely delicious.
Price has a nice singletrack network on the north side of town running over a series of low hills or mini-mesas that collectively form sort of a long “pre-bench” leading up to the Book Cliffs. Price sits, as I mentioned, atop the Mancos Shale, and the pre-bench just above is also of the Mancos, but of an upper member, the Blue Gate. Though silty and fast-eroding like the rest of the Mancos, the Blue Gate Member seems to have just a bit more “spine” than the lower members, and actually forms modest-tough-beautiful minor cliffs and hoodoos in the side canyons in the pre-bench (pic below= crappy helmet-cam still).
Most of the trails are accessed via a brutal jeep-road-climb or hike-a-bike up onto the pre-bench, but once on top, the trails are great, all twisty, windy* and fun. Lower down, close to the edge of the pre-bench, they’re mostly smooth and stone-less and open, but as you get higher and “Norther”, Juniper and Piñon appear, creating a non-Mancos-y woodland, and the trail starts to feature occasional boulders, intermittent rock gardens, and coarser, larger-grained, and distinctly un-Mancos-like soils. What’s going on?
*As in they wind around a lot, as opposed to there being lots of wind.
What is going on is that the Blue Gate pre-bench is overlain with a very different soil formation, called pediment mantle. A pediment in geology is a broad, gradually sloping area at the base of mountains or cliffs, covered with a relatively thin layer of fluvial gravel which is the product of erosional (not depositional) processes. Where does stuff come from? From the Book Cliffs, which as we saw in our last geo-post, are gradually eroding their way North across the land.
The pediment mantle here is of uncertain age, thought to be laid down mainly sometime over the last 10 million years, probably more recently near streambeds, and consists of a “poorly-bedded”* mix of silt, sand, pebbles, stones and boulders.
*Although this sounds like a term from the Urban Dictionary, it is in fact geo-speak for “all jumbled up”.
The pediment mantle atop the Blue Gate member forming the “pre-bench” North of Price is only between 10 and 150 feet thick, but it’s enough to dramatically change the character of the surface. The land is covered with Piñon, Juniper, and well-established Sagebrush, and the trails corner well, hold up under moisture and feature intermittent interesting little rock gardens.
What’s cool about the Price-pediment-mantle is that it’s a great example of geology in action. While all this rock and sediment stuff sounds geeky and esoteric, here’s a clear, real-world example of how geologic processes and history change the land you ride across and the experience of the ride. Mountain biking in Utah is always fun, but until you understand what you’re riding on, you’re really just pedaling in the dark.
Pressed for daylight, we climbed steadily to the top of Luke’s Trail, then turned around and zipped back down. The descent was a delight- a bit too twisty to rip it, but interesting enough to keep you on your toes, constantly weaving and ducking your way under and around Piñon/Juniper limbs, and S-curving your way across pretty sagebrush-filled meadows.
When we popped back out on the dirt road we re-grouped and bombed down the steep, rutted half-mile back to town and the car. Loading up the bikes in the dusk, we laughed about what a great descent it had been and how we couldn’t wait to return. Then I noticed- my camera was gone.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I keep my camera in a small pouch (a cell-phone case) with a clip that clamps onto my Camelbak strap. When I first rigged up the system ~18 months ago (following my last camera/biking mishap) I used a piece of electrical tape on the open end of the clip as a failsafe. But over time it became tedious to constantly apply and remove tape for practically every ride, and I started mounting the case without the tape. After a few cautious rides, it seemed to be holding onto the strap just fine, and I soon forgot about the tape. And so things were, just fine as can be, till last Tuesday, when I found myself camera-less.
Kris immediately encouraged me to drive back up onto the pre-bench, where we looked around by flashlight at a couple of points where the trail intersected the road. It was hopeless of course, but that’s the kind of guy Kris is: patient, upbeat, generous with his time, happy and eager to help a friend out. Finally we gave up and drove back down to town in the dark. Kris mentioned that he’d spoken to “Fuzzy”, the owner of the local bike shop, earlier in the week to ask about trails, and that he’d call him in the morning and ask him to let us know if the camera turned up. I said, “Sure, yeah…” I knew he was just trying to help, but really, you drop a little camera in a woodland while descending at speed- it’s gone, off in the brush, never to be seen again. I might as well have dropped it in a river of molten lava... So it turned out to be a great day, but kind of an expensive one. I did my best to shrug off the mood as we chit-chatted on our drive back to the Wasatch Front.
Back home, the next day was a busy one, with plenty of catch-up work, email and phone-calls from the day I’d missed. After work AW and I attended a music program at school that Bird Whisperer and Twin B were part of, returning home home late and tired. Getting ready for bed, I noticed my phone was blinking. It was a text from KanyonKris. He’d heard back from Fuzzy. My camera was at the shop.
Note About Sources: Geologic info for this post came from Sedimentation, Stratigraphy, and paleoenvironments of the lower members of the Carmel Formation (Middle Jurassic, Southwestern Utah), Kirsten M. Banner, A carbonate hardground in the Carmel Formation (Middle Jurassic, SW Utah, USA) and its associated encrusters, borers and nestlers, Mark A. Wilson et al, and Geologic Map of the Price 30’ x 60’ Quadrangle, Carbon, Duchesne, Uinta, Utah and Wasatch Counties, Malcolm P. Weiss et al. (Crops of this map were used in the Price Geo-Graphics.) Archeological info came from Dennis Slifer’s Rock Art of the Utah Region.
Special thanks to Fuzzy of Fuzzy’s BicycleWorks and local riders in Price, UT. Fuzzy put out the word on my camera on the shop web page, and it was recovered inside of 6 hours. What a cool shop and biking community.