Saturday, April 23, 2016

Inselberg Pit Via Old Sheffield Road

Essence: Located in the Red Breaks, the largest cylindrical sandstone weathering pit on Earth does not have a formal name. Geologists informally refer to it as the Inselberg Pit (German, island mountain). It is even more casually called the Cosmic Navel. It is unique for its size, central pedestal, and active interior sand dune. Finding the pit is a navigational challenge. But no matter where you wander, you will be walking on unobstructed Navajo Sandstone slickrock.
Travel: Old Sheffield Road (OSR) is off Highway 12 between Escalante and Boulder, UT. At mile marker 70 (where a cattle guard crosses the highway), turn south on a dirt road and zero-out your trip meter. At 5.8 miles in Big Spencer Flat, the main road goes right/south. Take the left fork trending east. The road narrows to a two-track and bogs down in deep sand near the parking area on a flat pad of grey stone at 6.9 miles. It is a good road when dry other than the sand hazard which you can avoid by parking earlier if you are in a 2WD with good clearance. Check road conditions by calling the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center: (435) 826-5499.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.0 miles; 1,750 feet of climbing. Note: in May, 2017, the OSR was blocked 0.25 mile before the standard parking. Adjust mileages accordingly.
Time: 4:30 to 6:00
Difficulty: Off-trail, no cairns; navigation challenging. Some hikers will want a 60 foot rope to descend the steep friction pitch into the pit (optional).
Map: Red Breaks, UT 7.5 USGS Quad
Reference: Netoff, Dennis I., and Marjorie A. Chan. "Aeolian activity at a giant sandstone weathering pit in arid south-central Utah." Earth Surface Processes and Landforms 34 (2009): 99-109. 
Date Hiked: April 23, 2016
Quote: All this time I had thought that the land was something other than me...Now I could see. We had the same command, driven by the same fundamental longing. I had never been a separate creature from it, not once. All this time I believed that I had my own desires, my own hands. Laughable now. I have always been the land. Craig Childs

The massive Inselberg Pit as seen from Point 5,847'. (THW, photo)

Route: The site lies within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We had very little information going into this hike and the pit was hard to locate. We made plenty of navigational mistakes but they added to our pleasure and knowledge of the land. The map below and the accompanying photos should get you there most directly. From the parking area off Old Sheffield Road, walk southeast and climb Pt. 5,974' (or go around it on the east side). Next, gain the saddle between Pt. 6,015' and Pt. 5,887'. Cross the East Fork of Red Breaks Canyon and what I am calling, the North Fork of Harris Wash. Climb Pt. 5,847'. The pit is near the crest of this dome on the southeast side.

From the parking area at 5,740 feet, walk east-southeast down the two-track which soon degenerates into deep sand and then dwindles to a wide trail. To the right/south is a band of cliffs, the Red Breaks.

At 0.4 mile, leave the old road bearing southeast. Walk along the base of the Red Breaks, out far enough to avoid ravines. You may find fragments of a social trail in the sand. Before the deep sand gets annoying, intersect sandstone. The remainder of the hike is on slickrock.

Climb Pt. 5,974'. Yes, you may skirt it on the east side holding the 5,720 foot contour. We did that on our return and it is more efficient. However, there is much to be gained by climbing almost 300 feet to the top of the dome, reaching it at 1.2 miles.

It is a fun little climb to the crest. Behind me are the alluring landforms that lie between the Red Breaks and the Escalante River. Further east are the Henry Mountains. (THW, photo)

On the prominence the windblast is 60-plus mph and I literally cannot stand up. Super charged engines roar inside my ears. We are experiencing the aeolian process at work, the wind's ability to shape the surface of the Earth. From here, get the lay of the land and peg your next goal. Cross the undulating sandstone bench southeast until you are on the right/south side of Pt. 6,015', image-center, top.

Descend on rosy cross-bedding. Pocket sand gardens are protected havens for piƱon-juniper and brilliant crimson Indian paintbrush. Splashes of green lichen favor small cracks and divots. Clumps of black moss cling steadfastly to the bedrock.

Polished and grooved ventifacts lay scattered about. If you accidentally kick one off-axis, it will take a thousand years for the aeolian process to create a new shape. Moqui marbles have been rolled by the wind into single layer clusters butted up against backstops. Mounds of turtleback weathering and bedrock polygonal cracks are typical of Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. (THW, photo)

Initially we tried to walk around Pt. 6,015' on its left/east side but got cliffed out. Pass it on the right/south.

Reach the minor saddle between Pt. 6,015' and Pt. 5,887' at 2.2 miles. Now for the first time, you can see Pt. 5,847', the rounded dome just right of center at skyline in this image. The weathering pit is located near the crest on its backside. Left of Pt. 5,847' is a formation I refer to as Three Pinnacles. It doesn't much look like that from here but it will soon enough. Most notably, there are two sizable drainages between this location and Pt. 5,847'.

Cross the first watercourse, the East Fork of Red Breaks Canyon, at its head at about 5,700 feet, 2.5 miles, the most direct route. As indicated on my map, we crossed it somewhat deeply because it is irresistible. The floor is remarkably wide with waves of white rock. A startled coyote bolted. The stats given above assume you will do some exploring in one or both drainages.

Drop far enough into the North Fork of Harris Wash to avoid the cliff structure on its east side, crossing the floor at about 2.9 miles and 5,500 feet. The sand ripples and stone swirls on the smooth stone floor are astonishingly beautiful.

Climb Pt. 5,847', cresting at 3.2 miles. According to Netoff and Chan, the broad dome is subject to exceptionally strong south-westerlies, sand movers. The springtime prefrontal wind we experienced is even more accelerated. My companion is getting pummeled on the highpoint.

Just over the backside of the dome the Inselberg Pit is revealed. I was momentarily distracted by a plate full of Moqui balls. These concretions are created by the precipitation of iron oxide and are common in outcrops of Navajo Sandstone. Please do not succumb to the temptation to take one with you. (THW, photo)

The enormous weathering pit is both wondrous and unsettling. It is slightly oval, 200 feet across. The walls of the pit vary from sloping to vertical to overhung. Its depth ranges from 65 feet to 16 at the breached part of the rim where we may enter. The cylindrical pedestal is 30 feet tall. Three men provide scale.

Reach the access entrance at 3.3 miles. According to Netoff and Chan, the Inselberg Pit is distinguished from other giant weathering pits on the Colorado Plateau by its pillar and active sand dune. The reddish-orange color contrasts with bleached, light pink walls. While a small portion of dunal sand is derived from weathering of the pit floor and walls, most of the sand is transported into the cavity from other sources. Looking at the image below, on the far side from where I am sitting there is an aeolian groove aligned with prevailing wind--a sand funnel. (THW, photo) 

Expecting to be alone, we were surprised to meet up with four Utah men who came in from Harris Wash. Not without its own navigation difficulties, they were elated to find the Cosmic Navel on their third try. They had a line secured to a small blackbrush shrub. I found the rope reassuring to get down the initial friction pitch to the augmented Moqui steps which are deep enough to descend without aid. With sticky shoes, some people will be able to make the downclimb without a rope. In this image, I am topping out after leaving the bowl. My flying pigtails are an indicator of wind velocity. (THW, photo)

A few people will be able to access the pit without a rope.

On the floor both the pinnacle and dune have a strong presence. The dune mounds up between the pillar and the south wall. It changes shape, height, and position with every strong wind event. Sand is siphoned into the pit and blown against the outer walls, pushing them back. It takes one thousand years or more to deepen the pit by a few centimeters. Accordingly, the Inselberg Pit is ancient. Estimates vary from 216,000 to 800,000 years old. (THW, photo)

Climb out and circumnavigate the pit on its south side, giving up and regaining 120 feet for a safe passage. In 0.2 mile, find the aeolian groove on the west rim. Walk down into the 30 foot-long, eight foot-wide funnel with its fluted bedrock floor. While running water did not create the groove, at one time in the distant past there was standing water, perhaps a simple water pocket, at this site. While all weathering pits must have standing water in their formative years, water no longer pools inside the Cosmic Navel but quickly drains through porous rock.

The funnel creates a Venturi effect, accelerating the wind by as much as 300%. I am crouching in the image below preparing to sit and scoot until my feet are braced on the rim lip. The windblast was capable of transporting me over the brink along with the sculpting sand. (THW, photo)

To return, continue around above the pit until you are between Pt. 5,847' and the Three Pinnacles.

Then bear roughly northwest and cross the two drainages. Regain the saddle south of Pt. 6,015'. You won't see Pt. 5,974' until you are on top of the next rise. This dome is your massive reassurance cairn signifying that you are on the proper route back to your vehicle. Skirt it on the east bench.

Our Earth, the preeminent artist amongst us, patiently created the weathering pit with her breath and grains of sand. Those of us who by providence, serendipity, or intention are blessed to see this masterful sculpture will surely judge it perfect, just as it is. And yet, the Earth's untiring work continues.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Yellow Rock, 5,524', and Lower Hackberry Canyon

Essence: Yellow Rock is a solitary dome comprised of Navajo Sandstone, the most prominent rock formation on the Colorado Plateau. Neo-acrylic splashes, swirls, and snakes of color surpass the normal confines of nature. Slickrock lovers will find an accessible dome free of extraneous rock and rising at a perfect climbing pitch. The short hike has one brief, steep segment before reaching never-ending stone. Lower Hackberry Canyon is peaceful and almost flat. This hike lies within the Paria-Hackberry WSA, a small section of the greater Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM).
Travel: The Lower Hackberry Trailhead is off unpaved Cottonwood Road. It is subject to washouts so check with the GSENM, Big Water Visitor Center before traveling. 4WD is recommended but ask about conditions for 2WD vehicles with good clearance. Cottonwood Road bears north from US 89 and goes past Kodachrome Basin State Park, terminating at Utah State Highway 12 in Cannonville, UT. The turn-off from US 89 is located between Page, AZ and Kanab, UT, three miles north of the Paria Contact Station at mile marker 17.8. Zero-out your trip meter as you make the turn. Pass the boundary for GSENM at 1.3 miles. Stay straight at 1.4 miles. This is open range so cattle are common; we were fortunate to see seven pronghorn. At 6.2 miles the road comes alongside the Paria River. Pass under powerlines at 10.3 miles. At 11.7 miles, avoid the left fork that goes to the Paria Box TH. The road leaves the Paria River and climbs to a small pass separating the Cottonwood Creek and Paria River valleys. Catch a glimpse of Yellow Rock from the pass. The valley is notable for its distinctive weathered sandstone fins. At 14.5 miles, a sign for the Lower Hackberry Trailhead guides you into a dirt lot on the west side of the road in a cottonwood grove. The upper dome is visible from the parking area. No facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.2 miles RT for Yellow Rock with 800 feet of climbing. Hike as far up Lower Hackberry as you wish. We turned around at 1.8 miles after gaining about 100 feet. Our total was 6.8 miles with 900 feet of climbing.
Time: 3:00 to 4:00 for Yellow Rock; time in Hackberry will vary
Difficulty: Trail, off-trail; navigation moderate; no exposure; carry or treat water
Maps: Calico Peak, UT 7.5 Quad; Trails Illustrated No. 714, Grand Staircase, Paunsaugunt Plateau, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Date Hiked: April 22, 2016
Quote: Color is a power that directly influences the soul. Wassily Kandinsky

Yellow Rock is one big dome of sunny, colorful stone. Kandinsky the painter said, each color lives by its mysterious life. (THW, photo)

Route: Lower Hackberry TH 4,760' is located at the confluence of Cottonwood Creek and Hackberry Creek, three miles upstream of the greater union with the Paria River. Climb Yellow Rock first. Walk down Cottonwood Creek to the first tributary and turn west, down-canyon right. On a good trail, ascend a steep slope going northwest. The path continues to the base of Yellow Rock. The hike described traverses the length of the dome ascending the steeper west ridge. Upon returning to the confluence, walk up Hackberry Creek as far as you wish.

Yellow Rock, 5,524'
Walk southwest downstream in the watercourse or on either bank. Both are troubled with tamarisk thickets. At 0.3 mile, turn right/west into the first side canyon below the trailhead. Find the trail on the left side of the small, steep defile, a major asset in this inhospitable terrain. It soon crosses the dry wash and climbs steeply 200 feet northwest up a loose, rubbly slope, shown. (THW, photo)

At 5,040 feet, stand on a small, lateral divide that looks into Hackberry Canyon at 0.55 mile. The image below looks down on the access slope and the sandstone fins jutting up so weirdly in the Cottonwood Creek valley. (THW, photo)

A few more feet and Yellow Rock rises from the earth as the morning sun. The trail skirts the north side of a craggy reef of pinnacles heading west, shown. This wild protrusion is distinctive and may be seen from multiple points on Yellow Rock. If you decide to scamper all around as we did, use this feature as your landscape marker for finding the return trail. (THW, photo)

The path heads west on a contour along the south side of the dome. Cairns lead onto the rock and a direct route to the summit via the front face. This is the one place we did not explore so I can't describe the climb. On the spot, we decided to traverse the mountain, ascending the steeper west ridge and descending the gentler east ridge. For this route, leave the trail at one mile and cross a low, sandy rise, shown. This leads to a sandstone runout on the south side of the mountain at 1.1 mile.

Colors vary markedly with location on Yellow Rock. There truly are large volumes of Navajo Sandstone bleached a brilliant white. Variations in the type and proportions of precipitated iron oxides result in shades of vermilion, mustard, sunshine yellow, salmon, crimson, peachy cream, apricot, and a muted greyish tan that provides calming relief from the bedazzlement. (THW, photo)

The west face is just steep enough that sticky soles are helpful for the fun friction pitch. There are plenty of features to keep it from getting scary. As the dome rounds off, it is a more typical Navajo Sandstone buff with characteristic polygonal cracks. (THW, photo)

The broad summit features an expansive view of the Paria River dominion. East is Coyote Point and south is the length of The Cockscomb. Hackberry Canyon dominates to the immediate north and Castle Rock, Pt. 6,070', is decidedly alluring, shown. (THW, photo)

West is Molly's Nipple and Pilot Ridge which houses Starlight Arch.

Descend the east ridge close enough to the edge to look into Hackberry Canyon. From this vantage point, see a mighty tower and a massive wall arch you will soon be passing on your creek walk. No surprise, the walls rising up on the other side of the gorge replicate the orange and ocher hues found on Yellow Rock.

Smooth sweeps of rock are impregnated with elegant lines of color. Swarthy rust-colored sandstone transitions to feminine dusky rose, mauve, lilac, and pink. (THW, photo)

Continue down the ridge to a short but unmistakable tower at 2.2 miles. Cut south, taking aim at the reef of pinnacles. There are some exceptionally funky fins in this region.

Rejoin the trail at the reef at 2.6 miles and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Lower Hackberry Canyon
As you approach the confluence of Cottonwood and Hackberry Creeks, there is a sign directing you left. All it does is cut the corner, saving a few steps but denying you the nexus. Why do it? Just be sure to choose the stream flowing in from the left/west. Wear shoes that can get wet because, try as you might, your feet are going to be submerged.
(THW, photo)

The canyon walls-up and thins. The floor is sandy and flat. The muted hues of immobile walls contrast with fluttering spring-green leaves of cottonwood and maple. Rock meets water in an intertwined performance of grace and might.

Walk under the wall arch seen from above. In another mile, pass by the tower that stands up straight for 150 feet.

The narrows behind us, we turned around in the maroon-red Kayenta Formation, not quite two miles up as the creek makes its bend to the north. Splashing our merry way downstream we reveled in the mysterious colors and powerful forms, blessed to climb the stone mountain and walk the watery way. (THW, photo)



Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cobra Arch, Buckskin Gulch Rim, and Middle Route

Essence: The gold star hike to Cobra Arch is delightful every step of the way. The path on the rim of The Dive is practically flat with expansive views. Drop off West Clark Bench and see color-infused cross-bedding and spectacular fins jutting from the sandstone wall of The Dive. The arch is remarkable for its elegance and uncanny resemblance to a serpent. An off-trail loop option is presented by walking the rim of Buckskin Gulch and returning on the Middle Route.
Travel: Long Canyon Road (Kane County Road 6020/BLM 750), is off US 89 between Kanab, Utah and Page, Arizona. In a 4WD with good clearance, turn south 0.6 mile west of the Paria Contact Station (and 0.2 mile west of the Paria River) at mile marker 21.4, the location of Paria Outpost. Zero out your trip meter. In 2013 the dirt road was washed out and impassible. In 2016, it was smooth and excellent. Open and close the gate after the second cattle guard and cross Long Canyon at 1.1 miles. The canyon soon slots up, the road on its left. Pass the third cattle guard at 2.7 miles and cross the wash for the last time at 3.3 miles. The track climbs the center of a narrow, precipitous spine (Do not attempt when wet!) to gain West Clark Bench at 4.2 miles. Avoid all roads branching off to the right. At 5.1 miles, stay straight on BLM 750, avoiding a turn to the right and then the left. The road is subject to sandy patches and there is one short stony cluster that requires good clearance. Park at 7.8 miles where there is a green gate, a solitary juniper, and a Middle Route Trailhead sign and register box. No facilities.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 7.4 miles RT to the arch with 700 feet of total elevation gain; 9.0 miles for the loop with 1,200 feet of climbing
Time: 4:00 to 6:00 depending on route
Difficulty: Trail to Cobra Arch, off-trail along Buckskin Rim, no cairns on Middle Route in 2016; navigation challenging for the loop; no exposure except for the optional downclimb into Buckskin Gulch on the Middle Route; carry all the water you will need
Maps: West Clark Bench, Utah-Ariz 7.5 Quad (a must for the loop hike); Trails Illustrated No. 859, Paria Canyon, Kanab
Date Hiked: April 21, 2016
Poem:  
No my soul is not asleep,
It is awake, wide awake.
It neither sleeps nor dreams, but watches,
its clear eyes open,
far-off things, and listens
at the shores of the great silence.
Antonio Machado

Cobra Arch looks like a venomous snake, striations down the length of its body, eyes keeping watch. Or, view it literally as a statuesque span of Navajo Sandstone accentuating a Utah blue skylight, its beauty deeply enthralling.
(THW, photo)

Route: The Cobra Arch trail bears southeasterly from the Middle Route Trailhead. It follows the rim of The Dive to a rare break in the Carmel Formation, drops 200 feet, and curves under Point 5,119'. Most hikers will return from the arch as they came. For the navigation savvy, turn the hike into a loop by going southwest to the Buckskin Gulch rim and walking beside the finger canyon for two miles to intersect the Middle Route (which may be hard to detect) just before the plunge into Buckskin. Return north on the route back to the trailhead.

The Cobra Arch and Middle Route Trailhead is just west of USGS survey marker 4,979'. If you plan to use the Middle Route as access into Buckskin Gulch, take the hazard warning seriously. Bring a rope to lower backpacks and carry a permit for an overnight stay. Sign the register and walk south on the east side of a fence, entering the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness (BLM) as you do so.

The track is sandy at first but soon transitions to firm dirt that pierces a sage flat accented with euphedra. An expansive view opens to the south, shown. The Buckskin trench is decipherable, behind it, Steamboat Rock and the cones of Coyote Buttes.

Reach the rim of The Dive and turn east with the trail at 0.2 mile. At 0.3 mile there is a small cairn that presumably marks the junction with the Middle Route. In 2016, this route was not cairned, neither is it on any of my maps lending a surprising sense of obscurity for one of the four permitted routes into the Paria Canyon complex.

The route to Cobra Arch stays on top of The Dive while seeking a weakness in the persistent Carmel Formation cliff band. The Dive is the wall that separates West Clark Bench from Buckskin Gulch. The Carmel is the surface layer and beneath is red Page Sandstone and then creamy white Navajo Sandstone. In this area, the Navajo is stained red by the Page.

The eastward trail passes by beautifully sculpted juniper skeletons. Thriving are snakeweed, prickly pear, and buffaloberry. The flat and fast walking surface could not be easier. It rates 100 points on the pleasure scale. The path turns south along with the rim at 0.7 mile. Now you can clearly see the Buckskin rift and the unmistakable solitary butte in White Pocket.

Reach gently rounded Pt. 5,047' at 1.2 miles. Divert a few steps to the rocky perch for a better view of Pt. 5,119' and our route at its base. The zigzagging Dive goes east and then southeast. Notice a cluster of stacked standing rocks below the trail, shown.

After passing above these peculiar effigies, at 2.3 miles a cairn, image-center, marks the location of the Class 2 drop off West Clark Bench.

Follow the cairns southwest down a rock runner. In April, the leaves of shrub oak are shiny green and cliff rose smells like fancy soap with a hint of cinnamon. (THW, photo)

At 2.6 miles, cairns direct onto a minor ridge but you may stay in the wash since the trail shortly rejoins and crosses it. The trail ascends a sand dune and then a 150 foot sand mountain. You may walk around the latter in the drainage if you'd rather, so long as you divert over to the arch. The dunes are covered in Indian ricegrass, and in the spring, blooming orange globe mallow, primrose, deer vetch, purple spiderwort and primitive-looking yucca blossoms. From their height see the spectacular fins and cross-bedding on the gorgeous walls of The Dive below Pt. 5,119', a geological wonder. (THW, photo)

The second sand dune leads into a chaotic and photogenic cluster of small red domes with turtleback weathering, fluted channels, and a short slot. This charming geology is typical of The Dive runout zones in Navajo Sandstone. Take some time in this lumpy bowl complex. (THW, photo)

The arch is located on the south side of the red stone pocket at 3.7 miles, elevation 4,680 feet. This primal structure with characteristic serpent markings all down its back and two perfect eyes in its hooded head, rises 30 feet up from the earth and spans 35 feet. The underbelly is about eight feet wide. (THW, photo)

Unlike so many unattainable arches, it is a simple scramble to stand on the arced back. (THW, photo)

The serpent stands guard over the distant spell-binding confluence of Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River.
(THW, photo)

Return as you came. If you are doing the loop, walk southwest across a sandy flat and at 4.4 miles, reach the rim of Buckskin Gulch. The canyon floor is enveloped in darkness and the force of the chasm is chilling. Follow the rim as it makes a sharp bend northwest at 4.6 miles. The perimeter world is an astonishing place in its own right with domes extruding fragile fins and claret cup cacti blooming crimson. Progress is steady with no major obstacles on the bench of the rugged rim. The other side looks less accommodating. (THW, photo)

At 5.4 miles, cross the first of two shallow washes in quick succession. Just before the third wash at 6.0 miles, it is possible to see a sliver of canyon floor. Watch for Moqui marbles and a chert flintknapping site.  (THW, photo)

We walked by a boulder hefted by lace. (THW, photo)

Shortly before meeting up with the Middle Route, passage is blocked by cliffs and assorted structures. Accumulate some elevation while finding a way through this area. Our diversion is shown on the map above.

At 6.7 miles, 4,540 feet, we passed a crude, block wall. I am not sure if it was erected by cowboys or Ancestral Puebloans. Just east of the Middle Route is a smooth wall with a deep patina and small petroglyphs depicting bighorn sheep and anthropomorphs.

Upon reaching a shallow drainage, we saw footprints in the sand, confirming we were on the Middle Route. Strangely, there were no cairns anywhere. We followed the dry wash to the brink of the chasm.

At 7.1 miles, we reached a very steep friction pitch and got half way down before our shoes lost their stick and we feared for our traction. Next time we will start from the interior of Buckskin Gulch. From our vantage point, it was impossible to see what challenges follow the initial pitch.

Middle Route is clearly an ancient path. High on the east wall overlooking the slim canyon and humans passing through the ages, is a petroglyph panel with sheep and an anthropomorph, image-center.

There were no cairns to mark the return. It worked nicely to ascend the pretty wash indicated on the map above. Find a mix of deep sand, bedrock, and easy step-ups. By 8.0 miles we were clearly off-route because there were no footprints. I'm speculating the route left the wash and went north as indicated by the blue dots on the map (a guess). Meanwhile, we pleasantly followed the streambed northeast and connected with the trail just 0.6 mile east of the trailhead. It was a perfectly good route, if not the official one.