Utah’s Colorado Plateau (Part 1)

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Eons ago, in the area known today as the Southwest, the forces of nature raged. Covered by an inland sea, extensive deposits of sediments accumulated, each layer varying in composition and depth. Heat and pressure transformed these layers to stone. As the sea dried, the sandstone was exposed to other elements. It was compressed, twisted, washed or blown away only to be redeposited in different locations. Mountains were uplifted, and two mighty rivers, the Green and the Colorado, cut through the land. Today, the results of these massive geological changes and weathering processes can be seen in a variety of magnificent and localized pockets of beauty.

The Colorado Plateau is truly one of America’s national treasures. For a leisurely trip at a photographer’s pace, count on two weeks. For the greatest flexibility, we suggest camping or using an RV. However, if that is not your style, make reservations in advance, as there are limited numbers of motels in Utah’s small towns. We suggest using Moab, Bryce Canyon, and Torrey as centers for day excursions, rather than moving each night.

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The majority of the Colorado Plateau falls within the state of Utah. Five national parks, one national monument, one national recreation area, two national forests, and a wonderful assortment of state parks and preserves provide the palette for the artistic photographer. New scenic highways allow penetration into many areas that, until recently, were accessible only by horse or foot. And still, this land remains a wilderness.

The “best” time of year varies with the kind of weather you enjoy. Winters can be severe and summers extremely hot. The spring, with new growth on the cottonwoods, is lovely, and autumn, when the leaves turn colors, is our favorite. During the fall and spring the light is mellow even during the middle of the day. Each season holds its own charm and challenges for the aware photographer.

Our suggested route leaves Salt Lake City, a major air-access point. Drive south on Interstate 15 to connect with Interstate 70 going east. The road passes onto the high basin and range plateau as you head toward Green River and Moab. About 17 miles west of Green River the highway descends through a spectacular, carved canyon on the edge of the San Rafael Swell, a large oval shaped uplift resembling an inverted bowl. The eastern, steepest side is a saw-toothed ridge know as the San Rafael Reef. For the curious traveler and photographer, this is a wonderful introduction to the geological wonders of the Colorado Plateau. Many dirt roads lead into the area, most well maintained for passenger-car traffic during dry weather. Always check local conditions and weather reports before entering an area.

Grass River State Park

is a favorite oasis in the hot desert summers, and a popular jumping-off spot for private and commercial rafting trips. It also attracts many species of birds, as well as bird watchers. Nearby is an interesting sight, the Crystal Geyser. It is a rare, cold-water phenomenon that resulted from the drilling of an unsuccessful oil well.

Moab, on the banks of the Colorado River, makes a good home base, as it has many motels and bed-and-breakfast facilities. This town has the distinction of having two national parks, several state parks and several national forests in its backyard. Butch Cassidy was a frequent visitor, and Zane Grey made Moab the setting for many of his novels. In the 1950’s, the discovery of uranium changed Moab from a primarily agricultural town into a center for mining and prospecting. With the creation of the national parks at Moab’s doorstep, tourism is now a major activity. For the adventurous, there are a number of excursion companies that offer a variety of rafting or whitewater trips, and jeep tours into the wilderness areas.

Canyonlands National Park

has sheer-sided mesas, deeply eroded canyons, majestic spires, arches and rock formations. The park is divided into three primary sections: Islands in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. The northern section, Islands in the Sky is the most accessible. It features a huge mesa with Upheaval Dome (looking like a frozen explosion of rock) and Grand View Point. The Needles in the south shows more signs of erosion, and is a kaleidoscope of multicolored rock spires and meadowlands. Hiking, camping and jeep trails are superb, and allow deeper penetration into the wilderness. In the western section, the Maze, access is only for the most stout-hearted and experienced 4-wheel drivers. There is a ranger station, but no water, gas, supplies or accommodations available.

If you enjoy flying in small planes, one of the best ways to see Canyonlands is to take a flight-seeing excursion. Inquire at the Moab airport and ask for Bonnie Lindgren at Redtail Aviation (435-259-7421). Flightseeing is popular. Call all ahead for reservations so that you won’t be disappointed. In the past, we have found the rates reasonable and, most importantly, the pilots put safety first while still understanding the needs of the photographers. They are most cooperative. By flying over Canyonlands, it is easy to understand why the early pioneers traveled south or north of this area when going west. This is frequently the only way to catch a glimpse of the most remote areas of the park. We enjoy early-morning or late afternoon flights, when shadows bring out the contours of the land. As with any aerial photography, keep ;your camera and arms/hands from resting on the plane and use a fast shutter speed.

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Always ask about ranger-guided nature walks. We find them very helpful when entering a new area. Understanding what you are seeing gives your photographs more meaning.

Not to be overlooked when you are visiting the Islands in the Sky area of Canyonlands is Dead Horse Point State Park. This is one of the nicest parks, with a good visitor center and camping facilities. The view, said to rival the Grand Canyon, is magnificent as you glance down some 2000 feet to the Colorado River below. The unusual name of the park refers o the legend of a group of mustangs which died on the point.

The Needles section of Canyonlands is entirely different in feeling from Islands in the Sky. The best overview is from Needles Overlook reached by a pave road (clearly posted) off Highway 163, between Moab and Monticello. To reach the Needles proper, take State Highway 211, stopping at the various view points to enjoy a variety of vistas. Be sure to drive the short dirt spur road to the parking area for Elephant Hill, then walk the hill. This is the only route for 4-wheel drive vehicles to enter and exit the wilderness in this section. It is a steep ascent (500 feet up), then across a ½ mile plateau to a rapid descent to the canyon floor below. Even experienced 4-wheel drivers would be advised to walk this hill first. Awesome is the only word for it!

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When driving into the Needles section, stop at Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument, which straddles Highway 211. No use fees are required. It features an age-darkened rock wall covered with petroglyphs. These petroglyphs date from the prehistoric Anasazi, and as recently as the earliest Ute tribes. A self-guided foot trail leaves from the parking lot to make a short loop in Indian Creek Canyon.

Northeast of Moab is Arches National Park, said to have the greatest density of natural arches of any similar geographic area in the world. The fin formations are highlighted by a number of sandstone arches. These arches are made when natural weathering occurs and salt (part of the “cement” holding the grains of sand together) dissolve and chunks of sandstone fall away from the fins in a circular manner. One of our favorites is the triple arch in the Windows section. It is possible to take a short walk to the very base of the arch and be overwhelmed by its immensity and beauty. At sunset, we have seen this arch turn blood red. Don’t be surprised if you capture such a sight on film and are accused of using enhancing filters.

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In contrast, Delicate Arch evokes an entirely different feeling. This is a “must see,” whether you take the time to hike the long tail and actually walk underneath the arch, or you choose the shorter route and view it from across a canyon. Use your long lenses to bring it closer and then use these same lenses to extract textures and patters in the rock formations in the surrounding canyon walls.

While in the Moab area, a good side trip is the La Sal Mountain Loop road. Take Highway 128, a designated scenic road, east along the Colorado River. Turn off and drive through Castle Valley. At the southern end the road begins to climb. You will return to highway 163 south of Moab after several hours of beautiful scenery. We especially enjoy this road in the fall, when the aspens and gamble oaks turn brilliant colors. In the winter snow, or during a storm, parts of this road can be closed or difficult.

Leaving your Moab headquarters, drive south. At Blanding is Edge of Cedars State Historic Park. There is a prehistoric Anasazi pueblo and a modern museum housing the artifacts from the various cultures that have existed in the San Juan County area.

At this juncture, if time is short and you choose not to visit Monument Valley, take Highway 93 from Blanding and drive directly west to Natural Bridges Monument to complete a shorter loop.


Travel Tips

  • Utah’s Travel Council has a variety of general materials available on travel in Utah. Utah Travel Council, Council Hall/Capital Hill, Salt Lake City, UT 84114
  • Utah publishes an outstanding set of sectional maps. For this trip, ask for the Utah Southwest Section Map and the Utah Southeast section Map.
  • Contact the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for information on the lands not included in many parks. Bureau of Land Management, Salt Lake City Office, 324 South State Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84111.
  • For those interested in jeep trails, there is a series of books available called Off-Road Vehicle Trails. They cover various sections of Canyonlands, Arches, and La Sals areas. Maps are also available at ranger headquarters in the various areas.
  • There are many dirt roads that are passable under certain weather conditions for two-wheel-drive vehicles. Where assistance could be difficult to obtain, it pays to be prepared. In desert areas, this means carrying plenty of water, food and occasionally, fuel. A spare tire and minimum tools (and a knowledge of how to use them) can be helpful. Always let someone know where you are going and when you think you will be returning. Then be sure to let them know when you have returned.

By Noella Ballenger and Jalien Tulley

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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