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Hiking Happenings November 2005

The Great Sand Sea
by Rory Tyler

180 million years ago, before the Atlantic Ocean came to be, dinosaurs trekked from oasis to oasis across near-infinities of windblown dunes in the great western sand sea of the super-continent, Pangea. The remains of this massive desert is now known as Navajo Sandstone - one of the impressive landforms that sets southern Utah apart from anywhere else in the world. There is much more to say about the Navajo than I can begin to tell here. It is dangerous and forgiving. Beautiful and frightening. Inspiring and enigmatic. It will take all you’ve got - body, mind, and soul – then that much again.

Navajo Sandstone Fins at Sand Flats

That is what Moab’s prolific and preeminent outdoor-guide authors, Fran and Terby Barnes, gave to the Navajo Sandstone. If you’re interested in a deeper understanding of this fascinating geology, find a copy of Fran’s “Slickrock Hikes” and a Summer 2005 edition of Canyon Legacy, the publication of the Dan O’Laurie Museum of Moab. It’s about Navajo Sandstone and is rightly and honorably dedicated to Fran in memorium.

There’s no other feeling like walking on top of a long Navajo rock fin. The footing is terrific. Intricate sandstone patterns, lichen gardens, pinyon-juniper bonsais, improbable water holes teeming with life, and miniature crypto-forests ripple by underfoot while you soar above an impossibly tilted, tinted, delicate world. Yeah…delicate. If you plod across a crypto bed, for example (see inset), it could take a century to heal. If you break a thin stone into three pieces (the classic man-track), or step on a wind-sculpted rock flake, it will never repair itself and you will have left the landscape’s perfection diminished by that much.

When traveling through the Navajo Sandstone you have to learn the dance; weaving between and vaulting across crypto-filled cracks; tight-roping heel-to-toe from one tiny wash bottom to the next; prancing cross-footed from stone to stick to slickrock and back again; dancing your part as if the desert were a ballet choreographed by Mother Nature herself. It takes a commitment and concentration that probably doesn’t exist in any other terrestrial ecosystem.

The Slickrock Trail, which is on all the maps, is a good place to get acquainted with this ancient/modern desert. Navajo Sandstone is ‘slickrock’ in name only. True, when the cowboys,, came through with their iron-rimmed wheels and steel-shod horses they found it a bit slippery. But for Vibram soles, rubber tires, and crack-jamming rock climbers it’s the next best thing to being Spider Man. And don’t let the Slickrock Trail’s reputation as a mountain-biking mecca put you off. There’s plenty of room and scenery for everyone.

For your next trick, backtrack a bit. Park by the entry booth to the Sand Flats recreation area and walk up the road to the power lines. Where the road turns left, you turn right, walk over to the edge, and either go through that little canyon or clamber onto the nose of the rock fin on the other side of the crack (the preferred way). This walk starts out easily, but becomes increasingly more complex and challenging as you head south. Either route takes you onto a set of slickrock ridges that lead to the abyss of Mill Creek Canyon.

If you get as far as Pocket Arch, just above the Mill Creek pour-off, the landscape is as giddy as it gets…and dangerous. A young mountain lion fell from here a few years ago and I’ll bet he was a little more agile than you or I. Another note of caution: If you head out this way, pay careful attention to your back trail. You really don’t want to take an untried route home unless you’ve got a lot of extra time and energy to gamble with.

Did I mention dinosaurs? During the early Jurassic, the great Pangean sand sea held oases that were home to a variety of dinosaurs. These oases left thin deposits of gray limestone along the southern edge of the desert, including the Moab region. For a good look at some dinosaur tracks go to the Poison Spider parking lot on Potash Road. The gray boulders on the hillside, about 100 yards upstream from the privy, have several excellent track-ways. (The white coating on a few of them is from a latex mold some stupid jerk made a few years ago.) If you scramble up the hill just a little higher there are more prints on the vertical boulders next to the cliff, along with some interesting Indian petroglyphs over to the right. Once you learn to recognize the cross-beds and free boulders of Navajo limestone, you can keep an eye out for dino sign anytime.

Cryptobiotic soil garden


Rory Tyler is available for cowboy poetry/campfire song gatherings which include lore, science, history and lies of the Moab area. (Suitable for all age groups). Rates are negotiable. Give Rory a call at 435-260-8496.



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