Monday, May 11, 2015

Tour of S Utah Day 8: Arch spectacular - Brimhall Arch and Natural Bridges

Thursday dawned clear and cool – a welcome break from the rain clouds of the past three days.  From Halls Creek overlook (at the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park) we could clearly see miles and miles of Waterpocket Fold and its wonderful exposure of Mesozoic strata.
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View looking southwest from Halls Creek Overlook (a.k.a. Brimhall Arch Trail Head) on the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park. I have labeled the geologic units on the photo above and included a stratigraphic column to put the units in context.  The ridge I was standing on is composed of younger (Cretaceous), more resistant rock lying horizontally. The rocks in front of me are all tilted about 25 degrees except the horizon line, which is mostly horizontal again - there’s your monocline. Halls Creek carved the strike valley below into finer grained parts of the Entrada Formation, but it has a tougher time with sandstone, so that’s why you can see ridges of Entrada, Navajo, and Wingate extending away.  Between each of those units are formations that are more easily eroded (Carmel and Kayenta), so you can’t see them as well, but they are exposed nicely in the canyons. The blob of red sediment pouring out of the canyon in the far left of the photo is called Red Slide.  It is a big landslide of Moenkopi Formation material that slid when the wetter climate of the past saturated those muddy sediments.
May 23 edit: Drew snapped this picture from his airplane yesterday. Wow!

 View of the area from the air. How cool would it be to be a pilot and fly over amazing landscapes that your wife has helped you to understand in the geologic sense? Really cool.

As we had a lot of driving to do this day, we were tempted to get on the road and drive to our prospective stop for the night at Natural Bridges National Monument and hike there.  But we knew there was a good chance we would never get to this spot again in the right frame of mind and body to do a big hike, plus, our craving for adventure was strong, so we decided to hike to the arch that we saw clearly from the overlook. 
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We knew nothing about the hike except what the trail head sign said,
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And the fact that here had to be quite an elevation loss and gain from where we stood.
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Making our way down the rocky slope on the nicely built but still challenging National Park Service (NPS) trail.
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Once to the bottom of the valley, the rocks and canyons loomed large ahead.
The trail was fairly easy to follow into the canyon containing Brimhall Arch, although there were few footprints due to the recent rains.  According to the trail register, the last hikers came through 14 days earlier!  There can't be many National Park trails with that little traffic during peak hiking weather season.   

Once inside the canyon we were rewarded with soaring Navajo Sandstone walls closing in tighter and tighter.  In many places, the bottom of the canyon was bare rock or jumbles of boulders, and we had to use what was available to make uphill progress.
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Farther up, we came to a fork in the canyon. We still could not see our arch destination, but we saw a few faint footprints heading into what looked to be the more passable fork, a deep crack choked with large boulders. 
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That's the "trail"!

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I could chose to show you only the Hollywood version of how I traversed trail obstacles,
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but I’m not a good liar, so here is how it really happens. Hip wedgies.
After the tight slot section, there was still a lot of scrambling on loose terrain.
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Look out below!
At this point we still didn’t know if we were heading to the arch.  Should we have taken the other fork?  Were we even in the right canyon? The small and infrequent rock cairns and footprints were mildly encouraging, but the canyon didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  After a long scramble up a slope of Kayenta Formation shale and siltstone we crested a ridge together and looked yonder at Brimhall Double Arch!
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Capt’n Petey and Captain Jean Luc Picard marveled at the unique double arch formed in the top of the Wingate Sandstone (orange sandstone center of picture) and could clearly see the darker red and white ledges of siltstone and shale in the Kayenta Formation (left and right sides of picture).
After a brief geology discussion with my only willing listeners while Drew ate a Snickers off on a rock far away, we headed back the way we came.
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Back down the way we came.
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Can you spot the tiny frog in the center of this photo?

The rest of the hike was uneventful except that we got more unobstructed views,
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as we climbed out of the valley.
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Back at the van, we made a pot of cowboy coffee for our long drive ahead of us and hit the road.  Three miles of rough dirt road back to the Burr Trail, now paved again.
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Burr Trail Road heading toward the very upper reaches of Lake Powell, barely visible as a blue patch in the center of the photo.
Our plan had been to take the ferry across Lake Powell at Hall’s Crossing, but it is down for repairs until May 16, so we had to go around through Bullfrog/Ticabo.
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A rude welcome back to “civilization” – rows of houseboats in dry storage at Ticabo. Gas was $3.19 per gallon, as compared to $2.90 in Blanding 100 miles away. Although I find motor boating on Lake Powell a waste of vacation time, I am pleased others flock to the reservoir and stay out of my backcountry.
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About a hundred miles of this type of open country…

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…brought us to Natural Bridges National Monument home of three large natural bridges formed in the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. 
Since it was late in the day and the campground was full, (meaning we would have to drive on farther to find a camp spot for the night) we just did the auto loop and took pictures from the overlooks. Not the experience I had hoped for since last time I was here nearly 20 years ago, I didn’t have time to hike down to the bridges either, but hiking remote and challenging Brimhall Arch was so much more exciting than the hikes in the monument would have been anyway, so I still win.
We earned another win by stopping to camp in Comb Wash.
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Comb Ridge is an 80-mile long exposed monocline.
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Another spectacular campsite, this one in the shadows of Comb Ridge and only a half mile off the highway, but still so much more peaceful than an RV park.
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The campsite was surrounded by some of the largest Cottonwood trees I had ever seen.
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The trees provided some privacy for a chilly but much needed solar shower.
Clean and dry, we enjoyed our last night off the grid with cocktails and delicious-‘cause-we-were-hungry veggie chili from a can. Tomorrow we would head for Cortez, Colorado to meet friends for a mountain bike race.  The last few days of this this vacation were soul soothing, sole pounding, and so amazing.  A fitting “Lucy’s 20th Anniversary of Living in Utah” Tour of of Wild Southern Utah.

Morris, T.H., Manning, V.W., Ritter, Scott M., 2010, Geology of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah, in Geology of Utah's Parks and Monuments; Sprinkle, D.A., Chidsey, T. C., and Anderson, P.B, editors.


  1. Great trip post. We had hiked to Brimhall Bridge in mid March of 2015. We, however, had to swim the slot as it was filled with water; and it was icy cold. We had backpacked in on a two nighter from the north via Muley Twist Canyon, Hamburger Rocks, etc. It was exactly a year ago and was one of my best trips of the year.

  2. Thanks, Matt. This was definitely my favorite home of last year too. I wonder if any of the footprints we saw were yours? Muley Twist is definitely on my list!