Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Million Lifetimes

The deed is done. Our goals are accomplished. That summer of 2005 we drive from southern Utah and hike to the Burgess Shale sites of Walcott Quarry and Mt. Stephen fossil beds, high in the Canadian Rockies of Yoho National Park. We turn for home eventually – but we are not quite ready to drive off into the sunset yet. 

An easy day at Emerald Lake

Cyber New Year’s Eve!

I’ve been invited to a cyber New Years Eve party, so I thought I’d better get ready.  Time's a’wasting!  It will soon be 2012 and I don’t want to turn into a pumpkin!

My house is festively decorated, but I am on a mission...


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Back To The Burgess Shale

Is this cross–country trip ever going to end?
In November of this year I started a series of posts about a journey I took with friends JC and CO back in 2005. We travel south to north through Utah, across Idaho and Montana, then into British Columbia and the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. My series is unquestionably taking much longer to write than our jaw–dropping, three–week drive–and–hike adventure took to complete, but we have gotten where we want to be gotten. And there is still more.

106_0602Emerald GlacierFromMt StephenFossilBeds
Emerald Glacier from Mt. Stephen

Monday, December 26, 2011

You Are Invited!

Did you think I’d forgotten?
We will soon be returning to the 2005 adventures of “THE ALMOST ORGANIZED TOUR OF THE TATTERED REMNANTS OF THE SOUTHERN UTAH EARTH SCIENCE EXPEDITION” as it continues its journey to the fossil beds of the southern Canadian Rockies.
But first – an invitation to a special party!
CyberNewYear Invitation (820x1024)_thumb[1]

This is the perfect party invitation for all of you out there who, like me, have not stayed up until midnight on New Year’s Eve since Jimmy Carter was president.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Artistry In Sandstone

In the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve of southwestern Utah wind, water, and time are sublime artists, carving extraordinary sandstone sculptures waiting to reveal themselves to anyone fortunate enough to hike in these hills, canyons, and washes. 


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Desert Winter Solstice

Significant events are competing for the higher recognition on this late December day. On the annual occasion of the least amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere, we are left to wonder which has the more significance – it being the Winter Solstice (at 2230 Mountain Time), or it being National Hamburger Day. 


Monday, December 19, 2011

Tweaks and Fidgets In The Blogosphere

It seems that there are a few more tweaks and fidgets to work out in my switch to my own custom blog domain.  I wonder if this feral burro is running into the same blogging issues that I have?  Looks to me like he has just decided to bag it all and head into the local Oatman, Arizona cafe for a tall cold one.  


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Follow Me To The New Watching For Rocks

For the past eleven posts (yes, eleven! I counted them!) we have been on a 2005 geological adventure from southwest Utah up through the Canadian Rockies to the Burgess Shale.  We need, however, to pause here for a moment.  I have some really big news!  As Dave Barry might say, Alert readers of this blog may have already noticed the difference.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Journey To Walcott Quarry

It is eight o’clock on a chilly breezy August morning six and a half years ago. JC, CO, and I are stamping our feet and shivering with a vengeance in the cloud–stippled sunshine outside Yoho Brothers Trading Post near Field, British Columbia. We are bundled into vests and windbreakers and rain hats and thermal underwear, shivering and stamping, it seems, not so much from the cold but from anticipation.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Plain Of The Six Glaciers

The proprietor of Mt. Burgess Guest House in Yoho National Park, Canada thinks we are nuts to go hiking at Lake Louise this early August morning. The crowds! The tour buses! The white socks and sandals! We really do not care in the least, though. It makes no difference to JC, CO, or me. We have finally arrived at the Center of the Rocky Mountain Universe and know that if we get up early enough we can evade the white sock–wearing contingent. Plus, it is a well–known fact that ten minutes away from any parking lot or trailhead the sheer size of the crowd is certain to diminish exponentially. Those folks have half an hour. We have all day. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Finding Field

If I knew then what I know now, the geology of the Canadian Rockies would have made a whole lot more sense back in August 2005. Earlier that year I began organizing what would prove to be a most remarkable sixteen day trip from southern Utah. At the time of this epic adventure I had just finished my first year studying geology in Utah. Fourteen people originally signed up but only three of us actually went, a circumstance which turned out to be the best of all worlds.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cruising The Rocky Mountain Trench

We’re definitely making progress. 

In the previous post about our four day epic drive from southern Utah to Canada’s Yoho National Park and its 515–million year old Burgess Shale fossils, our lively two–car caravan finally crosses the international border at the Roosville Port of Entry. We are still on Highway 93, only now we are in another country. And even though for the past three days we have found ourselves motoring along in some of the most spectacular scenery this side of the Arctic, on our fourth day we get to cruise through the even more impressive valley of the Rocky Mountain Trench.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Crossing Into Canada

We are refreshed, rested, and re–invigorated after a spectacular day of lollygagging on Big Mountain in the wilds of northwestern Montana. The morning of our fourth day on the road we again partake of another ginormous KOA breakfast. Then JC, CO, and I wave a final adios to Whitefish, Montana  and eagerly turn our two–car caravan northward once more. 

A few miles later on US highway 93 we are drawing closer to our ultimate destination.  I am so wound up I can hardly keep my foot on the clutch.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Big Time On Big Mountain

Thanksgiving 2011 has come and gone, and I’m slightly aghast that it has been nearly a week since I’ve posted anything on WATCH FOR ROCKS and even longer (here, here, here, and even here) since I wrote about my adventures getting to Canada. With nary a turkey giblet in sight during my favorite holiday I kept myself busy gobbling grilled swordfish and blackened mahi–mahi along with some of the best gumbo this side of the Atlantic. There were also several slices of key lime pie involved in this feasting. No wonder I was distracted. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Watch For Rocks Landmark

In the previous few posts (I’m nothing if not accommodating – check them out here and here and here) we’ve been cruising a 2005 memory highway, making our way north from southern Utah to the Canadian Rockies. The conclusion of day two on–the–road finds us comfortably camped for a couple of days at a KOA just south of the international border near Whitefish, Montana. That blurry morning–after picnic table photo tells the tale of our 14 hour, 700 mile, pedal–to– the–metal marathon

More adventures await!  But first… Before taking this northern exposure any further, whether it be up Big Mountain, near the headwaters of the Columbia River, through the Rocky Mountain Trench, or onward to the big bad Burgess Shale, I have an announcement. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Seven Hundred Miles Later

Seven hundred miles in fourteen hours, all in one day. Our two–car caravan just keeps on driving and driving and driving. I’m still reeling from that sweet road marathon and it happened six and a half years ago. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Passing Through Idaho

After taking in the sights of the unconformably implausible Indian Riding the Dinosaur display north of Twin Falls, it is time to hit the road. There is major Idaho real estate to motor across and we are burning daylight. We will in due course stay on US93 for hundreds and hundreds of twisting mountainous and straighter valley miles, through central Idaho and western Montana all the way to the Canadian border. Interestingly, beyond the border this highway retains the number 93 if not the same country as it courses itself into and up through our neighbor to the north. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Great Idaho Unconformity

There’s nothing like starting a story at the end to pique people’s interest, eh? But now I am in a bit of a dilemma. Should I go back to the beginning of my two adventures in Canada, starting in August 2005, and relate events in the chronological sequence as they occurred? Or should I just plop down somewhere in the middle of the story and go off willy–nilly as the mood strikes? 

After a couple days of searching I have finally located the box within the box that holds the disc containing the photos of those early traveling days. Now it is easier to put things into some semblance resembling a chronological order. Looking back at our hundreds of digital images, it is easy to remember the current of excitement the three of us felt. For six months our anticipation surrounding the trip had built and by the time we left southern Utah we were all about to explode. JC and CO and I were finally on our way to see the 515 million year old fossils of the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park high in the Canadian Rockies. Not many people I know (with the exception of any envious geologist I happened to tell) are even aware of what or where the Burgess Shale is. Even fewer had been to see it. But we had booked ourselves on hikes to both the Walcott Quarry and the Mt. Stephen fossil beds along with a week’s lodging in the tiny burg of Field, BC. Extraordinary geologic fun was our primary agenda! 

Four days seemed a reasonable amount of time to drive 1400 miles – this would give us plenty of opportunities to see some sights along the way. On this first adventure (for there would ultimately be two) we left home in early August 2005 and quickly burned some rubber along interstates 15 and then 84, cruising first up through Utah and then on a westerly stretch in southern Idaho. We turned north at Twin Falls and looked forward to the less hectic pace of secondary roads. Soon a shady roadside picnic area beckoned and we just knew we had to stop. 

In layers of rocks on the ground there can often be found an unconformity, a substantial break or gap in the geologic record where one rock layer is overlain by another that is not next in the stratigraphic sequence. For some reason there would have been a change in the deposition scenario of these rocks, a hiatus, an interruption over some considerable span of time. An unconformity generally implies uplift and erosion with subsequent loss of previously formed deposits. The result we see on the ground is that some millions of years of rock–time have disappeared from the geologic record. 

Here at the picnic area we were intrigued by a mysteriously missing span of time, a stellar example of what we nicknamed The Great Idaho Unconformity. 

TheGreatIdaho Unconformity
Something is not right with this picture...

We all heartily agreed that it could only get better after this! 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Serious Canadian Folds

Since finishing up my extraordinary summer season as a park ranger at Yellowstone I find I have a lot of free time bouncing around in my head. I also realize that here in southern Utah I am surrounded by truly amazing geology and nearly endless hiking opportunities. I love the desert! Still, there is that irresistible tendency to enjoy a daydream or two of past travels and future adventure possibilities…

For some reason I have always been drawn to the Canadian Rockies, like a rose waiting to be plucked and worn in my hair. I do not pretend to know much about the geology of the Canadian Rockies, but that in no way diminishes the fascination these rocks hold for me. I have been there twice in the past six years, to Yoho, Jasper, and Banff National Parks, and it isn’t nearly enough to satisfy me. I’ve got to get back to these awesome rocks. With mountains like this, can you blame me? 

Isoclinal folding photographed in the rain


The above two photos were taken on my last trip in 2008 when I was travelling with two acutely geology–crazed friends. I had hiked trails in Banff and a glacier in Jasper, and been a volunteer assistant guide on a hike to the Walcott Quarry in Yoho with the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. We were on our way home to Utah, heading south from Canmore, Alberta on densely forested Highway 40 through Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis Country. It was a gray, drizzly early morning as my car’s windshield wipers knocked a squeaky beat with the monotonous drone of tires rolling on asphalt. My friends were just ahead on the wet, winding road. Somewhere we paused for a moment to watch a small grizzly ignore us as it fed by the side of the highway, but sadly it appeared there would be little other opportunity for any final sightseeing on this part of the trip. It was just too foggy. 

But then through the misty towering evergreens this jagged mountain thrust itself into view, totally taking my breath away. I nearly drove off the pavement and into the trees; I was absolutely awestruck by the sight of these seriously uplifted, tightly folded rock layers. It had to be among the most captivating scenes I had ever witnessed. I slammed on my brakes to pull over to the shoulder while my friends sailed onward, disappearing around a bend in the highway. 

What circumstances in the Earth’s crust resulted in these rock layers shooting skyward like this? Over the few intervening years since those amazing journeys, the thoughts and ideas that I had assembled about Canadian geology have become a bit fuzzy. Nevertheless, as the person guilty of starting this thread I will gladly drag out my images and maps and reference books, along with a journal I kept, and try to (once again) wrestle some sense out of it all. And so, over the next who–knows–how–long, we will peer back into the past six years (or will it be at least 500 million years?) and continue our sojourn into the spectacular Canadian Rockies.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Scouting Out Scout Cave

This day is definitely a keeper. 

IMG_9628TrailTo ScoutCave
Trail to Scout Cave

Great weather is not hard to come by in southern Utah, especially in the autumn months. The first day of November, however, is exceptional. Just ahead of the onset of a predicted cold front (with possible winds up to 60 mph) our early morning skies are cloudless crystal blue clear with a breeze that could scarcely ruffle a raven feather. Afternoon temperatures  lightly kiss the low 70’s. 

My Tuesday–hiking–buddy Judy chooses to lead us to Scout Cave and so I find myself once again in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve of red–rock sandstone hoodoos and precipitous cliffs. Even after living in southern Utah for 16 years I had never been to this particular spot. I happily put my life (or at least my mid-morning) into her carefree map–free hands. 

I was dragged up here to see this?

Along the trail we gaze down on the dark Santa Clara basalt flow cascading from vents above nearby Snow Canyon (check out my post about this flow here). 

IMG_9627Santa ClaraFlow
Black Santa Clara flow contrasts red sandstones

The trail contours around and down into an elongated canyon of fractured sandstone cliffs. 

Trail contours down to the right

Scout Cave can be found eroded into one of these fractures. 

IMG_9615Scout Cave
Scout Cave

IMG_9608JudyIn ScoutCave
Judy snacking - Scout Cave for scale

The fracture that forms the cave goes all the way up through the sandstone. 

IMG_9610Scout Cave
Catching daylight
Flat rocks inside the coolness of the cave beckon us to park ourselves and enjoy a snack. The expansive view beyond the towns of Ivins and Santa Clara towards the Beaver Dam Mountains captures our attention as we chew and chat. We explore outside a second nearby cave involving a short but tricky ascent with dubious handholds. We freely admit to our sketchy rock–climbing abilities and so leave that cave scouting for perhaps another day. 

IMG_9611View FromScoutCave
From the inside

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Fossil Site Clean Up

This week I took a leisurely walk in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve near my home in southwestern Utah and noticed scores of small animal tracks that had been imprinted that very morning. The next day I stood staring in amazement at a trace of small animal tracks in the red rock sandy siltstone that had been imprinted nearly 200 million years earlier. 

I have been volunteering with the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm (click here and here) for the past couple of winters. Usually I work in the lab on fossil fish, viewing the sample through a microscope and picking away the sandy silty matrix with a carbide–tipped hand tool. 

But last week the oldest known Lower Jurassic Moenave fossil locality in Washington County needed our attention. Andrew Milner, dinosaur site paleontologist, put out a call for help. He would be leading a field trip to the site this weekend with the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology. Sadly, a significant amount of garbage had been dumped into the canyon over the past year, and he hoped the area could look clean and spiffy. So on a chilly, windy late–October morning the gaggle of usual suspects gathered with buckets and gloves and pick–up trucks, ready to haul out as much trash as we could manage. 

Volunteers clean up the canyon

Melinda carries it out

Linda ready to move some trash
Loading up the trash
Thanks, Volunteers!

Trackways have been and continue to be discovered all over Washington County. The small four–toed footprint is believed to be Batrachopus, made by an early crocodile relative such as Protosuchus. As you can see from the photo, these footprints are tiny! Unless you know what you are looking for, they are easily overlooked. In addition, these croc–­like critters walked on all fours and their back foot often stepped where their front foot had been, “overprinting” the front print and obscuring it. These (even) smaller front prints can be found but are not as common as the back print. 

IMG_9575 Batrachopus
Batrachopus - gloved finger for scale

The larger prints are Grallator, made by a small meat–eating dinosaur and much easier to distinguish in the surrounding rock.

Grallator - booted feet for scale

Anhydrites and other evaporites from the underlying Chinle Formation up through Dinosaur Canyon member of the lower Moenave indicate that dry, arid conditions prevailed. But as time went on the environment became wetter and less arid. The early environment where these animals thrived was much different from the Utah of today. Geological evidence shows that it was a shallow, flat–lying meandering river system­­­­. Currents would have flowed from the southeast towards the northwest, from mountains in what is now Texas into a low–relief landscape of an ancient Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. 

Moving up–section through the Dinosaur Canyon member to the Whitmore Point member of the Moenave we see evidence of a large freshwater lake now known as Lake Dixie. It was along the edges of this vast inland body of water that our early meat–eating dinosaurs and crocodile relatives walked, leaving proof of their existence for us to discover in the red rock canyons of southern Utah. 

IMG_9589Andrew PointsOutContact BetweenChinleAndMoenave
Andrew points out Chinle/Moenave contact

IMG_9578Peering IntoTheMoenave
Peering up into the Moenave

IMG_9584  GrallatorAnd Batrachopus
Grallator (l) and Batrachopus (r)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Footprints In The Sand

On the Chuckwalla Trail in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve of southwest Utah… 

IMG_9562 ChuckwallaTrail RedCliffsDesert Reserve
…we see fleeting evidence of tiny critters that skittered this way before us…







…just as those coming later see evidence of our passage… 


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Zion October Afternoon – West Rim Trail

Life grabs hold where it can in Zion National Park, in the shadowy crevasses of the bleached–white cliffs and desert varnish–streaked walls of Navajo Sandstone, here and there dotted with aromatic ponderosa pine, gnarly Utah juniper, and lingering high–desert wildflowers. An unhurried ramble past Scout’s Lookout on the West Rim trail offers anyone who is interested a first-rate display of this resolute late–October life. 

IMG_9475WestRimTrailNearScouts Lookout
West Rim trail weaves across Navajo Sandstone

IMG_9478Life ClingsToThe Rocks
Life clings to the rocks

IMG_9479Virgin RiverFromWestRimTrailZionNP
Virgin River cuts deep in Zion Canyon

Fluted fossilized dunes drift down from the sky and drape themselves gracefully hundreds of feet above the trail.

IMG_9487Navajo Sandstone
Fluted Navajo Sandstone sculpture

Junipers tenaciously choreograph their roots through the cracks and joints of weathering sandstone. 

IMG_9506Juniper RootsWedgedInto Sandstone

One way or another, life survives and thrives in this arid wilderness of sculpted rock.




The trail, carved into solid sandstone, meanders further into the backcountry and soon will start its climb to even higher reaches of the park. 

West Rim trail snakes through Navajo Sandstone


West Rim trail ascends to rim of sandstone cliffs

Every time I come to Zion I am awed and not a little overwhelmed by these towering sandstone cliffs, fossil remnants of a dune field that existed for some 10 million years during the Early Jurassic.  In the sculptured cross–bedding of these ancient dunes we behold mere moments in time and space, a quick snapshot of events that occurred almost beyond the grasp of our imaginations. We study the rocks and try to understand them, of course, piecing together our interpretations bit by bit.  That is what geologists do. 

But this is Zion, one of the most unique landscapes on planet Earth. Its mystique will never be totally explained, even though science allows us astonishing glimpses into its history. The mystery and enchantment of these ancient rocks will remain. And at the end of the day, how could it be otherwise?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Zion October Afternoon

Southern Utah has got to be one of the most extraordinary places in which to live. Easy access to Zion National Park is without a doubt a major reason. There are hundreds of miles of trails in the park; hiking any of them is worth the 45–mile drive from St. George. 

Bridge across Virgin River near the Grotto

One of my favorite areas in Zion (ok – they are all my favorite areas, I admit it) is the West Rim trail. You can start from the top or you can start from the bottom, but if you hike the entire length you’ll be pounding your knees on nearly 14 stunningly scenic miles of unforgiving Navajo Sandstone slickrock.  You’ll want some serious anti–inflammatories on board, plus you’ll need to spot a car at one end. 

None of these options fits my plan for the afternoon, however. My choice is a six–ish or seven–ish mile, out–and–back hike to a lovely bridge across a small canyon hidden in the heights of blindingly white sandstone. The trail ascends gradually from the Grotto across loose talus slopes of silty–sandy Kayenta Formation. It continues relentlessly up, up, up until reaching the massive streaked cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. 

West Rim trail

West Rim trail ascends talus slope of Kayenta Formation

IMG_9416OpalizedSilicaFilling FracturesInNavajo Sandstone
Opalized silica fills fractures

IMG_9419OpalizedSilicaFilling FractureInNavajo Sandstone
Opalized silica fills fractures in Navajo Sandstone

Once past the gaggles of holiday hikers chattering their way through Refrigerator Canyon, up Walter’s Wiggles to Angel’s Landing and on to Scout’s Lookout, I finally have the trail to myself.  

IMG_9433WestRimTrailThrough Refrigerator CanyonZionNP
Refrigerator Canyon

IMG_9514Walters WigglesZionNP
Walter's Wiggles are cut into Navajo Sandstone

In the next post we’ll continue to the bridge, high above Zion in the Navajo Sandstone.  

I hope you’ll re–fuel and join me! 

IMG_9456Lunch View
Just beyond Scout's Lookout - sandwich with a view