The Colorado Plateau on Wild About Utah

Nov 16, 2018

Rivers and sandstone pretty much define the Colorado Plateau- perhaps my favorite landscape on our lovely planet. These past few weeks I’ve experienced some of its best in Dinosaur NM and Canyonlands NP with friends and students.

Those magnificent rivers- Green, Yampa, Colorado, San Juan- have worked their marvels slicing through thousands of feet of sandstone mixed with a bit of limestone and shale. To stand on a rim and look over a hundred miles of convoluted, tortured landform feasts the convolutions of one’s brain. And the contorted, gnarly juniper trees that adorn the rock seem to reflect those lands that nourish them, some nearing a thousand years of fire and storm.

The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock - cliffs of rock; plateaus of rock; terraces of rock; crags of rock - ten thousand strangely carved forms.” John Wesley Powell, July 1869 on his first river trip through our Canyonlands.

I love the names assigned to the rock formations- Weber, Morgan, Cedar Mesa, Carmel, Navajo, Entrada, Kayenta, and so on, each associated with particular strange formations- arches, bridges, towers, turrets, endless. And the improbable snow covered peaks adding welcome contrast from the sun-baked sandstone- Lascelles, Abajos, Henry’s- laccolithic bumps in the earth’s crust whose overburden of rock and soil stripped away by millions of years of storm and gravity.

Even more improbable are the myriad life forms that adorn these “waste” lands. Well over a thousand plant and insect species, hundreds of varied birds, mammal and reptiles. One bird, in particular, is a symbol of this wild, splendid country- they call it a raven. Their intelligence and mischievousness are legendary. Last week I was the victim. I left a stack of Canyonlands books setting on a table. After an all-day, epic hike I returned to a tattered book missing a few pages, and another small paperback gone. Can these enigmatic rascals read? 

Another part of this magical country is the cultural leavings of the ancestral Pueblo and Fremont people. I always take pause when their startling presence appears. How could anyone survive, even a few weeks, let alone a few thousand years in this harsh, unforgiving environment? Only through an intimate relationship with their natural surroundings, especially plants. Who could grow a garden on poor sandstone generated soils with little rain and extreme temperatures? But they did. A wonderfully written book “Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners” is a must-read. It’s done with cultural sensitivity along with excellent details on preparing them for use- food, fiber, medicine and décor.

And finally, Ed Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams captured the spirit of these great lands in verse- “Desert Solitaire” and “Red, Passion and Patience in the Desert”, must reads.