(Moab, Utah, April 26, 2012) As our fellow Road Scholars begin their journey to Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon, we share happy memories of the time we spent together.

Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park, April 22, 2012

Mary Miller in Capitol Reef National Park, April 23, 2012

Bill Lucas hiking in Bryce Canyon, April 22, 2012

Carrie Claffey hiking Grand Wash Trail, Canyonlands National Park

A lonely sapling hangs onto a sandy cliff in Bryce Canyon, April 22, 2012

Steve Pestorius enjoying Capitol Reef National Park, April 23, 2012

Eric and Arlene Paul outside the Gifford House, Capitol Reef

Lyle and Nell Jones high above the Moab Fault, Arches National Park

Road Scholars hiking in Arches National Park, April 22, 2012

Edna Klein and Pat Miller near South Window, Arches National Park

Frances Poirier up close and personal with the rocks of Capitol Reef

Leon and LaGatha Adkison on the Grand Wash Trail, Capitol Reef

Jane Dohler on the Grand Wash Trail, Capitol Reef National Park

On the way to Moab, Utah, April 24, 2012. Even the drives are beautiful.

Charlie and Adrienne Bodie at Dead Horse Point, Utah, April 24, 2012

The Canyons of Canyonland National Park, April 24, 2012

Edna Southard hiking in Capitol Reef National Park, April 23, 2012

Where did these rocks come from? Arches National Park, April 24, 2012

Helene Ryan trying out one of Butch Cassidy’s hideouts, April 23, 2012

A late afternoon thunderstorm over Arches National Park, April 26, 2012

(Moab, April 25, 2012) There’s an equation Marc taught us during our program in Utah’s national parks, and it goes something like this:

(Stone + Sand + Sediments)/(Water + Time + Gravity) = Spectacular Natural Beauty

Okay, it’s not exactly what Marc would have said, but it’s hard to deny that the results of eons of geological forces are easy on the eyes. Today, we saw dozens of arches on several hikes in landscapes that defy imagination. Some of them are fragile ribbons of stone, and we’re told we are among the lucky ones to see them before they fall. Even in geological time, sometimes you just have to hurry.

At one point, we stopped alongside Landscape Arch, the thinnest, most elegant rock formation in the park, for a discussion about global warming. It’s a debate we’ve all had, but when it comes to lifelong learning, context is everything. We’ve seen evidence of previous epochs of global warming — and cooling — in the rocks around us all week. And we’ve also seen acid rain stains that are no more than fifty or so years old. So the question of whether we are causing or merely experiencing climate change is complex.

All the while we walked through and looked up and down at the most spectacular scenery on earth, we listened, watched, and learned. We now know that wind and water don’t just wear down stone – they build it. We now know that, when you think of time in terms of millions of years, stone really moves, and even flows. And we know that geologists get really excited about these things, because Marc, and Chrystal, and Keith, and Marcia, got excited when they talked about how the rocks we saw got here, and where they are going.

How many of us have friends who are geologists? And, how many of these geologist friends will go hiking with us, and explain all that we see in new and inspiring ways? How many of them bring an endless supply of jokes, or know the best places to share a meal or find the best home-made salsa in town? These are all good questions, and they have a common answer: you can find them on any of Road Scholar’s Desert Southwest Programs. See you under the arches!

(Moab, Utah, April 24, 2012) We left Torrey, Utah, this morning, heading east along the San Rafael Swell, a long ridge of rocks to our north. Its exposed rocks jut straight upwards, evidence of forces we have come to understand as powerful, even violent, despite the millions of years they have taken to occur.

Marc tells us they mined for uranium in the canyons here, and explained the environmental damage the federal government is still undoing sixty years later. They ought to be done in another fifteen years. It’s a day our current history combines with the story the rocks tell us by themselves. Oil rigs alongside the roads — we’re not always in National Parks as we continue our journey — lead to further discussions about how we tap into the energy stored here, both the good and the bad.

Another story frozen in time is told at the John Wesley Powell River Museum in Green River, Utah. Along the banks of the largest river we’ve seen yet, we learn about the Powell Exhibition, which charted the last unmapped area of the United States in 1869. “Journey into the Great Unknown,” the museum’s award-winning movie, presents the dramatic story of men braving the rapids of the Green and then Colorado Rivers in small wooden boats. The reenactment, filmed in replica vessels, is reminder enough about the power of the water that flows here.

The afternoon is filled with spectacle. We stop at Dead Horse Point, where the Green River winds its way through a canyon far below us. The wind always blows strong here, another reminder of the energy that has given us this special place. Sometimes you can feel the land almost as much as you see it. And finally, we arrive at Canyonlands National Park, and the rock formations that give the park its name. Our final stop is at Mesa Arch, a giant rock window with sweeping views of the canyons below. Tomorrow, in Arches National Park, we’ll see other, larger ones, but the views through Mesa Arch are more than enough for today.

(Torrey, Utah, April 23, 2012) Dawn broke beautifully this morning at the Red Sands Hotel as we readied ourselves for another day of learning about the lands we are exploring today. In the context of the millions of years it took to form these spectacular rock formations, we have learned to think of ourselves as the short-term tourists we really are. But, thanks to Chrystal and Marc, we aren’t letting that insight spoil any of the fun.

Today we are visiting Capitol Reef State Park, a gem in its own right, even if it gets less attention than Zion or Bryce Canyon. Leave it to Road Scholar to make sure we experience all of Utah’s geological wonders. Our morning features a hike up Grand Wash Trail, a favorite escape route for Butch Cassidy when he needed one. Which, we hear, was often.

It’s a streambed, really, but not like the ones in your town, or even nearby. There are sheer rock walls, and behind them more cliffs and rock formations you may have seen in Western movies. They’re way better in person, not to mention when you have a geologist alongside you to tell you what happened, or to let you know what to expect in the next million years.

Lunch just outside the park was one of the best picnics you can imagine — a small green oasis in Fruita, a grove of peach, apple, and other fruit trees that had just bloomed in the valley between Capitol Reef’s time-keeping cliffs. If you visit in the fall, you can pick all the fruit you can eat. But don’t forget the park’s two enormous cottonwood trees. Hug them. They won’t mind.

Our day ended with an archaeological lecture by Larry Davis, who just happens to be the former curator of the Anasazi Museum in Boulder, Utah. There’s no shortage of qualified faculty on Road Scholar’s programs, in case you were wondering. Oh, and don’t forget to ask them questions. They just might research the answer overnight and prepare a short presentation for you and your fellow participants. Marc Deshowitz did just that about why aspen’s leaves quake. But you’ll have to ask him.

Utah State Highway 12 near Capitol Reef National Park, April 22, 2012

(Torrey, Utah, April 22, 2012) Last night, after bidding our friends in the Hiking Zion and Bryce Canyons program a fond farewell, Cameron and I met another group of Road Scholars on their way east. They’re on a ten-day program touring Zion, Bryce, Anasazi State Park, Capitol Reef and Arches National Park, and Lake Powell, with stops at a number of museums along the way.

Road Scholars hiking into Bryce Canyon, April 22, 2012

It’s a different experience, with less strenuous hiking and a more intellectual exploration of Utah’s natural wonders. But we begin where we left off, with a hike into Bryce Canyon and its magnificent landscapes. It’s fun to see a new group of participants experience this one-of-a-kind environment.

Larissa Matthews inside Bryce Canyon, April 22, 2012

Later in the day, we’re off to the Colorado Plateau and Escalante National Monument. We’re above the top of Bryce, which we remember is above Zion, which is above the Grand Canyon. It’s a mind-boggling concept, but our new program coordinators, Chrystal and Marc Deshowitz, are more than up to the task of guiding us through it. Sometimes, the reality of where you are has a way of putting conceptual musings into their proper contexts.

Kenneth Matzner at the Anasazi Museum, Boulder, Utah, April 22, 2012

Vistas that were overwhelmed by the unique worlds of Zion and Bryce have opened up quickly, and we can see for hundreds of miles as we drive east. Anasazi State Park, with its ruins of Native American settlements, reminds us of the people who shared these geological wonders with us long ago.

And finally, we arrive in Torrey, positioned for two days in Capitol Reef National Park, which is out of the way enough to record the fewest annual visitors of any National Park, but beautiful enough to boast the highest percentage of repeat visitors. We can’t wait to find out why.

Geologist Marc Deshowitz describing the view from Boulder Mountain, April 22, 2012

Geologist Marc Deshowitz describing the view from Boulder Mountain, April 22, 2012

(Bryce Canyon City, April 22, 2012) A look back at our week in Zion and Bryce Canyons, in pictures.

The Virgin River and Zion Canyon from Angel’s Landing, April 18, 2012

Valerie Bassett, hiking in Snow Canyon, April 17, 2012

“If it’s red, chances are it’s Navajo Sandstone. If it’s black, it’s always lava. And if it’s white, that’s because the sand that blew into here had a low iron content.

Snow Canyon, April 17, 2012

Gayle King and Joan Jennings, Angel’s Landing Trail, April 18, 2012

Nini Sherwood hiking Angel’s Landing Trail, Zion, April 18, 2012

Morning in Zion National Park, April 19, 2012

Bob and Sue Trower, Snow Canyon, April 17, 2012

Jane Roe enjoying Snow Canyon, April 17, 2012

Claron rock in hoodoos and coarse sand, Bryce Canyon, April 20, 2012

Bill and Linda Provencal, Snow Canyon, April 17, 2012

Cross bedding on the rocks of Echo Canyon, Zion, April 19, 2012

Jen Conners hiking out of Angel’s Landing, Zion, April 18, 2012

Sharon and Roy Michaels in Echo Canyon, Zion, April 18, 2012

Linda Burns on the banks of the Virgin River, Zion, April 19, 2012

The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon glowing at dawn, April 21, 2012

Steve Mach enjoying the sunrise at Bryce Canyon, April 21, 2012

A window in the limestone cliffs of Bryce Canyon, April 20, 2012

Sun and shadows on the hoodoos of Bryce at dawn, April 21, 2012

Thank you, Marcia and Keith, for a great adventure in Zion and Bryce

Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos glowing at dawn, April 21, 2012

(Bryce Canyon City, Utah, April 21, 2012) Joan Jennings, one of our fellow participants, thought it would be a good idea for us to see sunrise over Bryce Canyon. Last night she suggested it to Marcia, who agreed to it if at least ten of us would go.

The morning hike down to Queen’s Gardens

This morning at 6 am, twenty-one Road Scholars boarded the bus and headed to the canyon. The no-colors gradually gave way to pinks and tans, and then deep reds and deeper shadows as the sun rose over the horizon. There probably weren’t twenty-one happier people for hundreds of miles.

The morning sun reaching further down into the canyon

Later in the morning, we hiked down into Bryce Canyon to the Queen’s Gardens and Wall Street to see the hoodoos up close and personal. Today was the day I learned that canyons really do look better from within. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

Queen Victoria in hoodoo sandstone

One of the hoodoos famously looks like Queen Victoria. There is a certain resemblance, but some of us could swear we heard, “Albert, does this hoodoo make our arses look fat?”

But I digress…We continued our hike along the canyon and back up to Sunset Point to end our day of hiking and have lunch along the trail before heading back to St. George and our farewell dinner. It’s been a fantastic time, one we’d all like to repeat someday, particularly with program coordinators and geologists like Marcia Cooper and Keith Norlin.

Marcia Cooper’s famous laugh, Bryce Canyon, April 21, 2012

(Bryce Canyon, Utah, April 20, 2012) After breakfast in Zion, we take a two-hour drive east to Bryce Canyon. The grasslands of the Colorado Plateau dotted with small towns, and the town of Bryce Canyon is no different. We’ll stay here tonight, but we’re only passing through on our way to hiking along the rim of the canyon.

Marcie and Keith tell us that Bryce is as spectacular as Zion in its own way, and they’re right. The higher rocks that form Bryce are softer, and they’ve eroded into columns of red sandstone capped by harder white limestone. These “hoodoos” (not a scientific term) stand upright until the limestone cap wears away, and then they dissolve into coarse sandy hills.

Science aside, they’re beautiful. Native Americans believed they were people who were punished for evil deeds and turned to stone, but that seems like a harsh way to describe formations so elegant and inspirational.

As we hike along from Sunset to Sunrise Points, we get to beta-test listening devices so we can hear Keith’s geology talks as we hike at our own pace.

It’s a great idea, but gradually the spirituality of Bryce Canyon takes over, and we move into silence — first by turning off the devices to experience Bryce’s natural beauty without interruption, and then when we gather near the end of the day for two minutes of total silence convened by Marcia. It was a highlight of the day.

We end the afternoon in the same constant state of motion – alternately leisurely, challenging, and social – but always with deep appreciation for the unique natural beauty that surrounds us. Thank goodness there’s another day of hiking tomorrow.

(Zion National Park, April 19, 2012) Our second day in Zion takes us up into the canyons we saw yesterday from on high. The hike is the same – we still need to climb 1,200 feet or so to get there, but instead of views downward toward the Virgin River, we walk into a canyon that towers above us on both sides. So much for us hiking nearly to the top of Zion; that’s an option for those of us who want to see the canyon from Observation Point, 700 feet higher than Angel’s Landing.

Our immediate destination is Echo Canyon, a place where wind and water have carved intricate patterns into the sandstone walls beside us. They’re beautiful, and looking up at them is a different kind of inspiration.

Today is also about choices. Marcia has given us an open schedule, and if we want to choose any of three different trails, they lie before us, each promising its own reward. I chose Echo Canyon.

When I arrived, a half-dozen other participants were already there, enjoying the views and more insights from Keith about how our little world had formed.

 

Our afternoon hike led us up the canyon along the Virgin River, named, as legend has it, because “it runs just fast enough.” The rapids are still too fast to attempt The Narrows, a trail that eventually requires hikers to walk in the water as they climb. We’re fine with the views, and with another spectacular day in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

At dinner, we bid Zion a fond farewell as we contemplate what Bryce Canyon will bring, with its floor equal to the ceiling of Observation Point, a place that towers 2,200 feet over the Virgin River.

(Zion National Park, Utah, April 18, 2012) According to geologist Keith Norlin, the top of the Grand Canyon is the floor of Zion, and the top of Zion is the floor of Bryce. Today, we hiked Zion’s most famous trail from the floor to nearly the top. It’s a strenuous trek, and we start at 10 am. Gradually, the trail steepens until we arrive at Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 switchbacks named after Walter Ruesh, Zion’s first superintendent. The switchbacks lead to Scout Lookout, with amazing views below into the canyon, where the Virgin River flows through a plain that eventually narrows upstream to steep cliff banks that force hikers into the water. It’s April; we won’t venture there.

Zion’s peaks tower above us along the way, red, jagged, and beautiful. They have names like Cathedral Mountain, the Three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), and the Great White Throne. It’s hard not to be inspired by them, or to understand why the park’s founders gave the mountains these names as we enjoy the fruits of our labors at Scout Lookout.

But Angel’s Landing Trail doesn’t end there; it continues up a dizzying, narrow path with steep drop-offs on both sides, with a chain to grab for dear life on the way up and down. A few of us made the white-knuckle decision to head for the top. Note that while this blog includes images from there, it does not include any visual reference to the chains. Thank you for not asking me why.

The afternoon continued with a short walk along Lower Emerald Pool Trail, with great views of a waterfall, the first of three pools, and, of course, more geological insights that could only be learned via the combination of Zion’s spectacular rock formations and a professional geologist alongside to answer questions. Road Scholar has taught me more about this subject in 48 hours than I learned in my entire life.

After dinner, falconer Martin Tyner delivered a presentation on Zion’s birds of prey, complete with his co-presenters Thumper the hawk, and an anonymous but beautiful golden eagle. A grand first day ends with the added satisfaction of knowing that tomorrow will bring more strenuous and rewarding adventures.

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