Massive Navajo sandstone domes and fins, steep cliffs, and natural arches erupt out of the desert landscape within Utah’s Behind the Rocks Wilderness Study Area. The area’s extreme topography makes cross-country foot travel very challenging, yet possible. The highly scenic rock fins traversing the wilderness study area are popular subjects for photographers. Behind the Rocks offers amazing views of the La Sal mountains and is nearby to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. For those who prefer to catch their scenery at a little faster pace, there are plenty of nearby mountain biking trails and off-highway vehicle routes. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, @mypubliclands.
Cinder cone volcano (~32,500 years old) at the north end of Snow Canyon State Park, north of St. George, Utah. The volcano sits on Lower Jurassic (~180 million year old) Navajo Sandstone, which comprises the red and buff outcrops behind the volcano. This is one of two closely spaced cinder cones that produced the Santa Clara aa basalt flows. Several cinder cones, ranging in age from 2.1 million to 32,500 years old, dot the landscape from Grand Canyon through western Utah, created by decompression melting as this area, at the eastern margin of the Basin and Range Province of North America, is being pulled slowly apart.
The new Gold Butte National Monument covers nearly 300,000 acres of remote and rugged desert landscape in southeastern Nevada. The area is less than two hours from the Las Vegas Strip, but a world apart. Here dramatically chiseled red Navajo sandstone, twisting canyons, and tree-clad mountains of the adjoining Paiute Wilderness punctuate vast stretches of the Mojave Desert dotted with Joshua trees and desert shrubs.
The 99 mile long Gold Butte National Backcountry Byway provides access to a cross section of the area’s features and begins just south of Interstate 15 near Bunkerville, NV. The first 20 miles of the byway to Whitney Pockets are mostly paved and accessible by passenger vehicles. Other unpaved portions of the route can be accessed by high clearance vehicles and some may require 4-WD. Check visitor kiosks for area information.
The brightly hued sandstone provides a stunning canvas for the area’s famously beautiful rock art, and the desert provides critical habitat for the desert tortoise. The byway and other routes provide access outdoor recreation, and visitors to the monument can camp (undeveloped), hike to fantastic rock formations and hidden rock art sites, and visit the area’s namesake mining ghost town. Wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities are available and the area even has a population of majestic desert bighorn sheep. A full array of visitor services are available in Mesquite Nevada just north of the new monument. Stock up on supplies as no services are available on the byway or elsewhere in the monument.
In an area as vast and diverse as the new Bears Ears National Monument in Southeastern Utah, it’s hard to know where to start in exploring. Here are some ideas for capturing a sampling of what the new National Monument offers.
On the Northern end, take state route 211 into spectacular Indian Creek Canyon. Stop at Newspaper Rock, a large and spectacular petroglyph panel with carvings dating back to 2,000 years. Further along, the canyon opens up into a wide valley rimmed by Navajo Sandstone. The iconic “Sixshooter” spires soon become visible. Look for rock climbers scaling the narrow cracks in the vertical Navajo Sandstone.
Further south, Take Highway 261 and 95 onto Cedar Mesa. The twin Bears Ears rise just north of the mesa. This is one of the most significant archaeological regions anywhere, with ancient pueblos tucked into endless canyons. Visiting many of the pueblos require planning ahead as they include hikes and some also require visitor permits. However, a view of the spectacular Butler Wash Ruin is a one hour round trip hike from a developed trailhead while the Mule Canyon Ruin is located along the highway.
Driving south along the rolling pinion uplands of Cedar Mesa does not prepare one for the descent of Highway 261 via the “Moki Dugway”. The route drops precipitously with views of Monument Valley in the distance. Similar landforms to Monument Valley’s famous formations are found along a 17 mile unpaved loop drive beginning at the base of the Dugway which traverses the Valley of the Gods.
A final stop along the southern border of the monument is also a must see. The viewpoint at Goosenecks State Park takes in a spectacular sequence of tight and colorful meanders of the San Jun River carved into the sandstone cliffs.
Many parts of the new national monument are remote and there are no services. Make sure to stock up with supplies in Monticello, Blanding or Bluff which all offer a full array of services as well as accommodations.
In a place where paleontologists are still prospecting for dinosaurs fossils, you can’t help but feel like a kid on an endless playground. Climbing arches, attempting to wrap our heads around this Navajo sandstone and its ability to form these colossal structures. Forever in awe of the desert.
Apparently my long videos today are all introducing a new camera - this is, I think, the same Sony camera I showed shots from this morning. Here a group of videographers takes it out into the Southwestern US Desert.