Losing Myself in Surreal Southwest

Published: November 9th 2012
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View of the canyonlands, looking northeast toward the Six Shooter Peaks
I drove out of Moab heading south.

The road shows the La Sal Mountains off to the east, and a long red cliff to the west, the slip fault.

Houses last along the road for quite a ways; Moab is big by Utah standards.

They finally fade away and the highway enters a canyon.

Various side canyons branch away.

This lasts until the highway passes a big red slickrock dome on the left and manmade sight as surreal as the surrounding landscape.

Hole N" The Rock

The dome holds southeastern Utah’s unmissable piece of tourist kitsch, the Hole N’’ The Rock.

It’s literally unmissable, because the name is painted directly onto the rock dome.

Immediately afterward sits a parking lot surrounded by the rock, two gift shops, a petting zoo, and a huge outdoor museum of ephemera.

The double apostrophe, incidentally, is not a misprint; it’s in the name on the rock.

A small building in front of the sandstone dome holds the entrance to the actual Hole N’’ The Rock.

It can only be seen on guided tours.

The story starts with Albert Christensen, who set up
Southeast Utah's surreal houseSoutheast Utah's surreal houseSoutheast Utah's surreal house

It's just what it sounds like, a house inside a sandstone cliff.
a diner at the base of the rock in the 1920s.

He blasted rooms into the sandstone cliff behind the diner for the kitchen and storage.

The diner did quite well for a while feeding local miners.

Business declined starting in the 1940s, so he closed the diner and turned the site into his house.

He blasted several more rooms into the cliff to create the current structure.

Hole N’’ The Rock is a study in 1950s style and eccentricity.

It contains a series of connected rooms with bare rock walls.

Narrow pillars hold up the roof.

Original lights hang from wires bolted to the ceiling, since there was no place to hide them.

The furniture is straight from the era.

This part is about as tasteful as a house blasted from sandstone can get.

The accessories are another story.

Albert considered himself an artist.

For this and other reasons, he blasted and sculpted the head of Franklin Delano Roosevelt into the cliff above the diner.

Inside it gets weirder, with over a dozen Jesus portraits he painted, most with crossed
Double decker outhouseDouble decker outhouseDouble decker outhouse

Living spaces aren't the only surreal thing at Hole N'' The Rock

The living room contains two of the less successful taxidermied deer in history, along with a stuffed donkey that looks like an oversized version of a child’s toy.

Albert did all three.

Our guide ignored the painful kitsch factor of all this and presented them as earnest pursuits.

The donkey hauled the supplies for dynamiting the rock, and his owner was quite distraught at his death.

His wife Gladys also got in on the act.

She collected toy dolls by the dozens, which line the walls of the house.

She also had a jewelry workshop in a room at the back of the house, and she sold her creations to visiting tourists.

Her secret was using colored translucent stones that were actually cut glass!

She was the one who decided to open the house as a tourist site.

The yard sends the kitsch factor into overdrive.

Hidden behind the house is a “double decker outhouse”.

That sits next to neon signs for several old motels.

Folk art sculptures from found metal by Lyle Nichols appear by in places, including a
Newspaper RockNewspaper RockNewspaper Rock

Impressive rock art site on the way to Canyonlands
car made of license plates and a bull of welded car parts.

A relatively recent addition is a copy of Tow Mater, the tow truck from the movie Cars.

I skipped the petting zoo, with its big signs declaring “You get to feed the animals!”

One of the gift shops continues the site’s original reason for existence with jewelry from local artisans.

The shop was incredibly tasteful given the surroundings.

Indian Creek

After Hole N’’ the Rock, the road enters a valley between rounded sandstone knobs.

Some of these appear close to the pavement.

A sign appears for ‘Wilson Arch’, pointing to a pullout on the right.

The state had no choice but to build this area, because the actual arch appears right next to the road on the left.

It’s a pretty big one, and would be right at home in Arches National Park.

Soon after the arch, the landscape turns to flat desert scrub.

Sandstone hills appear in the distance, but that’s about it.

The highway finally reaches a lonely intersection surrounded by range land.

A big sign sits here talking
Indian Creek CanyonIndian Creek CanyonIndian Creek Canyon

A landscape straight from every movie western. South Six Shooter Peak is in the far distance on the left.
about Canyonlands National Park.

The side road leads to the fourth and final section, the Needles.

It’s the most popular section for serious hikers, because it has lots of terrain and trails without the difficult access roads of the Maze (see Indiana Jones Meets Southern Utah).

The road to the park first crosses more open range land, heading for sandstone hills in the distance.

It gets close and then drops into a low narrow canyon, Indian Creek.

The roadway follows the creek to the park as it twists past sandstone knobs and cliffs.

Along the way, the road passes Newspaper Rock.

The rock is big slanted sandstone wall in an alcove absolutely covered in black desert varnish.

Passing humans scraped petroglyphs and symbols into the black surface for hundreds of years.

Some look like recognizable animals, some look like footprints, some appear like alien monsters, and some are geometric.

The petroglyphs cross multiple art styles and cultures.

Archeologists aren’t sure what most of them mean, if anything.

The last represent humans on horses, from Navajo.

The canyon keeps twisting along until it spreads out into
Wooden Shoe ArchWooden Shoe ArchWooden Shoe Arch

Aptly named arch in the Canyonlands
a wide canyon surrounded by red cliffs.

Tall thin buttes appear in the distance.

Two of these look like pistols stood on end, so they got the name Six Shooter Peaks.

Thanks to many western movies, this is what many people imagine the west looks like.

Unlike Monument Valley where many of those movies were filmed (more on that later) this valley really is empty.

The road and cars are the only sign of civilization.

Just before the park entrance, a dirt road leads to another place from the past, this time from the early days of car travel.

It ends at a campground.

Said campground has a small weather beaten general store, the only source of provisions for hundreds of miles.

Sitting in front of it are two gas pumps from the 1940s.

It looks like a set from some old road movie, but this store is the real thing.

Inside, the food prices are reasonable for somewhere so remote, while the gas prices make the station in Panamint Springs in Death Valley (see It Can Never Happen Here…And Already Has) look affordable.

Canyonlands National Park

Once in the park,
Little Spring CanyonLittle Spring CanyonLittle Spring Canyon

Little Spring Canyon from the Slickrock Trail
the valley widens out into slickrock desert.

Buttes appear in the distance.

The highway reaches the visitor’s center, which is an essential stop before heading into the park.

About the only things to do in the Needles are hiking and off-road driving.

The paved roads all go to trailheads.

Hiking in the park is difficult thanks to the high elevation, extremely dry air, and lack of shade.

Explorers need to carry and drink unimaginable amounts of water, almost a quart per hour.

To help people decide where to go, the visitor’s center has very helpful books with detailed descriptions of all trails including photographs.

I ultimately chose two short trails to see a wide variety of landscapes.

After the visitor’s center, the paved road passes through desert scrub.

Red cliffs appear in the distance.

It then passes views of slickrock domes and buttes.

A long red wall appears on the right, and then another on the left.

On top, this wall has an arch that looks remarkably like a Dutch clog, hence the name Wooden Shoe Arch.

The road reaches a
Canyon JunctionCanyon JunctionCanyon Junction

Spring Canyon heads to the Colorado, beneath the big red cliff in the distance
picnic area on the left, with a trail leading up a slickrock slope.

The path quickly ends on a dome with a huge panoramic view of this part of the park.

The Six Shooter Peaks and the entrance canyon appear to the east, with more buttes in front.

North shows a huge mesa, the Island in the Sky (see Big View to Big Arch).

To the west sits a long distant wall of dozens of spiky towers, the Needles themselves.

South appears a huge set of rounded sandstone mounds that look like oversized toadstools.

In between sits a vast sea of slickrock.

The road loops through the toadstools.

It then enters a wide wash surrounded by odd shaped buttes and some hoodoos, and ends.

Multiple trails branch off from here.

One heads into an obvious canyon, heading for the Colorado River.

I took the Slickrock Trail, the best short trail in the section, instead.

Slickrock Trail

The trail crosses the wash and climbs the slickrock mound on the far side.

This ends on top of a thin mesa between Little Spring and Big Spring Canyons.
Don't Bust the Crust!Don't Bust the Crust!Don't Bust the Crust!

Without cyrobiotic crust, the dark mounds behind the cactus, all of this would just wash away

Like the trail at Deadhorse Point, it then loops around the edge of the mesa with many views into both canyons.

While Deadhorse provided long views over an otherworldly landscape, this one provides closer views of that same landscape.

Like virtually all trails in the area, this one is marked only with cairns.

Thankfully, it has many of them, avoiding the navigation problems from yesterday.

Good thing, because the mesa is absolutely covered in cryptobiotic crust.

I recognize it by this point, but not every hiker does.

The first part of the trail provides a long view into the canyon containing the parking lot.

Sandstone toadstool mounds and slickrock domes lead to a wall of yellow sandstone.

The path then crosses bare slickrock.

Without the cairns, the path could be nearly anywhere.

That leads to a set of sandstone ledges, followed by a shallow wash.

The pattern continues through the whole mesa, traveling on bare slickrock and washes to avoid areas covered with cryptobiotic crust.

On the mesa, the path provides a panoramic view of this
Big Spring CanyonBig Spring CanyonBig Spring Canyon

Big Spring Canyon from the Slickrock Trail
part of the Canyonlands.

An obvious wide canyon appears in the distance, with tall red cliffs behind it.

This is the Colorado River.

The nearer set of cliffs are the Island in the Sky, with Deadhorse Point off in the distance to the right.

A maze of canyons leads off to the right, looking like an endless plateau of broken sandstone.

Buttes, including the Six Shooter Peaks, tower beyond.

The other direction shows a much better view than before of the wall of spires that forms the actual Needles.

The view is great, but I want to see canyons close up.

This is, after all, Canyonlands.

The trail finally approaches the rim of one, a short and very steep side canyon.

The view is a close up version of what I saw at Deadhorse Point, a place where the earth looks torn apart.

The trail then follows the rim on bare slickrock as the canyon deepens.

It’s not that dangerous, but it feels dangerous.

More hiking on the mesa top brings me to a viewpoint where the side canyon
Needles and ToadstoolsNeedles and ToadstoolsNeedles and Toadstools

Large group of toadstool formations leading to the Needles in the distance, from the Slickrock Trail
joins Little Spring Canyon.

This canyon is a deep and wide gap in the sandstone.

Slickrock mounds appear on the far side.

The next stretch of trail passes an obvious demonstration of the importance of cryptobiotic crust.

It crosses a stretch of bare slickrock containing little depressions.

Deep ones hold water after rain, a crucial source for local wildlife.

A wide shallow one was filled with grass and a prickly pear cactus, surrounded by cryptobiotic crust.

The crust is the only reason the other plants were able to germinate.

Without it, the next rainstorm would wash out the depression leaving bare rock.

The trail reaches the tip of the mesa where the two canyons meet.

A spur drops steeply over sandstone ledges to near the tip.

These require careful scrambling.

Huge sandstone boulders sit on the edge of the canyons.

The side trail ends beside them, where hikers must scramble through.

Be careful, it’s a very long drop.

The view shows two very different canyons coming together.

Little Spring Canyon is wide with slanted walls, very
Cowboy CampCowboy CampCowboy Camp

Preserved cowboy camp near Cave Spring, in use until 1975
typical for the Southwest.

Big Spring Canyon is much closer to how people imagine one should look, very deep with vertical red walls.

Looking far off in the distance shows where this canyon merges into the Colorado.

After more slickrock and washes, the trail reaches an overlook of Big Spring Canyon.

It gets close to the rim, and then reveals a series of steep sandstone ledges right at the edge of the canyon.

The path scrambles down them to a big ledge with a large view of the canyon.

It’s very deep with vertical red and yellow walls.

Obvious bands of rock, different types of sandstone, appear on the sides.

From there the path continues across the slickrock.

It has a huge view of the distant needles throughout the stretch.

Soon enough, the path reaches where it climbed the mesa and returns to the parking lot.

Cave Spring Trail

The other trail I hiked is Cave Spring.

The road to the trailhead passes a big red butte and then enters an area of lower yellow buttes.

The vegetation
Cave Spring rock shelfCave Spring rock shelfCave Spring rock shelf

Long tunnel like rock shelf, on the way to Cave Spring. Note the abundance of vegitation
is surprisingly different, cottonwood trees, dense bushes and long grass.

The buttes both provide shade and collect water, allowing these plants to thrive in what is otherwise inhospitable desert.

Modern hikers are far from the first people to notice the vegetation.

Early cowboys did also, and grazed cattle here starting in the late 1800s.

They turned a large alcove in a nearby outcrop into a corral.

The Cave Spring trail passes their camp, with a fence in front of the alcove and a chuck wagon kitchen (see The Real, and Fake, Wild West) in a corner.

This camp was used until the park was closed to ranching in 1975.

After the camp, the trail enters a narrow ravine within the outcrop.

It passes under a long rock shelf on the side of the outcrop where I had to duck multiple times.

The shelf leads to something incredibly rare in this dry desert, a perennial spring.

Water percolates from the rock, supporting a little colony of hanging plants.

The spring has attracted humans for centuries, including the cowboys.

From the spring, the trail continues
Cave SpringCave SpringCave Spring

One of the few perenial springs in the Canyonlands, a true oasis
up the ravine.

It’s filled with trees, more than I saw in the rest of the park combined practically.

Eventually, the path reaches a wooden ladder.

One steep climb reaches a smaller ravine halfway up the outcrop, with quickly leads to another ladder.

That one deposited me on top of the sandstone.

On top, the outcrop looks remarkably like the mesa crossed by the Slickrock Trail, bare rock with patches of soil and the occasional pine tree.

The trail is marked by cairns.

Like the mesa, the outcrop has a fantastic view of this part of the Canyonlands; big mesas in the distance, smaller mesas nearby, seemingly endless rock outcrops between them, and flat areas with lots of trees.

The trail crosses the outcrop to a ravine.

It drops into steep gully filled with bushes.

The path now scrambles down the gully to the desert floor and more overhangs.

In one part, the middle portion of the outcrop wore away creating a mushroom shaped hoodoo next to another overhang.

The trail scrambles right under it.

That leads to a

Deep overhanging ledges near Cave Spring. The trail passes right between them
set of deep overhangs that ultimately return to the parking lot.

After Canyonlands, I drove to Blanding for the night.

My guidebook comments that the name is an inadvertent description of the town’s atmosphere.

It was sadly accurate, especially after spending a few days in Moab.


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