Day Canyon – Undisturbed Explorations
by Marcia Hafner
If you are searching for undisturbed explorations where people are seldom seen, Day Canyon fits the agenda. Since it is not well known, only a few hikers and climbers stray into this serene, semi-hidden threshold to witness the grandeur and stature of this particular canyon.
To experience the vertical Wingate Sandstone walls of Day Canyon, which is about four miles long, head north out of town on Highway 191 for four miles. Then turn left on to Highway 279 (Potash Rd.) and drive 11.5 miles. There you will find several pull offs to park in on the left, directly across the road from the canyon’s unsigned entrance.
To start my hike, I step over the railroad tracks and proceed around the wire-mesh gate and broken down fence. Instantly I am traipsing through an exuberant growth of willows and tamarisk trees that overshadow and choke out the trail. To make any progress through this constantly changing jungle, it is simply a matter of picking the course with the least resistance. The lower the stream flow, the better the route finding is.
Fortunately it doesn’t take long before I leave the dark, dank tangle of tamarisk and enter the open cheeriness of sunlight where the old time cottonwoods grow. The further I stroll, the bigger the trees. Surrounded by small pastures of lush green grass, they provide an environment that is irresistible to the blue-gray gnatcatcher, the spotted towhee, the black-chinned hummingbird and the mourning cloak butterfly.
When the intermittent stream gurgles softly to the surface, it creates a collection of pools - a tranquil scene that gives no hint as to what happens when the heavens open up and the torrential rain pours down in a raging gusher through this narrow channel. Then everything in the way moves, including huge piles of logs, which come tumbling down until they finally lose momentum and pile up like pick-up-sticks high above the streambed - a strong warning of what happens during a flash flood!
After steering to the right out of the streambed on to an abandoned jeep trail, I follow the meandering old road back and forth through the rabbitbrush and scrub oak across the width of the canyon and the walking becomes much smoother. The powerful reddish-brown sandstone walls now come into full view. The gigantic stone protrusions, which jut out like rock-shaped hammerheads from the edge of the cliff, hang precariously over the brink of free fall – an event that occasionally does happen as evidenced by the boulders strewn along the canyon floor.
In April and May an intoxicatingly sweet fragrance is broadcast through the air by the profuse bright yellow flowers of the Fremont’s Mahonia inviting a variety of bees and hummingbird moths to come on over and enjoy the nectar-filled bounty. This four to five foot tall evergreen shrub has spine-tipped leaves that look exactly like holly. Some folks even refer to this shrub as a “desert holly,” so it comes as a big surprise to learn that it is actually a member of the barberry family. Later in the season, the tart but tantalizingly flavorful purple-reddish berries are consumed in large quantities by both coyote and fox, and the cast-off seeds that survive their digestive systems are readily germinated a long distance from the parent plant. Along with providing edible berries for wildlife, the pulverized roots can be used as a yellow dye.
Mahonia is named after Bernard M’Mahon (1755-1816), an Irish immigrant to the United States who ran a plant nursery in Philadelphia. “Fremontii” refers to the politician and famous western explorer John C. Fremont. Through the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, Fremont collected many plants during his expeditions. Later in his life, in 1856, he became the Republican party’s first ever candidate for president; in 1860 he ran again, but withdrew in favor of Abraham Lincoln.
During my break a hummingbird moth comes in to investigate my blue t-shirt and the orange peel lying on the ground next to me. This large, buff-brown moth is fascinating to watch, because it flies like a hummingbird, sounds like a hummingbird and feeds like a hummingbird. But this amazing imposter, which earlier in its life cycle had been a yellowish-green caterpillar, is most definitely a moth.
Nearing the end of the canyon I find huge chunks of petrified wood scattered on the ground and I marvel at how wood can possibly be turned into stone. It’s even harder to imagine that 225 million years ago, during a wetter period of time, the southwestern United States was covered with a semi-tropical forest. That’s when the dead trees became buried in the sedimentary layer of water and mud called the Chinle Formation and the process of petrification began. Gradually the wood transformed into a composition of crystallized quartz stone which is harder than steel! In some specimens the original cellular structure has even been preserved and can easily be seen.
If you do not wish to retrace your steps back, you can instead exit the canyon via an old cattle trail that is blasted through the cap rock at the upper end of the canyon’s north side. This puts you about one mile north of the Long Canyon Road.
Sometimes when I am in a solitary frame of mind, I head for Day Canyon where I can go on an undisturbed exploration to seek out the quiet pleasures this deep, inspiring gorge has to offer. For me it’s the perfect place to tune into the undistracted rhythms of nature where the only sounds to be heard on a balmy spring day are the buzzing of insects, the vocalizations of birds and the gentle breeze that whispers so softly through the cottonwood leaves.
As I continue to gaze upon this perplexing phenomenon, a witness to an age-old spectacle, I keep wondering -will the mystery of Upheaval Dome ever be solved? Go see it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Some additional information: The 527 square miles of Canyonlands became a national park in 1964. It is segmented into three distinct areas – Island In the Sky, (north) The Needles (south) and The Maze (west) and has two major rivers, The Green and The Colorado running through it. Island In The Sky and The Needles are easily accessible with any vehicle, but to visit The Maze, a high-clearance, four-wheel drive is required.
Biological Soil Crust (aka)
Cryptos (krip’ tose):
The surface of
Moab’s desert is held
together by a thin skin of living organisms known as cryptobiotic
soil or cryptos. It has a lumpy black appearance, is very
fragile, and takes decades to heal when it has been damaged.
This soil is a critical part of the survival of the desert.
The cryptobiotic organisms help to stabilize the soil, hold
moisture, and provide protection for germination of the seeds
of other plants. Without it the dry areas of the west would
be much different. Although some disturbance is normal and
helps the soil to capture moisture, excessive disturbance
by hooves, bicycle tires and hiking boots has been shown
to destroy the cryptobiotic organisms and their contribution
to the soil. When you walk around Moab avoid crushing the
cryptos. Stay on trails, walk in washes, hop from stone to
stone. Whatever it takes, don’t crunch the cryptos
unless you absolutely have to!
Cryptobiotic soil garden