Location/Geography: Closest town: Cedar City, Utah. Area: Unknown, though considerably smaller than neighboring Bryce Canyon. Surrounded by Dixie National Forest. Western edge of the Markagunt Plateau.
Spotlight: Hoodoos galore! A small version of, though no less significant, Bryce Canyon. The colors are even brighter. The Markagunt Plateau's other geologic gallery. Focus: geology and climate.
Snapshot: Cedar Breaks NM was established in 1933. Like the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the monument is open from late May but closes in mid-October due to harsh winter snows (at least the Grand Canyon’s north rim country used to get inundated with hefty winter snowfall). During the relatively fewer warmer months, and because of the 10,000-foot elevation, summer daytime temperatures are fairly cool, ranging anywhere from 60 to 70ºF (15.5 to 21ºC). Afternoon and evening thunderstorms are common.
The monument is tucked into Utah's 800 square miles Markagunt Plateau (a Southern Paiute word meaning "highland of trees"). Climatic conditions and Cedar Break's geology are ideal for the formation of its whimsical hoodoos. Early settlers called this type of setting badlands or breaks. Their description eventually became the designate for this monument by combining breaks with cedar to represent the area's many juniper trees (often incorrectly called cedars). Incidentally, the lodge at Cedar Breaks is considered the smallest of all lodges operating in a national park or monument.
Guided Tour Essentials: Red Canyon, aptly named, leads to Cedar Breaks and you know you're in for a treat given the rich tincture of the rocks.
Markagunt Plateau's steep slope in this area provides a matching environment where faults and joints from compressional tectonic forces influence and select patterns of erosion. The consistent pattern of year-round weather also abets erosion. During cold months, a cycle of freezing and thawing loosens the slope surface, allowing debris to be carried away by runoff. The transported material then works on the softer rocks to create a vast array of gullies, and ultimately a dazzling profile of canyon impressions––nature’s most mesmerizing appearance or some people claim. The hard rock left behind is further eroded along its vertical cracks, which again are subject to the freezing and thawing cycle ad infinitum. Such weathering continuously carves the tall, thin columns of rock––hoodoos. These unique and whimsical formations should not be mistaken for pinnacles or spires, which have a smoother profile or more uniform thickness than hoodoos, and are often described as a totem-pole shaped profile. By contrast, hoodoos are like spires, however these delicate formations wear caps that are composed of a different rock more resistant to erosion than the softer rock beneath them.
The gaping amphitheater extends to the west side of the Markagunt Plateau. This is also the same plateau that forms sectors of Zion NP. The uplifting process and erosion have formed the canyon over millions of years, which continues to erode at a pace of about 2 inches every five years. On top of the plateau, volcanic rock, known as rhyolitic tuff, covers much of the area. The geologic event that formed this province of the Colorado Plateau happened during cataclysmic eruptions around 28 million years ago. The area is another form of eccentric, though attractive, badlands––canyons, spires, walls and cliffs so steep and confusing that the landscape, while certainly boasting aesthetic value, is of little utilitarian worth.
A Smaller Twin Of Bryce Canyon? The eroded rock here has features similar to those at Bryce Canyon, yet Cedar Breaks still has its own distinct look and flair. At an average elevation of 10,000 feet the contour of the monument’s facade is like a giant coliseum dropping precipitously to its base foundation. Millions of years of uplift and erosion have carved the majestic and delicate features. For anyone who has seen neighboring Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks looks very much like its matching and larger geologic sibling. However, the colors are more brilliant than at Bryce. Southern Paiute Indians called this eccentric landscape the "Circle of Painted Cliffs." The name is well deserved. Cedar Breaks, situated higher in elevation than neighboring Bryce, boasts the most colorful monuments in North America due chiefly to a predominant pinkish pigmentation. The high, linear and circled appearance is canyon-like in all respects, stretching across 3 miles. With a depth of over 2,000 feet to the nearly 2 miles in peak elevation above sea level, this is the highest monument in North America. Perhaps its most inspirational aspect is the myriad stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate smaller canyons etched below the corrugated frontage. The entire gallery of shapes is tinted with varying shades of red (or coral), yellow and purple. Surrounded by Dixie National Forest, Cedar Breaks setting includes lush alpine meadows clustered with ponderosa pines and aspens. During summer months, the wildflower display is spectacular.
Geology: The exotic rock formations in the monument took time to for nature to fashion, though much less time than places like Canyonlands or the Grand Canyon. Roughly 60 million years ago, the site where Cedar Breaks now stands was not the highest point in the region. Actually, it marked the very bottom of a 70-mile-long lake. In time, however, changes occurred in this region until sand, gravel and sedimentary deposits filled the ancient lake by some 70 by 250 miles. Geologists call this lengthy body of water Lake Claron. Later, the lake dried. The cycle of dryness was also repetitive for some 26 million years, where each cycle resulted in laying down more new sedimentary material. Gradually, the materials compressed and congealed into various rock formations. The materials also rusted when iron, oxygen and water combined to add the bright coral color in the sediments. These sediments also became the siltstone, sandstone and limestone of the Claron Formation, matching the sedimentary face of Bryce Canyon. Over the eons a gradual uplifting sequence began to form the great scenic and single amphitheater. Erosion meticulously hewed an amazing display of hoodoos, spires and pinnacles in all sizes. Thus the materials are ancient (about 61 million years), yet the sculpting process is far more recent. These beguiling rock statues represent the ongoing fashioning of the Claron Formation, consisting of sandstone, limestone, dolomite (a form of limestone that contains magnesium) and siltstone material deposits. The layers also contain lignite, coal, and an abundance of fossils, including evidence of the lush Mesozoic Era when this region was tropical, and vastly different plants and animals flourished.
Repetitive Cycles Doing Repetitive Wonders: As appealing to the eye as this monument now appears, its assortment of geologic formations will ultimately turn to grains of sand. Presently, the formations reveal a unique crisscross design formed through the lengthy and continuing freezing and thawing of hard winters. The process is ongoing. Rock formations continue to be designed and redesigned by nature's whim. When water seeps into fractures of the rocks, it dissolves the calcium carbonate holding the smaller rock particles together. This chemical process of erosion is exactly the benefit limestone affords to sandstone in particular. In cold weather, the water turns to ice as temperatures plummet, then the ice expands, pushing the fractures open again. Overnight freezing and daytime thawing are also common, occurring about two to three hundred times a year. Since different rocks are of varied hardness, erosion takes place at different rates––what geologists call the process of differential erosion––and will continue until the plateau is flattened. Nothing ever lives forever, not even rocks of any hardness including schist and granite.
Why The Striking Colors? The net result of the geologic foundation and uplifting is a vivid and picturesque backdrop. Yet Cedar Breaks is not just a pretty pink frontage of rock formations and fabrication pleasing to the eye. Orange also dominates here, caused by trace amounts of iron oxide which also cause the pink or salmon color. The tinctured limestone from the Claron Formation is saturated with iron and manganese oxides, which generates shades of red and pink and orange. Comparing the Cedar Breaks Claron Formation to Bryce Canyon, the Claron basement rock of Cedar Breaks is both thicker and more vivid in color.
Flora And Fauna: Even this high in elevation, wildlife is plentiful. From the larger mule deer to the smaller porcupines, there's a lively diversity of wild life: pikas, marmots, red squirrels, pocket gophers, even mountain lions and bobcats. Common birds include the hearty Clark's nutcracker. The really fast birds zipping by are violet-green swallows. Of course, abiding ravens and jays are common. Springtime arrives rather late here, starting in June. Nature's sign is wild flowers covering the canyon rim, which bloom all during the short growing season: larkspur, silvery lupine, Indian paintbrush, blue columbine, penstemons, asters, wild rose, lavender fleabane, and cinquefoil, to mention only some, each genus creating a showy outdoor garden. Among larger plant life, the bristlecone pine can be found along the Spectra Point Trail. These life forms, which represent a species of pine tree that lives longer than any known plant or tree, are found throughout the higher country. Some local specimens are dated to as early as 1,600 years ago! Subalpine meadows dot the canyon around the popular Alpine Pond and are within an easy hike from the road along a clear trail. Aspen, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir trees and tall limber pine also grow here in abundance.
Trails: There's one main trail along the rim and another through woodland to a sheltered pond. Spectra Point/Ramparts Overlook is an easy 2-mile jaunt, starting from the visitor center, then heading along the cliff edge for a short distance. From there, the trail vectors to a high promontory that juts out into the southern part of the amphitheater. In contrast, the Alpine Ponds Trail has no major viewpoints of the rock formations. Instead, its pathway is suitably arboreal in that it weaves through trees, meadows, flowers and wildlife habitat en route to a tranquil pool fed by meting snow. Just beyond the north edge of the monument, a longer trail (Rattlesnake Creek) descends through forests of fir, spruce and aspen into the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness. This sector is more remote and centers on a steep, narrow limestone ravine. Wildflowers are abundant along the path, especially the upper part. The nature trail also offers occasional distant views of the Cedar Breaks cliffs, eventually descending into the red rock formations.
Directions: Traveling south on I-15, exit at Parowan, Utah, then take Hwy. 143 east. Traveling north on I-15, exit at Cedar City, Utah, then Hwy. 14 east for 18 miles, then Hwy. 148 north for 4 miles. Traveling north or south on Hwy. 89, either Hwy. 143 from Panguitch, Utah, or Hwy. 14 west to Hwy. 148 north; also, Cedar Breaks is 3 miles south of Brian Head Ski Resort.
Contact Information: Cedar Breaks National Monument, 2390 W. Hwy. 56, Suite 11, Cedar City UT 84720. Phone (Cedar City Administrative Office): 435-586.9451. Monument Visitor Center (open early June to mid-October. Phone: 435-586-0787. Fax 586-3813. Email: non-listed.
And so, DKos community, we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.
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