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Close to the edge and ready for one hellava hike to the bottom!

Prologue: Yesterday's diary on the Goosenecks of the San Juan ( explained how these magnificent entrenched meanders were formed. Today's diary will feature a trail description down to the river for those who want to see these marvels up close and personal life. And for those who are physically fit, and who love hiking no matter what the terrain or elements, there’s only one way down to the river from the overlook. Be advised this strenuous 5-mile roundtrip hike is not for the faint of heart. However, for those who do go the end of the trail the effort getting there is quite rewarding. go down there or not to go down...that is the question!

Once you have made the decision to hit the trail, to reach the trailhead follow the dirt road near the parking area, which is marked by a water tank and a nearby metal sign that says Honaker. From there, follow the sandy two-track road (1.4 miles) to the canyon rim. Allow some twenty minute for this jaunt. Then turn left (toward the rim). About a quarter mile farther along look for a faint track of a road off to the right. This route goes about another quarter of a mile down to a lower rim. The trailhead begins here and is marked by cairn. Then down you go. From this vantage decorative features of Monument Valley peek out across the river to the south. Cedar Mesa looms on the skyline to the north. All these Permian Period red rock layers have been stripped back by erosion across the Monument Uplift that typically defines the geologic blueprint of this wide, far region.

(Hiking instructions continues after the fold)

Yep, a beautiful sight from above as below, but getting down there is going to be what we trail hounds in the business call "a hoof!" (and then some).

The Honaker Trail: This rough hewn trail to the bottom was constructed in 1893 as a supply route down to the river for gold prospectors. However, the route proved too rugged even for pack animals. Besides, the gold rush was short-lived in this territory. Nevertheless, the trail has endured the test of time. Since then geologists have come here for various research projects. The trail is a mixture of steep switchbacks and longer ladders (the latter are generally not as steep compared to the shorter switchbacks). Descending through a gray limestone ledge means the age of the rock gets older by the step. Just below the rim is the number 147 painted in yellow on the cliff (left side of the trail). It’s one of many numbers painted on the rocks all the way down to the river. Decades ago geologists made these numbers in preparation for a major field symposium conducted along the trail in 1952. People tended to get away with such things back then, albeit that practice has stopped. The conspicuous numbers that have not altogether been worn off now remain part of the folklore of Colorado Plateau geology and are useful points of reference to hikers today.

Of course, the trail is well-marked, yet no serious hiker ever leaves home for the trail without having a topographical ("topo" for short) in one's pack:

It also wouldn't hurt to bring along a regional topo, just in case:

Note: Just so you know, the one sure advantage of any topo indicates how steep a terrain is. Thus the closer the lines, the steeper. I also trust a topo and a compass over a GPS device, simply because once you know how to read a topo and triangulate your position, no batteries needed; no electronics might fail you, and maybe there isn't a good, strong signal to even make the gadget work. Thus I'm old school: an orienteering type who long ago learned how to use and rely on a map and a compass. I also highly recommend this seeming old-fashioned means of navigating.
Note: This tough trail is for everyone who can hike it. It's also one of the more famous trails for studying geology, since that was the original intention by geologists who improved the route used by gold diggers and such. Ergo, it follows the geology along the way will likely be quite interesting to some hikers, in which case the following chart will be helpful in the way the various levels are explained:

The number 147 begins to make a series of longer and steeper switchbacks. These and all other Pennsylvanian-aged rocks are known for their cyclic sequences which leave alternating layers such as those seen here along the trail. The farther down the trail you travel there is a series of hard gray limestone ledges. These ledges alternate with softer slope-forming layers of red siltstone and sandstone. The cycles recorded in these formations relate to the advance and retreat of ancient sea levels, which geologists attribute to the waxing and waning of glaciers in the polar regions during this time. As the trail contours below layer 130, notice the red, irregular nodules of chert exposed along the base of the cliff. Chert, also called jasper, is a micro-crystalline variety of the mineral quartz. Its red color is caused by minute amounts of iron trapped within the quartz. By now, the fossils in the rocks are mostly brachiopods, shelled organisms that lived on the sea floor. Exposed in some of the fallen rock debris are branching trails and burrows of worm-like animals that also lived in the sea floor. These remnants are also called trace fossils because only traces were left behind, not the hard parts of the body like a true fossil.

The trail continues winding down through more limestone ledges. At about the 1-mile point is the top of the Paradox Formation, which is a Middle Pennsylvanian Period strata famous for its oil-Bering zones called cycles or stages. In the center of the Paradox Basin, the Paradox Formation represents a thick sequence of evaporate minerals (salt and gypsum) crystallized out of super-saline seawater trapped in the basin. Another series of switchbacks below this sector leads down to a prominent point of rock called The Horn. This is about the 1.5 mile point. Here it’s not possible to take a step without walking on fossil brachiopods (marine animals that have hard valves––shells––on the upper and lower surfaces). The shells practically little the surface here.

Continuing below The Horn, this part of the trail is the scary-iffy part for some hikers. That’s because the route immediately cuts steeply down through a crack in a thick ledge of dark gray limestone (layers 82 - 79). Achtung! as the German say (meaning pay attention). The boundary with the next cycle, called the Desert Creek, occurs at the top of the very next switchback and is marked 74. Here the trail switchbacks steeply through cliffs and ledges (of the Desert Creek Formation) to the top of the Akah cycle which lies below another darker horizon of chert at the base of layer 68.

Somewhere far below the rim country.

Note: The Paradox Formation in descending order accounts for these names: the Ismay, Desert Creek, Akah and Barker Creek.
From this point, the Akah cycle, the trail contours along a ledge following an ebony-colored chert bed. This is known as the Chimney Rock Shale, a black shale, which marks the boundary between the Desert Creek and Akah cycles. This organic-rich rock is also one of the source-rocks for oil in the Paradox Formation. If you were to break this rock open it smells somewhat like crude oil. Now you see why geologists revere this formation, at least those who work in the oil industry. After following the ledge at the top of the Akah cycle for about .5 mile, the trail finally switches back and cuts down steeply through ledges of Akah limestone. The trail contours again along another ledge (below 36) until it ultimately winds down steeply to river level. The lowermost ledges are in the Barker Creek cycle (17 and below), which defines the oldest cycle of the Paradox Formation.

Along the usually muddy river note a confusing network of trails worn by river rafters. This braided network leads back and forth along the riverbank. After soaking sore feet, hydrating and eating snacks (both salty and sweet), you’ll soon be ready to make the ascent to the top. Usually, there’s no shade on this trail which translates to sunbathing down by the river during the hotter months really isn’t a good idea. Let it also be said most hikers consider hiking down the hardest part. Hiking up, therefore, merely taxes the lungs, not the feet and leg muscles. A slow, steady pace also helps conserves energy and won’t wear you out. Take time to enjoy the hike and the scenery. Also, happy trails, meaning the cycles of rock awaiting your return.

Before you know it you more than earned the view from above:

Now thank your boots and massage your feet. . .

Afterward, take one last, long look at the gorgeous view below. . .

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.

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.


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Originally posted to richholtzin on Tue Apr 23, 2013 at 07:54 AM PDT.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots, National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, and Community Spotlight.

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