Four Corners, Part III

Red Rock Canyon * Zion * Bryce Canyon * Capitol Reef * Arches * Mesa Verde * Monument Valley * Grand Canyon

Two parks in one!  Yes, in Utah there are national parks so thick on the ground that you can leave one and be in another in a matter of hours!  They're practically teeming!

I opened our day at Bryce Canyon by taking advantage of our rural lodgings and going out before sunrise to do some birding.  I was not put off by the foot of snow on the ground or the nineteen-degree temperatures, because I had done my homework and was loaded with winter gear: hiking boots, thick wooly socks, sweater, winter coat, gloves, Turtle Fur toque, the works.  The homework I perhaps should have done was the homework that mentioned the distinct lack of bird life on the high ridges of southern Utah in winter. 

In fact, it wasn't just birds that were missing: the whole area seemed utterly silent.  There wasn't a breath of wind to shake the ponderosa pine needles, and even the occasional car passing by in the distance seemed to keep its engine noise close to its chest.  Perhaps the blanket of snow added to the lack of sound, or perhaps the thin air (we slept at about 7000 feet above sea level) didn't carry vibrations so well, but I soon got the impression that atop the Rockies, nature doesn't settle down for a long winter's nap--it's more like a coma. 

I was able to spot a few ravens, sure, but I had already realized that they were the region's default animal, easily visible and present everywhere.  I heard two birds that were NOT ravens, but never got even a glimpse of one.  When the sun finally rose, I marched back to Ruby's Inn along one of the many cross-country ski trails, getting at least a good walk and a beautiful winter morning for my trouble.  I can also report that the breakfast shift at Ruby's restaurant was the complete opposite of the previous evening's crew: crisp, professional, and efficient.  Alas, the coffee was, well, diner coffee.  Its primary similarity to real coffee is that both are brown and warm.  If you put enough cream and sugar in, they taste kind of alike.

But finally we loaded our gear into the Silverado and headed south into Bryce Canyon itself, stopping by the visitor's center to get a little information on birding (Sunrise Point was recommended) and post-park navigation (Route 12 was recommended).  The park itself has only one road (though several loops branch off the main course) and it runs along the ridgeline.  Periodically there will be a place to pull off in order to march out and get a view of the canyon floor, and once you do, you stand amazed.

From the ridge, you look down into a bowl, but the bottom of the bowl is not smooth like a crater.  Instead, it is peppered with spires, minarets, bulbs, fists, mushrooms, and stalks of sandstone, glowing rose and brick and salmon and terracotta--scores of them, perhaps hundreds.  Streaks and patches of snow draw the color out of the stone even more vividly, as does the occasional spatter of deep-green pine and juniper.  The shapes (known as "hoodoos") are both strange and spectacular, but they're so numerous as to drive the eye into retreat.  After a few moments you stop knowing where to look.  If there were only one or two of them, they'd be famous enough to draw viewers from quite a distance, but here they grow in such profusion that each seems to have no individuality.  It's as if nature had thrown seven hundred Bengal tigers into a single valley.  If you came through the woods and saw only one, you'd be completely fixated on it--fascinated, horrified perhaps, maybe even hypnotized.  But if there were seven hundred, after a while you'd simply be left staring at the interplaying patterns of black and orange stripes and the deliberate blinking of great golden eyes.

Dad and I spent our first such period of staring at Sunrise Point, where we finally tore our eyes away from the hoodoos in a futile attempt to identify a middle-sized grey bird flapping about in the low scrub on the canyon walls.  (Leading candidates: Clark's Nutcracker and Townsend's Solitaire.)  We were in no such doubt about the bird that landed in a small patch of snow roughly five feet from my hiking boot, however:  a Dark-eyed Junco, a bird with which I am extremely familiar.  My hometown version, the "Slate-Colored" Junco, is a darkish grey with a creamy white belly.  I'd also seen the chestnut-backed "Oregon" Junco in California.  This one, however, displayed both a chestnut back and a pale grey head; it was the "Gray-headed" Junco, a specialty of the southern Rockies.  Aside from this, the mystery bird in the scrub, one wayward Robin, and a White-breasted Nuthatch in a nearby stunted pine, Sunrise Point was largely bird-free, but the hoodoos more than made up for it.

Sunrise Point did not, however, prepare me for the splendors of Bryce Point, which juts out into the canyon to reveal wind-carved windows and grottoes to the west, sunlit patterns of snow and stone to the north, and row after row of hoodoos to the east, stretching out to the layer-cake horizon where the Escalante lay.  It was stunning enough that I barely noticed the Peregrine Falcon winging across my field of vision.  Honestly, it's one of the most beautiful spots I've ever set foot in. 

We drove on to Rainbow Point, at the very end of the canyon road at an elevation of 9115 feet, which made it the highest point on which I'd ever stood.  It would remain so for several hours.

Taking the ranger's advice, Dad turned right out of Bryce and onto Route 12, which we discovered to be one of the great scenic roads in America.  As I said later, it was just 110 miles of one damned thing after another...

...curves between snow and sandstone down from the ridge where Ruby's and the Bryce NP road lie...

...small towns, with cars in the yards, and the high school's initials painted on the hillsides, BV for Bryce Valley, E for Escalante, and so on...

...yellow cliffs on one side, grassy fields on the other...

...a river valley running below the road, with marshland and trees below...

...the huge open vista east of the town of Escalante, showing nearly 180 degrees of Utah stretching out to the mountains, with a sign indicating what each feature of the landscape was...

...great slabs of red and yellow stone, canted and lined like a real-life Road Runner cartoon...

...the Hogsback Road, running up ledges, then atop ridges, with thousands of feet to fall on either side...

...a forest of low ponderosa pines running up into the mountains...

...fields full of snow lying on either side of the road--four or five feet of it, banked and solid...

...up into the white trunks of aspen, punctuated by an occasional fir... Norway at 9200 feet...

...above the desert, and then down into it again at Torrey...

From Torry we took Route 24 east through Capitol Reef National Park, which is something of a red-headed step-youngun among the Utah Parks, but its red sandstone cliffs (and the piles of eroded red stone piled below them) are just lovely.  As you travel along the Fremont River, there are places where the wind and water have whittled holes and struts in the rock that are almost like the lacy structures inside bones.  Beyond the park, near Cainville, all color seemed to be leached from the land, leaving only cliffs like piles of lunar sand for nearly twenty miles.  Ash grey, dull yellow and sickly pink shades touched the moonscape here and there, but the colors seemed as low-density as the population.  Eventually we came to Hanksville, where a parking lot full of houseboats lay on the south side of the road and a service station carved into a hillside lay on the north.  I'm not sure whether the Hollow Mountain Store was more or less improbably than the impromptu desert boatyard, but since Lake Powell was a good 50 miles away, I'm inclined to go with the boats.

Armed with a fresh Diet Coke for the rest of the drive, I pulled the truck onto 24 North (passing a surprised-looking Ring-Necked Pheasant at the side of the road) and pulled onto the most linear road I've ever driven: two lanes, almost no traffic, a cow every ten acres or so, a featureless ridge to the right, and the top of the San Rafael Reef maybe ten miles to the left.  For 44 miles, there's no human habitation or sign of human activity other than the road itself and the fences on either side of it.  Where the rest of the drive had been startling and oddly beautiful even when it was stark, this was just... empty.  A very big empty.

I was feeling a bit empty myself by the time we reached Green River, and I was more than ready to indulge myself in a southwestern specialty, but we chose not to search out a Mexican place, settling instead for the Tamarisk Restaurant, right next to our hotel at the edge of the town's eponymous river. Our waitress was on top of the whole serve-the-customer situation, happily, but because we were still in Utah, Dad was denied his glass of chardonnay; only bars can serve alcohol, though if there's a bar attached to the restaurant, even the folks in Utah see how it makes sense for the bartender to be allowed to bring a glass of booze to someone at a table in the restaurant.  It's a polite fiction, but it depends on the willingness of a restaurant owner to set up a bar, and the Tamarisk's had not seen fit to do so.

It had also not seen fit to do much in the way of seasoning, as I discovered when I got my chicken burrito.  It wasn't bad, and it was entirely well-meaning, but I'd have to characterize it as merely bland, white, and full of cheese.  A Mormon burrito, perhaps.

But if the food left me a bit dissatisfied, I could say nothing of the sort about the day's birds... and what birds!  A Scrub Jay darted across the road near Escalante, a spot of blue against the brick-red rocks.  In the high snows along Lookout Peak we saw a Golden Eagle being chased through the aspens by a raven, while a magpie flickered black and white amongst the firs.  A Steller's Jay whipped in front of us coming down the slope into the desert, and the gorgeous turquoise-blue of a male Mountain Bluebird set off the deep green of the junipers outside Torrey.  Kestrels, Western Bluebirds and the occasional Western Meadowlark appeared on the wires along the road.  It was as though we'd finally come down into the part of Utah where all the birds went for the winter.

Near Henrieville, we stopped to look at a large hawk atop a tree.  When it eventually launched into the sky, I had a brief hope that it might be a Swainson's Hawk, but when it finally came overhead, I saw the black wrist marks on the pale wings and changed my I.D. to Rough-winged Hawk.  Not a lifer, but a great bird to see again, and the flock of Wild Turkeys near the trees were a wonderful bonus.

On the far side of Henrieville, however, the birding was just plain spectacular.  A huge dark bird soared across the road ahead of us, and I demanded that Dad pull over--I knew already that it was too big to be a raven, and that there are no vultures in that part of the world.  The only all-dark bird of that size would be one I'd seen only at a great distance: the Golden Eagle.  But I was wrong.  It wasn't a Golden.  It was TWO Goldens, chasing one another in the fresh breeze blowing about the grassy yellow cliffs to our left.  I was transfixed, watching them come closer and closer to the rocks above us, never flapping, just working the winds.

But then suddenly there was a third bird over our heads.  It was smaller than the Goldens, and I could see the sunlight gleaming off its brown back, but I couldn't really see its wings.

With a thrill, I realized why: because I could hear them.

It was my first Prairie Falcon, and its wings were tucked in close to its body for maximum speed as it threw itself into a dive.  Coming practically straight at us from several hundred feet up, it was extending its wings only enough to keep it from falling out of the sky.  In the high, empty country, though, the sound of the air ripping through its feathers was clearly audible.  It was stooping at the Goldens, trying to drive them away from what was probably its nesting area, and successfully.  Within moments all three birds were heading south over the fields, and Dad and I were finally able to exhale.  For for sheer speed and wildness and daring and beauty I do not expect I will ever see anything to top it.  I have seen life birds appear in better display and for a longer time than I saw this Prairie Falcon, but never have I seen a bird that called up Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Wind-Hover" any better:  "The achieve of; the mastery of the thing!"

IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: Birding in the dark!  Wiley coyotes!  Rock climbing!  The Devil's Garden!  And Carolina vs. Duke from two time zones away!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 31, 2008 5:26 PM.

Four Corners, Part II was the previous entry in this blog.

Four Corners, Part IV is the next entry in this blog.

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