Category Archives: Colorado Plateau

The Empty Quarter

Portion of Flat Tops Wilderness

Well, its not a quarter of Colorado, but it’s big and pretty empty.  North and west of the Colorado River and south and west of the Yampa River, the only towns of any size are Rifle, Silt, Newcastle, and Glenwood Springs along the Colorado; and Meeker in the middle.  Craig and Hayden are on the  Yampa.  I don’t count Rangely on the White River west of  Meeker as a real town.  It is just a bunch of oil field junk with a few forlorn people. I recently traveled through the heart of the region.

I am a Western Slope native, so I have been over the relatively well traveled roads.  I-70 (previously highways 6&24) and SH 13 from Rifle to Craig.  As a kid, I went fishing on Rifle Creek with my parents.  The

White River

White River drains the White River Plateau and The Flattops.  Piceance Creek drains the Piceance Basin and enters the White between Meeker and Rangely.

Meeker is a pretty town in the valley of the White River.  It’s a farm and ranch town with a sad past.  The Meeker Massacre in 1879 was the end of the Utes huge reservation  lands in Western Colorado. They were shipped to Eastern Utah.  The reason was the systematic U.S. Policy of cooping the Indians up or killing them.  There are grisly details, but it was just another example of the U.S. Policy of mistreating Native Americans that continues to this day.

Maybe you have heard of Trappers Lake.  It is an enclave surrounded by the Flattops Wilderness, a huge area of timberland dotted with many small lakes.  The only access is on horseback or backpacking.  It’s wet country, catching the storms as they leave the lower country to the west.  Hunters, fishermen, and tree huggers are the only travelers.

I never backpacked there, but two friends humped there way in years ago.  They talked about the beauty,  but mostly about the rain.  One of them had one of those convoluted open foam pads with no cover.  When the water came into the tent, he was lying on a sponge in a soaked down sleeping bag.  They left early.

West of SH 13, along the Grand Hogback,

Grand Hogback Between the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains

you are on the Colorado Plateau.  Go east, and you are in the Rocky Mountains, but not the Rockies you are used to.  The hogback is a remnant of the uplift that formed the Rockies.  The equivalent on the east side are those red rock hogbacks called the Flatirons, Red Rocks, and the Garden of the Gods.

No big mountains here, just a region of high plateaus.  The reason? Volcanism in the form of lava flows.  The White River Plateau was uplifted along with the rest of the Rockies, but instead of being eroded into those jagged peaks we are used to seeing, the basalt from the lava flows formed a resistant, flat caprock.  It’s not rugged mountains, but it has a beauty all it’s own.

Flat Tops Trail

The is a scenic byway between Meeker and Yampa I took for the first time,  At first, it is in the White River valley, then climbs up on the plateau and heads on east to Yampa.  The view to the south is where the Flattops drop down to the river.  It’s not a gentle slope.  The basalt caprock is underlain by the soft White River Formation.  The steep slope is subject to landslides, leaving large open, green slopes surrounded by timber.  It’s great summer range country for sheep and cattle.  It is also some of the prettiest country in our state.  I think I met two pickups on the road east of Buford, where the road turns off to Trappers Lake.  It’s gravel much of the way, but good gravel.

West of SH 13, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, is the huge Piceance Basin.  It is a Structural basin next door to the Uinta Basin, mostly in Utah.  The basins are separated by the Douglas Arch, crossed by Douglas Pass, country where I spent a lot of time in my youth.  The arch is a western extension of the Laramide Orogeny, the mountain building period that formed the Rocky Mountains.  The edges of mountain ranges usually have foreland basins, areas of subsidence.   I am sitting over the Denver Basin.  The Piceance is the equivalent west of the mountains.  As the mountains rose, the fringes sank, creating huge synclines filled with the erosion products of the mountains.    The basins formed huge inland lakes which filled with sediment that became the Green River Formation, famous for its fossils and oil shale.

The Greater Piceance Basin

Because of all that rising and sinking, pockets form, trapping reservoirs of gas and oil.  The Piceance is one of the most productive natural gas fields in the country.  Rangely’s oil is also from the Piceance.  I drove the road running along Piceance Creek, which drains the basin to the west.  The area is all about natural gas, with some ranching along the creek.  There is a gas plant every few miles, and lots of truck traffic.  The basin used to be the home of a huge migratory deer herd, the deer summering in the Flattops and wintering in the basin.  The herd is still there, but all the drilling has greatly reduced the numbers.  Lots of elk there as well, their numbers increasing somewhat, probably due to less competition from deer.

The area is known as the Roan Plateau, which drops off to the Book Cliffs, an escarpment runnng from Palisade, CO to well past Greenriver UT.  It feels like home country to me, with memories of deer hunting in the Douglas pass area.  The scenery isn’t as dramatic as the red rock country to the south, but has its own beauty.  Plus, it isn’t as cluttered up with people.

Piceance, Uinta, Roan Plateau, Book Cliffs, all names for roughly the same country.  My list now includes going up into the basin proper, known mostly by Ute Indians, ranchers, oil field people, geologists, and aging wanderers.

The Green River Formation

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

The World Famous Green River Formation, for oil shale, not beauty

About fifty million years ago the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River did not exist.  The area was surrounded by the Wind River Mountains, the Uintah Mountains, the San Juans, the Uncompahgre Plateau, and the newly formed Rocky Mountains.  This huge area had no outlet to the sea.  The climate was similar to our current Gulf Coast, warm and moist.  During the six million years we are exploring, things changed.  Lakes formed and receded, land rose and subsided, and through all this the surrounding highlands were sending their sediment into the lakes.   

The Green River Formation is the result of all the sedimentation.  It is up to ten kilometers in depth, thinner at the margins.  At first the lakes were fresh water, but later became saline, leaving large deposits of carbonate rocks.  The trona deposits at Green River, Wyoming are some of the richest in the world.  The margins are sandstone and conglomerate interlaced with the fine silt that filled most of the basin.  The formation is rich in the fossils of the abundant life in the lakes.  They are world famous for their variety and abundance.   

There was an anoxic layer at the bottom that preserved the organisms settling there.  The lakes were abundant in blue-green algae.  The remains of the algae are the source of the oil shale deposits the region is known for.  The oil shale is there in millions of barrels, but it is expensive to extract the petroleum from the rock.  It may never be commercially viable, but the formation has been extensively studied as a result.  

Green River Formation Map

Green River Formation Map

Standing in my home town of Fruita looking north, the white cliffs behind the Book Cliffs are the Green River Formation.  The Roan Plateau is huge, but does not attract visitors like the red rock country to the south.  A huge exposure is the highlands west of I-70 from Rifle to DeBeque Canyon. 

My interest is from visiting ranchers and hunting in the Douglas Pass area in my youth.  Most of our visits were to ranches in the Green River Formation.  The elevations varied greatly.  The ranches were along West Salt Creek, but there were back country roads that went from sagebrush desert to piñon-juniper to oak brush shaly hillsides with sandstone rims to high country timber with world class mud.  In fact, the mud is world class everywhere in the region. 

Back before four wheel drive became common, there was a pile of rocks at the bottom of every big hill.  Load them in the back of your pickup, go where you planned, and unload them on the way home.  There is a network of canyons with side canyons branching off.  All of it is fine deer habitat.  My favorite places were at the head of a canyon with the wind in my face and a view of the LaSal Mountains and the Uncompahgre Plateau in the distance.  Flat, wooded country gives me the creeps. 

Access to a lot of the country is difficult.  Most of the land is BLM land, but the early ranchers homesteaded the choice land that had water.  The private land meant locked gates.  We knew some of the ranchers, family friends.  Hunting season was a big deal.  There were maybe a dozen or more people, hunting during the day and drinking and playing poker at night.  The big ranch house had a big kitchen with a wood burning stove along with the stove in the big main room.  There was a light plant in the shed next to the house.  It looked like no generator you see these days.  There were also lots of Coleman lanterns when the light plant failed.  Good times and lots of venison.  The unheated bunkhouse was upstairs. 

Douglas pass was up the main road, gravel in those days.  It isn’t that high by Colorado standards, but made up for it with the switchbacks up the head of the canyon to the summit up through that shale.  When the shale is wet, it moves.  The road trapped the runoff, wetting the soft shale, and most every spring one or more places slid.  The mountainside now is braided with old road cuts.  It wasn’t much of a main road in the 1950’s, but now there is so much oil and gas development that the road is a paved state highway that the highway department spends money on. 

The road crosses the desert above the Highline irrigation canal before it goes into the canyon.  It is on the Mancos shale, responsible for all that flat desert in Colorado and Utah that turns to grease when it is wet.  There was one hill the road went over then descended into the wash on the north side.  That meant the road was on a north facing slope for a distance.  That hill was named Coyote, because it could bite and gnaw on you if it was wet.  A bit farther north was a ten or twelve foot high rock on the side of the road, all by itself.  

The county employee maintaining the road in those days had his grader blade scrape on that rock every time he bladed the road.  It would leave a bump, so he would have to drag dirt over to level things out.  One day he got fed up and dug that rock up and moved it off the road.  It was probably a two day project, but he never had to fight that damn rock again. 

After I could drive, I ran around that desert quite a bit.  I learned how to drive a two wheel drive pickup in that greasy stuff from my father.  He was the telephone man in Fruita, responsible for maintaining the toll line as far as Cisco, Utah.  That meant navigating two ruts through the cheat grass and sagebrush.  He could put a two wheel drive pickup into places that were a challenge for a Jeep.  Rocks in the back, chains if needed, put it in second gear and putt along.  He seldom used the granny gear or used the gas pedal.  Those old Chevy sixes would just lug their way along.   

I am as guilty as any back country explorer for spending most of my time in the Rocky Mountains or the Utah red rock country, but the Mancos Shale and the Green River formation are calling me.  I just need to see if my tire chains are in good shape.  I think I will go over Douglas Pass, loop around and look the Piceance Basin over. From Rifle I will go down to Plateau Creek (my father and grandfather said platoo crick) and up to Collbran to look at the big slide.

The Colorado Plateau Part Two

 

Colorado Plateau Country

Colorado Plateau Country

There is a lot of beautiful country on the Colorado Plateau, but there is the other side.  The term many use is the stinking desert.  My home town has an annual rainfall of about eight inches.  Before the Utes were run out and ditches were dug, the Grand Valley was a sparse desert.  The irrigation projects made much of the valley green, but north of the Highline Canal is the desert.  It is a fairly barren desert, not like the Sonoran Desert with its green saguaro cactus.

Mancos Shale Soil

Mancos Shale Soil

The soil, if you can call it that, is fairly infertile, high in salts, and high in toxic selenium.  It’s called the Mancos Shale.  The Mancos Shale, called the Pierre Shale east of the Rockies, runs from South Dakota to central Utah.  It is an ancient sea floor, Cretaceous in age, of the inland sea covering much of North America.  Shale is mud rock, laid down as the sea advanced and retreated over millions of years.

The lower part of the Bookcliffs and the valley floors are Mancos Shale.  In its natural state it is a scrub grassland, supporting small populations of deer, antelope, prairie dogs, sage grouse, cottontails, and some Bison.  When the Northern European Americans arrived, they saw grazing land.  The sheep and cattle came.  The ranchers did well for a few years, but their expectations were unrealistic for such a dry area.  Soon, most of the good grass was gone, replaced by cheat grass and sagebrush.

The area between Delta and Grand Junction is a prime example.  My father, born in 1903, lived in Grand Junction after 1918.  He told me that at that time, there were extensive stands of tall bunch grasses.  They are gone.  That desert is one of the most barren stretches I am aware of.  It is hilly, so irrigation water went to flatter areas.  It is close to towns, so lots of ranchers grazed their stock on the land.

Much of the Mancos shale country is BLM land today.  In the old days, the Land Office and the Grazing Service leased land to ranchers.  There were allocations on the number of head allowed on each segment, but there was little enforcement.  The grass mostly disappeared.  Thus, the stinking desert.

I-70 from Palisade to the west of Green River, Utah is on the Mancos.  Highway Six from where I-70 veers south almost all the way to Price is on the Mancos.  Travelers on those highways have the bare Bookcliffs and the bare desert floor to look at for over 200 miles.  Their impression was what tended to keep the canyon country to the south relatively isolated.  Locals had all that magnificent country mostly to themselves.

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

The a uranium and oil and gas booms of the 1950s built a large network of roads and opened the canyon country up for tourism.  Those flat deserts remain empty, along with the mostly shale country of the Bookcliffs and the Tavaputs Plateau to the North.

When I went to Arches in the 1950s, we drove down two tracks winding through the sand.  This year during the height of the season, cars were lined up literally for miles.  Canyonlands National Park is also crowded, people lined up.  I remember going there and often seeing no one.

From Green River to Hanksville is mostly flat, dry desert, with 70 miles from the highway turnoff to the Maze District Ranger Station in Canyonlands.  The greater part of Navajo country in southern Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona is fairly flat desert.  Monument Valley is flat desert that happens to have some rocks sticking up.  Have you ever driven from Albuquerque to Flagstaff on I-40?  Flat desert.

Henry Mountains

Henry Mountains

The Colorado Plateau does have some other features.  Mountains, tall, green, and wet, supplying water to the desert.  Three ranges of mountains, the La Sals near Moab, the Abajos, known to locals as the Blues, and the Henry Mountains, near to nowhere.  The La Sals are the tallest, over 12,000 feet.  The Abajos and the Henrys stretch to 11,000 feet.  They stand in contrast to the red rock country surrounding them, and provide a welcome relief.  People go there in summer to cool off and enjoy the wildlife.

Geologically, the mountains are Laccoliths, formed by a neck of molten magma rising to a weaker junction between two layers of sandstone.  At that junction the magma moves laterally, forming a mushroom shaped dome of igneous rock in the domain of sandstone.  The overlying strata usually erode away, leaving the igneous core.  The Henrys are the type location for Laccoliths, being the subjects of the earliest study, and displaying the domed shape.

Salt Creek Canyon

Salt Creek Canyon

The three ranges are important to ranching, providing water, hay farming, and a summer range, with the stock wintering on the desert.  Salt Creek, draining north from the Blues, has a canyon with year-round water, arches, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art. The canyon also provides access to a park in the midst of the Needles District of Canyonlands.  I like that park because it was never grazed.  It provides a look at the land before cattle came, trampling or eating everything, mangling stream banks, and bringing alien species like cheat grass.  No I won’t tell you where it is.  Go look for yourself.

 

The Colorado Plateau Part One

Colorado Plateau Scenery

Colorado Plateau Scenery

I am a child of the Colorado Plateau.  I was born and grew up in Fruita, Colorado, and still think of Fruita as home, although I have lived along the Front Range of Colorado most of my life.  The Grand Valley of the Colorado River is near the Grand Hogback, the eastern extent of the plateau in that area.  The Grand Valley is green due to irrigation, but the annual precipitation averages around eight inches a La year, fairly typical of the Plateau.

I am sure that the center of the universe (well, my universe) is somewhere within 100 miles from the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.  It is fitting, therefore that the Plateau is somewhat unique geologically.  All those striking layers of varicolored rock formed into spectacular scenery by the work of the Colorado River and its tributaries are relatively undisturbed compared to the Plateau’s neighbors, the Rocky Mountains,  the Basin and Range, the Wasatch and Uintah mountains and the  Mogollan Rim in Arizona.   Pretty neat neighbors, eh?

Those places have been folded, faulted, stretched lifted, collapsed, and otherwise deformed.  The Plateau, on the other hand has remained relatively stable through much of geologic time.  It is this big slab, poked, lifted, twisted, drowned, buried, and eroded several times but still mostly intact.  There were just enough deformation and intrusion to make things interesting.

The reasons for this stability are still somewhat controversial, bit have to do with the Pacific Plate coming our way and north at about the rate your fingernails grow, and the North American Plate headed west at about the same speed.  At different times they have behaved in different ways that, coupled with the somewhat thicker crust under the Plateau, have resulted in this unique region.  I don’t have the space or understanding to explain all those processes, but we can see the result.

An interesting fact is that the entire plateau seems to be rotating clockwise as the Pacific Plate grinds along northward.  That movement is also what is pulling the Basin and Range province apart.  Don’t look for any big changes next week.  This process is really slow.  While all this plate movement is going on, our friends the Green and Colorado rivers just keep digging.  On rare occasions you can see the digging, when there are exceptionally big thunderstorms during the summer monsoon.  A lot of stuff goes into the rivers then.  Today, Lake Powell is catching it, and will become one huge mud flat until the dam eventually fails.

Looking at all these processes requires a different sense of time than how we live from day to day.  In geologic terms, sixty million years (60ma) is relatively brief.  We think of our world as stable (unless you live in the Bay Area) but in truth, everything is on the move, it is just a bit slow.

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome

The Colorado River will eventually bring the entire plateau down to sea level.  Look at Grand Canyon or any of the tributary canyons to see how it works.  My favorite is the San Juan.  Some fine canyons and not as cluttered up with people.  Another place to see the processes of change is Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National park.  A great big rock came along and smashed down, forming a huge crater and shaking everything up for a long way around.  You can see rocks turned to waves from that hit all the way to Dewey Bridge.

That big crater tried to form a lake, but it is dry there.  The water did make its way to the river, cutting as it went, and now the crater has an outlet.  The crater will get bigger as the cliffs erode back until it is just a depression, then, gone.

There is a plug of gypsum in the crater.  When all that rock was blown out by the impact, the pressure on the stuff under the crater was lowered.  Some of that stuff down there is salt, known as the Paradox Formation, which can flow.  The salt goes into the river, but gypsum isn’t quite as soluble and there it is.  The salt is from an ancient sea that alternated between filling and drying up as sea level rose and fell.  That left a lot of salt which was then buried under a lot of rock.

The Dolores River Leaving the Paradox Valley

The Dolores River Leaving the Paradox Valley

That salt moving around and being dissolved is responsible for much of the scenery in the Moab and surrounding areas.  As it dissolves, some of the overlying rock drops down, creating some fairly large valleys.  Paradox Valley, Sinbad Valley, Lisbon Valley (uranium, oil, and gas), Spanish Valley (Moab), Castle Valley, Fisher Valley, are all big grabens.  They are big blocks that dropped down as the salt leached away. Paradox Valley and Spanish Valley have rivers coming out of a canyon on one side, and going across the valley into a canyon on the other side.  Moab has the Colorado, Paradox has the Dolores.  That makes for some fine scenery.

Paradox Salt Disrupting Things

Paradox Salt Disrupting Things

The fins and arches in Arches and Canyonlands come from the same process on a smaller scale.  All that magnificent scenery is a result of that ancient sea floor full of salt being buried by a colorful succession of rocks that the rivers and the wind could work on.

An exception to the salt influencing the process resulting in fins and arches is Rattlesnake Canyon in Colorado near Fruita.  The river is solely responsible for the work.  The arches are just as cool, and not all full of people.

Next time, some of the other interesting things about the Colorado Plateau, one of the most interesting places on the planet.

Rattlesnake Canyon

Dramatic

Dramatic

Rattlesnake Canyon is near Fruita, Colorado, where I grew up.  My friends and I  ran all over the hills north and west of the Colorado National Monument, but I had never been to

Rattlesnake Canyon.  It is a bit too far for kids on foot.  We got into the canyons just east of the canyon, now part of the Black Ridge Wilderness, but I did not know about the arches in Rattlesnake Canyon.

Close to town, the canyon is a bit tough to get to.  The Pollock Canyon trailhead near the river means an overnight backpack to do justice to the country.  The other route follows Black Ridge west from the Glade Park Store, and is for 4×4 vehicles or Subarus you are willing to bash around.  From the trailhead it is about four miles on the trail if you take the shortcut.

I have rambled around the Colorado Plateau off and on all my life.  From the Grand Canyon to Dinosaur and from the Grand Hogback to the Wasatch, the plateau offers some

Rattlesnake Canyon

Rattlesnake Canyon

of the most magnificent country anywhere.  Rattlesnake Canyon is up there with the best.  Arches has more arches, and there are bigger canyons (not that many), but Rattlesnake has it all.  The real bonuses are that it is close and not cluttered up with people.  With the exception of Grand Canyon, most anywhere else offered some solitude at one ime.  No longer.  Thirty miles from Grand Junction, with a competent high clearance vehicle you can be in wilderness in view of Fruita.

Ah, the sense of space.  I live in the city and it is impossible to have a sense of space, even with Mt. Evans looking down at you.  From those canyon rims the expanse opens my mind.  Grand Mesa, the Bookcliffs, and the Roan Cliffs rim the Grand Valley, quite a scene by itself.

The canyon walls are Wingate sandstone capped by harder Kayenta sandstone.  That cap rock forms a bench with the Entrada sandstone (slickrock) set back from the rim.  Rim Rock Drive in the Monument is mostly on that bench, and the trail to Rattlesnake drops down on the bench and curves around the canyon rim to the arches.  The arches are in the slickrock, ancient sand dunes turned to stone.  It is easy to see the rounded dunes in the rock.  Erosion works its way into the cliffs following the curve of the dunes, forming alcoves.  As the alcoves erode farther, sometimes the back of the alcove drops out, leaving an arch.  I saw six of them. Arches in Colorado, the second largest concentration in the country, maybe the world.

About that trail.  I got away from Denver at 6:00 AM, not my best time of day.  I filled my water bottle and left it on the kitchen counter.  I didn’t realize it until I was at the trailhead at about 1:30 PM.  I am also out of shape, my exercise restricted by a couple of broken ribs for five weeks.  Have I mentioned that I am 72 years old and impulsive?  I looked at the sign, 3 1/2 miles.  It was only 90 degrees or so, a piece of cake.

First Arch. Where I climbed up the rock through the arch.

First Arch. Where I climbed up the rock through the arch.

I covered about half of the trail when I realized I was getting a bit dry.  “Keep going, I can drink later”.  The arches were a progression along the bench and close to the trail.  With that row of arches on one side and that magnificent canyon with 400 foot sheer walls branching into side canyons on the other side, I was literally staggered by the beauty.   Well maybe the stagger was because I was tired and thirsty.  I caught up to a party of six people at the last arch, known as First Arch.  At First Arch was the sign saying End of Trail.  I didn’t know that, and by that time I was stopping to rest fairly often, so while resting I watched the party climb up the slickrock through the arch.  I knew the trailhead was only about 1/2 mile from the arch.  So, it was climb up the rock through that impressive arch or backtrack 3 1/2 miles.  I climbed.

I have done a lot of sandstone climbing, and used to be pretty good at it.  That was when I wasn’t 72, tired, getting sore, and thirsty.  I climbed anyway.  I would do about 20 feet, catch my breath, figure out my next moves, and climb again.  The proper way to climb that stuff is on your feet even if it is steep.  Feet have more traction than denim, and the work is easier than trying to slither up.  I slithered.  I was too weak to trust myself trying to walk up those steep slopes.

The rock has curves, little depressions, some tiny ridges, notches, and hollows to give one a way up.  I tried to pick the easiest route, but it was still pretty steep.  My knees paid the price, getting some good scrapes.  Up on the rim, that last half mile was tough.  It was uphill, but not too bad.  I stopped twice and flopped down in the shade for a few minutes while walking slowly back to the truck.

There was about 1/4 of a cup of coffee in the truck that sure tasted good.  I was lightheaded and pretty wobbly during the drive out.  I stopped at the Visitor Center in the Park and drank water for a while.  I got a motel room in Fruita about 6:00 PM, didn’t eat dinner, and drank water until lights out about 9:30.

Sunday morning I had breakfast, drank water, and took the scenic route back to Denver.  I drank water and went up Plateau Creek to Collbran, went over Grand Mesa to Paonia where I had lunch and drank water, then over McClure Pass to Glenwood and home on I-70.  I was fully rehydrated by Monday.

I didn't see a rattlesnake in Rattlesnake Canyon

I didn’t see a rattlesnake in Rattlesnake Canyon

After a few minor incidents in the backcountry over the years, I have developed several rules to follow when Out There.  Take water.  Take enough water for the other persons you come across who didn’t bring enough water.  Be in shape.  Research where you are going so you know what to expect.  Have a map. Carry the ten essentials in case you get into trouble.  Tell people where you are going.  You really should not go alone.  I broke every rule.

What the fuck is wrong with me?  I know.  I am an impulsive ADD.  When I got to the trailhead and saw I had no water I should have driven out.  But, I wouldn’t have this story to tell.  What I did do right was pace myself, not panic, and take my time getting out.  It is just that my brain didn’t kick in until three hours too late.

 

The Bookcliffs and the River

 

Bookcliffs

Bookcliffs

The Book Cliffs are the neglected stepchildren of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. That is somewhat ironic, because they stretch from Palisade and Mt. Garfield about 200 miles to Price, Utah. Rising about 1000 feet from the valley floor, they are the longest escarpment in the world. Above the Book Cliffs is a bench With the Roan Cliffs forming another escarpment  Behind the cliffs is the Roan Plateau, rising to about 8000 feet in elevation. With the wide change in elevation and precipitation from eight inches annually to around thirty, there is wide diversity in plant and animal life. There are energy resources as well. Natural gas, tar sands, oil, coal, and that huge deposit of oil shale.   The region is known as the Tavaputs Plateau.

The plateau is home to the Desolation Canyon Wilderness and due to the wide range in elevation and precipitation, a diverse range of plant and animal life. There are three reasons why the area is not very popular with visitors.

First, look south. Colorado National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. There are the three mountain ranges and all that wondrous red rock carved into some of the best scenery on earth.

Next, accessibility. Douglas Pass is the only paved road in the vast area. The many dirt roads are accessible only as long as they are dry. Traditionally, the only people there were stockmen and the Utes on their reservation. In recent times there has been much energy-related activity that comes and goes.

The third reason? Shale. It is not only shale, there are layers of sandstone, even limestone. It’s all gray or shades of tan. Driving on the drab Mancos shale landscape of I-70, looking north you see drab cliffs. More of the same gray rock, just standing up. Roads built on that shale changes into some of the most slippery substances known after a rain or snow.. People are just not inspired to go there.

Growing up in Fruita, Colorado, I spent quite a bit of time in areas on either side of the Douglas Pass road, which was gravel and dust at the time. We had rancher friends, and deer season was a big social scene. It is wild, mostly empty country, home to lots of cattle, some sheep, a few ranchers, and a lot of wildlife. It is also famous for some of the most treacherous mud in the world. There are some sandstone lenses (we called them rims), but it is mostly shale, a former lake bottom that now sits thousands of feet above the Grand Valley, where the people live.

Colorado National Monument.  Bookcliffs on the horizon

Colorado National Monument. Bookcliffs on the horizon

I used to look at the Colorado National Monument with its red rocks to the south. To the north were the relatively drab Bookcliffs with the whitish Roan Plateau above them. Why the difference? The Monument is famous, with lots of information about the Uncompaghre Uplift lifting the Uncompahgre Plateau thousands of feet compared to the Grand Valley. As the plateau, erosion took the more recent rocks off, leaving the more resistant sandstone.

I thought some sort of uplift must have formed the Bookcliffs. Well, partly. When the entire Colorado Plateau was uplifted at the same time as the Rockies, The Colorado River just dug away, carrying the eroded rock to the sea. It is still digging, and is eroding those Bookcliffs to the north. Under the Bookcliffs are the rocks of the Monument. Someday the land will be fairly flat between Grand Junction and Craig. We won’t be around, however. These things take time.

So, the Colorado Plateau was uplifted and after that the Uncompahgre Plateau went up some more and wore down. The rocks exposed at the Monument are, a few miles north, well below the rocks of the Bookcliffs who are headed north as the river gnaws away. The Colorado River rules, it is just a bit slow.