Category Archives: Uncompahgre Uplift

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 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.

Small Towns

Paonia

Paonia

I am a city boy now.  After leaving Fruita to go to college in Boulder, I have mostly lived in cities.  I like the culture, the business, and the amenities that come with the city.  Here I am in the coffee shop right nest to the Denver University campus, with the energy those young people bring.  It helps my writing.

I grew up in a small town, and they still exert a pull on me.  I spent a couple of summers in Keystone, South Dakota peddling turquoise jewelry to the tourists.  I got to know some of the locals during that brief time and enjoyed the Black Hills culture.  I get back to Fruita some, my 55th reunion is coming up, and like rekindling old friendships.

Last weekend I made a quick trip to Grand Junction and Fruita on family business.  There are a lot of memories there, and I enjoyed the feel of a much larger town than it was all those years ago.  Bad news: the pool halls are gone.  Good news:  you don’t have to settle for chicken fried steak in the restaurant.

 

After my adventure in Rattlesnake Canyon the day before, I decided to take a scenic route back to Denver.  My first stop was Collbran, a town on Plateau Creek I have always liked.  I was looking for the landslide that killed three men last spring, but went up the wrong creek (story of my life).  At the gas station, a local rancher and his son had their rubber boots, so we talked about irrigating for a while.

I went over Grand Mesa and drove through Cedaredge, another favorite small town.  I like Cedaredge for the view of the Uncompahgre Valley, the Uncompahgre Plateau,and the San Juans.  No view last Sunday, the smoke from all the fires in the northwest obscuring everything.  Cedaredge and Eckert right down the road are nice towns, but the highway runs right through town, as it does in Collbran.  The roads are noisy, busy, and sort of split the town.

I had lunch in Paonia, just about my all-time favorite town but for the fact that they usually killed us in football.  My senior year we lost so badly that I even got to play.  Paonia is off the highway and is the home of High Country News, a great magazine about the west.  The West Elk Mountains are just out of town, but the area’s economy is mostly farming and ranching.  They grow peaches, cherries, apples, and lately, wine grapes.  They have a nice mild climate right at the foot of the mountains.

I had a good hamburger in one of the restaurants and drove around a bit (that takes about fifteen minutes).  I was struck by the life in the town.  OnSunday morning families were out walking and kids from age six on up were riding their bikes all over town.  The last town I remember seeing that was Winslow, Arizona.

So, my main criteria for a good small town are no McDonalds, no Walmart, a farming economy, and school age kids on bicycles.  I don’t think I will ever leave the city, but if I do, it will be to a town like Paonia.

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.