As our group sits beneath the glow of the evening sky, the smell of a warm peanut butter, soy sauce, brown sugar, veggie, and rice noodle feast wafts around us. It is our first night back in the wilderness after a quick resupply in Hanksville, and I am happy to be immersed in the backcountry of the canyons once again. This section will allow us to take a deeper look into some of the different rock formations we journey through during our time on the Colorado Plateau.
“What is something you all feel a strong connection to,” asks Bri. Savoring our first few bites of dinner, we contemplate the question. Tonight marks our 16th dinner together, and each night the cooks of the day have come up with a new topic for the group to discuss while we eat.
“I have always felt a deep passion for music,” says Keagan. “Good things always seem to come my way when I’m out of my comfort zone,” states Madison. “I feel most at peace when I’m outdoors,” adds Sierra. Around the circle we go, revealing the things our minds are drawn to and gaining insight on each other’s lives.
Beginning our journey down Horseshoe Canyon, and now continuing it through a section of the Dirty Devil River Canyon, through dinner chats (serious and light hearted) and by experiencing this landscape together, we are slowly exposing our inner selves. As we discover more about one another, we are also building our knowledge and observations of the ancient rocks that surround and intrigue us.
The WRFI trailer shudders around us from the force of a 50 mph sandy wind storm. Unlike anything we have experienced before, there is nothing to do but huddle together and take in the power of the Colorado Plateau. On our breezy descent into the Dirty Devil River Canyon, we begin a more in depth identification of the different formations of sandstone we see. Dave points out the top layer we will be studying. This dark, reddish-brown cap rock (being harder than the rock below it) is known as the Carmel Formation, and is the youngest of the rocks I will be discussing. It was created around 160 million years ago during a time of shallow seas transitioning from marine to continental landscape. Similarly to the way in which the Carmel layer holds and protects the layers beneath it from the elements, sitting upon this first layer’s crust brought us closer as we protected and comforted each other from the elements of a desert wind storm.
The Carmel Formation is much thinner than the rest of the layers and we quickly spot and discuss our next type of sandstone. Making our way down the remaining sloping cliffs to the river below, we trek across gritty slickrock and over ledges of vegetation.
Upon reaching the base of the canyon, we wade into the cool, cloudy river beneath smooth, tan cliffs of Navajo Sandstone. Distinct groupings of lines travel along the walls with us. These markings, known as cross bedding, tell us this rock was formed by the compression of ancient sand dunes. The particles of sand that formed this layer are said to have blown all the way from the ancient Appalachian Mountains and were likely part of the largest dune field in the history of the planet. Erosion of this layer creates many amphitheaters and alcoves with beautiful acoustics, which gave me the confidence to push past some of my self-consciousness and sing from my soul for the group.
Slowly making our way down the river, feet occasionally getting stuck in the gooey sediment, we start to notice a new geologic formation emerging beneath the Navajo. Darker reddish-brown tones sparkle amongst chunky, box-like walls with layered, ledgy swoops and curves. The Kayenta Sandstone that unfolds around us originates from the deposition of perennial rivers flowing from the ancient Rocky Mountains. Its erosion in uneven patterns creates many small shelves for vegetation. I enjoy this layer because with some imagination you can pick out figures and faces in the sides of the old, textured rock.
After a long day of hiking, we set up camp and spend another night sleeping amongst the stars. The morning sun of another cloudless day leads us further down river, exposing us to the vast cliffs and alcoves of the Wingate Sandstone. Similar to Navajo, this layer was also formed by ancient sand dunes, except these geologic masterpieces hold compacted sand from past North-West American regions. Tall, sheer, reddish-tan walls showcase a key feature to this layer- sporadically placed and grouped swiss cheese-like holes known as “tafoni.” Wingate’s tafoni are caused by the high porosity of its interior particles, allowing water to seep through and erode small to large, varying shaped caverns on its face. These holes remind me of miniature, mystical elven cities carved into the side of a hill and make this my favorite layer of sandstone we’ve seen thus far.
Desert varnish is also very visible on Wingate Sandstone. Its black/grey streaks down the cliff wall result from the minerals manganese and iron oxide mixing with water, and can be seen throughout nearly all the layers of rock I discuss.
Nearing the end of our 7th day on the Dirty Devil River, Chinle Sandstone begins to reveal itself. This geologic layer varies widely in texture, shape, and color. It holds reddish brown boxlike layers with edgy grooves (similar to Kayenta) to purple, green, grey, yellow, blue crumbly walls mixed with conglomerate rocks. Its wide range of formations and differential erosion is attributed to its varying depositional environments, including marshes, rivers, and seas. We found an abundance of petrified wood while walking through this layer, and its uranium stores have been of great mining interest throughout the years.
As we continue the rest of our way down the canyon, we encounter additional formations of Moenkopi and White Rim Sandstone. These are the oldest rock we have seen, formed around 250 million years ago. I run my hands along their surfaces and can feel the immense natural history and wisdom they hold.
Similar to the particles that form the ancient rocks around us, each of us on this journey come from a variety of landscapes and histories. The more time we spend together in these canyons, the greater understanding we have of each other and the environment around us. By immersing myself in the many layers of geology here and the people experiencing them with me, I begin to discover the different layers that form myself as well.