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Canyons and Cliffs

We took our first camping trip of the year so we could explore just a few of the unbelievably impressive canyons and cliffs of the immense Colorado Plateau of Utah. This enormous geologic wonder covers a wide swath of Utah, as well as much of far western Colorado and portions of Arizona and New Mexico. Since this was our first exploration of the area, we

Photo of a large cottonwood tree and sandstone formation, Utah, USA
An old cottonwood tree stands near one of the sandstone formations of the Colorado Plateau

limited the places we visited, traveling the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (Utah Highway 128, which is also part of the Dinosaur Diamond, a national scenic byway) between Cisco and Moab, as well as visiting Dead Horse Point State Park, and a small portion of Canyonlands National Park. We mistimed this adventure somewhat; we camped at Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, Colorado, because we knew that location, but it was a bit far away, and we needed at least one, and preferably two, more days to explore.

Photo of a view of the narrow canyon on Utah Hwy 128 with the road, a tree, a bike trail, the river, and rock formations
View of the narrow canyon on Utah Highway 128
Photo of a fantastic sandstone formation with a large hollow high on the cliff
Fantastic sandstone formation

Photo of the La Sal Mountains and Colorado River from Utah Highway 128
La Sal Mountains and Colorado River

Only about 45 miles long, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway is ridiculously beautiful. It's narrow, winding, and in places has very limited pullouts or side roads from which to take pictures. There are side canyons and valleys, along with hiking and biking trails, and rafting haul-outs all along the byway. To the south and east, the beautiful peaks of the La Sal Mountains can frequently be glimpsed; several peaks rise more than 12,000 feet in elevation. This photo shows that the Colorado River was running really high and muddy, nearly flooding the vegetation on the banks, and provides a peek at Fisher Towers (that will have to be a future visit) and the La Sal Mountains.

Photo of Utah Highway 128 along the Colorado River
Cliffs and curves along the river

This scenic road terminates at Moab at the junction with US Highway 191. We went north to Utah 313 (U-313), the Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway, which leads to Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park. Along the way, there are plenty of sights to see and side roads to explore if there's time. For example, two tall buttes face each other in a permanent standoff, aptly named Merrimac and Monitor for the first ironclad ships that faced off against each other

Photo of Merrimac Butte with a broken juniper in the foreground, Utah, USA
Merrimac Butte
Photo of Monitor Butte in Utah, USA
Monitor Butte

during the Civil War. They stand about 600 feet above their bases of lighter-toned Navaho sandstone. This relatively short scenic drive to the parks is loaded with trails leading to arches, more canyons, historic sites, petroglyphs, and dinosaur tracks.

On the afternoon of our first day, we reached Dead Horse Point State Park. The story behind the name is especially sad. The mesa top is a rich pastureland still used today for open-range cattle grazing and several times we passed cows and calves next to the road, but there is very little permanent water. The point is reached by a narrow neck (less than 100 feet across) above the canyons, and it provided an easy way to corral wild horses for capture. The old fence of dead pinyon and juniper is preserved to show how narrow The Neck is, and how

Photo of preserved wild horse capture fence, facing toward the La Sal Mountains in Utah
Preserved fence, facing easterly
Photo of a preserved wild horse capture fence, looking toward Canyonlands NP, Utah
Preserved fence, facing westerly

easy it was to use the point as a temporary corral. Today's road passes through where the 'gate' would have been located. The legend is that about 125 years ago a herd of horses was corralled and left on the point, perhaps inadvertently. However, they could not reach water, although they could see and smell the river 2000 feet below, and died there. I can just imagine at least one tough cowboy shedding tears upon finding them.

Photo of the Gooseneck on the Colorado River from Dead Horse Point, Utah USA
The Gooseneck on the Colorado River from Dead Horse Point, Utah

The view from Dead Horse Point is impressive in just about any direction. When looking down toward the Gooseneck, you're also looking across a section of Canyonlands National Park, and when turning to the sides, easterly toward the La Sal Mountains and Moab, and if you know where to look, you can find Marlboro Point (where at least one early Marlboro cigarettes ad was filmed) and Thelma & Louise Point (where the famous scene of the car

Photo of a lone juniper tree against a dramatic sky
Lone juniper against a dramatic sky
Photo of view from Dead Horse Point toward the Green River
View toward the Green River

going off the cliff was filmed). The road on the lower rim is Potash Road, and leads to the potash mine nearby (the pale turquoise patch between a juniper on the rim and the distant

Photo of a view from Dead Horse Point, Utah, USA
Another view from Dead Horse Point

mountains in the photo of the easterly facing historic fence, above). This mine accesses potassium salts deep under the surface with an injection/extraction process using Colorado River water injected to the level where the mineral is found and extracted to these evaporation ponds. The leach ponds turn multiple colors as the potash brine evaporates. Yet another side trip for us to make at a future time.

It turns out I have too many photos of Canyonlands National Park to include in this post, so that will be my next one. The trip gave me more to research about the geology, history, plants, and wildlife of the region; that will

Photo of an arch over the road along Highway 128 in Utah
Arch along the scenic byway near Moab

keep me occupied for several hours (days!) as well. So I'll end this one with a few random images that were captured at various points along the way, like this natural arch that makes me think of a pair of kissing or nuzzling Gila monsters. We didn't get to see much wildlife -- pronghorn, a few bighorn sheep in Colorado, a lizard, and crows and hawks were about it. The highlight of the wildlife seen was the pair of very young pronghorn fawns and their mothers; sadly, I didn't get any decent photos. An interesting thing we noticed was that the fawns were nearly gray overall, which really made them difficult to

Photo of a pronghorn doe with the Little Book Cliffs in the distance, Utah, USA
Lone pronghorn doe with the Little Book Cliffs in the distance

see when they were near a sagebrush. And the adults were pretty scruffy since they were still shedding their winter coats.

This taste of Utah gave us a lot to plan for another trip to the area - the La Sal Mountains, a more detailed exploration of the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway, Arches National Park (which we totally bypassed because of their reservation system for entry), a petroglyph site we missed, and hopefully, fall colors and more wildlife. Please let me know you've enjoyed this glimpse into our recent experience in Utah by posting a comment below.

As always, my goal is to share photos that are documentary, as these are, but also to make art-worthy images that you'll be proud to have in your home, office or commercial space. Please review my website,, for examples of my work. I'm proud to have recently had several of my nature and wildlife photos published in "Lens Magazine." Click on the first image ("Bathed and Spiffed Up," the elk) on my Home Page to see the full article. In addition, my sandhill crane photo, "Departure," will be on display in the Animal Life International Exhibition at the Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis, MN during June.

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