The Grand Staircase and Cedar Breaks National Monument

During the past three days, Mrs Bear and I have traveled to three amazing parks. When setting up this trip, I had a general knowledge of names and locations, but nothing else. Having arrived, seen, and studied, we found that these parks are actually related…They are components of the Grand Staircase.

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The Grand Staircase is actually made up of layers of sedimentary rock, between two and six million years old. At one time, this whole area was under oceanic water, which helped to cover the sea bottom with various layers of rock and mud.  As the ocean receded, land shifts, some volcanic activity, and erosion, took an area known as the Colorado Plateau and rearranged it into cliffs, slopes, and terraces, that stretch from Southern Utah to the Grand Canyon. The areas to the north: Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon, are the highest because the rock is the youngest, and therefore has had the least erosion. Flatter areas in between the parks have had the most erosion…Everything there has been eroded down to meadows and flatlands, before giving way to the next area of newer upheaval and continuing erosion. So Bryce Canyon is at a higher elevation than Zion to the south, which sits at a higher elevation than the Grand Canyon. You see, with the terraces in between, it’s like a Staircase !!!

So I have decided to write about these features from north to south, from youngest to oldest…And we’ll start with Cedar Breaks National Monument. Cedar Breaks is named after the Cedar trees found at the rim, and the “breaking,” or erosion process that has defined this geological wonder over the past 100 million years. Before writing more about the park, let me say a little about the drive.

We drove about 40 miles up the grade from Cedar City. Along the way, we passed evidence that Autumn has come to Utah. The bright yellow trees above are aspens. And look past the trees to the valley below. Cedar City is about 6,000 feet above sea level. The summit near Cedar Breaks is over 10,000 feet. Driving along this road and looking down at the seemingly endless lands to the south, it felt like we were at the top of the world.

 

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And then we turned into the geological depression that is Cedar Breaks.  I have been trying to figure out how to describe this vista because the photos above don’t do it justice. And I am having real trouble understanding the geology. I will keep it simple… About 100 million years ago, this whole area was under ocean. The mud and silt that collected became the first layers of rock. Then about 60 million years ago, there was a lake about the same size as Lake Erie: 250 miles long and about 50 miles wide. The algae and snails that lived back then died and fossilized into more layers of rock. Then came volcanic eruptions and fault shifts that raised the rock layers even higher. The result is that the rim of today’s canyon is above 10,000 feet, while the floor is roughly 3000 feet below.

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A couple really interesting features of Cedar Breaks: Erosion is a continual process here. Because of its elevation, precipitation constantly seeps into the porous sandstone and freezes when the temperatures fall. Ice expands and cracks the rock. As the rock erodes and chips off, the remaining features often look like vertical formations that look like humanoid pillars. Some look like they have hats. The pics will show this better when we get to Bryce Canyon tomorrow. The Paiute Indians believed that if you lived your life badly, your soul became encased in this rock that they called a “hoodoo.”

The second interesting features was an explanation for the red in the rocks. This is caused by iron and magnesium in the rock. Precipitation interacts with these minerals and causes the rock to actually rust. The coloring is remarkable and visually attractive.

I loved Cedar Breaks…and I wished we could have been there on a moonless night. They say you can see 15,000 stars.

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