2018 April: SW USA. UT: Druid & Delicate Arches. AZ: Monument Valley; Hermit Trail. CA: Death Valley.

On a campervan trip to southwest USA from 7-26 April 2018, we enjoyed photographing some great sights shown in galleries below. Carol was delighted by her first visit to Death Valley National Park (further below), including sunrise at colorful Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, and Mesquite Flat Dunes.

Photo highlights from this trip


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Trip summary

Our 17-hour drive from Seattle to the desert playground of Moab in Utah was split with an overnight rest in pleasant Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in Idaho.

Important tip: By scheduling the trip to avoid the full week before and after Easter Sunday (both hectic school vacation weeks), our stay in tourist hotspots like Moab was markedly quieter and more enjoyable! Avoid crowded Jeep Safari week. We prudently booked our campgrounds several weeks in advance. Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley was first-come first served after mid April, with no problem getting a site, though shade is in short supply. Despite checking 4 months in advance, we couldn’t get into scenic Devils Garden Campground in Arches NP, which allows reservations up to 6 months in advance.

Our favorite Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground hosted our pop-top VW Eurovan Camper for four nights conveniently in downtown Moab. On nearby BLM land, red rock Hunter Canyon was a delightful hike of 4.5 miles round trip, blooming with fragrant yellow barberry flowers along a gentle potholed stream. A massive cottonwood tree nicely framed photos of Hunter Arch. Check out the roadside petroglyphs on Moonflower Panel and walk its half-mile canyon. In fantastic Arches National Park, we hiked from Klondike Bluffs parking lot to impressive Tower Arch via the Marching Men rock formations (2.8 miles with 1280 feet gain). The freshly snow-dusted La Sal Mountains provided a dramatic backdrop, such as seen southwest of Balanced Rock. Just before clouds rolled in, golden late afternoon sun illuminated iconic Delicate Arch (3.8 miles with 900 feet gain). Its parking lot was thankfully only half full during mid week. Don’t miss seeing the Ute Rock Art (1650-1850) on Wolfe Ranch side trail. A pullout southeast of Garden of Eden allowed off-trail access to Cove of Caves area on the back side of Double Arch. Walk on rocks and don’t disturb the black biologic soil crust. Also in the Windows Section, we visited Turret Arch and looped a mile around North and South Windows.

In the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Whale Rock and Upheaval Dome (beware of limited parking) made short but rewarding walks of 1.0 and 0.8 miles. We moved camp to spend 2 nights at dusty Needles Outpost Campground, picked for its hot shower (though Canyonlands’ nearby Squaw Flat Campground is more aesthetically attractive, at trailheads). Best of all was a long-anticipated 12-mile lollipop loop with 1980 feet gain from Elephant Hill Trailhead via Chesler Park to charismatic Druid Arch in the Needles District.

Driving south, I liked exploring little-known Recapture Pocket near Bluff. Fascinating Goosenecks State Park overlooks deep, curly meanders of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat. A side trip on Mexican Hat spur road gives a closer look at the red wavy patterns of Raplee Anticline (Lime Ridge) along San Juan River.

Just across the state line, don’t miss the spectacular sunset or sunrise at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Arizona. At sunset, I rephotographed a favorite balanced rock in the foreground with West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte on the horizon beyond. Sunrise was easy to photograph, as The View Campground looks directly east to the iconic West and East Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.

We booked three nights in Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park, served by a handy free shuttle along on the South Rim. On the way into the park from the east, don’t miss the impressive Hopi artwork inside Desert View Watchtower, which was built by architect Mary Colter in 1932, integrating work by other southwest artists. Starting west of Yavapai Geology Museum, we enjoyed walking the 1.3-mile Trail of Time interpretive exhibit, backward in time from today toward the oldest rock in Grand Canyon, Elves Chasm gneiss, 1.840 billion years old. Our main hike was the scenic Hermit Trail from Hermits Rest to Lookout Point (7.6 miles with 2200 feet gain, plus walking between shuttle stop and campsite).

Death Valley National Park


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Late fall, winter, through early spring are good times to visit Death Valley National Park, which is otherwise beastly hot. During our visit 19-21 April 2018, some refreshing sprinkles formed a rainbow over the colorful geology. Parting clouds revealed fresh snow whitening Telescope Peak (11,043 ft), impressively high above Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level). Cresting the Panamint Range, Telescope Peak has one of the greatest vertical rises above local terrain of any mountain in the contiguous United States. At our feet, evaporation from Badwater Basin concentrated crystalline mounds of sodium chloride (table salt), plus calcite, gypsum, and borax (famously mined 1883-1889 with Twenty Mule Teams). Artist’s Drive was worth the short side trip to explore the colorful geologic formation of Artists Palette. More than 5 million years ago, multiple volcanic eruptions deposited ash and minerals which chemically altered into a colorful paint pot of elements (iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium).

We were delighted to photograph sunrise illuminating a tapestry of golden yellow striated landscape patterns at Zabriskie Point. Next, driving around to Golden Canyon Trailhead begins a great hiking loop uphill to Red Cathedral then back downhill via Gower Gulch (6 miles with 800 ft gain), our favorite walk in the park. Around lunchtime, I enjoyed photographing pioneer-era mining and transportation machines outdoors at the Borax Museum at Furnace Creek Ranch. In rising 90+ degree temperatures, we retreated into the nearby national park Visitor Center to absorb the excellent orientation film.

To escape increasing heat, we drove up Emigrant Canyon Road to 4100-foot Wildrose Campground, where faucets provided tasty drinking water. Helpful tip: dry air cools by 5 degrees Fahrenheit for about every 1000 feet ascended (or 3 degrees for wet air). Along the winding road, we luckily spotted some Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) with two lambs. Campground quiet was suddenly shattered with the loud hee-haw braying of an alpha donkey keeping his herd in line. Invasive burros (Equua asinus, often called donkeys) can be found throughout the backcountry in Death Valley. Originally descended from the African wild ass, burros were introduced to North America. These invasive, nonnative burro populations can grow quickly, damaging native vegetation and spring ecosystems, thereby hurting native wildlife such as bighorn sheep and desert tortoise.

Along the hike to Fall Canyon’s dry waterfall (6.7 miles with 1250 feet gain) were some feisty Zebra-tailed lizards (allisaurus draconoides), some creamy yellow flowers of the desert rock nettle (Eucnide urens or desert stingbush) clinging to shaded canyon walls, plus some intriguing rock patterns. But this experience paled in comparison to our previous day in glorious Golden Canyon; so for dramatic build-up one should hike Fall Canyon or other hikes first.

Near Stovepipe Wells, the first light of sunrise high-lit Mesquite Flat Dunes so dramatically as to impress my wife Carol, who previously hadn’t been attracted by dunes. Optionally take your shoes off and enjoy this inland wilderness beach. I love being the first in the morning to form footprints across a tall virgin dune. Most nights, the slate of footprints is wiped clean and wavy. Discover why Lawrence of Arabia was personally attracted to the desert, saying: “It’s clean.”

Just outside Death Valley (on the way to or from Tecopah and Las Vegas), you can camp overnight at Shoshone RV Park and swim in a developed hot springs pool. Thought extinct in the 1960s, Shoshone pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis shoshone) were rediscovered in 1986 and protected by the land owner in nearby restored ponds. Found nowhere else on earth, Shoshone pupfish are unique to Shoshone Springs.

See also articles on each state: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah), California, and Texas.

2015 spring hikes in Utah & Colorado

In Spring 2015, we returned to southwest USA to experience some remarkable yet uncrowded sights:


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Spring/fall desert canyon hiking itinerary, round trip from Salt Lake City

The above photos dated March 27 to April 8, 2015 are from the following itinerary, which makes a good round trip in 2 weeks from Salt Lake City:

Key to ratings: *** Must do. ** Do. * Maybe if time allows.

  1. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
    • * Capitol Gorge (Golden Throne Trail, The Tanks, Pioneer Register)
    • ** Hickman Natural Bridge and ** Rim Overlook Trail
    • * Grand Wash
  2. Goblin Valley State Park
  3. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
    • ** Leprechaun Canyon (on BLM land 8 miles north of GCNRA on Highway 95)
  4. ** Natural Bridges National Monument
  5. Needles District of Canyonlands  NP
    • ** Lost Canyon and Peekaboo Arch
    • * Slickrock Trail
    • * Cave Spring & Historic Cowboy Camp
    • * Needles Outpost Campground has nice *** hot showers to wash off the desert dust. (The scenic ** Canyonlands National Park’s Squaw Flat Campground was full on Thursday and Friday during Easter week 2015.)
    • ** Shay Canyon’s petroglyph gallery (on BLM land outside of Canyonlands National Park, a few miles up the highway from Newspaper Rock)
  6. We skipped ** Moab this year because its campgrounds were overbooked due to the crowded Easter Jeep Safari (Saturday, March 28 – Sunday, April 5, 2015), and instead headed into less-crowded spring destinations in Colorado:
  7. * Dallas Divide, Colorado (a pretty pass in the San Juan Mountains which will look fantastic with *** fall foliage colors on some future trip)
  8. *** Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park, Colorado
    • *** The Painted Wall viewpoints around sunrise and sunset
    • * Campground
  9. ** Colorado National Monument, Colorado
    • ** Monument Canyon Trail to Independence Monument
    • ** Devils Kitchen
    • ** Rim Drive views
  10. ** Dinosaur National Monument, near Jensen, Utah

Tom and Carol Dempsey drove this round trip from Seattle March 25-April 10, 2015.

See related articles: 

2014 spring road trip to Oregon, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, California

From March 15 to April 9, 2014, my wife Carol and I drove our VW Eurovan Camper from Seattle to Texas (6000-mile loop), gathering images in great parks in Oregon, Utah, New Mexico, Texas and California.

Favorites (from March 15 to April 9, 2014 road trip)


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The following related articles consolidate our multiple trips by state:

My photo galleries consolidate multiple trips into labeled geographic areas.

USA: UTAH

Visit Utah to be amazed by the world’s best concentration of colorful desert canyon scenery, as illustrated in the following galleries by nature photographer Tom Dempsey. As of 2018, Utah has attracted me to visit 17 times, more than any other area in the world! Related articles: Southwest USA (Arizona, ColoradoNew MexicoNevada, Utah) and Texas.

Utah favorite images


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Parks of Utah

Galleries below include photos with detailed captions from the following impressive parklands:

  1. Zion National Park
  2. Bryce Canyon National Park
  3. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
  4. Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab
  5. Arches National Park
  6. Moab area: BLM land
  7. Natural Bridges National Monument
  8. Goblin Valley State Park and nearby BLM slot canyons
  9. Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, and nearby Shay Canyon on BLM land
  10. Goosenecks State Park
  11. Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, in Utah and Arizona
  12. Capitol Reef National Park
  13. Dinosaur National Monument
  14. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, in Arizona and Utah
  15. Southwest USA favorites from Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada
  16. Recommended Utah guidebooks

1. Zion National Park

Photos from Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah, by Tom Dempsey: The Court of the Patriarchs tower over the North Fork of the Virgin River. Hike the West Rim Trail to Angels Landing, Scout Lookout, and beyond, with snow on ground. A seasonal waterfall plunges from Weeping Rock. West Rim Spring plunges in a seasonal waterfall over desert varnish on a Navajo sandstone cliff seen from the Temple of Sinawava. Lichen grows into polygons. Snow melts on Checkerboard Mesa. Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) flowers bloom.
Unusually diverse plants and animals congregate at Zion, where the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert meet. A free shuttle bus greatly improves park ambiance with quieter roads and less crowding.


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2. Bryce Canyon National Park

Sunrise and sunset make great photo opportunities in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. For example, sunset spotlights eroded hoodoos in the Queen’s Garden (one appears like a profile of Queen Elizabeth with gown). Bryce is actually not a canyon but a giant natural amphitheater created by erosion along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The ancient river and lake bed sedimentary rocks erode into hoodoos by the force of wind, water, and ice.


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3. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a large, wild park with great hiking in desert and slot canyon scenery in southern Utah. Approach most sights via dirt roads (often impassible when wet), or some on paved roads. These photos by Tom Dempsey are from recommended hikes to Lower Calf Creek Falls, Zebra & Tunnel Slot, Willis Creek slot canyon, Bull Valley Gorge, Cottonwood Wash Road & Narrows, and Rimrock Hoodoos.


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4. Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab

Photos from Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah, by Tom Dempsey include: Mesa Arch, sunrise, White Rim Road, Grand View Point Overlook on Island in the Sky, Colorado River canyons, Orange Cliffs Overlook, Green River in Stillwater Canyon, snowy Henry Mountains, Intrepid Potash Inc. Cane Creek Facility, snow on La Sal Mountains, Needles Outpost Campground, Lost Canyon to Peek-a-Boo Trail, Needles District, Echinocereus triglochidiatus (common name Claret Cup Hedgehog, Mojave mound cactus, or Kingcup cactus), Cave Spring Trail, and Historic Cowboy Camp. Nearby, Dead Horse Point State Park provides a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and high mesas and cliffs of Canyonlands National Park.


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Arch View Resort makes a good base for visiting both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah

My wife Carol and I enjoyed staying in our Volkswagon Eurovan Camper at comfortable Arch View Resort, an RV park 10 minutes north of Moab on Highway 191, halfway between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Arch View Resort has a quieter setting than busy Moab, pleasant views, and full services (unlike nearby National Park campgrounds): 14 cabins, 42 full hook ups for RV water and electricity, 20 tent areas, tree lined spaces, hot showers, general store, laundry, Shell gas station.

Starting an hour before sunrise, we drove from Arch View Resort up to photograph Mesa Arch in Canyonlands NP. Standing room for the best photographs at Mesa Arch viewpoint is limited to about a dozen people looking through the arch to distant sandstone buttes. On Palm Sunday April 9, 2006, Mesa Arch was crowded with other photographers until an hour after sunrise when I could finally move in my tripod. If you want the best tripod spot and fewer photographers, try arriving 40 minutes before sunrise, midweek, and avoid Easter week.

5. Arches National Park

Photos from Arches National Park, Utah, by Tom Dempsey: Devils Garden trails (Landscape Arch, Broken Arch, Skyline Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, Pine Tree Arch), the Windows Section, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, South and North Windows, Turret Arch, Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, Entrada Sandstone eroding into arches, towers, buttes, snowy La Sal Mountains.


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6. Moab area: BLM land

Near Moab in Utah, we recommend the following great hikes on BLM federal land. [The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is an agency within the United States Department of the Interior that administers American public lands.]

  1. Corona Arch: Hike 3 miles round trip up Bootlegger Canyon to the half-freestanding Corona Arch, also called Little Rainbow Bridge, which has an impressive opening of 140 feet wide by 105 feet high. Bowtie Arch is a cool bonus en route.
  2. Fisher Towers: The impressive Fisher Towers are eroded from Cutler sandstone capped with Moenkopi sandstone. Hike the Fisher Towers Trail 4.5 miles round trip with 800 feet gain.
  3. Hike Negro Bill Canyon to Morning Glory Bridge, a natural bridge of Navajo Sandstone spanning 243 feet, the sixth largest rock span in the United States.


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7. Natural Bridges National Monument

In Natural Bridges National Monument (near Blanding, San Juan County), walk to three spectacular natural bridges (visited separately from roadside pullouts or connected via a worthwhile loop hike of 6 or 9 miles). White Canyon Creek has cut Sipapu Natural Bridge with a span of 225 feet through a meander of white Permian sandstone of the Cedar Mesa Formation. Kachina Bridge spans 192 feet. Owachomo Bridge spans 180 feet. More photos by Tom Dempsey include: desert varnish coating gorgeous walls; and yellow wallflower (Erysimum asperum) growing in black cryptobiotic soil crust.


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8. Goblin Valley State Park and nearby BLM slot canyons

Admire fanciful hoodoos, mushroom shapes, and rock pinnacles in Goblin Valley State Park, in Emery County between the towns of Green River and Hanksville, in central Utah. The light-colored Curtis Formation caps the reddish-brown suite of rocks called Entrada Sandstone where the park goblins form. On the desert floor bloom vetch flowers, in the pea family. Snow caps Mount Ellen, at the northern end of the Henry Mountains, rising prominently south of the park.

A short drive outside the State Park are some wonderful hikes on BLM land. Hike the memorable 9 mile loop up Little Wild Horse Canyon and back down Bell Canyon. Scramble up and down sandstone ledges, through occasional shallow water holes and fascinating narrow slots. Ding Canyon and the main Wildhorse Canyon are also worth visiting. On the other side of the reef is Crack Canyon, one of our favorite places to see an amazing variety of rock patterns,  4 miles round trip (or longer if you can surpass a rope ascent and more obstacles). The Navajo and Wingate sandstone of the San Rafael Reef was uplifted fifty million years ago into a striking bluff which runs from Price to Hanksville, bisected by Interstate 70 at a breach fifteen miles west of the town of Green River. The San Rafael Reef (and Swell) is one of the wildest places left in Utah


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9. Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, and nearby Shay Canyon on BLM land

Below are photos from Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, plus nearby Shay Canyon on BLM land, in Utah, USA, by Tom Dempsey.

  • Newspaper Rock: The cliffs that enclose the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon are covered by hundreds of ancient Indian petroglyphs (rock carvings), one of the largest, best preserved and accessible groups in the Southwest USA. The petroglyphs have a mixture of human (feet, figures), animal (deer, pronghorn, buffalo, horse), abstract and material forms of uncertain meaning. Starting about 2000 years ago, humans have chipped away the dark natural desert varnish to reveal lighter colored Wingate sandstone beneath.
  • Shay Canyon petroglyphs: Nearby on BLM land, an unmarked trail crosses a creek and leads up the wash of Shay Canyon to a remarkable gallery of petroglyphs including flutists, mountain sheep, abstract human figures, and a long-necked bird.


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10. Goosenecks State Park, Utah

Goosenecks State Park overlooks a deep meander of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat, Utah, USA. Millions of years ago, the Monument Upwarp forced the river to carve meanders over 1,000 feet deep (300 m) as the surrounding landscape slowly rose in elevation. (Panorama stitched from 10 photos.) (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)
Goosenecks State Park overlooks a deep meander of the San Juan River near Mexican Hat, Utah, USA. Millions of years ago, the Monument Upwarp forced the river to carve meanders over 1,000 feet deep (300 m) as the surrounding landscape slowly rose in elevation. (Panorama stitched from 10 photos. Clicking image reaches Add to Cart button for purchase.) © Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com

11. Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, in Utah and Arizona

Below, view photos from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, in Utah and Arizona: Willow Creek Canyon, Broken Bow Arch, Llewellyn Gulch, petroglyphs of bighorn sheep chipped into desert varnish, pink cactus flower, frog held in hands, Bishop Canyon, LaGorce Arch, Hite Crossing Bridge (built 1966), and Hite Marina high and dry above the Colorado River in 2015 (at the former upstream limits of Lake Powell). I also photographed an interesting Anasazi kiva (ceremonial room) restored at Three Roof Ruin, on Escalante River Arm of Lake Powell. Just 8 miles outside the park, don’t miss the elegant slot of Leprechaun Canyon in North Wash on federal public BLM land between Hanksville and Hite.

Photos from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, in Utah and Arizona, include: Willow Creek Canyon, Broken Bow Arch, Llewellyn Gulch, petroglyphs of bighorn sheep chipped into desert varnish, pink cactus flower, frog held in hands, black-tailed jackrabbit (desert hare, Lepus californicus), Bishop Canyon, LaGorce Arch and houseboats. An Anasazi kiva (ceremonial room) was restored at Three Roof Ruin, on Escalante River Arm of Lake Powell.


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12. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

In Capitol Reef National Park, don’t miss the walk to impressive Hickman Natural Bridge, and optionally onward to Rim Overlook, seeing evocative sandstone patterns exfoliating from fossilized sand dunes. On the Capitol Gorge Trail, walk to the Tanks & Pioneer Register; optionally adding a hike to the Jurassic sandstone monolith of Golden Throne. The gallery below also includes photos of scenic Grand Wash, Petroglyphs Boardwalk, and Fruita Schoolhouse (built in 1896) and Historic Orchard.


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13. Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

Visit the real Jurassic Park at world-famous Dinosaur National Monument. The park’s Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry displays a spectacular logjam of fossilized Jurassic dinosaur bones protected by the huge Quarry Exhibit Hall. Although most of the monument is in Moffat County, Colorado, the Dinosaur Quarry is in Utah near Jenson. Dinosaur National Monument is on the southeast flank of the Uinta Mountains straddling Colorado and Utah at the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. The only Apatosaurus skull in the world was found here because the sand-sized sediment preserves bone in great detail without compressing its fragile bones. Later discoveries of so-called “Brontosaurus” bones are a misnomer, as all bones of this sauropod (long necked dinosaur) should now be labeled Apatosaurus. More photos by Tom Dempsey include: Camarasaurus skeleton, Apatosaurus louisae leg bones, Allosaurus head, stegasaurus plate, ancient American petroglyphs, and Split Mountain Campground’s colorful geologic formations. Not all dinosaurs are extinct, since birds are actually the descendants of small nonflying theropods.


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14. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, in Arizona and Utah

Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area overlaps both Arizona and Utah. Fossilized sand dunes have eroded into the Coyote Buttes striated formations such as “The Wave.” Over 190 million years, ancient sand dune layers calcified into rock and created “The Wave” in the northwest corner of Arizona near the Utah border. Iron oxides bled through this Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone to create the salmon color. Hematite and goethite added yellows, oranges, browns and purples. Over thousands of years, water cut through the ridge above and exposed a channel that was further scoured by windblown sand into the smooth curves that today look like ocean swells and waves. For the permit required to hike to “The Wave”, contact the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who limits access to protect this fragile geologic formation.


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15. Southwest USA favorites from Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada


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16. Recommended Utah guidebooks

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