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  • Writer's pictureBen

Pine needles and cactus spikes: A Spring trip to Southwestern Utah

Updated: Oct 6, 2021


  • Date: 09 April – 12 April, 2021

  • Locations visited (in chronological order): Mojave National Preserve, California; Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness, Arizona; Red Cliffs National Reserve, Snow Canyon State Park, Rockville, and Tonaquint Nature Center, Utah

  • Highlights: Geology, backcountry, wildlife

A geologist in his element (me in Snow Canyon State Park)


Firstly, about me: I went to middle and high school with Brett in Southern California, where we ran track and cross country together, and went on some pretty cool day trips in between. After high school, I got my Geology degree from San Jose State University in the San Francisco Bay Area. After a seven-month stint working for an oil and gas surveying company in rural Utah, I moved back to southern California in November 2019, where I now work as a geologist for an environmental services company in Long Beach (15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles). As of this writing I live just south of Long Beach, in the quieter beach town of Seal Beach.

Now, for this trip. My work schedule has been busy with the California economy roaring back to life, and as a result I earned a “comp” day (compensation day; basically a vacation day for working unpaid overtime) and got myself a three-day weekend. After spending the past 14 months within the confines of California’s state boundaries due to the coronavirus, I was more than ready to make a beeline for the state border. Although I moved back to California from Utah, I have been craving to go back for a while. Utah is a beautiful state, not that California isn’t, but Utah has many geographic features that I like better.

Trip log:

I set my sights on going to St. George for the weekend, a small city located in the very southwestern corner of Utah. St. George is special in that it is the triple point of the Great Basin and Range, Mojave Desert, and Colorado Plateau regions of the southwestern states. The Great Basin and Range is a cold desert region of tectonic extension, where the stretching of continental crust has resulted in multiple north-south trending mountain ranges with basins in between. The hot Mojave Desert, although more popularly associated with southern California, extends northeast, all the way to St. George. Lastly, the Colorado Plateau is the cold desert region that encompasses much of eastern Utah, northern Arizona, western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, Navajo Nation, and other sovereign indigenous lands. The Colorado Plateau is known for Utah’s (and the United States’) premier national parks, such as Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef. In St. George, you get the characteristics of all three of these distinct biological and geological regions merged together, as well as a taste of what the rest of the state has to offer. Because it is within driving distance of Seal Beach, it was the ideal choice for me given my time and driving constraints.

Friday 9th April: Seal Beach to Las Vegas

I intended to set off for St. George by 11:00 on Friday, but after spending another two hours packing and preparing my camera gear, I finally left. Driving from Seal Beach to Las Vegas takes about four hours without traffic; because of rush hour traffic, it took me four hours just to drive the first third of that. Given the massive delay, I decided to stop at the Mojave National Preserve during golden hour.

The Mojave National Preserve is located about 20 minutes outside of Baker, California (a desert rest-stop town off the I-15). It is a federally protected area for a variety of species and their habitat. One of these is the Mojave Desert Tortoise, which will perpetually need protection from human activity. The Mojave National Preserve is one of the areas where it can live with limited interference. Preserves in the desert like this one will become ever more vital as the need for renewable energy sources in the western United States encroaches upon desert conservation efforts, in areas ignored by the oil and gas industries (a downside of the renewable energy movement, which will see increased mining activities).

The tortoises at Mojave National Preserve are hard to find. The cinder cones, which look like miniature volcanoes, are not. Cinder cones are volcanic features that are caused by magma infiltrating up through the crust in a tectonically active area. They may erupt for decades before going dormant or becoming remnant features. The cinder cones in the Mojave National Preserve first erupted 7.6 million years, and last erupted only 10,000 years ago (extremely recently in geologic time; USGS).

Cinder cones, a reminder of the Mojave Desert's volatile past, at the Mojave National Preserve

Magma that flowed out of these cinder cones created basalt (a heavy rock created from extrusive – above-surface – magmatic activity) flows that blanket the desert around them.

The edge of an eroded basalt flow. The image is deceiving; the basalt flow is much more imposing in person

After exiting the I-15 and cruising down a two-laner into the Preserve, I found a good place to stop and capture a few quick images of the cinder cones. I also took the opportunity to capture images of the limited desert flowers, which would soon be wilting as the Mojave cycled into a summer furnace (temperatures exceeding 120 ºF (50 °C) are common during the summer in the Mojave).

While cursing the flowers that hadn’t yet bloomed, I noticed a small crab spider amongst some buds on a shrub. Crab spiders, the common name for a plethora of different arachnid species, often hold their longer front legs above their heads (hence the “crab” moniker). They are ambush predators, lying in wait and attacking other bugs rather than using a web to catch food.

Crab spider sp. (species) on a desert wildflower in the Mojave National Preserve

Not wanting to avoid the driving I still had to do for too long, I left for Vegas after about 20 minutes at the Preserve. Upon arriving in Vegas, I barely got dinner before closing time, lost money playing roulette, and went to bed exhausted. My authentic Las Vegas “Hangover” experience would have to wait.

Saturday 10th April: Las Vegas to St. George

The following morning in Las Vegas, after some breakfast and covering last night’s losses by playing more roulette (a dicey decision because I beat a roughly 70% chance of losing even more money), I left for St. George. I proceeded to the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed area just north of the Virgin River Gorge. Interstate 15 (I-15) winds through this gorge, which cuts through buttes that tower nearly 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) above the Virgin River. Everyone from commuters to road trippers (like myself) to FedEx road trains pass through the gorge via the I-15. The Virgin River continues to carve the gorge as it runs west, far away from its headwaters in Zion National Park until it feeds into the Colorado River.

I decided to pull off of the I-15 Northbound before entering the Gorge, instead opting to drive a dirt road through the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness. After exiting the I-15 in Littlefield, Arizona, I drove north to Road 1005, which runs through the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness. This road, which would keep me heading west through Arizona, before turning south to descend into the Gorge and back to the I-15, is less than 6,600 feet (2,000 meters) south of the Arizona-Utah border. Being a wilderness area, the only developments present were small powerlines, some tailings piles, a trailhead, and the dirt road itself. These were all surrounded by cacti, yucca, shrubs, and escarpments rising nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) above the road. An abundance of Joshua Trees were also present, an indication that this was within the Mojave Desert region. As I continued east, I enjoyed all of these natural features while being violently shaken because of my truck’s worn-out shocks. I took a break from the jarring to capture some of the local flora and fauna.

One of the things I immediately noticed to the north of Road 1005 was red sandstone within the rock faces above the wash. This intrigued me, as it looked similar to what can be seen around St. George. This sandstone, and associated rock formations in this area, are Permian to Pennsylvanian (280 to 310 million years old) sedimentary formations which were deposited when sea level was constantly changing (AZGS). This sandstone here is, in reality, nearly twice the age of the sandstone seen around St. George, and is instead a similar age to the red sandstone that forms the famous cliffs of Sedona, Arizona. The Arizona Geological Survey’s online map also showed normal faults cutting through the Wilderness (which indicate extension of land). The alluvium (loose rock layer) which Road 1005 is developed on is from more recent erosional processes; it is inferred as Quaternary in age (forming over the past 2.5 million years, at least at the surface).

Mountains seen in the distance from Road 1005

Note the contrast in the orientation of the beds: those on the right side of the image above look more or less flat, while the "chevrons" on the left side are the result of nearly vertical beds of rock. This distinction is the result of folding, faulting, or a combination of the two.

The mouth of the Virgin River Gorge, seen in the distance from Road 1005.

Road 1005 turned south once I went through the pass at 3,390 feet (1,033 meters) above mean sea level (AMSL). The trip south led down into the Virgin River Gorge, and offered fantastic views of the surrounding buttes and wilderness. Before I knew it, I was in overdrive as I merged onto the I-15 towards St. George.

Looking south across the Virgin River Gorge from the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness at 1,000m elevation. Going south from this point will drop you down to the Virgin River at 650m elevation, followed by a steep rise to the top of the butte seen in the frame at over 1,400m elevation.

I made it to my hotel in St. George by the early afternoon. After a quick bite to eat and a break to watch hockey, I headed out to photograph Red Cliffs National Preserve during golden hour. This preserve exists for the same reasons as Mojave National Preserve, and it is a great area to hike if you have the chance (unfortunately, I didn’t). In the absence of Utah’s national parks, I am sure this preserve would be a national park itself. Its beautiful red cliffs are of the same formation seen in Zion National Park (more on that later). This preserve lies at the base of Pine Valley Mountains, which exceed 10,170 feet (3,100 meters) in elevation. After watching the sun go down over St. George, I called it a night.

Red cliffs in the aptly named Red Cliffs National Preserve

Sunday 11th April: St. George

I left early in the morning for Snow Canyon State Park, about 25 minutes north-northwest of my hotel. I wanted to beat the desert heat. Snow Canyon State Park preserves beautiful sandstone cliffs and provides protected habitat for the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other animals. I stopped at the overlook area just outside the Park’s fee area, before proceeding into the fee area itself ($15 USD for a day pass).

I did two photography sessions within Snow Canyon. My morning session focused on photographing the eroded Aztec Sandstone (180 to 190 million years old) that is surrounded by, and even overlain by, Quaternary basalt flows. Both of these geologic features have undergone additional and more recent Quaternary erosion. Cinder cones that are associated with the basalt flows in Snow Canyon lie just outside the park.

Snow Canyon State Park, as seen looking north from atop a red sandstone "fossilized dune" within the Park.

In the afternoon, I went back into Snow Canyon State Park and photographed more of the park, albeit in a limited capacity compared to earlier that morning. Although I did not see any Mojave Desert Tortoises, I saw a black widow (venomous spider, which is common and can fatally bite humans) and watched quails (a ground-dwelling bird) run around bushes.

Snow Canyon is a place that sums up the regional triple point that I wanted to see in St. George: sandstone canyons and junipers that one would expect in the Colorado Plateau; animals (such as the tortoises) which belong to the Mojave Desert; and sage and Pinyon pines characterizing the Great Basin and Range. This clash of regional characteristics is the epitome of why I find St. George to be so intriguing and well worth the drive. The image below is an interesting image to say the least: a juniper surrounded by agave and some grasses, all rooted in a limited amount of soil created by the erosion of the red sandstone.

Following a quick dinner, I was off again. This time I went to Rockville, just outside of Zion National Park, hoping for a nice sunset. I rushed my Google Earth reconnaissance for this photo session, but still found a good spot half-way up a small canyon instead. The road I was stopped on had a fairly steep grade, was extremely bumpy, and contained hazards emanating from the 80-foot drop-off on one side, and rockfalls on the other. The amount I was getting bounced around was enough to warrant turning around. I continued up anyways, not that there was an option to turn around until the top anyways.

The spot I stopped at provided great views of the surrounding Navajo Sandstone mountains within Zion National Park. The Navajo Sandstone is present throughout the Colorado Plateau and much of Utah. At Zion National Park, this 180-200 million year old (Triassic to Jurassic, which is still debated) sandstone layer has been eroded to create the spectacular peaks, plateaus, canyons, and river valley (Wikipedia).

Eagle Crags West, an impressive sandstone feature that lies outside Zion National Park and to the south-southeast of Rockville.

As the sun set, I drove back to the two-laner from Rockville to St. George and pulled over for some additional photos as the sun finally set.

Sunset over a butte and the Pine Valley Mountains.

Monday 12th April: St. George to Seal Beach

I could feel the sun setting on my trip even as it crept up and got hotter out on Monday morning. I did some bird photography at Tonaquint Nature Center as my final activity in St. George. This nature center was minutes from my hotel, and had a single bird of interest that I was 99% sure would be there: the Neotropic Cormorant. Fortunately, I rode those odds and got some shots of one. I also saw a variety of domestic ducks, Mallards, Ring-necked Ducks, passerines, a hawk, and bunnies (the latter two not at the same time, of course).

A Neotropic Cormorant at Tonaquint Nature Center. Note the lack of orange-yellow skin between the eye and the beak, as well as the white feather at the base of the beak and its relatively small size (the latter not being readily apparent in this photo).

After my all-too-brief stop at Tonaquint, I ate some catfish, filled my tank, and made for the southern California coast. I got back to my apartment about 8 hours after leaving St. George, with scenes of sandstone and the classic West still on my mind.

My Tacoma on Road 1005 in the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness.

Ben is the second guest writer on our blog! If you have any adventure stories or photography you would like to share, we'd love to hear from you! Click here to get in touch, or message us on Instagram!

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