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50 Mile Mountain & the Grand Staircase

A cache by GeoEskimo Send Message to Owner Message this owner
Hidden : 8/11/2010
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Geocache Description:

Fiftymile Mountain

A major plateau known in early literature as Wild Horse Mesa is surrounded by 1,000 foot cliffs and extremely rough canyons. It is part of a 146,000 acre Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wilderness study area within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Pinion, juniper, and open grass and sagebrush cover the top of the plateau, with aspen in isolated patches, usually at canyon heads. Archaeology in the area is significant because of the density of late Ancestral Puebloan occupation sites.

Forming a nearly continuous escarpment for more than 50 miles along the eastern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau (Kaiparowits Basin section), the Straight Cliffs present a series of stacked marine sandstone layers within the Straight Cliffs Formation. These sandstone layers were probably barrier islands during the Late Cretaceous nearly 90 million years ago. Behind these barrier islands swamps formed that favored the creation of the thick coal beds seen in the Kaiparowits Plateau area. Today, the Straight Cliffs closely follow an ancient shoreline of the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. Another name for the Straight Cliffs is Fiftymile Mountain. Between Escalante and the Colorado River, a distance of 50 miles, only two canyons break the otherwise straight line of cliffs.

Getting There

From Scenic Byway 12, just east of the town of Escalante is the Hole In The Rock Scenic Backway Rd. Turn south onto the Hole In The Rock road and travel for about 13-15 miles to the posted coords.

Generally the Hole In The Rock Road is passable by most passenger vehicles, however the occasional rain storm can make it difficult without 4 wheel drive. The dirt road has a lot of washboard areas that make for a somewhat bumpy ride, but you shouldn't run into any problems with the Hole In The Rock road unless you are going further than the posted coords. I have posted the coords here for this reason, and for the fact that at this location, you are almost directly across from the beginning of Fiftymile Mountain. You can check road conditions with the Monument Visitor Center in Escalante.

Escalante Interagency Visitor Center
755 W. Main
Escalante, UT, 84726

For more information about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, check out their website at

Logging Requirements

- Email me with the answers to these questions (do your best, I'm not a harsh grader):

1.) At the posted coordinates, you will be at a turnoff and there will be a sign at the corner with information about a nearby geological area. Email me the information from the sign. (It's brief, don't worry. HINT: don't forget to send me the number as well.)

2.) How many different layers do you see that make up Fiftymile Mountain, and what are they made of?

Optional, but strongly recommended logging requirement:

3.) At the posted coords you can look south-southwest and see the full length of Fiftymile Mountain. Post a picture of you with the mountain behind you.

General Information:

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument spans almost 1.9 million acres of south-central Utah, a region that was the last place in the continental US to be mapped. This is an area of high plateaus, deep canyons and multi-hued rock formations and cliffs that can extend for up to 100 miles. This is a world-class geologic sampler displaying 200 million years of Earth changes in a very large remote area filled with very difficult terrain.

Annual precipitation in the region varies from about six inches at the lowest altitudes near Lake Powell (4,000 ft), to about 25 inches at the highest altitudes near Canaan Peak (9,280 ft). The variations in altitude and precipitation produce three climatic zones: upland, semidesert, and desert. At the highest altitudes, precipitation falls primarily during the winter. The majority of precipitation in the semi-desert and desert areas occurs during the summer months. You will want to be cautious when exploring this area, mainly the slot canyons further down the road from this Earthcache. They are amazing, but when rain falls, even miles away, it washes down this sloped staircase quickly and can produce flash floods through the canyons.

The Grand Staircase (see image above) is the name given to a series of spectacular cliffs rising step-by-step northward from the Grand Canyon area. Each line of cliffs, from the Vermillion Cliffs to the White Cliffs to the Gray Cliffs to the Pink Cliffs, is composed of different layers of depositions made over the last 200 years. The Vermillion Cliffs are deep red Moenkopi sandstone on top of Chinle badlands, and the formations contain fossils of fish and small dinosaurs from the late Triassic Period. The White Cliffs where you are standing, are Navajo sandstone (solidified Jurassic sand dunes). The Gray Cliffs, part of which is Fiftymile Mountain that you see here, are ocean-bottom shale filled with the fossilized remains of marine life and beds of marsh and swamp plants compressed into coal. The Pink Cliffs at the top of the Staircase (seen in Bryce Canyon) are composed of limey sandstone deposited in the bottom of an ancient large freshwater lake.

The Kaiparowits Plateau (see image above) is an 800,000-acre-plus area of incredibly rich fossil deposits from the late Cretaceous Period. I have been to an area down this Hole In The Rock road where you can see dinosaur footprints preserved in the rock! (see picture on right) The plateau is a very dry and highly eroded area of sheer cliffs, wide canyons and poisonous soils. Many of the red hills of oxidized rock that you'll find here were created in the aftermath of huge underground coal fires. The eastern edge of the Kaiparowits Plateau is marked by the Straight Cliffs of Fiftymile Mountain that drop to the Fifty-Mile Bench (where you are standing) via a sheer, 2,200' escarpment. The Kaiparowits Plateau itself is a highly eroded but shallow slope dropping slowly to the south and west.

During the later part of the Cretaceous geologic period, the area that is now the Kaiparowits Plateau was located near the western shore of the Western Interior Seaway. The interior of the plateau was an area of peat swamps, while what is now the Straight Cliffs were at the shoreline. Further to the west was an area known as the Sevier Highlands. Erosion from the Highlands deposited approximately 1500 feet (500 m) of what is now known as the Straight Cliffs Formation, a layer of sandstone that makes up the base of the plateau. Remnants of the peat are now seen as beds of coal within this layer. Later deposits during the Cretaceous period formed higher sandstone layers, known as the Wahweap and Kaiparowits Formations. Further deposition during later epochs formed layers that are now seen at the surface of the plateau, including the limestone layers of the Wasatch Formation.

Hole-In-The-Rock and the Pioneers:

In the fall of 1879, a group of Mormon volunteers collected their wagons, families, livestock and supplies at a spring in Fortymile Gulch, just north of the Kaiparowits Plateau cliffs and just south of the canyons that make up the Escalante River Basin. A small group went ahead of the rest to scout out and prepare a crossing of Glen Canyon and the Colorado River. While parts of the area are relatively benign for travel, the whole region is criss-crossed with deep canyons, some of them bordered by 1,200 foot sandstone cliffs. As they approached Glen Canyon, they spied Cottonwood Canyon on the eastern side of the Colorado and thought it would be a good place to regain the heights after crossing the river. Then they found a narrow, steep crevice in the western wall of Glen Canyon that they named "Hole in the Rock." (If you follow this Hole In The Rock road another 50 miles, the length of the mountain, you'll come to this awesome historic place. You'll also see other historic locations along the way where the pioneers stopped, such as Dance Hall Rock. While the Hole-in-the-Rock trail was being forged in 1879, the Mormon pioneers camped at Fortymile Spring and held meetings and dances in the shelter of the stage-like erosional feature of the Entrada Sandstone known as Dance Hall Rock. The site was designated a National Historical Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1970. Do not attempt to drive the length of this road without first checking with the Escalante Visitor Center for road conditions, and you'll definitely need 4-wheel drive!)

They spent a couple months working over the Hole in the Rock pathway, using blasting powder to widen parts of the upper section and chiseling anchor points (to attach ropes to) directly into the rock. The lower section crossed a gully full of large boulders so they built a wooden trackway around it. Finally, on January 26, 1880, 250 people, 83 full-sized wagons and more than 1,000 head of livestock began the journey down through the crevice to reach and cross the river. The wagons were heavily roped and attached to teams of men and oxen to be lowered through the almost 45° slopes in the upper part of the canyon. It was an arduous mode of travel but 1/3 of the expedition reached the river on the first day, the rest being down to the river by January 28. Charles Hall had built a wooden ferry at the river and everyone was soon across with no damage. Then they had the much harder task of ascending Cottonwood Canyon and traveling into southeastern Utah. The bottom of the canyon can be reached from the east only by boat on Lake Powell (Buoy 66).

The maze of canyons east of the Colorado forced the expedition to go north until they arrived on top of Cedar Mesa (near present-day Natural Bridges National Monument). From there, they made their way down into Comb Wash and headed south for the environs of the San Juan River. Finally, they decided they'd had enough and settled into what is now known as Bluff.

The journey was originally planned to take six weeks, they ended up taking six months. Nobody died along the way but two children were born. The route continued to be used for supplies for maybe one year, then Charles Hall moved his ferry crossing north on the Colorado to a place that made for a much easier crossing of the river.

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