Fifty million years before the Jurassic period began, the Triassic period existed on the planet. Before that, for more than three hundred million years, seas covered the land that we now call western North America. Two hundred million years ago, at the start of the Jurassic period, the sea bed heaved and buckled under gigantic seismic forces, raising dry land, forcing the seas out and creating the original Jurassic parks. The creation continued for the next hundred and forty-five million years with shallow seas invading from time to time and retreating. Today, it is our priviledge to witness the result — some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet.
Monument valley : Arizona-Utah border. pic.: Josef Muench
This blog is about the rivers , canyons and deserts that make up the region — comprising Southern California, all of Nevada and Arizona, and western Utah.
As a boy, I was fascinated by tales of the wild west of America—the prospectors and the wagon trains, the stage coaches and the cavalry, the Indians and the outlaws, and the lands they lived on. I had heard of the vast Mojave desert, the Colorado river and the great canyon through which it flowed, the deserts that lay on both sides of it – Death valley, the painted desert, the petrified forest, the valley of fire, the Sonoran desert, and more . I had seen a bit of this landscape in the old western movies that were set in this region.
Many years later, being deputed to work in a large American corporation headquartered in Orange county, Southern Los Angeles, I was amazed to find the surrounding countryside, with its bald hills and blue skies in December exactly the same as my home town in Nasik, India . I was also amazed to find some employees of my American associates, returning from week-end forays in the Mojave desert with relics including fossilised teeth of ancient sharks !
I used my weekends to visit the region too, though in more comfort. I ventured. by small aircraft, far into Nevada and Arizona and the border of Utah, suitably advised by the cognizanti. Flying through the Mojave desert in southern California, I skirted Death valley, lying some 280 feet below sea level on the California-Nevada border, and is the hottest and driest place in North America, I was told. I had no intention of visiting it, especially after being told that it recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth , some time in 1934.
Death valley : California pic.: Roger469, wikimedia.org.
I moved on to Las Vegas in Nevada on the border of the Mojave desert. ( It was here that I encountered that curios bush – the tumbleweed – dried, shrivelled into a large ball, broken off at the base, and scuttling across the flat land, driven by the desert winds ).
North east of Las Vegas lay the Valley of fire—a name given to it about a hundred years ago by a traveller who visited it at sunset. Seeing the red sandstone cliffs illuminated by the setting sun, it appeared to him that the whole valley was on fire!
Valley of fire : Arizona . pic.: K.C.Ken Dooven
Archeologists believe than Man occupied this region over 11,000 years ago, and some traces of his rock art remain to this day. Relics of the most recent inhabitants— Pueblo and Paiute Indians – are also to be seen. Though this has been a desert for some 10,000 years – with summer temperatures exceeding 115 degrees F – it once was a lush land. Streams, thick vegetation and many species of grazing animals have left their mark here.
However, it is in Southern Nevada and further south, that the petrified remains of the 200 million year-old trees are most commonly found. Most famous is the Petrified forest of northern Arizona.
Petrified forest : Arizona. pic.: K.C.Ken Dooven
Ancient trees were carried down by rivers, deposited in river beds, covered by sediments , and overrun by shallow seas. They saw the light of day again 190 million years later! This was after the last seas had retreated ( about the time the dinosaurs disappeared ), and the last of the top soil was washed away by erosion. By this time various minerals had percolated their pores, replaced he cellular material with quartz, copper, iron & manganese, virtually turning the trees into stone. The myriad colours of these petrified trees have given the name ‘Painted desert’ to the southern half of the Petrified forest.
Painted desert : Arizona. pic.: Carlos Elmer
However none of these wonders compare with the Grand canyon of northern Arizona which lays bare two billion years of Earth’s geology . I landed on the south rim near Grand canyon village after a scenic flight through a considerable part of the canyon, in a small 8-seater aircraft from Las Vegas.
Flying through the canyon and its numerous connecting canyons, gorges, and gullies, I was reminded of the scenes of the epic film ‘McKenna’s gold’. Some of the ruins of old Navajo habitations remind one of those pictured in the closing moments of the film. Any one 0f those numerous canyons could have been ‘the canyon of gold’!
Navajo cliff dwellings
At the base of some of these canyons were idyllic waterfalls and lush vegetation . I could make out human habitations here – either small Indian communities or picnic spots for those wanting to get away from civilisation. I was told that Man has occupied these canyons for over 4000 years, the first native Indian tribes being the Havasupai, Hopi and Navajo. While I was on a tour of the south rim of the canyon, enjoying the cool winds blowing through the pygmy pine and juniper forests, I was told that Navajo squaws would use the flexible, fragrant bark of these trees as diapers for their babies – an effective system of re-cycling that was ahead of even our times!
Navajo falls, Havasupai Indian reservation, Arizona pic.: Ray Manley
It is indeed awesome to see the Rio Colorado ( as the first Spanish explorers called it ) rushing a mile below the canyon rim , dropping 10,000 feet from the mountains to the sea over countless rapids. Even more awesome is the history of the land laid bare for our benefit, depicting its evolution – fossils and all – one and a half billion years before the first Jurassic parks appeared.
Point Imperial, North rim, Grand canyon : Arizona. pic.: Herbert Pangborn
( Further south, the deserts continue, culminating in the state most representative of the spirit of America –Texas, the lone star state. It is the subject of my next blog, Stay posted )