In our first article of our hiking the Escalante series we traveled to the most beautiful hike in the Southwest, Coyote Gulch. Next, we took you on an incredible journey to the single most impressive natural feature in the Southwest, Stevens Arch, and followed that up with the spectacular solitude experience that awaits you at Peek a Boo Slot Canyon and Spooky Gulch.
Today we travel to the Toadstools, a surreal and scenic experience that looks and feels as if it were taken straight from a science fiction movie.
About five miles down the dirt road, the truck lurched, swerved and sputtered through the red mud. Southern Utah’s spring weather this year was capricious; hence we were hammered by an unseasonably cold soaking rain. Our rationale? If we made it another three miles down this road in these conditions, we’d begin our intended hike at Mollie’s Nipple, an imposing sandstone monolith with panoramic views of the red rock wonderlands on top of its lofty pinnacle.
Unfortunately, the first day of our seven-day Hiking the Escalante Grand Staircase sojourn wasn’t going as planned.
The road conditions worsened and the weather degenerated into a full blown washout, complete with sleet and torrential downpours. With much difficulty we turned our vehicles around and made it safely back to the paved highway, despite some harrowing moments bogged down in the mud, we nearly skidded off the sloppy track altogether.
So it was on to plan B. We backtracked 12 miles east on U.S. 89 and parked at the Toadstools trailhead, leading to a series of mushroom-like formations of orange and white rocks. The rain had ceased and the clouds began to disperse, revealing a cerulean sky typical of southern Utah. The route was .8 miles each way, level, and easy walking.
Geology takes front and center stage here. The Toadstools were created when boulders rolled off the adjoining cliffs. A toadstool is a spire like feature with a boulder perched atop a pedestal rock, like a mushroom, they form when a softer rock erodes away, leaving a column sheltered from the elements. They were formed out of the 100-million-year-old Dakota Sandstone layer which is much harder and younger than the 160-million-year-old Entrada Sandstone layer. Over the eons, the Entrada Sandstone eroded far more slowly when covered by a Dakota Sandstone cap-stone. The peak and boulder cap together form a toadstool.
Like a giant layer cake, the land of the Escalante reveals stratigraphy in plain daylight. The staircase was so named due to the immense sequence of its sedimentary rock layers from Bryce Canyon in the north to the Grand Canyon in the south. In the 1870’s, geologist Clarence Dutton first thought of this region as a stairway with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. The rocks composing the Toadstools are among the youngest layers.
Moreover, Grand Staircase National Monument (GESNM) and the area near the Toadstools in particular, are known for dinosaur fossils. GESNM in recent years has yielded a bounty of fossilized discoveries, including the skull of an adult tyrannosaur and a tyrannosaur toe bone. These ancient predators known as tyrannosaurs are quite rare in the fossil record.
Scientists have unearthed tens of thousands of fossils from GESNM, especially at the Kairparowits Plateau, a 50-mile-long high elevation ridge which rises on the horizon. During the Late Cretaceous, about 76 million years ago, the Kairparowits provided a snapshot of what life was like during the heyday of the dinosaurs. The sandstone and mudstone of the Kairparowits deposited layers of sediment which quickly buried the fossils in a pristine state.
Among the animals discovered here were 21 never-before-seen dinosaurs. These included horn-billed herbivores with a seven-foot-long skull, an oversize nose and horns which faced forward.
According to Scott Sampson, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum, as many as four species of horned dinosaurs lived here at this time period which is twice as many as have been discovered at similar sites in North America. His team has excavated extensively in the Kaiparowits. Also unearthed were some of the most impressive crocodile and turtle species, including a three-foot-long turtle which died pregnant, her body replete with eggs.
Unlike today’s arid climate, 75 million years ago this region was a steamy swamp on a continent known as Laramidia, a narrow stretch of land which stretched from Alaska to Mexico. The landmass was located 60 miles from the sea and was intersected by rivers and lakes. Paleontologists have described the site as “an extremely diverse, high biomass forest.” They have collected more than 12,000 plan specimens from over 75 sites in the area. In fact, some of the most spectacular dinosaur fossils have recently been uncovered there.
On the subject of dinosaurs and ancient life, after our Toadstools hike we visited The Big Water Visitor’s Center, a remarkable museum about five miles east of the trailhead off of U.S. 89. The visitor center featured a great paleontology and geology display as well as a vibrant 30-foot mural which depicted the Late Cretaceous period. There were real dinosaur fossils on display and a topographic relief model of GESNM. Curators at the museum were knowledgeable about the geology of the Toadstools and GESNM; they answered all of our questions.
So enjoy your hike at the Toadstools at the Grand Staircase area when hiking the Escalante, and be sure to check out the dinosaur and plant life fossils of the Late Cretaceous, where geology comes alive!
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