Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lower Monitor and Merrimac Loop Trail

The Monitor and Merrimac (M and M) buttes are rock formations that resemble the famous battle ships of the Civil War. Most visitors to the Moab area in southeast Utah might see them from the road side viewpoint on Utah Route 313, on the way to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. 

There is a system of trails on the north side of the M and M buttes that can be accessed from Mill Canyon Road, a west turn just north of Mile Post 141 on Highway 191.

I started my hike at the parking area for the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail and hiked that short interpretive trail. At the historic Mill Canyon copper mill ruins, I continued south through the Mill Canyon riparian habitat area to the large slickrock outcrop. The Desolation Towers are visible in the distance.

The trail across the large slickrock area is well marked with painted white stripes. Part of the way across this gradually rising rocky surface, a trail junction branches to the right and leads toward the Desolation Towers. This option offers a closer approach to the Monitor and Merrimac buttes. I continued to follow the striped route of the lower loop.

The loop swings around the base of a rocky mesa with views toward M and M from about 1.5 miles away. The return leg passes by Courthouse Rock with wide views of some of the spectacular canyon country for which this area is famous. There is an option of cutting back west toward the Mill Canyon parking area or continuing north down another canyon toward the ruins of the Halfway Stage Station.

The Halfway Stage Station served travelers between Moab and the train at Thompson, Utah, 35 miles away. The normal travel time in the 1880s was 8 hours and the station was a place to have lunch, rest, and change horses. Slow moving freighters might spend the night here.

From the Halfway Stage hikers can follow about 1 mile of gravel roads back to the Dino Trail parking area. A hike could also start at the stage station and follow the M and M Loop in the clockwise direction. Not counting time on the Dino Trail, my hike took 2:15 hours for about 4.5 miles on an 82 F degree end of August day. The sky was a perfect blue and I carried 3 liters of water and drank it all.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail

The Mill Canyon Road is a west turn off of Highway 191 just north of Mile Post 141, north of Moab in southeast Utah. After 0.6 miles there is a staging area and an information kiosk. Signs point the way another 1.1 miles to the parking area for the Dinosaur Trail

A shorter version of the Lower Monitor and Merrimac Loop bike and hiking trail can start from the same parking area. The Dino Trail is a 0.8 mile interpretive loop with many fossils visible.

The interpretive signs at the trail head mention that the deposits here are sandstones, clays and shales of the Morrison Formation from 155 to 144 million years ago. These rocks are a little younger than the Entrada Sandstone that forms most of the Arches that are famous in the area. The fossils found here include Camptosaurus, Allosaurus, Camarasaurus, and Stegosaurus.

Along the trail there are many small signs pointing out specific fossils. The directions are often very specific, such as “look four feet to your left at ground level.”

The fossils appear as purple veins in the otherwise tan and brown rocks. The fossil here is a leg bone of the 60 foot long plant eating Camarasaurus, a medium sized member of the Sauropod suborder. Further along the trail are some vertebrae from the same species.

A large petrified log is also visible along the trail. The trees in that era are described as conifers, sycamores, cypress, and yew trees.
At the far end of the loop are the ruins of the mill that Mill Canyon is named for. Copper Ore was processed here in the late 1800s. There is a black pile of smelting leftovers near the ruins. Hikers wanting to continue on the Monitor & Merrimac Loop can turn right and hike up the Mill Canyon riparian habitat area toward the Desolation Towers formation visible in the distance. Another Dinosaur trail close by is the Copper Ridge Track Way near Mile Post 148.

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Copper Ridge Dinosaur Tracks

The Copper Ridge Dinosaur Tracks are located east off of Highway 191, ¾ mile north of Mile Post 148, 23 miles north of Moab in southeast Utah. There isn’t a sign along the highway, but there are BLM signs saying Dinosaur Tracks-2 miles as soon as you make the turn. There is a parking area and the trail leads uphill 500 feet to the rocky small site.

The tracks preserved here are described as being from five meat eaters and one large plant eating sauropod. The tracks cross a 150 million year old river sandbar. The geologic layer is the Salt Wash member of the Morrison Formation.

The interpretive information at the site says that making plaster casts of the tracks is illegal, but sweeping the sediment off the tracks is allowed, as is pouring some water in the depressions to make them more visible for photographs. I found a brochure for the site on line but didn't find it along the trail. The brochure is helpful as it shows a map of the tracks. Looking around without a map, it is confusing what are tracks and what are natural depressions.

Some of the tracks have been surrounded with circles of stones, pointing them out. I added a liter of water to the first one. This line of four tracks, each with three toes and more than a foot long is from one of the large meat eating theropod species.

I noticed some very large depressions, but they weren’t pointed out with stone circles. The online brochure says that these are the sauropod tracks, and the huge animal was making a turn to the right. The rear feet were larger than the front feet. It looked like the depressions are about a foot deep.

Mixed in with the very large depressions are some smaller ones with more stone circle markers. These are hard to tell from natural depressions, but are thought to be from smaller meat eaters. The Copper Ridge site is in the same vicinity as the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, where some fossils are visible. The other visible dinosaur track in the Moab area is at the trail head of the Poison Spider Trail along Potash Road.

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