Tag Archive: utah

Bonneville Salt Flats – Natural Wonder – Utah

Bonneville Salt Flats Sunset

Located near Utah’s northwestern border with Nevada, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a geologic remnant of a much wetter time in Utah and the Great Basin. They along with the Great Salt Lake, Sevier Lake, and Utah Lake, were formed by Lake Bonneville, which at its greatest extent was more than 900 ft deep, and covered more than 19,000 square miles. Roughly the size of Lake Michigan. Lake Bonneville existed in one form or other for more than 12 million years, and lasted until 14,500 years ago. Though technically, since the lake has receded and grown dozens of times over its existence, one might be inclined to consider the present just one of those many phases, with the Great Salt Lake the largest remaining component.

One of the most recent causes for the lake’s decline, was the breaking of an earthen dam (created by two converging alluvial fans) at Red Rock Pass, ID. This event led to a massive flood that emptied into the Snake and Columbia Rivers, and made the lake drop more than 300 ft. Ironically this wasn’t the only massive flood the Columbia River would experience during this rapid period of change, as another massive lake, Lake Missoula was undergoing similar cycles of decline and resurgence, as multiple glacial ice dams broke and reformed along the edge of the Pleistocene ice sheets to the north.

Because of the uniform nature of the salt pan that covers the Bonneville Salt Flats it has become a world renowned location for racing high speed vehicles. Some have reached speeds has high as 400 mph.

And for photographers, a section of the salt flats along I-80, offers a natural wonder to behold, especially at sunrise and sunset.  There are really two different photographic opportunities here, and they generally come during different months of the year.  The first which is fairly easy to get, is when the salt flats are dry, and the polygonal salt formation is at its height.  Considering Utah’s climate, most anytime outside of winter will work.

The other opportunity, is to photograph the salt flats in late winter when they are normally covered in water. The combination of lower temperatures, and increased moisture at that time of year tends to raise the salt flat’s shallow water table above the ground surface. The wetter the year, the bigger the window of opportunity, with the best months probably being January and February. As long as you are able to time your visit with windless conditions, it will be a magical experience to behold.

Suggested Reading:

Roadside Geology of Utah – Felicie Williams, Halka Chronic, and Lucy Chronic
On the Trail of the Ice Age Floods: A Geological Field Guide to the Mid-Columbia – Bruce Bjornstad

Top Pictograph/Petroglyph Sites in Utah

McConkie Ranch Petroglyph - Utah

For rock art hunters, Utah offers a veritable playground to explore, with hundreds, if not thousands of sites open to discovery. Some locations are well known, while others take a significant effort in both time and research to find. And I like many avid rock art enthusiats tend to keep the lesser known sites close to the vest. I do it for two reasons…half the fun is the research and discovery process. Nothing that is handed to you is as rewarding as finding it yourself. And second, there is little doubt that some among us hold this ancient art in less regard than others. Which has led to widespread vandalism of some of the more well known and easily accessible sites. With that, plenty can be said that will help those interested in exploring the wilds of Utah, and discovering a little bit of the history carved and painted on its sandstone walls.

horseshoe canyon great gallery

Horseshoe Canyon Great Gallery

Pictographs vs. Petroglyphs

What is the difference between a pictograph and petroglyph?. The answer lies in the tools used to create the art. Pictographs are essentially paintings, using varies pigments that produce different colors. Ochre was a widely used example that produces earthy shades of orange and red. But explore enough and you’ll find other colors like white, yellow, blue and green. On the other hand, Petroglyph were created by artists that used rocks and other blunt instruments to chip a design out of their sandstone canvas.

In my experience different tribes at different periods of time seemed to favor one style over the other. But it would be incorrect to say that pictographs were created by one group of Indians, and petroglyphs by another. As there example of both styles being used at the same time, and taking on the same artistic characteristics and subjects.

What is the rock art telling us?

At this point nobody knows precisely, and chance are good we never will. There is no equivalent to the Rosetta Stone in North American archaeology, and even if one were found, the rock art one finds in Utah and throughout the American Southwest is spread over such a vast period of time, and many different cultures that one translation wouldn’t fit them all.That being said, I don’t think we need to look farther than our own lives to get a sense of what the ancient Native Americans were recording in the sandstone. Like us they were human beings with aspirations, struggles, and questions about their place in the Universe.

If you look closely enough at the rock art and make some educated guesses you will see at least three different things.

The Natural World
There are repeated depictions of animals found in the real world. Bighorn sheep, snakes, buffalo, deer, elk and lizards. No doubt the Indians saw these as either a food source, a predator to be wary of, or both.  If you look at the Native American mythology of today you can also imagine these creatures taking on a spiritual or earthly mythological component. The oral traditions of the Raven and Coyote as a trickster that one sees in modern tribes is a good example.

The Spirit World
As noted above, there also seems to be a clear spiritual, or mythological component to the rock art that depicts creatures and anthropomorphic figures that are clearly not realistic representations of something found on Earth in the present or during the period ancient Indian tribes lived in the West. No doubt these creatures find their origin in dreams, oral stories and spiritual beliefs about the world and the broader universe. Similar examples of such creatures can be found in the mythology of ancient Greece, the Norse, the Irish, etc.

The Celestial World
Finally, research has demonstrated that certain markings left behind were related to celestial events and observations. Such as arrows and other markers painted or carved onto rock faces where the sunlight only falls on key days of the astronomical calendar, such as the Summer and Winter Solstices, and the Spring and Fall Equinoxes. These markings alone tell us the Native Americans were keen observers of the night sky, and knew lunar, solar and constellation cycles well.

Big Horn Sheep Petroglyph - Nine Mile Canyon Utah

Big Horn Sheep Petroglyph – Nine Mile Canyon Utah

Different Rock Art Styles/Traditions

At least three major groups were involved in producing the rock art found in Utah.

Archaic Indian Period (7500 B.C. to 300 A.D.?)
One of the major producers of pictograph rock art in Utah were a group of hunters and gathers known as Archaic Indians that lived in Utah from about 7500 B.C. until possibly as recent as 300 A.D. The art they left behind is known as the Barrier Canyon Style, whose name is derived from Barrier Canyon (now called Horseshoe Canyon) which lies to the west of Moab in an extension of Canyonlands National Park. Dating estimates for BCS seem to vary widely, and are based on the difficult task of radiocarbon dating pigments and rock falls.

Fremont /Anasazi Indian Period (100 A.D.-1300 A.D.)

While the Fremont and the Anasazi were very distinct groups, they shared a number of similar characteristics, including a semi-nomadic lifestyle that incorporated village life and farming with active hunting and gathering. They also share a common time frame, which is why I group them together here. In general I think it can be said that petroglyphs were there preferred form of expression, but pictographs including hand print displays have been attributed to them.

Ute Indian Period (1300 A.D. – 1880 A.D.)

The Ute Indian rock art is best distinguished from earlier art by the depiction of horses and their riders, as well as other more realistic depictions of animals, humans, etc. While horses were once native to North America they became extinct eons before humans arrived. Their depiction in recent petroglyphs provides a fairly precise date no earlier than the arrival of the Spanish, who were the first to bring horses back to the Western Hemisphere.

Popular Utah Rock Art Sites

Sego Canyon
I mention Sego Canyon first because its a bit unique in my experience, offering three distinct displays of rock art from the time periods described above. This allows the visitor to easily compare the different styles. Sego Canyon is located north of Moab and close to Utah’s border with Colorado off I-70. Just find Thompson Springs north of the highway, and follow its main road toward the Book Cliffs. Signs will direct you the rest of the way. Keep in mind that while part of the land containing petroglyphs is owned by the BLM, some are also on private land.

Horseshoe Canyon
This canyon contains what has been described as the “Michelangelo” of North American rock art – the Great Gallery. Within Horseshoe Canyon (once called Barrier Canyon) resides the largest and best preserved examples of the Barrier Canyon Style, in a series of rock art panels. The Great Gallery the largest of the panels and over 200 feet in length, has anthropomorphs as tall as 7 feet and more than a half dozen of a similar height. The access point to Horseshoe Canyon is a dirt road on the opposite side of the highway from the entrance to Goblin Valley. Look for signs to Horseshoe Canyon. In dry weather the road can be traveled by any well maintained vehicle with proper precaution. The road is about 30 miles, and the hike into the canyon is 7 miles round trip. The best time to enter the canyon is in the early morning, this will help you to avoid most of the afternoon heat when you exit, and the sun should be in a good spot for photograph most of the panels.

McConkie Ranch Petroglyph - Utah

McConkie Ranch Petroglyph – Utah

McConkie Ranch (Dry Fork Canyon)
McConkie Ranch is to the Fremont Petroglyph legacy what Horseshoe Canyon was to the Archaic Indians. Hands down this along with Horseshoe Canyon are the most amazing petroglyph/pictograph sites I have ever visited. The petroglyphs are varied, detailed, pristine, and in some cases very large. However, unlike the other sites mentioned here, this one is entirely on private land, which for now remains open to those who respect the site and its owners. However as was indicated to me that could change at any time. So if you haven’t been here before I highly recommend visiting sooner rather than later. And when you go, if you are lucky you might get to see their collection of arrowheads, spear points, baskets, and metates.

Newspaper Rock
Newspaper Rock is probably the best known and most widely photographed petroglyph panel in the United States. It features an array of different creatures, anthropomorphs and symbols from a variety of different cultures. The Archaic Indians, Fremont, Anasazi, Navajo and other Ancestral Puebloan cultures. This particular panel is located on the southern edge of Canyonlands, along the highway that leads to the Needles section of the park.

Rochester Panel
This panel is mostly of Fremont origin, but also displays art from other tribes, explorers, Mormon pioneers and unfortunately tourists. The acts of the latter though should not dissuade you from a visit,  as it is equal in caliber to Newspaper Rock in the amount and variety of art displayed in one spot. The panel is located just west of the San Rafael swell and east of the town of Emery.

Nine Mile Canyon
Nine Mile Canyon, located just north of Wellington in central Utah, was a vast artistic canvas for Fremont and Ute Indians. Its claim to fame is the sheer quantity of rock art that can be found along the canyon’s 46 mile length. To date over 1000 archaeological sites have been cataloged, including petroglyphs, dwelling ruins and grain stores. Examples of rock art include – Big Buffalo, Mickey Mouse, The Great Hunt, and the Sand Hill Crane Panel.

Moab Area
A variety of rock art can be found close to Moab, most of it outside the boundaries of Canyonlands and Arches. Cultures represented in the different panels include the Archaic Indians, the Fremont and Utes. Examples include Moab Man, Intestine Man, and Wolf Ranch

Sandstone Angel - San Rafael Swell - Utah

Sandstone Angel – San Rafael Swell – Utah

San Rafael Swell
The San Rafael Swell is a fairly vast area in central Utah and split by Interstate 70. While its known most for its amazing geologic display, it was also home to the Archaic and Fremont Indians. If you have the time, and know how to survive Utah’s brutal desert conditions, this is one place that if you spend enough time you will likely find something few have ever seen. Well known rock art locations include – Molen Reef Snake, Buckhorn Wash, Head of Sinbad, and Black Dragon Wash.

McKee Springs (Dinosaur National Monument)
The McKee Springs petroglyphs have been attributed to the Fremont Indians, who lived in the park over a thousand years ago. To reach the petroglyphs requires travel north of the Park’s main Utah entrance, and entering via the Island Park Road. The road should be in good condition during dry weather, but it is primarily dirt.  The Island Park area is also known for remnants left behind by European pioneers and is an access point for boaters traveling on the Green River.

Suggested Reading:

A Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols of the Greater Southwest – Alex Patterson
Ancient Peoples of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau – Steven R. Simms

Top Western Ghost Towns – US/Canada

Bodie Ghost Town Methodist Church

Bannack, Montana

Bannack is a ghost town in Beaverhead County, Montana. Its founding in 1862, followed the discovery of gold on Grasshopper Creek, by John White. Its name is derived from a local tribe of Native Americans (the Bannock). It served briefly as the capitol of the Montana Territory in 1864. Bannack’s peak as a gold rush town was relatively short as prospectors moved with the news of new discoveries in nearby Virgina city. However gold mining continued in the area until the 1950’s. Its last permanent residences left the area in the 1970’s.

Today the town is a Montana state park, and has over 60 structures for visitors to explore. The best point of access to the site is from Dillion, MT on highway 278.

Official Website: http://www.bannack.org/
Google Maps: Find
Flickr:  Photo Gallery


Bodie, Californa

Bodie Ghost Town Methodist Church

Bodie Church – Wikipedia

Bodie, a gold rush mining town, began in 1859 following the discovery of gold by W. S. Bodey. The discovery coincided with the discovery near by of silver in Aurora, Nevada, and the famous Comstock Load near Virgina City, NV. While never as rich as the Comstock load, Bodie is speculated at its height to have housed nearly 5000 people, and a significant population remained in the area until the 1920’s.

Today it is a California state park, and is considered the best preserved ghost town in the state. Over 100 standing structures and other relics are available for visitors to explore and photograph. It can be accessed heading south from Reno, NV, on highway 395, near Willow Springs.

Official Website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509
Google Maps: Find
Flickr: Photo Gallery

Chesterfield, Idaho

Chesterfield is a ghost town in Caribou County, Idaho. It was founded in 1879 by Chester Call as a ranch along the Oregon trail. It quickly grew into a Mormon agricultural settlement as friends Chester and other immigrants entered the area. The town hits its peak in 1900, after which a series of cold winters, national recessions in the 1920’s and agricultural problems caused many people in the town to leave. By 1941 the town was mostly deserted, and only about 200 people lived in the area.

Today Chesterfield is managed by the Chesterfield Foundation, and contains many restored buildings, including the Mormon Meeting Hall, School House, Tithing office, the Town store, and numerous brick and wooden homes.

Official Website: http://www.historicchesterfield.org/
Google Maps: Find
Fineartamerica: Photo Gallery

Dawson City, Yukon Territory , Canada

Klondike Kate's Dawson City, Yukon

Klondike Kate’s – Wikipedia

Dawson City is a living ghost town, situated on the banks of the Yukon River. The townsite was founded by Joseph Ladue and named in January 1897 after Canadian geologist George M. Dawson. Dawson stood at the center of the Klondike Goldrush, and was the end point for many fortune seekers that traveled over the fabled and dangerous Chilkoot Pass. Of the estimated 100,000 people who attempted to reach the Klondike Goldfields, only 30-40 thousand succeeded. By 1898, little more than a year after it started, the rush was over and miners began chasing after new discoveries in Nome, Alaska and Atlin Lake on the Yukon River.

Today just over a thousand people call Dawson home. And while little remains in the gold fields but the tailings of dredges, many of the towns original buildings have been preserved, and include themed shops, art galleries, bars, and a theater/casino.

Official Website: http://dawsoncity.ca/
Google Maps: Find
Flicker: Photo Gallery

Grafton, Utah

Grafton is a ghost town, just outside of Zion National Park in Washington County, Utah. The town was originally founded in 1859 as a cotton growing project ordered by the president of the Mormon Church at that time, Brigham Young. The location proved a poor choice, not only because of the threat of flooding from the Virgin River, but also because of the heavy silt load in the section of the river where Grafton was located. This caused constant problems with the irrigation system put in place to water the cotton. This lead families of the settlement to move to better locations on the other side of the river, where the modern towns of Springdale and Rockville are located.

Today several well preserved and maintained buildings, as well original orchards and pastures from the settlement remain. The town site is maintained by the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project. The access road to Grafton is not obvious from Hwy 9. One should watch closely as they drive through Rockville for a street called Bridge Rd, which as the name suggests leads to a bridge that crosses the Virgin River. After that signs direct you to the site, as well as the town cemetery.

Official Website: http://graftonheritage.org/
Google Maps: Find
Fineartamerica: Photo Gallery

Jerome, Arizona

Jerome Grand Hotel - Arizona

Jerome Grand Hotel – Wikipedia

Jerome is a living ghost town that developed around rich copper deposits in the Black Hills of Yavapai County in the State of Arizona. The first miners were local tribes of Native Americans, who were followed by Spanish miners looking for gold. Jerome’s population reached a peak of 10,000 in the 1920’s, and as the copper reserves depleted the population decreased to less than 100 people in the 1950s. To keep the town alive, and preserve its history, a concerted effort was made to diversify into tourism and other industries. Today many of Jerome’s historic buildings and surrounding land are occupied with art galleries, coffee houses, restaurants, wineries, a museum and a state park

Official Website:  http://jeromechamber.com/ / http://jeromehistoricalsociety.com/
Google Maps: Find
Flickr – Photo Gallery

Nelson, Nevada

Located in El Dorado Canyon, in the Eldorado Mountains, on the southern edge of the Eldorado Valley, one might correctly guess that Nelson’s history has a lot to do with gold, or at least a Spanish obsession with labelling everything Eldorado. But in this case the Spanish who visited the area as early as 1775, were onto something, as Nelson would eventually stand at the center of one of the first major gold strikes in Nevada’s history. Pioneers to the area discovered gold and silver deposits in 1859, and with it came a rush of prospectors a few years later. Between 1859 and 1945, several million dollars in gold, silver and other metals were mined.

Today the town is notable for its colorful wooden buildings, and relics from the past, including antique signage from prominent US brands, Coca Cola, Texaco, among others.

Google Maps: Find
Flickr – Photo Gallery

Nevada City/Virgina City, Montana

Gilbert Brewery Virginia City, Montana

Gilbert Brewery Virginia City, Montana

Nevada City’s roots are firmly planted in the gold mining booms and busts of the American West. Along with its neighbor Virginia City, Nevada City was the center of one of the major gold strikes in the Rocky Mountain West. Between 1863 when the town was founded, and 1922 when major mining activity had ceased, its estimated that as much as $2.5 billion worth gold had been extracted from the area.

While time and carelessness led to the destruction of many of the city’s original buildings, 14 buildings from the original town site remain. In addition, 94 other historical structures from across Montana were brought to the area to form an open air museum.

Official Website: http://www.virginiacitymt.com/
Google Maps: Find
Flickr – Photo Gallery

Rhyolite, Nevada

Rhyolite Train Station - Nevada

Rhyolite Train Station – Nevada

Rhyolite was a relatively latecomer in the precious metal booms of the American West. Founded in 1905 it was one of several mining camps that formed as gold-seekers entered the area following news of the latest discovery. But, like many mining boom towns Rhyolite’s fortunes rose and fell quickly, with the population peaking in 1908 at around 5,000 people. Not only did investors believe the mines in the area were being overvalued, but larger macro-economic issues in neighboring California,  and the country as a whole drew interest away from Rhyolite, Among these issues were the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and troubles on Wall Street, known as the “Panic of 1907”. By 1911, many of the miners who had come to live in Rhyolite had moved on to better prospects.  And by 1920 it had become a side attraction for visitors coming to see Death Valley, and other points of interest in the area.

Today, among Rhyolite attractions are its train station, general store, a building constructed almost entirely of bottles, and artistic sculptures that have been added in recent years to its entrance near the highway into Death Valley.

Google Maps: Find
Flickr – Photo Gallery

Spring City, Utah

While less of a ghost town than any other towns on this list, I include Spring City because it has managed to preserve much of its historic character and original buildings.  In fact the entire town has been listed on the National Historic Register for this reason. The  town began in 1852 as Mormon pioneers settled the area. For a brief time the town was abandoned due to ongoing conflict with the local Ute Indian tribe, which eventually led Spring City to be one of the battlefields in what would become known as the Black Hawk Wars (1865-1872). The war included over 150 engagements with 16 Indian tribes of the Ute, Paiute, Apache and Navajo, led initially by the Ute Chief Antonga Black Hawk.

Today Spring City remains a small rural town engaged primarily in agriculture and ranching, the same as its early residents. It is located on Utah’s Highway 89, between the larger towns of Mt. Pleasant and Ephraim.

Official Website: http://springcitycorp.com/
Google Maps: Find
Flickr – Photo Gallery

St. Elmo, Colorado

St Elmo House on Main Street

St Elmo House – Wikipedia

St. Elmo is a former gold mining town founded in 1880. Situated at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, it lies high in the Sawatch Mountain Range. The town reached its zenith in the 1890’s at which time it had multiple hotels, dance halls, saloons, a newspaper and a school house. The largest of the nearby mines, the Mary Murphy Mine, recovered nearly $60 million dollars in gold. From the 1890’s onward the town gradually declined.

While St. Elmo was never truly abandoned, it has very few year around residents.  Today St. Elmo stands as one of Colorado’s best preserved ghost towns, even after a 2002 fire destroyed several prominent buildings.

The town can be visited via Nathrop, CO, by traveling west up Chalk Creek Canyon on Chalk Creek Rd. (Chaffee County rd 162).

Website of Interest: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/co-stelmo.html
Google Maps: Find
St Elmo: Photo Gallery

Tombstone, Arizona

While Tombstone is probably seen as the quintessential ghost town of the America West, given its history as the spot where the Earp brothers and Doc Holladay faced off against the Clanton and McLaurey brothers at the O.K. Corral, it was never really abandoned after the silver boom that got it started in 1877. At its height in the 1890’s more than 14,000 people called Tombstone home, and it boasted more than 100 saloons, three newspapers and 14 gambling halls. Its estimated the nearby silver mines recovered between $40-$80 million in ore.

Today the town has about a thousand permanent residents engaged largely in the tourism business. While many of the original buildings remain, the National Register of Historic Places has threatened to pull its designation of the town’s historic district, due to inauthentic changes made to historic buildings. Tombstone is just over an hours drive south from Tucson.

Official Website: http://www.tombstonechamber.com/
Google Maps: Find
Flickr – Photo Gallery

Further Reading Suggestions

Other Resources

If you would like to dig deeper into the hundreds of ghost towns that dot the American West. Here are some resources of potential interest.