April 11, 2009

Natural Bridges, Canyonland, Moab's Jeep Safari and Arches National Park

Still heading north in Utah, we went to Natural Bridges National Monument for a look at three natural bridges spanning a river channel. The only difference between a bridge and an arch is that a bridge is formed by flowing water at the bottom of a deep sandstone canyon where a meander cuts through the sandstone and meets up with another channel.

It's called "Cryptobiotic Crust," and without it, the plants and critters that seem to beat the odds to thrive in this arid region would be facing a much more difficult proposition. You see it all over the southwestern deserts - places where the ground looks bumpy, maybe a little fuzzy, and, well, crusty. This substance, which can range from a few millimeters to 10 cm thick, is actually a community of bacteria, fungi, algae and lichen, and it holds the key to making the desert a livable place for countless other organisms.

Cyanobacteria is the main component of the crust. One of the earth's oldest known life forms, this microscopic organism performs a variety of functions beneficial to plant life. It enriches the soil by a process called "nitrogen fixing," turning nitrogen in the air into amino acids that can be used by bigger plants. The more dark and uneven the crust is, the richer it is in the components that support other life.

The most important feature of cyanobacteria is its habit of binding together the otherwise loose grains of sand in the desert soil. The bacteria is dormant during the desert's long dry spells, but when it rains, it activates the little microbes and they begin to move through the soil, secreting a goo that binds together the grains of sands. The goo (or "mucilaginous sheath", if you want to be all sciencey about it) dries and keeps the sand stuck together.

These signs are all over the place but still one notices footprints off of the trails.

Oh My Gosh
Oh My Goodness
Oh My Gracious
Canyonland National Park - now why would someone give this OMG landscape such a Mickey Mouse name? I know "Grand" is taken, but why not "Amazing" or "Magnificent" Canyon.

Moab - we showed up and discovered it was Jeep Safari week and the town was overrun with various styles of jeeps and their owners all out off-roading. Any time we passed a roadside turnoff, it would be filled with a gathering of trucks and trailers, and in the distance we could see the dust of columns of jeeps traveling in packs.

We headed out of town looking for petroglyphs and found them on this road.

We then pulled into another site parking lot and guess who followed us? Five minutes after we arrived we were surrounded by over 30 jeeps and ATVs and motorcross bikes.

But the main reason we were in the Moab was to visit Arches National Park.


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