Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Southern Utah - 2012 Annual Eclipse

On May 20th, an annular solar eclipse was visible across parts of the American Southwest.  An annular eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly in front of the sun, but at a point in the moon's orbit when it is farthest away from the Earth.  Because of the perceived size of the moon relative to the sun, the moon doesn't completely obscure the sun and a ring of the solar disc is still visible around the edge of the moon.  Had the moon been closer to the Earth, a total solar eclipse would have occurred.

Maximum eclipse at Upper Calf Creek near Escalante, UT.  My solar glasses over the lens of my Cannon Powershot  pocket camera worked great!

Moments before maximum annular eclipse - Upper Calf Creek near Escalante, UT 

My friend Paul had been wanting to visit Utah to do some hiking in canyon country and we decided this past weekend would be a perfect weekend for him to visit, check out some of the best locations in southern Utah, and view the complete annular eclipse.

Our first destination was Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, near the town of Kanab, in far southern Utah.  We arrived at the dunes late in the afternoon and enjoyed walking around in the late afternoon sunlight.  The winds were strong and the dunes were in action as sand blew up over the crests and fell like rain on the leeward side of the dunes.  I have been to several sand dune locations and while the dunes weren't the largest I have seen, they were probably the prettiest.  The pink sand in the evening light was stunning and the surrounding mountains made for some beautiful backdrops.  The blowing sand, while beautiful, was unkind to my old camera.  An unexpected stop to purchase a new pocket camera was our next destination.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

Coral Pink Sand Dunes at sunset

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

We decided to spend Friday at Bryce Canyon National Park where Paul was a guide about 15 years ago.  We drove through Zion National Park for some quick pictures and scenic drive before heading  north and east to Bryce Canyon.  The weather changed dramatically between Zion and Bryce and by the time we arrived at the Fairyland Loop trail it was looking quite stormy.  Despite the looming rain clouds, we decided to descend into Bryce and were battered by some strong winds, rain, and snow pellets for about an hour before the weather started to clear.  I have done most of the main hikes in Bryce, but this was my first time on the Fairyland Loop trail because it's the easiest one to miss.  The trail head is technically outside the fee zone of the national park, so it isn't as well marked as the other viewpoints and trails within the main portion of the park.  It was nice to get a different perspective and enjoy some views of the canyon that I haven't seen before.

 Zion National Park

 A stormy hike into Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon from Fairyland Loop trail

 Clear skies at the end of our hike

We camped in Escalante Petrified Forest State Park on Friday night, allowing us easy access to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument on Saturday and Sunday.  We spent Saturday exploring some locations off Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a 62 mile rough dirt road running south from the town of Escalante to Lake Powell in extreme southern Utah.  Seemingly endless canyons cut down toward the east from the road, eventually emptying into the Escalante River.  Some of these canyons are quite popular, such as Coyote Gulch, while other canyons offer varying levels of canyoneering adventure.  We decided to hike a loop through two of the more spectacular slot canyons, Spooky and Peek-a-boo, near the Dry Fork trail head area of Hole-in-the-Rock.  Spooky was definitely the narrowest slot canyon I have been through, with a few spots being only 1 foot wide.  Even with my pack off and walking sideways, I manage to scrape a little skin off my knees and elbows.  Aside from being narrow, Spooky was not particularly difficult to navigate and just a few spots require some climbing maneuvers. Peek-a-boo was more open but had some beautiful rock features within the slots.  The exit out of Peek-a-boo was step, but not as difficult as I had expected.  The most difficult part of the loop was the cross country section between the two canyons - the trail was a little diffuse.

 Ready to climb into Spooky Canyon

Spooky Canyon

Paul in Spooky Canyon

A particularly narrow spot in Spooky Canyon

 Spooky Canyon

We continued down Hole-in-the-Rock road and made it as far as Dance Hall Rock, a beautiful slickrock amphitheater that the Mormon pioneers used for music and dancing.  We spent some time enjoying the vistas at Dance Hall Rock before heading back to Escalante.  We watched the sun set from a viewpoint along Highway 12 and then headed back to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park for our second night of camping in the area.

Sunday was eclipse day and our plan was to head east on the Burr Trail to Capitol Reef National Park, hike Upper Muley Twist Canyon, and watch the eclipse from the top of the Burr Trail switchbacks that descend into Strike Valley of Capitol Reef.  The drive along the Burr Trail is spectacular between the town of Boulder and Capitol Reef National Park and we made a few stops along the way to enjoy the views and check out some features near the road.  When we arrived at the top of the switchbacks, we were disappointed to see that the western horizon was not as flat and visible as it needed to be to watch the eclipse.  Here in Utah, max eclipse occurred about an hour before sunset so a clear view of the western horizon was critical.  Paul wanted to watch the eclipse from Strike Valley overlook, but neither of us were sure the view would be any better.  It was getting later in the afternoon so we decided to check it out by driving the rough rough beyond the main trail head of Upper Muley canyon to the parking area just below Strike Valley overlook.  The view of Strike Valley was spectacular and the entire waterpocket fold was visible stretching north and south from our vantage point, but the western horizon was not any more visible than at the Burr Trail switchbacks.  We made a last minute decision to head back to Escalante and view the eclipse above the canyons of Calf Creek.  We made it to the trail head of Upper Creek Falls and walked along the rim of the canyon until we found a perfect view to the west, overlooking the canyons below.

Strike Valley

Waterpocket fold of Capitol Reef

Strike Valley Overlook

Within an hour of our arrival at Calf Creek, the eclipse began with a chunk of the lower right portion of the sun obscured by the moon.  The intensity of the sun dropped dramatically and the light felt more like winter sunlight or the final minutes of a sunset as the moon covered over 90% of the sun.  We watched the eclipse with special solar viewing glasses, and observed the changing patterns of light moving across the canyons below us.  I was surprised that the ring of light was nearly uniform despite our location being a bit north of the main eclipse path.  It was also surprising how light it remained with so little of the sun showing, although the few minutes of maximum eclipse were eerily dim and the temperature drop was quite noticeable.  The final treat was watching a still partially eclipsed sun set over the western horizon.  Our decision to watch the eclipse from Calf Creek was fantastic and the skies remained perfectly clear for the entire event.

Paul with his eclipse glasses
Half hour into the eclipse at Upper Calf Creek

About one hour into the eclipse

 Maximum annular eclipse at Upper Calf Creek

Before heading back to Salt Lake on Monday, we did a short hike in Capitol Reef National Park.  The Chimney Rock loop is a little outside the main portion of the park, but the views were some of the best that I have seen as the trail climbed to the top of a mesa and around some of the red rock canyons draining into the Fremont River.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park