The Rainbow Plateau and the Mogollon Rim
The Rainbow Plateau is a name that sometimes refers to the area centered around Page, Arizona and Lake Powell. In this context I am using it to refer to the entire Colorado Plateau and its immediate environs such as the Mogollon Rim. This area is so vast that it is not often thought of as a single unit geographically. Taken altogether, however, these canyonlands represent the greatest single canyon complex on the planet and the kaleidoscope of colors can be best described as the canyons of the Rainbow Plateaus. There are other great canyonlands especially those around the rim of the Tibetan Plateau which are larger and deeper, but none of them represent the colors found on the Rainbow Plateau.

The most outstanding and famous color, of course, is the deep reds of the Navajo, Entrada, and Windgate sandstone. The rainbow color range, however, sweeps across vast areas of brilliant burnished gold like that of Yellow Mountain, the deep purples and mauve colors of the Painted Desert as well as the whites, beiges, reds of the Grand Canyon and the flaming oranges of the Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef.

Such colorful names as the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Pink Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs, Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Creek, Rainbow Bridge, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Valley of the Gods, Shiprock, Mesa Verde, the Grand Staircase, Goblin Valley, Sedona, and Chaco Canyon describe many of the phenomenal attractions within the Rainbow Plateau.

The canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau is a land of remarkable presence. The great plateaus and profound canyons make for a stark clarity of spiritual vision. This land is rich with swirling formations composed of sand pressed into stone, and stone weathering into sand along with deep desert rock gardens of Navajo sandstone and cresting waves of brilliant color such as seen at the popular Wave off of Wire Pass Trail in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. On Neon Ridge the flaming tongues of mystical fire envelope the human visionary. In the borderlands of Arizona and Utah, hidden in the epoch of stone are the sandy shores, wind caves, arches, windows, and ephemeral pools waiting to be discovered in the Vermilion Cliffs, Coyote Buttes, and Antelope Canyon near Lake Powell and the town of Page, Arizona. From the sacred canyons of West Canyon, full of stories and power, to the magical golden swirls of Yellow Mountain, lie secret lives within the edges, moments of time beyond comprehension, shadows remembered, fleeting light lost, water and sand dried to stone, roots seeking the water, leaves searching for light.

The Mogollon Rim is a land of seemingly impossible contrasts. One can drive from the desert of the lower Sonoran zone to the pines of firs of the Canadian zone in 20 minutes. Forested peaks rise 2,000 feet above the desert floor, which in turn is interrupted by severe canyons lush with vegetation, cascades, and emerald pools of water.

This 200-mile-long maze of canyons and jumbled ridges is Arizona’s Mogollon (pronounced Muggy-own) Rim. Stretching in a broad arc from Flagstaff, Arizona to southwestern New Mexico near Silver City, the rim forms the abrupt southern edge of the forested Colorado Plateau. South of the rim, the earth is scarred by canyons that form the roughest terrain north of the Mexican border. So rugged is the area that some of the mapping has been done only from the air, and even technical maps in the 1980s often relied on educated guesswork. Many adventurous Arizona backpackers in the 1980s and 1990s had yet to explore the area’s most spectacular formations.

When I first decided to explore this El Dorado, the only resources I had were the crude topographic maps developed from aerial photographs. Literature on the wild canyons was nonexistent, and local trekkers offered only hazy allusions to crystal pools and towering cliffs. The maps themselves were of little comfort, as area names such as Hell’s Gate, Hardscrabble Canyon, Devil’s Windpipe, and Deadman Mesa seemed ominous warnings of things to come. It was no accident that I chose the relatively benign-sounding West Clear Creek for my first trip.

From the northern edge of the Mogollon Rim, West Clear Creek is the second major canyon system, flowing south to the Verde River. The best way to approach the canyon is from the rim itself, accessible by car to within four miles of the river’s source.

During the summer months, flash floods are a real danger in canyon country. The creeks are best explored in mid-spring and mid-autumn, when the water is low and relatively warm. Though we were lucky to have no rain on this trip, we faced another summer backpacking hazard - the heat.

The geology of West Clear Creek Canyon, along with that of the other major canyons of the Verde River’s tributaries, bears a marked similarity to the layered geology of the Grand Canyon. Here the layer of volcanic basalt that caps the Mogollon Rim forms a hard but permeable shield that protects the softer strata beneath from erosion. As the abrasive force of flowing water cut canyons through the rim, it laid bare the colorful contours of lower strata: the compacted fossils of the Kaibab limestone; the buff, cross-bedded lines of the Coconino sandstone, composed of compressed sand dunes that formed jutting cliffs and long, narrow pools; the brilliant reds, pinks, and browns of the Supai formation, which created the largest pools, rimmed by soft, rounded rock.

But as one travels southwest along the Mogollon Rim, the geology of the canyons change. The canyons that feed the Salt River in southeastern Arizona are varied and unpredictable. The Supai formation, Coconino sandstone, and Kaibab limestone don’t fall into neat layers but are scrambled, with volcanic granite and rhyolite mixed in which can make for difficult backpacking. Of the Salt River canyons, Black River Canyon is the one best suited to the novice backpacker. It divides the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Indian reservations. Another Salt River canyon of note is Cibecue Canyon, north of the Black River, which lies in the heart of White Mountain Apache land.

Some of the featured canyons in this area are Sycamore, Oak Creek, Wet Beaver, Tonto, Greenback, Salome, Sawmill, San Carlos, and the Upper Upper Salt. In the 1980s these canyons were virtually unknown and helped open the era of canyoneering in the U.S.A. Today, most of these canyons have permit restrictions or are, in some cases, totally closed. Here, however, you can see photographs of some of the earth’s most beautiful and diverse canyons.

copyright Richard D Fisher |

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