In the Southwest, year-round fall colors

September 28, 2012

Outside Las Vegas, at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the seasons jumbled together. Under a blueberry summer sky warming a winter-like barrenness, I stood on top of autumn. The mountain beneath my feet was as deep red as the oak leaves in New England circa October. Yet unlike the fleeting foliage, the desert’s vibrant hues resist nature’s cycle, holding fast through all four seasons.

Every year, without fail, leafy trees transform into the losing team of a paintball game. Fruity punches of red, gold, orange and yellow electrify landscapes dense with maples, elms, aspens and other deciduous trees. The colors distract us from reality: Summer is gone, winter is encroaching and the glorious leaves are a few Earth rotations from drying up and dying.

Details: Southwest fall colors


(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

To avoid the perennial despair this invokes, I searched the country for colors that wouldn’t split on the coattails of chlorophyll. I wished to evade the changing of the seasons without sacrificing pigments. I wanted an autumnal palette January through December.

With the spirit of a pioneer, I headed west in search of gold — and red and yellow and orange and purple. I planted my boots on spots in Arizona and eastern Nevada where the colors change not by season but over many millions of years.

A canyon with personality

Not long after Labor Day, foliage experts start dragging certain buzzwords — photosynthesis, carotenoids, anthocyanins — out of the cupboard. Hotlines ring off the hook with fall color updates, and peepers clear their schedules to strike peak time. The Weather Channel turns its attention from hurricanes to fall leaves.

At Red Rock Canyon, 17 miles west of the Vegas Strip, Kathy August has no use for such terms, temporary phone numbers or peepers. In describing the desert landscape, the Bureau of Land Management ranger drops names such as sandstone, iron, manganese and oxidation. The park’s phone number is permanent; visitors come year-round. Most important, the land is always saturated in red.

“Colors do change here,” she said, “but really slowly — in geologic time rather than seasonally.”

The 197,819-acre park is a blank canvas for fog-gray limestone (ocean deposits) and fiery sandstone (windblown dune deposits), as well as the rainbow of hues that bridge the two. The canyon receives 1.3 million visitors a year, about the same number as Death Valley but nowhere near the tally of its tarty urban neighbor: more than 23 million people through July so far this year. If you’re torn between the two color zones, remember, neon makes the skin look sallow.

A 13-mile scenic drive, with a slowpoke pace and myriad scenic viewpoints, is a centerpiece of the park. The route wiggles around sculptural rock formations that shift in shape and color like a giant lava lamp. The Calico Basin nails the color-blocking trend with large swatches of persimmon red and vanilla cream. The Red Canyon wears a Breton shirt of red, mauve and gray stripes. The Lost Creek area parades the shades of an exotic garden: shiitake mushroom brown and Japanese eggplant purple.

“Every single canyon has its own personality and its own colors,” said Kathy. “You can’t really get bored here.”

Kathy and I set out in the late afternoon, her Jeep snuggling like a bug against the outsize landscape. We passed Joshua trees with spiky mop tops and snakeweed bushes sprouting buttery flowers. “Everything we have here is basically yellow,” she said of the monochromatic flora, “or variations of yellow.”

Add to the list chinchweed, brittlebush, rabbitbrush and cottonwood trees, one of the rare foliage splashes in the Mojave Desert.

Compared with the muted tones on the ground, the colors really screamed at Sandstone Quarry, an active mining site in the early 1900s. From the parking lot, I scrambled onto the smooth red boulders for an in-your-face view of the lichen. The organisms, as tiny as pinpricks, came in such trendy nail polish shades as fluorescent yellow, light green and lavender.

A number of hiking trails fan out from the quarry, such as a 21 / 2-mile trek to the Calico Tanks and a five-miler to Turtlehead Peak, 6,324 feet above the valley floor. Kathy and I, however, went down instead of up, dropping between the canyon walls to a sandy trail shaded by pinyon pines. Graffiti were splashed across a lower portion of the rock face, including carvings by miners. Chalky white smudges marked a climber’s ascent.

After we crawled out of the canyon wash, Kathy told me a Paiute tale about the origins of the red rocks, a much livelier story than the geologist version (oxygen meets iron, and they marry). According to the legend, a young warrior set out to kill a bear, a rite of passage for male tribe members. The blood of Nevada’s last bear spilled all over the rocks, soaking them in crimson.

The anecdote, however, didn’t explain the gen­esis of the other vibrant colors, leaving much of the Southwest paintbox a mystery.

A rockhound’s paradise

At the entrance to Petrified Forest National Park, I confessed to the ranger that, yes, I was carrying rocks. She had to ask: The park in eastern Arizona is very protective of its cache of petrified rocks. And I had to answer in the affirmative: More than 280 miles back, in the Sonoran Desert, I’d filled a plastic bag with rocks. She sealed my sack with tape and let me through.

I don’t typically tote around rocks, but they seemed like a very Arizona-appropriate accessory. Rockhounding, a catchy name for rock collecting, is a popular activity in the Copper State. The region’s geology (in short, tectonic movement and the crystallization of magma-related liquids and silica) has transformed the state into a bedazzling scavenger hunt of gems and stones. Opals, agates and chalcedony do look fabulous on fingers and lobes, but I also wanted to possess some of the colors of the Southwest.

Gem bloggers had recommended Burro Creek Recreation Site, posting such enviable finds as fire agate and jasper. I also consulted Bill Durbin, a geologist with the Nevada Division of Minerals, who suggested that I carry a small hammer and a magnifying glass and wear leather gloves (in case any scorpions or spiders come out to say hello) and safety goggles (to protect against flying shards).

“Collect whatever gives you that wow factor,” he added. “If you like it, take it. If it doesn’t do anything for you, it’s a leaverite — leave ’er right there!”

The campground and hiking site sit at the end of a steep road, nestled among mountains that look as if they’ve been rolled in burnt toast crumbs. I started off easy, in the parking lot, where I found a white rock as hard and clear as an ice crystal. I then followed a trail to a wire cattle fence and proceeded to the creek paved with rocks.

According to the BLM, I could legally take 25 pounds, plus one piece. (I never got a hard definition of “one piece,” but assumed that it wasn’t, say, a corner of a mountain.) I tossed rocks with peppery speckles, grape jelly-esque stains and tic-tac-toe markings into my bag. I eyed one with bubblegum-pink streaks but left it alone. I didn’t want to evict the lizard using it as an ottoman, nor did I think that a reptile qualified as “one piece.”

My arms weighted down with rocks, I proceeded to an interpretive board posted near the bathroom to learn about the environment and perhaps ascertain the worth of my bounty. The information released a dark plume of childhood nightmares: I read about Africanized honey bees, scorpions, bats, rattlesnakes and mountain lions. The rocks started shakin’ in their bag.

Back in the safety of my car, windows rolled up, I decided to have my collection appraised at a rock shop in Holbrook, the town closest to the Petrified Forest.

Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co. is an indoor/outdoor emporium of minerals and petrified wood — some pieces as long as elephant trunks, others as round and wide as tortoise shells. Baskets, bins and racks overflowed with geodes, coprolite (translated as dino dung), turquoise, rose quartz, unakite (preppy in pink and green) and other marvels.

I dropped my load on the counter and spread out my bounty. Victor Paz stopped polishing a piece of petrified wood to inspect my collection.

“They’re just river rocks,” he said flatly. “Nothin’ special, just common rocks.”

Refusing to give up, I pulled out a specimen seemingly dipped in limeade and flecked with gold. He consulted with a colleague.

“That’s just algae,” said his co-worker. “Put it under a faucet and it’ll wash off.”

I didn’t dump my useless lot right away. I waited until I could find a remote area on the opposite end of the state, where they’ll hopefully remain for many eons.

Light show in the desert

The colors of the Southwest really sizzle during the bookends of the day — sunrise and sunset. During the in-between hours, they take a light siesta.

Richard Eskin, an artist-in-residence at the Petrified Forest, revolves around the sun. He photographs the park at the beginning and the end of the day, when the light is soft and forgiving.

“Every time the light changes, the whole landscape changes,” said the Towson, Md., resident. “As the light warms, the colors of the rocks become more intense and saturated.”

I met Richard at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, on the northern end of the park. He was halfway into his two-week residency and knew the optimum viewing locations categorized by color and time.

The 221,621-acre Petrified Forest National Park is within the Painted Desert, a sweep of Rothko-brushed land from roughly the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border. A short film in the visitors center provided context and background. It explained the origins of the desert’s name — Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado called it El Desierto Pintado — and its legacy in America’s national landscape. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the forest a National Monument; 26 years later, the protected site added 2,500 acres of the Painted Desert. Last year, it again expanded, with about 26,000 more acres.

Richard and I started our expedition at the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, a Civilian Conservation Corps project that was rehabbed about six years ago. We walked along a rim trail that drew us to the edge of a world that swept like a frozen sea out to the horizon. The mountains swelled with tides of gray-blue and dusty rose. I wanted to mount a magic surfboard and ride away.

I harbored a strong urge to touch the desert, in part to prove that it was real and not just a backdrop left over from a John Ford movie. On the drive to Crystal Forest, 18 miles south, Richard pulled over near a sandstone mound. The red was blinding close up. I pressed my hand against the warm rock and felt millions of years crumble beneath my palm.

To bide our time before sunset, we poked around the petrified remnants in Crystal Forest, a time capsule of the Triassic Age, with one adjustment: Instead of dinosaurs, we had a busload of French tourists.

The petrified logs started life more than 200 million years ago, appearing as nearly 200-foot-tall trees in a tropical wetland. Silica, a mineral from volcanic ash, seeped into the trees’ tissue and, like a pushy houseguest, replaced the wood with quartz colored by such minerals as iron and manganese. Honestly, the new residents are much prettier.

The Crystal Forest trail hops and skips through an open field of petrified logs tossed willy-nilly. They remain as the river left them. From the path, I could crouch down close to the logs and inspect the striated colors as glittery as Faberge eggs. One specimen alone crammed in gold, lavender, maroon, ochre, nectarine orange and skim milk white.

Without looking at the clock, I knew that showtime was nearing. My shadow appeared long and stretched out; with legs like these, I could leap over mountaintops.

Richard and I planted ourselves on a wall at Pintado Point and volleyed our heads from west to east, from the setting fireball to the fading light over the desert.

“The day dies quietly and the shadows move in,” he said. “Suddenly you realize you can’t see much anymore.”

As the sun lost its wattage, the colors of the desert stepped up and stole the light. One by one, the peaks glowed pink and red and purple, then dimmed. When the mountains finally turned dark, the Arizona sky took over, spending twilight bathed in a Painted Desert palette.

Details: Southwest fall colors

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