There are many strange, surreal landscapes scattered over a wide expanse of brilliant red deserts spread across the Great Southwest of the United States.
One of the more surreal places is just outside Big Water, Utah on isolated Smokey Mountain Road. It’s an eerie blue-grey exposed seafloor of a vast 93 million year old ocean basin called the Western Cretaceous Inland Seaway.
Geologists named it tropic shale. Locals simply call it “The Moon!”
Short Drive to “The Moon”
To get there our virtual tour of Smokey Mountain Road begins just off hwy 89.
We drive by the renowned Escalante Corner Mart and a couple dusty blocks past some corrugated metal buildings to where we see a plainly marked sign saying “Smokey Mountain Road” and a bright white arrow pointing right.
There is another sign just like it in Escalante, Utah more than 78 miles away pointing left at the other end of a very challenging drive. No other signs like them are anywhere between.
Right off the bat we drop down into a gully to drive through a lazy flowing stream in a mostly dry Wahweap Creek bed. Nope there ain’t no bridge. Ya gotta drive right through the water.
After heavy rains flash flooding turns it into a raging torrent strong enough to wash an 18-wheeler with surprised driver all the way to Lake Powell.
Immediately after going up the far bank we catch our first glimpse at a land most easily described as a moonscape.
The first 25-30 miles of Smokey Mountain Road crosses “the moon” below the towering Kapairowits Plateau.
The mostly stark landscape is filled with exposed marine fossils and ash-like dust that becomes heavy as viscous concrete on your shoes when it gets damp. Huge boulders that have tumbled down off the Kapairowits over the centuries assume strange positions.
You can’t hardly talk about fossils and “the moon” without talking about Merle.
Like a lotta folks, Merle came to Big Water to get away from somewhere else where life had dealt him a bad hand and he wanted to start life anew.
After arriving a doctor told him he had high cholesterol, was getting overweight and suggested more exercise. A hiker and Indian artifact hunter, Merle decided “the moon” would be a perfect place to look for arrowheads and get some exercise at the same time.
Merle never found any arrowheads.
Instead, in his first week he found the skeletal remains of two Plesiosaurs. A Plesiosaurus is a long-necked marine dinosaur that swam the Western Cretacious Inland Seaway some 93 million years ago.
To date, Merle has discovered the remains of 12 Plesiosaurs.
Gifted with boundless curiosity and high intelligence Merle dove into every text imaginable to transform into the “accidental paleotologist” he describes himself as today. Nobody knows the tropic shale close up and personal with all its many marine fossils like Merle Graffam.
Out walking one day 11 years ago Merle saw a couple orangish dinosaur bones sticking out like a sore thumb from the blue-grey tropic shale.
It turned out to be the first Therizinosaurus ever discovered in the western hemisphere. This one was a new dinosaur species later named Nothronychus Graffami after Merle.
The discovery was within easy sight and not far off Smokey Mountain Road along our driving route. Who knows how many other dinosaurs are out there nearby just waiting to be discovered?
A Therizinosaurus looks ferocious, with big sickle-like claws, that walks upright on powerful hind legs like a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
However, it has a small head and is a land-roving, plant-eating dinosaur. The smallish head of Merle’s find was never dug up but, other than that, the entire skeleton was completely recovered.
Merle’s dinosaur was found about 60 miles out from the ancient ocean’s shore. Why were the bones of a land-based, plant-eating dinosaur found 60 miles from the nearest land under the seafloor?
That’s like finding a buffalo skeleton at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. And what happened to its head?
It has generated a controversy in paleontology circles that is called “The Mystery of the Sickle-Claw Dinosaur“.
In this 3rd episode of the series we finally started our odyssey over southern Utah’s Smokey Mountain Road, one of the most remote roads in the continental USA.
The first miles of the journey took us over a fossil infested moonscape known to geologists as tropic shale.
The first two articles in this little saga are here:
1 – “The Ways of Wilderness Photographers”
– azleader, Living Among Landscapes!, 10/30/2011
2 – “Smokey Mountain Road – The Beginning!”
– azleader, Living Among Landscapes!, 10/31/2011
In the next exciting episode we go up the treacherous Kelly Grade all the way to the top of the Kapairowits Plateau to find its hidden secrets.
In the Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel, “The Land That Time Forgot”, a group of people on a disabled submarine get marooned on an isolated south seas island called Caspak. The island is mostly on a plateau high above the ocean.
On the unique island they discover new species of exotic plants, dinosaurs and find oil they refine into fuel.
The Kapairowits Plateau is a physically isolated land form high above its surroundings just like in Burrough’s fictitious story. It includes new species of plants, animals, dinosaurs and even oil!
The difference is the ocean surrounding it is long since dried up and all the dinosaurs are dead.
The Kapairowits is the real “Land That Time Forgot”.