Thursday, March 02, 2006

Let's get started

Las Vegas spaghetti bowl

This blog is dedicated to describing a popular automotive day-trip from Las Vegas, Nevada to Zion National Park, Utah. This easy trip of 165 miles (one-way) starts out in a low elevation Mojave Desert valley and then climbs steadily northward into the canyon carved mesa country of Utah's high plateaus. Along the way we'll examine the history, geology, culture and scenic beauty of this magnificent slice of the American West. Enjoy the journey.

Zion Canyon in the autumn.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Thumbnail Sketch of Las Vegas

Bugsy's Fabulous Flamingo!

The bustling and dynamic city of Las Vegas (2,033 alt. 478,000 pop.) rises from the parched dusty floor of the Las Vegas Valley like an improbable mirage. Early Spanish explorers and traders called this place “the greens” because of the natural springs and green meadows found in this valley, which provided a life-sustaining oasis along the original road from Santa Fe to California called The Old Spanish Trail. Portions of Interstate 15 and 70 utilize this same route today.

The Spanish Trail skirted northward around the edge of the rugged canyon country of the Colorado River basin and then bee-lined straight south from Utah through the Las Vegas Valley on into California. Caravans would stop at these springs to rest and water their horses before the next big push in either direction, which would lead them across extremely inhospitable deserts.

The first American occupation occurred in 1855 when Brigham Young sent a party of Mormon settlers to protect the springs and set up a way station for travelers going between California and the Great Salt Lake Valley (today’s Interstate 15). In 1905 a major railroad connected the town to the outside world and Las Vegas began to grow steadily as a supply point for a vast ranching and mining hinterland.

The remains of the original Mormon fort, now a park.

In 1930 the U.S. Government completed construction of the Hoover Dam just south of Las Vegas on the Colorado River. The cheap and plentiful supply of water and power that it produced enabled the fledgling town to grow into a fairly large metropolis in a relatively short span of time.

Hoover Dam

The most important event in the history of Las Vegas was the arrival of pioneering gangster entrepreneur Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegal in the 1940’s who built the "fabulous" Flamingo Hotel. Siegel was an eastern mobster who had made his way up through the criminal ranks running a murder for hire operation in New York. His bosses dispatched him to Hollywood in the 1930’s to flesh out new business opportunities by shaking down various professional organizations and trade unions in the burgeoning film industry.

At about the same time west coast crime bosses were losing their lucrative offshore gambling ships due to the zealous efforts of California Attorney General Earl Warren, whose aggressive grandstanding in front of the cameras helped launch a political career that catapulted him all the way to the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. For the criminals it simply meant that they had to search for a new place from which to continue this very remunerative activity.

Florida based mobster Meyer Lansky sent Siegel to Las Vegas in the mid-1940's to muscle in on the sports betting wire services that operated legally out of Nevada, as they bought heavily into a company called Trans America Wire. Nevada law also allowed other forms of gambling and Siegel pitched the idea to Lansky of setting up a permanent and lavish casino in Las Vegas that would give the crooks an entry into a legitimate business that was, to them, almost a license to print money. At first they all thought Bugsy was crazy.

Bugsy Siegel

Siegel envisioned a glittering gaudy gambling Mecca arising from the desert sands, a mere four and a half hour drive from Los Angeles, where every corrupt fantasy and indulgence could be conveniently supplied to the public day and night with all of the money generated from this activity going straight into the mob’s coffers. It was a dream come true for organized crime.

Starting out with financial backing from a consortium of crime bosses Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in 1946 and Las Vegas was on its way to becoming exactly what he had envisioned, a world destination for sin, sun and fun. A 24-hour world's fair designed by the Devil. Or as someone else has quipped “Heaven designed by a gangster.”

By the 1950’s & 60’s the famous Las Vegas “Strip” grew to be a world-renowned icon of American decadence and sodden excess with its over the top entertainments and round the clock party atmosphere. That era is now fondly celebrated and nostalgically embraced for its martini chic and jazz inflected smoky lounge sophistication. Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack have come to symbolize for many the elegant charm and boozy demeanor of a particularly evocative period in the city’s history. Other colorful characters from that era that made Las Vegas their home and helped to influence its style include Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Liberace, Louis Prima, Wayne Newton and Don Rickles. This period also marked the twilight of mob control as more respectable enterprises took a keen interest in the big profits to be made from all forms of gambling in Sin City.

The Rat Pack

By the mid-seventies Las Vegas casinos slowly transitioned away from individual ownership towards control by corporate gambling consortiums owning multiple properties throughout the world. The new multi-billion dollar edifices like the Venetian, Paris and Bellagio dwarf the older properties, which are now little more than quaint relics of a seemingly more genteel era in the city’s history. One by one these older properties are being razed to the ground to make way for newer and larger hotels that will hopefully keep the public interested and coming back for the next latest and greatest attraction. Like a mature forest these giants eventually overshadow and push out the pioneer growth that nurtured the ground and turned up the soil in the beginning. Las Vegas seems to go through a major transformation about every 10 to 15 years.

The iconic Las Vegas sign

Today Las Vegas is the largest city in Nevada and one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S., and with over 30 million visitors annually it is one of the most visited places in the world. Increasingly non-gambling factors like the warm climate, low taxes and recreational amenities have attracted newer immigrants and industries to the area.

Clark County of which Las Vegas is the principal city is the 17th most populous county in the United States with 1.3 million inhabitants. The greater metropolitan area attracts about 5000 newcomers a month making it the fastest growing metropolis in the nation.

The 1940 WPA Guide to Nevada entry on Las Vegas reveals:

"Relatively little emphasis is placed on the gambling clubs and divorce facilities----though they are attractions to many visitors----and much effort is being made to build up cultural attractions. No cheap and easily parodied slogans have been adopted to publicize the city; no attempt has been made to introduce pseudo-romantic architectural themes, or to give artificial glamour and gaiety. Las Vegas is itself----natural and therefore very appealing to people with a very wide variety of interests."

My how times have changed!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Following the Old Spanish Trail in Nevada

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are common along this stretch of the trip.

Interstate 15 is the modern day ancestor of a very old route. From California northward into Utah it parallels a stretch of the Old Spanish Trail known back in the caravan days as the Journada del Muerto or "journey of death". This description was due to the lack of water, extremely rough terrain and unfriendly native tribes. Today you can cruise northward from Las Vegas, on this exact same route at 75 miles per hour, crossing an uncrowded 90 miles of spectacular Mojave Desert which merges into canyon country at the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona. The original Spanish Trail avoided the gorge altogether by routing west of it through the Beaver Dam Mountains and then using the upper drainages of the Santa Clara River in Utah to finally lead it on into the Great Basin and points north and east.

The entire Spanish Trail ran between Santa Fe and Los Angeles over a circuitous 1,200 mile northward-looping course traversing six modern day states. Traveled by traders, trappers, horse dealers, Indians and slavers, the trail was most actively used from 1829 to 1848 when it was the main corridor through the Southwest. After 1848 Mormon pioneers developed the western portion of the trail for wagon travel between Salt Lake City and southern California. Las Vegas was eventually settled as a way station and supply point on this vitally important route as were the towns of San Bernardino, Saint George and Cedar City.

The following passage from the 1940 WPA Guide to Nevada still describes this section of the trip accurately, capturing the essence and beauty of the harsh yet beautiful desert landscape:

"The highway crosses the extreme southern tip of Nevada, where some ranching areas lie hidden behind starkly eroded foothills, and beyond stretches of rolling desert. Weird, beautiful formations of the kind characteristic of the Grand Canyon country are seen throughout. The highway follows the Virgin River for ten miles, crosses the Muddy River just west of Glendale, and continues through awe-inspiring terrain. High, rugged mountains are visible on both sides above a valley floor with vegetation including cacti, joshua trees, and Spanish bayonet. The route roughly follows the old Spanish Trail, which in this section became part of the Mormon Road to Southern California."

Rutted remnant of the Spanish Trail on Mormon Mesa, near Mesquite.

1846 map of the Spanish Trail

The modern day Journada del Muerto crosses Dry Lake Valley.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Up on Mormon Mesa

As soon as you pass the exit for Glendale and Moapa (#90), heading north on Interstate 15, you immediately begin a steep ascent to the top of Mormon Mesa.

Climbing Mormon Mesa from the south.

For the next 25 miles the highway crosses a large flat topped mesa, some 1000 feet above the surrounding valley bottoms of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers located to the south and east. The landscape is classic Mojave desert country with dense stands of Joshua trees, scattered creosote bush and spiny cholla cactus. The critters who inhabit this harsh terrain range from the deadly Mojave Green rattlesnake and the Gila monster to coyotes, road runners and the endangered desert tortoise. Ravens are probably the most commonly observed animals along this stretch of highway, where they can often be seen picking at road-kill and the edible trash thrown from passing vehicles.

Mojave Green rattlesnake, the most poisonous snake in North America.

Rising abruptly from this level plain, to the west, are the Mormon Mountains, an extremely rugged and steep range which is also a designated wilderness area. From the interstate you can't help but notice this tall imposing uplifted block of limestone with high cliffs located just below the ridge line.

The Mormon Mountains as seen from I-15

One of the only things written about this obscure range is found in the Sierra Club guide book Hiking the Great Basin:

"At least 163,00 acres here are roadless, a huge knot of untouched ridges and valleys. The range is full of cliffs, some of them over 800 feet high. The area is also known for its caves; some are rich in stalactites and other curious formations. Maps show ruins scattered widely in the valleys; these are mescal pits, large circular holes in which Paiute Indians baked agave.

Pictographs near an agve pit in the Mormon Mountains.

The Mormon Mountains are critical bighorn sheep habitat. For the sake of the sheep a sizable area has been closed to oil and gas exploration. Wild horses and burros, competing here with the sheep are slated for removal. Rattlesnakes of several species are also common."

It has also been said by local cowpokes and hunters that this extremely dry range does not contain enough water to make a cup of coffee with. Immense and isolated, these mountains are still very wild and mostly unknown to the rest the world whizzing by at 75 miles per hour.

Descent of Mormon Mesa into Mesquite Valley.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Mesquite Valley

Approaching Mesquite, Nevada from the south, at exit 120.

Mesquite (alt. 1597, pop. 18,000) is one of the fastest growing communities in the United States, as it gains increasing recognition as a golf, gambling and retirement mecca. Founded along the banks of the Virgin River by Mormon pioneers in 1880, most of its history has been spent as a quiet rural backwater with an economy based on dairy farming and the raising of livestock.

When Interstate 15 was constructed through the Mesquite Valley in the early 1970's, the town's geographic position along the Nevada state line made it a desirable location to build gambling casinos catering to the large flow of traffic that would pass through on the new intercontinental highway. Many an unlucky gambler has lost all their money in Mesquite well before ever making it to the bright lights and neon of Las Vegas. A local casino has a tag line that says Mesquite is Las Vegas fun without the hangover.There are now four major hotel/casinos catering to the highway gambling trade.

Virgin River Hotel & Casino

With its mild year-round climate Mesquite is hosting more people for extended stays to attend conventions, trade shows, golf tournaments, and off-road motorized recreation events. Many visitors like it so much that they eventually become permanent and seasonal residents of this emerging oasis of fun and sun in the northern Mojave.

Tanya Tucker performs in a Mesquite showroom.

If you took a census of the cars in the major casino parking lots of Mesquite, you'd find a preponderance with Utah license plates. Most of these vehicles belong to folks who have made the 38-mile trek from the St. George area, where they wish to escape restrictive laws against drinking and gambling as well as the weak and watery 3.2% beer sold there. Nevada beer is 5% and there are many fine grocery and liquor retail outlets in Mesquite that cater to the Utah trade by brazenly advertising in the local Utah papers. It is technically a crime to bring more than a miniscule amount of alcohol into Utah so exercise some caution if you plan to smuggle contraband adult beverages into the Beehive State. Bury it good and deep under your bulkier luggage and avoid getting pulled over.

The Casablanca Hotel & Casino

Mesquite's phenomenal growth over the past 20 years has been a result of a warm year-round climate, a beautiful desert setting and Nevada's liberal tax and inheritance laws, which have drawn thousands of retirees to settle in the valley. The availability of water from the Virgin River to develop large-scale golf courses and retirement communities will continue to fuel rapid growth into the foreseeable future.

Wolf Creek Golf Course

Just past exit 122 is the Arizona state line. This remote corner of the state is part of what is known as the Arizona Strip, which is all of the territory south of the Utah state line and north of the Colorado River. Mostly inhabited by Paiute Indians, polygamists and cow punchers this section is culturally and geographically more akin to Utah than to Arizona, but the nineteenth-century federal map makers in Washington, DC who measured out straight lines across unknown territory were not inclined to think in terms of natural geographic boundaries and hence this isolated strip of territory was made a part of Arizona.

Welcome to Arizona!

In order for the residents of the few small towns that exist here to reach the Mohave County seat in Kingman, they must drive first through Nevada on a five-hour trip of 192 miles! Talk about your splendid isolation.

Virgin Mountains & northern Mesquite Valley, Arizona

This part of the valley is growing rapidly as more people fan out into the undeveloped portions of the nearby desert to build homes and ranchettes on the other side of the Virgin River.

Flooding in 2005 caused considerable damage in the Mesquite Valley.

Pit Stop in Beaver Dam

This handsome Harley was parked outside the Dam Bar in the tiny hamlet of Beaver Dam, Arizona. This little gem of a rough and tumble community saloon is patronized by colorful friendly locals, as well as a dedicated legion of fans who stop in for a spell whenever they're passing through on nearby Interstate 15. Next door is a gas station/convenience store and across the road is a very small golf course. All in all a very quiet peaceful place.

If you follow the main drag north out of town it will ultimately lead you on into St. George, Utah via the former route (old U.S. 91) which was bypassed in 1972 when Interstate 15 cut a direct path through the Virgin River Gorge. This lightly traveled two-lane highway is very scenic and passes through a dense forest of Joshua trees before crossing over a low pass in the Beaver Dam Mountains and then dropping into the valley of the Santa Clara River leading to St. George. It's about a half-hour longer than taking the interstate through the gorge but is a more relaxed approach to St. George with its views of vast desert valleys and distant snow-capped mountain peaks.

The wild and wonderful Beaver Dam Mountains

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Virgin River Gorge

Joshua trees in the Virgin River Gorge, Arizona

The Virgin River Gorge is located at about the mid-way point on the road trip from Las Vegas to Zion National Park, and represents the geographical transition between the Basin & Range and the Colorado Plateau. From the parched desert floor of the Mesquite Valley the road winds and climbs upward into brightly colored horizontal layers of sedimentary rock that tower just above the roadbed. It is literally a mini-Grand Canyon because it contains the equivalent geologic layers that are found in the more famous national park located due east of the gorge. Many travelers are struck by the obvious similarity and some even think it's a part of the Grand Canyon.

In the middle of the gorge, near the Cedar Pockets exit (#27), the road crosses the Grand Wash Fault, which forms the western boundary of the Colorado Plateau, and is dropping the rock layers downward to the west. You can readily see the tilt in these gray limestone beds as you enter the gorge, but will notice that after you cross the fault the layers become more uniformly flat lying and more brightly colored. The gray beds in the lower gorge are much older than the orange, red and tan layers of the upper part, which are related to those found in the Grand Canyon and are known as the Supai Group.

The lower gorge, cutting through the Pakoon Limestone layer.

This spectacular stretch of interstate highway was not completed until the early 1970’s and cost the then unheard of sum of one million dollars a mile to build. Prior to its construction travelers had to skirt the gorge to the west on old U.S. 91 and face a notoriously steep hill that was known to boil up the radiators of so many cars in the heat of summer that they built a service station in the shade of some rocks near the top of the pass.

The rim of the upper gorge is capped by Kaibab Limestone, looking north.

The first person to record a passage through the gorge was the legendary explorer and trapper Jedediah Smith who discovered that the Virgin River flowed into the Colorado and thus blazed the first overland trail to California from the desert interior in 1827. This later became known as the Old Spanish Trail and was used by traders traveling between Santa Fe and the small pueblos of Los Angeles and San Diego. These merchants traded highly prized California raised horses and mules for New Mexico blankets and textiles as well as Indian slaves. The slaves were usually Paiute women and children who were captured by mounted Utes and Navajos who'd try to sell them to Spanish and American caravans making their way through this stretch of country.

Today the trail parallels a scenic stretch of interstate that provides a vital link for commerce and travel connecting coastal California to the interior of the United States. It also hints to the traveler of the beautiful red rock scenery that is still yet to come.

The Virgin River in full flood through the gorge.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The St. George Temple

The most prominent and historically significant structure in southern Utah is the massive St. George Mormon Temple, which was dedicated in 1877, making it the oldest in continuous use for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The description from the 1940 WPA Guide to Utah is still an accurate depiction:

Mormon Temple (not open to non-Mormons), resting on a slight elevation, is visible for miles around. The squarely built white stucco temple has three tiers of round-arched windows, surmounted by a row of oval windows. It has a well-proportioned cupola with a weather vane, and covers nearly an acre within a ten-acre tract. Spacious green lawns, bordered with a profusion of colorful plants, accent the snowy exterior of the structure and tend to magnify its size. At night, floodlights on the building produce a cameo-like effect.

The book Temple Manifestations (1974) tells how the particular site was chosen by then church president Brigham Young, who owned a winter home in St. George. President Young first encouraged the pioneer settlers to construct a temple and then chose the ground where it was to be built. Local church leaders had wanted to build on a higher more prominent site near the town's rocky bluffs but Young directed them instead to a lower swampier site south of the town center. He reportedly stated that Moroni, a prophet from the Book of Mormon, had actually dedicated the exact same site in ancient times but had been unable to bring his hopes to a full fruition.

Temple under construction

It required months of concerted effort to drain the swamp, by using a homemade machine resembling a well-drilling apparatus, and then the pioneers had to drive tons of volcanic rock deep down into the boggy soil to prepare a suitable foundation. Today this beautiful relic of 19th century Mormon architecture still dominates the St. George skyline with its eclectic mixture of religious, secular and Masonic elements. A soaring white holy temple topped by a weather vane is indeed a uniquely inspiring sight to behold.

The temple grounds are just a few minutes from the freeway via the Bluff Street exit (#6) and everyone is welcome to tour the Visitor Center which is open daily from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm.

Brother Brigham

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Final Leg to Zion

We finally say good-bye to I-15 at its junction with Utah Hwy. 9 (exit #16) and begin heading due east through the fast growing Hurricane Valley. From here the route crosses the Hurricane Fault, the second most active seismic zone in North America, and climbs up onto the main platform of the Colorado Plateau. The highway closely follows the meandering Virgin River upstream to our final destination: Zion National Park.

This is some of the most beautiful and evocative scenery of the entire trip. Enjoy!

Hwy. 9 with Gooseberry Mesa in the distance.

An ancient lava flow sits frozen in time beneath the towering ramparts of Mount Kinesava.

Entering the village of Springdale and lower Zion Canyon.

Zion: The Promised Land & Heavenly City of God.

Zion: Paradise Found

A quiet stroll through Echo Canyon.

Zion is an ancient Hebrew word, originally used to describe a dry rocky place of holy sanctuary in ancient Israel. How fitting it is that today this same word should be associated with the towering cathedrals and temples of brightly colored stone we call Zion National Park.

West Temple of Zion from the air.

The colorful rock layers of Zion were originally deposited in a series of swamps, rivers, forests and a vast sand-dune desert. Remains of fossil fish, dinosaur tracks and petrified wood all bear testimony to the various environments that have moved back and forth across this landscape throughout geologic time.

A colorful outcrop of the Moenave formation on Bridge Mountain.

Tectonic activity over the past several million years has abruptly uplifted these long-buried beds along the nearby Hurricane Fault. The cutting power of the Virgin River and its tributaries erodes into these rapidly rising layers creating the canyons and cliffs we see today. The geologic processes that have created Zion are still actively at work and invite curiosity from all who view the spectacle.

Dinosaur track in Zion Canyon.

A winter sunset casts its spell on the Virgin River and Watchman Mountain.