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.