Battling to the car in Scott of the Antarctic conditions, we leave the plateau and drop down into relative calm, still cold but sunny, and investigate some further delights on Scenic Route 12. Best along the route is the Petrified Forest at Escalante. There is an easy walking trail up the hill, to visit the 150 million year old remains of trees, that were buried in shallow lake deposits and molecule by molecule replaced by mineral crystals, to produce an exact likeness of tree trunks. Some are so detailed that you can see the exact form of the bark and even in some cases the tree rings within.
To run your hand over these and feel the exact shape of the tree, just as it would have felt when it fell -- and it feels just like its current coniferous descendants -- is quite an experience.
This area is known as the Grand Staircase, and all around are the terraces of sandstone and alternating limestone sediments descending, layer upon layer. From about 200 million years ago, there was a great shallow sea between where the Rockies are today, and the Appalachians. Into this at various times descended the shells and bodies of chalky creatures to provide limestone strata; material was eroded from the surrounding mountains to form sand bars, or sand dunes invaded the site; volcanoes spewed out vast deposits of ash and lava bombs. Layer upon layer, miles deep, until there was a great tectonic squeeze and the whole area was uplifted way above sea level to produce a vast plateau. Then rapid erosion cut in the deep canyons leading to the Colorado. The "staircase" is the exposure of the different layers, some softer, some harder, eroding at different rates and providing different profiles as they get exposed. In the deeper canyons tens of millions of years are exposed to view.
All day the temperature remains below zero, but at least the wind has dropped. We ascend to 9400 feet and extensive aspen woods, interspersed with pines: the temperature drops even further and the weather closes in with snow flurries and heavy skies.
We finally reach Torrey, where we are staying for two nights. Our motel is perched on an outcrop facing a great layered wall, glowing in the late afternoon sun for a while, until the weather here too deteriorates and the cloud descends until nothing is visible. By morning there's a good covering of snow everywhere and it's still falling. We drop into the Chuck Wagon General Store for breakfast. It feels a little like Twin Peaks in this remote corner, so I order cherry pie and "dam' fine coffee". The town is tiny but with a few much older buildings harking back to the original settlers, and a fine avenue of trees lines Main Street.
The weather clears enough to let us visit the Capitol Reef National Park. On the left are huge ranges of red sandstone, some layers incredibly detailed, others great blank walls. And on the right there are huge incisions many hundreds of feet deep further into geological time. We are able to go to the edge of Gooseneck Canyon and look into its depths. Once it was a meandering stream on a low lying plateau. Then as the rock was rapidly forced up, the stream cut down through the Mesozoic layer cake, maintaining the loops and bends of its course. We carry on to the Grand Wash, another such canyon where we can walk along its bed around 13 bends, looking up at the looming walls, some heavily overhanging our path. As we walk, the snow starts up again, in flurries, then something stronger. We turn back and by the time we get to the car it's getting serious and we're getting soaked by freezing sleet (but it turns out Tilley hats are also waterproof).
Just time for a visit to the old Gifford homestead, one of the few artefacts of early Mormon settlers in this remote area, the last to be explored and mapped by Europeans in the continental US. A good place to buy patchwork place mats, cedar rolling pins and home made rhubarb and strawberry pies -- at least that's what we came away with.