Aerial Geology: The Wave!

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In a landscape littered with bizarre sandstone formations, the Wave on the border between Utah and Arizona stands out as downright psychedelic. Here colorful petrified sand dunes have been sculpted into undulating waves, photographs of which are so coveted that the park service has imposed a unique permit lottery system to keep the delicate site from being overrun with snap-happy tourists.

My book Aerial Geology:A High Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters and Peaks highlights 100 geologic features across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. As of this spring, I had visited 89 out of 100 but after my lucky lotto ball came up on Memorial Day weekend, I’ve now been to 90!

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The Wave is located within the Coyote Buttes area of Pariah Canyon– Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, near the bottom of the Grand Staircase that descends through canyon country from Brian Head down to the Grand Canyon. Hidden in the backcountry several miles from the nearest rough dirt road, the Wave was virtually unknown until the 1990’s when it was featured in German travel brochures of the American Southwest and in the 1996 German nature documentary, Fascination Natur. Popularity among Europeans soared and the site soon became one of the most sought-after photos for foreign travelers visiting the U.S.

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To visit the Wave, you must win the lottery. Only 20 people per day are allowed to visit the site. Ten permits are awarded through an online lottery, months ahead of time and ten permits are given out the day prior at the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. During the summer, over a hundred people a day vie for these ten permits.

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We happened through Kanab, Utah on Memorial Day weekend and played the Wave permit lottery two days in a row. The first day about 150 people were vying for the 10 permits. The first lottery ball pulled was for a group of 6 and the second went to a group of 4 and it was all over in two minutes. On day two, we arrived at 8:58 local time, just in time to submit a permit application. When Ranger Ron read off everybody’s lottery ball number, he called “Morton number 47” and I knew I was going to the Wave… 47 is one of my luckiest numbers! Sure enough, the third ball he pulled was #47!

Me

That night we camped down House Rock Road and set off before dawn the next morning for the Wave. The park service provides a photo map of the route to the formation; the trail is not marked and much of it flows over slickrock that doesn’t save footprints. I was surprised by the highly difficult routefinding! Dan and I are very experienced off-trail desert hikers and even we got a little sidetracked on our way to the Wave. In the photo below, we are almost there; the Wave is tucked behind the cones of rock in the middle ground.

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We were the first to arrive and had the place to ourselves for about an hour. Then we left to scramble up the rocks behind the Wave to overlook the formation. As I say in my book: Geology is best appreciated from above! The Wave appears just above the tips of my boots in the photo below.

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From Aerial Geology: During the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, this part of Arizona was buried under a massive sand dune field. Periodic changes in the direction of the prevailing winds led to cross bedding of the layers of sand as the dunes migrated across the landscape. Over time, these layers were lithified into bright orange Navajo sandstone more than 1,200 feet thick.

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The thin ridges and ripples preserved at the Wave are evidence of millions of years of shifting wind patterns. Technically called wind ripple laminae, these lines are part of what make the Wave so photogenic. From the air, these lines highlight the now frozen movement of these ancient dunes. The nearby checkerboard patterns are created by freeze and thaw weathering of the petrified dunes, resulting in crosshatching of the sandstone. Dinosaur footprints have also been identified in the rocks near the Wave, relics from ancient travels across the dunes.

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As amazing as the Wave itself is, the surrounding sandstone wonderland of North Coyote Buttes calls me back. Within a 1-mile radius of the Wave we found a field of Moki Marbles: tiny iron balls that form when iron-rich sandstone is leeched by groundwater over geologic time. The iron balls are very heavy and tend to roll downhill and collect in pockets.

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…As well as several sandy coves that have been carved out of the rock by swirling wind and flying grit….

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…Arches and Windows…

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….And a slickrock slot canyon!

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May the Southwest wonders never cease!

Cottonwood rdHeading north from the Wave via Cottonwood Road through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

To See More of the World, including the Wave and 99 other geologic formations, you can order a signed copy of Aerial Geology direct from me for $34.99 plus $5.00 shipping via Paypal:


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Never Say Never Bridger

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Living and skiing in Big Sky, Montana, we often see a bumper sticker that says “Never Bridger”, a cheeky dig at Bridger Bowl ski area north of Bozeman. Bridger is less than a two-hour drive from Big Sky, but it’s amazing how many Big Sky skiers have stubbornly never skied Bridger. In fairness, it’s pretty hard to drive away from Lone Peak and many of us don’t leave our mountain town bubble for weeks or months at a time in the winter. When you have the “Biggest Skiing in America” in your backyard, topped off with world-class backcountry skiing in Beehive Basin, why go anywhere else?

As much as I love our mountain home, I make a point to leave Big Sky at least a few times a winter to explore other ski mountains. Earlier this winter we skied Lost Trail Powder Mountain south of Missoula and a few weeks ago we made the trek up to Whitefish Mountain Resort, outside of Glacier National Park. This winter, I really wanted to make it to Bridger because our friend and former roommate Al joined the ski patrol squad there this winter and he was offering to show us the classics, including the Bridger Ridge: a 2.5 mile long ridgeline hike across the top of the Bridger Mountain Range. I also wanted to put an end to my partner Dan’s 8-year “Never Bridger” streak.

Yesterday after a warmup lap on the “Fingers”, we followed Al onto the Bridger lift and then strapped our skis to our backpacks and bootpacked straight up about 500 feet onto the ridge. From there we hiked north along the windy, corniced ridge to an area called the Apron, where we clicked into our skis and dropped into Hidden Gully, a steep, narrow and snowy chute on the east side of the ridge. And then we did it again. Never Say Never Bridger Mission Accomplished!

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We have about three weeks left of skiing in Big Sky before the lifts stop spinning April 22. Then we’ll be taking our skis to Iceland! In the meantime, Aerial Geology is back in stock! Signed copies direct from me are $30 plus $5 shipping. Read more about my book here.


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Aerial Geology is (almost) Sold Out!

Aerial Geology in stock at the Country Bookshelf on Main Street in Bozeman, MT

Well this is an interesting development! I tried to order more Aerial Geology books from the warehouse and I was informed they are sold out! The next printing will be ready by the end of February. You can still buy the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local independent booksellers, but orders for signed books direct from me will now be filled at the end of February/ early March. Thanks again for all your support!

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My First Official Book Signing!

Since Aerial Geology was published in October, I’ve personally signed and mailed about 300 copies. The book is also a best seller on Amazon and the first edition is almost sold out! On Sunday, I’ll be hosting my very first official book signing at the Country Bookshelf, an independent bookseller on Main Street in Bozeman, Montana! My talk starts at 2pm, following by a Q&A and a book signing. If anybody is in the area, I hope to see you there! Please help spread the word! Thanks everybody!

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Win A Copy of Aerial Geology!

My fabulous publisher is giving away a copy of Aerial Geology today! To enter, visit the Timber Press Facebook page and leave a comment about your favorite geologic site on their post.

The holidays just keep on giving this year: Aerial Geology has been featured in the New York Times Book Review, Smithsonian Magazine and Colorado Public Radio as one of the best travel books of the year!

With its stunning photos, accessible geology and widespread reach all over North America, Aerial Geology makes a great gift for everybody on your Christmas list from kids to grandparents to geologists! You can pick up a copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, your local independent bookseller or get a signed copy direct from me for $27 plus $5 shipping per book:


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Thanks everybody and Happy Holidays! M

Posted in Aerial Geology, Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing

Aerial Geology in the New York Times!

 

Aerial Geology at Phoenix Book in Burlington, VT

In the past two months, I’ve found Aerial Geology in bookstores from Bozeman, Montana to Moab, Utah to Burlington, Vermont. The team at Timber Press has done an incredible job getting it out into the world! This weekend, Aerial Geology is featured in the New York Times Book Review/ Holiday Gift Guide!

“What better way to introduce geology to any reluctant science student than a book full of breathtaking “who knew?” moments. Luckily, the writer and mountaineer (and, appropriately enough, resident of Big Sky, Mont.) Mary Caperton Morton knows. Take in the natural splendors of the view from an airplane window: This generously photographed volume even offers flight patterns that will reveal our earthly treasures. – Dominique Browning, NYT

The Malaspina Glacier is the largest “piedmont” glacier on Earth. Image by NASA.

I don’t really comprehend how somebody could be a “reluctant” geologist… the Earth is the coolest planet in the whole Universe! But I do think Aerial Geology makes the perfect gift for just about everybody on your Christmas list! I’ve had a lot of great feedback from kids to grandparents. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore (they probably have it!) or on Amazon (it’s a #1 Best Seller!) or get it from the source… signed copies are $30 plus $5 shipping direct from me.


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Enter the Aerial Geology Contest and See More of the World!

Do you think you would recognize your favorite National Park from the air? If you have a good eye for Aerial Geology check out this contest from Timber Press and the folks from 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. Identify a place featured in my book and you’ll be entered to win a $500 travel voucher, a National Park annual pass, books and other goodies! To enter visit: http://www.timberpress.com/aerialgeology. Good luck!

Sunrise over the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. I recently hiked a three day, 30 mile loop from the South Rim on the Hermit and Boucher trails! Highly recommend if you like backpacking over steep class 3 and 4 terrain!

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Aerial Geology: San Rafael Reef

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In geologic terms, the San Rafael Swell is an anticline: a fold in the Earth’s crust that looks like a dome in cross-section. The Swell formed between 60 and 40 million years ago, when the Rocky Mountains were rising to the east, both uplifted by the same forces deep in the Earth’s mantle. As the top and sides of the dome split and fractured, rainwater found its way into the cracks, eroding them deeper and forming a convoluted network of slot canyons that drain the Swell, some only a few feet wide but hundreds of feet deep.

The eastern side of the Swell, called the San Rafael Reef, is the most dramatically tilted and fractured part of the dome. Made up of steeply tilted layers of erosion-resistant white Navajo sandstone and red Wingate sandstone, these hard rocks have formed into upright fins, cliffs and deep canyons.

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I’ve visited the San Rafael Swell a few times and have wriggled through its slot canyons and tested my navigating skills by hiking cross-country into its labyrinth of folds, but I hadn’t yet seen it from on high. And you all know how I love learning about the landscape from altitude! So Dan and I set our sights high: a nine pitch climb to the top of the San Rafael Reef up a route called Death By Chocolate.

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Read more about the San Rafael Reef in my book Aerial Geology out now from Timber Press! I emerged from a few wifi-less days in the desert to great news: Aerial Geology is a #1 best seller on Amazon!

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Aerial Geology is Nationwide!

Introducing Aerial Geology to the Utah Desert

Hey everybody! I stopped in Back of Beyond Books today in Moab, Utah and lo and behold… I found a copy of Aerial Geology on their shelves! You should now be able to find a copy at Barnes & Noble, Target and independent booksellers nationwide. You can also order the book off Amazon. Once you’ve had a chance to read through it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. I’m celebrating my book release with a good old fashioned desert roadtrip. You can follow my travels in Instagram. Thanks everybody!

Aerial Geology on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument

Front and center in the Geology section of Back of Beyond Books in Moab.

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Aerial Geology: The Dragon’s Back

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Northwest New Mexico is one of the driest places in the country – the region gets less than 12 inches of rain a year, most of it during the late summer monsoon season. But despite the aridity, this desert is shaped by water. During the Mesozoic Era, starting around 160 million years ago, what is now New Mexico was flooded by the Jurassic Ocean, a shallow inland sea that covered most of the Southwest United States. The Jurassic Ocean was very salty and rich in minerals that left behind extensive deposits of limestone and gypsum.

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These layers of gypsum, a white crumbly rock, have eroded away to sculpt a formation known as the “Dragon’s Back”, a 2.5 mile-long ridge with a bulbous head and a tapering tail that, from the air, has the appearance of a great white serpent, standing out starkly against the red and orange landscape. Look closely and you may see tiny mountain bike riders or hikers making their way along the spine of the Dragon’s Back. The trail is not for the faint of heart: gypsum is a water-soluble mineral and eons of rare rains have melted a few sinkholes into the top of the ridge, some big enough to swallow a bike whole.

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The top of the Dragon’s Back is wide enough to bike or hike across without much danger of falling off, but narrow enough in some sections to trigger vertigo. The east side of the ridge drops steeply down into a enormous bowl, carved out by erosion over the past 150 million years. This bowl is known in geologic terms as an anticline: a fold in the Earth’s crust that creates a convex dome. This anticline, however, is different. It’s no longer a dome – the middle layers have been scooped out by erosion – leaving behind a bowl with upswept sides. This feature is so unique that geology classes from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque journey here each year on field trips to see it in person.

Dragons back

The name the Dragon’s Back is fitting, and not just for the formation’s distinctively reptilian shape. During the Mesozoic, when the layers that form the Dragon’s Back were laid down, dinosaurs dominated the land and the sea. New Mexico is home to some of the most productive dinosaur bone yards in the country, including in the Ojito Wilderness, just 10 miles south of the Dragon’s Back, where one of the longest dinosaurs found to date – the 110-foot long Seismosaurus – was uncovered in 1985. The long-necked, long-tailed Seismosaurus was a species of Sauropod, related to the more famous Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus. Other fossils are common in the area, including whole petrified trees.

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Flight pattern: You may catch a glimpse of the Dragon’s Back flying into or out of Albuquerque, located 50 miles southeast of San Ysidro. From the air, the Dragon’s Back appears as a curving white ridge against a red background, just west of highway 550.

Read more about the Dragon’s Back and 99 other North American geologic wonders in Aerial Geology, out now! Order your signed author’s copy direct from me for $27 plus $5 shipping per book through 
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Also available through AmazonBarnes & Noble or Indie Bound. Or find it at your local bookseller starting in early October!

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