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Dave North

No, I don't mean barfing, though that's pretty much what I feel like doing when I see the name Upheaval Dome used to describe what is doubtless the most spectacular impact crater remnant in the world.

It looks like you're on some weird moonscape from an old science fiction painting...

Perhaps one day it will be renamed, say, to Shoemaker Crater and instead of being a backwater whazzat, it will become one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service (at Canyonlands National Park, which may be the best park we've got, but that's another story for another place).

Close watchers of this column will remember Akkana and I recently tied the knot, with the help of several friends and Mr. Jane Houston Jones Senior (not Mojo, though he was there. Alan Miller, her dad).

Afterward (among other things) we drove to Moab Utah with one major objective in mind: to get inside Upheaval Dome and return alive.

Perhaps you've seen some of Akkana's pictures of it at:

We have tons more, but really!

After we first saw it years ago, Akkana became obsessed with getting down into it, as if a closer view of what's in there might be somehow interesting. Don't get me wrong, I wanted to go too, but her level of need was somewhat more notable, and her planning better too.

The first time we tried some four years ago, we headed down from the topside (very easy to get at by car) and soon realized the vertical difference of several thousand feet was perhaps going to be a problem in the desert heat. Running out of water about half way down was our first clue.


So then we plotted routes down the crater wall (possible, it turns out, according to some wildcatter writings on the subject, but getting back up might be a bit challenging).

Okay. So what do you do?

Akkana noticed that there was a Black Diamond off-road route to a spot near the bottom, where there was a rude trail marked that led into the lower end of the crater.

Hmm. After some inspection, we realized the vertical elevation change over the 3-1/2 mile hike was only 400 feet: negligible.

Gotta go.

So we did.

Black Diamond, on offroad routes, means the same thing it does on ski runs: Not For The Weak Of Heart. There Be Dragons There. Other scary phrases.

Turns out the first description fits it best: there is nothing technically challenging about the road; it simply is narrow, has sharp turns, and if you slip off the edge you fall several thousand feet down a nearly vertical cliff.

It's that last part that gets it the Black Diamond rating.

This perturbed Akkana so much that, when she got to the edge of the cliff, she didn't even slow down. I got to drive back up. Fun!

Anyway, there was about 80 percent cloud cover that day, which helps a lot, since there is no shade on the hike. There really isn't a trail, you just slog your way up the sandy wash that drains the crater basin. At times, it's 30 or 40 feet wide, at others maybe ten feet.

Yes, its source is just the crater. Yes, it's a big crater.

There is a slightly scary climb getting up onto the first shock ring plateau, and a few landslides you have to negotiate inside the crater itself, but mostly it's fairly level going.

Take water, and plan on a hike of about 15-20 miles. The actual distance will be a bit over ten miles, but the problem is the sandy footing: at times it's like walking on a coarse beach, and by the time the day is done you will have become expert at spotting slightly more solid footing to save a little effort.

Once inside, what you see is a completely alien, unreal landscape of exploding colors and weird contorted shapes. If you've seen Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, expand the pallet and make the shapes much weirder, and you have something of the idea.

It's amazing!

It's also obviously tortured. Gene Shoemaker determined it was an impact event, which is very easy to believe looking at it. The pressures and temperatures that deformed these rocks were enormous (you can clearly see they were originally stratified sediment much like the mostly level placid layered terrain nearby).

If you'd like to see something of what it looked like, try:

For once, I have some pictures I can show off!

We tried to circumnavigate the inside of the crater, but didn't make it. At the high point, the climb gets to be a fairly tricky scramble that we could have managed, but we were at the last reasonable turn-around time, so we opted out.

This was the best choice in the end, because on the way out we found an obscure entry into the very core of the central ring/peak zone, which took some climbing and scrambling, but what an amazing view!

There really isn't an impact crater like it anywhere. Some are larger (though not as well defined) and some are newer and more obvious, but none have this combination of drama, color, size and wonder - not even close.

When we finished out the day, we were absolutely exhausted, and utterly elated.

To have finally gained the core of Upheaval Crater, and to have it turn out to be even more magnificent than expected, and to have finally succeeded on our honeymoon was sublime.

But honeymooning is not a requirement. If you get a chance, go.

If you don't get a chance, make one.

Oh, and in the end, what does this have to do with mooning?

Who cares?

Mail to: Dave North
Copyright © 2001 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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