Appreciating the delicate sandstone fins of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Step on the edges, break the ledges. That’s what one of our favorite Bureau of Land Management rangers tells winners of the Wave permit lottery during an orientation about North Coyote Buttes. He’s referring to thin, delicate layers of sandstone that are particularly breakable. They are common in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, especially at South Coyote Buttes, the Wave, and some places at White Pocket.
Many of these delicate formations are found in the Navajo sandstone layer, which was formed 190 million years in the early Jurassic period. Dinosaurs were new arrivals to the landscape, and the well-known Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus were still millions of years away from existence. During this time, southern Utah was much closer to the equator than it is today and giant, wind whipped sand dunes dominated the landscape. Over time, wind stacked layers of sand which gradually hardened into sandstone through a lot of pressure as more sediment was deposited on top of the dunes. Later, as the continent drifted northward, polar ice caps melted and climate changed, an inland sea covered the Southwest. Water seeped down into the sand, carrying minerals that cemented the sand grains together, which helped them slowly turned into rock. These minerals: iron, calcium carbonate, and manganese, also gave the rocks their brilliant colors. About 15 million years ago, plate tectonics caused uplift on the Colorado Plateau. Erosion of younger layers on top exposed the incredible sandstone we are discussing now. Yes, it was quite a process.
The rock is now displayed like artwork across the desert Southwest in a multitude of shapes, colors and textures. Thin slanted lines in the rock – called cross bedding – reveal the direction the wind was blowing 190 million years ago as it stacked sand up into dunes layer upon layer. In the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, White Pocket is appreciated like an art gallery where a diverse array of wildly colored and contorted Navajo sandstone is on display.
Concern for damage to sandstone is one of the reasons permits to North Coyote Buttes and South Coyote Buttes are so limited. What took millions of years to form can be damaged instantly with a single footstep. Watch for thin bands of sandstone and avoid walking on these areas, or make sure you place your feet well away from the edge of the bands. People travel from all over the world to admire and photograph the thin, fragile layers of sandstone. The interesting shape and striking color of the Wave has made it recognizable worldwide. That’s why it’s so essential to be careful with sandstone formations. If the rock looks breakable, it is. Don’t test it to see whether you can break it, because you most likely can. Future generations will want to enjoy these magnificent formations, too.
The best area on the Colorado Plateau for viewing these thin sandstone layers is South Coyote Buttes. They are also visible on our Wave tour and at White Pocket.