THE American desert, to eyes attuned, is charged with beauty. Few who see it from the car-window find it attractive; most travellers quickly lose interest in its repetitions and turn back to their novels. A little intimacy changes this attitude. Live a little with the desert. See it in its varied moods—for every hour it changes; see it at sunrise, at midday, at sunset, in the ghostly night, by moonlight. Observe its life—for it is full of life its amazing vegetation; its varied outline. Drink in its atmosphere, its history, its tradition, its romance. Open your soul to its persuading spirit. Then, insensibly but swiftly, its flavor will enthrall your senses; it will possess you. And once possessed, you are charmed for life. It will call you again and again, as the sea calls the sailor and the East its devotees.

This alluring region is represented in our national parks system by reservations which display its range. The Zion National Monument, the Grand Canyon, and the Mesa Verde illustrate widely differing phases. The historical monuments convey a sense of its romance. There remain a few to complete the gamut of its charms.


Imagine a gray Navajo desert dotted with purple sage; huge mesas, deep red, squared against the gray-blue atmosphere of the horizon; pinnacles, spires, shapes like monstrous bloody fangs, springing from the sands; a floor as rough as stormy seas, heaped with tumbled rocks, red, yellow, blue, green, grayish-white, between which rise strange yellowish-green thorny growths, cactus-like and unfamiliar; a pathless waste, strewn with obsidian fragments, glaring in the noon sun, more confusing than the crooked mazes of an ancient Oriental city.

Imagine shapeless masses of colored sandstone, unclimbable, barring the way; acres of polished mottled rock tilted at angles which defy crossing; unexpected canyons whose deep, broken, red and yellow precipices force long detours.

And everywhere color, color, color. It pervades the glowing floor, the uprising edifices. The very air palpitates with color, insistent, irresistible, indefinable.

This is the setting of the Rainbow Bridge.

Scarcely more than a hundred persons besides Indians, they tell me, have seen this most entrancing spectacle, perhaps, of all America. The way in is long and difficult. There are only two or three who know it, even of those who have been there more than once, and the region has no inhabitants to point directions among the confusing rocks, There is no water, nor any friendly tree.



The day's ride is wearying in the extreme in spite of its fascinations. The objective is Navajo Mountain, which, strange spectacle in this desert waste, is forested to its summit with yellow pine above a surrounding belt of juniper and pinyon, with aspen and willows, wild roses, Indian paint-brush, primrose, and clematis in its lower valleys. Below, the multicolored desert, deep cut with the canyons which carry off the many little rivers.

Down one of these wild and highly colored desert canyons among whose vivid tumbled rocks your horses pick their course with difficulty, you suddenly see a rainbow caught among the vivid bald rocks, a slender arch so deliciously proportioned, so gracefully curved among its sharp surroundings, that your eye fixes it steadfastly and your heart bounds with relief; until now you had not noticed the oppression of this angled, spine-carpeted landscape.

From now on nothing else possesses you. The eccentricity of the going constantly bides it, and each reappearance brings again the joy of discovery. And at last you reach it, dismount beside the small clear stream which flows beneath it, approach reverently, overwhelmed with a strange mingling of awe and great elation. You stand beneath its enormous encircling red and yellow arch and perceive that it is the support which holds up the sky. It is long before turbulent emotion permits the mind to analyze the elements which compose its extraordinary beauty.

Dimensions mean little before spectacles like this. To know that the span is two hundred and seventy-eight feet may help realization at home, where it may be laid out, staked and looked at; it exceeds a block of Fifth Avenue in New York. To know that the apex of the rainbow's curve is three hundred and nine feet above your wondering eyes means nothing to you there; but to those who know New York City it means the height of the Flatiron Building built three stories higher. Choose a building of equal height in your own city, stand beside it and look up. Then imagine it a gigantic monolithic arch of entrancing proportions and fascinating curve, glowing in reds and yellows which merge into each other insensibly and without form or pattern. Imagine this fairy unreality outlined, not against the murk which overlies cities, but against a sky of desert clarity and color.

All natural bridges are created wholly by erosion. This was carved from an outstanding spur of Navajo sandstone which lay crosswise of the canyon. Originally the stream struck full against this barrier, swung sideways, and found its way around the spur's free outer edge. The end was merely a matter of time. Gradually but surely the stream, sand-laden in times of flood, wore an ever-deepening hollow in the barrier. Finally it wore it through and passed under what then became a bridge. But meantime other agencies were at work. The rocky wall above, alternately hot and cold, as happens in high arid lands, detached curved, flattened plates. Worn below by the stream, thinned above by the destructive processes of wind and temperature, the window enlarged. In time the Rainbow Bridge evolved in all its glorious beauty. Not far away is another natural bridge well advanced in the making.

The Rainbow Bridge was discovered in 1909 by William Boone Douglass, Examiner of Surveys in the General Land Office, Santa Fe. Following is an abstract of the government report covering the discovery.

"The information had come to Mr. Douglass from a Paiute Indian, Mike's Boy, who later took the name of Jim, employed as flagman in the survey of the three great natural bridges of White Canyon. Seeing the white man's appreciation of this form of wind and water erosion, Jim told of a greater bridge known only to himself and one other Indian, located on the north side of the Navajo Mountain, in the Paiute Indian reservation. Bending a twig of willow in rainbow-shape, with its ends stuck in the ground, Jim showed what his bridge looked like.

"An effort was made to reach the bridge in December. Unfortunately Jim could not be located. On reaching the Navajo trading-post, Oljato, nothing was known of such a bridge, and the truth of Jim's statement was questioned.

"The trip was abandoned until August of the following year, when Mr. Douglass organized a second party at Bluff, Utah, and under Jim's guidance, left for the bridge. At Oljato the party was augmented by Professor Cummings, and a party of college students, with John Wetherill as packer, who were excavating ruins in the Navajo Indian Reservation. As the uninhabited and unknown country of the bridge was reached, travel became almost impossible. All equipment, save what was absolutely indispensable, was discarded. The whole country was a maze of box canyons, as though some turbulent sea had suddenly solidified in rock. Only at a few favored points could the canyon walls be scaled even by man, and still fewer where a horse might clamber. In the sloping sandstone ledges footholds for the horses must be cut, and even then they fell, until their loss seemed certain. After many adventures the party arrived at 11 o'clock, A. M., August 14, 1909.

"Jim had indeed made good. Silhouetted against a turquoise sky was an arch of rainbow shape, so delicately proportioned that it seemed as if some great sculptor had hewn it from the rock. Its span of 270 feet bridged a stream of clear, sparkling water, that flowed 310 feet below its crest. The world's greatest natural bridge had been found as Jim had described it. Beneath it, an ancient altar bore witness to the fact that it was a sacred shrine of those archaic people, the builders of the weird and mysterious cliff-castles seen in the Navajo National Monument.

"The crest of the bridge was reached by Mr. Douglass and his three assistants, John R. English, Jean F. Rogerson, and Daniel Perkins, by lowering themselves with ropes to the south abutment, and climbing its arch. Probably they were the first human beings to reach it.

"No Indian name for the bridge was known, except such descriptive generic terms as the Paiute 'The space under a horse's belly between its fore and hind legs,' or the 'Hole in the rock' (nonnezoshi) of the Navajo, neither of which was deemed appropriate. While the question of a name was still being debated, there appeared in the sky, as if in answer, a beautiful rainbow, the 'Barahoni' of the Paiutes.

"The suitability of the name was further demonstrated by a superstition of the Navajos. On the occasion of his second visit, the fall of the same year, Mr. Douglass had as an assistant an old Navajo Indian named White Horse, who, after passing under the bridge, would not return, but climbed laboriously around its end. On being pressed for an explanation, he would arch his hand, and through it squint at the sun, solemnly shaking his head. Later, through the assistance of Mrs. John Wetherill, an experienced Navajo linguist, Mr. Douglass learned that the formations of the type of the bridge were symbolic rainbows, or the sun's path, and one passing under could not return, under penalty of death, without the utterance of a certain prayer, which White Horse had forgotten. The aged Navajo informant would not reveal the prayer for fear of the 'Lightning Snake.'"

If your return from Rainbow Bridge carries you through Monument Valley with its miles of blazing red structures, memory will file still another amazing sensation. Some of its crimson monsters rise a thousand feet above the grassy plain.


Not many miles north of the Rainbow Bridge, fifty miles from Monticello in southern Utah, in a region not greatly dissimilar in outline, and only less colorful, three natural bridges of large size have been conserved under the title of the Natural Bridges National Monument. Here, west of the Mesa Verde, the country is characterized by long, broad mesas, sometimes crowned with stunted cedar forests, dropping suddenly into deep valleys. The erosion of many thousands of centuries has ploughed the surface into winding rock-strewn canyons, great and small. Three of these canyons are crossed by bridges stream-cut through the solid rock.

The largest, locally known as the Augusta Bridge, is named Sipapu, Gate of Heaven. It is one of the largest natural bridges in the world, measuring two hundred and twenty-two feet in height, with a span of two hundred and sixty-one feet. It is a graceful and majestic structure, so proportioned and finished that it is difficult, from some points of view, to believe it the unplanned work of natural forces. One crosses it on a level platform twenty-eight feet wide.

The other two, which are nearly its size, are found within five miles. The Kachina, which means Guardian Spirit, is locally called the Caroline Bridge. The Owachomo, meaning Rock Mound, is locally known as the Edwin Bridge. The local names celebrate persons who visited them soon after they were first discovered by Emery Knowles in 1895.

They may be reached by horse and pack-train from Monticello, or Bluff, Utah. One of the five sections of the reservation conserves two large caves.


The Age of Reptile developed a wide variety of monsters in the central regions of the continent from Montana to the Gulf of Mexico. The dinosaurs of the Triassic and Jurassic periods sometimes had gigantic size, the Brontosaurus attaining a length of sixty feet or more. The femur of the Brachiosaurus exceeded six feet; this must have been the greatest of them all.

The greater dinosaurs were herbivorous. The carnivorous species were not remarkable for size; there were small leaping forms scarcely larger than rabbits. The necessity for defense against the flesh-eaters developed, in the smaller dinosaurs, extremely heavy armor. The stegosaur carried huge plates upon his curved back, suggesting a circular saw; his long powerful tail was armed with sharp spikes, and must have been a dangerous weapon. Dinosaurs roamed all over what is now called our middle west.

In those days the central part of our land was warm and swampy. Freshwater lagoons and sluggish streams were bordered by low forests of palms and ferns; one must go to the tropics to find a corresponding landscape in our times. The waters abounded in reptiles and fish. Huge winged reptiles flew from cover to cover. The first birds were evolving from reptilian forms.

The absorbing story of these times is written in the rocks. The life forms were at their full when the sands were laid which to-day is the wide-spread layer of sandstone which geologists call the Morrison formation. Erosion has exposed this sandstone in several parts of the western United States, and many have been the interesting glimpses it has afforded of that strange period so many millions of years ago.

In the Uintah Basin of northwestern Utah, a region of bad lands crossed by the Green River on its way to the Colorado and the Grand Canyon, the Morrison strata have been bent upward at an angle of sixty degrees or more and then cut through, exposing their entire depth. The country is extremely rough and bare. Only in occasional widely separated bottoms has irrigation made farming possible; elsewhere nothing grows upon the bald hillsides.

Here, eighteen miles east of the town of Vernal, eighty acres of the exposed Morrison strata were set aside in 1915 as the Dinosaur National Monument. These acres have already yielded a very large collection of skeletons. Since 1908 the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh has been gathering specimens of the greatest importance. The only complete skeleton of a dinosaur ever found was taken out in 1909. The work of quarrying and removal is done with the utmost care. The rock is chiselled away in thin layers, as no one can tell when an invaluable relic may be found. As fast as bones are detached, they are covered with plaster of Paris and so wrapped that breakage becomes impossible. Two years were required to unearth the skeleton of a brontosaurus.

The extraordinary massing of fossil remains at this point suggests that floods may have swept these animals from a large area and lodged their bodies here, where they were covered with sands. But it also is possible that this spot was merely a favorite feeding ground. It may be that similarly rich deposits lie hidden in many places in the wide-spread Morrison sandstone which some day may be unearthed. The bones of dinosaurs have been found in the Morrison of Colorado near Boulder.


For a hundred and twenty-five or thirty miles southwest of the Grand Canyon, the valley of the Little Colorado River is known as the Painted Desert. It is a narrow plain of Carboniferous and Triassic marls, shales, sandstones, and conglomerates, abounding in fossils, the most arid part of Arizona; even the river's lower reaches dry up for a part of each year. But it is a palette of brilliant colors; it will be difficult to name a tint or shade which is not vividly represented in this gaudy floor and in the strata of the cliffs which define its northern and eastern limits. Above and beyond these cliffs lies that other amazing desert, the Navajo country, the land of the Rainbow Bridge and the Canyon de Chelly.

I have mentioned the Painted Desert because it is shaped like a long narrow finger pointed straight at the Petrified Forests lying just beyond its touch. Here the country is also highly colored, but very differently. Maroon and tawny yellow are the prevailing tints of the marls, red and brown the colors of the sandstones. There is a rolling sandy floor crisscrossed with canyons in whose bottoms grow stunted cedars and occasional cottonwoods. Upon this floor thousands of petrified logs are heaped in confusion. In many places the strong suggestion is that of a log jam left stranded by subsiding foods. Nearly all the logs have broken into short lengths as cleanly cut as if sawn, the result of succeeding heat and cold.

Showing the formation in colored strata. The logs on the ground grew upon a level seven hundred feet higher

The trunk is 111 feet long. The stone piers were built to preserve it

Areas of petrified wood are common in many parts of the Navajo country and its surrounding deserts. The larger areas are marked on the Geological Survey maps, and many lesser areas are mentioned in reports. There are references to rooted stumps. The three groups in the Petrified Forest National Monument, near the town of Adamana, Arizona, were chosen for conservation because they are the largest and perhaps the finest; at the time, the gorgeously colored logs were being carried away in quantities to be cut up into table-tops.

As a matter of fact, these are not forests. Most of these trees grew upon levels seven hundred feet or more higher than where they now lie and at unknown distances; floods left them here.

The First Forest, which lies six miles south of Adamana, contains thousands of broken lengths. One unbroken log a hundred and eleven feet long bridges a canyon forty-five feet wide, a remarkable spectacle. In the Second Forest, which lies two miles and a half south of that, and the Third Forest, which is thirteen miles south of Adamana and eighteen miles southeast of Holbrook, most of the trunks appear to lie in their original positions. One which was measured by Doctor G. H. Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution was more than seven feet in diameter and a hundred and twenty feet long. He estimates the average diameters at three or four feet, while lengths vary from sixty to a hundred feet.

The coloring of the wood is variegated and brilliant. "The state of mineralization in which most of this wood exists," writes Professor Lester F. Ward, paleobotanist, "almost places them among the gems or precious stones. Not only are chalcedony, opals, and agates found among them, but many approach the condition of jasper and onyx." "The chemistry of the process of petrifaction or silicification," writes Doctor George P. Merrill, Curator of Geology in the National Museum, "is not quite clear. Silica is ordinarily looked upon as one of the most insoluble of substances. It is nevertheless readily soluble in alkaline solutions—i. e., solutions containing soda or potash. It is probable that the solutions permeating these buried logs were thus alkaline, and as the logs gradually decayed their organic matter was replaced, molecule by molecule, by silica. The brilliant red and other colors are due to the small amount of iron and manganese deposited together with the silica, and super-oxydized as the trunks are exposed to the air. The most brilliant colors are therefore to be found on the surface."

The trees are of several species. All those identified by Doctor Knowlton were Araucaria, which do not now live in the northern hemisphere. Doctor E. C. Jeffrey, of Harvard, has described one genus unknown elsewhere.

To get the Petrified Forest into full prospective it is well to recall that these shales and sands were laid in water, above whose surface the land raised many times, only to sink again and accumulate new strata. The plateau now has fifty-seven hundred feet of altitude.

"When it is known," writes Doctor Knowlton, "that since the close of Triassic times probably more than fifty thousand feet of sediments have been deposited, it is seen that the age of the Triassic forests of Arizona can only be reckoned in millions of years—just how many it would be mere speculation to attempt to estimate. It is certain, also, that at one time the strata containing these petrified logs were themselves buried beneath thousands of feet of strata of later ages, which have in places been worn away sufficiently to expose the tree-bearing beds. Undoubtedly other forests as great or greater than those now exposed lie buried beneath the later formations."

A very interesting small forest, not in the reservation, lies nine miles north of Adamana.


The popular idea of a desert of dry drifting sand unrelieved except at occasional oases by evidences of life was born of our early geographies, which pictured the Sahara as the desert type. Far different indeed is our American desert, most of which has a few inches of rainfall in the early spring and grows a peculiar flora of remarkable individuality and beauty. The creosote bush seen from the car-windows shelters a few grasses which brown and die by summer, but help to color the landscape the year around. Many low flowering plants gladden the desert springtime, and in the far south and particularly in the far southwest are several varieties of cactus which attain great size. The frequenter of the desert soon correlates its flora with its other scenic elements and finds all rich and beautiful.

In southwestern Arizona and along the southern border of California this strange flora finds its fullest expression. Here one enters a new fairy-land, a region of stinging bushes and upstanding monsters lifting ungainly arms to heaven. In 1914, to conserve one of the many rich tracts of desert flora, President Wilson created the Papago Saguaro National Monument a few miles east of Phoenix, Arizona. Its two thousand and fifty acres include fine examples of innumerable desert species in fullest development.

Among these the cholla is at once one of the most fascinating and the most exasperating. It belongs to the prickly pear family, but there resemblance ceases. It is a stocky bush two or three feet high covered with balls of flattened powerful sharp-pointed needles which will penetrate even a heavy shoe. In November these fall, strewing the ground with spiny indestructible weapons. There are many varieties of chollas and all are decorative. The tree cholla grows from seven to ten feet in height, a splendid showy feature of the desert slopes, and the home, fortress, and sure defense for all the birds who can find nest-room behind its bristling breastwork.

The Cereus thurberi, the pipe-organ, or candelabrum cactus, as it is variously called, grows in thick straight columns often clumped closely together, a picturesque and beautiful creation. Groups range from a few inches to many feet in height. One clump of twenty-two stems has been reported, the largest stem of which was twenty feet high and twenty-two inches in diameter.

Another of picturesque appeal is the bisnaga or barrel cactus, of which there are many species of many sizes. Like all cacti, it absorbs water during the brief wet season and stores it for future use. A specimen the size of a flour-barrel can be made to yield a couple of gallons of sweetish but refreshing water, whereby many a life has been saved in the sandy wastes.

But the desert's chief exhibit is the giant saguaro, the Cereus giganteus, from which the reservation got its name. This stately cactus rises in a splendid green column, accordion-plaited and decorated with star-like clusters of spines upon the edges of the plaits. The larger specimens grow as high as sixty or seventy feet and throw out at intervals powerful branches which bend sharply upward; sometimes there are as many as eight or nine of these gigantic branches.

No towering fir or spreading oak carries a more princely air. A forest of giant saguaro rising from a painted desert far above the tangle of creosote-bush, mesquite, cholla, bisnaga, and scores of other strange growths of a land of strange attractions is a spectacle to stir the blood and to remember for a lifetime.


On the desert border of far-western Colorado near Grand Junction is a region of red sandstone which the erosion of the ages has carved into innumerable strange and grotesque shapes. Once a great plain, then a group of mesas, now it has become a city of grotesque monuments. Those who have seen the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs can imagine it multiplied many times in size, grotesqueness, complexity, and area; such a vision will approximate the Colorado National Monument. The two regions have other relations in common, for as the Garden of the Gods flanks the Rockies' eastern slopes and looks eastward to the great plains, so does the Colorado National Monument flank the Rockies' western desert. Both are the disclosure by erosion of similar strata of red sandstone which may have been more or less continuous before the great Rockies wrinkled, lifted, and burst upward between them.

The rock monuments of this group are extremely highly colored. They rise in several neighboring canyons and some of them are of great height and fantastic design. One is a nearly circular column with a diameter of a hundred feet at the base and a height of more than four hundred feet.

Caves add to the attractions, and there are many springs among the tangled growths of the canyon floors. There are cedars and pinyon trees. The region abounds in mule-deer and other wild animals.


After the sea-bottom which is now our desert southwest rose for the last time and became the lofty plateau of to-day, many were the changes by which its surface became modified. Chief of these was the erosion which has washed its levels thousands of feet below its potential altitude and carved it so remarkably. But it also became a field of wide-spread volcanic activity, and lavas and obsidians are constantly encountered among its gravels, sands, and shales. Many also are the cones of dead volcanoes.

Capulin Mountain in northeastern New Mexico near the Colorado line is a very ancient volcano which retains its shape in nearly perfect condition. It was made a national monument for scientific reasons, but it also happily rounds out the national parks' exhibit of the influences which created our wonderful southwest. Its crater cone is composed partly of lava flow, partly of fine loose cinder, and partly of cemented volcanic ash. It is nearly a perfect cone.

Capulin rises fifteen hundred feet from the plain to an altitude of eight thousand feet. Its crater is fifteen hundred feet across and seventy-five feet deep. To complete the volcanic exhibit many blister cones are found around its base. It is easily reached from two railroads or by automobile.

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Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009