City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 19, 2017

July 18th

Radio Tower Run and Anti-wind

8:30 a.m. In the morning air, I begin one of my more favorite canyon jogs: the Radio Tower run. This track begins at lower Pleasant Valley at mile 1.3, ascends straight up the natural gas pipeline road to the western ridge of the Salt Lake salient, down to a set of large microwave radio towers on the ridge, and then returns via the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to Guardhouse Gate. The total physical distance is about five miles, but in spirit is longer. The trip begins with a half-mile hike up a forty degree slope through Gambel’s oak and Cheat grass, but one is rewarded by increasingly improving views of the urban city below. At the ridgeline, there are several acres of Kentucky bluegrass and in prior years it was not unusual to find a morning or evening moose grazing in the field. This year, there is no moose, but as in prior years, I again flush a pair of Greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) from the undergrowth. Commanding views of Wasatch Mountain Front Range, Salt Lake City, the Oquirrh Mountains, and the Great Salt Lake coupled with cooling, strong ridgeline breezes release the mind. Descending along a fire road to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, I next follow the Trail horizontally through two dense valleys of Gambel’s oaks that are hidden behind Ensign Peak. These are the breeding grounds of the local population of Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia), and consistent with their curious personality, one or two break from their continuous challenging cawing to give me a brief inspection. By now the combination of increasing heat and exercise begins to take effect as I descend the last leg of the trail as it crosses a pass and descends back down into City Creek Canyon. The trail passes under ledges of brown sandstone created from the erosion of a vast, but now disappeared mountain range in Nevada (January 7th). In past springs, cliffs have hosted Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) nests. Before noon, I am tired but happy to reach the water fountain at Guardhouse Gate. An afternoon down canyon breeze provides more cooling.

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Because of its unique geography and proximity the Great Salt Lake, the first 1.2 miles of City Creek Canyon Road is subject to unusual anti-winds (Steenburgh 2016). The direction of winds through mountain canyons are normally thermally driven by the relative temperature of the surrounding mountains and the valleys below. As with high and low pressure weather systems, wind moves away from the center of a region of hot, high pressure air. In the afternoon when flat valley floors are hotter than the surrounding cool mountain ridges, up-canyon anabatic wind blows. Down-slope katabatic wind blows at night and during the mornings away from the mountains when the mountain air is relatively hotter than valley floor air (Whiteman 2000). Any long-distance weekend bicyclist in northern Utah are aware of these winds. When pleasure riding up-canyon in the mornings, the katabatic winds produce fierce headwinds, and then in the late afternoon, when returning home down the canyon, a rider is met by strong anabatic headwinds. The afternoon winds can be near hurricane force. I remember a few unique experiences in the 1980s and 1990s of be unable to pedal downhill against anabatic winds even though I stood up on the pedals and pressed downward as hard as possible.

Meteorologist Steenburgh of the University of Utah notes that the geography of City Creek Canyon generates antiwinds that blow down-canyon during the heat of the day (Steenburgh 2016). The western ridge of the Salt Lake salient is higher than the eastern Avenues ridgeline. Afternoon cool breezes flow off of the Great Salt Lake from the west to the east across the lower canyon. This induces wind in the canyon to overwhelm the usual afternoon up-canyon anabatic wind, and antiwind, or wind that is flowing downcanyon against the normal direction of anabatic wind, results.

The Great Salt Lake breezes that cross over the western and eastern Salt Lake salients may explain why so may soaring birds are seen transiting the canyon. The west-to-east cross breeze allows them to tack up wind and up canyon like sailboats. They can either again climb the south-eastern salient as the breeze turns upward off the ridge, or they can shoot down canyon along its middle and riding the anti-wind.

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On July 18th, 1934, 74 citizens, as part of military training at Fort Douglas, hiked up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 18th, Waterworks Superintendent F.L. Hines boasted at a national convention that Salt Lake had some of the purest water in the nation (Salt Lake Telegram).Salt Lake had some of the purest water in the nation (Salt Lake Telegram).

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July 12, 2017

July 10th

Field on a Slope

7:30 p.m. To see other areas where the Cheat grass sea has not yet penetrated, I am jogging up canyon to milepost 2.0. I am also seeking one of the few canyon locations that has a field of cacti. Along the way at the Gambel’s oak forest near mile 0.4, a female American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) drops out from behind the leaves, perches on a large oak branch. It cocks its head, listening to the branch, and then starts tapping it, looking it for insects.

Barney’s Hollow below picnic site 13 begins with fields that climb up to mile 2.3. The fields at milepost 2.0 like the Bonneville Shoreline Nature Preserve are covered with still green native Wild bunchgrass. There are four types of grass in this field, and I am only able to identify the one. The field is interspersed with white-topped weed Hoary cress and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). At one end of the field, I find the first purple Fireweed (Charmerion angustifolium L.) of the season in the lower canyon. In the high Wasatch, fireweed is usually red.

Above mile 2.3, there is a hanging field of about 15 acres and an inclined nose of about 20 acres on the west side of the canyon. In the spring, the hanging field is covered in thick Kentucky bluegrass and the inclined field above it is covered in native Wild bunchgrass. It is a special place in the canyon below mile 3.4. In the deep winter, Elk using these fields as a transit point to cross the canyon road from Little Black Mountain to the western salient ridgelines. During winter, Wild turkeys also congregate in the oaks below these fields, sometimes in flocks of up to thirty birds, and there winter coyotes attack. They pause in these fields, and there hunters wait during the October and November seasons. Mule deer use this same crossing in the spring. Reaching the hanging field is moderately difficult. The hanging field is hidden behind a step two hundred foot embankment cut by the stream over the last few thousand years. The slope is covered with Cheat grass.

Moving up to mile 2.3, I decide to try a new route up from one of many side gullies along the Pipeline Trail. In a gully heavily shaded by large overhanging oaks, the grass is thick. About every fifteen feet are funnel webs of another non-native – Hobo spiders (Eratigena agrestis). At the bottom of each funnel, there is tunnel, but I have to inspect about 20 nests before I actually see one of the spiders at the mouth of its burrow. It is unclear from the webs what the Hobo spiders are eating, and I suspect their numbers are supported by large House crickets population seen on July 6th. But there are no crickets in the grasses in this small gully.

Eventually, I come to a small seep-pond about four feet in diameter and two feet deep. Western Yellowjacket wasps rest on the surface drinking, and in the wet mud at the side of the pond is the clear massive foot print of a Shira’s moose (Alces alcs shirasi). In the late spring to early summer, single moose are sometimes seen on making their way through the oak forest near the ridgelines or in open fields on the top of Salt Lake salient’s west and east ridges. Shortly after the pond, I am stopped from going forward by thickets of Gambel’s oaks, and am forced to retreat back to the trail and try again by my usual route.

Returning to the trail and going down-canyon for a two-tenths of mile, I work my way up to the hanging valley by the usual route. The field is still thick with green native grasses, but the its soil reveals its source as the ancient mud bed of ancient Lake Bonneville. This slope faces to the south and west, and despite being covered in still growing green grasses, the mud is baked to a cracked solid. Everywhere the tracks of spring mule deer have been hardened into a grey mudstone. The large leaves of spring’s Arrowleaf balsamroot are baked to a golden and dark brown. Like the gully, these fields are also covered in numerous Hobo spider funnel webs. Although covered in native grasses, these fields just beginning to be invaded. I count fourteen Starthistle plants spread widely across both areas. Above the hanging and inclined fields of native grass is a field of Plains prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha). It is too late in the season for them; their bright red blossoms have past; and the green is draining from their spiked leaves.

As the Sun gets low in the sky, the light turns golden as the grasses wave in a newly risen breeze. A flock of five American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) float over the ridge to the west, slowly circle and descend into woods at Barney’s Hollow on the opposite, south side of the stream. They are settling down for the night. Crows are distinguished from Common ravens (Corvus corax) by their smaller size and square tails. Ravens have diamond-shaped tails and soar on thermals to cross the canyon, but crows flap their wings to power their crossing. Before landing, one crow comes over to inspect me, and finding nothing interesting catches up with its mates.

Coming back downhill, there are several odd three foot diameter distorted purple rocks. They are covered in green and black lichens. The rocks and lichens make their own abstract sculptures.

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Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on July 10th, 1851, he admires a sunset after a rainstorm. On July 10th, 1852, he notes again the peak of summer heat, and notes that soil has become dry. He sees white lelilot, a clover, in bloom, and he hears huckleberry bird, oven bird and red-eye. St. John’s worts are peaking. On July 10th 1854, he lists song birds active in summer including robin, warbling vireo, song sparrow, flicker, crows, and many others. On July 10, 1856, he finds an owl’s burrow and comes within six feet of a screech owl with its two young. On July 10th, 1860, he sees yellow Pennsylvania sedge grass.

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On July 10th, 2010, a 59 year old man, who enjoyed bicycling in City Creek Canyon, passed away (Deseret News). On July 10th, 2003, during the celebration of the Boy Scouts 90th anniversary in Utah, the Scouts reported that Irwin Clawson, at the age of 18, started one of the first Boy Scout Troops in Utah in 1911, and his first activity back in 1911 was to take his troop on overnight camping trips up City Creek Canyon (Deseret News).

September 21, 2016

September 8th

The Mountain Who Lost It’s Backside

4 p.m. Today I decide to drive up to the end of the paved road and trail jog to the end of the canyon. The canyon will be closed to cars at the end of September, and I usually do one of these trail runs at this time. (A second is done in early June.) The paved road ends at mile 5.75 and the trail continues for another 4.25 miles before it descends into Wasatch County. But today I decided to only go to trail mile 3.5 where one can see that part of the backside of Grandview Peak is missing. It is the sheer vertical cliff about 200 feet high.

Through trail mile 1.0, the stream is wider and flat. The trail is about 100 feet off to one side and passes through box elder and maple groves. The trail, actually a dirt road that is fading away, crosses the stream at two iron bridges and passes the Smuggler’s Gap trailhead. Then the trail changes character. The trail becomes a disused single track that sits two or three feet to the north of the small fast-moving creek. The creek flows over a series of algae covered rock jumbles into small pools. Both the stream and the floor of the trail are broken Mississippian and Permian slate. At times the stream and trail wind through boughs of river beech trees. Here, a red Admiral butterfly floats between the stream, bushes and the shade of the trees.

Grandview Peak is to the left and the north, but its view is blocked by the steep v shape of the creek gorge and by stands of aspen. To the right and south is the ridge between City Creek and Red Butte canyons. On the city side the ridge is a near-vertical wall that sits in perpetual shadow. Thus, it is covered in the thick healthy stand of cold tolerant Douglas fir. In contrast, the Sun exposed Red Butte side is a thick drought tolerant Gambel oak forest.

I round a bend near trail mile 1.6 and startle a Cooper’s hawk that is napping in a tree grove. Attempts to fly away but is trapped in the tangle of branches that it is resting in. It waits anxiously for about 30 seconds. Seeing that I am no threat, it picks a route out of its lair, and then like an owl, expertly flies through the forest understory to freedom.

At trail mile 2.1 the canyon opens into the first of four hanging meadows. Each is divided by gradual inclines. This first meadow hosts a SNOTEL weather station, and in the second at trail mile 2.6, the bushes are flattened in a series of circles. Here a moose can usually be found, and today is no exception. As I am exiting the meadow, I hear something crashing through the brush, and turning around, a frightened female moose is careening into the safety of the forest. There is little sign of deer in this part of the canyon because there is little grass forage to support them. In each of these hanging meadows there are bushes of mountain blueberries that provide refreshing forage for me.

The character of these meadows has changed dramatically since I last ran through them in June. Then the brush was so profuse that it reached my neck and overhung and obscured the trail. Jogging was an act of faith and was more like swimming through a sea of green. You hoped that the trail was underfoot and sometimes it was not. Now the meadows are a sea of tan. The trail is plainly visible, but the trail floor is a pallet of dark browns and tans from dried and crushed brush punctuated by accents of fallen bright and muted red-orange aspen and maple leaves. I am jogging over an 18 inch by 300 foot canvas painted by the randomness of nature.

At trail mile 3.6, I am climbing past the last meadow and towards the ridgeline at the end of the canyon. My goal for the day is visible on the north side of canyon. Here a series of spur ridges come down from Grandview Peak and end in rounded noses, but one nose is cut off. It ends in a sheer vertical cliff about the size of two or three football fields. At its base is a 200 foot tall talus field. Here, some geologists believe an ancient earthquake may have shorn the mountainside away. One can see other examples along the Wasatch Front. The shear north face of Mount Olympus has a rubble pile at its base which is now the Mount Olympus subdivision. This reminds us that the West is earthquake country and there work 14 earthquakes in Utah of greater than magnitude 5 during the last century. In 2008, geologists Francis X. Ashland and Gregory N. McDonald investigated the Grandview Peak landslide in order to determine the most cost-effective method of dating the mountainside’s failure. They concluded that the remoteness of the site and the depth of the talus field made it impractical to retrieve rock samples from deep underneath the talus field in order to accurately date when the slide occurred.

September 20, 2016

August 27th

Filed under: Mammals, Moose — canopus56 @ 11:27 pm

Monocular Moose

7:30 p.m. at the top of the southern rim where the canyon narrows at mile 1.1, I see something move. It is too far to make out what it is. When I jog I keep an eight power monocular in my water backpack. Magnified, I can see it is an adult moose with a large rack. The moose is the first of the coming winter season. In the depths of winter, the high east and west ridges near mile 1 are refuge grazing areas for dear, elk and moose. They come to this low end of the canyon when the snow becomes too deep for them to forage at higher altitudes.

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