Kodachrome Basin day: A ‘blank spot’ on the map to a photographer’s paradise, Southern Utah base camp

Composite image, Kodachrome Basin, Utah, date not specified, | photos by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

FEATURE – Chimney Rock would have been such a mundane name for what many see as a magical place. There are so many “chimney rocks” in other places, including one in Colorado that became a national monument in 2012.

This old picture shows the author’s friend and his truck at the base of Chimney Rock, a name for which the park could have been known if Kodak had not granted permission to use the Kodachrome name, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah, Sept. 1994 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

However, Kodachrome Basin, a wonderland of stone spires just over 22 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park (and able to be seen from that park’s Inspiration Point) became a state park in 1962. This name was chosen because a moniker placed on it just over a decade earlier was copyrighted.

Thankfully, later on, Kodak granted its permission for the Kodachrome name to stick and the only park in the nation named after a brand of film became reality.

In fact, Kodak helped pay for early park brochures and each one had an advertisement for Kodak on the back page.

Geologic history

Some geologists have surmised that the park’s unique landscape once resembled Yellowstone National Park, believing the sand pipes are remnants of solidified sediment that filled ancient geysers.

Believe it or not, according to geologists, Kodachrome Basin State Park is 180 million years old. Located on the Colorado Plateau, an uplifted region that covers the four corners area of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. The park’s exposed rock formations range from the Jurassic Period (180 million years ago) to the Cretaceous Period (95 million years ago). The park showcases a rock layer from each of these periods, telling the story of an inland sea that once covered this now desert landscape and testifying to the relentless erosive forces of wind and water.

The oldest of these layers, the Carmel Formation reveals solid layers of the mineral gypsum, “which forms white striations in the red-colored cliffs in the lower elevations of the park,” the park’s current map and guide says. 

Some of the spires and rock formations that are the major attraction at Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah, June 5, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Vanda Wadsworth, St. George News

The red-hued Entrada Formation, which lies just above the Carmel Formation, is a solidified composition of fine-grained sandstone as well as clay, gypsum, quartz and clay.

“This formation is one of the most scenic in the park due to its color,” the map and guide explained. “It also forms the ubiquitous ‘slickrock’ of Southern Utah. Most of the sedimentary pipes found within the park occur in this formation.”

Just above the Entrada is the Henrieville Sandstone layer, which was deposited near the end of the Jurassic Period. This layer exhibits a white to tan appearance and is almost unnoticeable in the main part of the park but Grosvenor Arch, located 11 miles south of the park within the boundaries of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, showcases this layer.

The Dakota and Tropic Shale formations make up the top layer, deposited approximately 95 million years ago when “a vast seaway covered much of the interior of North America, including most of Utah,” the map and guide states.

The main attraction at the park is its array of 67 sedimentary pipes jutting up from the valley floor ranging in height from six to 170 feet, which is the height of Chimney Rock. Geologists are unsure exactly how these stately spires formed, but have a few theories. One theory is that earthquakes caused coarse, water-saturated sediment to scour pathways that eventually filled up again and were re-cemented with harder rock that remained while constant erosion removed the layers surrounding it. Another theory is the pipes are the remnants of ancient springs which became choked with sediments that became more erosive resistant than the surrounding rock.

A more recent theory suggests that the pipes formed from water-saturated pockets buried under layers of other sediments over millions of years.

“Pressure from the overlying sediments forced the wet slurry upwards,” the map and guide explained. “The rising slurry scoured pathways through the overlying rock, eventually cementing into hard rock. Erosion stripped away the softer rock layers revealing the landscape you see today.”

Some of the spires and rock formations that are the major attraction at Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah, June 5, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Vanda Wadsworth, St. George News

The National Geographic Society expedition

Before 1948,  cattlemen and their herds were really the only ones aware of what would become the state park. In fact, Aaron Farmer, who served as the park manager from 2005 to 2014 before taking over as park manager at Green River State Park, described an old cattle trail along the backside of the park that led to nearby Henrieville. The trail is extremely steep and narrow but cut off 35 miles and a couple days’ travel.

Farmer said he has heard tales from old-timers saying that once in a while a cow or donkey would lose their footing on the trail and fall to their deaths or severely injure themselves. Another story he recounted is that, without fences in the area, sometimes the early cattlemen would string ropes together and tie blankets on them to keep the cattle contained.

Until the mid-20th century, Kodachrome Basin was “a blank spot on the map,” Farmer said. 

Photographers from the National Geographic Society hoped to change that fact and came to the area on a photography expedition in 1948. They nicknamed the area “Kodachrome Flat” after Kodak’s famous film, known for its rich color saturation and for its wide use by National Geographic photographers during the first decades it printed its magazines in color. It is no surprise these mid-20th-century photographers felt the way they did after seeing it due to the multi-colored spires’ stark contrast with brilliant blue skies.

The expedition, headed by writer/photographer Jack Breed, included 15 people, three jeeps, two trucks and 35 horses. Breed wrote the article that chronicled the expedition published in the September 1949 issue of the magazine entitled “First Motor Sortie into Escalante Land.”

In his June 2009 article (which includes some of the original pictures that appeared in the 1949 article) lamenting the discontinuation of Kodachrome Film, “National Geographic Traveler” Senior Photo Editor Dan Westergren said the expedition “was hoping to find unknown and yet unnamed geographical oddities in the hidden cliffs and canyons.”

As recorded in his article, this was Breed’s first assessment of the area:

“It was a beautiful and fantastic country. A mile to the left near the base of the cliff I could see red pinnacles thrust up from the valley floor. The few natives who had been here called this area ‘Thorny Pasture,’ but we renamed it ‘Kodachrome Flat’ because of the astonishing variety of contrasting colors in the formations. Huge rocks, towers, pinnacles, fins and fans surrounded us. Everywhere the results of erosion could be seen in all stages.”

Breed admitted that, despite its beauty, exploring the “wild and forbidding” area was tough because “heat, sand and sudden storms test men and cars” but still called the area they named “a photographer’s dream come true.”

The 1948 National Geographic Society expedition named Grosvenor Arch, approximately 11 miles southeast of Kodachrome Basin, and always closely associated with it, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, June 5, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Vanda Wadsworth. St. George News

During their trip, Breed and his crew did discover an arch, as they were hoping, and they named it after the president of the National Geographic Society at the time, Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor. Westergren joked that Breed might have done this to ensure his job security, but as Breed described it, it was because he was “the man who, we all agreed, had done more than any other person to arouse public interest in geography.”

The aspect of the arch that most impressed Breed was its color, which, as explained earlier is its location in a different rock layer – Navajo sandstone instead of the Entrada sandstone most common in the park.

“This striking natural bridge is carved from creamy rock, a rarity in a land of brilliant reds,” Breed explained. “Actually, it is a double arch, with the larger span on the end of a buttress that juts from the main sandstone butte.”

The arch is 150 feet above the ground and 92 feet wide. The arch is not part of Kodachrome Basin, however. It is actually within the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument but has always been closely associated with the park.

Kodachrome Basin became a state park mainly due to the big push from the Bryce Valley Lions Club, Farmer said, which features members from the surrounding towns of Tropic, Cannonville and Henrieville, all of which lie in Garfield County. The park, nine miles south of Cannonville, is actually in Kane County but is obviously more tied to Garfield County, he explained.

Today the park is surrounded on three sides by Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an entity that did not exist when it was designated in the early 1960s.

What’s in a Name?

Kodachrome Basin State Park is full of unofficial place names. In the park, a visitor will find many rock formations that have sparked the imagination of visitors old and new, including Sherlock Holmes Spire, Fred Flintstone, The Hamburger and The White Buffalo. Most names in the park stem from old-timers who have run cattle in or near the park, the late Tom Shakespeare, a longtime park manager and Tropic local, said in an interview with the author in 2000.

Some of the spires (including Ballerina Spire) and rock formations that are the major attraction at Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah, Sept. 2019 | Photo courtesy of Joyce Lee, St. George News

One of the monuments in the park that may be the most controversial is known as “Big Stoney.” Other names in use for the gray sandstone cylinder standing about 15-20 feet high which greets visitors near the entrance of the park include “Fair Maiden’s Dream” and “Paul Bunyan’s Boot,” Shakespeare said, who noted that the landform is clearly a phallic symbol.

Campground site No. 17 near the base of the spire is often termed the “Honeymoon Suite,” Farmer noted.

One official name the park does possess is Ballerina Spire, which clearly looks like a ballerina’s leg, Shakespeare said. Other official fanciful include Angel’s Palace, Big Bear Geyser and The Hat Shop.

Even before it was called Chimney Rock, the park was formerly known as Thorley’s Pasture (after rancher Tom Thorley, who used it to graze his cattle), or as Breed pointed out, Thorny Pasture (after the abundant cacti).

Shakespeare left his own mark on the park. An arch in the park was named after him. Shakespeare told the story of discovering it while looking for a coyote den in 1976. He said he checked around to see if anyone knew about it, but apparently no one did.

Farmer, however, said that local ranchers knew about it. 

Even in his article in 1949, Breed writes of asking local rancher John Johnson about the existence of arches or natural bridges in the area.

“Yes, I’ve heard tell of one or two, but in my 40 years here I’ve never seen any,” the rancher reported. “ I’m always too busy looking for stray cattle or good grass feed to notice the scenery.”

A local contest named the arch, choosing to recognize not only Shakespeare, but also his father, over alternatives such as “Tom Thumb’s Arch.”

Unfortunately, that arch collapsed in April of this year, a testament to the continuing force of erosion. Visitors can still hike the 600-yard trail to see where the arch was. There are other scenic attractions along the trail still worth viewing.

“Sentinel Spire is still on the Shakespeare Trail and is worth going out to visit and the slickrock cutoff has some of the best views in the park and is a great trail for photography,” said current Park Manager Nathan Martinez.

The Kodachrome Basin entrance sign greets every visitor who enters its boundaries, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Kodachrome Basin State Park, St. George News

Kodachrome Basin Today 

In the past, Kodachrome Basin was a place for those seeking a little solitude away from the crowds of nearby Bryce Canyon. Since 2010, visitor numbers have increased significantly and the campground, especially in the warmer months, is usually full. Still, many campers use it as a base camp to explore nearby attractions as far away as Zion, Farmer said.

Kodachrome Basin is better known to Europeans than visitors in the United States, Farmer explained. One story he recounted proving this was a set of milk bottle stickers produced in the Netherlands showcasing U.S. national parks. Even though it is not a national park, Kodachrome Basin was included in that series of stickers.

“A lot of our visitors are on the Grand Circle tour – working their way from the Grand Canyon up to Zion, then to Bryce, Capitol Reef, and finally to Arches and Canyonland,” Martinez said. “This trip seems to be advertised pretty heavily among Europeans.  The majority of our foreign visitors are German with a few from France, the Netherlands and Britain.  They usually come in the summer because they don’t know that it’s our hot season and most of the locals are up in the mountains rather than down in the desert.”

During the campground’s peak season, Farmer said people speaking English in the campground are in the minority. The language campers hear the most, it seems, is German, as it seems German tourists are the ones that keep on coming back year to year.

In Farmer’s opinion, the Kodachrome Basin campground is one of the best state park campgrounds in the state because it is well laid out and includes some recently-added 7 hookup sites as well as 18 additional campsites in two different loops, called Arch and Bryce View.

“We also added two cabins to the park which offer more of a glamping experience,” Martinez said.  “They have bunk beds and a futon provided and sleep up to six people. We are also well known for having some of the best bathrooms of any campgrounds. Our maintenance guy Brandon (Baugh) has done an incredible job of tiling the bathrooms and installing rainfall showers in the basin and oasis bathrooms.”

Visiting Kodachrome Basin

Located 158 miles northeast of St. George, Kodachrome Basin is an approximate two hour, 40-minute drive from Utah’s Dixie. 

To get there, head north on I-15 until state Route 20, Exit 95. Once on SR 20, drive east until reading U.S. Highway 89, then make a right on Highway 89 and head south through Panguitch until reaching the intersection of state Route 12. Turn left onto SR 12, passing through Red Canyon and Tropic until Cannonville, then turn south on Kodachrome Basin Road until reaching the park.

Kodachrome Basin features several hiking, biking and equestrian trails run throughout the park of varying difficulty levels. The Grand Parade, Shakespeare Arch and Angel’s Palace trails are some of the more easy ones while Eagle’s View Overlook is one of its more challenging. 

Spring and fall are particularly pleasant to visit the park as it does not feel too hot.

For more information on the park, please visit its website.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

See all of the features in the “Days” series.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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