A higher, steeper-sided slickrock dome rose directly ahead of us. According to my GPS, the hidden secret was on top. I burned on ahead, wanting to scout out the lay of the land before the others arrived, but when I got to the top, I couldn't see it. I spent some time wandering around on top to no avail, and as the others arrived, I decided to take another look on the far side of the knoll, further away from my assigned waypoint. And, lo and behold, there it was.
The Cosmic Ashtray
It was indeed stupendous; an incongruous and completely unexpected formation. Below us sat a huge, almost perfectly circular bowl carved out of the solid slickrock of the ridge, perhaps a hundred feet round. It was deep, although I wasn't sure how deep, because the bowl was filled with a very fine-grained orange sand. In the middle of the bowl, a great knob of stone thrust out of the sand. It looked like some sort of crater, but immediately I knew it wasn't, because it had all of the wrong characteristics (other than the fact that it was round). The name of this hidden, weird, wonderful thing was equally impressive. "My friends", I attempted to state with an impressive gravitas, "Behold the Cosmic Ashtray!".
Cosmic Ashtray from below
Yes, this curious and unexpected formation was called the Cosmic Ashtray. It's obvious why this was so - it did look like a huge, God-sized cigarette ashtray - complete with a nearly perfect bowl shape, a healthy pile of 'ashes' (the sand) and a huge, used cigarette butt in the center.
Andrew for scale
The others seemed suitably impressed, and so they should have been. I myself had never seen anything quite like it. It was clearly not volcanic in origin, showing no signs of any sort of volcanic rock. It seemed entirely made up of Navajo Sandstone. Although it was round, it didn't have any other characteristics of an impact crater: the rock showed no signs of being disturbed or pulverized by an impact. It must therefore have been produced by some sort of erosionary process, although what that process was unobvious to me. Was it perhaps the product of some weird and extremely strong wind erosion? Although it didn't at all look like it, could it have been the bend made by some ancient, long-gone river?
More beautiful, banded rock
I took a close up look at the lowest point along the lip of the bowl, where there is a sloping, then vertical drop of about 15 to 20 feet to the sandy floor. The inside of the ashtray was filled with an exceptionally fine sand, and the sides of the bowl were not scalable at any point. If you fell into this thing, I don't think you would be able to climb out without someone sending you down a rope!
Although it would have been nice to spend a little bit longer exploring around this interesting spot, we had to move on. There was still a good couple of hours' worth of walking to get back to the trailhead, and the afternoon was getting long. We said goodbye to the Cosmic Ashtray and continued our journey south on the slickrock. In only a few moments walking down the hill, the ashtray was invisible to us. It is quite interesting how well hidden it is, situated as it is countersunk into the crest of a ridge. If you didn't know where it was in advance, you would only find it by pure chance.
The slickrock slopes leading down from crest of the ridge had some stunningly beautiful banding and cross-bedding, made even more beautiful in the late-day light.
We could see an old mining road in the distance; we knew this was the old track that led all the way back to Harris Wash, and we angled over to walk on it rather than on the soft, tiring sand to which we had now transitioned.
We were now on the easy walking surface provided by the road (with the exception of a few stretches of deep sand). Even so, it was turning out to be a long and fairly hard hike, and we were pretty bushed. It made the hour-and-a-half walk back to the trailhead seem a lot longer than it was.
We arrived back at the trailhead shortly after 8pm, feeling well spent, and with only about half an hour of good daylight left.
According to our trip itinerary, the plan was to return to the Escalante and stay at the Prospector Inn. I was glad for it, because I didn't feel particularly inspired to set up the tent and make up a dehydrated dinner. We'd be able to go back to town, grab a quick burger, have a hot shower, and be nice and ready for our five-day backpack early the next morning.
After a dustry drive back to town on Hole-in-the-rock road to town, we quickly piled our stuff in the rooms and headed out back to the adjacent cafe. We were the last people in before closing (in fact, they'd semi-closed the kitchen already and the only thing available were burger-and-fries entrees). No problem, though - we were hungry enough for anything, and after quickly wolfing down dinner, it was off to bed for the night.
Interactive Trackmap, Red Breaks Hike - click map to expand
Red Breaks Loop - Hike Data
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet