The largest cylindrical sandstone weathering pit on Earth, unknown but to a few, lies within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Geologists informally refer to this singular landform as the Inselberg Pit – German, island mountain. It is even more casually known as the Cosmic Navel. It is unique for its size, central pedestal and active interior sand dune.
The massive pit is a day’s drive from Durango and is located off Utah State Route 12 between Boulder and Escalante, Utah. While the region is currently at rest beneath the snow, exploring in the greater Monument will easily consume your spring break, or your lifetime.
We had very little information going into this hike, and the pit was darn hard to locate. Take a detailed map, these instructions, a good sense of direction, and you will be successful.
From the parking area off Old Sheffield Road, elevation 5,740 feet, walk southeast down the two-track which soon degenerates to deep sand and then dwindles to a wide trail. On the right is a band of cliffs, the Red Breaks.
At 0.4 mile, leave the old road bearing southeast. Walk along the base of the Red Breaks out far enough to avoid ravines. You may find fragments of a social trail in the sand. Before the deep sand gets annoying, intersect sandstone. The remainder of the hike is on unobstructed Navajo Sandstone slickrock.
Climb Point 5,974’. Yes, you may skirt it on the east side holding the contour. We did that on our return, and it is more efficient. However, there is much to be gained by climbing almost 300 feet to the dome top. From here, get the lay of the land. To the east are the alluring landforms that lie between the Red Breaks and the Escalante River. Further east are the Henry Mountains. Peg your next move to cross the undulating sandstone bench southeast until you are on the right/south side of Point 6,015’.
On the prominence, the windblast is 60-plus mph and I literally cannot stand up. Super charged engines roar inside my ears. We are experiencing the aeolian process at work, the wind’s ability to shape the surface of the Earth.
Descend on rosy cross-bedding. Pocket sand gardens are protected havens for piñon-juniper and brilliant crimson Indian paintbrush. Splashes of green lichen favor small cracks and divots. Clumps of black moss cling steadfastly to the bedrock.
Polished and grooved ventifacts lay scattered about. If you accidentally kick them off-axis, it will take a thousand years for the aeolian process to create a new shape. Moqui marbles have been rolled by the wind into single layer clusters butted up against stone backstops. Mounds of turtleback weathering and bedrock polygonal cracks are typical of Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone.
Reach the minor saddle between Point 6,015’ and Point 5,887’ at 2.2 miles. Locate Point 5,847’, the rounded dome to the southeast. The weathering pit is located near the crest on its backside. Most notably, there are two sizable drainages between this location and the marker dome.
Cross the first watercourse, the Northeast Fork of Red Breaks, at its head at about 5,700 feet, the most direct route. As indicated on my map, we crossed it somewhat deeply because it is irresistible. The floor is remarkably wide with waves of white rock.
Drop far enough into the North Fork of Harris Wash to avoid the cliff structure on its east side, crossing the drainage at about 5,500 feet. The sand ripples and stone swirls on the smooth stone floor are astonishingly beautiful.
Climb Point 5,847’, cresting at 3.2 miles. The broad dome is subject to exceptionally strong south-westerlies, sand movers. The springtime prefrontal wind we experienced is even more accelerated here.
Moqui balls are scattered on the surface of the dome. These concretions are created by the precipitation of iron oxide and are common in outcrops of Navajo Sandstone. Please resist the temptation to take one home.
Just over the backside of the dome, the Inselberg Pit is revealed. The enormous weathering pit is both wondrous and unsettling. It is slightly oval and 200 feet across. The walls of the pit vary from sloping to vertical to overhung. Its depth ranges from 65 feet to 16 at the breached part of the rim. The cylindrical pedestal is 30-feet tall.
According to geologists, the Inselberg Pit is distinguished from other giant weathering pits on the Colorado Plateau by its pillar and active sand dune. The reddish-orange color contrasts with bleached, light pink walls. While a small portion of dunal sand is derived from weathering of the pit floor and walls, most of the sand is transported into the cavity from outside sources. On the west side is an aeolian groove aligned with prevailing wind – a sand funnel.
Descend easily to the eastern access. Here, we happened upon four men from Utah who were elated to find the Cosmic Navel on their third try. They had a line secured to a small blackbrush shrub. I found the rope reassuring to get down the initial friction pitch to the augmented Moqui steps which are recessed enough to descend without aid. With sticky shoes, some brave people will be able to make the downclimb without a rope, but carry one just in case.
On the sand floor, the pinnacle and dune have a strong presence. The dune mounds up between the pillar and the south wall. It changes shape, height, and position with every strong wind event. Sand is siphoned into the pit forming a cyclonic particle accelerator, scouring out the walls. It takes one thousand years or more to deepen the pit by a few centimeters. Accordingly, the Inselberg Pit is ancient. Estimates vary from 216,000 to 800,000 years old.
Climb out and circumnavigate the pit on its south side, giving up and regaining 120 feet for a safe passage. Locate the aeolian groove on the west rim. Walk down into the 30 foot-long, eight foot-wide funnel with its fluted bedrock floor. The siphon creates a Venturi effect, accelerating the wind by as much as 300 percent. While running water did not create the groove, at one time in the distant past there was standing water, perhaps a simple water pocket, at this site. While all weathering pits must have standing water in their formative years, water no longer pools inside the Cosmic Navel but quickly drains through porous rock.
To return, continue around above the pit until you are between Point 5,847’ and three prominent pinnacles. Then bear roughly northwest and cross the two drainages. Regain the saddle south of Point 6,015’. You won’t see Point 5,974’ until you are on top of the next rise. This dome is your massive reassurance cairn signifying that you are on the proper route back to your vehicle. Skirt it on the east bench.
Our Earth, the preeminent artist amongst us, patiently created the pit with her breath and grains of sand. Those of us who by providence, serendipity or intention are blessed to see this masterful sculpture will surely judge it perfect, as it is. And yet, the Earth’s untiring work continues.
For images that will help you locate the pit, consult: debravanwinegarden.blogspot.com