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    Tales of Trails: The naming of Fisher Towers

    Should it really have been ‘Fissure,’ or was it named after a person?

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    The name “Fisher” is applied to a number of places near the Colorado River’s Professor Valley area. There is the popular BLM hiking and climbing venue of Fisher Towers, there is Fisher Mesa that overlooks Fisher Towers from the south, and there is Fisher Valley, home to a cattle ranch that has been in operation since pioneer days.

    Climbers scale monoliths of Fisher Towers.
    Climbers scale the monoliths of Fisher Towers from the view of hikers below who trek along the labyrinthian trail. Photo by Doug McMurdo

    Fisher Valley is accessed via the Onion Creek Road, and is popular for four-wheelers and mountain bikers. A portion of the Kokopelli Trail passes through Fisher Valley as it descends from North Beaver Mesa over the rough Rose Garden Hill, thence on to overlooks of the Dolores River and the route’s junction with Highway 128 near the Dewey Bridge.

    Fisher Mesa is like a peninsula in the sky, as are most of the mesas of the Colorado Plateau. A similar moniker is what one of the districts of Canyonlands National Park is called: Island in the Sky.

    Fisher Mesa is accessed from the Gateway Road, an offshoot of the Loop Road that travels the northern bench of the La Sal Mountains from Castleton to Gateway, Colorado. Fisher Mesa is densely forested with pinion trees, and has breathtaking views of Fisher Valley and the Uncompahgre Plateau. A very rough two-track dirt road goes out to the edge of the mesa, and a non-motorized trail goes along the rim of the mesa.

    The most popular “Fisher” venue is Fisher Towers, the road to which starts on Highway 128 at mile post 21. The trailhead and small campground are administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The hike is akin to trekking through a giant sand castle.

    For decades, there has been some debate as to whether the areas were named after a person whose last name was Fisher, or whether the towers and neighboring areas were referred to as “fissures,” the definition of which is a fracture or crack in rock along which there is a distinct separation. The U.S. Geologic Survey says fissures “are often filled with mineral-bearing materials. On volcanoes, a fissure is an elongated fracture or crack at the surface from which lava erupts.”

    Much of the Colorado Plateau is made of land that was volcanic. Take a look at Round Mountain in Castle Valley, or the laccolithic La Sal Mountains whose sharp points are reminiscent of a volcano tip, covered with igneous granite shale. But whether the geologic forces that rent the Colorado Plateau with tremendous underground pressure left behind the fragile sandstone spires of Fisher Mesa is up to debate.

    In what some might call the “olden days,” the Fisher Towers were often referred to as the Pipe Organs. In the book Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names, published in 2012 by author Steve Allen, he interviewed a number of people about the naming of this area.

    Dogs look over the edge.
    Dogs peer from the edge of Fisher Mesa into Fisher Valley.

    Allen asked the late Joe Taylor, whose family has ranched the area since the 1880s, about the derivation of the towers’ name. “We called them, as a group, the Pipe Organs. Now the bird watchers and rock climbers have named each individual tower,” said Taylor many years ago. “They were always called the Pipe Organs. I was fairly grown before I saw the name Fisher Towers.”

    The striking spires range from 800 to 1,700 feet in height and have titles that include King Fisher, Ancient Art, the Oracle, Cottontail Tower and the Titan.

    In 1937, the late Merel S. Sager of the National Park Service said, “From a distance, these red sandstone formations suggest the skyline of Manhattan…Some have dominant, unbroken vertical lines of the modern skyscraper, while others resemble Gothic cathedrals with delicate carvings.”

    The late Buck Lee offered this description in 1940: “A grand array of the most fascinating and grotesque formations one can ever imagine. These great rock spires and pinnacles rise out of a broken and twisted world to the unbelievable heights of over 1,700 feet, in sheer walls on all sides. One need have no imagination to see pictures and sculptures made by the Master Painter and Sculptor in the many towering cliffs, where color and formation vie with each other in an effort to enchant.”

    Many movies and commercials have been filmed here, beginning with John Ford’s “Wagonmaster” in 1950 (my grandmother Pearl “Sis’ Taylor was an extra in it), then the lesser-known “Blue” in 1968, and on and on along with John Wayne’s “Comancheros” and “Rio Grande.” In more recent years, Disney made the movie “John Carter” in 2010, and then the most recent of “Lone Ranger” iteration was remade in Professor Valley in 2012. A complete listing of movies and their release dates has been compiled by the Moab to Monument Valley Film Commission.

    Fisher Valley, which is accessed by the wet and winding road of Onion Creek, was described by the late George Amasa Larsen, who was a pioneer Moab and Castle Valley rancher. He said Fisher Valley was named for the first white person to be there, according to an account in Allen’s book. He said a man with the last name of Fisher “talked so much about what a fine place it was that his friends always called it Fisher Valley.”

    Another reference by the name of Huntley Ingalls also said it was named after a person, instead of an incorrect spelling reference that maintained the name stemmed from giant fissures in the geology that created the spires.

    Horse and rider enjoy the view.
    Equestrians enjoy vistas that stretch into Colorado as they ride the Fisher Mesa non-motorized trail.

    But Joe Taylor didn’t believe that it was named for a person or family. “I’ve never heard of a Fisher family living there. The one thing I heard from my grandfather, Don Taylor, was him quoting an old-timer. This fellow told him that it was supposed to be ‘fissure,’ like a hole in the ground, not ‘Fisher’ like a person’s name.”

    The word fissure was commonly used to describe geology and geography by early explorers of the American West, including notable Mormon diarist and pioneer Jacob Hamblin. These days if you Google the word, a person will more likely find references to painful sores on an individual’s private parts.

    Hamblin used the term “fissure” as a synonym for a canyon or defile. For example, when he explored the Glen Canyon country in 1858, 11 years after the Latter-day Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, he recounted, “climbing dangerous cliffs and crossing extensive fissures.”

    So, the naming of the area remains fairly inconclusive. Historian James H. Knipmeyer described Fisher Valley as thus: “Here was a pastoral paradise completely surrounded by cliffs and towering peaks…Locally known as Forbidden Valley because of its inaccessibility, it was named Fisher after an early-day rancher,” he said in Allen’s book. The beautiful valley is in fact rather difficult to get to, as the road winds for about a dozen miles through a maze of sandstone spires and cliffs along Onion Creek, crossing the creek about 30 times from the Colorado River canyon to Fisher Valley.

    As for the ranch, which is private property and should not be trespassed, Joe Taylor explained that the family of his grandfather long ago bought Fisher Valley Ranch. It remains in the family today. Prior to the Taylors’ purchase, it was ranched by other outfits. Said Joe Taylor, “In the old days, ranchers would homestead different areas. The big ranchers would put their hired men on a ranch. On this ranch they had a hired man there in the fall, and when they went back the next spring there were more families there. They said that there had been nobody there so they just took up the homestead. Years later the house burned down and there was a skeleton of a person buried under the foundation. My granddad always said that the family always felt that the homesteaders had killed their hired man and jumped the claim.”

    Regardless of the right name, Fisher Towers is one of the most magnificent places a person can visit. Its beauty and recreational fun is on par with any national park on the globe.

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