Fossil-Fueled, Out in Utah

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Patricia Connell is an editor in the Travel section

Facing another weekend of ferrying kids to the mall and catching up on the laundry, I racked my brain for a getaway. Years ago a colleague had written an amusing article about hunting down trilobite fossils in some remote corner of the Southwest. So I typed "trilobites" into an Internet search engine and surfed my way to U-Dig Fossils, a quarry west of Delta, Utah, where visitors can take home any trilobites they find.

An adventure was taking shape. My husband, Tony Litwinko, and our 12-year-old daughter, Elena, were game.

Delta is in west-central Utah, about 130 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. We'd make it three days in June, I figured, doing something special each day. With help from a few guidebooks, our goals were set: a raft float on the Provo River on Saturday, a hike in Timpanogos Cave National Monument on Sunday (of our three activities, only Timpanogos was open Sunday) and the fossil dig on Monday. Clinching the deal were two Web specials, $138 round-trip tickets from LAX to Salt Lake on Southwest Airlines and a National car rental at $14.95 per day, plus an auto-club rate of $49.99 a night for a room and breakfast at La Quinta Inn & Suites in Orem.

We landed at Salt Lake at 12:40 p.m. on a Saturday, picked up our rented Chevy Malibu, grabbed drive-through tacos and set out for Orem, about 40 miles south on Interstate 15.

After checking in at La Quinta, we jumped back in the car for the drive up Provo Canyon, past picturesque 607-foot Bridal Veil Falls (where, alas, we had no time to join the hikers visible high up on trails amid the spray), to the trailer that houses High Country Rafting. (The directions the company had provided on the phone were next to useless. After zigging and zagging past it several times, we finally spotted a yellow "Rentals" sign 1.7 miles past the waterfall.)

Along with a couple of dozen other takers, we piled into two vans and were driven a few miles upriver, where we strapped on life vests and scattered into tubes, kayaks and inflatable rafts. Running a gantlet of fly fishermen in pursuit of brown trout, Tony, Elena and I shared a raft with a genial young guide, Rob Hamblin, who did most of the paddling on the 11/2-hour excursion along the pleasant, woodsy river. Though I was grateful for Rob's expertise at low bridges and rocky spots, I was a little sorry we hadn't braved an unguided kayak run. (I'd leave tubing to hardier souls. The river is snowmelt from the surrounding Wasatch Range, its water temperature never rising above the mid-40s.)

By float's end, Elena was eager for a dip in water of the heated, chlorinated kind--and some dinner. Orem seemed to be mostly a chain-eatery kind of town, so after a spell in the hotel's indoor pool, we scouted University Avenue in neighboring Provo, home of Brigham Young University.

We were delighted with our find: Tucanos, a Brazilian grill in a spacious, stylish setting. After grazing a buffet of salads and a few hot dishes, we returned to our table to await servers bearing skewers of tasty meat, poultry, seafood, veggies and fresh pineapple. All had just been whisked off the 16-foot-long open-flame grill that dominated one side of the dining room. We indulged gluttonously.

The next morning we were off to Timpanogos (tim-pan-OH-gus) Cave National Monument, about 15 miles north of Orem in the canyon of the American Fork River. It was a reminder that national monuments rarely disappoint.

Getting to the caves requires a hike up from the visitor center. "Up" is the operative word: The paved trail gains 1,065 feet in elevation along its 11/2-mile length. The lung-busting, switchbacking ascent rewarded us with sensational views of the surrounding mountains and, beyond the canyon's mouth, the broad Utah Valley to the west.

At trail's end, 6,730 feet up, we and 17 others joined park ranger Chandra Vostral on a half-mile, hourlong walk (with the occasional crouch and squeeze) through Hansen, Middle and Timpanogos caves, three natural chambers linked by man-made tunnels. Experts think the caves started forming tens of millions of years ago, as the geological forces that built up the Wasatch Range fractured the rock and mineral-laden water seeped in.

Chandra noted that the caves are famed for their world-class array of helictites--gravity-defying calcite clusters that project from the walls in random directions. As we proceeded through the caverns, the formations became more spectacular, climaxing in Timpanogos Cave's colorful draperies, flowstone and dense helictite display.

Monday morning we checked out of the hotel and drove southwest to the fossil quarry. Once we had passed Delta, about 100 miles out, we started using the local map I'd printed from the U-Dig Web site. As Tony snoozed in the back seat, Elena and I navigated by odometer readings, daring to hope that the deserted, unmarked gravel road we were bouncing along for the final 31-mile stretch was the right one. Trailing a plume of dust, we intersected with another gravel road about when it seemed we should, and to my intense relief, a sign pointed toward the quarry.

Nine miles later the desert yielded to a moonscape of broken shale, interrupted only by a wooden shed and two portable toilets. It occurred to me how lucky we were that the day wasn't torrid. In high summer here, without plenty of water and sun protection, you'd soon be a fossil yourself.

The U-Dig manager, Gene Boardman, greeted us at the shed and handed us a photocopied trilobite identification chart. He showed us samples of the bug-like marine arthropods, 2 inches long at best, that had gotten themselves immortalized in stone. The creatures teemed in this area when it was an inland sea during the Cambrian period, which ended 500 million years ago. As far as I could tell from the chart, the three or four species you're likely to find here are most easily distinguished by the shape of the cephalic rim, a little flange that curves around the head.

After arming us with picks and plastic buckets, Gene walked us over to a pile of shale and showed us how to crack open shards of the easily split rock to search for the fossils. "When you break that rock open," he said, "it's the first time the critter has seen the light of day in half a billion years."

During the next 30 or 40 minutes our buckets were filling with halfway decent specimens, but I was losing hope of finding a really big, shapely trilobite. Then an unassuming rock cracked open to reveal a nearly perfect, 11/2-inch Asaphiscus wheeleri. Exultant, I wrapped my new pal in tissue and carried him home in my pocket.

With a three-hour trip back to Salt Lake and a 6:45 flight to catch, we didn't get enough time in the quarry. But a sackful of trilobites got their first plane ride, and their proud new owners got a taste of how bracing a weekend can be, far away from the mall.

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Budget for Three

Round-trip air fare, L.A. to Salt Lake City: $414.00

Car rental, gas: 103.85

La Quinta Inn & Suites, two nights: 110.22

Rafting, with tip: 95.00

Timpanogos Cave: 20.00

U-Dig Fossils: 16.92

Dinner, Tucanos: 72.22

Other meals: 77.35

FINAL TAB: $909.56

* La Quinta Inn & Suites, 521 W. University Parkway, Orem, UT 84058; telephone (800) 531-5900 or (801) 226-0440, Internet http://www.laquinta.com.

* U-Dig Fossils, P.O. Box 1113, Delta, UT 84624; tel. (435) 864-3638, http://www.threedee.com/u-dig.

* High Country Rafting, tel. (801) 224-2500, http://www.highcountryrafting.com.

* Timpanogos Cave National Monument, tel. (801) 756-5238, http://www.nps.gov/tica.

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