Archive for the ‘geology’ Tag

The Painted Hills   13 comments

The foothills of the Ochoco Mountains rise to the west of the grasslands near the Painted Hills, Oregon.

The foothills of the Ochoco Mountains rise to the west of the grasslands near the Painted Hills, Oregon.

It has been way too long since I’ve done a travel-oriented post.  It’s really my favorite kind!  So in place of photography advice this week, I’m going to recommend a photo destination:  The Painted Hills!  They are known by landscape photographers across the west, and even across the country and world.  Perhaps you have seen pictures of them.

Lying in a remote area of central Oregon near the small town of Mitchell, the Painted Hills are a series of colorful formations with photogenic textures.  This post will give some tips on visiting and photographing them, and also some background information on the area’s fascinating geology.  It is the first of two.

The Painted Hills are part of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  National Monuments, if you don’t know, are sort of like National Parks lite; they’re protected federal land that is not as high profile as parks.  This national monument is made up of three main areas (units) separated by drives of 2-3 hours.  It is a very scenic area worth exploring outside of the Painted Hills themselves.

The three units – Painted Hills, Sheep Rock and Clarno Units – form a rough triangle that can be explored going either clockwise or counter-clockwise.  You’ll need a car, no 4×4 is necessary.  There is easily obtained camping and lodging scattered through the area.  It is definitely not touristy.

Morning light hits the Painted Hills in Oregon.

Morning light hits the Painted Hills in Oregon.

Home on the range in central Oregon near the Painted Hills.

Home on the range in central Oregon near the Painted Hills.

Directions

If you want to hit the Painted Hills first, drive east from Portland on Hwy. 26.  Follow it across Mount Hood and through an Indian reservation.  Then, just after passing through the town of Madras, turn left to stay on Hwy. 26.  It will take you through the cow-town of Prineville, up and over the beautiful Ochoco Mountains, and down into the huge basin where the Hills sit.

If you’re coming from Bend, first drive north to Redmond, then east to Prineville to pick up Hwy. 26.  The signed turnoff for the Painted Hills, Bridge Creek Road, is not far after you finish descending off the Ochocos.  The Hills are about 6 miles north of Hwy. 26 just off Bridge Creek Road.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a rare stretch of water in this dry area of eastern Oregon.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a rare stretch of water in this dry area of eastern Oregon.

Layers of fossil soils form colorful bands in Oregon's Painted Hills.

Fossil soils form colorful bands in Oregon’s Painted Hills.

What are the Painted Hills?

The Painted Hills are formed by exposures of sedimentary rock belonging to the Big Basin Member of the John Day Formation.  In the Oligocene epoch, some 34 million years ago, volcanoes to the west sent ash clouds over the area, and streams deposited more layers of ash-rich sediment in a subtropical river basin.  The sediment weathered to deep soil before being buried and turned into rock.  Because they are rich in volcanic ash (tuff), the rocks weathered to a clay-rich material.  Volcanic ash has a lot of silica and aluminum; just add water and you have clay.

You will not think of rocks when you first see the Painted Hills.  They look like they’re made of soft fluffy sand or dirt.  But if you could take a shovel and dig down into this stuff, you’d soon hit solid rock.  It is merely rock that has been heavily weathered, not just under today’s climate but under the ancient wet climate it was originally deposited in.  Don’t go digging though, take my word for it!

The frequent wet-dry cycles of today’s semi-arid central Oregon cause these clay-rich “fossil soils” to crack in a fascinating pattern called alligator cracking.  It can easily take years for the clays to crack in this way, so if you walk on them you are ruining the scene for countless photographers and other visitors who come behind you.  Please heed the signs to stay off the bare earth.

The different minerals within the original rock – iron, magnesium, etc. – stain this clay with a variety of rich colors.  Iron mostly weathers to red & orange but in oxygen-poor environments can weather to green.  The dark bands are mostly horizons of organic-rich lignite that trace ancient oxygen-poor stream bottoms.  Manganese-rich clay can form this ash-black color too.  The most obvious colors, the red-orange horizons, mark the ancient soil horizons that were deeply weathered to laterite.  Iron oxide (rust) is responsible for the color.  It’s the kind of thing happening in deep soils of tropical regions in the world of today.

Painted Hills meets Funhouse!

Painted Hills meets Funhouse!

The countryside around Mitchell, Oregon.

The countryside around Mitchell, Oregon.

Visiting and Photographing the Painted Hills

As you head into the area on Bridge Creek Road, you’ll pass some teaser exposures of painted hills.  Turn left at the sign and drive a short distance to a parking area on the left.  You have arrived at the most popular viewpoint in the Painted Hills.  They are to your east, so in late afternoon the hills can yield great photos in wonderfully warm frontlight, with the dark bulk of Sutton Mountain behind.  The sun sets behind the Ochoco Mountains here, so arrive early for sunset.

From the viewpoint, look up and to the left.  A dark band tops nearby Carroll Rim.  This rock band is a “welded tuff”, the Picture Gorge Ignimbrite.  About 30 million years ago a scalding hot wave of dense ash flowed across the landscape, killing all in its path.  You can hike a short trail up to Carrol Rim for a higher vantage point.  From the viewpoint, walk further up the ridge from the parking lot to get good views down into the colored layers.  Use a long focal length lens to get abstract images of the colored patterns.  Please stay off the exposed (cracked) earth.

Drive a little further in from the overlook to a T-intersection.  Go left for two short nature hikes (Leaf Hill & Red Hill).  If you keep going on this gravel road, just after you exit the Monument, you’ll come to a small area on the right where you can free-camp.  Just be quiet and respectful; leave it cleaner than you found it.  Back at the T intersection, turn right to go to Painted Cove, another short nature trail.  This place is great for close-up views (and pictures) of alligator cracking.  You also have a view of the only water in the area, a reservoir that is full and ringed with pretty yellow flowers in springtime.

Back out towards the main entrance there is a picnic area with wonderful green grass.  If you head left out at the turn off Bridge Creek Road, you’ll traverse south on a gravel road for about 6 miles to the John Day River.  This is one of the river’s largest rapids, and you can camp here.  Along this road there are a few spots where you can just park and head off  on a hike into the hills.  Get a map and make sure you are not on private land.  There is plenty of public land here.  In May keep an eye peeled for the wonderful mariposa lily.

Gopher Snake

Meeting a local in the Painted Hills

Deer don't heed the signs not to walk on the Painted Hills.

Deer don’t heed the signs not to walk on the Painted Hills.

 Mitchell

If you keep going east on Hwy. 26 past the turnoff to the Painted Hills you will quickly come to Mitchell, where lodging and camping (in the city park) is available.  Mitchell is a tiny town, but has a restaurant and bar, along with a great bed and breakfast.  Even if you don’t stay, stop for breakfast or have a beer.  Meet the locals!

On the west side of Mitchell, just behind and below the state highway maintenance station, is an old homestead.  Once a dairy farm, this is a fantastic and little known place to photograph.  Be very respectful and low-profile; don’t climb on fences or try to drive down there.  Park near the highway and walk down.  The buildings and barns are in good condition.  In late afternoon or early morning light they offer very good image potential, very different from the landscape shots you just got of the Painted Hills.

So that’s the Painted Hills.  Great pictures abound.  If it has recently rained the colors are that much richer.  You will also find the remains of Oregon’s geologic and human histories.  It’s very quiet and peaceful, a great getaway.  Stay tuned for the next installment, which visits the other two units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

The Painted Hills in central Oregon take on subtle hues as dusk arrives.

The Painted Hills in central Oregon take on subtle hues as dusk arrives.

The San Juan Mountains   11 comments

An alpine lake high in the San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

An alpine lake high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

The San Juan Mountains are my favorite mountain range in Colorado.  They are not the highest mountains in the state, though with six peaks surpassing 14,000 feet (4270 meters) in elevation they’re close.  It is the largest range in Colorado by area.  They slice spectacularly through the southwestern part of the state, forming a stunning Rocky Mountain landscape.

The major towns bordering the San Juans are Durango, Montrose and Alamosa.  Telluride, Creede and Silverton are smaller towns with historic, touristic and recreational personalities.  Hiking, mountain climbing & biking, horse-riding and white-water rafting are very popular, as are 4WD jeep rides.  There are four ski areas in the range, with Telluride being by far the biggest and most famous.  There are a plethora of summer homes and ranches, many owned by wealthy people.  Some are even famous (Tom Cruise is one).

The rugged San Juans in SW Colorado.

The rugged San Juans in SW Colorado.

William Henry Jackson, a photographer’s photographer

An intrepid photographer named William Henry Jackson, whom many of you might already know about, trekked through this range on his mission to document the best of the rugged American West in the late 1800s.  As part of the Hayden Expedition, he used pack animals and his own strong back to lug his large-format camera (complete with huge glass plates) up and down these steep mountains.

He set up make-shift tents that served as darkrooms, developing his prints often on the very summits of the mountains.  All in all he made about 300,000 black and white pictures.  These images, reproduced in newspapers in cities worldwide, played a large part in forming an idyllic image of the American West in the minds of those looking for new opportunity.  The call of “Go West young man!” now had superb pictures to go with it, and the mass migration soon followed!

Ranch land at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.

Ranch land at the foot of the San Juan Mountains.

 

Geology

The San Juans are a large western branch the Rocky Mountains.  Like the rest of the chain, they formed by the uplift and buckling of a large pile of older sedimentary and volcanic rocks during the late Cretaceous (the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago).  This massive crustal “squish” happened because of a collision between two huge chunks of Earth’s crust: the Pacific and North American Plates.

Some of the highest and most rugged peaks in the San Juans are made of very hard igneous intrusions (granite is an example) that resist erosion.  These so-called plutons were intruded as the mountain building process got going.  Many of the flat-lying layers of sedimentary rocks forming the canyon walls of the adjacent Colorado Plateau lap up onto the San Juans.  There they take on a different look, being strongly deformed by folding and faulting.

Ouray, Colorado is a small town situated in a spectacular spot.

Ouray, Colorado is a small town situated in a spectacular spot.

Hard sedimentary rocks like quartzite, which is metamorphosed (heated and changed) sandstone, form prominent peaks and cliffs because quartzite is hard like the plutonic intrusions.  Other sedimentary rocks, such as the mudstones and sandstones of the dinosaur fossil-bearing Morrison Formation, typically form the rubbly slopes bordering the peaks.  Many valleys and canyons follow faults.  Ouray, Colorado lies at the base of a steep grade because of the E-W trending Ouray Fault.

Volcanism is one other important force that helped to form the San Juan Mountains.  Large and explosive volcanoes erupted in middle Tertiary times (about 30 million years ago).  Many calderas, including the Silverton Caldera, make up what’s called the San Juan Volcanic Field.  Calderas are bigger than craters and are formed when the volcano violently explodes and collapses back into its emptied magma chamber.

You can see these volcanics (tuffs – rock from volcanic ash and lavas) by driving up and over spectacular Red Mountain Pass.  In the San Juans, the colorful volcanic rock forms high but more rounded peaks that are less rugged than those formed by earlier igneous intrusions of the main mountain-building event.

Aspens take on a very different look after they lose their leaves in late autumn.

Aspens take on a very different look after they lose their leaves in late autumn.

Thar’s Gold in them thar hills!

In the late Tertiary, from about 20 to 10 million years ago, the slowly cooling granitic intrusions that were the sources for those explosive volcanoes sent forth gold and silver-bearing fluids into the faults and fractures of the calderas.  So like so many mountainous regions of the world, the events that formed valuable mineral deposits were the penultimate phases of the mountain-building process, the last gasp of the big granite bodies solidifying deep underground.

In southwest Colorado as in similar places throughout the world, these events dictated the much later human history of the area.  The mining history of this area, while interesting, also has a dark side.  The Summitville Mine in the eastern San Juans was worked by the old-timers in the late 1800s, well before modern environmental regulations.

The pollution from acid drainage resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declaring the area a Superfund site.  They have been trying to clean it up since the 1990s.  The EPA wanted to list an area near Silverton for Superfund status, but local opposition forced them to drop the idea and rely on the mining company to help control acid drainage.  The local economy relies heavily on tourism, and residents did not want that reputation tainted.

Silverton sits in a high valley between Molas and Red Mountain Passes.

Silverton sits in a high valley between Molas and Red Mountain Passes.

Silverton's mining-driven boomtime was in the late 1800s, as the architecture suggests.

Silverton’s mining-driven boom-time was in the late 1800s, as the architecture suggests.

 

The San Juan Mountains, a real Rocky Mountain wonderland, make for outstanding landscape photography.  In early summer there are spectacular wildflower displays. In autumn the aspens turn gold beneath the snow-dusted peaks.  If you have never been to this part of Colorado, I recommend making every effort to visit sometime soon.  And don’t forget your camera!

Click on any of the images to go to my image galleries.  They are all copyrighted, so aren’t available for free download without my permission.  If you’re interested in purchase of fine-art prints or high-resolution downloads please contact me.  Thanks for reading and have a great day!

The setting sun's light brightens the peaks of the San Juan Mountains,  Colorado.

The setting sun’s light brightens the peaks of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

The Alvord Desert, Oregon   7 comments

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays and the desert prepares for night.

The Trout Creek Mountains in southeastern Oregon bask in last rays as the desert prepares for night.

When I need some wide-open space, I come to this corner of Oregon that we call the state’s “outback”.  I drove through on my way to the Rockies recently and revisited a few old haunts.  But this was the first time I had actually camped on the playa of the Alvord Desert.  While this region is indeed technically a desert (averaging 7 inches/yr. precipitation), I’m not sure why they chose to call this particular place the Alvord Desert.

The Alvord part is predictable, named after a general from the East, from the Civil War no less.  But the desert part is curious.  The whole region is classified as a cold semi-arid desert.  It’s dry and it’s high (4000 feet/1220 meters).  But the area named the Alvord Desert is actually a large playa, a dry lake bed.  So why not call it the Alvord Playa?

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Venus sets & the stars come out as night comes to the Alvord Desert in SE Oregon.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Early morning reveals the Pueblo Mountains to have been dusted by snow overnight.

Climate & Geology

The region’s aridity is caused by the rain shadow of the Cascades and other mountain ranges.  The Alvord itself is in the very dramatic rain shadow of Steen’s Mountain, which rises directly west.  (The Steen’s is also a very spectacular destination in it’s own right.)  The Alvord is a spectacular example of a playa, so dry and flat in summer and fall that you can easily drive and land a plane on it.  In fact, it’s been used to set land speed records, like the Bonneville Salt Flats down in Utah.

The salty playas of this region of North America form because erosion from surrounding mountains dumps fine sediment into the bottom of the basin and the shallow water that collects there cannot run out.  (This isn’t called the Great Basin for nothing.) The water evaporates, leaving behind salt flats and quickly drying muds.

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of "wind-riders".

The playa of the Alvord Desert in Oregon attracts a group of “wind-riders”.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord.  I can't imagine the speeds in heavy wind.

Even a light wind can propel these guys at quick speeds across the Alvord. I can’t imagine the speeds in heavy wind!

The Alvord lies near the northern extent of the the Basin and Range province, a term geologists prefer over Great Basin.  Extending down through Nevada and eastern California, and over into western Utah, it is a series of linear mountain ranges and adjacent basins formed by block faulting.  Huge sections of the earth’s crust rise up while on the other side of the fault the adjacent basins drop down.  It happens this way because the crust just below is being stretched and rifted apart, much like the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Since this shallower part of the crust is brittle, faults form.  Earthquakes along these faults still happen, so it is an ongoing process.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the "pediment", the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen's Mountain.

Fall-flowering shrubs dot the “pediment”, the transition from basin to range, in this case from the Alvord playa to Steen’s Mountain.

Reasons to Visit

I hope you get to visit this region one day.  Other than the glorious skies and wide-open spaces, it has a lot to offer.  It is a fantastic place for bird-watching in springtime (March/April).  Just northwest of the Alvord are huge & temporary, shallow lakes, which attract large flocks of migrating birds.  The area around Steen’s Mountain is home to Kiger mustangs, wild horses that are known far and wide for their spirit and strength. You’ll probably hear coyotes every night you camp.  And you might see a few buckaroos working cattle from horseback, as has been done here ever since white settlement in the 19th century.  The area is dotted with the remnants of old homesteads and ranches.

Hope you have a great week.  Thanks for reading!

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where recent rains have left small pools and channels of water.

View out onto the Alvord Desert at dusk, where small pools and channels of water from an early fall storm try to make their way out onto the playa.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon's border with Nevada.

The Trout Creek Mountains lie just south of the Alvord Desert near Oregon’s border with Nevada.

The Cascades III: Mount Rainier, Part 1   8 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a small tarn in the subalpine meadows called Indian Henry's Hunting Ground.

Mount Rainier is reflected in a small tarn in the subalpine meadows called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.

It’s no use stalling anymore.  Let’s continue my series on the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  Check out Part I, an introduction to the Range’s geography & geology.  So which mountain should be next?  Well, there are many interesting options.  There are the little-known “climber’s” peaks of Mount Jefferson and North Sister, Glacier Peak and Mount Stuart.  There are the popular recreation meccas of Mounts Baker, Bachelor and Hood.  But there is just one mountain I can’t put on hold any longer: the Big Kahuna, the sleeping giant, the Mother of Waters, training ground for Everest, Seattle’s sky-ornament, Tahoma, Mount Rainier.

The images you see here are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry about that.  If you want to see purchase information, just click on the images you’re interested in.  If you have any questions, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest!

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Mt. Rainier, at 14,411 feet (4392 meters), is one of America’s most spectacular mountains.  It sticks up hugely and dramatically a little more than 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.  Rainier’s prominence is enhanced by a total of 26 glaciers with over 35 square miles of ice.  In North America, only Alaska and the Canadian Rockies have more dramatic, glaciated mountains.  By the way, don’t get confused about Part III and Part 1.  It’s just that with this particular mountain, there’s too much to fit into one post.  Stay tuned for one or two more posts on Rainier, but we’ll still be on the Cascades Part III until we jump to another mountain.

Mount Rainier's Paradise Park

Mount Rainier’s Paradise Park

The hairy pasqueflower blooms in contrast with indian paintbrush.

The hairy pasqueflower blooms in contrast with indian paintbrush.

Mount Rainier was named by Captain Vancouver of England for a friend of his, Rear Admiral Rainier.  It’s original name, from a local American Indian tribe the Puyallup is Tahoma (or Tacoma).

A Dangerous Volcano

Rainier is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, and there are a few important reasons for this. Like Vesuvius in Italy, Rainier is situated quite close to population centers.  That is the most important factor that makes it dangerous.  The second most important reason is not, as you’d expect, the volcano’s activity level.  Rainier sleeps for long periods.  Instead, what makes it potentially deadly is the fact that it is steep and weak.  In other words, the same thing that makes it dramatic, sticking up so steeply as it does, also makes it dangerous.

Spray Falls on Rainier's northwest side is a spectacular cascade.

Spray Falls on Rainier’s northwest side is a spectacular cascade.  The mountain receives abundant precipitation, much of it in the form of snow.

The glaciers, with their incredible erosive power, have done a very good job of steepening the volcano.  But how is it weakened?  As the mountain sleeps between eruptions, it sits above the magma chamber below and literally stews in its own juices. Rainier is in a wet climate, and the mountain’s bulk draws even more precipitation its way.  Because of this, Rainier’s rocks are wet.  Add heat and acidic gases from below and you have a corrosive mix.  As a result the rocks are altered to clays, greatly weakening Rainier’s steep cone over time.  In other words, much of the peak is literally rotten.  Add these two things together, the volcano’s steepness and its inherent weakness, and you have a very real and constant hazard on your hands.

Fields of lupine bloom in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, Washington.

Fields of lupine bloom in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, Washington.

The biggest volcanic hazard at Rainier is not from lava flows but from mudflows (aka lahars).  If the mountain erupts lava or hot ash, large amounts of ice could melt quickly, causing a catastrophic flow of mud, rocks, trees, bridges, cars, etc. that cascades down river valleys, wiping out everything in its path.  But here’s the thing: an eruption is not really necessary to bring destruction to the surrounding populated valleys.

Now imagine a small earthquake, perhaps during an unusually warm summer when much of the ice high on the mountain is melting (can you say global warming?).  This could easily trigger a large and very destructive mudflow.  Geologists know this has happened in the past.  In fact, a good portion of the city of Tacoma (plus some of Seattle) is built on deposits from an enormous Rainier mudflow that buried the area some 5000 years ago.

Bears are not that uncommon at Mount Rainier.

Bears are not that uncommon at Mount Rainier.

The Rainier region now has a warning system made up of sirens that are triggered when mudflows higher on the mountain begin.  Citizens of towns like Orting and Enumclaw are taught to heed these sirens by escaping to high ground.  Mudflows are powerful enough to sweep away large bridges and buildings like a spoiled toddler kicks over his leggos.  But all their dirty work is limited to river bottoms, so getting up out of the valley will save your life.

The last of the day's light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

The Cascades I: Volcanoes Give and Take Away   16 comments

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

This is the mountain range I’m most familiar with, my home range.  I’ve climbed all of the high Oregon Cascades and many of the bigger Washington ones as well.  So I have personal experience and knowledge of these peaks.  Named for the many waterfalls that tumble over their volcanic cliffs, the Cascades are essentially a northern analogue of the Andes in South America.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named occur all through the range, including here at Toketee Falls.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named  include Toketee Falls.

GEOGRAPHY

The Cascades are volcanoes that still erupt from time to time, but with the exception of a single mountain are not the most active volcanic chain in the world by any means.  More on the exception below.  The Cascade Range, which stretches for 700 miles (1100 km.) in a north-south direction from Mount Garibaldi in Canada to Mount Lassen in California, is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (see below).  This whole region of the western Pacific Northwest is often called Cascadia.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The dramatic and beautiful mountains that make up the Cascades in most cases exceed 10,000 feet (3000 meters).  The high peaks are generally well-spaced, with many miles of forested lower mountains and hills between each snow-capped peak.  Oregon’s Three Sisters area (which actually includes 5 big volcanoes) is an exception to this wide spacing.  The bunched-up and much more rugged North Cascades in Washington are a whole different range geologically, one that happens to coincide in space (but not time) with the volcanoes of the Cascades.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

GEOLOGY

The highest peaks in the Cascades are quite young, most less than 100,000 years old – a moment in the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.  They are built upon a much older eroded volcanic range, arranged along an axis situated slightly to the west of the present locus of volcanic activity.  These older volcanoes began erupting some 37 million years ago.  It’s lucky for life (including us) that these older, heavily eroded volcanoes are around.  It’s the reason we have those lush forests, those cold streams that nourish the region’s great fish runs, and the habitat for the region’s other wildlife.  And let’s not forget the many waterfalls!

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

The older ancestral Cascades are also responsible for the region’s enormous timber resources plus the very rich soils that drew settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  Volcanoes combine with ample rainfall to make rich soil for farming.  By the way, many often wonder why so many people, worldwide, live near dangerous volcanoes.  It’s simple:  the rich soils around volcanoes, the productive farmland.  There is really not much choice.  We must eat, and so we must live near volcanoes.

While the Western Cascades are responsible for many of the Northwest’s assets, let’s not totally dismiss the younger High Cascades.  Their snowpack, lasting well into summer, gives farmers and ranchers (especially those to the east) water for their crops through typically dry summers.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The Cascades are stratovolcanoes (aka composite cones).  These are the steep-sided, conical volcanoes you drew as a kid in school.  They are made of alternating layers of lava-rock and pyroclastic (ash) deposits.  The volcanic rock is characteristically lighter colored than the basalt which covers the region to the east of the Cascades.  A typical volcanic rock for the Cascades is andesite (named for the Andes), which flows over the ground in a somewhat stickier manner than more fluid basalt (Hawaiian volcanoes erupt basalt).  The Cascades do have their share of basalt too, along with dacite and a few other types of volcanic rock.

An uncommon volcanic rock of the Cascades is obsidian.  It is very rich in silica (SiO2), which is also what quartz is made of.  In liquid lava, dissolved silica acts to make it stickier, more viscous.  Water does the opposite, makes lava less viscous – more fluid.  Obsidian is so rich in silica and erupts so dry that it literally squeezes out of the ground like thick toothpaste, heaping up into mounds and ridges.  Once cooled, obsidian is a beautiful natural glass, normally black, that can be sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments.  Obsidian arrowheads left along old American Indian trails and hunting grounds can still be found throughout the Northwest.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades.  That is Mount Adams in Washington.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades. That is Mount Adams in Washington.

THE RING OF FIRE AND PLATE TECTONICS

The Pacific Ring of Fire is that huge circle of volcanoes and earthquake activity that circles the Pacific ocean basin.  Some of the world’s most spectacular eruptions and devastating earthquakes happen along the Ring of Fire.  Truly an enormous geologic feature, it exists because the earth’s tectonic plates rub against and collide with each other (see addendum below if you don’t know about plate tectonics already).  Although they act slowly, the forces are gargantuan.  And something has to occasionally give.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

One example of the power and beauty of the Ring of Fire lies in the remote Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.  Here the huge Pacific Plate dives under the North American continental plate (plus a smaller one called the Okhotsk Plate) along a so-called subduction zone.  The plate partially melts as it descends, because of the heat of course – but also because of it is loaded with water (which acts as a flux).  Plumes of magma rising from the descending and melting plate eventually erupt into some of the world’s most active (and thankfully remote) volcanoes.  In the Southern Hemisphere on the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, the oceanic Nazca Plate subducts under the South American plate to form the longest volcanic range in the world, the Andes.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

All throughout the Ring of Fire there are earthquakes.  Some of the largest happen as a result of subduction and are called megathrust quakes (how’s that for a name!).  The earthquake that caused the destructive Japanese tsunami of 2011 was of the  megathrust variety.  This enormous earthquake happened where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath Japan’s Honshu Island.  The Pacific Plate moved as much as 20 meters (66 feet) west during the minutes-long quake.  Honshu drew closer to America by about 2.5 meters (8 feet).  The equally destructive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was also generated by a megathrust quake along a subduction zone.

Other earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates slide past each other.  The San Andreas in California is the most famous example of this so-called transform boundary.  Because these earthquakes happen on land and have fairly shallow epicenters, they can be very destructive.  This is despite the quakes being generally smaller than subduction-zone, megathrust earthquakes.

Climbing in the Cascades.  Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

Climbing in the Cascades. Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

ADDENDUM: PLATE TECTONICS

The crust of the earth (plus some extra beneath it) is broken into enormous semi-rigid plates.  Over time, the plates move across the planet’s surface, on average about as fast as your fingernails grow.  That’s an average; during big quakes they can move up to a hundred feet!  But overall it’s a very slow process.  It can take over a million years for a plate to move 50 miles.  They ride atop enormous convection currents in the semi-molten part of the upper mantle.  The mantle is that layer that lies directly beneath the earth’s crust.  The weight of tectonic plates as they descend into the mantle along subduction zones (like the one that lies just off the Pacific Northwest coast) helps to pull the oceanic plates along.

Why do we have tectonics while the other planets don’t seem to?  For one thing the energy that drives the convection currents comes from heat given off by the still cooling interior of the earth.   Mars is too small to have much heat left.  For Earth, much of the core is still molten, and our fast spin sets up complex circulation patterns (which cause our magnetic field).  Combined with heat from the decay of radioactive elements, this gives rise to huge, slowly rising zones of heat.  When they hit the colder, more rigid upper parts of the earth, the crust, the currents spread outward horizontally.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

But there’s another reason for plate tectonics.  It is because we are a water planet that all this partly molten rock is around.  Venus is much too dry for plate tectonics to get going.  Without water the pressures deep below would not allow enough melting.  Water essentially lubricates the earth’s tectonic system.  And without plate tectonics complex life would most likely not be possible, yet another way water is crucial to a living earth.

This series will continue.  If you are interested in any of the images, just click on them.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Washington’s Channeled Scablands   5 comments

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington's Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

A very calm dawn at Hutchinson Lake in eastern Washington’s Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Several recent posts have highlighted eastern Washington, a region I visited the last week or so of May to scout and photograph.  While the Palouse in the southeast is quite famous as a landscape photography destination, I made a point to visit an area that is just as famous but with a different group of people altogether.  The Channeled Scablands cover a rather large region in central Washington with spectacular erosional features.  It’s unusual geography records the largest flood we know of in earth history.  For this reason the Scablands are on most geologists’ bucket lists.

In springtime, Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington is a paradise for wildlife because of the numerous wetlands formed in a normally dry area.

In springtime, Drumheller Channels in eastern Washington is a paradise for wildlife because of the numerous wetlands formed in a normally dry area.

GEOLOGIC SUMMARY

The Missoula Floods came racing down through this area towards the end of the last ice age.  The last one happened about 12,000 years ago, but there were dozens of similar deluges stretching back thousands of years before that.  The floods were triggered when an ice dam across the Clark Fork River in western Montana burst and the enormous Lake Missoula drained catastrophically.  The water cascaded down through what is now eastern Washington, down the Columbia River to what is now Oregon, and on to the coast.  Some of the larger floods equaled more than 10 times the annual flow of all the rivers in the world.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington are a maze of canyons cut into thick columnar basalt lava rock.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington are a maze of canyons cut into thick columnar basalt lava rock.

As you might expect with that much water, the evidence of its passing is still around.  Now it seems obvious of course, but it was not until a geologist named J. Harlan Bretz studied the area in detail in the early 20th century that the story was uncovered.  Initially, Bretz’s interpretation was rejected by the “titans” of the science of the time.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  Eventually one of the more powerful geologists of the day, Thomas Crowder Chamberlin, visited the scablands and came around to Bretz’s point of view.  It helped that the source lake, glacial Lake Missoula (which Bretz originally did not identify) was identified from ancient shorelines in Montana.

A quiet evening descends at Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington.

A quiet evening descends at Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Washington.

IF YOU VISIT

Over the whole length of the floods, across 4 states, there is abundant evidence that any visitor to the region can see.  In recent times the area has been receiving more attention of the tourist variety, but it is still very lightly traveled.  There is a great non-profit, called the Ice Age Floods Institute, who pushed congress to establish the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail in 2009.  The Institute runs great field trips, so if you’re planning to visit this region check out their website in the link above.  Most field trips run in spring and summer.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington were carved by massive ice-age floods.

The Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington were carved by massive ice-age floods.

I visited a small portion of the scablands.  Traveling west from the Palouse I passed through Othello, visited the Drumheller Channels, and moved on to the Columbia River near Quincy.  The Potholes lies between these two.  With spring’s high water, I found superb wetlands and wildlife (especially birds) all through this area.  But Drumheller Channels was perhaps my favorite, because of its manageable scale and beautiful terrain.  It is part of the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite the harsh name, Washington's Channeled Scablands are full of wetlands and beautiful at sunset.

Despite the harsh name, Washington’s Channeled Scablands are full of wetlands and beautiful at sunset.

GEOLOGIC FEATURES

      • Coulees.  The most obvious terrain feature through the scablands is the coulee.  The word comes from the French (to flow) and describes any drainage that is intermittently dry and wet.  In the Channeled Scablands the coulees take on a variety of sizes, and were all carved by the Missoula Floods.  Because the bedrock here is all Columbia River Basalt (a very hard lava rock formed 17 million years ago), the coulees are typically steep-sided.  Grand Coulee (site of the large dam), Frenchman’s Coulee, and Moses Coulee are among the largest.
Columnar basalt is found throughout eastern Washington.

Columnar basalt is found throughout eastern Washington.

      • Giant Ripples.  Amazing features that are much rarer than coulees but also testify to the catastrophe are giant current ripples.  When you walk along a tidal flat or beach area, you often encounter those small ridges in the mud or sand.  They are only an inch or two high.  Giant current ripples were formed in a like manner (water currents) but on a huge scale.  They can reach 20 meters (66 feet) high!  They occur near the town of Quincy on the west bank of the Columbia River, across from the resort of Crescent Bar (see image).
Giant current ripples formed during the ice-age Missoula Floods are found along the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Giant current ripples formed during the ice-age Missoula Floods are found along the Columbia River in eastern Washington.

Potholes & Erratics.  Another type of flood feature to look out for are the abundant pothole lakes and ponds.  These depression, now havens for migrating birds and other wildlife, were either scoured out by the floods or formed when giant icebergs (torn from the ice dam and floated down by the floodwaters) grounded and then melted, leaving a depression.  Large rocks carried within these icebergs, rocks like granite that occur in the Rockies but nowhere near this area, were simply dropped on the landscape when the floods receded.  Now they stick out like a sore thumb, in fields and along gentle hillsides.  They are called glacial erratics.  You’ll see them along the Frenchman Hills road just west of Potholes Reservoir, among other places.

A glacial erratic dropped from an iceberg rafted down by a giant ice-age flood sits incongruously in a central Washington farm field.

A glacial erratic dropped from an iceberg rafted down by a giant ice-age flood sits incongruously in a central Washington farm field.

      • Steptoes.  Underlying part of the Palouse is terrain similar to the Scablands.  The floods formed three main channels, and the eastern-most carved into the Palouse, eroding away much of the rich soil.  Fortunately for us, the floods were no bigger than they were.  Otherwise all of the rich loess soils of the Palouse would have been carried away.  Underlying all of this are the lava floods of the Columbia River Basalts, one of the world’s great lava provinces.  But poking up in a few places (particularly in the Palouse) are small islands of older rock.

Both Kamiak and Steptoe Buttes in the Palouse are made of seafloor sedimentary rock that is much older than the surrounding sea of basalt.  A bit of geo-trivia: a steptoe is the name that geologists use for this formation, where older rock pokes up island-like through younger rocks.  The name comes from the town and butte of the same name in eastern Washington’s Palouse.  Palouse Falls, described in a previous post, is a great place to get a feel for the power and scale of the floods.

The Potholes area in eastern Washington's Channeled Scablands is filled with wildlife-rich wetlands in springtime.

The Potholes area in eastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands is filled with wildlife-rich wetlands in springtime.

I know I will return to the Channeled Scablands for further exploration, and you should do the same if you’re ever passing through the area.  If you’re interested in any of these images simply click on them to go to the high-resolution versions.  Then click “add this image to cart” to get price information (it will not be added to your cart until you make a choice).  Being copyrighted, the images are not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me with any questions.  Thanks for reading.

The Upper Columbia River in eastern Washington is full of water during spring's heavy snow-melt in the Rockies where the big river originates.

The Upper Columbia River in eastern Washington is full of water during spring’s heavy snow-melt in the Rockies where the big river originates.

The Palouse III – Loess & Farming   1 comment

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

I just returned from a trip to southeastern Washington.  The Palouse region north of the Snake River and stretching along the Idaho border was my prime destination.  Among landscape photographers, the Palouse is justifiably famous for its unique landscape of rolling, wave-like fields of wheat.  It is a very rich farming region, primarily known for its dryland wheat.  But it’s also one of the world’s premier lentil-growing regions.

As is the case for most of our planet’s resources, where and how we take advantage of the bounty is dictated by geology and geography.  This is especially true of farming.  The Palouse bears a lot of resemblance to other rich farming regions in the world in at least two respects: it is relatively flat and it’s covered in a special kind of silt called loess.  You can pronounce loess anyway you want.  But perhaps Lois is best reserved for some women by that name.  Most people in the know pronounce it somewhere between loose and lus, sort of luhs.  Brits put an r in there right before the s.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Loess is a windblown silt found in many places throughout the world.  It is made of angular pieces of rocks and minerals somewhat finer than sand.  It forms such rich soils because the minerals in it are diverse.  This is not always the case with fine debris deposited on the earth’s surface, but loess is special.

It is a gift of the Ice Ages.  All over the world, when glaciers retreated (both after the last time 10,000 years ago and during previous retreats), the fine debris scoured from the various rocks that the ice passed over was left bare.  Winds picked up this silt and sand and deposited it downwind, often far downwind.  Natural depressions, the base of mountains, or anywhere that wind speed drops, were natural places for loess to be deposited.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In the case of the Palouse, loess from the Ringold Formation and from glacial deposits exposed to the west and south was blown in and deposited essentially in dunes.  This is a big reason for the wave-like nature of the landscape.  It accumulated during the drier and windier climates between glacial advances, and did so for over a million years.  The loess in the Palouse reaches up to 200 feet thick in places.

Two little extra features of the loess deposits found in the Palouse help to make it such a rich dryland farming region.  For one, the Cascade volcanoes to the west occasionally supplied layers of ash into the mix.  This ash not only adds to the mineralogical diversity (and thus the richness of the resulting soil) but is also very good at holding water.  The Palouse soils are famous for their ability to hold onto the modest amount of water they receive.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The second feature is another happy coincidence.  The topmost loess deposits, blown in after the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, also happen to be among the most diverse minerals-wise.  So they support the richest soils.  Mount Mazama in Oregon (now Crater Lake) blew its top 6700 years ago and its ash is prominently represented in these latest Palouse loess deposits.

So farmers have it good in the Palouse, growing their crops on a landscape covered in especially rich soils that hold water well.  There is one little problem though: these latest loess deposits are also the most prone to loss through erosion and poor management.  Just like so many agricultural areas in the world, this one requires careful management practices to conserve the precious soil.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

The geologic story does not end here though.  The loess deposited in long wave-like dunes originally extended far to the west of where you find it today.  If you head west from the Palouse you run right out of rich dryland wheat country and into a different terrain altogether.  This is the so-called channeled scablands, spectacular result of the great Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age.  I will cover this great story in a coming post; suffice it to say these floods removed much of the region’s rich loess before human farmers ever got the chance to farm it.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

People have been farming here since the late 1800s.  In the 1880s there was a land-boom after dryland wheat farming was proved valid in the previously settled Walla Walla area to the south.  In fact, the last decades of the 19th century saw far more people living here than lived in the Puget Sound region to the west.  Now of course it’s the opposite.  The Palouse is sparsely populated while the Puget Sound has Seattle, Microsoft and traffic nightmares.  There are signs of new growth here, as some people tire of the rat race and move here, expanding the suburbs of large towns like Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho into prime agricultural lands.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

But for now the Palouse remains a quiet, peaceful place where open spaces are the rule.  Stand atop Steptoe or Kamiak Butte and look out on the endless waves, bright green in early summer and golden brown in autumn.  You’ll only see scattered farmhouses, a few barns, a few two-lane roads with little traffic.  It’s a gorgeous setting, especially at sunset when the shadows are long, bringing out the unique textures and look of the place.  I will surely be coming back.

Thanks for reading.  Stay tuned for more on eastern Washington in the next post.  Hope you enjoy the images.  Please be aware they are copyrighted and not available to download for free without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  If interested in one of the images, just click it to get purchase options.  Thanks for reading!

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

Awash in Waterfalls   9 comments

A little-known waterfall in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge requires much effort to reach, being set in a pristine and beautiful alcove not accessible by trail.

A little-known waterfall in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge requires much effort to reach, being set in a pristine and beautiful alcove not accessible by trail.

The waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest are both abundant and beautiful.  When I travel to other places in the world, and hear of a waterfall to check out, I always try to dial back my expectations so I’m not disappointed.  We are so spoiled around here.  Of course when we’re talking Angel or Victoria Falls, or even those in Yosemite closer to home, that’s different.  Those waterfalls are world-renowned for good reason.

Victoria Falls, which sits on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, is one of the world's great cascades.

Victoria Falls, which sits on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, is one of the world’s great cascades.

Waterfalls of the Gorge – Formation & Geology

The Columbia River Gorge, which slices through the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest along the border between Oregon and Washington, has an abundance of waterfalls.  In fact the Cascades were named for all these cascades along the length of the volcanic chain.  Most of the waterfalls in the Gorge are located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.  This is because the south side of the river faces north, and so is kept cooler and much wetter than the drier, south-facing Washington side.

Most Oregon waterfalls drop over basalt cliffs, such as Toketee on the North Umpqua River.  This is not surprising, since basalt is a very hard rock, prone to forming cliffs resistant to erosion.

Most Oregon waterfalls drop over volcanic basalt, such as Toketee on the North Umpqua River. This is not surprising, since basalt is a very hard rock, prone to forming cliffs resistant to erosion.

Why are there so many waterfalls here?  Well to start with the climate is wet.  The Columbia’s active and ancient down-cutting, combined with the fact that rocks on either side are very hard volcanic basalt, means that the smaller tributary valleys are left perched above the level of the Columbia.  The Missoula Floods, which were the biggest in world history as far as we know, raced through here more than 10,000 years ago.  These deluges scoured and further deepened the Gorge, helping to sculpt the steep sides down which the waterfalls tumble.

This geological setting has given us easy access to the waterfalls, a fact best illustrated by Multnomah Falls, which can be seen from Interstate 84.  Multnomah is Oregon’s highest cascade at 620 feet (189 meters) total, in two tiers.  Multnomah Creek is busy eroding the basalt of course, but its progress is much slower than the Columbia’s (which is also much older).  And so the cliff that the waterfall drops over stands very near to the creek’s mouth.  Realize that waterfalls erode their cliffs such that over time they move backward, upstream.

Multnomah Falls is Oregon's highest waterfall and one of its most popular tourist attractions.  Here it is in full flood.  The bridge crosses just above the lower cascade and a trail continues to the top of the tall upper cascade.

Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s highest waterfall and one of its most popular tourist attractions. Here it is in full flood. The bridge crosses just above the lower cascade and a trail continues to the top of the tall upper cascade.

There are some larger streams in the Columbia Gorge, such as Eagle Creek, that do not tumble over a tall cliff near their confluence with the Columbia River.  These streams are eroding softer formations, often following fractures or faults that make their jobs even easier.  They are larger streams because of this easier erosion, not the other way around.  Softer rock formations equals larger drainage basins and thus more water captured by the stream.

These side-gorges are not lacking waterfalls however, far from it.  One simply needs to hike up them to get to the cascades.  Your hike will have the added benefit of leaving behind the traffic noiset from he busy interstate.  You will generally be hiking through a narrow and lush gorge.  Eagle Creek, in fact, is one of the most stunning hikes of this type to be found in the world.

A small but beautiful waterfall called Faery Falls in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A small but beautiful waterfall called Faery Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

Off-the-Beaten-Track Waterfalls

Now on to this past weekend’s waterfall adventures.  I was on a mission not to visit and photograph those waterfalls with easy access, nor even those along one of the many trails in the Gorge.  My goal was to find at least one new waterfall, at least new for me.  Since I’ve hiked all through this area, that meant going off-trail.  With the recent wet weather, and also the new spring growth, I was in for some wet and messy travel through thick, slippery and potentially nasty brush and down logs.

The first hike was up McCord Creek to see if I could find some small cascades above beautiful Elowah Falls.  The going was pretty rough, and I decided to turn around in order to have the opportunity to visit both Upper McCord Creek Falls and Elowah Falls.  The two are actually so close together you can consider them to be two tiers of a single waterfall.  I could not get a unique angle on Upper McCord Creek Falls, so I”m not posting a picture of this one.  For Elowah, which is accessible by a trail, I wanted to get a good angle from near mid-point of the stream below the tall (220 feet) cascade.  It was raining and the flow was very high.  I got blasted with water from the falls when I passed it on the trail.  Then I clambored out onto a log to reach a mid-stream rock.  I set up there, but had a lot of trouble keeping my lens dry.  The resulting haze gives the picture a bit of a dreamy look, I think.  I will return to this spot when it’s not raining.

Elowah Falls in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge drops into a lush alcove filled with mossy boulders.

Elowah Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge drops into a lush alcove filled with mossy boulders.

The second hike was up Moffett Creek, which enters just east of McCord.  Moffett Creek is a fun one to hike up, primarily because there is no trail.  This is best done in late summer when flows are low enough to wade up the creek where necessary.  This time of year is a different story.  I tried hiking up the creek to reach nearby Wahe Falls (also known as Moffett Crk. Falls).  But it quickly became obvious that the stream (which requires constant crossing) was flowing with too much power to negotiate the route safely.  I turned around and hiked up onto the side of the valley, following the Munra Point Trail.  I soon left the trail and started traversing up the side of the valley, aiming for where I thought the falls were.  It was steep, slippery and very tough going.

A forest of cedars surrounds the waterfall on Moffett Creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A forest of cedars surrounds Wahe Falls on Moffett Creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

I was about to give up when I glimpsed the falls through the trees.  That gave me hope and I gutted out the last steep, thick section.  It’s an 80-foot single drop waterfall, seen by very few people (especially during spring flood).  There is a beautiful cedar tree near its base.  As per usual, it started raining steadily as I set up.  But I managed to get a couple good shots before calling it good.  It was near dark by the time I got out of there, soaking wet and muddy, but with a nice feeling of accomplishment.  There are more cascades further up Moffett Creek.  But that requires climbing gear, a partner or two, and lower water flows.  This is very rugged country.

Hope you enjoyed this illustrated primer on waterfalls.  I will post more waterfall photos on an irregular basis.  Just click on the pictures if you’re interested in prints or download rights.  You will need to click “add image to cart” and then make your choices.  Don’t worry, they won’t be added to your cart until you decide what you want.  The images are copyrighted and illegal to download for free, sorry.  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for reading!

Not a waterfall, but I needed a sunset shot to end this.  Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge

Not a waterfall, but I needed a sunset shot to end this post! Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge.

Larch Mountain, Oregon   8 comments

The full moon rises over Larch Mountain at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

The full moon rises over Larch Mountain at the western end of the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.

I’m taking a quick breather from the heavy science stuff  to highlight one of my favorite features of the area around Portland, Oregon, where I live:  the amazing extinct volcanoes.  There are at least 32 in the Portland metro area.  Oh right, well maybe this will involve a little bit of geology, which is science I suppose.  Sorry ’bout that.

The volcanoes, which were active up until about 300,000 years ago, are cinder cones and generally small shield volcanoes (like in Hawaii, except those are BIG shield volcanoes).  Many lie within the city limits, and several have city parks covering their summits.  I happen to live quite close to two of them: Rocky Butte and Mount Tabor.  Both have parks, but the one at Mt Tabor is much more extensive, with hiking trails, tennis courts, a large playground, picnic areas and more.  There is even a natural amphitheater at Tabor where live music is often hosted on warm summer evenings.  This popular venue occupies the volcano’s old explosion crater.  How cool is that?

The Columbia River flows west below the foggy forests of the Larch Mountain, Oregon.

The Columbia River flows west below the foggy forests of Larch Mountain, Oregon.

While each of these old volcanoes in Portland have their own character and personality, one stands out above the rest.  It is the king of them all, a looming hulk over 4000 feet (1240 meters) high on the east Portland skyline.  I’m speaking of Larch Mountain.  There are no larches on this well-forested shield volcano, so one might wonder how it got its name.  Early lumbermen sold noble fir from the mountain and labeled them “larch”.  How come misnomers so often stick?

Larch is quite a large mountain, but most people do not take notice of it at all.  Beyond Larch Mountain lies the Cascade Range, with big snow-capped peaks like Hood and Adams.  These more dramatic peaks draw the eye away from foreground mountains like Larch in Oregon and Silver Star in Washington.  But try to ride your bicycle up Larch’s 16-mile long road, and you quickly discover how big this mountain actually is.  Like most shield volcanoes (named for their resemblance to a shield laid concave side down), Larch can easily escape notice.  This is because they are so broad, with gentle slopes.  And the gentle slope is because most of what pours out of a shield volcano during eruptive phases is a very liquid form of lava – basalt.  Basalt is the hottest and most dense lava on Earth, and it covers most of the ocean floor.  Because of its relatively low silica content, basalt flows very easily, forming smooth shallow slopes and a broad volcanic edifice.

The view to the east from Larch Mountain's summit is dominated by Mount Hood and its cloak of forest.

The view to the east from Larch Mountain’s summit is dominated by Mount Hood and its cloak of forest.

Copious quantities of basalt flowed out of Larch Mountain’s summit vent during the early ice ages.  It’s part of what geologists call the Boring lava field.  The name does not describe geologists’ feelings about this very interesting volcanic feature.  Rather the name comes from the little town of Boring, which is southeast of Portland.  The volcanoes are actually quite interesting because of their position far to the west of the main axis of volcanism represented by the Cascade Range.

Whenever my eyes drift up toward the east, I’m always impressed by the sheer bulk of Larch Mountain.  In certain light conditions it is almost lost, but in other light you can get an accurate feel for how dominant the mountain really is.  The views from the top are absolutely stunning.  You can look east to see an interesting angle on Mt Hood, north to see Mounts Rainier, St Helens and Adams in Washington, or west down the length of the Columbia River.  I often ride my motorcycle up there for sunset when the road is open (snow closes it in winter).  And stargazing from the summit is quite excellent, despite the proximity of Portland’s light pollution.

If you ever find yourself in Portland and want to catch the sunset from a high viewpoint, make the drive up to Larch Mountain.  Just head out the Historic Columbia Highway from Troutdale.  Not far past Corbett, and just before you come to Crown Point, you will see a sign where the road angles up to the right.  Don’t forget your camera!

Larch Mountain dominates the view from the wetlands of Portland's Smith and Bybee Lakes.

Larch Mountain dominates the view from the wetlands of Portland’s Smith and Bybee Lakes.

Death Valley VI: A Cute Fish   2 comments

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

This is the last of three posts on the geology and ecology of Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them.  Remember for my images, click on them to be taken to the website, where purchase for download or prints (framed or unframed) is very simple.  These photos will be up in their full-sized glory soon, but if you are interested now, please contact me.  These versions are too small to do anything with, so please enjoy them without attempting to download from the blog.  Thanks.

One of Death Valley's many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

One of Death Valley’s many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

ICE AGES

Death Valley was influenced by the Pleistocene Ice Ages that started a couple million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago.  No, glaciers did not descend into the valley; it never got that cold. But the large ice sheets to the north led to a much wetter climate throughout most of the ice-free parts of the continent.  So as you might imagine, large basins like Death Valley filled with large lakes.  At one time there were lakes hundreds of miles long.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manly, at one time 80 miles long.  Where did the water go?  Underground of course.  You see the top of this great aquifer at Badwater, and in wet years (2004) a shallow lake reappears atop the normally dry salt flats.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of, yes, the road.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of (you guessed it) the road.

 The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest remnant of the paradise for water birds that the West was during the Ice Age.  This world of wetlands supported a healthy early Native American population.  As the lakes shrank and dried up some 10,000 years ago, the native groups migrated north and east, the evaporite minerals accumulated in great quantities, and desert pup fish evolved.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

 PUP FISH

Can fish be cute?  Sure they can!  The cute little pup fish that make Death Valley their home are small remnants of once-huge schools that swam the huge lakes of Ice Age times.  If you know about the great Rift Valley lakes of Africa (Tanganyika, Malawi, etc.), you might know of the beautiful little aquarium fish that make those lakes their homes.  The same was true in North America during the wetter times of the Ice Age.  When the lakes dried up and separated into smaller, shallower and saltier bodies of water, those fish were forced to adapt to progressively warmer and saltier water.

 This is exactly the sort of crisis that drives accelerated rates of evolution.  It’s a changing environment that separates breeding populations into smaller and smaller parts that most easily leads to very specialized life forms, adapted to a specific environment.  In the case of the pup fish, this story has reached an extreme point in modern times at Devil’s Hole, a separate section of the National Park located not far east in Nevada.  Here live one of the world’s rarest species, the Devil’s Hole pup fish.  These small fish hide in the deep crevices of an extensive spring system.  The water, a remnant itself of a much bigger body, is incredibly salty.

Pup fish are super-specialized creatures, a testament to how difficult it is for nature to kill off one of its own.  They can withstand high salt concentrations and very warm water.  They are most likely doomed, however, as the climate of the American West continues to become warmer and more arid.   But they will continue their fight so long as we don’t do something stupid like pump nearby groundwater dry.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

I hope this little tour of one of my favorite playgrounds has made you want to visit, has given you a good knowledge background, and spurred you to do some additional research.  There is plenty of good information on the Web, and not all of it on Wikipedia!  I also hope this has given you an appreciation for how the geology of a region influences almost everything else about it.  It’s even true where you live!

I apologize for not writing quite so much on desert ecology.  Hmm…maybe I should do just one more post!

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

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