Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Other California: A Wandering Volcano and a Floral Outburst

I can still be astounded....

There are lots of things I haven't seen and done in my life, but I can imagine what it is going to be like to see a rhyolitic volcano erupting at close quarters, or to feel a magnitude 8 quake (6.9 is my biggest so far). But sometimes things happen that just leave me breathless, if only from the unexpectedness of it all. That's what happened to me today.

I had always heard about the Antelope Valley California Poppy State Reserve, but had never seen it, especially in the late winter or early spring when the blooms are at their peak. We were taking an alternate route home, generally following the San Andreas fault from Cajon Pass to Grapevine Summit on Interstate 5. The desert was mostly dry and barren for much of the route, but as we passed Palmdale and Lancaster, I looked west and saw something I had never seen before: orange hills. Fluorescent orange hills. As we drew closer, it was clear that the California Poppies were at their golden best.

After expending several hours using vast amounts of digital space on my camera, I started to ponder why the flowers were here, and not elsewhere across the Mojave Desert, at least not in such dominating numbers. I first considered the slightly higher elevation, the local rocks and sediment, soil conditions and drainage, but I started to realize there was another dynamic going on...the flowers are a natural phenomena, but a natural phenomena with a very human influence. About seven miles west of the Poppy preserve there is another state park: Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park. The park preserves 580 acres of what turns out to be the native land cover of the Mojave Desert west of Lancaster and Palmdale: juniper woodland and Joshua Trees.

A century ago, this high end of the desert was cleared of Joshua Trees and Juniper, usually by chaining (dragging a huge chain between tractors that knocked down whole forests) or fires in order to put in thousands of acres of alfalfa fields and other crops. Large areas were reserved for sheep and cattle grazing as well. The natural plant cover was long gone. Much later, some of the abandoned fields started to recover, and the showy wildflowers represent some of the pioneer species (I've noticed for years that the best wildflower shows in any forested areas occur after fires: Yellowstone, Yosemite, and many other areas). Without any nearby natural vegetation, there is no way for the native Joshua Trees and other large trees and shrubs to recolonize the valley floor; they don't have any method to spread their seeds widely (Joshua Trees were once spread in giant ground sloth poop...). Despite their incredible beauty, the wildflower displays are a monument to our extensive alteration of the environment that once existed here.

Just the same, the flowers were one of the most intense displays of color I've ever seen. Lest you think that I had discovered some isolated and unknown Eden, well, a look at the photo below should dissuade you from thinking that these poppies are a well-kept secret. It was actually impossible to get to the park visitor center due to the traffic. Just the same, there was plenty of parking both east and west of the park, and the poppies and other flowers were every bit as abundant. We had no trouble finding some wonderfully quiet corners to contemplate the beauty.

As to the wandering volcano of the title? Just west of the preserve, some unusual rock outcrops can be seen near the junction of Lancaster road and Highway 138 at Neenach. These rocks, the Neenach Volcanics, are about 23.5 million years old, and lie adjacent to the San Andreas fault. The volcano is only half here; the remainder sits on the other side of the fault, 195 miles to the northwest, at Pinnacles National Monument, which I have discussed earlier, here and here. For several reasons, the Neenach Volcanics have not been exposed in the spectacular manner of the rocks at Pinnacles, but the story they tell is just as compelling.

So there, I found a geologic connection that allowed me to show you some flower pictures. You'll probably see a few more gratuitous flower pictures in coming posts. I took around a hundred, and I have to show them to somebody...

For those who are new to Geotripper, the "Other California" is my long-running web series on the fascinating geological places in my fine state that don't usually show up on the postcards (although I've been known to break my own rules every so often; California's poppies are on postcards all the time).

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