Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Day in the Field...Day Backwards On Fun Having, Part Three. Stanislaus Table Mountain from above

The conclusion of my backwards mini-series on the Stanislaus Table Mountain starts with an earlier trip that will serve to explain the origin of the backwards geology of our hiking destination from last weekend (parts one and two here and here). The picture above reveals our path from a slightly different point of view, mainly from several thousand feet above. Back in 2002, the father of one of my students called me early one morning and said "Let's fly my plane. Where do you want to go?" I immediately thought of Table Mountain, because it is best seen and appreciated from the air.

I've been saying "backwards" a lot in these posts, but the actual term we want to use here is "inverted", as in "inverted stream". Our hike was to the top of a lava flow that sits hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape. On first glance, this may not seem to make much sense. The key to understanding this oddity is to realize that the lava flow did not start out on top of a ridge.

Around 6 to 20 million years ago, volcanic activity was producing ash and lava flows in the summit region of the growing Sierra Nevada in the vicinity of Sonora Pass and the Dardanelles. The earliest volcanic activity included violent explosions of light colored rhyolite ash that coated the Sierra foothills (the Valley Springs Formation), but later eruptions mixed with water and snow to form volcanic mudflows (called lahars). These mudflows and river deposits coated the foothills region hundreds of feet deep, a series of layers called the Mehrten Formation. In the picture above, the layers form contours on the sides of the hills. For those familiar with the Knights Ferry area, the Mehrten forms the cliffs of Lovers Leap.

In the midst of this activity, about 10 million years ago, a single flow of latite (a sort of orthoclase bearing andesite) traveled more than forty miles down the western slope of the rising mountain range. Having flowed far beyond any volcanic slopes, the lava followed a riverbed, an ancestral path of the Stanislaus River. The picture below reveals the winding path the lava followed (our hike was located right in the center of the photograph). The surrounding rock was easier to erode than the latite, so when the mountains continued to rise, the lava flow remained while the other rocks were carried away. The bottom of the river became the top of the ridge: a textbook example of an inverted stream.

Farther "downstream" the lava flow widened considerably, forming a more plateau-like landscape. The Stanislaus River ended up carving through and around the lava flows. Some of the steep gorges became idea sites for modern-day reservoirs, like New Melones and Tulloch, seen below. The Table Mountain lava flow disappears beneath the slopes around Knights Ferry.

I mentioned in the previous post looking over towards the Harvard Mine from the summit ridge of Table Mountain. The open-pit mine was active from 1986 to 1994, producing about 660,000 ounces of gold from about 17 million short tons of rock. The lake in the pit is about 300 feet deep. Just prior to closing down, the miners recovered a huge mass of crystallized gold, weighing more than 40 pounds. The gold is on display at the Ironstone Winery in Murphys.

It was a lot of rock that was removed and piled up to get at the gold. So not only is the local landscape inverted, it has also been turned inside out.
I hope you've enjoyed these vignettes of my pair of journeys to a backwards landscape! The flight was made possible by Ken Iwahashi of KKI Corporation in Modesto. I have a web page with additional pictures and descriptions of the flight at

For more on the volcanism of the Central Sierra Nevada, check out:

Busby, C.J., et al., 2008, The ancestral Cascades arc: Cenozoic evolution of the central Sierra Nevada (California) and the birth of the new plate boundary, in Wright, J.E., and Shervais, J.W., eds., Ophiolites, Arcs, and Batholiths: A Tribute to Cliff Hopson: Geological Society of America Special Paper 438, p. 331-378.

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