Friday, October 28, 2011

Vagabonding across the 39th Parallel: Coke, Ancient Ice, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

How, asks the reader, is Geotripper going to connect those subjects into a single coherent blog post? I can't speak for "coherent", but I can do it the rest. Just bear with me!

It has a lot to do with the geological richness of Colorado. Things change quickly in the space of few miles as one wanders about the state, and wandering was what we were doing back in July. I called this off-and-on blog series about the trip "vagabonding" because we made a point of not planning our nightly stops more than a day or two in advance, and we had no particular deadlines or goals other than a desire to see Rocky Mountain National Park (which we did), and to take lots and lots of pictures.

In the last post, we had found the headwaters of the Colorado River, and were witness to the appalling destruction wrought by the bark beetles that have killed practically every tree across three million acres of Colorado. We more or less followed the Colorado River downstream, including a return to beautiful Glenwood Canyon, but when we reached Glenwood Springs, we turned south on Highway 82 towards Aspen, and then turned again onto Highway 133 traveling up the Crystal River towards McClure Pass. We stopped for lunch along the river for lunch, and I started snapping pictures of flowers (As usual, I don't know what they are. I thought lupine at first, but up close they don't look like it).
The Crystal River was running high, and quite a few kayakers were having a fine day of it on the whitewater. The weather kept threatening, but for the first time in days it didn't develop into much of a storm.
We were climbing into a high range called the Elk Mountains. They had clearly been glaciated (thus the "ancient ice" in today's title), and Ragged Mountain provided us with a fine view of the upper end of a cirque. A glacier had originated where the snow banks are today, forming steep cliffs by plucking rocks from the upper end of the valley.
The shorter peak on the right is called The Cleaver, and from another angle it provides a nice example of a small cirque and an arete, a saw-toothed ridge that formed between two parallel glaciers (the left side ridge in the picture below).
One never knows what to expect on a new road, and I had not had a chance to read up on the route we were following. Thus, we were surprised to see some odd beehive-shaped ovens along the road at the little village of Redstone. We stopped for a look and found they had been used a century ago to process locally mined coal into coke, a material used in the smelting of iron and steel (you thought I was talking about soda pop in today's title, didn't you?). They had been abandoned fifty years earlier, but local people were working to preserve them, and reconstruct four of them to their original appearance.
There was a sign a short distance up the road pointing us to Hays Creek Falls, so we had to stop there, too (I was wondering how we were going to get anywhere, but that was the point of our trip anyway). Hays was the spelling my family used until the 1920s, but I doubt there was much of a connection. There was a pleasant cascade of water spilling over a series of red sandstone ledges belonging to the Maroon formation, layers that formed in deltas and floodplains around 300 million years ago.
The road started to climb towards McClure Pass, and we had a beautiful panorama of the Elk Mountains and Whitehouse Peak. The town of Marble is tucked just out of sight in the U-shaped canyon (carved by the ice age glaciers). The town got its name from the nearby outcrops of marble that have been quarried for many years. The pure white marble is free of defects, and has been used nationwide for many purposes, including the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and (you guessed it) the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Marble is a metamorphic rock derived from the baking of limestone, which is a sedimentary rock that often forms in warm tropical marine environments. Colorado is not typically a source of high quality marble, but in this instance geological conditions converged to form the beautiful rock. The Elk Mountains originally were composed of thick layers of the Leadville Limestone that formed about 330 million years ago. Much more recently, about 20-30 million years ago, the mountains were invaded by bodies of molten magma, which baked the surrounding limestone into marble.
We reached the top of McClure Pass, and looked back down the canyon we had just negotiated. The wide meadowy area at our feet was the terminus of the glaciers, and we could see the gently sloping hills and plateaus beyond. We realized we had reached the edge of the Rocky Mountain chain. The next few days would be spent on the Colorado Plateau, a region I had been missing a lot. It had been just a bit too many years since I had last explored the region. More in the next post!