Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I Guess "Fujicolor Basin" Just Didn't Have That Ring To It: Exploring Kodachrome Basin State Park

I'm not a real fan of corporate name sponsorship. I simply can't keep up with the names of Candlestick Park and whatever they're calling the stadium where the Lakers play in Los Angeles. When one hears the name of the little-known state park in Utah, it sounds like another case of corporate sponsorship gone crazy. But as I understand it, the story of the naming of Kodachrome Basin State Park was a bit more nuanced.

It's funny how a name can change the meaning and significance of a place. A hundred years ago, only a few ranchers and local Native Americans had ever even seen Kodachrome, and the ranchers referred to it as Thorny or Thorley's Pasture (I'm operating off dim memory here), and the beautiful valley was quite literally unknown to anyone from outside the region. In the late 1940's an exploration party from the National Geographic Society came through the region (imagine still exploring the United States only half a century ago!), and they were impressed with the scenery. They used their influence to rename nearby Butler Arch for their director (the arch is now called Grosvenor Arch). They gave the basin its name for the vivid color for a new bright film variety from Kodak. The article in National Geographic brought a lot of attention to the region, and tourists started seeking it out.

I must say I don't get corporate thinking sometimes either. Apparently Kodak was not happy with the copyright infringement, so when Utah sought to make a state park out of the basin, they called it Chimney Rock State Park. Kodak finally wised up and realized what a free marketing opportunity  they had, and consented to calling the park Kodachrome Basin. Over the years they have provided some support to the park. The park has outlasted the product; Kodak produced the last roll of Kodachrome film in 2009, and the company is struggling to survive in the digital age.
The park has two main attributes: the colorful Jurassic sedimentary rocks, and the strange columnar towers called sedimentary pipes. The sediments are mostly members of the Entrada formation, which is responsible for some spectacular scenery in other parts of the Colorado Plateau, most notably at Arches National Park and Goblin Valley State Park. The bright orange layers are the Gunsight Butte member, while the high white and red striped cliffs are the Cannonville member, and the light tan layers are the Escalante member. The highest cliff ramparts are composed of Cretaceous Henrieville and Dakota sandstones.
Lower parts of the basin expose Jurassic Carmel formation, most notably the Winsor member. The odd pipes occur mostly in the Winsor member, and the overlying Gunsight member of the Entrada.
The sedimentary pipes are one of those interesting mysteries that crop up in geology every so often. They are composed mostly of a slurry mix of sediment from the lower members of the Carmel, and penetrate the Entrada. There are around four dozen of them in and around the park, and they range in height from 6 feet (2 m) to 170 feet (52 m). They are composed of more highly cemented rock, so as the sediments are eroded away from around them, they end up standing out. It has been suggested that they are the result of hot spring activity, and that they might have been pathways for geysers (some have suggested that the park is sort of a Yellowstone in reverse). This is an intriguing and imaginative idea, but what was the source of the heat? There are no magma intrusions in the immediate region, and in other parts on the Colorado Plateau where intrusions do occur, such pipes aren't found (that I know of).
Another possible explanation is that the pipes are liquefaction features, places where water rushes towards the surface from saturated layers below during the shaking from earthquakes. I've liked this explanation in the past, since there are a few major fault zones just a few miles away. But researchers say there is a time problem. The latest studies suggest that the pipes are very old features: they don't penetrate the overlying Henrieville sandstone, and are therefore probably Jurassic or early Cretaceous in age. The faults in the region didn't become active until less than about 15 million years ago. I still like this explanation though...everyone knows that one's favorite hypothesis has to be the right one...I think.

The most recent suggestion is that the pipes formed from lenses of groundwater trapped in sabkha deposits, layers of evaporites like salt or gypsum along arid environment shorelines, which formed the Paria member of the Carmel formation. As younger sediments were laid down on top of the older layers, the pressure grew in the groundwater deposit, and water squeezed out, following the path of least resistance, generally upwards. This model has the virtue of being supported by most of the evidence...but I repeat the end of the last paragraph.
The park is a pleasant place to explore. In addition to the colors and unusual pipes close at hand, there are beautiful vistas to be had. On our reconnaisance trip a few weeks back we hiked out to Shakespeare Arch in a remote corner of the park. The short trail included panoramas of the White Cliffs to the southwest, the high cliffs of Navajo sandstone found around Carmel Junction and Kanab.
To the west, the pink strip on the horizon is the Claron formation, the Pink Cliffs of Bryce Canyon National Park.
We could also look up the slope to Kodachrome Basin itself. All in all a very colorful landscape.

The state of Utah has worked hard to make Kodachrome a destination for campers. The small 28 unit campground has flush toilets and showers. They sell firewood. And get this: when we arrived at our campsite, it looked like someone had raked our campsite. Feng shui in the wilderness! There is a small general store, a few rental cabins, and a new visitor center. If you have a large group, you can reserve one of two group campsites: the older Oasis site has been a favorite of ours for many years. The Arches site is newer, but is in an isolated corner of the park, with fewer facilities. I've had many commenters say that Kodachrome is their favorite campground on the Colorado Plateau. I put it near the top of my list, too.
We'll be stopping at Kodachrome during the AAPG tour that I am leading in July. If you want to join us, get the information here.

Get the park brochure here: http://static.stateparks.utah.gov/docs/kbspNewsBrochure.pdf

An excellent resource: Baer, J. and R. Steed. 2010. Geology of Kodachrome Basin State Park, Kane County, Utah. In Sprinkel, D.A. et al (eds.), Geology of Utah's Parks and Monuments, Utah Geological Association Publication 28, 3rd edition. Salt Lake City: Utah Geological Association, 467-482.
Shakespeare Arch is one more attraction in an already attractive place. It's at the end of pleasant half mile hike.
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