Wednesday, July 23, 2014

So Nice When a Plan Comes Together...Chasing Clouds in the Olympics

There's a tenseness that goes with all field studies classes, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. You can't be particularly flexible with the dates when accommodations have been scheduled, and the weather is always a crapshoot. Add in a very ambitious itinerary (rarely a good idea, really), and all kinds of problems are possible.
That's the kind of day we had yesterday. For a variety of reasons, we had two equally important localities that we felt we couldn't miss, but for it to work, we had to have a lot of things go our way: traffic flow patterns, an unusually early start, a very late ferry passage, and vulnerability to the vagaries of the weather.

I love it when a plan comes together (does anyone out there remember what show that came from?). There were overcast skies when we left SeaTac at 6:00AM, but we had no traffic problems, and arrived at the base of the road to Hurricane Ridge. We began to climb, and the clouds fell away!
The view was absolutely spectacular, even more so than my last post, which involved pictures from our reconnaissance trip. Lots of flowers and wildlife to distract us as well.
We then had to find our way to Neah Bay and the Makah Nation Museum, which houses artifacts from the Ozette site, which is sometimes called America's Pompeii. It was a Makah village that was overwhelm and buried by a mudflow, which preserved tens of thousands of artifacts, including wood, fibers and blankets, which are very rarely preserved in this humid environment. They don't allow pictures, so here is a deer instead.

We needed to get back to Port Angeles to catch the late ferry to Victoria. We made it in time, got everyone on board, and we pulled into our hotel. A long day, but with wonderful sights, and a terrifying itinerary that actually worked. But we don't intend to make a practice of it!

Of course, as if to provide a complete contrast, today we had rain, heavy traffic, and had to reroute the entire itinerary, despite being one of the "easy" days with only 70 miles of driving! The road ahead is going to be interesting, as there were heavy rains and flooding in the interior around Kamloops, where we are headed tomorrow. Adventure awaits!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

I'm Sorry, This Trench is Full; Those Rocks Will Have to Go Elsewhere

Looking south from Hurricane Ridge into the heart of Olympic National Park
There will be few detailed blogs these next few weeks; I'm on the road leading our Canada/Pacific Northwest field class, and I will be just a bit busy. But I can't help putting up a few photos here and there. In today's pictures we see what happens when subduction zones get out of control, so to speak.

Subduction zones are places where oceanic crust sinks back into the Earth's mantle to be recycled at some future time as magma and lava. The mud and sand that blankets the coast and seafloor often will be scraped off against the edge of the continent to form a highly deformed and sheared deposit called an accretionary wedge. Much of the time, wedge deposits remain underwater or show as low-lying islands, but sometimes the rock gets pushed up into mountain ranges parallel to the coast and subduction zone. California's Coast Ranges resulted in part from such activity, but at Olympic National Park in Washington State, the results are nothing short of spectacular. The mountains have been pushed up into a series of peaks exceeding 7,000 feet in elevation, and with the intense amounts of snowfall, there are a surprising number of active glaciers.
Looking north from Hurricane Ridge across the Juan de Fuca Strait to Vancouver Island
Our trip reconnaissance this week took us to Hurricane Ridge, which has now become a newcomer to my list of the most incredible places I have ever stood. The view is astounding (when conditions are clear). We could look deep in the heart of the park at Mount Olympus, and could see north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria Island. A marvelous place!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Nation's Birds at the Northwestern Corner of the Lower 48

Just a nice moment from my day. We were scouting out our impending field studies route with a trip to the Makah Nation's lands near Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the lower 48 states. The Makah have a museum housing artifacts from America's version of Pompeii, a village that was overwhelmed by a mudflow about 500 years ago. The fine-grained mud protected and preserved fabrics and wood artifacts, which are usually quickly decayed in this wet environment.

We were driving the beautiful road along the coast when I saw this pair of Bald Eagles on the tidal flats. We have a few eagles back home in California, but I've only seen a couple of them. It was kind of a neat moment.

We meet our students in a couple of days, and we'll be hitting the highway with an exploration of western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. You can no doubt expect pictures soon!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ah, the Life of the Mariner! Well, Maybe...

Ah, the open sea! The adventures of the water world of planet Earth! The mysteries of the deep! Yes, it's the mariner's life for me. Well maybe, maybe not. It's hard to develop a real opinion on the basis of a single ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It sure was pretty, in any case.
The Port Angeles-Victoria ferry crosses the Juan de Fuca Strait that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island on the the Pacific Coast between the United States and Canada. Although the peninsula and the island are both situated in the same geographic location (the western coast of North America) and are only a few miles apart, they have few similarities. The Olympic Peninsula is composed of seafloor sediment and ocean crust that has been shoved to very high elevations by the Cascadia subduction zone. Vancouver Island has a sliver of some of these rocks, but is mostly composed of metamorphic rocks of the Wrangellia Terrane, a collection of Paleozoic and Mesozoic rocks that formed someplace else, maybe thousands of miles away, and which was slammed (geologically speaking) into the west coast by subduction zone and transform fault movements.

We are out doing a bit of reconnaissance for our field studies class that meets next week. We got out to the Sooke region along the south island for a look at the Crescent terrane, and some nice erosional potholes along the Sooke River. Details to follow in later posts!
Oh, and there were lagomorphs too! Cute ones. We passed dozens of them grazing in a freeway median of all places (no, I didn't stop on the freeway for the picture; this one was at East Sooke Regional Park).
The nice thing about traveling this far north is that the sun sets late (this statement does not apply in winter, though!). We had this wonderful view of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca around 8:30, and still had an hour of light.

I guess I'm still a landlubber though...I love the solid ground and the rocks too much.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Road Goes Ever Ever On: Getting Into the Field Again!

 

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
 
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
 
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were an important part of my youth, in part because Tolkien constructed a vividly real world in which he set his stories. The mountains of Middle-Earth, whether the Misty Mountains, the Lone Mountain, or the jagged cliffs surrounding Mordor, all seemed to evoke real places that I noted as I grew and traveled more and more. The poetry was pretty cool too, and I think of this poem whenever I set out on a new journey. Can anyone see the Misty Mountains north of Moria in a picture like that above (out of Banff?)
 
I love taking people to new places they have never seen, and helping them to understand the sometimes mysterious forces that produce these awesome landscapes. We don't usually have to battle orcs and goblins, but there ARE mosquitoes, tourons, and the occasional bear.
 
What I like better is to see new places and to get to know them. That's why this week is a bit special, because it combines the two. I'm taking our students to some familiar places to me, like Mt. Rainier, the Channeled Scablands, Glacier National Park, and Banff. But I'm also going to be discovering some places that are new to me as well: Olympic National Park, Vancouver Island, the Sea to the Sky Highway out of Vancouver and Whistler. I'm leaving this morning on a scouting expedition, and I'm feeling as excited as any of my students.

Posting will be off and on, as we will occasionally be in some isolated regions, but I'll certainly try to put up some pictures from the road. Take care, all!
Does this resemble Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, at least to those with a pre-Peter Jackson image in their minds?

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Supervolcano" Causes Road to Melt! Hmm, About That...


"Parts of Yellowstone National Park closed after Massive Supervolcano beneath it melts road!" screams the headline in a typical treatment of a modest story out of one of our nation's premier national parks. Let's take the fact that there was a modest sized earthquake a few months ago, and add a video of bison running away from (actually trotting towards) Yellowstone, and you have the makings of a huge non-story. The world is going to end because the "supervolcano" is going to explode and kill us all!

Is the story wrong? In a tortuous sort of way, the story is "accurate". Yes, a road was closed "between" Old Faithful and Madison Junction, insinuating that a major throughway is blocked. It's actually a small side road. The melting of the asphalt was "caused by the massive supervolcano". Technically this is true. All of the geothermal features at Yellowstone are caused by the magma chamber of the "supervolcano",  which heats the groundwater, turning it to steam, which rises through the crust to melt asphalt. But asphalt can melt on really hot days in the desert too.

I don't know...I would think that the people who live and work on top of the gigantic "supervolcano" (more accurately termed a rhyolite caldera) would be a little more worried about their well-being if the volcano were about to blow. Instead, here is the original news release from the park: "Firehole Lake Drive Temporarily Closed" . You can just feel the barely restrained panic in the air... 

Geyser erupts on top of massive supervolcano!! Note the extreme panic in the crowd!
Yellowstone is a fascinating place  with a violent geologic history. But the last eruption was 70,000 years ago. Someday, most likely long after we are all dead and gone, it will erupt again. For the time being, nothing much is happening except for boiling and steaming water. Go see it. And try to ignore the screaming headlines, and enjoy the fact that we have such a fascinating place to see and visit.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It's a SUPERMOON, But Then Again, the Moon is Always Pretty Cool



The Moon has an elliptical orbit, which means that it is sometimes closer and sometimes farther away from the earth. Today the moon is full and making one of its closer approaches (perigee Moon), at 222,611 miles. At other times it can be as far away as 250,000 miles (an apogee moon), which makes for a difference of about 14% in its apparent size as seen from Earth. It's also about 30% brighter.

Such events are not rare, and in fact there will be five of them in 2014, including each of the summer months. There is nothing mystical about it, but it's okay if some internet excitement causes some people to get up from their computers and actually look at our closest neighbor in space. Like I did...

My shot was taken with a Panasonic Lumix with a 60x optical zoom (stretched out to 120x digital).  It's a handheld shot, but I was leaning on my car. I did notice that the disc of the Moon almost filled the field of view, which usually doesn't happen.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Out of the Desert and Back to the Green Hills of Home

Today wraps up the story of a week-long journey through the deserts of the southwest. I've been telling the story as if in real time, so it sounds like I'm just now arriving home, but actually we finished the trip just over a month ago. It's a time warp of sorts. I'm about to leave on another trip, this time to British Columbia and Alberta.

Coming home. You can live in a boring place, a place that is the worst in the country even, but coming home is coming home. There is the familiar kitchen, the television, the well-worn couch. The weeds. The office. To me, home is something bigger. It's the landscape that surrounds my home region. Basically those places within a day's drive that I've seen over and over. My home starts at the summit of Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. It's a three hour drive from my house, but a trip doesn't really begin until we've gone over the summit, and on the return trip we feel home the moment we get there.
Compared to the dry lands we had just explored, the mountains have a richness of moisture. It's not nearly what it should be, for we are still in the grip of a horrendous drought, but some late spring snow was still lingering in the high places. We felt such a relief at the sound of babbling creeks.
Tuolumne Meadows is the accessible part of the Sierra Nevada crest in Yosemite National Park. The meadows lie at 8,000 feet, and the surrounding mountains reach elevations of just over 13,000 feet. This region was the source of glaciers that scoured the deep U-shaped valleys of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. At one time there was an ice cap at Tuolumne that was more than 2,000 feet thick that spilled out in several directions, including Tenaya Creek which holds beautiful Tenaya Lake (top picture).
John Muir talked about the Sierra Nevada high country as the "gentle wilderness", and that's been my experience most of the time. I've seen violent storms across the Basin and Range and Colorado Plateau, and some have been terrifying because we were camped out there and had nowhere to hide or take shelter. If a storm blows in while I'm exploring Yosemite, well, we just jump in the car and go home. We can come back the next day.
We had already driven three hundred miles this day, so the sun was getting close to the horizon. Photographers say that evening and morning are the best times for good shots, given the nice contrasting shadows instead of the washed out colors from a noonday sun.
There was a storm over the Basin and Range that we had just skirted. We got a few drops, almost enough to turn on the wipers. From a distance it looked menacing. But all was calm for us in the meadow.
We made a last stop at Olmsted Point for a look at the sunset on Half Dome. We then headed down the hill, and returned to our home. It was nice to be back, but of course a few days of sloth and we wanted to get on the road again. We are restless souls sometimes!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

My Home Town Takes Another Hit: The Parasites Strike Again

It gets discouraging sometimes. According to yet another report, Modesto is the worst place in the country, in this instance, the worst place to start a career. As usual, two California cities only a few miles apart, Modesto and Stockton, made the top five. Another town I have roots in is on the list as well, San Bernardino in Southern California.

I have some things to say in defense of my adopted home town, and I won't dispute the idea that it is a challenging place to live. But I have something to say about the assumptions and attitudes expressed in the article. It was written and is read by parasites. Seriously. Parasites, of course, are organisms that feed off of other organisms without providing any benefit in return. If they did, we would be talking about symbiosis. Think about what Wall Street investors, the bankers, and the hedge fund managers who read and write these articles do: they move papers back and forth, hoping to profit. They don't produce anything of value except more pieces of paper. They live off the labor of others, and the thought of being responsible for the well-being of those laborers isn't on their radar. Ask them what they think of minimum wage laws.

So these writers, including Jerry Kronenberg, assume that any college grad is looking for a career based on making money and visiting museums and art galleries in their leisure hours. Goody for them. Where is the idea that they might give something back to the society that allows them to get rich? Where is the idea that someone might be idealistic enough to come to a community in an effort to make it better? In their minds, if you can't make a ton of money off it, the place isn't worthwhile.
I guess it's ironic, but one of the main reasons that Stockton and Modesto are lousy places to live is because the housing market is still in the toilet. We were national ground zero for foreclosures for the last six years. The value of my house plummeted to less than a third of its highest valuation, and even lower in real dollars than it was when we bought it in 1990. So who was responsible for the recession that destroyed the economic futures of tens of thousands of people in our community and left our unemployment rate at nearly 14%? Those same investors, bankers and managers who see fit to judge the livability of our community. And none of them are in jail.

So let me tell you something about my hellhole of a community. Before the Great Recession, when we were for once feeling economically secure, we voted for Measure E, a bond issue that led to a renaissance on our community college campus at Modesto Junior College. We have the best agricultural program in the state, and as my longtime readers are no doubt aware, we also have the best science teaching facility of any community college in the state. It includes a state of the art planetarium, a fully operational observatory, and very soon the Great Valley Museum. Our own community had this built, not the state, not the federal government. Our community supports the Gallo Center of the Arts, and we have a  treasure of a 1930s art-deco movie house, the State Theatre. We gave the world George Lucas, Jeremy Renner, Timothy Olyphant, Mark Spitz, Suzy Powell-Roos, and Harve Presnell. We've got MoBand.

Here in Modesto I work with a great many good and decent people, and many of them work as teachers, social workers, and counselors. They don't worry about getting rich, which is okay because they won't. Others work hard in our few remaining factories making things, the ones the investing class haven't closed yet. But most importantly, our community grows and harvests food. Every time the economic parasites see fit to criticize our unemployment rate, they should realize the seasonal aspect of working in the fields. Whenever you eat in the United States, there is about a 25% chance that the food on your plate was grown in our valley, picked by our farmworkers and packed by our laborers that you so readily put down. You might try a little respect.
To top it off, our valley is an environmental mess and yet it still offers refuge to millions upon millions of migratory birds and other species. We have our own Serengeti Plains just a few miles out of town.

I imagine this post is a little out of character for Geotripper. Yeah, I got angry when I saw the article, and I admit my response my be a little bit of an overreaction. At a certain point it gets old being the butt of jokes made by filthy rich comfortable people who wouldn't last a minute here. We've been beaten down harder than just about any other community in the country, and we're still here. Modesto and Stockton have some good things going for them, and a lot of good people live and work here.

It says a lot about the character of those who continue to publish "worst places to live" lists as a source of humor, when they are in part responsible for what happened here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Hide a 14,000 Foot Peak in California? Make it Red, Call it White...

And then put a mountain right next to it that is actually white. Seriously.

So, quick, what's the name of the third highest mountain in California? And for a bonus point, what is the name of the second highest? No, quicker than that, and no Googling! What about the mountain range where these peaks are located?

When I was in my early teens, I developed a fascination for topographic maps, and with it a desire to know the heights of all the major mountains in Southern California and across the rest of the American west. This was closely tied to a desire to climb most of them, and I spent many weekends as a youth adding to my "hundred peaks" list. I was a bit limited by a lack of desire to be dangling by ropes, but there were plenty of peaks within my skill set, and I've enjoyed the view from many a mountaintop.

Two books had a powerful influence on me in those years. The first was a little book by Frank Ashley called "Highpoints of the States", which provided the name and location of the highpoints in each of the states (which is sometimes hard to pin down, some being in cornfields or in the middle of a city block). Ashley climbed (or drove) to all the 48 high points in the contiguous United States in 112 days, a road trip I imagine was fascinating.

The second was "The Thousand Mile Summer" by Colin Fletcher. Fletcher described his walk from the Mexican Border to Canada at a time long before the Pacific Crest Trail existed. He didn't follow (as would be expected) the John Muir Trail through the Sierra Nevada. Instead he opted to follow a more easterly route across the White Mountains on the other side of the Owens Valley. In doing so, he introduced me to a mountain range that has fascinated me ever since.
Nope, North Palisade Peak is fourth, at 14,248 feet (4343 meters). Viewed here from near Lida Summit in Nevada
So, how did you do? I know from my students that many have trouble recalling California's highest mountain. Mt. Shasta is often a first guess, but it is actually only number five at 14,179 ft
(4322 meters). The highest is Mt. Whitney, 14,505 feet (4421 meters) in the Sierra Nevada. Number two is Mt. Williamson, a few miles north of Whitney (14,379 ft, 4383 meters). But number three is one of the best kept secrets in the state of California. It's not in the Sierra Nevada or the Cascades. It's off to the east, forming the highest peak within the Basin and Range Province
Wild horses near the small village of Dyer, on the east side of the White Mountains
The mountain is called White Mountain Peak (14,252 feet, 4344 meters), and it is located in the White Mountains of the westernmost Basin and Range province on the border between California and Nevada. The mountain range has the distinction of having not only the third highest peak in California, but also the highest peak in the state of Nevada, at Boundary Peak (13,146 feet, 4007 meters).

I had a chance to see White Mountain Peak from a new perspective during our trip in early June. We were headed home after our marvelous journey through the western Colorado Plateau, and we really didn't want to drive over Tehachapi Pass and follow Highway 99 up the Central Valley through Fresno and Bakersfield. Been there, done that, a hundred times over. So we set out across the empty country north and west of Las Vegas, crossing Lida Summit and going north through Fish Lake Valley. Eventually we would climb Montgomery Pass and make our way home through Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass. Yes, traveling through the Basin and Range province requires going over lots of passes.

For a mountain called "white" there is very little white, unless you count the winter snow. The mountain is mostly composed of red and brown metavolcanic rock dating from the early to middle Mesozoic era. The Basin and Range lies in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, so despite being just as high, it receives far less rain and snow, but during the Pleistocene Ice Ages, small glaciers developed adjacent to the peak. From our vantage point on the valley floor we could pick out a prominent glacial cirque (below).
Glacial cirque near White Mountain Peak. Cirques are bowl-shaped valleys that form at the head of glacial valleys where the ice pluck boulders from the cliffs.

There are lots of biologic oddities about the White Mountains. They do not have extensive forests in the way we normally perceive forests. There are vast areas of pinyon-juniper woodland, and higher up there area thickets of Mountain Mahogany. At the highest elevations there are several open forests of Bristlecone Pine, including the oldest living tree on the planet at just over 5,000 years. There are also a few "relict" forests of Ponderosa, Jeffrey Pine, Lodgepole and Aspen, which were more widespread during the ice ages when precipitation levels were higher. There are no native fish, but trout have been introduced into some drainages, and in one, the Paiute Cutthroat Trout has been introduced as part of an effort to preserve the species. It may be the only genetically pure strain of the species left in the world (and no, until the species is stable you can't fish there!).

The highway winds around the north end of the range at Montgomery Pass and we turned west at Benton Hot Springs onto Highway 120 to make our way to Lee Vining for dinner. As we reached the ridge top, we got a stunning view of White Mountain Peak from the west (above). It is a huge mountain, maybe forever overshadowed by the Sierra Nevada, but a fascinating place nonetheless. 
No, this isn't White Mountain Peak, despite the color. It's Montgomery and Boundary Peaks, composed of light colored granitic rock. Even though Boundary is the shorter of the two, it is over the state line and is the highest point in Nevada.

Montgomery and Boundary Peaks, composed of light-colored granitic rock, are sometimes mistaken for White Mountain Peak, but they are both hundreds of feet shorter. Boundary is the shorter of the two, but because the state line passes between the two, it is the highest point in the state of Nevada.

I've flown over the White Mountains on a few occasions, and they are spectacular from above as well. I've not made it yet to the summit of White Mountain Peak. There is actually a "road" that reaches the summit, and  a high altitude research laboratory on top, but the roads are gated, and the climb is a pretty long hike. One of these days, though....

The White Mountains are scenic, geologically interesting, and remote. There is a lot to explore there, and we intend to during our fall field course to the eastern Sierra Nevada! 


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The "Fingers" of Zion: Another Quiet Corner of a Crowded National Park

My last few posts have been about finding some quiet corners in one of our busier national parks, the one at Zion Canyon. Sometimes one finds solitude by following popular trails at less popular hours, or by following where the trams go (but not where they stop). One can also explore a number of roads in isolated corners, including the Lava Point Overlook, and today's destination in the Kolob Canyons section of the park. I didn't make it there last month, but paid a visit a couple of years ago.
The Kolob Canyons are a northwest outlier of the park, accessed from Interstate 15 between the towns of St. George and Cedar City. There is a small visitor center just off the freeway, and a five mile long road that winds over the ridge to a series of overlooks and trailheads.

The cliffs are composed of the same beautiful Navajo Sandstone that forms the cliffs of Zion Canyon, but here they form a 2,000 foot high escarpment with a series of incised canyons, sometimes called the Kolob Fingers. The escarpment is there because of the presence of a major fault that forms the boundary between the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range Province, the Hurricane Fault.
The Kolob Canyons are considerably higher in elevation than the main canyon at Zion, and are proportionally greener as a result. The creeks that carved the canyons were smaller, but several form beautiful alcoves and slot canyons. Trails lead out in several directions, most notably at Taylor and LaVerkin Creeks.
A few of the canyons haven't cut down very far at all, leaving behind hanging valleys, and under the right conditions, high waterfalls. There was just the smallest trickle the day I was there.
There are actually two fault systems in the immediate vicinity. The more recent Hurricane Fault was caused by tensional stress as western North America moved northwest away from the rest of the continent. But during the late Cretaceous, the region was being compressed by subduction zone activity from the west. The Taylor Creek Thrust Fault formed at that time. It's exposed near the road in several places.
One of my future wishes is to explore some of the backcountry destinations of Zion National Park; there are gigantic arches and strange and wonderful slot canyons like the Subway to explore. One of the great adventures is to walk the entire length of the Narrows of the Virgin River. I haven't yet had that privilege...

The Kolob Canyons are of a character completely different than the main park at Zion Canyon, both in scenery, and in solitude. If you ever are traveling I-15 towards Cedar City, don't miss it!

Our journey this past June was almost over, but a few wonders still awaited us, out there in the Basin and Range and over Tioga Pass. Watch for the next post!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Volcanoes, Lava Flows, Fault Zones: What Park is This? You Might Be Surprised...

...unless you've been following my latest blog entries, anyway. The beautiful exposures of the crossbedding in the Navajo Sandstone (above) provides another clue; we are in Zion National Park, but in a section that is ignored by probably 95% of the park's visitors. As far as I'm concerned, it can stay that way in perpetuity, because it is one of the more beautiful spots on the Colorado Plateau, and I'm not too keen on seeing it crowded and busy. But I'll share it anyway, because anyone who takes the trouble to get out to Zion and wants to escape the crowds for awhile deserves to know of this place.
It's called the Kolob Terrace Road, and it takes one from the lowest elevations of the park to the highest, and from the end of the road at Lava Point Overlook, you get to look down into Zion Canyon. It is also the most geologically interesting part of the park, providing a look at the entire stratigraphy of the park, recent volcanic activity, and potentially active fault zones. For the biologist, it provides a range of biomes, from the desert to near alpine conditions. On a hot summer day, the high country is cool and green. There is even a small campground if you want to linger. Trailheads along the road provide access to "The Subway" and Kolob Arch, perhaps the second largest natural arch in the world.

The road starts in the village of Virgin and almost immediately does something unusual and spectacular. It climbs right up the middle of an inverted stream, a place where a lava flow filled a river canyon only to be attacked by erosion. The flow was resistant so new canyons formed on both sides, leaving the former bottom of a river as a ridge. It's a little tricky to see, but note how the land falls away on both sides of the road in the picture above. Some of the basalt crops out on the right. The rocks are the siltstone and shales of the Triassic Moenkopi Formation, one of the oldest layers exposed in Zion National Park
There are grassy meadows in Cave Valley, and intriguing "beehives" of Navajo Sandstone. The rounded dome-like forms aren't easy to see from the floor of Zion Canyon. At the end of Cave Valley we pass something unexpected: a cinder cone, Spendlove Knoll (below). It erupted about 220,000 years ago.

Why the volcanism? We are near the edge of the Colorado Plateau, at the faulted boundary with the Basin and Range Province of western Utah and Nevada. The stretching of the crust and subsequent fracturing of the rocks has provided an avenue for the molten magma to reach the surface.
The scenery is on a grand scale. I'm pretty sure that some of the scenes from the 1979 film "Electric Horseman" with Redford and Fonda were filmed here (a movie I loved, and apparently Willie Nelson's acting debut).
The road continues up the hill, passing between two volcanoes, Spendlove Knoll and Firepit Knoll. Firepit is about 290,000 years old. In the distance one can see the cliffs of the Kolob Canyons, another isolated and rarely visited corner of Zion National Park. The road passes back and forth through the boundary of the park; you always know you are in the park because the road turns red (from the use of red cinders in the asphalt).
The rock outcrops of the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone are striking. The sloping layers are the crossbeds I mentioned above. They form on the steep leeward faces of sand dunes (the slip face), and the distribution of the Navajo and related formations show that this sand dune field once extended from Wyoming to Arizona, and from Colorado to California. There is no place quite like it today anywhere in the world.

Where did all the sand come from? Much of it probably came from the remnants of the Ancestral Rockies, or the incipient highlands related to subduction off to the west, but recent research suggests that some of the sand was derived from rivers with headwaters in the vast Appalachian-Caledonian mountain system in what is today the southeastern United States.
The road makes a long and very steep switchback (10 mph!) to climb another escarpment, and suddenly we are in a thick forest of ponderosa, firs, and aspen trees. Even in summer, the meadows were alive with colorful wildflowers, despite the parched conditions on the valley floors below.
About three miles before Kolob Reservoir, a gravel road goes right towards Lava Point. I love the understated entrance sign for Zion National Park. There should be more like it. It was less than two miles to the campground and Lava Point Overlook at an elevation of 7,980 feet. At this point, the plateau is coated with basaltic lava erupted just over a million years ago, before the carving of Zion Canyon.
And we arrived at the overlook. The view, like so many others on the plateau, is expansive, taking in landmarks as distant as the Paunsaugunt Plateau of Bryce Canyon, the Kaibab Plateau and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and the endless Basin and Range. The valley floor of Zion Canyon is hidden deep in the folds below viewpoint.
The lush greenery of the forests contrasts strongly with the barren slopes of Navajo Sandstone. It's a verdant world largely hidden from the majority of park visitors who never get out of the deep valley. It is a sight that also helps to explain an odd phenomena that often occurs in the middle of the night when one is camped in Zion Canyon in summer. It is almost like clockwork; at about 2 AM or so, a cool wind kicks up in what had been a warm and sultry night. It is a drainage wind, a mass of cool dense air with a source on the high plateau that is flowing down the canyon.
We finished at Lava Point and faced a hot three hour drive back to Las Vegas, where our travelers would be catching flights home. We still had another day of driving back through the Basin and Range, and our trip would be over. Look for one more post about Zion, though. Even though we didn't see it on this trip, there is another spectacular corner of the park to seek out.