Monday, July 18, 2022

What Makes a Canyon Grand? And How Deep is Deep? Exploring Kings Canyon, One of the Deepest Canyons in North America

Well, let's jump right into it. The picture above is Spanish Peak in the Sierra Nevada, which looms above the canyon of the Kings River. The peak tops out at 10,051 feet (3,064 meters). The drainage on the left is Rough Creek, and it enters the Kings River at an elevation of about 1,800 feet. The drainage on the right is Deer Creek, and it enters the Kings at about 2,300 feet. This seems to indicate a depth of Kings Canyon as between 8,200 and 7,700 feet, depending on where you choose to define it. 

So, what of it? 

If you search for "the deepest canyon in North America", the honor seems more often to be given to Hells Canyon on the Snake River on the border between Oregon and Idaho. The depth often given is the difference between He-Devil Mountain and the river at 7,993 feet (2,436 meters). Or 8,043 feet (2,452 meters). Or 7,913 feet (2,411 meters).  

So, the designation of "deepest canyon" seems to be somewhat in conflict. The argument can be muddied by pointing out the canyons are asymmetric, and that the other sides of the canyons are less dramatic in height. There is some truth to this, as the south slope at Kings Canyon tops out at just over 7,000 feet, meaning that the canyon is only a little over 5,000 feet deep. But the problem is similar for Hells Canyon, where the ridges across the river are just over 5,000 feet above the river. 

Which is deepest? I don't know, and I don't particularly care. If Idaho needs to have the 'deepest' or 'biggest' of something, they can have it. After all California has lots of superlatives, like biggest living things, tallest trees, oldest living things, tallest mountain in the lower 48, and so on. I've not been to Hells Canyon. But I have been to Kings Canyon, and what I do know is that it is one of the most spectacular places on Earth.

The upper reaches of Kings Canyon include some of the highest and most rugged parts of the Sierra Nevada crest. Parts of the Middle Fork are too precipitous for roads or even foot trails. These parts of the canyon are protected as Kings Canyon National Park, established in 1940. a full fifty years after the designation of Yosemite as a national park. One of the most pleasant parts of the canyon, Cedar Grove, was left out of the park because of plans to inundate the valley under the waters of a reservoir. Better angels prevailed and Cedar Grove was added to the park in 1965. The downstream (and deepest) part of the canyon is administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
As rugged as the canyon is, a paved highway (Highway 180) provides access to Cedar Grove, and it is pretty incredible to drive. I marvel at the engineering decisions that went into the design of the present-day highway. The terrain is literally impassable, but someone decided where the road would go, and laborers blasted away at the rocks. Most of the construction crews were prisoners. The road was planned as early as 1905, and construction took place during the 1920s and 1930s. At one time it was envisioned that the road would continue up and over Kearsarge Pass to connect with Onion Valley. Thankfully that plan didn't come to fruition. 

The highway passes through some astounding geology. Granitic rocks may make up most of the Sierra Nevada, but Kings Canyon contains exposures of some large metamorphic roof pendants of Paleozoic and Mesozoic age. A stunning cliff of gray marble forms one wall of the South Fork, and contains a number of caverns, including the developed tourist attraction of Boyden Cavern. Quartzite, slate and spectacularly folded calc-silicate rocks are also exposed along the highway.

The viewpoints along the highway just north of Grant Grove are simply beyond compare, giving a full-on perspective of the deepest part of the gorge as well as vistas towards the high country near the Sierra Crest. is a LOT less crowded than Yosemite Valley!

In case you were wondering about other deep canyons, the Sierra Nevada hosts numerous awesome gorges. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River is a roadless part of Yosemite National Park which in places is fully as deep as the Grand Canyon at 5,000 feet. I would love to offer pictures, but I haven't traveled through it in many decades. Another canyon, that of the Kern River in Sequoia National Park, is 7,000 feet deep in places. Yosemite Valley is a mere 3,000 feet deep, but with those vertical walls it truly stands apart as one of the unique places of the planet.

Farther afield, Mexico has the Barranca del Cobre (Chihuahua, Mexico). The canyon system has six major gorges, of which Urique Canyon is the deepest and largest, measuring at one point 6,236 feet deep.

The deepest canyon I know of in Polynesia is Waimea Canyon on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. It is sometimes called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific", but I think it stands pretty well by itself without having to compare it to others. It is a favorite destination of mine when I visit the islands. It is nearly 3,000 feet deep in places.

Waimea Canyon on the island of Kauai in Hawaii

In South America, the deepest canyon I could find info on was Colca Canyon in Peru. At one point it is 13,600 feet deep. 

The ultimate canyons would pretty much have to be where the mountains are the highest, so the deepest canyon in the world is found in the Himalayas. Some of the canyons that pass through the range (the Kali Gandaki or Yarlung Tsangpo Gorges for example) are said to reach depths of 17,000-19,000 feet.

And finally, since it was part of the title, there is the Grand Canyon of Arizona. It's not the deepest canyon overall, but it does maintain a consistent depth of over 5,000 feet for several hundred miles, and there is no canyon like it in the world. I can't even describe how spectacular it is in a few sentences, so I offer the blog series I wrote after a memorable river trip in 2013 in which I almost died, twice, but also had the greatest adventure of my life. Check out Into the Great Unknown

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Fan of Columnar Jointing? Here's a Real Gem for You in the Sierra Nevada, and it's Not Devil's Postpile

Tucked away in a small corner of an unheralded canyon of the Sierra Nevada is a real gem of a geological locality. It is a marvelous example of columnar jointing that has been modified by glacial scouring, and it's NOT called Devil's Postpile. Welcome to the Columns of the Giants.

The Stanislaus River doesn't quite have the panache of the Merced River, which flows through Yosemite Valley, or the Tuolumne River, the architect of Hetch Hetchy Valley. It's not protected as a national park like Kings Canyon. It had glaciers during the ice ages, but they didn't have the volumes of ice necessary to carve stunningly deep gorges like the previously mentioned river valleys. But it does have a grandeur all its own.

The headwaters of the Stanislaus expose rocks that are quite distinct from those of the other more famous rivers. The rocks have a darker aspect, due to being composed of relatively young volcanic rocks, rather than the granite that makes up three-quarters of the Sierra Nevada. Highway 108 crosses one of the uppermost tributaries at Sonora Pass (9,624 feet/2,933 meters), and travelers can get a spectacular view of these former volcanoes that were active about 10 million years ago. They erupted onto a muted landscape of eroded granitic rocks. Some of the eruptions produced flows that traveled more than fifty miles downstream through the canyons of the Ancestral Stanislaus River. Later erosion acting on these flows produced the famous Stanislaus Table Mountain in the vicinity of the Gold Rush Towns of Jamestown and Sonora.

Beginning around 2 million years ago, glaciers began tearing away at the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada, removing many of the volcanic flows and carving U-shaped gorges like the one above, visible just a few miles downstream of Sonora Pass at Chipmunk Flat. The ice age was not a single event. The ice advanced and retreated more than a dozen times, with warmer periods in between that lasted for thousands of years. It was during one of these interglacial periods that something extraordinary happened in the upper reaches of the Stanislaus River drainage. Roughly 150,000 years ago there was a volcanic eruption down in the canyon.

It wasn't a large eruption, certainly not on the scale of some of the rhyolite cataclysms that devastated the regions east of the Sierra crest 767,000 years ago. It was more of a mild cinder cone eruption that might have flooded a portion of the canyon, flowing just a few miles downstream before the lava flows ceased. Subsequent glaciations scoured away much of the remaining lavas, and river erosion removed still more. Hidden in a cleft, a basalt dike just upstream of the columns may be all that remains of the volcano responsible for the eruption. It's not much, just the fracture in the granite that filled with basalt that fed the eruptions above. 

The remains of the lava flow, though? Spectacular! The lava flow (or flows; there were possibly two of them) was ponded by some obstruction downstream, most likely a glacial moraine, and a modest lava lake developed, several tens of meters deep. As the lava cooled, it shrank and the rock fractured in generally hexagonal columns roughly perpendicular to the surface against which the lava flowed. Since the lava flows were erupted onto a canyon bottom with slopes on either side, not all of the columns are vertical (this is also true of the better-known Devil's Postpile). 

Subsequent glaciations (primarily the Tahoe and Tioga stages for those who want to know) tore away at the lava flow, exposing the columns. Over the last 10,000 years or so since the last Tioga glaciers melted away, frost wedging has pried many of the columns loose, dumping them into a vast talus slope that covers the base of the lava flow. Cold air emanating from the base of the talus suggests that a mass of ice might actually remain deep within the rockpile. 

Columns of the Giants can be easily visited by following Highway 108 about 25 miles east of the Pinecrest Lake Resort area or 13 miles west of Sonora Pass. Overnight accommodations can be found at nearby Kennedy Meadows and a number of National Forest campgrounds. Educational groups may be able to make arrangements to stay the High Sierra Institute at Baker Station just a few miles away (contact the Yosemite Community College District for more information).

Stanislaus National Forest has provided a parking area and simple toilets for visitors, and a paved ADA-compliant trail and bridge provides access. The trail is only a few hundred yards long, and the visual rewards are great. 

Can't get there in person? My friend and colleague Ryan Hollister put together a marvelous virtual field exercise that provides an experience that is the next best thing to being there. It was featured on NPR's Science Friday a few years ago.

Monday, May 16, 2022

How it Was: Lunar Eclipse of May 2022

This evening's lunar eclipse was visible all across North America, and it was spectacular! I hope you were able to see it, but if you didn't, here is some sense of what it was like.

Out here in California the eclipse was already underway at sunset, and most of the Moon was already in the Earth's shadow. It was kind of strange to see a "crescent" Moon rising in the east as the sun set in the west.

The sliver of the sunlit lunar surface grew smaller and smaller, and the Moon seemed to disappear in the deepening dusk. The darkened face of the Moon was actually glowing with red light refracted through the Earth's atmosphere, but it took a few moments for the sky to grow dark enough to see it.
The red of the Blood Moon became visible, and then I had a bit of a surprise. It is hard to see stars in the immediate vicinity of the full moon because it is so bright. But if you look in the picture below, look at the 10:30 position of the disk, and there is a star emerging from behind the Moon! I've never seen this happen before.
A few moments more, and the moon had moved away from the star, and several others were visible as welll.
It wasn't easy holding the camera still enough to catch the stars as well. I guess I should just use a tripod, but what's life without challenges? I only deleted 30 or 40 shaky shots...
This was an unusually long period of totality for a lunar eclipse. After around an hour, the bottom edge of the Moon began to glow brighter as the orb moved closer to the edge of the Earth's shadow.
And then just like that the Sun began to shine on the lunar surface again. 
The red disk disappeared and the stars dimmed and disappeared once again.
And then it was over, and our bright full Moon had returned. And that is how it was! Thanks to our friends Jeanne and Barry for a nice evening with a porch overlooking the Tuolumne River and a perfect moonrise!


Monday, May 2, 2022

Are You Sure That Enclosure Will Be Enough? New Dinosaur at MJC's Great Valley Museum!

I couldn't help but recall a certain famous movie opening: guys in hardhats unloading a dinosaur at a new park named after a geological time period...Cretaceous Park or something like that. Things went scarily wrong, and movie history was made.
Today's experience didn't end badly though, since the dinosaur in question was a plant-eating Parasaurolophus and it wasn't a living specimen. It was one of the final additions to the Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab at the Great Valley Museum on the campus of Modesto Junior College.

The exhibit commemorates a little-known fact about our county: it was the site of the first reported discovery of dinosaurs in California. Back in 1936 17-year-old Al Bennison was exploring Del Puerto Canyon in the Coast Ranges along the western part of Stanislaus County looking for shell fossils when he found bones scattered on a slope. He showed them to his science teacher who reported them to the paleontologists at U.C. Berkeley. It proved to be the partial remains of a Saurolophus, which was one of the last dinosaurs that ever lived on our planet, one the last groups in existence when the gigantic asteroid hit the planet (or when the volcanoes blew, or whatever else did them in). They lived in the latest part of the Cretaceous Period, which is well represented by sedimentary rocks in our region. The rocks are marine in origin, which tend not to be good places to search for dinosaurs, but sometimes a carcass would float out to sea, as this one did.

The creatures were gigantic, on the order of thirty to forty feet long, weighing several tons (our model is a 1/2-sized replica at 16 feet long). They were plant-eaters, with teeth well-adapted to grinding twigs and leaves. Whether they swam or not has been a topic of discussion and debate. Some argue that they had few other defenses from predators, so that swimming was necessary to escape from being eaten. Others suggest that they lived in herds that provided protection. California designated a species of Saurolophus, Augustynolophus morrisi, as the state dinosaur in 2017.
For comparison purposes, here is what the Saurolophus looked like. Source:
We thought it was important to put a dinosaur on display as we planned for the new Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab. Dinosaurs certainly capture the imagination of our children (and not a few of our adults), and it is a good thing for our students to know that our county played an important part in the paleontological discoveries in our state. When students realize that one of their own (however long ago) made an important find, they also can visualize themselves as a paleontologist or geologist making important contributions to science. The concrete squares covered by orange tarps are mock paleontological digs where students can experience the sense of discovery that all paleontologists live for.
So why a Parasaurolophus, and not the Augustynolophus morrisi or other 'real' Saurolophus? That's easy: none of the marketers of dinosaur replicas offer any for sale, at least far as I could find. We figured that a similar species was better than none at all...
Trying hard not to be trampled to death 
What a great day for geological education in our county. I just hope the containment structure works! It just won't do to have wild dinosaurs running around on our campus...

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern (Couldn't the Bureaucrats Just Call it a Preserve?): Spring Update

Welcome to one of the most unique ecosystems and habitats in California's wealth of incredible places. It was ignored initially by miners in the region because it had no gold (the Mother Lode is a scant two miles away).  It was more recently ignored because it had no grass for grazing and poor soils incapable of growing anything "useful". The Bureau of Land Management, tasked in its early days of giving away land by way of the Homestead Act couldn't give the free acreage away at all. All but ignored by federal government, the absentee owner, it became an unofficial garbage dump, unauthorized shooting range, and unsanctioned off-road vehicle route. 
Why were the soils so poor in nutrients and toxic to plant growth? It was the underlying rocks: the serpentine and other ultramafic rocks associated with the Melones Fault in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. The soils developed on these rocks were severely deficient in important macronutrients, and contaminated (so-to-speak) by toxic metals. Most plants, including most grasses, cannot survive in these soils. Some select species tolerate the soils, and a few rare ones thrive. It is literally a different world, and as you can see in the picture above, the change is abrupt, as the prairie grasses and oak woodland suddenly give way to ceanothus or buckbrush and gray pine.
By the late 1980s the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of the Red Hills area, belatedly recognized (with the encouragement and assistance of community and environmental activists) the unique nature of the ecosystem here, and declared it an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern", the kind of a designation that only a bureaucrat could love. It turned out that this landscape contained a large variety of endemic species found almost nowhere else, including a unique fish species, the Red Hills Roach (Lavinia symmetricus). Clean-ups were organized, and minimal tourists facilities (trails, parking areas, vault toilets, and a nature trail) were constructed. 
Bitter root (Lewisia rediviva)
For much of the year, especially in the hot dry summer, there is little to recommend about the Red Hills. Most of the plants are dead and gone to seed. But for a few months during the cooler wetter spring season, the hills come alive. It turned out that many of the plants adapted to living in these soils produce a vivid display of color when they bloom.
California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and scattered poppies
We took a bit longer to make our way up to the Red Hills this year, in large part because there hasn't been more than a spatter of rain since December. We are in the midst of another year of lingering drought. But in the end we decided to have a look, and although it came nowhere near the pyrotechnics of color of past years, there was more than enough to make for a satisfying excursion.
Poppy, a flower that seems able to grow in just about any environment California can fling at it.
Enjoy a little bit of color!
Monkeyflower (Erythranthe sp.)

Blue Dicks (Brodiaea)

The parking area and trailhead at Red Hills ACEC

Poppy sp. and Blue Dick (Brodiaea)

The Red Hills got their name from the red soils that develop on the ultramafic rocks, including serpentine. The rocks are rich in iron, thus the red color, but fresh surfaces of the rocks are generally shades of green, as can be seen above.
Paintbrush sp.

Lupine sp.

Lupine sp.
The Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern is in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Chinese Camp off of Highway 120. If you want to learn more, or pay a visit, information about the Red Hills can be found on this BLM website, and the trail and road map can be found here.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Those Things We Scientists Never Talk About...

I am often asked if I have run across strange phenomena in my travels. My journeys take me to many different places and environments, and frankly, some things have been known to happen. It is not one of those things that we earth scientists like to talk about, and one might be tempted to say, really that we could say, we have been hiding this knowledge from the public for years. I don't think that conspiracy is the right word here, it's just that we don't think that the public at large should be led to believe in the existence of these things.  That there are things out there...
They're seen in caves in and around Mt. Shasta and Medicine Lake Highland. If you are in the dark long start to see the lights. They float through the open spaces of the lava tubes, the long passageways produced when subsurface lava flows drain away from openings downslope. They aren't easy to photograph, but I once hid behind a pile of broken rubble and left the shutter open. The spectral lights appeared around the corner and silently passed by.
There are stories about the Atlanteans and Lemurians inhabiting the underworld of Mt. Shasta, and incredibly detailed descriptions of how they carved the tunnels of their underground cities. Being the hard-boiled logical scientist I am, I am not unreluctant to declare that this is the only possible explanation for these lights. The underground civilizations of beings who lost their islands in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean tens of thousands of years ago in giant cataclysms and who came to Mt. Shasta and Medicine Lake Highland to some might make so much more sense than anything else that could explain the images on my digital camera.

In Avril Erste, there is a colleague who can back me up on all my assertions. Avril has seen these same lights in other caves, too, much farther south than Mt. Shasta. They're in the caves of the Sierra foothills too...
I want to believe...