Gold Butte is one of our nation’s newest National Monuments, tucked away into a small corner of Southern Nevada, northeast of Lake Mead and snuggled up along the Arizona border. Unfortunately, Gold Butte was recently recommended for a “boundary reduction.” After spending a few days exploring the areas, I can confidently say that this is a truly stunning Mojave Desert landscape, home to amazing views, endangered wildlife, unique geology, and priceless relics of the past. If nothing else, I hope these photos demonstrate that this area is worthy of more protection, not less.
Limestone is a unique character is the rock world. There are only a handful of rocks that can be dissolved in water, and limestone is by far the most common of that group (other members include salt and gypsum). Most limestones are composed of the skeletal remains of deceased marine organisms (a handful are formed by entirely inorganic processes), so their presence generally indicates that an area was home to a warm, shallow sea at some time in the past. Fossils of coral, clams, snails, and other water-loving critters are often abundant in limestone, and in some ways, a chunk of marine limestone IS one gigantic fossil!
The aforementioned critters make their shells out of calcium carbonate, which is soluble in slightly acidic water. Most water on Earth’s surface is slightly acidic (due to interactions with carbon dioxide in our atmosphere) so interesting things can happen when water and limestone interact…especially if you give them lots of time! In particular, groundwater is capable of dissolving huge voids in limestone bedrock over long periods of time, forming features such as sinkholes and caverns.
Limestone is an abundant rock in our neck of the woods, especially in the mountain ranges astride the Utah/Nevada border in the Great Basin. Throughout much of the Paleozoic Era (541 to 252 million years ago), this region was covered by a series of vast, warm, shallows seas, much like the one that now draws millions to the Bahamas every year.
A great place to see limestone in action is the area around Great Basin National Park. Tucked away in extreme east-central Nevada, Great Basin is one of my favorite national parks, far removed from the hoards that descend annually on many of the west’s more well-known attractions. You have to make an effort to get here and at first glance, the Snake Range of Great Basin NP looks pretty much like any other mountain island rising up out of the Basin & Range. Upon closer inspection, it’s actually home to a stunningly diverse array of landscapes: The 2nd highest peak in Nevada (Wheeler Peak at 13,065 feet), some of the world’s oldest trees, and arguably the darkest night skies in the Lower 48 all reside here.
But limestone is ultimately the reason a national park exists in this corner of Nevada. A small portion of the area was originally set aside as a national monument in 1922 to protect Lehman Caves, a stunning cavern eaten into the 500 million year old Pole Canyon Limestone. Only in 1986 was the monument enlarged into a National Park encompassing both the caves and the surrounding mountain landscape.
While small in size, Lehman Caves is exquisitely decorated with a wide variety of speleothems (cave formations). Stalactites, stalagmites, shields, draperies, cave bacon, cave popcorn, soda straws, and helectites surround you at every turn as you wander through the cave. Photos show details not immediately visible to the human eye in the dimly lit cave, revealing an underground world that looks more like a well manicured sci-fi movie set than a natural place sculpted by nothing more than the water, limestone, and time.
Back on the surface, no trip to Great Basin NP is complete without a hike to admire some of the oldest living things on the planet: the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva). Curiously, even these trees have an intimate relationship with the limestone that is so common here. Most of the bristlecone pine groves throughout the Great Basin are found growing on soils derived from limestone or dolomite (a limestone relative). For some reason, the bristlecones seem to prefer this rock type, perhaps because many other species do not, thus minimizing competition. The easily accessible grove on the flanks of Wheeler Peak (pictured below) is perhaps the most notable exception. Here the trees grow not in limestone, but among hard quartzite boulders deposited by old glaciers.
About an hour east of Great Basin, slightly younger (~490 million years) limestone in the House Range forms another unique feature: Notch Peak. At just 9,658 feet, Notch Peak doesn’t measure up in altitude with many other summits in the region. It’s claim to fame is its 2,200 foot sheer northwest face, one of the tallest cliffs in North America. Where exactly it ranks on that list depends on your definition of “cliff,” but there seems to be little debate that it is the tallest limestone cliff on the North American continent. The peak is striking, especially when viewed from the west, where the full magnitude of its 4,000+ foot rise from the Tule Valley below is apparent.
We spent an enjoyable evening camping in the shadow of Notch Peak and had hoped to hike to the summit the next day via Sawtooth Canyon on the east side, but unfortunately car issues derailed that plan.
One of the great things about living in Southern Utah is the abundance of different climates within a small geographic area. When temperatures rise into the 90s and 100s in the low-elevation valleys, we can be in cool alpine meadows at 10,500′ in less than an hour. When snow, slush, and mud cover the trails in winter, vast portions of the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts are within a day’s drive. One of these desert areas is Valley of Fire State Park in southern Nevada, not far from I-15 between St. George and Las Vegas.
Perhaps not surprisingly, upon arrival at Valley of Fire one is greeted with an array of whimsically sculpted red rock formations. Now red rocks are hardly unique in this part of the country, and the crimson cliffs here are no more notable than those found anywhere else in Utah or Arizona. But head into the interior of the park and you soon realize the allure of the Valley of Fire. After cresting the red cliffs, the hues begin to multiply exponentially and before long you are surrounded by just about every color of sandstone imaginable.
To put it bluntly, the colors at Valley of Fire are simply ridiculous…and attributable to its unique geologic location. The rocks here are mostly equivalent to those found throughout southwestern Utah and the Colorado Plateau. The Aztec Sandstone, the dominant rock unit exposed in the park, is the equivalent of the Navajo Sandstone that makes up the cliffs of Zion National Park. Geologists just assign it a different name when it appears in Nevada and the Great Basin. Perhaps the distinct name is appropriate though, given that the sandstone seems to take on a life of its own here.
Valley of Fire State Park lies within the Basin and Range province, a vast region covering Nevada and portions of half a dozen other western states where the Earth’s crust is being slowly but violently stretched apart. As the writer John McPhee once noted, so much stretching has occurred here that 20 million years ago, Salt Lake City and Reno would have been more than 60 miles closer together. Faults are abundant in this land, and fluids associated with some of these faults have at various times leached iron compounds from the originally all-red sandstone, causing some layers to become bright white, and re-deposited them in other layers, leading to the wide variety of colors.
Some of the most impressive colors are found just to the west of the “Fire Wave” feature near the northern terminus of the park’s scenic drive:
While there are numerous hiking trails, there is also lots of off-trail terrain to explore. Some of the most spectacular scenery can be found by parking at one of the numerous pull offs and just wandering out into the rock wonderland. One particular geologic feature of note is what are known as “shear-enhanced compaction bands,” thin brittle fins of rock that rise almost vertically out of the ground and often run continuously for dozens to hundreds of yards. At first glance, these features look like mineral veins, but upon closer examination they are composed of the same material as the surrounding sandstone, but are obviously slightly harder than the host rock. In many places there are two perpendicular sets of the bands, forming a checkerboard like pattern superimposed on the sandstone.
The bands are the result not of stretching, but of compressional forces that predate the formation of the Basin and Range. Stresses associated with an earlier mountain building episode (known as the Sevier orogeny) created these funky bands by essentially “squeezing” together (and even breaking) the sand grains that make up the rock, eliminating much of the empty space between the grains and forming a miniature layer of tougher, harder, and more compact sandstone that is slightly more resistant to weathering and erosion. As a result, the bands tend to just out from the surrounding slickrock by several inches, and even several feet in some locations. For such a seemingly obscure feature, many papers have been written about these compaction bands (and similar ones in a few other locations in the region). However my understanding of the structural processes behind their formation is limited and the most recent articles about them appear to be behind a paywall. If anyone reading this has more insight into these things, I would love to hear from you.
As mentioned before, these bands are quite thin, in most less than a centimeter thick and thus, sadly, quite brittle. They are easily broken by an errant boot step so if you find yourself among them, tread carefully so that future visitors will be able to experience this unique and colorful landscape.
Next time you find yourself in extreme eastern Nevada with time to spare, I highly recommend checking out Cathedral Gorge State Park. This gem lies tucked away on the floor of Meadow Valley, about halfway between Las Vegas and Great Basin National Park, not far from the bustling hub of Panaca, Nevada. In other words, for a place fully accessible by paved roads, Cathedral Gorge is about as off-the-beaten path as you’re going to get.
Despite its under-the-radar status, Cathedral Gorge was established all the way back in 1935, and was one of Nevada’s four original state parks (along with the more well-known Valley of Fire north of Las Vegas). The highlight here is a shallow valley excavated out of a layer of soft lake sediments by Meadow Valley Wash and numerous small tributary streams. The sediment was originally deposited in a freshwater lake that called Meadow Valley home during wetter times in the Pliocene epoch (~2.5-5 million years ago). This area has been the epicenter for some pretty extensive volcanic activity over the past few dozen million years, so the sediment that accumulated in the lake was rich in volcanic ash.
Today, with the lake gone, the exposed sediment is so soft that it erodes extremely rapidly. Few plants can gain a foothold in earth that is crumbling so rapidly, so the water (and to a lesser extent, wind) have created a intricate landscape of badlands along the margin of the valley. The scenery is bizarre and not all that unlike what you might find in the famous badlands of South Dakota and the Great Plains. It definitely feels out of place in the sagebrush expanses of the Great Basin. While Cathedral Gorge bakes in the summertime, during our visit it was cold, windy, and virtually empty. We saw not another soul on a four mile loop hike around the perimeter of the valley.
While the loop hike around the valley was enjoyable (if a bit windy), we didn’t stumble upon the highlight of our visit until we started poking around the rock formations adjacent to the trailhead parking lot. In a matter of minutes, we found ourselves exploring a landform that I still don’t have the right words to describe.
At the edge of the valley, runoff has carved a series of deep, extremely narrow, and almost perfectly vertical crevices into the soft sediments. The park calls them “caves” but the words cave, crevice, gully, crevasse, gorge, and ravine all fail to accurately capture their bizarre and truly unique nature. Perhaps the best way to describe them is as “slot canyons of mud.”
They evoke the sandstone slot canyons of Utah in the sense that they were so narrow that in many spots only a tiny sliver of blue sky could be seen overhead. Unlike most slot canyons though, whose delicate curves are clearly the result of flowing water, the walls here were angular and almost perfectly vertical. It was as if someone had carved huge blocks out of the mud with a chainsaw and then splattered the walks with mud to cover their tracks. Each little mud slot terminated abruptly in a roughly circular chamber whose walls were lined with linear grooves etched into the mud, extending all the way up to the rim. These chambers were clearly the work of waterfalls that spill into the canyons with each heavy rain.
As fragile and precarious as the mud walls looked, there were surprisingly few signs of catastrophic collapse. We explored about a half dozen of these little canyons, all of which were located right along the main road into the park. There were surely more that we missed, good enough reason to make the drive back to Meadow Valley another day.
At first glance, Nevada’s Snake Range is just one out of the hundreds of long, skinny mountain ridges that comprise the Basin and Range Province of the western United States. Clarence Dutton, a geologist associated with John Wesley Powell’s geographic and geologic surveys of the western United States in the late 1800s, once referred to the Basin & Range as “an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico,” referring to the seemingly interminable landscape of north/south trending mountain ranges and intervening valleys that dominate Nevada, southern California, and western Utah & Arizona.
It is the presence of one of our nation’s least visited national parks, Great Basin, in the southern portion of the range that provides the first indication that the Snake Range might be somehow unique from its brethren. And indeed it is. Rising more than 7,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, the Snake Range is home to four of the five tallest peaks in the state of Nevada, culminating in 13,065′ Wheeler Peak, the second highest point in the state. The altitude and the lush spruce, fir, and aspen forests clinging to its slopes makes the area feel suspiciously like a piece of Colorado thrust up into the middle of the Nevada deserts.
Great Basin National Park is also famous for the groves of Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) found on rocky slopes near treeline. Currently believed to be the longest-living non-clonal organism on Earth, many of the bristlecones in the park exceed 3000 years in age. In an infamous 1964 incident, a Snake Range bristlecone felled by a researcher (the area had not yet been designated as a national park at the time) was posthumously determined to be nearly 5000 years old, which would have made it the oldest known tree on earth were it not for the fact that the tree was now quite dead. More recently however, a bristlecone estimated to be 5,065 years old was found in the White Mountains of eastern California, slightly surpassing the age of the doomed Great Basin tree.
In the final hour of my recent drive across western Utah to reach Great Basin NP, I encountered only a single other vehicle before arriving at the park entrance. The relative isolation of the park leads to perhaps its most unique attribute; Great Basin National Park is by many measures the darkest national park in the U.S., and one of the darkest locations in the country period. Sadly, my visit coincided with a full moon which, while preventing me from experiencing a light pollution-free night sky, did make for some good nightscape opportunities:
If you get sick of exploring the surface world, Great Basin also harbors a subterranean spectacle, the ornately adorned limestone cavern known as Lehman Caves. With alpine peaks, caves, ancient trees, and inky black night skies, it may seem miraculous that Great Basin remains one of the least visited national parks in the country. In 2015, Great Basin was visited by 98% fewer people than that big hole in the ground known as the Grand Canyon. Hopefully the photos on this page encourage you to stay far, far away 🙂
Two days til grad school starts: time for a quick post in list form! Here are some random musings, observations, rants, and pictures from a two-week, 2,500 mile end-of-summer road trip through Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington:
- Packing everything you own into the backseat and trunk of a Toyota Corolla IS possible, if only for 15 miles until you get to the closest UPS store so you can pack 61 pounds of crap into a box and ship it so your car doesn’t bottom out going across every single expansion joint in the road
- A small passenger car with over 180,000 miles, power steering leaks, suspension maladies, and mysterious engine and electrical issues is nevertheless capable of successfully completing a 2,500 mile road-trip including travel up and over several 10,000 foot mountain passes, on roads through several deserts with temperatures soaring to 108 degrees, all while fully loaded with nary a squeak.
- Said road trip is also possible to complete without the aid of a GPS unit, smartphone, or other computerized mapping device.
- To anyone who claims their home town/state/country/etc has the best sunsets ever, please go to the Grand Canyon and watch the sun go down from Desert View. I’ll be expecting a formal, written retraction of your blasphemous statement in the mail any day now.
- Pink Jeep Tour guides are really good at spotting Deeres.
- It is impossible to make money in Las Vegas. Even if you win a decent amount of dough, you will be tempted into spending your winnings on drinks served in three-foot-tall brightly-colored souvenir “cups” and $7 slices of crappy pizza in the casino food court at 2am. But you won’t know its 2am because there are no clocks anywhere.
- When traveling through particularly desolate stretches of Nevada, it is amazing how quickly your mind begins voluntarily generating thoughts such as “I wonder how many hours it’s been since I’ve seen another car…” and “I bet I could take my hands off the steering wheel for 10 whole minutes and not hit anything.”
- If you never thought you encounter a situation in which you would consider $4.89 a screaming good deal on a gallon of gasoline, go visit Lee Vining, California (and look at what the Chevron is charging first…)
- Americans like Yosemite more than they dislike getting hantavirus.
- Tropical plants will die if you leave them in the backseat of a hot car for a week with no access to food or water.
- Camping in bear country is a pain in the ass. A typical night terror in Yosemite consists of waking in the middle of the night in a panicked and frantic state wondering if you remembered to take that tube of mildly scented chapstick out of your pocket and put it in the bear box.
- Even if people say they aren’t buying you something from your Amazon wish-list, never buy anything from your Amazon wishlist.
- Eugene, Portland, and Bellingham should secede and create a new autonomous state called Hippie-gon-ton. Seriously, these are the kind of places where I deeply wish I had the courage to take pictures of random people I encounter on the street; I’d have a collection to rival People of Wal-Mart in no time, albeit in a very, very different way. Also, on a related note, Portland is the perfect city to arrive in when you haven’t showered for 3 days.
- The awesomeness of Powell’s bookstore in Portland, OR is still difficult for me to comprehend…I could spend WEEKS there. One’s need for a smartphone with navigational capabilities is greater WITHIN THIS STORE than it is in perhaps any major metropolitan area in the country, with the possible exception of:
- Seattle, which has quite possibly the worst maintained and most confusing street network of ANY CITY ANYWHERE. Someone should probably go rescue the pothole crew because they clearly have been being held hostage somewhere…since the Eisenhower administration. Also, let’s stop it with the whole “Wouldn’t it be cool to make this street randomly dead-end and then reappear 5 blocks later?” thing. If I’m driving down a numbered street, it should be a thru-street and not be broken into 8 billion separate sections.
- On the plus side, if you can somehow manage to navigate Seattle streets without blowing a tire, breaking an axle, or needing to pull over somewhere and cry, there are a lot of good eats to be had, including the 3rd best Philly cheese steak restaurant this side of Philadelphia and some seriously good pizza.
- Sea anemones shrivel up when you poke them. Also, it is possible to be surrounded by so many fat purple starfish that you feel afraid.
- Randomly arriving in a new city where you know nobody and finding a place to live using Craigslist is way easier than it sounds. And no, I’m not living with a convicted felon.
- The Pacific Northwest is really nice and sunny in the summer…which is conveniently when I am never there.
- Finding that a “Vegan Revolution” bumper sticker has been pasted onto your car over a pro-meat sticker instantly turns you into a card-carrying vegan drives you to east as much meat as humanly possible the next day (such as a Philly cheese steak and a delicious bacon cheeseburger perhaps).
- On another related note, a maple long john topped with strips of bacon is just about the best thing e…….. (Zach has heart attack)