Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Nevada

Gold Butte National Monument in Pictures

Swirls of color on slickrock sandstone.
Sunset light on rock formations, Joshua Trees, and desert mountains.

A beautiful view from our camp in Gold Butte National Monument just after sunset, looking north towards the Virgin Mountains.

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.

Joshua Trees and red sandstone rock formations

With abundant Joshua Trees, Creosote Bush, and stark rock formations, much of the landscape is vaguely reminiscent of Joshua Tree National Park, but with the colorful Aztec Sandstone providing a wonderful ruddy backdrop to the bright green Joshua Trees.

Late afternoon sunlight on sandstone rock formations and desert mountains

Late-afternoon view from a ridge overlooking Whitney Pocket, Gold Butte National Monument. You can just barely see our car next to the rocks at center right. 

Sunrise light illuminates Joshua Trees and colorful sandstone boulders. A notch in a sandstone boulder frames a view of a desert landscape.

Swirls of color on slickrock sandstone.

The Aztec Sandstone in this area is without a doubt the most colorful rock formation I’ve ever seen. Much like at nearby Valley of Fire State Park, around every corner are stunning swirls of color that would look more at home in a modern art gallery than in the desert. 

Red, pink, and yellow swirls in sandstone.

We found the most intense colors on un-weathered boulders associated with recent rockfalls. 

Fossil brachiopods in a limestone boulder with sunlit Joshua Trees in the background.

Many of the ridges and mountains in the Gold Butte area consist of Paleozoic limestones. Fossils, such as the brachiopods seen here, are a dime a dozen.

Petroglyph of a man that appears to be falling through space.

One of the primary justifications for the creation of Gold Butte National Monument was the abundance of rock art throughout the region. We saw petroglyphs pretty much wherever we went. The “Falling Man” seen here is perhaps the most well-known.

A large sandstone boulder containing numerous petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs, Gold Butte National Monument, Nevada.

Petroglyphs in the shape of Desert Tortoises.

More petroglyphs…Desert Tortoises perhaps?

Bright pink and yellow cactus spines

Lest we neglect the living, we also saw roadrunners, kangaroo rats (one inspected our dinner one night but successfully eluded being photographed) as well as burrows made by endangered Desert Tortoises and other creatures. Somewhat more stationary and easier to capture were the bright pink and yellow spines of the California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus)

A small fishhook cactus growing in rocks.

A tiny fishhook cactus (Mammillaria tetrancistra) growing in rock rubble.

Several yuccas grow in sandy soil surrounded by sandstone rock formations.

Utah Yuccas (Yucca Utahensis) thrive in the thin sandy soils formed in alcoves within the Aztec Sandstone.

Large Joshua Tree with person for scale.

A large Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) specimen.  

A raptor perches atop a Joshua Tree

I’m ornithologically-challenged; this appears to be some sort of hawk waiting patiently for it’s next meal from atop this Joshua Tree. If you know what it is, let me know!


The Many Faces of Limestone

Star trails over Notch Peak
Grotesque cave formations in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Bizarre and grotesque cave formations in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

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.

Various cave formations in Lehman Caves

Stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, shields, and other speleothems (cave formations) abound in Lehman Caves.

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.

Small stalactites aligned with fracture patterns in the limestone

Baby stalactites on the ceiling of Lehman Caves trace out fracture patterns in the Pole Canyon Limestone. Groundwater containing dissolved calcium carbonate seeps through these fractures, eventually emerging into the cave where the decreased pressure causes the calcium carbonate to precipitate out of solution, forming stalactites. 

Caves formations in Lehman Caves

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.

Scraggly bristlecone pine tree

Admiring a several thousand-year-old Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva) in Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Ice and moss along a creek in Great Basin National Park

Early-season ice accumulation along Lehman Creek, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

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.

Panorama of the House Range, Utah

The House Range and Notch Peak (right of center) at sunset. 

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.

Star trails over Notch Peak

Autumn star trails over Notch Peak, House Range, Utah. The mountains are lit by the light of a first quarter moon. 


Colorful Geology at Valley of Fire State Park

Compaction bands and sandstone, Valley of Fire, Nevada

Compaction bands in multi-colored Aztec Sandstone, just one of many geologic wonders in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Colorful rocks at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevasa

A layer-cake of spectacular colors in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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:

Vibrant colors in the Aztec Sandstone in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Vibrant colors in the Aztec Sandstone in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Fire Wave in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

A feature known as the “Fire Wave,” Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Compaction bands in the Aztec Sandstone, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Compaction bands in the Aztec Sandstone, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

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.

Colorful sunset on red rocks, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Sunset from the Old Arrowhead Road in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada