Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Nightscapes

Views of Tahoma

A green forested valley with a conical volcanic peak in the background. Many different types of clouds in the sky.
White icefields and glaciers at the summit of a peak are visible through some clouds

Light from a nearly full moon illuminates the glaciers and icefields on the summit of Mount Rainier. 

At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest peak in Washington and in the entire Cascade Range. British naval officer Peter Rainier never even saw the mountain that now bears his name, but he had a friend that did. Clearly, it paid to have connections in the 1700s. Oddly, Rainier did fight against the Americans during the Revolutionary War, making the fact that we continue to utter his name when referring to this grand peak all the more peculiar. Mount Rainier was originally known as Tahoma or Tacoma by the Salish-speaking indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. There are periodic rumblings about renaming the peak, much like the name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley was officially reverted to Denali in 2015. Hopefully that will indeed happen someday…

Irrespective of name, Tahoma dominates the skyline from Seattle and much of the Puget Sound region. Tacoma and other towns to the south of Puget Sound are literally built on layers of debris deposited by gigantic lahars (volcanic mudflows) that periodically race down its flanks, filling river valleys on their way to the sea. The threat of future lahars and volcanic activity looms over those who live in its shadow. From my vantage point in the Yakima Valley of central Washington, the foothills of the Cascades obscure all but the uppermost few hundred feet of its glacier-clad summit (and which will, thankfully, block any future lahars). Obtaining a better view requires venturing into the mountains. Recently, we spent a weekend camping high on a ridge about a dozen miles to the south of the volcano’s summit. Our campsite in an old clear cut provided stellar, if slightly obscured views of Tahoma’s bulk.

The weather was quite variable throughout the weekend, ranging from mostly clear (but hazy) upon arrival, to partly cloudy, to overcast, to bouts of dense fog. Our view of the mountain was constantly changing. One evening I decided to capture a time-lapse of cloud movement and formation in the two hours leading up to sunset:

Sadly I did not notice the beer can stuck on top of the tree in the foreground until it was too late. Oh well. On another evening, a spectacular stack of lenticular clouds developed over the summit:

A green forested valley with a conical volcanic peak in the background. Many different types of clouds in the sky.

A series of stacked lenticular clouds above Mt. Rainier.

A series of stacked lenticular clouds above a conical volcanic peak

Closer view of the stacked lenticular clouds.

A nearly full moon provided sufficient light for photographing the mountain after dark:

A large volcanic peak illuminated by moonlight with stars in the background sky.

Tahoma bathed in the light of a nearly full moon.

Not to be outdone by Tahoma, the pinnacle of High Rock just to our west also put on quite the show at sunset, with the light of the setting sun casting an amazing shadow of the peak and it’s summit lookout tower on the foreground mists:

The setting sun casts a pink glow on low clouds above a rocky pinnacle with a lookout tower.

Sunset, High Rock, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington

A nearly full moon rises over a forest of trees

A nearly full moon rises over the forests of the Cascade Mountains.

After this trip and our stunning view of Mt. Adams a few weeks ago, our goal for the summer is now to camp in the shadow of all of Washington and northern Oregon’s stratovolcanoes. Next up: Mt. St. Helens!


Crossing the Channel

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass
A small ocean inlet with blue-green water along a rugged coastline

Potato Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, California

Just a few dozen miles off the coast of Southern California lie the Channel Islands, eight motes of land jutting out of the sea a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Of the eight islands, the only one with a significant human population is the tourist mecca of Santa Catalina, which draws over one million visitors per year. The remaining seven islands are sparsely populated and draw far fewer tourists. The four northernmost islands form an archipelago that is protected by Channel Islands National Park and the Nature Conservancy.

Back in March, we briefly visited the largest Channel Island: Santa Cruz. At 97 square miles in area, Santa Cruz is reached via ferry from Ventura or Oxnard. Our hour-long journey across the Santa Barbara Channel was choppy to say the least, but included close up views of Pacific white-sided dolphins and several majestic oil drilling platforms. Upon arrival, we were greeted by one of the most lush landscapes imaginable. Abnormally abundant winter rains had produced a tall, dense carpet of green grasses that blanketed the entire island. One of the resident rangers told us it was the greenest he had seen Santa Cruz in the seven years he’d worked there.

A trail passes through dense green grass with sunset-lit mountains in the background

A trail winding through the lush spring grasses on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

A view of an island covered in green grass with the deep-blue ocean and other islands in the background

Looking east from Santa Cruz toward Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park

An illuminated tent beneath a tree. The landscape is illuminated by moonlight.

Campsite on Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park. Landscape illuminated by a first quarter moon.  

Given their relative geographic isolation, the Channel Islands are notable for their high concentration of endemic plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. They are also home to some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in the Americas. Archaeological and geological evidence suggests that humans inhabited Santa Rosa, just east of Santa Cruz, as far back as 13,000 years ago. At this time, sea levels were much lower due to the massive amounts of water locked up in glaciers and ice sheets farther north. As a result, the four northernmost islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel) were united into a “mega island” whose eastern edge was much closer to mainland California. This made it easier for plants and animals to reach the island, either by air (birds, plant seeds, etc.) or on floating rafts of debris (mammals, reptiles, etc.) Some species may have even been deliberately brought to the islands by humans.

As the most recent glaciation ended, sea levels began to rise, eventually splitting the mega-island into the smaller landmasses that exist today. Once isolated, the plant and animal populations that had established themselves on the islands, either organically or after being brought there by humans, began to evolve into species distinct from their mainland cousins. In some cases, distinct subspecies have evolved on individual islands in response to unique conditions.

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

Close-up of a small gray and red fox sitting in the grass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For visitors to Santa Cruz, the most obvious example of this phenomenon is the ubiquitous Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis var. santacruzae). Coming from the mainland where a sighting (especially a daytime sighting) of a fox is a rare treat, we were surprised to see one within minutes of getting off the ferry. The island fox is descended from and appears very similar to the common grey fox, but is much smaller. A fully grown island fox weighs just 4-5 pounds, and is similar in size to a large house cat. Often the lush spring grasses exceeded the foxes in height, making them challenging to spot! Nearly extinct in the early 1990s, a highly successful habitat restoration and captive breeding program has the species thriving today. We ended up seeing several dozen in our short visit to Santa Cruz. Other subspecies of the island fox exist on five of the other seven islands, each with slight differences evolved in response to local conditions.

A small fox lies hidden in the grass

An island fox lurking in the tall grass

A small gray and red fox sits alongside a dirt path

An island fox on the trail to Smugglers Cove, likely hoping for a food handout.

With its pastoral landscape and unique wildlife, Santa Cruz feels a world away from metropolitan areas of Southern California. However, nightfall brought a stark reminder of just how close the islands are to the urban sprawl. Light pollution from Los Angeles, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and the numerous oil drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel dominated the night sky from Santa Cruz.

A panorama of the California coastline showing many large light domes degrading the view of the night sky.

Nighttime panorama from the cliffs above Scorpion Ranch on Santa Cruz Island. See annotated image below for a description of the different features.

Nighttime image of Light Pollution from Santa Cruz Island with sources labeled

Our return trip was delayed because the choppy seas prevented the ferry from reaching the anchorage on Santa Cruz on time, giving us a few extra hours to sit on the beach and enjoy the peace & quiet of the island. The winds died down enough for a smooth ride back across the channel where we even spotted a couple of migrating gray whales. Apparently I need more practice shooting photos from a moving platform, as the whale pics all turned out pretty blurry. Have another fox instead!

A small fox sits in the grass


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.