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.
I grew up about 90 minutes away from Petrified Forest National Park and, aside for a quick lunch stop about 10 years ago, had never visited before last week. While this is nowhere near as inexcusable as living in Arizona for decades and never visiting the Grand Canyon (yes, such individuals exist…I’ve met many), it still seemed like a bit of an oversight on my part. Or it could simply be a reflection of the inordinate number of outdoor activities that exist in northern Arizona; even living in the area for 10+ years isn’t enough time to hit everything. Either way, after finally venturing into the Petrified Forest, I can emphatically say that it should be mentioned with the best that northern Arizona has to offer.
Located amongst the vast Painted Desert of northeastern Arizona, the main attraction of Petrified Forest is of course the petrified wood. The formation of petrified wood is initiated when downed trees are quickly buried by sediment. Once entombed in the sediment, the lack of oxygen prevents the logs from decaying as they normally would when exposed directly to the atmosphere. In this case, the logs (none of which remain standing, despite the name “Petrified Forest”) were likely brought here in massive logjams along an ancient river system that existed during the Triassic period. A combination of sediment from the river and ash from nearby volcanoes buried the logs, not to be seen again for more than 200 million years. During this time, as the logs became buried under an increasingly deep pile of overlying sediment, dissolved silica began to crystallize in the pore spaces of the wood as quartz, eventually replacing all of the organic material while maintaining the original shape and structure of the log.
Petrified wood is not particularly rare. Good examples abound in Yellowstone National Park, Washington state, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Alberta, New Zealand…the list goes on and on. What makes Petrified Forest National Park unique is the quantities found here. Due to the aforementioned Triassic log jams, large quantities of wood were concentrated in small areas. In a location known today as Jasper Forest (see photos below), movement was not possible without walking over a nearly uniform carpeting of small petrified wood fragments and frequently having to clamber over 2-3 foot diameter logs. Truly stunning!
Another unique aspect of Petrified Forest is the colorful canvas on which the wood is found. The wood is eroding out of a rock unit known as the Chinle Formation, which essentially consists of all of the river sediment and volcanic ash the buried the trees in the first place. More than 1000 feet thick in the park, the Chinle Formation is composed primarily of extremely soft mudstones, clays, and volcanic ash. Water is able to easily sculpt the soft rock into fantastically colored and oddly shaped badlands that make a spectacular backdrop for the logs.
Petrified Forest National Park faces an issue not encountered by most other national parks, namely, the wholesale theft of the very resource it was established to protect. For this reason, the park is only open during daylight hours (from 8-5 in the winter) to minimize opportunities for looting. It strike me as very sad that such measures are necessary. With a little geological perspective, it becomes clear how incredibly lucky we are to experience a landscape like Petrified Forest at this moment in time. So easily eroded is the Chinle Formation that in many locations, several inches of it are removed each year. This may not sound like much, but geologically speaking, that’s a veritable bullet train of erosion. While it took tens of millions of years for the Chinle to be deposited, it will be erased from our planet by the unceasing forces of weathering and erosion in a tiny fraction of that. The petrified logs, being comprised mostly of silica, are harder and will last a little longer, but are still brittle and will eventually be washed into the Little Colorado River and swept downstream along with the colorful Chinle badlands.
What all this means is that the colorful Painted Desert/Petrified Forest landscape we see today is one that is extremely temporary. While this is true of most landscapes we see on Earth today—our planet likes to re-build, re-arrange, re-shape, and remove constantly—the Painted Desert is even more ephemeral than most. While mountain ranges comprised of harder, erosion-resistant granite or quartzite (like most of the Rockies) can stand the test of time to some degree, the longevity of the Painted Desert, its soft sediments, and its brittle petrified wood is comparatively brief. Stealing this treasured natural resource only abbreviates our time with the Petrified Forest even more.
Cameras can be strange machines. We tend to think of cameras as devices that faithfully record the nature of the landscape around us, which they do…at least most of the time. When this paradigm does break down, it is usually because the camera has failed to record something important, something that made a moment or an experience worth remembering. Oftentimes when this happens, we become disappointed. How many times have you been scrolling through vacation photos and lamented at how poorly they turned out? Sometimes we even realize the limitations of the camera in the moment itself. Perhaps you’ve experienced something akin to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset and becoming so resigned to the fact that no photograph will ever satisfactorily capture the grandeur in front of you that you begin to ponder the option of chucking your camera into the great chasm below.
On rare occasions though, the camera delights us by managing to capture even MORE than meets the eye. After returning from a recent camping trip to the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, I was surprised to find an unexpected apparition in some of the long-exposure photographs I took from our campsite on the west coast of San Juan Island.
Getting to the San Juans is no easy task; it took me about 5 hours to get there, even though “there” is just 35 miles by air from my front doorstep. As a result, the islands can feel remote and isolated, but standing along the coast at night is a not so gentle reminder that you’re actually only about eight miles across the Haro Strait from Victoria, a metro area of more than 300,000 people. Taking advantage of a somewhat rare, perfectly clear Pacific Northwest evening, I took a series of 15 second exposures looking west across the strait which I composted into this 180 degree panorama:
The first thing you notice is the egregious light pollution from Victoria. Even the skyglow from Vancouver, five times further away but seven times more populous, is visible through the tress. Amongst all of the artificial light sources though, some natural ones still manage to shine through. The faint tendrils of the winter Milky Way just barely register on the camera’s sensor but the bright winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major, and Taurus forcefully punch their way through. If you look really closely, you’ll see a faint, slightly elongated, pale blue glow hiding in-between the lights of Victoria and Sidney. This is a phenomenon known as the zodiacal light, and it’s what took me by surprise when I started putting these images together. Here’s an annotated version to help you out:
See it? It’s a slightly different color than the light domes and isn’t as round and symmetrical as the light radiating from the cities, but rather looks squished and creeps upward into the sky at an angle. What really betrays the nature of this mysterious glow is its location: it coincides almost perfectly with the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system which is also the apparent path that the Sun, Moon, and planets follow as they move across the night sky.
What does this have to do with the zodiacal light? Well, it turns out that the plane of our solar system is home to lots and lots of dust. Not the dust made of dead skin cells and carpet fuzz you find around your house, but rather interplanetary dust particles made mostly of carbon, silicon, and oxygen. These dust particles are really small, on the order of 10 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a mold spore. The exact source of this dust is controversial; most of it is thought to be the result of collisions between comets and asteroids although some may be leftover from the formation of the solar system itself, tiny pieces of debris that never got incorporated into a planet. Regardless of where it cam from, the dust is really good at reflecting sunlight. Just after sunset (or just prior to sunrise), the angle between the Sun, dust, and Earth is such that the light reflected of the surfaces of the innumerable dust particles reaches our eyes (or cameras) here on Earth, giving rise to the zodiacal light.
When you consider how small the dust is (and that the dust particles are on average more than 2 miles apart from one another!), it’s not hard to understand why the zodiacal light is so faint and difficult to spot. Due to a quirk of celestial geometry, spring is a great time to observe it from the northern hemisphere, but even then spotting it with the naked eye requires extremely dark skies. The conditions in the San Juans, while darker than many spots in Western Washington, are far too light polluted. However, digital cameras are MUCH more sensitive to faint sources of light than the human eye. It’s actually rather common for a camera to detect things in the night sky that aren’t visible otherwise. On the night I saw the aurora borealis for the first time about a year and a half ago, its presence was first betrayed to me as a faint green glow hugging the horizon on my camera’s LCD screen, hours before it became bright enough to see with the naked eye. If not for my camera’s ability to detect it, I would have been fast asleep instead of standing in a marshy field near the Canadian border when the aurora dramatically brightened a few hours later and streamers began appearing all over the sky.
Have you ever captured anything on camera that you found surprising? Share your thoughts or stories in the comments below.