Tucked away at the terminus of a winding gravel road in the Dixie National Forest near the Utah/Nevada border, Pine Park would probably be a beloved national monument or state park were it located literally anywhere other than Southern Utah. We’ve been fortunate to come across quite a few places that fit this profile: stunning, unique, reasonably accessible, and—here’s the big one—empty. Places like Zion National Park may be bursting at the seams, but vast swaths of Southern Utah remain deliciously deserted. On a warm and beautiful weekend in early May, we had Pine Park pretty much all to ourselves!
The main draw at Pine Park are the spectacular rock formations carved into the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. Tuff is a deposit of consolidated volcanic ash combined with rock, mineral, and glass fragments that forms only in very explosive volcanic eruptions. Pine Park sits on the margin of some of the most voluminous and expansive deposits of tuff in the world. Collectively, the thousands of feet of tuff scattered across large swaths of Nevada and western Utah represent a time when, for lack of a better descriptor, all hell was breaking loose across what is now the Great Basin. The Tuff of Honeycomb Rock is just a hair under 12 million years old, and thus one of the youngest deposits from this intense and violent episode of volcanism.
While the backstory of the tuff is intriguing, the real allure is the wonderland of creamy white spires, domes, and hoodoos emerging from the otherwise nondescript juniper, ponderosa, and piñon pine forest. Weathering and erosion have sculpted a masterpiece at Pine Park. In many places, the architecture almost resembles Bryce Canyon, albeit whitewashed, and with no maintained trails (several Forest Service trails wind through this area, according to the official map, but we had difficulty following them for any more than a hundred yards past the trailhead) the many pockets of eroded tuff are truly a blast to explore.
The tall, stately Ponderosas and a small stream give Pine Park a high-altitude feel, but in reality it sits at just 5700 feet above sea level, plenty low and warm enough for a plethora of wildflowers to be in full bloom during our visit:
Badwater Basin in Death Valley, the lowest (and hottest) point in North America at 282 feet below sea level, has long been on my list of places to visit in person. In part because of the superlative involved but also because Death Valley on the whole is a geological Mecca of sorts. A few weeks ago, I finally got to make my pilgrimage, but not without a few surprises. First of all, I never expected to be wearing four layers (including thermal underwear) and a winter hat when taking my picture next to the famous Badwater sign. I also didn’t expect visiting Badwater to be one of the least interesting things that I saw in Death Valley. This is not a knock against Badwater, but rather a testament to the fact that even after visiting 32 of the 59 national parks in the US, I can honestly say that Death Valley was one of the most spectacular and diverse I have been fortunate enough to spend time in.
With a week off before Christmas, we were looking for someplace “warm” to camp. We had originally planned to head to southern New Mexico and Texas to check out the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains area. However, in the days leading up to our departure, the forecast lows plunged into the low 20s. It wouldn’t kill us, but we figured we could do better. Heading to Death Valley turned out to be a good audible as the lows were only in the low to mid 40s, quite pleasant by December standards. Oddly enough it was a bad experience during the depths of winter in 1849-50 that gave Death Valley its foreboding name. One member of a lost and ragged group of prospectors is said to have quipped “goodbye Death Valley” as they finally departed the basin that had given them such torment. Today though, armed with an automobile and several large water jugs, winter is an ideal time to take in the spectacular sights of Death Valley. After several days in the park, saying “goodbye” was the last thing I wanted to do.
The first thing to know about Death Valley: it’s big. Nearly 3,000 square miles big. The national park that protects it and the surrounding mountains covers upwards of 3.3 million acres—about the size of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks combined—making it the largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. It takes awhile to get around and the character of the valley varies wildly along its 100+ mile length. All parts of the valley share some common characteristics though: heat (average July high: 116.5 F), aridity (2.3 inches in a good year), and low elevation (over 500 square miles of the valley lie below sea level).
Death Valley has been low for a long time but the dryness is a comparatively recent development. During the last glacial maximum (geologist-speak for “ice age”) 12,000-30,000 years ago, the surrounding mountains received so much precipitation that Death Valley turned into an 100 mile-long lake known as Lake Manly. Since Death Valley is bordered on all sides by mountains, streams draining out of the mountains had no easy way out. Over time, as the climate dried and the lake evaporated, thick layers of salt were deposited on the valley bottom. This is why most of the valley floor appears white. With the encouragement of the rangers, I tasted it and can confirm that it is indeed salt!
In many locations (in particular a spot known as “Devil’s Golf Course”), the salt grows into some fantastical yet potentially dangerous formations. The valley here is a wonderland of 1-2 foot high irregular mounds of salt & mud, all encrusted with razor sharp blades and daggers made of salt crystals (see photos below). While the salt is relatively brittle, falls are still to be avoided at all cost. Walking around Devil’s Golf Course reminded me of the time I completed shredded a brand new pair of leather hiking boots in one week of doing geology field work on fresh, sharp a’a lava flows in Hawaii. The only difference was the a fall here would quite literally rub salt in your wound, not a pleasant thought at all.
Near Badwater Basin are some spectacular and very colorful badlands sculpted out of young, soft, clay-rich sedimentary rocks. We arrived in Death Valley our first day just in time to catch sunset over the badlands (photo at top of page) and then hiked through them the next day after we started to desiccate from walking around on the salt flats too much.
If salt daggers, ancient lakes, and badlands aren’t enough excitement for one day, you’ll be happy to know that the northern end of Death Valley has experienced some volcanic activity within the past few thousand years. In a stark contrast to the bleak white salt flats of the southern valley, the valley landscape here is shrouded in dark black cinders and volcanic cones. The centerpiece is a large hole known as Ubehebe Crater, a type of volcanic feature known as a “maar.” Maars are the result of “phreatomagmatic eruptions” (your new scrabble word for the day; it will just take you a few turns and some incredibly good luck to be able to play it…), which occur when magma beneath the Earth’s surface comes into contact with groundwater. The heat from the magma causes the groundwater to flash into steam, creating a violent explosion, and, as so often happens with violent explosions, a large hole in the ground. The red and white sedimentary rocks that existed prior to the eruption still appear beneath the volcanic cinders in places creating a beautiful palette of colors.
More photos of sand dunes, mountain canyons, and the spectacular geology of Death Valley to come!
You’ll notice that the Sun is shining brightly in all of these photos which should immediately tip you off to the fact that I’m several months behind in posting, since getting pictures this radiant at the present time would require either a a 200-mile drive east, or a 500-mile drive south. I’ll gripe more about that in a future post, rest assured.
One of the consequences of the copious winter precipitation here in the Pacific Northwest is the simply massive quantities of snow that pile up in the Cascades, just a half hour or so to the east of my current, comparatively temperate residence. In many areas, not all of that snow can melt the following summer and having more snow than you can melt is one of the key ingredients for a glacier. Almost all of Washington state north of Seattle has been covered by glaciers or ice sheets at some point in the last 20,000 years but nowadays the only glaciers remaining in WA are those high in the North Cascades and Olympics, and the tendrils of ice that snake down from the summits of the mightiest Cascade Range peaks; Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Baker. Although the amount of glacial ice in Washington is getting ever smaller (Mt. St. Helens’ Crater Glacier is actually one of the few in the U.S. that is actually getting larger. Can you guess why?), according to the USGS Washington remains the 2nd most extensively glaciated state, 2nd only to Alaska. And they’re WAY further north so that’s sort of like cheating anyways.
The Easton Glacier on the southern slopes of Mt. Baker is one such glacier that has undergone rapid retreat over the past century. Covered by more than a dozen glaciers, Mt. Baker is an active volcano that was known by the Lummi as Koma Kulshan, which roughly translates to “Great White One”. Mt. Baker experiences some of the largest annual snowfalls anywhere in the world, including a U.S. record 1,140 inches (that’s 95 feet!) during the winter of 1998-1999 according to NOAA. So how could its glaciers possibly be getting smaller with that much snow? To understand that, we need to understand a bit more about how glaciers work. If you groaned at that last sentence and would rather skip ahead to the pictures at this point, go ahead. I won’t be offended. In fact, since this is a website, I won’t even know. But you’ll be missing a really great analogy that I use in just a bit here so you should probably just stick with me for another paragraph or two. Plus glaciers are really cool. Pun wholeheartedly intended.
Here’s the (very) quick and (very) dirty version: A glacier is a body of ice that flows downhill. During the winter, snow accumulates on the glacier, temporarily adding to its mass. When temperatures warm the next summer, the snow on the lower, warmer portion of the glacier will melt (as will some of the ice) but some of the snow on the upper, colder portions will survive and turn into ice, replenishing the glacier. If more ice is added in the upper part of the glacier than can melt in the lower part, then our glacier gets larger. If less ice is added than is lost, the glacier gets smaller. If they two equal, the glacier stays put. As hard as it might be to believe given the massive snowfall on Mt. Baker, rising global temperatures mean that in most years, the Baker glaciers lose more mass during the summer due to melting then they gain during the long, dreary, snowy winters. In geology speak, this is known as a “negative mass balance” and, if left unchecked, it spells doom for a glacier. Now, its completely normal for a glacier to have a negative mass balance year every once in a while. No biggie. Rather, it’s when negative becomes the new normal that the glacier will begin shrinking and will continue to shrink unless something changes to bring it back into balance.
Think of it this way: let’s say you wake up really hungry tomorrow morning and you decide to make yourself some bacon. Before you know it, you’ve gone right ahead and eaten that entire package of bacon all by yourself. I’m sure you can all empathize with THAT feeling. Anyways, while that may not be the healthiest breakfast you’ve ever had, doing so once probably isn’t going to have much of an effect on your long-term health. You’ll go for a run the next day and burn those calories right back off, much like a glacier might experience a low-snowfall year followed by a record breaking snowfall the next year to make up for it. (Note: by now you’ve hopefully noticed that this analogy starts to break down when you consider that a glacier LOSES weight during a negative mass balance year…) But if you start eating an entire package of bacon by yourself every few days, or even once a week, well….sad as it is to say, you might start having some serious health issues. Same is true for a glacier. If you lose mass one year, it probably won’t be that noticeable. But if temperatures increase, if the summer melting season becomes longer and you start losing mass year after year after year, then regardless of how much snow falls in the winter, it won’t take long before you start shrinking, and shrinking fast.
For example, here is a more expansive view of what the Easton Glacier and its surroundings looks like today:
The long valley or trough stretching across the image represents the path carved out by the ice when the glacier was much larger than it is today. Just 25 years ago, much of the trough you see in the immediate foreground would have been filled with ice. The prominent ridge on the opposite side of the trough is a feature known as a “lateral moraine” (rhymes with “romaine” as in romaine lettuce, which I can emphatically say is far less tasty than bacon). A moraine consists of loose sediment that was once trapped within the ice. When a glacier is stable, i.e. when it doesn’t shrink or grow but rather sits in the same for an extended period of time, all that sediment gets deposited in large piles around the edges of the glacier when melting occurs. The presence of a moraine here tells us that the Easton Glacier once filled the entire trough to the level of the far ridge, and did so for a prolonged period of time. Considering that the ridge crest is more than 200 feet above the floor of the trough, we can see that not only is our glacier retreating, but that it was also once much thicker than it is today.
One way to get an estimate of how long the glacier has been gone from a particular area is to look at the vegetation (or lack thereof). While the time it takes for vegetation to sprout up in an area uncovered by a glacier varies widely (depending on factors such as soil development, climate, and species), often times smaller plants will begin to reestablish themselves within about 20 years or so of the glacier’s exit. In this case, much of the bare, brown/orange colored land in the center of the image was covered by ice as recently as the 1980s. Even more amazing: follow the valley downhill to the right. Look how far down we have to go before we encounter even the slightest sign of grasses, much less trees. Scale is a little tricky in this picture but see that greenery way way down at the downhill end of the trough? That point is over a mile away from where the picture was taken and it happens to mark the approximate terminus of the glacier in the mid 1800s, near the end of a cool period known as the Little Ice Age. The Bellingham Herald has a nice article on the retreat of the Easton Glacier over the past 100 years, with spectacular photos comparing the modern glacier to how is appeared in 1912, here. As you can see, it is now a shell of its former self. Other glaciers on Mt. Baker are in a similar predicament.
Easton Glacier remains one of the easiest glaciers to access anywhere in the continental U.S. The toe of the glacier can be reached by hiking for about 2 miles along a moderately strenuous but well-maintained hiking trail. Eventually this trail crosses a wooden swing-bridge over the meltwater creek that issues from the glacier. From here, you simply head off trail and hike up the old glacial trough for an additional mile and a half or so (at the time of publication at least…) until you hit ice. This part of the hike is decidedly more strenuous but as you can see from these photos, the scenery is spectacular! Exploring the terminus of the glacier is fascinating! Huge piles of mud and debris deposited by the melting glacier cover the ice near the toe, masking the ice and making travel treacherous. A large meltwater stream emerges from the base of the glacier through one of these piles as if by magic. The ice near the terminus is heavily crevassed so one must tread carefully when hiking on the ice itself.
So next time you’re in the area, check it out before it’s gone entirely. Who knows, maybe you’ll even burn off the calories from that pound of bacon you ate for breakfast!