Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Volcanoes

Summiting Mt. St. Helens

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center
View of rocky and snowy ridgeline with volcanic peak in the background

Looking east along the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Adams in the distance.

Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.

After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.

From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!

To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:

A hiker scrambles up a rocky slope with a forest and low-lying clouds in the background

Breaking out of the trees on the Monitor Ridge route.

A hiker walks along a rocky ridge with clouds and a distant volcanic peak in the backgrounde background

Heading up Mt. St. Helens with the clouds below us and Mt. Hood in the background.

Dark, jagged volcanic rocks on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens with clouds far below

Nearing the top of the boulder field on the Monitor Ridge route. Only a mile to go!

We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.

The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center

Panorama from the Mt. St. Helens crater rim, looking north across the lava dome and Crater Glacier to Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier. (Click image to enlarge)

Panorama showing a variety of distant mountains and a low cloud layer

Panorama looking south from the crater rim. Mt. Adams at left, Mt. Hood just left of center. (Click image to enlarge)

View of a volcanic peak with a blue lake in the foreground

Clouds part to reveal Spirit Lake and the distant cone of Mt. Rainier, more than 4,000 feet higher that Mt. St. Helens.

While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!

Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.

With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!


Mt. St. Helens: 40 Years Later

A field of red and purple flowers with a tent and mountain views in the background
A tall volcanic peak dotted with snow rises behind a field of bright red wildflowers

The volcanic cone of Mt. St. Helens rises above grassy slopes covered with scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata).

This past May marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant natural disasters in U.S. history: the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. 2004 to 2008 brought another series of eruptions, but today Mt. St. Helens is quiet. Stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens generally provide some degree of warning (often in the form of earthquakes or surface deformation) before erupting. Given that Mt. St. Helens is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the U.S. (if not the world), the lack of activity in recent years has once again made the surrounding landscape a recreational destination.

The northeast side of Mt. St. Helens is just a few hours from our front door, accessed via a series of forest service roads that, while technically paved, are in such poor condition that one pines for the sweet rhythm of dirt washboards. Much of the land most directly affected by the 1980 eruption is protected as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established two years after the eruption. Camping and off-trail travel is restricted across a large swath of the monument to allow scientific study of how the landscape evolves post-eruption, with minimal human disturbance. Recently, we took a short backpacking trip to the northeast flank of the mountain, where camping is allowed, but where recurring volcanic activity has still left the landscape relatively devoid of tall vegetation. The result is spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens itself and the surrounding terrain (and, it turns out, any bright comets that happen to be gracing the skies.)

This was my third visit to the area but first in about 10 years. My previous visits had been in late summer and early fall, when the only wildflowers to speak of were some hardy stalks of late-blooming fireweed. On this visit, in early July, the grassy slopes of the lower mountain were awash in what can only be described as a riot of wildflowers. Paintbrush and penstemon dominated the scene, resulting in slopes that glowed red and purple from miles away and absolutely lit up at sunset and sunrise. It was truly one of the most spectacular wildflower displays I have ever seen!

A field of red and purple flowers with a tent and mountain views in the background

Scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) and Cardwell’s penstemon (Penstemon cardwellii) frame our campsite on a barren pumice slope on the northeast flank of Mt. St. Helens.

We settled on a campsite located on a small, barren ridge of pumice and ash where we could set up for the evening without impacting the gorgeous display all around us. Shortly thereafter, a handful of mountain goats came wandering through…with a good deal less regard for the wildflowers. While this was slightly concerning at first, as mountain goats can be aggressive, they seemed to be enjoying the buffet too much to notice our presence. We watched them slowly eat their way up-slope behind our campsite for well over an hour (as we somewhat nervously heated up our cans of soup and baked beans, while hoping that they continued to find the scent of the penstemon more attractive) before they finally bedded down on a distant ridge for the evening.

A mountain goat grazes a field of bright purple and red flowers

A mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is paralyzed by indecision while looking at the wide array of tasty offerings, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington. 

Two mountain goats graze a field of bright purple and red flowers

“The paintbrush looks tasty!” 

A mountain goat grazes a field of bright purple and red flowers

Mountain goats, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington

A white mountain goat looks out over the lower slopes of a volcanic peak

A mountain goat surveys the lower, barren slopes of Mt. St. Helens.

On just a few hours of sleep, we hiked back out to our car the next morning and enjoyed some day hikes to the north of Mt. St. Helens over the next two days. This area provides the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the 1980 eruption. The blast reduced the elevation of Mt. St. Helens by over 1,000 feet, replacing the formerly sharp summit with a massive crater. Part of the crater has since been filled in by a lava dome extruded in the months following the eruption, and again during the eruptive sequence of 2004-2008. Another dramatic feature of the landscape is Spirit Lake. This once idyllic destination was directly in the path of the eruption on May 18, 1980. The massive landslide associated with the eruption filled in a large portion of the lake with debris, pushing the entire lake northward and raising the water level by about 200 feet, burying numerous buildings, camps, and, unfortunately, Mt. St. Helens Lodge owner Harry Truman, who had steadfastly ignored evacuation orders in the weeks leading up to the eruption. To this day, a massive raft of logs floats on the lake surface, the remains of trees uprooted in the 1980 eruption.

A volcanic cone rises behind a lake covered with floating logs

Mt. St. Helens from Bear Pass. In the foreground is Spirit Lake, covered with floating logs: the remains of trees uprooted by the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens and washed into the lake.

Thousands of logs float on the surface of a high mountain lake

The log raft as seen from lake level at the end of the Harmony Trail, the only legal access to the shore of Spirit Lake.

As a geologist, I find the landscape around Mt. St. Helens endlessly fascinating. Changes since my last visit 10 years ago were clearly visible in many places. Mt. St. Helens is the most active of the Cascade volcanoes and will certainly erupt again. Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is ultimately temporary.


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!


Mt. Adams, Mosquitoes, and the Milky Way

The night sky including the Milky Way and the streak of a meteor is seen over a tall mountain peak.
Reflection of Milky Way and volcanic cone in a tranquil lake.

Bright Jupiter rises above the summit of Mt. Adams, with the summer Milky Way reflected in the calm surface of Takhlakh Lake, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. 

Mt. Adams is a striking feature of the western skyline from here in the Yakima Valley of Central Washington. Here’s what it looked like from our neighborhood at sunrise a few months back:

Pink morning light on a snow-capped mountain peak with a full moon setting in the background.

A setting full moon and sunrise light on Mt. Adams as seen from the Yakima Valley.

The towering volcanic cone looks close enough to touch, but in reality, reaching the base of Washington’s second highest peak requires a nearly three hour drive down a labyrinth of Forest Service roads. We’ve been wanting to explore the Mt. Adams area since we returned to Washington last year. With winter’s grip beginning to ease in the higher elevations of the Cascades, earlier this week we finally got the chance.

Mostly clear skies, calm wind, and a dark moon made for some great photo opportunities. While it may be debatable, I think some of these were worth their weight in mosquito bites. Several small ponds dot the lower flanks of Mt. Adams and snowdrifts still lingered in the shadier patches of forest, making the entire landscape somewhat damp. Consequently, the mosquitoes were ferocious! Sadly, our mosquito “repellent” only seemed to attract more. I was quickly reminded that a vastly underrated aspect of living in the southwest is the lack of bugs!

Volcanic cone and wispy clouds reflected in a tranquil mountain lake.

Mt. Adams reflected in Takhlakh Lake, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington. (Not pictured: immense swarms of mosquitoes.)

Several five-petaled white flowers with yellow centers and bright green leaves dot the forest floor.

White avalanche lily (Erythronium montanum), one of the first wildflowers to emerge from the swampy ground as the snow melts away. 

Orange sunset light on a tall, snow-capped mountain peak is reflected in a foreground pond.

Mt. Adams reflected in Takhlakh Lake at sunset.

Orange and pink sunset light on the summit of a tall snow-capped mountain.

The forests just to the west of Mt. Adams happen to be located nearly in the center of the four large active stratovolcanoes of the south Cascades: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. St. Helens to the west, and Mt. Hood just across the Columbia River to the south in Oregon. A variety of relatively short but steep hikes in the area ascend lesser peaks, resulting in fantastic views of all four volcanoes, plus the dense forests of the Cascades:

Panorama of forested landscape dotted by tall volcanic peaks.

Panorama from Council Bluffs. Three Cascade Range stratovolcanoes (and the remains of a fourth) are visible (click to enlarge): Mt. Rainier (far left), the remains of the Goat Rocks volcano (center left), Mt. Adams (right), and Mt. Hood (far right). The upper portion of Mt. St. Helens’ eviscerated cone was also visible through the trees to the west.

A tall mountain capped with snow and ice is surrounded by dense, dark green forests and a dark blue lake.

The dense forests on the west flanks of Mt. Adams. Council Lake at bottom.

The real fun came after nightfall. Dark skies are much harder to find in Washington than in Utah, and this was my first good look at the Milky Way since last summer. The calm weather allowed me to capture the Milky Way’s reflection in Takhlakh Lake. Jupiter was kind enough to rise directly above the summit of Mt. Adams. And I got lucky and captured the brightest meteor of the evening in one exposure. This was certainly a case of being in the right place at the right time! (One might argue that the “right time” would have been a few months from now, when all the mosquitoes are dead, but then the Milky Way would not have been positioned so perfectly.)

The night sky including the Milky Way and the streak of a meteor is seen over a tall mountain peak.

A meteor takes aim at Jupiter as Mt. Adams and the Milky Way are reflected in Takhlakh Lake. 

A dark blue twilight sky is bisected by the glow of the Milky Way, and reflected in a tranquil pond.

The Milky Way begins to emerge from evening twilight. 


Another Hidden Utah Gem: Pine Park

Pyramid-shaped white cliffs of tuff in golden sunset light
Intricately carved white rocks in a forest

Panorama overlooking Pine Park at sunset.

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!

Pyramid-shaped white cliffs of tuff in golden sunset light

Large Ponderosa Pines complement the smooth knobs of white tuff. 

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.

A single green pine tree emerge from cliffs of white rock

The Ponderosa’s don’t require much soil to gain a foothold in small depressions between ridges of tuff.  

Purple flowers grow in a sandy wash with rock formations in the background

This species of lupine (Lupinus aridus?) seemed to love the gravelly, sandy soil produced by weathering of the tuff.

A small pine tree grows in sculpted white rock

Fantastic rock formations immediately adjacent to our campsite. 

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:

Two white flowers with many petals and pink stamens

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) are abundant on long-ago burned slopes above Pine Park, now home to open grasslands. 

Bright red cactus flowers

A claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus) in full bloom. I’m fully aware that the color appears somewhat enhanced on this photo, but it’s not; the claret cup flower really is that brilliant!

A cluster of purple flowers on a slope

The lupines were everywhere. 

Purple flowers growing from within a green plant and white rocks in the background

Everywhere!

Pink and brown boulders lie strewn in a chute of white tuff

Multicolored boulders litter a chute in the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. 

 


Into the Valley of Death (Part 1)

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park
View of Death Valley from Dante's View

Death Valley and Badwater Basin seen from Dante’s View, over 5,500 feet above the valley floor

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.

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

Sunset at Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park

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!

Close-up of salt formations at Badwater, Death Valley

Salt formations at Badwater, Death Valley National Park

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.

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley

Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley National Park

Close-up of the salt formations at Devil's Golf Course.

Close-up of the salt formations at Devil’s Golf Course.

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.

Late afternoon light on Manly Beacon in the badlands near Furnace Creek.

Late afternoon light on Manly Beacon in the badlands near Furnace Creek. Note hiker for scale.

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.

Ubehebe Crater at Sunset

Ubehebe Crater, at the north end of Death Valley, at sunset

More photos of sand dunes, mountain canyons, and the spectacular geology of Death Valley to come!


The “Less” White One: Mt. Baker and the Ever-Shrinking Easton Glacier

View of Mt. Baker (right) and the Black Buttes (left) while hiking along the Railroad Grade moraine, left behind by the retreat of the Easton Glacier.

View of Mt. Baker (right), the Easton Glacier, and the Black Buttes (left) from the Railroad Grade moraine, evidence of the former extent of the Easton Glacier.

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.

Easton2

The Easton Glacier descending from the summit of Mt. Baker.

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.

Easton_Melt

Meltwater flowing down the surface of the Easton Glacier in September.

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:

EastonTrough

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.

Meltwater

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!

Hiking down the moraine. Glacier Peak on the horizon at left.

Hiking back down the moraine towards the trailhead. Glacier Peak visible on the horizon at center-left.


A Crater Lake Comparison

College and blogging go together about as well as tofu and….well…about anything. Keeping up with this site, which by definition requires photographs, is even more challenging. Apart from several thousand photographs of Whitman Mission National Historic Site (where I volunteer and write another photography blog), I take very few photos during the semester, given that pictures of classrooms are boring and I don’t often take to lugging a DSLR around to weekend frivolities.

It was a visit to Crater Lake in the summer two years ago that prompted me to start this website in the first place.  Somehow though, that attempt went fallow and I never got past creating an account and drafting a first post. That post, with the awe-inspiring title of  “Photography Challenges at Crater Lake National Park”, and packed with 576 words of my mind-numbingly painful drivel, still sits in my “Drafts” folder to this day, staring at me with sad eyes much like whatever this is.

Happily, I now have a second Crater Lake visit to share photos from.  If you’ve ever wanted to see snowdrifts engulfing multi-story buildings, you should visit Crater Lake NP in the early spring. Driving up Oregon Hwy 62 from Medford, my thought progression went something like this: “Hmm…not very much snow yet”, “Strange, I thought we’d be getting into some snow by now”, “Wow, maybe we’ll actually be able to hike around a little at the lake”, “Holy crap, the snowbanks are taller than the car”, “Whoa, now they are taller than my 6′ 3″ housemate!” I truly have never seen such quantities of snow in my life. Entering the few remaining open buildings required travel through snow tunnels in order to access the doors. The road to the rim of the lake is kept open year-round, and after seeing the massive snowbanks and realizing how much manpower must be required to accomplish this, I had to ask the question “why”?  The volunteer ranger on duty didn’t really have a clear cut answer, mumbling only something about “politics” and “tradition.” We were also informed that this winter had been “a dry one” and that the fact that we were even able to see the lake was rather fortuitous, as more than 50% of winter days are so cloudy that the lake surface is not even visible from the rim.

Crazy snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, closed for the season

Wandering around the shuttered Crater Lake Lodge area felt eerily like a scene from The Shining (filmed at the nearby Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood) with the Crater Lake Lodge buried up to the 4th floor by snowdrifts.  One advantage to the snow was the lack of the oppressing clouds of mosquitoes that plagued us during the summer visit.

Crater Lake Panorama, March 2012

For comparison purposes, here are some images from that July 2010 visit, starting with a shot taken from almost the exact same vantage point at the first photo in this post (note the position of the peak towering over the lodge). The only difference in that here I’m not standing on top of thirty feet of snow.

Crater Lake Lodge, sans 30' snow drifts

Crater Lake at Dusk

The Moon and Venus setting behind Crater Lake

Crater Lake Panorama, July 2010

I clearly remember being surprised on that visit at how much snow remained present, even in mid-July.  Several trails were still closed. After last week, this no longer seems extraordinary. If anything it seems a small miracle that it ever melts at all and that Crater Lake is not covered by some sort of permanent glacier.


Geology Research in Paradise

I have decided that there are few things in this world as gratifying as going for a swim on a tropical beach at sunset after spending all day in the field hiking over boot-shredding, leg-puncturing, sunburn inside your nostrils-inducing, lava flows.  Such pleasures occur when one has the opportunity to do geology field work in Hawaii for a week, as I had the fortune of doing this past week as part of my senior thesis project.  Oddly enough, I’m not actually studying Hawaii, but rather water and lava flows on Mars (more on that in a bit).  However, since present-day Mars experiences very little in the way of surface erosion, many of the lava flows there look as fresh as the day they were erupted hundreds of millions of years ago.  Since a field trip to Mars was a bit over the budget for this project (darn government cutbacks…), we instead must resort to trying to find places on Earth with fresh, unaltered lava flows in order to compare, contrast, and understand what we see on Mars.  Hmm…I wonder where could I find some of those?

Hawaii in a nutshell: palm trees growing out of lava flows

Ah yes, Hawaii will do quite nicely, now won’t it?  As luck would have it, Kilauea (the main active volcano in Hawaii) is currently going through a relatively dormant phase.  When I visited Hawaii back in 2008, it obligingly started spewing massive quantities of lava into the ocean a few weeks before our arrival:

Kilauea lava flows, circa 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No such luck this time.  This and this happened a few months ago and the volcano’s magma reservoir and  crater has been slowly refilling ever since. (Seriously, watch the videos. And keep in mind that the 1st one takes place over the course of just 24 hours.)   A geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory told us he though there was a decent, but not great, chance of an eruption during our time there but despite our sacrifice of several geology students to Pele, that never materialized.  We did however get to see the main vent of Kilauea glowing bright orange at night due to a molten lake of lava lying about 150m beneath the surface:

Halema'uma'u Crater at night

Even if my childhood dream of roasting marshmallows over hot, molten, lava once again went unfulfilled, that sure as heck isn’t something you see everyday.

Anyways, from our base at the Apapane Lodge in the tiny settlement of Volcano, HI, we (myself, three other students, and two geologists) spent much of our time hiking across young (<200 years in most places) lava flows looking at features such as lava tubes, vents, channels, and collapse pits trying to decipher features that we see on Martian volcanoes.  More specifically, the project I am involved in seeks to determine what causes features like this on Mars:

Conventional wisdom says that such features are formed by water, and especially since the Mars Exploration Rovers uncovered chemical evidence that water existed on Mars at some point in the past, this has been the prevailing view for some time.  However, lava is capable of doing some very weird things and more recent work has shown that many of the features that have long thought to have been formed by water are more likely the work of lava flows. So why do we care?  If this is indeed the case, it has serious consequences for our understanding of Mars as a whole.  The presence of channels such as this one has long been one of the key pieces of evidence supporting the idea of flowing water on Mars in the past. If instead these features were formed by lava then we have a lot of questions to ask ourselves, most importantly:  Did flowing water ever exist on the surface of Mars in large enough quantities to carve such channels?  Water, of course, is the key to life (at least that’s what we think…) so figuring out if water flowed on Mars in the past (and if so, how much) is essential for understanding how planets evolve over the long term and for determining if life ever existed on Mars.  The role of water on Mars is also important from a practical standpoint as we try to determine if Mars is potentially a habitable planet for humans in the future.

A typical scene in the field. This is a channel within a large lava flow thought to be analogous to some of the channels we see on Mars. On a side note, I never thought it was possible to completely destroy a perfectly good pair of hikin boots in just four days. Hawaii's infamous "a'a" lave like this proved me very wrong.

Younger lava flows pour into a channel formed by the collapse of an old lava tube

The team after a tour of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

When you see signs like this, you know you're having fun!

As sad as it was to leave Hawaii, the trip “home” was even less fun.  Given that I arrived in Washington D.C about 10 hrs later than planned and sans any clothing apart from what I was wearing, I hereby nominate American Airlines for the “Worst Airline in the Universe” award.  In addition, when I finally did get my luggage returned this afternoon, all my outdoor gear and camera equipment were intact but all but three of the rock samples I collected in Hawaii (NONE of which were from the National Park before anyone starts harping on me…) were missing.  Explain that one to me…

Mauna Loa (left) and Mauna Kea (right background) at sunrise from Kilauea Summit

 


The Best Day Hike in the World

At least that how the Kiwi’s promote the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. Given that I haven’t expereinced the vast majority of the day hikes in the world, I am not in a position to judge the accuracy of such a statement, however after last week I can say with certainity that you would have a very difficult time arguing against them.

The Tongariro Crossing is located in the central portion of Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest.  The 19.4 km (12.0 mile) track climbs up and over a saddle between Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro, two active stratovolcanoes that along with Mt. Ruapehu form the backbone of the national park and are the highest points on the North Island of New Zealand.  If there is one thing that the trail is known for, it’s bad weather.  The trail had been closed for most of the week that we were on the North Island due to snow and 120+ km/hr winds but on the last day of the trip, the clouds parted, the winds moved on, and we had 100% perfect weather for the entire day.

Undertaking the Crossing involves taking a shuttle bus to a trailhead on the west side of the mountains.  19.4 km later, the bus picks you up on the north side and drives you back to the carpark.  From the very beginning, the landscape is incredibly stark, with almost no vegetation.  Mt. Ngauruhoe (which played the role of Mt. Doom/Mordor in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) looms above you for the entire first half of the hike.  In many ways, the landscape is similar to what you would experience hiking across the flanks of Kilauea or Mauna Loa in Hawaii only much more mountainous.  All three of the volcanoes in the part have expereinced significant eruptions in the last few decades and the trail crosses a number of fresh lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, craters, and steaming ground.

The trail begins by slowly climbing up a broad glacial valley on the western flank of the mountains. After about 8 kilometers and a 750m (2500 ft) climb up Devil’s Staircase (brief side rant: “Devil’s” is an prefix used FAR too often when it comes to naming moderately challenging sections of trail.  Go hiking anywhere in the world and I promise you you will encounter a difficult section of trail named Devil’s Staircase, Devils’s Highway, Devil’s Ladder, or Camino del Diablo or something like that.  I really want to know how these conversations go.  “Ooh, this here trail is pretty steep…what should we call it?”  “I dunno, whatever we call it though we should probably slap “Devil’s” on the front of it to make it sound nice and foreboding.”  I mean, I get that its steep and you might be a little winded when you reach the summit, but in all honesty, unless you are trying to climb Everest in 120 degree heat with no oxygen, I have a feeling the Devil could assign you far more hellish tasks.) , we arrived at Red Crater, the highest point on the main trail.  Side trails split off the main route and head to the summits of Mt. Ngauruhoe and Mt. Tongariro.  Since we had gotten a late start, we chose Mt. Tongariro since it was shorter and didn’t involve scrambling up a 45 degree scree slope. The views from the top were breathtaking, one could see almost from one coast of the island to the other.  After Red Crater, the trail descends sharply down to Emerald Lakes past a number of hydrothermal vents and pools and lots of steaming ground.  The second half of the trail basically just heads straight down the mountain and is relatively unremarkable.  We ended up running the last few km’s in order to catch the 3:30 bus back to our car and not have to wait for a hour to catch the next one.

All in all, an amazing hike, especially for the geologically inclined.  My only complaint were the hundreds of other people we shared the trail with.  This was to be expected I suppose given that this was the first day in a week that the trail had actually been passable but it was still far from what you would call a wilderness experience.  Despite the length and elevation gain, the crossing is not a particularly difficult trail.  With the exception of one stretch just after Red Crater, the trail is incredibly well maintained and the footing is superb.  We manged to complete the trail in exactly 7 hours including our side trip to Tongariro Summit.