Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Volcanoes

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!