Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Waterfalls

The World’s Most Spectacular Meeting of Land and Sea: Big Sur, California

Big Sur coast looking south from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

We interrupt the recent Colorado-centric nature of this website to bring you an important dispatch from the western shore of the North American continent, also known as the Golden State of California.

On a recent visit to Monterey, CA to visit my girlfriend, we decided to drive south along the famed Pacific Coast Highway and spend a night in the Big Sur region of central California. To invert the timeless words of Douglas Adams: “this has been widely regarded as a good move.”  The local tourism bureaus like to tout the area as “The world’s most spectacular meeting of land and sea”.  While I generally get somewhat uncomfortable and squirmy around such subjective superlatives, there is no denying that at Big Sur, the land does indeed meet the sea; as exemplified by the fact that, on more than one occasion, I would have quite easily been able to walk directly from solid earth into the ocean, had I chosen to do so.  I didn’t choose to do so but the point is that I could have and I imagine it would have been quite a spectacular meeting if I had. Maybe next time.

Partington Cove, Big Sur

McWay Falls, Big Sur

The Big Sur region is home to a plethora of beautiful and intriguing attractions, of which we had time to sample only a smattering. California Highway 1 meanders its way through Big Sur, rarely in a manner which permits one to safely exceed 30 miles per hour, but almost always in a manner which provides spectacular views of the jagged coastal cliffs along the Pacific Ocean below. Fortunately, pullouts are ample, thus avoiding the need to try and enjoy the view while simultaneously keeping the car from punching through the guardrails and plunging into The Sea.

One of the highlights is Juila Pfeiffer Burns State park, home to a 80-foot high waterfall that plunges into an aquamarine cove surrounded on three sides by ragged sea cliffs. Big Sur also marks the southern extent of the range of the Coast Redwood. Although these trees are not nearly as large or prevalent here as they are further north along the California coast, small gulches and canyons along the coast harbor small, yet impressive groves of these stately conifers.

Michelle admiring the redwood trees along the Canyon Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

From the “proof that spending time amongst a large quantity of tourists is never boring” department, I present the following tale as a humorous anecdote. Looking at the above pictures, It doesn’t exactly take a trained eye to notice that the natural environment of the Pacific Coast is wholly different than just about anywhere else in the country. Nevertheless, while milling about a trailhead in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, I had the pleasure of overhearing an exchange between two other groups of hikers in which one group proudly informed the other that “this place really reminds us of the time we visited the red rocks in Sedona, Arizona. It’s amazing how similar it looks.”   For those of you unfortunate enough to not be familiar with Northern Arizona, Sedona looks ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like the above pictures but instead more like this.

Lest you doubt my incredulity over the above comparison, let’s do a brief comparison of the landscapes shall we:

Big Sur

Sedona

Color of rocks

Everything but red

Red

Vegetation

Coast Redwoods, Monterey Pine, Laurel, Oak

Pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, manzanita, cacti

Ocean

Yes

Yes, 300 million years ago

Annual precipitation

42 inches

19 inches

Commonly observed fauna

Seals, otters, whales, evil seagulls

Squirrels, javelina, rattlesnakes

Elevation

Duh…it’s the sea

4,300 feet

Geologic features

Sea cliffs, sea arches, mountains, waterfalls

Buttes, mesas, canyons, plateaus

Extremely pricy resorts and hotels

Yes

Yes

Highway frequented by excruciatingly slow RV’s

Yes

Yes

Alright, so maybe there are some similarities after all. But not the kind that would lead one to compare a wet, foggy shoreline to a labyrinth of redrock canyons and mesas in the middle of a desert. I wanted to say something along the lines of “what have all y’all been smoking?” or “excluding hallucinations, have you ever actually BEEN to Arizona?” but I kept my mouth shut and moved on.

And last but not least, enjoy a few pictures of the native inhabitants of the area:

Sea otter in Monterey Bay willing to work for his/her afternoon snack. We watched this otter floating on his back cracking open various sea critters for a good twenty minutes.

A bloom (or swarm…experts seem to disagree on the proper term for a group of jellyfish) of aquarium-bound jellyfish. We saw a whole bunch of these floating in the ocean from a pier in Monterey which sort of made me never want to go in the ocean again.


A Glacier, a Waterfall, and a Kayak walk into a bar…the Story of Palouse Falls

Growing up in northern Arizona, spring was always an exciting time to finally pack away the snow shovels and de-icer and get outside. If you want to see enough running water in the desert southwest to actually get your feet wet, spring snowmelt season and summer afternoon thunderstorms are pretty much your only hope.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is similar…except that instead of going from no water to a little water, we go from a decent amount of water to A LOT of water. Nowhere is spring runoff more apparent than 187 foot high Palouse Falls, which is about 1-2 hours (depending on your driving speed) north of Walla Walla, on the Palouse River just upstream of its confluence with the Snake River.

Palouse Falls in May (left) and September (right).

Normal people think lots of different things when they see Palouse Falls, among them “How do I get down there?”, “Wow, that’s pretty!”, “Where’s the snack shop?”, and “I really need to go to the bathroom after driving down that really bumpy, windy road”. All perfectly legitimate. Other people however see a kayak jump.

Palouse Falls garnered some attention in recent years when it became the site of the worlds largest kayak waterfall descent. In case that didn’t sink in, let me reiterate: someone paddled over that thing in a KAYAK.

As someone who has expertly piloted a kayak over 6″ riffles on the Palouse River below the falls, I can tell you that this is an impressive feat. Palouse Falls is nearly 200 feet; ants may be capable of surviving a fall off the kitchen counter but we aren’t designed to do such things. Just look at this picture.

If that was me, the discharge of the falls would be spiking dramatically right then due to the amount of bodily fluids I would have been emitting our of sheer terror.

The falls were formed by an phenomenon that comes in at #1 on our list of “Geological Terms That Make You Sound Like An Idiot If You Pronounce Them Correctly”: a jökulhlaup. If you are Icelandic, you’ll need no pronunciation guide. For the rest of you, that’s “yo-cooool-HOIP”. Once again, that’s “yo” as in the famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, “coooool” as in “coooool Razor scooter man!”, and “HOIP” as in “House of International Pancakes.”

Now that we’ve got that squared away, lets set the scene: imagine you are an ice sheet, specifically the vast Cordilleran Ice sheet that covered the northern half of the North American continent during the last ice age. The climate is starting to warm; the mammoths are starting to die and those pesky humans are starting to increase in number. As the temperatures slowly increase, you start to feel a little sweaty and you begin to melt and retreat northwards to more suitable weather.  All that glacial meltwater is getting funneled into river canyons that were cut tens of thousands of years earlier and are just now being uncovered by the retreating ice sheets. Even as a retreating ice sheet though, you will likely have a few appendages (called lobes) that reach several hundred kilometers south of the main ice front. These lobes block some of the river channels, forming a barrier that impedes the river’s progress. Massive quantities of water back up behind the ice dam, creating lakes larger than several of the Great Lakes. Remember though, you are a big piece of ice, and what does ice do in water? It floats. Once the lake becomes large enough, your appendages are no longer strong enough to maintain contact with the bottom of the canyon. The entire ice dam begins to rise slightly in the water, opening a seam at the base of the dam through which water begins to rush, eating away at the dam from underneath.  Eventually, undermined by the water, the entire ice dam catastrophically collapses, draining the entire lake in a matter of hours and sending thousands of square kilometers of water rushing across the landscape. That’s a jökulhlaup. After the ice dam is blasted away, you, the glacier, slowly flow back down into the canyon over the next few years, creating a new dam and lake and starting the process all over again.

Palouse Falls cascades over basalt flows from the Columbia River Basalt Group

Rock formations near the brink of the falls

Anthropomorphized geologic features notwithstanding, this actually happened…at least 40 separate times at the end of the last ice age, from about 15,000 to 13,000 years ago. The river was the Clark Fork of the Columbia River, the ice dam was located near Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, and the lake was glacial Lake Missoula, which stretched from northern Idaho almost all the way to Yellowstone National Park. The ice dam collapsed every few hundred years, sending a Lake Erie’s worth of water rushing down the Columbia River, across what is now Eastern Washington, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Look at what happens to your yard after a big storm and you know it doesn’t take that much water to carry out some significant erosion. Palouse Falls is located in one of thousands of scour marks, known as “coulees,” that were gouged out of the basalt bedrock of Eastern Washington by the force of these floods.

The Palouse River just upstream of the falls


Fleeting waterfalls

While Zion National Park may not normally be known for its waterfalls, spring snow runoff and the occasional summer monsoon thunderstorm can turn the park and its stunning red and white sandstone cliffs into a veritable Yosemite of incredible waterfall action.

I made a brief stop in Zion as part of a 1200 mile drive from Washington to Arizona for the holidays.  I had visited Zion in the past during the spring when runoff from the high country surrounding the canyon was at its peak but despite the fact that the entire western United States had been getting hammered by a massive cold front for the past 2 days, I never expected to see the number of waterfalls that I did.  Not only were they more numerous then ever before, even the relatively reliable ephemeral waterfalls, such as the one near the parking area at Temple of Sinwava, flowed with significantly greater gusto that I had ever seen before.

Waterfall at Temple of Sinawava

Dry Waterfall at Temple of Sinawava

For an interesting comparison, here’s a shot taken from almost exactly the same spot (notice the bare tree on the left is the same as the tree on the right in the previous photo) in the summer of 2009.

Perhaps the most spectacular waterfalls were those found in the small alcove that is home to Weeping Rock.  A short but wet hike up the Hidden Canyon Trail provided a vantage point of these falls.  Getting decent photographs was a challenge.  With heavy rain, wind, and nearly 100% humidity, it was next to impossible to keep rain off the camera and keep my lenses from fogging up.

Waterfalls near Weeping Rock

Runoff along the Hidden Canyon Trail

Hazy view out into Zion Canyon from Weeping Rock

The day after these photos were taken, the entire Park was shut down and evacuated due to severe flash flooding, road washouts, and the threat of a dam failure upstream on the Virgin River.