Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Posts tagged “glacier

Alaska (Part Two)

Several people stand on the crest of a white and blue mass of glacial ice

Exploring the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.

Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:

A red and white building with a sign saying "Kennecott"

Kennecott, Alaska. The 14-story wooden concentration mill is seen in the background.

Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.

Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.

The interior of the Kennecott Power Plant, with massive boilers used to produce electricity and steam heat for the mines and town residents.

History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:

Wooden buildings cling to a slope with glacier covered mountains in the background

Old mining buildings in Kennecott cling to the slopes above the debris-covered Kennicott Glacier, which originates on the slopes of Mt. Blackburn, seen in the background.

A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.

As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.

A channel of water flowing across a white glacier carves a tight bend in the ice

Meander in a meltwater channel, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Brown sediment fills in interestingly shaped cracks in glacial ice

Patterns of sediment in the ice, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.

Cluster of pink flowers overlooking a debris covered glacier at sunset

Clusters of fireweed overlooking the Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska


Glacier National Park: Grinnell Glacier Trail

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

With one job ending in June and the next not starting until September, we spent most of this past summer on the road. It’s now mid-October, and I’m finally getting the chance to seriously sort through the resulting pictures.

Our last big stop of the summer was Glacier National Park in Montana and neighboring Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Glacier was one of the few remaining national parks in the west I had yet to visit, so I was excited that we were able to squeeze this trip in. Despite uncharacteristically foul weather for mid-August, a harrowing experience on the park shuttle bus, campgrounds with problem bears (and problem campers), and an unscheduled detour to an auto parts store in Cardston, Alberta, we managed to get in 60+ miles of hiking among some truly first-class scenery. Our most memorable hike was the trek to Grinnell Glacier in the northeast corner of the park. Here are a few photos from that journey:

A series of sharp mountain peaks are reflected in a tranquil lake at sunrise.

Sunrise light on Mt. Grinnell, reflected in the tranquil waters of Swiftcurrent Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana.

A hiker climbs a steep trail surrounded by green vegetation and wildflowers with large mountains in the background.

Hiking through the redbeds of the Grinnell Formation on the way to Grinnell Glacier. The Grinnell Formation, part of the Belt Supergroup, is a ~1.5 billion year old unit of sedimentary rock that preserves ancient ripple marks, mud cracks, rain drop imprints and more in its maroon layers. 

Cliffs of rock surround several glaciers and an azure-blue lake containing numerous icebergs.

Panoramic view of Grinnell Glacier (left) and Upper Grinnell Lake. The lake has existed only since the 1930s. In the early 1900s, Grinnell Glacier filled the basin now occupied by the lake, at one point depositing the sediment in the moraine the photographer is standing on. Today, only a small piece of Grinnell Glacier remains. As temperatures have warmed, the glacier has retreated leaving Upper Grinnell Lake in its place. The milky blue-green color of the lake is due to finely powdered rock (“glacial flour”) suspended in the water.

Gray cliffs of igneous and sedimentary rock tower over a aquamarine lake filled with icebergs

Cliffs of dark gray limestone belonging to the Helena Formation tower above Upper Grinnell Lake. The thin band of darker rock cutting horizontally across the cliffs is an igneous sill, formed when magma intruded along a plane of weakness in the limestone and then solidified. The lighter rock immediately above and below the sill is marble, created when the hot magma “cooked” the limestone into which it had intruded.

Dark clouds loom over a range of mountains and an azure-blue alpine lake

A thunderstorm approaches over the Garden Wall on the descent from Grinnell Glacier. This was the final photo I took on the hike. We spent most of the next hour running the several remaining miles back to the trailhead as thunder and flashes of lightning exploded behind us.

A bighorn sheep stands amongst vegetation with a glacier in the background

A bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) alongside the trail, with Grinnell Glacier in the background.


The Spectacular San Juans: A Trip to Yankee Boy Basin

Taking in the scenery

Note: I’m reaching back into the archives here. I have about 10 posts in my drafts folder, all in various stages of completion and many from this past summer, that I’ve decided it’s finally time to post. This is one of them. And yes I know this is my 2nd consecutive post with glacial and geological undertones. I’m not sorry, glaciers are totally radical man!

On my lifetime list of most spectacular landscapes, Yankee Boy Basin in the San Juan Mountains ranks quite high. I’ve seen expansive fields of wildflowers with different species spanning every color of the rainbow plus some. I’ve seen 100 foot high waterfalls that have undoubtedly been the setting for numerous Coors commercials. I’ve seen craggy, majestic mountain peaks and pinnacles sculpted over millions of years by the work of a posse of many abrasive glaciers. I’ve seen aqua blue lakes appear seemingly out of nowhere as they fill from the meltwater of a lobate rock glacier. I’ve seen ribbons of crystal clear snow melt water plunging in an endless stream of cascades straight down the side of a mile wide glacier cirque. Never though have I seen all these things in one place. Yankee Boy Basin truly has it all. It rivals anything I ever saw in the mountains of New Zealand. Throw in the fact that I saw up-close and in person just about every glacial and periglacial feature I learned about in geomorphology class and it doesn’t get much better. Miraculously, you can actually get here with minimal effort, especially if you have a 4WD vehicle (or, in our case, the ability to rent one), and don’t mind driving on roads that look like this:

Section of shelf road cut into cliff heading back down towards Ouray from Yankee Boy Basin

Mind you, merely walking around on a level surface at nearly 13,000 feet involves a fair bit of effort and energy expenditure.  Altitude acclimatization definitely makes things easier but even then, running around in excitement is definitely not recommended since I imagine the scenery would not be as greatly appreciated if you are passed out on the floor of the basin. Amazingly, over 1500 individuals each year blatantly ignore this advice during an annual 17 mile footrace up and over nearby 13,114′ Imogene Pass.  In an additional twist that can only be explained as a classic example of male one-up-manship, in the early 1990’s, some folks decided that running 17 miles at extremely high altitude was not torturous enough and thus the Hardrock 100 was born.  Participants in this masochistic race traverse 100 miles of rough terrain at an AVERAGE elevation of over 11,000 feet, climbing up the passes and peaks in the vicinity of Yankee Boy Basin.  The total elevation gained and lost during the race is a mind-boggling 67,984 feet. Yeah, altitude does crazy things to people.

Trail headed up to Wright’s Lake

One of the neatest features of Yankee Boy Basin is a 50 yard wide body of water called Wright’s Lake.  Wright’s Lake is bounded on the east by a terminal glacial moraine which forms a small ridge meaning that the lake does not come into view until you are practically wading into it. I had not seen any pictures of the lake prior to the hike so I was unsure what to expect. After smoking my little brother up the short trail from the road, I came around the edge of the moraine to see an enormous rock glacier flowing down from Gilpin Peak 1000 feet above me and terminating at the edge of an aquamarine blue lake, a sight which exceeded even my most hopeful expectations. The sight of a lake sourcing a not-insignificantly sized stream with no immediately obvious source of replenishment is an odd one indeed until you realize that the wall of talus on the far side of the lake is cored with ice.

Panoramic View of Wright’s Lake. Gilpin Peak and rock glacier at left, Mt. Sneffels at right.

Rock glaciers are interesting beasts. They are essentially glaciers covered with a layer of rock that serves to insulates the ice which continues to flow downslope under the influence of gravity. To completely cover a glacier in rock, one naturally needs a lot of rock. The peaks in the San Juans generally consist of extremely crumbly, scuzzy volcanic tuff and ash deposits. Gilpin Peak, the summit from which the rock glacier descends, is no exception as it looks like the whole mountain could slough off into the valley during the next stiff breeze. Debris from the peak above the glacier falls from the sheer cliffs ringing the basin and accumulates on the surface of the ice. The insulating effect of the rock has allows these small remnants of ice (the San Juans were home to much more extensive glaciers during the most recent glacial period) to survive here even though the current climate in the San Juan’s is too warm and dry for traditional glaciers to survive.

From Wright’s Lake, it is about 1.5 miles and another 1500 feet up to the summit of Mt. Sneffels, one of Colorado’s famous 14ers (peaks over 14,000 feet high) and one that is not on anyone’s list of “easiest to climb”. On this day, the notoriously nasty conditions on the summit of Sneffels was apparently even from a quarter mile below. From the lake you could easily hear the wind whipping around on the summit ridge and thunderstorms were approaching from the west.

As I finally get around to finishing this post in early January, I am struck by the thought of how this amazing landscape is now buried under many, many feet of snow. While I am sure that the San Juan’s are equally inspiring in the winter, perhaps even more so to many people, thinking about this gives me an even greater appreciation for such places, given just how short of a window we have each year to experience alpine landscapes such as this one. The winter of 2011-2012 was an incredibly dry one in Colorado, and many places such as Yankee Boy Basin were mostly snow-free and accessible by May or June. In a normal snowfall year, vehicle access to these high altitude basins is often impossible well into July or even August, leaving potentially as little as 6 weeks before next winter’s snows begin to reclaim the land once again.

Yankee Boy Basin