The Escalante River in south central Utah was supposedly the last river in the continental United States to be “discovered” and mapped. You don’t have to spend too much time with it to see why. First of all, it’s not large. “River” is a bit of an overstatement for most of the year, when it is easily forded on foot. Only during torrential summer monsoon storms does it resemble anything that the rest of the world would call a river. Secondly, even the most easily accessible stretches of its ~90 mile course take some time to get to. The Escalante is crossed by a grand total of one paved highway, a remote stretch of Utah Highway 12 that is among the most scenic drives in the west.
The lower reaches of the Escalante’s sinuous canyon pose even more of a challenge, reached only by boat on Lake Powell, or via a combination of hellish dirt roads and long hikes, something we undertook on a backpacking trip a few years back when we entered the Escalante via one of its tributaries, Coyote Gulch.
Upper portions of the canyon are far more accessible, if not as imposing, requiring only an occasional wade across the river to see sights such as the Escalante Natural Bridge:
One of the most significant tributaries of the upper Escalante River is Calf Creek, best known for a pair of waterfalls that are refreshingly out of place in a place not generally known for its aqueous wonders. Lower Calf Creek Falls, the larger of the two cascades, is reached via a ~3 mile hike along a broad canyon carved by the creek:
A few miles north, reaching the smaller Upper Calf Creek falls requires a short but steep scramble down a slickrock slope into the depths of the canyon:
Surrounded by some of the least developed land in the continental United States, the night sky from the Escalante canyons is a prime attraction as well!
Nooksack Falls, Whatcom County, Washington
Composite of three images, 18mm, 4 sec, ISO 200, f/20, two-stop neutral density filter
The last week and a half has been rather pleasant here in the northwest. Most noticeably, the Sun has been out. The trees are finishing the process of filling out their summer foliage. Snowpack in the Cascades is melting rapidly. So in other words, hillsides that are normally green have gotten a little brighter-green. Rivers that are normally filled with water now have more water. People that are normally pasty white are now a little less pasty white. And finally, waterfalls that are normally impressive have gotten more impressive, as is evident by the above photo which I took at Nooksack Falls, about an hour’s drive east of Bellingham, last weekend. I’ve realized recently that I’m sort of a sucker for waterfalls. I won’t go into all the reasons but I tend to be a sucker for most things that are ruthlessly effective at converting potential energy into kinetic energy. It turns me on. If I’m driving and see a sign for a waterfall, I’m probably stopping, even if accessing it requires a 15-mile round-trip hike and my passenger has to be at the airport in an hour. You just have to admire water’s blatant disregard for personal safety as it routinely plunges tens, hundreds, or even thousands of feet before slamming into some poor boulder at its base that has sat absorbing a ruthless pounding for what must, at least to the boulder, seem like an eternity.
I love photographing waterfalls almost as much as I like the falls themselves. The day I discovered that, by simply stopping down the lens on my camera far enough, I could render almost any flowing mass of water smooth, silky, translucent, and white was probably one of the most crucial days in fueling my severe photography addiction. Waterfalls were my gateway drug you might say. I’ve accepted this addition and am no longer in denial but thankfully I don’t see a recovery in my immediate future, although my wallet may beg to differ.
Grand Falls, Little Colorado River, Arizona
I love waterfalls in part because they exhibit so much diversity and character. Waterfalls in Arizona might only run a few days out of the year, their water looking more like molten chocolate straight out of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory when they do, the result of enormous quantities of suspended silt, sand, and debris pried loose from stream channels that may go many months without tasting a drop of water. Waterfalls in Washington are, for the most part, year-round affairs, impressive primarily in their persistence. (Except for on Mt. St. Helens where volcanic heat accelerates snowmelt leaving most streams, and backpackers who depend on them, high and dry. Ask me about that one sometime…). Even in the fall, the waterfalls seem to run as if they are tapping into some mysterious underground source of water (hint: they are) that keeps them replenished even after the rainy season has passed. The mighty waterfalls of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada are the bullies of the waterfall world, tall, stocky, aggressive, and so powerful in their flow that they dare you to approach them without eight layers of waterproof clothing, a rowboat, and a bilge pump. They hit you in the face (literally), knock you down, and leave you lying bloodied on the cold granite, that is until summer when they shrivel to merely a trickle or disappear altogether.
Geologically speaking (hopefully I didn’t lose anyone there…), waterfalls are generally indicative of youth. This is because any waterfall worth its salt and pepper will eventually destroy itself; the constant force of the water flowing over the abrupt edge will eat away at the rock forming the brink of the falls, no matter how resistant it might be, moving it farther and farther back until eventually only a flat reach of stream remains. Locations where geologic conditions are causing, or have recently caused uplift of the land are more conducive to waterfall generation. In fact, the states of North Dakota and Delaware, both in relatively quiescent portions of the continent, are the ONLY two states in the U.S. that lack a single USGS mapped waterfall. Now let’s remember that a lot of waterfalls don’t show up on official USGS quads, and naturally both North Dakota and Delaware CLAIM to have waterfalls, so as to not lose out on the lucrative waterfall tourism market. However I have to say that while North Dakota appears to have a solid case, Delaware’s evidence is unconvincing. It’s really sort of embarrassing if you think about it. Heck, even Florida has a few pretty nice looking waterfalls and we all know that Florida is about as flat as a pan-fried fritter.
I’ve posted lots of waterfall pictures on this site in the past (like here, here, here, here, and here) but last week’s outing inspired me to reach back into my archives and pull out some of my favorite unpublished waterfall photos from the past few years:
Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Upper Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Stirling Falls (tour boat for scale), Milford Sound, New Zealand
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.
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.
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.