Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, October 25, 2010


I am writing from the Geological Society of America conference at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, where I’m currently taking a break from watching presentations on geocognition, or how people think about the geosciences. Time for an update on our latest adventures.

When I last left off, we were driving north through Utah after having visited the five national parks in the southern part of the state. We camped the next couple nights at Antelope Island State Park, in the Great Salt Lake. This place is beautiful, an unspoiled island with a lot of wildlife and great views of the salt lake and the mountains beyond.

The next day, we went to Salt Lake City, to see what there was to do. The answer is: not much. The downtown was almost empty, and (perhaps most tellingly) the city was full of free parking, with even the most centrally located lots costing only $3 a day. We went to a small art museum and to the Mormon temple, which was a very interesting experience in which we spoke to many missionaries without particularly wanting to.

Above, the temple; below, the tabernacle, where the famous choir sings. I had a chance to flip through a free independent newspaper and saw that the Red Iguana had won Best Mexican for the nth year in a row, so we went there for lunch.

Somehow we spent over $60 on lunch there, though I don’t remember exactly why, because I collapsed in a kind of nap-coma later and slept for a while in my tent. But that evening and the next morning we had a good time exploring the island.

Shorebirds on the lake, which is quite shallow.

Antelope. There are antelope on antelope island, but mostly we saw buffalo. I thought I was done with buffalo! These were introduced to the island and are the most famous residents.

We also saw this guy. Katie was extremely disappointed because the driver of this vehicle was not, in fact, wearing a vest.

Eventually, we got ready to go for a dip. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity; neither of us had been in the salt lake before. The air was about 70 degrees with a light breeze, which was just enough to stand around in our bathing suits (and goosebumps), though the water temperature was in the 60s. It took quite a while to walk across the beach to the water. It felt like about 10 minutes. The lake basin is extremely shallow. Even once we got to the water, we had to keep walking for a while to get to a place that was deep enough to float. I stopped to take a look at the sand, which is very interesting:

It is made of ooids, or spheres composed of layers of carbonate that have precipitated around a central nucleus (such as a shrimp poop). The only other place I’m familiar with that also has oolitic sand is the Bahamas (though I’m sure there are others).

Katie actually got into the water first… well, I was taken off guard by her courage, I’ve never been able to drag her swimming with me anywhere if it was less than about 95 degrees.

Then I got in. It was quite cold, of course, but we floated around for a few minutes. It is actually a very fun sensation and quite noticeably different from being in regular salt water (the actual ocean averages 3.5%… this section of the salt lake averaged maybe 14%. (Some sections of the lake, cut off by causeways, are up to 25% salt). Despite the cold we had tremendous fun.

On the long walk back to the parking lot I dried off and the salt made my skin sparkly. I looked like a donut dusted with sugar.

Before we left, we went on a drive around the island. Though we had just come from what was obviously a very geologically interesting area (that being southern Utah), the Salt Lake area is also fascinating. In this less-than-fascinating picture, you might be able to see horizontal lines on the hillside:

These lines are terraces that mark the former levels of the lake. During what is colloquially known as the Ice Age, the continent was much wetter, and a huge lake—called Lake Bonneville—occupied this and surrounding basins, with some of the local mountain peaks just small islands in its expanse. Click here ( to see a graphic. At its deepest, the lake would have covered all of Salt Lake City, lapping against the mountains above it.

About 14,500 years ago, the lake breached through a pass in Idaho and its level fell 350 feet in a year, releasing perhaps 1,000 cubic miles of water in the first few weeks. The water rushed through the Hells Canyon of the Snake, leaving gravel bars that can still be seen there now—100 feet above the present river level.

Buffalo butts.

We came upon a couple coyotes that were hunting along the road… I guess they were pretty used to cars. Below, an extraordinary video I was lucky enough to capture of a coyote crossing the road in front of our car and pouncing on prey in the scrub:

Not only is the area interesting for its Lake Bonneville history, but Antelope Island also has some of the oldest and some of the youngest rocks on earth. Above is a very old rock: 1.7 billion years old. The youngest rocks, deposited as Lake Bonneville retreated, are less than 15,000 years old.

When we got to Twin Falls, ID, to visit one of Katie’s aunts, we found she had put us up in a hotel. Mostly we were interested in the showers as we were still very salty. We visited Craters of the Moon National Monument while we were there. Here is some pahoehoe (ropy) lava frozen in the form of basalt:

And here is a kind of volcanic bomb that cooled in such a way to give it a “bread crust” appearance:

And one of the craters out of which cinders erupted:

And a less-than-illuminating shot from inside one of the (empty!) lava tubes:

All this was a big departure for us, as nearly all of our previous explorations had been made in sedimentary rock. Large sections of Idaho, however, are covered in basalt, some of which has come from the same hot spot that has been migrating east over time to where it now sits beneath Yellowstone. (By the way, one of the displays at Craters of the Moon informed us that the area is due for another eruption sometime in the next 1,000 years, so “now is a particularly pertinent time to visit the park.” I suppose so, if by “now” you mean “sometime in the next 1,000 years.” We should be able to manage that.)

Some of the other basalt in Idaho is part of the Columbia River Basalt Group, which formed in a serious of lava floods that eventually covered 63,000 square miles of the northwest and is, in places, more than a mile thick. This is one of the largest flood basalt events on the planet.

Twin Falls is in an odd setting. Driving around most of it, all you can see are flattish yellow fields stretching to the horizon. It seems like a very flat place. And then you come upon this:

There are giant, gaping canyons here. People use them for recreation, as we saw.

Above, the “terraces” visible on the canyon wall may be from separate basalt flows.

Next we drove into the Sawtooth mountains, which have been said to rival the Tetons in beauty. We didn’t see very much of them, unfortunately, because we didn’t know what we were doing, but we did go on a short hike that took us up to a couple of mountain lakes. It smelled like winter in the forest, which was completely silent and had patches of snow and ice already. The sky was a heavy grey. When we came upon Washington Lake it was so silent and still I thought the scene only required snow to perfect it. But it wasn’t going to snow because the temperature still felt like it was in the 50s. Then it started to snow.

You may be able to see the snow in these pictures if you click for detail.

We camped that night a bit lower in elevation, though it was still quite cold. One of Katie’s cousins had given her a device called Mr. Heater. Mr. Heater ran on propane and got extremely hot, and we never did find a way to use it in such a way that it actually kept us warm at night without melting the tent or suffocating us from carbon monoxide.

Next we went to visit another aunt who lives in Clarkston, WA, on the ID border. She took us to see some petroglyphs. I think this one is evidence that indigenous peoples developed weightlifting long ago.

The hills here are all basalt too. While here we went to visit the U of Idaho at Moscow, where my brother went to school. The most important thing we saw, though, was her aunt’s kitten, Kato, who was excruciatingly cute and with whom we played quite a bit.

Next we camped outside Riggins, ID. Here, we have made the tent with two backs, in an attempt to use Mr. Heater without melting any nylon, but unfortunately the heat wanted to escape out the sides and not go into either tent.

We were here because we wanted to see the Hells Canyon of the Snake, the deepest canyon in North America, with a drop of over 8,000 feet from the highest point on the rim. Despite these distinctions, neither Oregon nor Idaho has made much of an effort to turn the canyon into any kind of tourist attraction. The quickest way to get to the canyon involved a winding dirt road that was going to take us, by various accounts, either an hour or half a day to ascend to the canyon overlook. The scenery was beautiful on the way up…

Unfortunately, as we climbed in elevation the snow became too deep to proceed through. We were just a couple days too late to see the canyon. We had to turn back. So much for that particular geological wonder.

Next we visited a third aunt in Boise. Boise seems to be a very nice town. It has many beautiful, old houses, and the trees were turning orange… I could have believed I was in New London or Westerly again. It is surrounded by mountains that were just getting their first snow.

A shot of downtown Boise. (Note: the real Boise is not slanted like that.)

When we camped that night on the ID-UT border, I had what was to me one of the funnier moments of the trip.

It’s not immediately evident what has happened in these pictures, but in fact Katie zipped up her jacket without looking and didn’t realize until a bit later that she’d made a mistake. I suspect this is how trends get started. Unfortunately, no one else was around to see it, because it was in the 20s that night and nobody in their right mind was going camping.

Our final bit of the drive back to Denver saw plenty of snow on the Front Range…

But once we got into Denver it was quite temperate. It scarcely matters, though, because we’re spending all our time inside. Here, a shot of the convention’s exhibit hall on opening night:

We were enjoying all the free things that the various companies and organizations were giving away (and the free beer registered conventiongoers got). My favorite were the rainbow glasses. Here, Katie (full name blurred to protect her reputation) and another former URI student show off their frames:

And finally, to revisit that shot through the rainbow glasses, allowing you to enjoy the convention with me in all its splendor:

1 comment:

Ron Schott said...

Could you describe the locality where you found those great ooids on the Great Salt Lake in more detail? I'd really like to get some for my teaching collection next time I pass through. Thanks!