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Aug 14 2010

A Walk in the Volcanic Clouds

I won’t have the geology from our trip to Mount Rainier up for a while – I’m still trying to catch up on Oregon and Grand Coulee, not to mention Arizona (and it’s been over a year since that!).  Haven’t done the research and am still scratching me head over a lot of the things I saw.  But that doesn’t mean you don’t get to vacation vicariously with me. 

We came in on the Mather Memorial Parkway, which was named in honor of the first director of the National Park Service.  There’s a wonderful little pullout by the White River that claims to give even more wonderful views of Mount Rainier.  This might be true.  However, most of what we could see in the distance consisted of clouds and trees.  Well, there was the White River, too, and a lovely little cascade of a waterfall:



I believe that’s andesite it’s tumbling over, but don’t hold me to it.

We played about in the river bed for a bit, where I got some absolutely marvelous photos that will delightfully illustrate future missives on mudflows and glaciers.  For now, though, I’ll just present you with this outtake of a few brave purple flowers growing in the volcanic mud:



If you look, you’ll notice a few bloom pressed down in the mud.  Plunk some more sediment over them, give them a few million years, and we may very well have glorious fossilized flowers.  This is, after all, how fossils are born.

For most of the day, Mount Rainier played peek-a-boo.  Here, we found it peeking on the Glacier Basin Trail:



You know, until you’re up on its flanks, you don’t really understand just how gargantuan it is.  The thing’s 14,411 feet in elevation.  It’s enormous.  Lot of lava, pyroclastic flows, and other assorted stuff went in to making it.  You get a sense of its mass when you’re up there.  And yet, all that bulk was built up in a mere geologic eyeblink – its oldest lava flows are less than a million years old, and its current cone is only half a million years old.  It’s still just a baby.  Amazing how good Mother Earth can create something of such magnitude so rapidly – and tear it down almost as fast.

Mount Rainier wasn’t the only thing engaging in some hide-and-seek.  We came across a waterfall along the trail that flowed under a root system that had its own ecosystem growing up on it:



That, I have to tell you, is quite a sight to see when you’re from dry country, where the root systems don’t usually collect enough soil and other such things to allow plant growth right on top of them.  Not to mention, we don’t often get water flowing anywhere

When we found out the moraine trail had washed out and never been rebuilt, we turned back around and headed for the hot springs.  If we couldn’t get cold, we’d get hot, damn it!  And we did – the first I’ve ever seen:



Those mounds behind me are dripping warm water.  Beside the trail, there are tiny pools of it that feel like a tepid bath.  They’re host to big fuzzy slimy mats of bacteria, which I couldn’t resist touching.  They feel slightly gritty.  Strange and delightful.

Afterward, we were onward and upward, heading for Paradise.  We’d hoped to see the Nisqually Glacier, but the cloud ceiling had gotten terribly low, and so we had no chance.  But I did get to see what the trail looked like when it wasn’t several feet deep in snow, and the stairs they’ve put in are gorgeous:



I love the architect who designed these!

Now, I’ve grown used to verdant green (somewhat – I still feel as if I’m being smothered by over-enthusiastic trees in the springtime), but I’ve never seen anything quite so vivid as those high mountain meadows.  If you’ve never been to an alpine forest in a place with heavy precipitation, you don’t realize just how different it is from the ordinary run of things.  It’s hard to explain.  It’s a serene green, a green of deep and subtle contrasts, and it feels so quiet.  It somehow manages to seem young and very, very ancient at the same time.  There’s a sense that time here isn’t the same time we’re used to.  This is the time of mountains and forests, of wilderness and things that will never be tamed by mankind.  It’s kindly, tolerating our presence with an amiable cheer, and you get the sense of it unfolding to let you settle in beside it.  This springlike summer won’t last; soon, the snowfields will return, and everything will be sharp white and cold.  But for now, there are green growing things and fields of flowers painting the slopes under the mountain mists:



No wonder John Muir called it “the most extravagantly beautiful” garden he’d ever seen.  It truly is that.

We stopped at an overlook – Inspiration Point, I believe – that gazes down into the Paradise River valley, and found ourselves taunted by a Stellar’s Jay who finally posed prettily for a photo op:



We headed down to Reflection Lakes next, where it rained on us a bit (rain in Washington, astounding, right?).  We took shelter under the trees and spent some quality time with lovely little flowers that a sign had marked as snowdrops, but upon further reflection (ha ha I iz funny) I believe are actually avalanche lilies:



There was just something about these quiet little flowers basking in the rain that delights.  Alas, the last time I was up there, they were buried under several feet of snow still, so I’d had no idea they existed.

The rain slacked off by the time we reached a rather stunning stretch of road clinging to the cliffs.  There’s a pullout happily placed where rockhounds can go and play in the rocks, but it’s mostly there for the waterfall:



That is Martha Falls, and it drops 665 feet down Stevens Canyon, plunges into Unicorn Creek, and shall feature heavily in some geological stories when I’ve had the opportunity to tell them.  For now, though, just stand back and admire the vista, because that picture above is just a wee bit o’ Martha Falls:



Stevens Canyon is one among many places we could have lingered all day.  We spent close to an hour there, but I didn’t have my eyes on waterfalls most of the time.  No, I was busy on the other side of the road, exploring lava flows and what I’d swear is granite, and generally having the time of my young life playing with the rocks.  My intrepid companion was kind enough to take a group photo:



The only thing that tore me away from the rocks was a rainbow, which started out dim and shimmery but grand.  We’d missed our chance to photograph a rainbow earlier in the day, so this was redemption.  And as the sun dropped below the cloud ceiling, it got brighter and brighter and then became a double:



It’s faint, but you can see it.  And it is glorious.  I now have about 40,000 photos of rainbows, so if you ever need one, do let me know.

We finally tore ourselves away from Stevens Canyon because there was a raw nekkid tunnel through lava that we wanted to reach before the sun set.  We got there in time, got some phenomenal shots which I shall share with you when I’m babbling about lava and engineering one o’ these days.  We even took video so we could record the excellent echo.  I left my intrepid companion investigating that marvel, and walked through the tunnel to a pull-out by the Box Canyon of the Cowlitz to see what all the fuss was about.  We’d seen it earlier, and figured a crack in the ground wouldn’t be a show-stopper.

How very wrong we were:



Y’see, when you’re standing on the bridge looking down into that crack, you realize just how very deep it is – over 100 feet straight down.  And the rocks are polished a bright, shiny black from Muddy Fork of the Cowlitz River, which is carrying glacial sediments.  It comes very close to putting Arizona’s celebrated slot canyons to shame.  Then I meandered over to the informational sign, and discovered there’s a half-mile loop trail that takes you on a foot bridge right over the thing.  You can look down 115 feet and watch the water work its will:



This is where 10x optical zoom and a nifty Handheld Twilight mode really come in handy, because by then it was very nearly dark, and, as I’ve mentioned, we were 115 feet above the bottom of the canyon.  Magnificent!

But that’s not all!  See the rounded rock on the left?  That’s rock that’s been smoothed and scoured by a glacier, that is, and the trail takes you right past bare patches where you can see the scratches gouged in bedrock.  You can even touch it!  I’ve never seen glacial features like this before.  Kid in a candy store doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction.  And here I thought I wasn’t going to get anything good for my eventual post on glaciers!

The other side of the loop trail goes through forest, where the trees have taken back what the glacier took away.  We wandered through in the deep, sylvan twilight, and as it had just rained, the big leaves of the understory plants were coated in silvery drops that proved no problem for Handheld Twilight to capture:



Dang, I love this camera!

We crossed the road after to see the Wayside Exhibit, which after the Box Canyon we figured must be something important, although it was awfully quiet about what, exactly, it was exhibiting.  Turns out that what they’ve got there is another huge slab of glacier-polished rock, and this time no pesky stay-on-the-trail rules:



Actually, I’m lounging, but close enough:



Moments like this, my darlings, are why all the boring bits of life are worth the trouble. 

We watched a good part of the sun set over the Box Canyon of the Cowlitz, and figured this was the end of the adventure:



Light all gone.  Time to go home.  We got back in the car and drove down the mountain, until we glimpsed a flash of blazing red through the trees and realized the mountain was staging one final goodbye show.  One last stop, then.  You’ve already seen the results of that.

For a day that looked like it wasn’t going to return on the investment, it turned out to be a spectacular success.  An excellent prelude to the Olympics this coming Monday.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip, my darlings.  I wish I could have you here with me.  Oh, the places we would go!

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Ron Schott

    I has a chance to get up to Mount Rainier last year at the beginning of August and I approached it along the same route you did. I was GigaPanning the geology in preparation for a Penrose talk at last fall's GSA Annual Meeting in Portland, OR. When I was at the Paradise Visitor Center I picked up the "Roadside Geology of Mount Rainier National Park and Vicinity" by Patrick T. Pringle (2008), Washington Division of Geology and Earth Resources Information Circular 107. I highly recommend it as you try to piece together all the great geology that you saw. You might also enjoy delving into the Google Earth Virtual Field Trip to the Mount Rainier region – including many of my geolocated GigaPans – that was the basis for my GSA presentation.

  2. 2
    Lyle

    For a different experience in green get to the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park. This is a low land version of Ranier, including some moss. (I suspect one can find similar on Vancouver Island, likley in Pacific Rim National park but its much harder to get to)

  3. 3
    Karen

    Thanks again for the wonderful images!

  4. 4
    Silver Fox

    Nice! I especially like, well… all of it! Box Canyon looks quite intriguing, and I love glacial polish.

  5. 5
    Suzanne

    i love your camera too! and your posts dana. i learn from them — thank you.

  6. 6
    Dana Hunter

    You guys make this all worthwhile, you know that? Glad I can return a little of the joy you give me!

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