Wednesday, March 10, 2010


The majestic volcano. Few forces of the geologic realm are as destructive and awe-inspiring as the eruption of a mighty volcano. The reasons to fear the volcano are many. They produce hot toxic ash that can skeletonize a cow in seconds. They also produce burning hot bombs of molten death lava that rain down upon us like unearthly space visitors that totally suck. They produce rivers of steaming lava that can also probably skeletonize a cow pretty fast. Finally, I bet they are very noisy.

I, being the last of a long line of noble explorers (not verified), recently explored a volcano. You read that right dear blog viewer. I have taken it upon myself to risk life and limb and cow in order to find, approach, explore and pontificate (in that order) upon volcanoes so that we may lift the veil of ignorance that shadows so many of us. I will break the thin crust of the unknown, and dip us all in the gooey, boiling sauces of knowledge that lie just underneath! So gird your loins! Don your thickest mittens! Put your cattle in a safe, high-ground location! Let’s explore one of Utah’s most recent volcanoes.

The first step in finding a volcano is by trying to find an area that is likely to contain volcanos. This may seem obvious, but I can tell you stories about famous volcano-stalkers who spent their entire careers hunting for volcanoes in areas where there simply were no volcanoes to be found (I can't actually tell you any such stories). Luck for you, dear reader, I am far more experienced than most in the area of geologic showmanship. Look what I found on my first try!

Volcano country?! Where better to find a volcano than in volcano country! If you are looking for a nun, you go to nun country. If you are looking for a canoe, you go to canoe country. So the fact that I was in volcano country seemed like a good sign that I was in the right area to find a volcano. Plus it gave me a chance to sign up for the local turkey shoot! Apparently I was also in turkey shoot country. Sometimes a country can be several types of countries at once.

The second step in finding a volcano is learning to recognize the trail volcanoes leave behind. Like the wandering antelope or unquiet groundhog, volcanoes leave subtle signs of their recent visit. Now, we aren’t looking for little paw prints or little piles of feces. No, we are looking for something a little more lava-like. Namely, we are looking for lava.

Ah ha! We have found the lava! Piles and piles of it! It’s all over! I knew I was close by the sheer amount of lava that spread out before me like earthy butter on toast. Also someone had put up a sign that said that there was a volcano just a half mile away. But I didn’t need a man-made sign! I knew how to read the signs….OF THE EARTH! But the other sign was helpful too.

That view you are enjoying is of Snow Canyon, a relatively small but impressive canyon cut through the strata of the Navaho Sandstone near St. George Utah. As long as we are here, let’s take a second to look into the Navaho Sandstone. A good 208 million years ago Utah was covered by a vast desert. Or possibly an ocean. One of those two. There’s a debate about that. Anyway, instead of the lush, tropical wonderland that we know as Utah today, things were instead covered by massive sand dunes that spent their time moving about at the discretion of prevailing wind/ocean current directions. You see, those cursed Sierra Nevada Mountains had recently popped up, and have spent the last 208 million years blocking the moisture from the Pacific Ocean from reaching Utah. And so a desert formed. Over time Mother Nature lost interest in the Utah desert, and like a fickle toddler she covered them up and started over with something more interesting. Slowly, these buried sand dunes became petrified and became the massive mounds of what you and I know as the Navajo Sandstone. Sometimes it is red…..

And sometimes it is white…..

And sometimes it is both of those at once.

But regardless of color, it is really fun to climb on. Nowadays you have to pay $5 to get into Snow Canyon, which is kind of a bummer. They say it’s so they can protect the majestic desert tortoise from the traffic in the canyon. Depending on your views concerning the desert tortoise, this may be either a noble or unfortunate policy. I will leave that up to you to decide.

The trails of lava didn’t just end with random boulders strew around in a field. I bravely entered the desolation and found the mighty lava tube. From here the lava spewed forth like a motion-sick subway passenger. These tunnels formed as the lava flowed away from the as of yet undiscovered volcano. The outer layers of the lava flow would cool and form perfect little tunnels for the still warm lava to get to where it was going. Neat!

For fun, here’s a diagram! Everyone loves diagrams.

Take a look back at the volcano country sign. In addition to telling me that I was in the middle of volcano country, you'll note that the sign actually was for a little town named Veyo. Veyo, for those who are interested, is a small little community north of St. George. It is magical place where the pies flow like water, pipes are plentiful, and rusted tractors are the vehicle of choice….

Also my uncle once owned this gas station in Veyo.

Later I learned that he wasn’t really my uncle. I’m still not sure how that worked. Once at a family reunion he taught me how to catch a crawdad and twist its head off. The secret is to twist really hard.

Anyway, I keep getting distracted by family memories. Let’s get to the star of the show. I followed the geologic signs (and street signs) until I turned a corner and there in mist I saw it….

Some of you may recognize this for what it is. That, my friends is a volcano. Stately and silent, the volcano watches over the land like an enormous can of RC Cola. Surrounding it is evidence of the destructive force that the volcano can summon on a moment’s notice. The lava flows, the massive blocks of cinders, the inconveniently vertical hiking trails, these are but small displays of the vengeance that a volcano can reap upon the unsuspecting countryside. Others of you may simply see a mountainous lump of dirt. Oh how I hope you aren’t one of those people! How I weep for your cattle!

Now, finding a volcano is great, but you know what’s better? Finding TWO volcanoes! Both these gentle giants were grazing on the lush vegetation that they had so recently destroyed in a maelstrom of fiery incineration. Without a second thought, I grabbed my gear (raspberry doughnut) and readied myself for the potentially dangerous journey that awaited me. The fear I was feeling was a fear that only those who have sought to domesticate the wild volcano will understand. So in the name of science, off I went.

Obviously one of the main problems facing anyone who wishes to dominate a volcano is in discovering a way to the top. I chose this route…

Halfway up the volcano I began to question my skills as a pathfinder, as this was proving to be possibly the worst trail I have ever embarked upon. Ah well. As is considered good form in the scientific community, I documented my journey to the top with pictures. Here I am near the base of the mighty igneous behemoth.

And this is what it looks like if you look around a little bit.

That’s the other volcano over in the distance. You can climb that one if you want. Climbing volcanoes is hard. Here we are a little higher…

Let’s look at the trail ahead…

By now you are probably thinking that I must look like a glistening machine of muscle and determination. And you are right. I call this “Self Portrait of Man On Volcano”.

Here I am at what I’m calling Summit Camp Alpha. It was so named because it’s a totally cool name and because I fell down here and didn’t get up for a few minutes. It’s important to come up with cool names for different parts of a hike. And when hiking a volcano it’s not hard to come up with cool names (as you’ll see).

Here I am at a part of the mountain that I originally called Sideways-Hurts My Ankles Camp 1. I later called this area Vertical Vortex 2000X because that was waaaaay more awesome.

After several minutes, I found myself approaching the peak of the volcano. The very rocks around me began to change in both color and nature as if to warn me that I was entering a land best left unexplored. But for science, for science I continued. Instead of being nothing more than a pile of loose, sharp volcanic cinders that cut the knees as I had encountered for the first ¾ths of the hike, I was now encountering the very core of the mountain. Here, the cinders were still connected and formed opposing walls of charcoal-gray intimidation. For this reason I call this portion of the hike Incineration Canyon of Endless Intimidation.

So close, and yet so far away….

You may be noticing that the rocks got really red near the top. I don’t know why this is. All I know is that it still totally sucks to climb on them. Finally, I reached the summit. A lot of people don’t know what to expect to see when they gaze upon the most primal of earthly forces, the very heart of the gateway to the center of the angry planet on which we live. Well, here’s a hint….

You will see a hole. That’s what’s at the top of the volcano. As an interesting note, this volcano is not all that old. More of a volcano teenager, or even a volcanic preteen. Dating a volcanic eruption is tricky business, and like most things in geology there can be several millions of years of wiggle room. This particular volcano (as well as the other little guy you can see off in the distance) is a cinder cone that last erupted anywhere from 3 million years ago to little more than 2,000 years ago. This is actually disturbingly recent, and while they are certainly quiet and horribly difficult to climb now, there is no reason they couldn’t become active again. I bet climbing an erupting volcano would probably be pretty hard to do. Anyway, here's to geological timebombs! Cheers!

Anyway, I went through all the trouble of climbing this stupid thing, I’m going to post more pictures from the top.

Having conquered and slain my geological foe, I headed back for the relative safety of the freeway.

Climbing down a volcano requires a whole other set of skills that any good explorologist should have in reserve. Namely, it requires the ability to tolerate getting the worst wedgie that you have ever experienced as you slide down the mountainside on your butt.

DO NOT GO TO A PUBLIC PLACE AFTER HAVING SLID DOWN A VOLCANO! There will likely be holes in your pants, and in most communities it is considered bad taste to walk around with exposed buttocks. Finally I reached my truck and left volcano (and turkey shoot) country. There is yet another volcano a few miles further up the road from these two cinder cones. This guy….

This friendly little guy is slightly different show than the other two. First off, it is quite a bit larger and probably put on one heck of a show when it went off. Second, the lava from this volcano is more ropey and gooey than the blocky cinders that I saw and bravely slid down on during my visit to the first volcanoes. This would imply that the mechanics behind this volcano were somewhat different than the mechanics behind cinder cones, and likely involved more flowing lava and other classic volcano things. But seeing how this is a remedial level blog, let's just call it all magic.

So why are there volcanoes in Utah? This post is already a billion pages long, so I’m going to cover that in a different post. For now it will just have to suffice that there are volcanoes in Utah, and they have erupted within the era of people living here. Which is spooky to me.


Dan said...

I guess I never knew that the volcanoes of southern Utah could have erupted as little as 2,000 years ago. That is very recent.

Is obsidian a product of volcanoes? Can you tell me where I can go to get some nice and shiny obsidian?

How tall was that volcano you climbed? Did you go into the hole? How come more of the volcano had not weathered/eroded?

Cheetah said...

Scary isn't it! The whole area was a boiling cesspool of lava and destruction just 2,000 years ago! And now it's a paradise!

Obsidian is a product of volcanism! It's all over Topaz Mountain! You can't take two steps without finding it on the ground

That volcano is 500 feet tall. It was horrible. I didn't walk down into the hole. You could, but I was pretty tired.

That volcano was pretty young, and just hasn't had time to erode yet. But one day it will and this post will be all that remains to remember it.

Judy said...

Hi, I live in Mesquite, NV and was fascinated when I saw the lava and signs of a volcano near St. George. I finally saw the volcano one day when we were driving to Pine Valley. I just saw your article on here and wanted to say thanks for all of the info and the photos. I wondered to when it had erupted and thought, "I wonder if I would want to live here on top of all of this, because I thought of the time too when it was a gooey cesspool of fire and lava." I wonder if there is still activity going on underneath and if there are earth tremors.

Cheetah said...

Hi Judy!! Welcome to our little club of internet geologists! I'll get your honorary internet field kit in the mail (not really).

The volcanoes in that area are mysterious. There hasn't been any tremors, steam vents or fiery bombs from above recorded from the vents, so I would have a hard time thinking that they were still active. But then, that's what the people of Pompeii thought too.

One general thought is that the volcanism in Utah is caused by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate off the coast of California. As the plate heads to the hot, gooey destruction awaiting it, the wet outer layers melt and head to the surface. By this time the plate is under Utah, and the melty Fuca plate goo explodes all over St. George. Another thought is that the volcanism may be related to the Basin and Range spreading that is currently pulling Utah and Nevada away from California. The Juan De Fuca plate is pretty much gone at this point, but the spreading is still happening. So if that's what causing the volcanism then there isn't any reason the volcanoes couldn't go off again.

And so, there you are. Like all good things in geology, the answer is filled with "I don't know".

Bonnie the Boss said...

While Navajo sandstone comes in both red and white it is equally awesomely beautiful and majestic in my opinion.
You are correct, that climbing on that loose rock is hard. Going down can be fun when you are about 12, and not a big adult that bruises easily. When I was 12 I ripped both of the pockets off my jeans sliding down such a slope. Nice hiking shoes BTW. They look pretty darn clean.

Bonnie the Boss said...

Btw, I am so going here. But in the winter, I hate heat!