Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Mojave National Preserve - A Geologic Paradise

When some people hear the word Mojave, they may think of snakes, centipedes, or spiders. Maybe even cactus, sand, and desolation. But lovers of the Mojave well know its charms, perhaps more difficult to discern in July but here nevertheless. In March, I traveled to the Mojave National Preserve with 11 former students to learn about this varied landscape. What we found more than anything else was the unexpected. Sand yes, but snow too. Cactus and other desert vegetation but all growing next to some pretty fantastic rocks. The weather was challenging but all good things have a rightful price.

We entered the Preserve on the south at Essex Rd. The preserve was created in 1994 to help stop the wanton destruction of this lush desert locale.

Our first stop was at Hole-in-the-Wall, located to the east of the Providence Mountains.  Pyroclastic rocks are exposed here and have weathering into fantastic shapes.
We followed a trail into a slot canyon that has been carved during the numerous summer thunderstorms that rack this landscape. The rocks are mostly resistant but cannot withstand the hard boulders washed through here.

A set of ring bolts helps hikers negotiate the steep drop-offs. The trail was bout one mile in length and we got an appreciation for the power of explosive volcanism.

At Hole-in-the-Wall, tafoni textures permeate the rocks. These features begin to form long before the rock is exposed to erosion. Groundwater moves through the ash flow and can dissolve some of the silica. No hole is created at this time - only pockets of weakened rock. Some of the dissolutioned silica is redeposited adjacent to the weakened areas. When the rock is exposed to erosion, the weakened areas form holes while areas with extra silica cement surround them!

Taking a break along the trail. The banded range in the distance is the Woods Mountains and is the center of this explosive volcanic complex. It erupted 18.5 million years ago, making is the same age as the famous Peach Springs Tuff in Arizona. Neither the Mojave nor the Basin and Range were in existence at this time. Rather Woods Mountains Volcanic Complex is one of the last vestiges of the Mogollon Highlands which stood here.

Volcanic stratigraphy exposed near the Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center.

During the first night's camp at 4,500 feet, it rained a lot. Thankfully, it did not start until we were snug in our sleeping bags, then let up just before sunrise - Camelot! As we poked our heads from out under the rain fly, this is what we saw - snow in the Mojave! We had come here in hopes of finding Spring, but winter still lurked in the air.

Just 500 vertical feet above us, there was snow that had accumulated to about 3 inches. We drove through this wonderland of volcanic rock and snow.

Pinto Mountain on the southern fring of the New York Mountains. Unfortunately, this meant that we could not visit, hike, and camp at Carruthers Canyon.

So instead we drove south to a lower elevation to hike the Kelso sand dunes. You can see them far off in the distance glowing in the sunshine.

A trail (of sorts) leads to the top of the dunes. I remember hearing in grade school that there were more stars in the universe than grains of sand. When you hike on a dune field like this, it seems almost unimaginable. And then we heard on this trip about a new book, "The Hidden Reality", by Brian Greene, that talks about parallel universes and the possibility that there are many other universes - some that may be just like this one. Sand dunes have a way of making everything seem big.

The sand comes from the Mojave River as it flows into Soda Lake north of here. As the river dries in it's bed, the wind picks up the loose sediment and blows it south towards the Granite and Providence mountains. These ranges create a barrier that slows the wind and the sand grains drop here on the desert floor. Look for pictures and a story about the Mojave River below.

Dark colored minerals such as mica, hornblende, and pyroxene are layered within the more common quartz grains. Settling and deformation of the laminae creates this unusual and striking pattern on some dune faces. In reality, all of the grains reflect the mineralogy of the San Bernardino Mountains, where the Mojave River originates. As it flows north from there, it picks up sediment from other ranges - the Rodman Mountains, Cady Mountains and so on. The sand that arrives at Kelso dunes is the eroded remains of these ranges, piled exquisitely into fashionable dunes.

The Providence Mountains lie east of the Kelso dunes and were laden with wet clouds on the first day of spring, March 21, 2011
The Granite Mountains to the south of Kelso dunes

From the top of the dunes, we could see our next destination on the north horizon, the famous Cima Dome.

We hiked 1.5 miles on the Teutonia Peak Trail to get this view of the Cima Dome from the east. Cima Dome originated as a giant mass of Mesozoic granite that was emplaced as hot magma deep in the crust. The granite was uplifted and exposed to chemical weathering, where the feldspar were degraded, causing the other mineral grains (quartz and mica) to become liberated. This chemical weathering was perhaps aided by fracturing and jointing. As the weathered debris was plucked from the mountains, it could not travel far in the dry desert and the reaming granite mass became buried in its own debris! The Cima Dome.

This is said to be the densest stand of Joshua trees in the world. And my friend and botanist Orlando Mistretta says it is a subspecies too, The Jaeger Joshua (Yucca brevifolia jaegeriana)

Joshua trees and the Ivanpah Mountain in snow.

Next on our geologic tour was a visit to the Cinder Cones and Lava Flow area in the Preserve. Basaltic volcanism occurred here between 7.5 million years ago and 8,000 years ago and left behind 33 craters and cones. Here Louise poses in front of a large volcanic bomb on the slopes of one of the cinder cones.

This is a fantastic area to explore and the scenery was fabulous. Another eruption is likely but no one knows when.

Our final day in the field saw us join up with Dr. Norman Meek of Cal State San Bernardino who showed us some wonderful Ice Age lake evidence in the Mojave. Here is a shingled beach deposit from the shore of Lake Manix.

And a view from this strand line to the west. All of the low ground where the interstate exists today was under lake water about 19,000 years ago.

Note the bed of the Mojave River flowing away from the photographer to the upper right. To the left of the river bed and slightly above it are green clays laid down in Lake Manix. The earth tone deposits on top of these (and in the left foreground) are delta sequences that prograded from the west onto the lake sediments. A glorious sequence indeed!

While standing on top of the delta sequence, we could look across old Lake Manix and see a wave cut terrace of the former lake etched into the north side of the Cady Mountains. Most folks probably don't think of "lakes" in the Mojave Desert, but the Ice Age climate was pluvial at this time.

Dr. Meek pointed out tufa deposits that line rocks along various shorelines of old Lake Manix. Such deposits are still found along the shore of Mono Lake north of here.

Students walking on a ridge towards Lake Manix deposits.

Three sequences can be seen from here in the walls of a side canyon to the Mojave River. The light colored deposits below are granite rich fan material that originated to from the north and were washed south (right) before the river was here. These are overlain by volcanic rich deposits (gray-purple beds just below the ridge top) that came from the Cady Mountains to the south of here. These in turn are overlain by the green lake beds of Lake Manix seen on the ridge top to the right. The source terrain for each fan sequence is still visible in the area and shows what was present in this valley before the lake developed.

Here we see a lake bed remnant on top of the fan sequences. The green color comes from reduction of the iron minerals in the deposit.

Dr. Meek shows evidence for the fluctuation of the lake shore. In the lighter colored bed behind his right hand is a course cross-bedded sand. The greener beds behind his left hand are finer grained clays. The interpretation is that when the lake shore dropped, sand was washed into the area, and as the lake expanded, the lake beds covered the area.

The Cady Mountains fan sequence (brown, irregular eroded beds below) topped with Lake Manix clay sediment (upper green beds). Afton Canyon can be seen in the backgound.

A marvelous sequence that would be entertaining even to non-geologists. Knowing the origin of the scenery just seems to add to the enjoyment of this special place.

Our next stop was up into Afton Canyon, along the track of history.

The Manix Fault rips through the canyon and has upended many of the once flat-lying rocks here. Rainwater then runs down the vertical bedding creating this interesting texture.

It almost reminds one of Bryce Canyon on a small scale.

Afton Canyon

Runoff has carved some spectacular slot canyons into the old alluvial fan sequences.

This canyon became so narrow, you literally needed a flashlight to see in it. Thank you to Dr. Meek for meeting with our group in the desert to share his expertise on Lake Manix and its history.

This is a long blog and I'll end it here with a picture of the Providence Mountains, looking southeast from the Cinder Cone area. It was great trip with challenging weather but the Mojave National Preserve is worth a visit. Bring a geologist with you!


  1. Looks familiar! Wooster Geologists just took a field trip to the Mojave. You can see some similar images on our blog: We should exchange ideas for future field trip stops. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mojave was always a place "to get through" on the way to ski trips or something.

    I think it scared suburb guys/gals because of its almost Martian emptiness and vastness.

    Thanks for virtual tour of the trip--especially like your "Camelot!" moment (miles from anywhere developed).

    I'm learning that with attention, guts, and openness, all places are illuminated.

    And I'm learning a bunch of interesting geological terms I never knew before. It's so fun to describe things, huh?
    Oh, and the Greene book--so wacky. Are you reading it? They are really pushing the envelope on what "we can know" empirically. It's kind of mythology + science (though I doubt they'd ever want to hear that).

  3. Thanks for an excellent post on one of our less familiar, but very spectacular desert regions! I grew up in southern California, and loved my occasional chances to explore the region.

  4. Excellent post. I was fascinated by the diverse geology at Mojave NP long before I even could have understood it. I love the contrast of the snow dusted mountains and the desert. Sorry you didn't get spring but it will come to the canyon eventually. Feels more like the height of summer here in S TX.

  5. I have been looking through your site. I have been absolutely spell-bound. I don't even have a favorite... that is how much I enjoyed myself.
    Earthly Musings is Nature Site of the Week at Nature Center Magazine.

    Emma Springfield


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