Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How I Spent My Summer--Travelogue: Part VII

Trip #7--Lewis & Clark Caverns and Crystal Park
A couple of weeks ago, I found a notebook that I had used a long time ago and on the first page there was a note that said, "Crystal Park, 2011".  I took that as a sign.  I've been a rockhound since I was eight years old.  There is a place in Montana, near Dillon, called Crystal Park.  It's a 220 acre deposit of quartz crystals that is held under claim by the Butte Gem and Mineral Society but the Forest Service manages it.  For five dollars you can park your car and dig all day long if you like.  All these years of being a rockhound and I had never done this trip.  High time I did it.  I've taken the kids on digs before and they seem to enjoy it.  Garrett has told me that he wants to collect rocks as well. 

As I was looking at the map I realized that Lewis & Clark Caverns is about an hour and a half away from Crystal Park.  We hadn't been to Lewis & Clark Caverns since our daughter Cynthia was a baby.  I looked up on their website and found that the price of admission is a mere $10 for adults and $5 for kids under 12.  Ten bucks a head is dirt cheap.  Garrett is our only discount kid now.  We had to do this. 

Last Wednesday was the first day of school, so the kids were free on Monday and Tuesday.  We planned to drive up to Lewis & Clark Caverns on Monday, drive down to Dillon after the tour and camp in the Grasshopper Creek Campground near Crystal Park.  On Tuesday we would dig until we got tired of digging and head home.  Pretty good itinerary and with little deviation we stuck to it.  Of course we had Chimene's fried chicken.  We can't camp out without that.

We headed north towards West Yellowstone, but turned on the Henry's Lake Flats toward Ennis.  When we got to Ennis, I took a wrong turn and headed over to Virginia City.  Luckily it was only fifteen miles out of the way.  We drove up to Boot Hill and talked about the bad guys buried there and headed back to the road and made our way to Lewis & Clark Caverns.  Because of the mixed up detour, we got to the caverns at about ten minutes to four and got in on the four o'clock tour.

There is a mile long trail from the visitor's center to the caverns that rises about 300 feet in elevation.  It's paved all the way so it's not a bad walk.  All along that trail there are interpretive signs and benches.  If I had it to do over again, I'd have stopped at the signs a little more because the tourguide was the last person up the trail and we waited at the cavern entrance for at least fifteen minutes before she got there.  The views of the valley, from the trail were incredible.

The entrance trail and the exit trail from the cavern entrance

The valley as viewed from the cavern entrance
Rhys and Garrett at the cavern entrance
The cavern entrance
There were thirty or so people on the tour.  The tourguide was a young girl (high school age) who had been a tourguide there for three years.  She was a little annoying.  She had done the tour for so long that she had everything memorized and didn't need to think about what she was saying.  Her voice was fairly high pitched and had almost no inflection.  Plus, the script hadn't changed appreciably since I took the tour in the 70's and 80's.  The jokes are just as bad now as they were back then.  She took a few minutes at the beginning of the tour to tell us the history of the caverns and outline the rules, then we took the tour. 

The caverns were discovered by deer hunters back in the late 1800's.  The reason they are named for Lewis & Clark is that the expedition passed nearby.  At the time of the naming, almost nothing had been named for Lewis & Clark, now you can't turn around in western Montana without bumping into something named for them or the expedition.  The original guy who claimed ownership of the caverns used to take tours through them and would allow guests to break off stalachtites in one room as souvenirs.  That went on for about thirty years, from the turn of the century to the great depression.  The railroad claimed they owned the land, and the government agreed.  Then the railroad gave it to the federal government who used the Civil Conservation Corps to make some improvements to the caverns.  Improvements such as concrete steps and handrails instead of the rickety wooden stairs that the original guy had put in.  Finally, the federal government turned it over to the Great State of Montana and Lewis & Clark State Park was born.

The caverns are an active drip cave, meaning the host rock is limestone and water dripping through the millenia has hollowed out the caves, dissolved the limestone and redeposited it in a form called calcium carbonate.  That's the same thing pearls are made of, by the way.  The calcium carbonate is redeposited in wierd, otherworldly forms called stalachtites, stalagmites, columns, flowstone, helictites and soda straws.  Flowstone is the most common formation in solution caves and is formed by more "rapidly" flowing water.    It's not rapid at all, just more than the others.  Stalachtites grow from the ceiling down, while stalgmites grow from the floor up.  When a stalachtite and a stalagmite meet it's called a column.  Soda straws are tiny hollow stalachtites.  Helictites are very rare, and very fragile and don't survive long in tourist caves.  They grow in all directions an look as if gravity didn't have anything to do with their formation.  There are very few helicities in Lewis & Clark Caverns.  I told you I was a geology nut.  I've told my geology professor friends that I'm a geology groupie.

Stalachtites and stalagmites
Flowstone on the cavern wall
More flowstone
Column surrounded by stalagmites
Soda straws
The last room of the caverns is the most active of all the rooms.  It was discovered after the original guy died, so it hasn't had to withstand the vandalism.  It's also the largest room in the caverns.  Very beautiful.  We posed for a group photo there.  At the end of the tour, the tourguide asked if there were any questions and I asked, "What is Beethoven's birthday?"  She was unprepared for a smart alek on the tour and to my credit, I got a bigger laugh with that than she did on any of her stale, tired jokes.

The Civil Conservation Corps blasted an exit tunnel through 500 feet of solid limestone.  They blasted from two directions in the days before GPS and laser sights and were only off by a few inches.  Pretty good work by those guys with old school surveying tools.

Formation in the last room
Formation in the last room
Group shot
Exit tunnel
After the tour, we drove back to Dillon and then another hour to the campsite which was along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway.  When we got there, we had the second hitch in our plans.  The Grasshopper Creek Campground was closed for remodelling.  It was dusk and I was close to being in trouble with Chimene.  Luckily, we had a map in the car and she said it looked like there was another campground a little further north.  As it turns out, there are many campgrounds along that scenic byway.  We stayed at the Price Creek Campground for $8.00.  It was a beautiful, private, quiet campground.  We pitched our tent, ate a meal, enjoyed the fire for awhile and went to bed.  I will stay there again.  It was idyllic.

Price Creek Campground
At the campsite
The boys around the fire
After breakfast, we broke camp and headed over to Crystal Park.  The Price Creek Campground was actually much closer to Crystal Park than the Grasshopper Creek Campground, so that was a bonus. 

Crystal Park is 220 acres of quartz crystal goodness.  It has been core drilled up to 180 feet and they were still finding crystals at that depth.  Only hand tools are allowed at Crystal Park so this deposit will never run out.  It is immense.  It has been heavily dug, though so there are a few strategies for finding crystals.  The easiest way is to walk the park and look for shiny things on tailings piles.  Chimene found alot of crystals that way.  Another strategy is to find areas that have not been dug.  That's the hardest way because the whole of the mountain has been dug on.  It looks like it was carpet bombed.  The other strategy is to find a likely looking hole that has been worked and expand it.  That's probably the easiest way to get to virgin ground.  That's the way I chose to work and I found some stuff.  Next time I go, though I will take a pick and some five gallon buckets to better work the diggings.  It was a fun day.  We stopped digging at about three o'clock and headed home.  We were home several hours before dark.

The diggings
Tyler and Haydn screening for crystals
Tyler and Haydn watching the rest of us work
Lewis & Clark Caverns....$55
Parking at Crystal Park....$5
Beautiful Memories....Priceless

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How I Spent My Summer--Travelogue: Part VI

Trip #6--R Mountain
Out west of Rexburg, Idaho there is a pair of volcanoes that dominate the skyline.  They are called the "Menan Buttes".  The north butte is the tallest and most of it sits on BLM land.  The south butte is privately owned and a family farms in the crater.  The north butte is referred to as "R Mountain" because of a big white R that is painted on it.  Here in the west, it used to be traditional to paint a big letter on the side of a mountain to indicate something about the area.  The R was either for Rexburg or Ricks College, I was never sure which.  I believe it was for Ricks College because students from there are the ones who always painted the R.  When I was a kid, every year at Ricks College homecoming, students would hike up to the R, cover it with kerosene soaked burlap bags and light it at nightfall.  It would burn for an hour or so and was always a cool thing.  Since Ricks College changed to BYU-Idaho the R has fallen into disrepair and is no longer being maintained.

The north butte, or R Mountain.  The R is barely visible now
These two volcanoes are unique and are studied by vulcanologists from all over the world.  First, they are among the largest tuff cones in the world, and second they erupted through the Snake River and the river gravels.  These are the only tuff cones to do so in North America, so combining that with their size, these are very special cones.  A xenolith is a rock with a different origin than the volcanic material embedded in the tuff.  These volcanoes have xenoliths that are both lava rocks from previous flows and river rocks from the river gravel. 

When I was in the eighth grade, our geology class climbed the north butte for a field trip.  I may have climbed it one other time but I don't remember.  I decided to take my sons up the R this summer and I'm glad I did.  It was a fun hike and we had a great time doing it.  When I climbed it before, I went up the east face trail.  That trail has been closed and now there are two remaining trails on the south side and the west side.  We chose to climb the west face.

My sons at the trailhead on the west face of R Mountain
The trail is well maintained and the first two or three hundred yards is sand and gravel.  As the trail rises, it alternates between dirt, sand, and rock.  The landscape is dominated by large sagebrush and juniper trees and the further up the mountain you go, bizarre rocky outcroppings that look like they belong in a sci-fi movie.  The view out over the valley is breathtaking as well.  To the northwest you can see the remnants of multiple lava flowsand evidence of collapsed lava tubes.

Sagebrush and Junipers
Lava flows and collapsed lava tubes
Rocky outcropping
Toward the summit there were many small caves and overhangs.  In one we found evidence of animals using it for shelter, as there were twigs and bark and leaves gathered together in what looked like a den.

Random cave near the summit
The R Mountain is climbed daily and frequently and is well maintained.  The BLM wishes people to stay on the trail up the face because native plants have been trampled and erosion has ensued, so in places they have built rail fences along the trail to keep people from sensitive areas.  At the summit, the climb becomes steeper and they have placed a chain railing there to assist climbers.  Once on the rim, the view is really incredible.  To the East is the city of Rexburg, to the south is the second butte, to the west is the desert and farmland and to the north is the Island Park Caldera.  At any point on the rim, the crater is also visible.  There are a few trails up on the rim.  One trail follows the rim all the way around and another cuts through the crater.  We only had time to do about half the rim trail and then cut through the crater as we had a Boy Scout court of honor to attend that night.  We chose to do the south rim.

The crater from the west rim
Veiw to the west from the rim
The south rim has many strange rock formations and appears very alien and rugged.  Xenoliths are abundant.  There are interpretive signs in several places on the rim that talk about the geology, biology, ecology, and botany of the buttes.  It all makes for an interesting hike.  We wildcatted around the rocks of the south rim for awhile and explored some of the formations before we found the crater trail and headed for home.  We found a basin or depression that appeared to have water in it in the spring and after rainclouds.  We imagined that this would be a place where some of the lizards, birds and other animals that populate the buttes would come to drink.  This was another great day.

Rock formations on south rim
Strange rock formation
A xenolith
Alien landscape

Monday, August 29, 2011

How I Spent My Summer--Travelogue: Part V

Trip #5--Sentinel Meadows

Chimene and I decided we needed to get away, just the two of us, so we scheduled a day trip into Yellowstone to do a little hiking.  This was one of those days that we wanted to see things you don't normally see in the park.  We opted for a short hike just before Madison Junction called Harlequin Lake.  I hadn't been on this particular hike since I was a teenager, so I thought it was time for us to see it.  Harlequin Lake Trail is a short hike, only about a half mile long to a cute little lake covered in lilypads.  It was nice, but not a trail I would wish to hike again.  It was short and once you are at the lake there is nothing to do because the tree line is right up to the shore.  I wanted to see it after the fires of 1988 came through.  It had been a much sparser forest back then, but after it burned, the new growth is so heavy that it is almost impassable.  It's a trail worth doing once every twenty-five years or so, I guess.

Harlequin Lake
We decided to take the Firehole Loop Road, which is something we almost always do when visiting Yellowstone.  There are several sets of falls along this stretch of the Firehole River.  There is a small falls furthest downstream, then the larger more picturesque falls that everyone stops to photograph, then the swimming area, and finally above the swimming area is another falls that we had never explored before.  We hiked down to the water's edge to view this section of the falls up close.  We were glad we did.  It was quite stunning.

Chimene and I at Firehole Falls
The upper section of the falls
We stopped at our second favorite pinicking area at Fountain Flats Drive, photographed some random elk and paid our respects to Mattie S. Culver.  She was the wife of the innkeeper at Fountain Flats in the 1800's.  She died of consumption in March and the ground was too frozen to bury her so her husband, E. C. Culver froze her body in two whiskey barrels laid end to end and waited for spring to bury her.  To this day, you can wade out in Nez Perce Creek and pick up white "rocks" and find parts of broken plates and bowls.  When the Culvers would break a piece of china at their inn, they would toss it in the creek.  That "trash" is now an historical park relic and is illegal to remove from the park.

A random elk at Nez Perce Creek/Fountain Flats Drive
Mattie's grave
We picked up the trailhead to Sentinel Meadows at the end of Fountain Flats Drive and Ojo Caliente spring.  Ojo Caliente is a very hot pool that boils down into the creek.  In fact it's the hottest water in the park at 211 degrees.  When I was a teenager, we used to come into the park at night and swim in the river just below Ojo Caliente.  It was some of the nicest water in the park and would alternate between very warm water and cool water depending upon where you swam.

The old swimming hole at Ojo Caliente
In the 1870's, the army was garrisoned in these meadows and named them "Sentinel Meadows" for the three large thermal mounds that dominate the valley.  Superintendent Norris, the second superintendent of the park discovered a hot spring that was just the right temperature for a nice leisurely soak.  The soldiers would do their laundry in the spring and bathe in it as well.  Norris built a small log building at or over the spring and called it "Queen's Laundry Spring" and the structure was called the "Soldier's Bathhouse".  I had hiked to Soldier's Bathhouse when I was a teenager but hadn't been back since.  We decided to find the bathhouse but didn't have any luck and ended up having to blaze our own trail back to the car.  After we returned, I looked at a map and researched where we had gone wrong and next time I'm sure we will find the structure.  When I was a kid, we used to go hot-potting all the time, but now it's very illegal and the punishments are prohibitive so it's no longer worth it.  I do miss that though.

The Sentinels
When we were blazing our own trail back to the car, we stumbled upon a random bison.  He was too tired to gore us so we escaped unharmed.  On the way back to the car, Chimene noticed a really cool rock outcrop and decided that we needed to climb it.  On one side there was a cute little geyser, but on top the view was spectacular.  We will definitely do this hike again.

Random bison
Really cool tree roots
Random rocky outcropping
Random thermal feature
The view from the random rocky outcropping

How I Spent My Summer--Travelogue: Part IV

Trip #4--Lava Tubes

My son-in-law, Nick enjoys exploring and caving.  No matter where he goes, he always finds cool stuff to do.  Then he shares it with the rest of us.  When his friend, John came to visit last month, Nick took John and I and my older sons, Tyler and Haydn out in the Idaho desert to go exploring.

The Idaho desert north of our town was created by lava flows on top of lava flows.  In some canyons, there are up to seven separate lava flows visible.  When lava flows, sometimes it flows into a channel and when it does, the sides and the top of the flow cool faster than the middle, so a hard shell is created.  That shell can be thirty or forty feet thick, or more.  Eventually, the molten lava flows out and all that is left is a hollow tube.  Thousands of years later, sometimes a side will collapse and expose the tube.  Sometimes conditions are just right and ice will form in the tube and there will be ice year round.  They call them, Ice Caves.

Sometimes animals used them for their dens, early Americans used them for shelter and there is evidence that some native peoples have used the ice caves for preservation of food.  During the Cold War, part of the defensive strategy of the United States was to use some of these natural caves to shelter local populations in the event of a nuclear strike.  We have one such cave in the desert here.  They were called the Civil Defense Caves and during the Cold War they were stocked with food and water and supplies.  They were supposed to shelter 8000 people.

While we were in the desert, we spelunked three caves.  The first was the ice cave, the second was a lava tube with no ice and the third was the Civil Defense Caves.

Cave #1-The Ice Cave
This cave has Ice year round.  To get back into it there is a slide worn into the ice from so many people climbing in it year after year.  There are a couple of large chambers and areas where the roof has collapsed so the tunnel is narrow.  At the end of the main tube there is a frozen waterfall.  Above the main tube is another tube that also has ice in it.  We spelunked in both of them.

Rock formations such as this indicate the presence of a collapsed lava tube

Nick, Tyler, Haydn and John getting to the Ice Cave
The Ice cave lava tube has several areas where the ceiling caved in.  To get to the cave you have to climb through several of these areas.

The entrance to the Ice Cave
The ice begins within the first fifteen feet underground in the ice cave.  The main tube has a rope embedded in the ice that you can use to aid yourself down into the main chamber.  After that you have to navigate around a huge ice dam to get into the rest of the cave.  This involves laying on your back and kicking off the ceiling to propel yourselve through the tube.

John at the ice slide
To get to the upper chamber you have to do a little rock climbing with toe holds and finger holds.  It isn't too tough, but one false move and it could be catastrophic.  When you get into the tube, however, the ice crystals on the ceiling are very beautiful.

Ice crystals on the ceiling

Haydn, Tyler and me at the end of the upper cave

The view, emerging from the Ice Cave

Cave #2--The Lava Tube
Nick has lava tube radar, so he set out across the desert for a hundred yards or so and found another lava tube.  This one was much more pristine than the Ice Cave.  This lava tube wasn't collapsed as much as the Ice Cave, so it was long and round.  Almost perfectly so.  We were able to cave in this one for about a quarter mile before it became impassible.  It was very cool inside.

Nick at the entrance of the second cave.
Inside the second cave.
Haydn, Nick and Tyler inside the perfectly round tube.
Cave #3--The Civil Defense Caves
The Civil Defense Caves are about fourteen miles outside of Rexburg, Idaho on the desert.  Nowadays they aren't full of supplies or water, but they are a destination for history buffs, geologists and spelunkers.  I had been here once before, when I was a teenager, but I didn't have a flashlight and stayed in the opening, didn't venture any deeper than the existing light would allow.  I also think I was on a field trip and the teacher wouldn't let us go very far into the caves.

Dirt road from here
Entrance to the Civil Defense Cave
Inside, looking out.
Haydn and John inside cave to show scale
The Civil Defense Caves are two ends of a massive lava tube.  The ceiling in most places was forty to fifty feet high.  The only places it wasn't were the areas where the ceiling had collapsed and there was rubble on the floor.  The main cave is 3000 feet long and about twenty yards wide.  This is a large lava tube and it was the government's idea for surviving a nuclear attack.  Gives new meaning to the term, "Bomb them back to the stone age."