Hiking the Curiosity Trail - Amazing Geology
In the first of the two-part series, Hiking the Curiosity Trail, we examine Amazing Geology. Washington is an excellent place to learn about geology. Volcanic activity, advancing and retreating glaciers, colliding plate tectonics and the ocean have all left indelible fingerprints on the landscape. The evidence is everywhere, but unless you know something about geology you might miss it.
In Amazing Geology we visit hiking destinations with fascinating geologic stories - places that will set your imagination alight as you dream about a time when tropical forests flourished, volcanoes erupted and massive floods transformed the earth. To explore Washington's geology further, please take A Grand Geologic Tour in Washington Trails Magazines March 2010 issue or pick up a copy of Hiking Washington's Geology by Scott Babcock and Bob Carson (Mountaineers Books, 2000). And when you're done, you'll want to check out the Part 1 of this series: The Human Touch. It covers eight destinations created or enhanced by something that people have left behind.
Petrified Trees!Trail: Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail
Location: East of Ellensburg
Season: March - November
Millions of years ago, the Columbia Plateau was a lush tropical forest. Ginkgo, walnut, sycamore, chestnut and oak trees were among the diverse array of plants that flourished among the swamps and lakes. Volcanic activity was plentiful, and one such eruption sent floods of lava screaming across the landscape, entombing the forest. It would all be gone but for one thing: the trees were so water-logged that a chemical process called petrification took place, turning the trees to stone. Flash-forward to the 1930s, when the petrified forest was discovered, specimens excavated and a state park established.
Today, visitors can walk an interpretive trail two miles from the visitor center. Twenty-two partially excavated petrified trees can be viewed along the way. Don't get too excited, however. Because of vandalism, the trees are in holes and behind bars. Still, it's enough to help visualize this shrub-steppe in a whole new way. Head to the visitor center to view polished examples that you can actually touch and to enjoy the sweeping views of the Columbia River and beyond.
Trail: Umatilla Rock, Sun Lakes State Park
Location: Central Washington
Season: March - November
The Eastern Washington landscape has been transformed by many fascinating geologic forces. The most visible today were repeated cataclysmic Ice Age floods that raged from Montana and sculpted the distinctive coulees of Eastern Washington, as well as the Columbia River Gorge. Imagine a massive wall of water racing at up to 65 miles per hour, carving through the basalt like butter and stripping away everything in its path.
Check out the effects of these floods first hand at Sun Lakes State Park, home to Dry Falls. This was once the largest waterfall the world has ever seen. What's left today is an escarpment 3.5 miles wide and 400 feet high. Sun Lakes is a great place to explore. View it from the visitor center along the highway, or better yet, hike around the prow-like mass of Umatilla Rock and see it rising up from the banks of Dry Falls Lake.
Largest Natural Spit in the World!Trail: Dungeness Spit
Location: Olympic Peninsula
Imagine the geologic forces that were in play to create the Dungeness Spit, thought to be the world's largest natural sand spit. The jetty curves out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca like a long, slender finger. Originally formed as the glaciers retreated and constantly sculpted by wind, waves, tides and the erosion of nearby bluffs, the spit is still growing and changing each year. A 150-year old lighthouse sits at its end, an important reminder to passing ships that there is a large obstacle in what would appear the be the middle of the channel. The leeward side of the Dungeness Spit is a wonderfully rich tidal habitat full of shorebirds, waterfowl and shellfish, some of which is protected seasonally or year-round with public closures.
Hikers can make the 11 mile round-trip trek to the lighthouse year-round, though they should be aware that the spit can be breached during storms. Bring binoculars, a tide chart and sunscreen; there is no shelter along this hike.
Mysterious Mounds!Trail: Mima Mounds
Location: South of Olympia
Thousands of unexplained rounded mounds dot the prairie at this National Natural Landmark near our state's capitol. The mounds once stretched for more than 20 miles - bumps (or "pimpled plains") six feet tall and 30 feet wide that from above look positively lunar. Scientists have many theories for why they exist - glaciation, freeze-thaws, earthquakes, gophers - but no one really knows for sure.
Today, Washington's Mima Mounds are important not just because they are the best examples of this unusual geologic feature in the country, but also because the area supports one of the last stands of native prairie in the state. Visitors can walk a short, paved interpretive trail that includes a raised viewing platform, then take to a 2-mile trail that allows hikers to walk amongst the prairie plants and the hummocks whose mystery is still waiting to be solved.
Explorable Lava Tubes!Trail: Ape Caves
Location: South of Mount St. Helens
Season: May - November
Let's get one thing clear straight-away: there have never been any apes in the Ape Caves. Sorry. The name comes from the first of Mount St. Helens' four major eruptive stages and was bestowed upon the caves by an outdoor group called the Mount St. Helens Apes.
Lava from eruptions during the Ape Canyon Stage more than 35,000 years ago created an underground lava tube more than two miles long - the longest continuous lava tube in the United States. Hikers can explore this tube through two major entrances to the Ape Caves. Both require preparation and care as the temperature is a constant 42 degrees, it is completely dark and there are numerous obstacles to contend with. The lower cave is the easier of the two and is appropriate for most equipped hikers. The upper cave is very difficult to navigate and is not for the faint-of-heart nor the unfit or unprepared. We encourage anyone wishing to explore the upper cave to read not only the Hiking Guide entry before going, but also WTA's related Trip Reports, several which are excellent.
Flames from the Ground!Trail: Flaming Geyser State Park
Location: Near Enumclaw
It doesn't look like much today: a candle - or more derisively, a Bic lighter - burning in the middle of a ring of stone. But this "flaming geyser" was once mightily impressive, enough to get it featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not. The geyser is actually a methane seep, discovered by miners exploring for coal in 1911. When initially lit, the blaze shot 25 feet in the air and could sustain an eight foot flame.
It was capped many years ago (hmmm...we wonder why?), and today it displays its rather meager flicker to those who follow the short nature trail to view it. But don't stop there. Flaming Geyser State Park has many miles of trails to explore, plus a model airplane field and nearby rafting and tubing on the Green River. The area is well worth a visit.
Volcano!Trail: Hummocks Trail
Location: Mount St. Helens National Monument
Season: June - November
The most recent example of geology gone wild is, of course, Mount St. Helens. The eruption of May 18, 1980 forever changed this landscape. One-third of the mountain exploded, flattening everything in its path and raining ash across several states. The explosion triggered lahars and massive debris avalanches that flooded nearby rivers, creating enormous damage to persons and property.
From an ascent of the crater rim to view the expanding lava dome to a walk in the pumice plain where plants are again taking hold more than 30 years later, the Mount St. Helens area is a geologic show-stopper. The Hummocks Trail, in particular, gives hikers a front-row seat to the effects of the lahar. The huge, colorful mounds (up to 500 feet high) are the crushed remains of the original cone that landed here as the debris avalanche narrowed to enter the Toutle River Valley - a melange of Mount St. Helens rearranged in a new hill. Life has come back in full force to this area too: grasses, bushes, willows and flowers are all taking hold. Ponds that dot the area are host to all sorts of wildlife and are themselves an intriguing geologic oddity, as this landscape is so new that a drainage system has yet to become established. If you go, this is a loop trail that is best done in a clock-wise manner.
Thumbs Up!Trail: Beacon Rock
Location: Beacon Rock State Park, Columbia River Gorge
As the Columbia River flows through the Columbia River Gorge, a 848-foot high thumb is perched on the edge of the water. This is Beacon Rock, the core of a volcano that has otherwise ceased to exist. As one of the largest free-standing monoliths in the world, the pinnacle has seen the passage of time, from the Ice Age floods that carved the Gorge to the arrival of Lewis and Clark in 1805 (who also named it).
That Beacon Rock is still standing today is a testament to Henry J. Biddle, who bought the land and constructed the trail to the top in 1918. Today it is one of the most popular destinations in the Columbia River Gorge. Hikers climb to the top on a series of stairwells and catwalks that are truly something to behold. They don't make them this way any more! From the top, enjoy unimpeded views of the entire Columbia River Gorge.