Back in the spring, I visited an obscure wilderness area in our local neighborhood. Small and unassuming on the map, tucked up against much larger wildlands and higher mountains, it’s an out-of-the-way place, and I wasn’t sure what I’d find. I had read in the geologic literature that the area was made mostly of granite, so I was a little surprised on the drive in to see what appeared to be heavily eroded badlands of the type usually associated with soft sedimentary rocks or volcanic ash deposits. Regardless, the badlands were very enticing, clearly an intricate mineral labyrinth lightly adorned with Joshua trees and a sparse smattering of other desert plants. I pulled over and started wandering. But my surprise was much greater to discover, when I got close enough to lay my hands directly on the rock, that this crumbled, erosive, dendritic landscape was in fact made entirely of granite, a pale granite studded with large crystals.
I’ve never seen granite behave like this, and all the nearby desert plutons weather much more conventionally into rounded boulder fields of the type seen in the Alabama Hills or Joshua Tree National Park. This patch out on the California-Nevada border was clearly marching to a different drummer. Our local geologist offered only educated speculation, but the dendritic erosion patterns made clear that some disturbance in the region’s history had allowed this particular patch of granite to be affected primarily by water erosion rather than the slow chemical weathering typical of the area.
I wandered up several canyons into the maze. At every bend of the watercourse, I was sure that the canyon could go no further, that an impassable dryfall must be around the next bend. But I was always surprised as the defiles cut deeper and deeper, further and further back into this anomolous pluton. The Joshua trees were blooming, other desert flowers contributed their splashes of color. In one hollow antechamber I surprised a pair of Great Horned Owls, quizzical and a little incredulous to see a visitor in their sanctuary; in another room a prairie falcon flew overhead, ignoring me entirely. The ancient Hebrew vision of “an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls” might have been envisioned with this very landscape in the prophet’s mind. Only the breeze and my own footsteps disturbed the silence as the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, the evening light etching the millions of fractal involutions comprising the walls of this desert cathedral.
We’ve had a lovely spring here in the valley, and the last eight weeks have seen our local toads emerge and an increasing bounty of snakes and lizards. I’m pretty sure these are Mojave patch-nosed snakes (Salvadora hexalepis mojavensis) – can anyone confirm?
They were having quite a wrestling match, though whether it was rivalrous or amorous was not clear to me:
A handsome gopher snake who’s been hanging out in our yard:
Photographing the local herpeta is driving home just how shaky my macro photography skills are, and achieving adequate depth of field is a constant challenge with small creatures. But a bit of blur does emphasize the excellent camouflage of the horned lizards:
The black toads are a pleasure every time I visit!
The Piper Mountain Wilderness is a medium-small wilderness area happily located within a couple miles of my house. Straddling a branching spur on the Inyo Mountains, it encompasses the entire divide between Deep Springs and Eureka Valleys, as well as a substantial stretch of Eureka Valley’s northern floor. It contains a nice swath of local geology, from Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian sedimentary layers to Cenozoic basalt, but the lion’s share of its rock is Mesozoic granite plutons, which form a wonderland of boulder-studded ridges reminiscent of the Alabama Hills or Joshua Tree, though at higher elevations.
The many nooks and crannies, minor summits and stone labyrinths of the Piper ought to provide me with years of short explorations. But the views from the area’s high points are easy and spectacular goals for a morning close to home. Across the expanse of Deep Springs Valley the Eastern Sierra preside, while to the south is the deep drop and vast, desert expanse of Eureka, with the Last Chance Range looming above.
Just some cattle, cowboys and a desert valley:
La Trahison d’images, California desert edition:
Backcountry surrealism or merely a very ironic end for this particular bumper sticker? You be the judge! The long out-of-date possessiveness on display below was amusing as well:
As long as I’m indulging myself in the perennially entertaining photographic sub-genre of Rusty Junk in the Desert, I may as well toss out a few more. Here’s some abandoned mining machinery in the Inyo Mountains Wilderness:
I don’t dabble much in black and white work, but the two shots below made it irresistible. A defunct fence being reclaimed by the chemical playa of Deep Springs Lake:
Cabin near a former mercury mine above Eureka Valley:
….the Great Basin is a recent development in the geologic story of the West…. [Eocene] Nevada was a lot higher than it is today…. Elevate Nevada into a rugged plateau more than two miles high, much like the Altiplano of the central Andes today, and you have an image of the Nevadaplano — a highland region that dominated Nevada before it collapsed like a punctured soufflé to make the Great Basin…. Visualize snowfields between the rugged peaks. Meltwaters seep across the landscape…. The Sierra Nevada today lies about where the western flank of the Nevadaplano once sloped toward the Pacific Ocean. In effect, the Sierra is what remains of the Nevadaplano’s western edge. The rest of the Nevadaplano was destroyed by the stretching and collapse of the crust that made the Great Basin.
–Keith Heyer Meldahl, Rough-Hewn Land: A Geologic Journey from California to the Rocky Mountains
It may be lower, more broken and dryer these days, but during chilly winter twilight, the ghosts of the Nevadaplano still seem to haunt the empty volcanic expanses, high sage hills, and distant snow-dusted peaks.