Maze of Granite, Oasis in Stone

Wild Granite Morning

Down an obscure dirt road, up a thousand feet of scree, sand and unwelcoming piñon forest, and through an obstacle course of massive boulders, and you’ll at last reach an intimate view of what is surely one of Nevada’s most remarkable rock outcrops. Back in the Mesozoic, as the Farallon Plate subducted beneath the west edge of North America, it sent forth a host of granite bubbles which would eventually form the Sierra Nevada, plus a few further east in the future Great Basin. This one intruded into the convoluted taffy pull of fault-contorted strata that would one day be lifted up to form the Toiyabe Range. The Toiyabes are one of the Great Basin’s more geologically and topographically diverse ranges, and the spires, walls and gorges of this granite-lined drainage form a forbidding scenic climax in the mountains’ eastern flank.

Toiyabe Granite

My visit to the area coincided with one of the many pulses of Pacific moisture that have been giving our region an unusually wet May, welcome moisture and consolation after a historically dismal, precipitation-free winter. I scouted a trailless path to promising views surrounded by mist and rain squalls, and went to bed with high hopes for a dramatic sunrise, but as I started uphill in the early dark I saw nothing but thick clouds. I hoped for a break to the east at dawn which never materialized. At last, forty minutes after sunrise, a few pale beams managed to break through the gray. It was not the light I hoped would complement such a landscape, but it was something. I’ll be wishing for better luck on future visits.

McCloud Descent

Once the chance of dawn light was well and truly over, I picked my way downhill into the maze in hope of reaching the creek. Rumor has it that people occasionally climb these formations, and I was hoping I might stumble upon an informal trail to ease the way. If any such paths exist, I didn’t find them. But I did make my way down to a beautiful stretch of creek where the small stream threaded its way over waterfalls in a gorge of polished granite slickrock.

McCloud Spiral Falls

The riparian trees were glowing spring green, and flowers and moss formed miniature gardens below the massive walls and brush-choked slopes, without the slightest sign of human visitation.

McCloud Microgarden

McCloud Shooting Star Cluster

Overhanging Garden

McCloud Creek Cleft

This is why I love Nevada.  The state can often appear to be nothing more than unending desert and sage with nondescript arid ranges marching to the horizon; in truth, that aspect of the landscape appeals to me. But the outcrops of fantastic geology, the hidden pockets of lushness and water tucked away among innumerable mountains, these isolated treasures bring life and magic to the vast spaces. They evoke ecologic memories of Pleistocene lakes and ice, whispers of the expanse of geologic time, and their intimacy and rarity make the endless ridges and basins of their surroundings seem to spread even wider. Emerging from the granite maze, the sweep of the Toiyabe front stretches away as the clouds brush the peaks, a breath of moisture blowing east through the empty land.

Toiyabe Rain

16 thoughts on “Maze of Granite, Oasis in Stone

    • I’m sure the taffy pull metaphor is not an original from my brain, though I can’t think where specifically I’ve seen it used. The amount of thrust faulting that happened in the central Great Basin truly boggles the mind. And then it was followed by plutonic intrusions, lots of seriously explosive volcanism, and finally extensional faulting and mountain building. So “taffy pull” really only barely scratches the surface of the geologic confusion in Nevada!

      • wow, excellent photos of the “wild granites”.

        spend the summer of ’01 doing the geology field camp through the university of Utah mapping out the metamorphic core complex of the Raft River Range (Utah/Idaho border). Prof Dinter used the analogy of “taffy-pulling” to describe the episodic alterations of contraction and expansion during the first four phases of deformation (D1-D4), most notably the kilometer-scaled recumbent folds of the third deformation phase (D3). he also used the analogy of “spreading peanut butter on hard toast” to describe the ductile shear-zone open-folding (visible and quite impressive) during the fifth and sixth deformation phases (D5-D6). A very fascinating desert mountain range to explore.

      • Thanks for dropping by, tb! I’ve only ever driven by the Raft River Range, but it’s certainly one of those ranges that looks very intriguing even from a distance, and it’s geology definitely sounds worth the trip. Someday!

    • I don’t think we yet need to worry about a “rock gap” with any rival superpowers! They are getting pretty interested in rare earths in Nevada, though, and Tesla is looking hard at the state’s lithium deposits.

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