Red Rocks and Snow Capped Peaks May 31 to June 13
But first a side trip: Birds in Migration
A timely departure from SLC afforded a side trip to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. This refuge along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake provides varying salinity (from freshwater to brackish) ecosystems because of the different mixing of fresh and salt water (the Great Salt Lake is saltier than the earths great oceans). Located at the edge of two important flyways (the Pacific and Central Flyways) the refuge is critical for 200 species of birds (67 species nesting in the refuge).
We had already visited the Farmington Migratory bird Refuge earlier in the week and that gave us a taste for seconds of a similar flavor. Many of the species we had seen before but were happy to be reacquainted with. A few which were especially rare sightings were: Western and Clark’s Grebes, Long Billed Curlew, White Pelicans, Great Horned Owls and the very abundant Yellow Headed Blackbirds. Toni was busy snapping pictures with her Lumix Zoom camera and here are a few of the best:
Discovery of Red Rocks in Green River Canyon
Fifty six years before John Wesley Powell made his historic boat trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers, a back country trapper named William Ashley explored the Green river and its shores in buffalo hide boats. It is in honor of the first explorer of the Green River and its steep red rock canyons that the Ashley National Forest gets its name.
The first night we stayed in a primitive campground in the central part of the NF within a protective canyon which came with a babbling brook called Sheep Creek. Drives at dusk and dawn yielded a few small herds of skittish elk along with a traveling flock of Mountain Bluebirds (both too quick to be captured on camera). A young family who recently relocated from Colorado established a small farm with a farm stand which we patronized the next morning. Here is a look at the Sheep Creek Geologic Area with its dramatic canyon walls.
In 1869 when Powell traveled this route he provided the name “Flaming Gorge” to the red walled canyons of the Green River. Within the National Forest the 91 mile long (42,000 acre surface area) Flaming Gorge Reservoir is the primary feature of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
The 500’ high Flaming Gorge Dam was completed in 1964 for the purpose of electric power generation, recreational boating & fishing, flood control and maintaining downstream water supplies in the Colorado River System. The changes resulting have flooded four Green River canyons upstream, endangered four warmer water fish species and simultaneously created a downstream “Blue Ribbon Trout Stream” for catch and release fishing for Rainbow, Brook and Brown Trout. A “selective withdrawal structure” was added in 1978 to regulate the water temperature flowing through the three turbines. Prior to this the water was too cold for trout and aquatic insect survival. Briefly each spring the discharge rate is nearly doubled from the usual 4500 cfs rate (via the turbine tubes) by opening two bypass tubes; this mimics the spring high discharge rate needed to stimulate spawning by the fish downstream. It also lowers the reservoir level in high snowfall years. I took a guided tour of the dam and its features.
Driving north from flaming Gorge the highway traverses a high altitude flat top butte which provided panoramic views of the valleys. Clearly the wind driven snow here must be a problem since permanent snow fence parallels the western side of the road.
The second night we stayed in the north end of the NF along a broad section of the Green River valley surrounded by high desert. Rock monoliths perched on cliff tops and coyotes singing at dusk and dawn provided variety for this otherwise barren shoreline campground.
On the long, wide, straight stretches of 70 MPH “blue highways” the next day we saw antelope browsing among the sagebrush and the occasional small town bisected by this wide road with a 35 MPH speed limit. I helped boost the coffers of the town of La Barge, WY for traveling 41 when I blinked and missed the sign.
Struggling Cattle Ranches with Mountain Backdrop: a tourist Mecca
“Majestic” is a one word summary I would use to describe the mountains which rise dramatically from the adjacent lakes and level plain of Grand Teton National Park. When French trappers (remember the Louisiana Purchase of the central US from France?) roamed the shores of the Snake River their imagination gave rise to the name “Les Trois Tetons” when they named three tall peaks which were always in sight. Literally French for “The Three Breasts” with the tallest being “Le Grand Teton” which persists to this day as a name for this mountain range. After all, they were Frenchmen and it was a lonely life a long way from civilization and the amenities of New Orleans!
To quote Wikipedia, “The geology of the Grand Teton area consists of some of the oldest rocks and one of the youngest mountain ranges in North America”. Once again the story is of ancient volcanic and sedimentary rock (2.5 billion years old) which was later moved as tectonic plates shifted 9 million years ago. The 40 mile long “Teton Fault” is still active and more mountain changes are expected with future earthquakes. The flat plain adjacent to the mountains has settled with stretching of the more easterly section of the earth’s crust. Notice the terminal moraine (above pic) left by receding glaciers and the wide plains adjacent to the mountains.
The photo below, taken from the top of signal Mt brings an appreciation of the vast plain and adjacent mountains.
William Henry Jackson, who took the first photographs of the Teton Mountains (and Yellowstone which abuts it on the north) in 1871, provided the name for the town on the river and the valley of Jackson Hole with its mountain resort. Jackson’s photographs along with the sketches of Tom Moran, another artist in the Hayden Expedition, convinced Congress to protect these scenic areas and the National Park System was born.
The land was homesteaded in the 1890’s by Mormons and other ranchers but the winters were cold, the snow was deep and life was hard. The hostile climate conditions and failing economy during the 1930’s depression played a role in evolution and expansion of the Grand Teton National Park. The Park began in 1929 in a limited way, with the support of the wealthy residents of Jackson Hole, protecting only the mountains and adjacent lakes.
The present day National Park has been a work in progress for over seventy years. When conservationist John D. Rockefeller visited the area with his wife in the late 1920’s the valley of Jackson Hole remained primarily in private ownership. Horace Albright, then superintendant of Yellowstone NP, feared the entire Snake River Valley north of Jackson was at risk for commercialization and additional dams on the Snake River for the creation of more lakes. He and Rockefeller conspired to purchase the struggling ranchers’ lands and expand the Teton NP through land purchases by the privately owned (by Rockefeller) Snake River Land Company. Anonymous buyers went quietly about their work saying only that they represented a private party interested in conservation. This satisfied the sellers who thought this would preserve the winter range of the large elk herds. Ultimately the land company controlled more than 35,000 acres. 15 years of resistance by ranchers and the lack of congressional support blocked the transfer of this donated land to the National Park ( requiring an act of Congress). When the frustrated Rockefeller sent a letter threatening to sell the land “in the market to satisfactory buyers”, at the suggestion of Harold Ickes, Interior Secretary, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the Antiquities Act in 1943 to create The Jackson Hole National Monument (combining land from the Teton National Forest, a Theodore Roosevelt success, with the land donation from Rockefeller). Repeated attempts by Congress to abolish the monument failed. After WWII the general public sentiment shifted (although local resistance persisted) and in 1950 the monument was added by congress to the National Park System insuring permanence and federal funding.
The J Y Ranch, an 1100 acre parcel from the Snake R. Co., was retained for the personal use of John D. Rockefeller and his family. In 2001, after removing the buildings from this property, his grandson Laurance S. Rockefeller donated this remaining land (with access restricted to 50 vehicles at a time) to the park in the form of the LSR Preserve. One afternoon we visited the preserve and were awed by the serenity of the exhibits within the visitor center. One room has no visual focus but is entirely an auditory experience of the sounds of nature. Others are meditative with visual and audio components.
Laurance Rockefeller was a businessman, financier, philanthropist and major conservationist. He was instrumental in the formation of many national parks, including the donation of land and buildings in Woodstock which became Vermont’s only national park. Toni and I will be volunteering here later this summer for the third year. We have come to know him as a very spiritual man with a deep abiding interest in the importance of nature to renew and sustain our spirits. Two of his quotes are my favorites:
“How we treat our land, how we build upon it, how we act towards our air and water, in the long run, will tell what kind of people we really are.”
― Laurance S. Rockefeller
“In the midst of the complexities of modern life, with all its pressures, the spirit of man needs to refresh itself by communion with unspoiled nature. In such surroundings- occasional as our visits may be- we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.”
― Laurance S. Rockefeller
We returned to the preserve the next morning to hike the preserve along the stream to Phelps Lake and escape the traffic and crowds.
While in the park we camped on the shore of Jackson Lake which had a central location from which to explore. Heading north the first morning we saw elk, a coyote and then at 7:30 AM a pack of tourists with extra long camera lenses overwhelming a stretch of the road (social media spreads the word quickly). At this “Bear Jam” park officials were present to control traffic and keep the two Grizzly Bears and photographers separate. We only caught a glimpse with our binoculars so no brown bear pics to share.
On an evening wildlife drive we passed the same view of the mountains across Jackson Lake that we had early in the morning.
Yellowstone National Park: Geysers, Bison and another grand canyon.
Leaving the Tetons a day early had us in Yellowstone National Park without a campground reservation and we arrived after the First Come First Serve campgrounds were full. We found a site outside the park at the National Forest campground in West Yellowstone. The next morning we were at the Northeast corner of the park in line at 8 AM and scored the last campsite available. After setting up we immediately headed for the Lamar River valley, a vast grassland which feeds up to 2000 or more bison each summer. A high elevation view of some of the valleys and the Yellowstone River enchanted us.
As we drove along the river I noticed that most of the bison were scattered but there were several clusters of newborns with their moms—a mutual protection effort which benefits survival of the next generation. The bulls often found a solitary location to exclude themselves.
That night we ate dinner at the Roosevelt Lodge nearby. Good food, great service and reasonable prices. We enjoyed interacting with some of the student “servers” who came from across the U.S.
A congressional act signed by then president Ulysses S. Grant in 1871 made Yellowstone the first national park in the US (and the world). The National Park Service as an entity wasn’t formed until 1916. In those interim years the US Army was tasked to protect it from poaching, looting, mining and establishing commercial interests. It had been explored by trappers and hunters who heard the stories by natives who described its awesome features and hunted its grasslands. Conservationists, who feared commercialization of this unique landscape, worked hard to protect it for future generations.
The next day the clouds arrived as we explored the Mammoth Hot Springs and then the Upper Geyser Basin wrapping up the day at Old Faithful before being driven from the park by a forecast of subfreezing nights and snow.
The source of heat which powers the geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots is the presence of the super-heated liquid magma layer which lies close to the surface of the earth’s crust. In the central area of the park lies a 35 by 45 mile diameter caldera (defined as a large volcanic crater or depression in the earth), the effect of a sequence of catastrophic super-volcanic eruptions, the most recent being half a million years ago. The best explanation of a “Caldera” I have read comes from Bob Smith, a seismologist at the University of Utah reads:
“This crustal magma body is a little dimple that creates the uplift. It’s like putting your finger under a rubber membrane and pushing it up and the sides expand,” “The pressure on the surface finally gave way when cracks formed around the plume’s edges. When the surface could no longer withstand the pressure there was a massive explosion of magma, emptying more than one hundred cubic miles below the surface of molten rock. With nothing beneath the surface to hold it up, the crust caved in.” (And the resulting depression in the earth is a vast Caldera.
Since then mountains have been heaved up and then eroded by the rivers to form canyons in the park. The depth of the canyons is determined by the softness of the rock which lines them. The continental divide transects Yellowstone and the rivers in the park send their water to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the most dramatic and the “yellow stone” of canyon walls comes the Native American name. The Yellowstone River flows into the Missouri and thence to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic.
As the weather improved we returned and spent a day in the canyon area and saw additional hot springs in the Norris Geyser Basin. Here are the best shots of the Yellowstone River:
The Great Rift of the Snake River Valley, one route west
During the westward expansion of our country settlers looked for an easy and safe passage. Avoiding high mountain passes (a level trail was best), dangerous river crossings and marauding Indians were all priorities. Often they followed trails which were established by the first Americans—such is the case with settlers on the Oregon Trail. One such east-west valley is the Snake River Plain which was created by a series of seven volcanic caldera. The oldest eruptions started at the western end of the plain about 15 million years ago by a migrating hotspot which is believed to now exist under the Yellowstone Caldera. The migration is a result of movement of the North American Plate to the southwest. For a visual see the following:
As we drove west from the Yellowstone along this flat plain we observed the mountain ranges to the north abruptly terminate at the northern edge of this volcanic rift. From East to West they are the Beaverhead, the Lemhi, the Lost River and the Pioneer Mountain Ranges.
The “Great Rift” is just one fissure system that is periodically active in southern Idaho, releasing heat and lava. The oldest flows in the Craters of the Moon Lava Field are 15,000 years old and the youngest erupted about 2000 years ago. These volcanic fissures at Craters of the Moon are considered to be dormant at the present time and are expected to erupt again in the next 1000 years. Historically each active period lasted about a thousand years with quiet intervals lasting 500 to 3000 years.
“Unusual and weird volcanic formations” … were the words used by President Calvin Coolidge when he signed off on the Craters of the Moon National Monument.
Pioneers traveling in wagon trains on the Oregon Trail in the 1850’s and 1860’s had less complimentary words as they traversed this parched wasteland. Goodale’s Cutoff used old Indian trails that skirted the lava flows was later enhanced by a ferry across the Snake River. It reduced the possibility of ambush by Shoshone warriors and the level plain made travel easier despite the effect of the harsh lava to the feet of livestock and people.
Our arrival in Ketchum, Idaho was in time to visit their beautiful library, visit the graves of Earnest Hemingway and his wife , Mary Welch, and set up at our National Forest campsite in the in the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains. Here are a few scenes from Ketchum.
And here are a few scenes from our campsite in the Sawtooth National Forest.
More on the Sawtooth Mountains in the next post (which hopefully will not be as delinquent as this one).