Tag Archives: geology

Devils Postpile National Monument

Overview

Originally managed as part of Yosemite National Park, this monument was established in 1911 to protect it from demolition by dam builders.  It is only 798 acres, so it can easily feel crowded; therefore we recommend getting an early or late start when the shuttles from Mammoth Lakes, California are not running.

Highlights

Devils Postpile, Rainbow Falls, Minaret Falls

Must-Do Activity

Devils Postpile National Monument is named for a 60-foot tall wall of columnar basalt formed by a volcanic eruption that occurred less than 100,000 years ago.  These interesting columns are one to three feet in diameter and more than half are hexagonal in shape. 

Best Trail

The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail runs through the monument, but just outside its boundaries in Inyo National Forest is a 3-mile round trip hike to pretty Minaret Falls.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A short 1.3-mile roundtrip hike takes you to 101-foot-high Rainbow Falls, which usually lives up to its name and is one of the most stunning waterfalls we have ever seen. 

Peak Season

Due to high snowfall in the Eastern Sierra, it is generally only open from June through October. 

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/depo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass, but most visitors have to pay $8 per person for a shuttle bus to enter the monument.

Road Conditions

You are only allowed to drive your own vehicle down the narrow access road if you are staying at Reds Meadow Resort or the Inyo National Forest campground.  Otherwise, you must pay to take a shuttle from Mammoth Lakes, California. 

Camping

A 21-site campground is located near the National Monument and many others outside Mammoth Lakes, California in Inyo National Forest, where dispersed camping is also allowed in some places.

Explore More – How did glaciers help expose the Devils Postpile formation 10,000 years ago?

Mesa Verde National Park

Overview

The impressive and numerous (around 600) cliff dwellings here were built by Ancestral Puebloans 600 to 800 years ago before their abandonment.  After a day or two at Mesa Verde, you will understand why since 1906 it has remained the only “National Park” dedicated to preserving an archaeological site.

Highlights

Chapin Museum, Spruce Tree House, Petroglyph Point Trail, Cliff Palace, Step House, annual open house with luminaria

Must-Do Activity

Purchase tickets for guided tours of the ruins at the shiny new visitor center off Highway 160 before driving 20 miles to Long House, Cliff Palace, or Balcony House (the best tour for families).   Leave time to explore Chapin Mesa Museum first, where a high-quality film introduces the history of the region.  When it finally reopens years after a rock fall, you can then take a quick but steep hike to Spruce Tree House, accessible without a paid tour, where you have the opportunity to climb down a ladder into the dim interior of a reconstructed kiva. 

Best Trail

After driving to the less-trafficked Weatherill Mesa, bike or walk the paved road to Nordenskold No. 16 Trailhead, numerous pit-houses, and Step House Loop Trail. 

Instagram-worthy Photo

We think Square Tower House is the most photogenic ruins in the park and can be viewed from an overlook off Mesa Top Loop Road.  In summer 2018, we made reservations for a special guided tour of only 10 people to enter these ruins.

Peak Season

Summer, but it can get hot with little shade atop the mesas.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$20 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

All roads paved, but some are closed in winter when tours are not offered.

Camping

Morefield Campground has more than 400 campsites atop the mesa; 15 with full RV hookups.  No backcountry camping is allowed.


This design we created to celebrate Mesa Verde National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – What month does the NPS host an evening open house with thousands of candle luminaria, free food, and live music?

Pipestone National Monument

Overview

This site is famous as a place people have come for 2,000 years to mine the red quartzite rock (also known as catlinite).  The soft sedimentary stone is relatively easy to carve into smoking pipes and effigies.  Only American Indians are allowed to quarry here today with the proper permits.

Highlights

Pipestone quarries, museum, carving demonstrations, Winnewissa Falls

Must-Do Activity

April through October, you can watch American Indian carvers at the National Park Service museum demonstrate how to sculpt this soft yet durable stone into hollow pipes and other beautiful ornaments.  It is illegal to remove any rocks without a permit, but you can buy carvings in the gift shop.

Best Trail

A 0.75-mile trail leads past historic rock quarries to Winnewissa Falls, just the spot to be on a hot summer afternoon.  The remnants of tallgrass prairie protected within the park boundaries give an idea of what this entire region might have looked like before it was converted to farms.

Instagram-worthy Photo

28 miles southwest across the border in South Dakota’s Palisades State Park where the same red quartzite rock dramatically rises above muddy Split Rock Creek and is a great place to picnic or watch rock climbers.

Peak Season

Summer, but it is open year round.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/pipe/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

All roads paved

Camping

There is a private campground near the monument entrance and Split Rock Creek State Park is 8 miles south.

Explore More – Who is the famous artist that catlinite is named after?

Grand Canyon National Park

Overview

Grand Canyon National Park is generally considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world.   Billions of years of geologic history have been laid bare by the cutting power of the Colorado River.  It is cliché but true, you simply have to see this icon with your own eyes.  It can be overwhelming.  So can the crowds on the South Rim, but those tend to thin out if you hike a mile or two down a trail.  If you have the time during the summer months, be sure to drive five hours over the forested Kaibab Plateau to reach the North Rim (which is only 10 miles away as the raven flies). 

Highlights

Desert View Watchtower, Hopi House, El Tovar Hotel, Phantom Ranch, Toroweap Overlook, whitewater rafting the Colorado River

Must-Do Activity

Growing up in Arizona, Scott used to visit this park frequently, but he feels he never got to know it until he hiked to the bottom in 2016.  Even if you only go a couple thousand feet down in elevation on the Grandview Trail or busy Bright Angel Trail, it will give you a new perspective on the canyon.

Best Trail

We day hiked the 18 miles from South Kaibab Trailhead (7200 feet elevation) down to Phantom Ranch (2500 feet) where we filled up with water on the way back up to Bright Angel Trailhead (6800 feet, with multiple water stations on the trail).  Backcountry permits can turn this into a multiple day trek, but then you have to carry all your gear out.

Instagram-worthy Photo

It is an arduous 90-mile one-way drive down a (mostly) dirt road to access Toroweap Overlook, but there is a reason photos from this fantastic overlook show up everywhere since the canyon walls are nearly vertical here.

Peak Season

Summer when it is very hot inside the canyon, though it can also be busy around the spring, fall, and December holidays.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$35 per vehicle or America The Beautiful pass

Road Conditions

Most roads are paved, and except for the very end of the 90-mile long graded dirt road to Toroweap Overlook is accessible to all passenger vehicles.

Camping

The park has campgrounds on both rims, but you can also find dispersed camping in the neighboring Kaibab National Forest.

This design we created to celebrate Grand Canyon National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Was Marguerite Henry’s book character Brighty based on a real burro?

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John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Overview

There are three units of this National Monument named for the John Day River that drains this region in the rain shadow of the Cascades.  It is less green than much of Oregon, but that lack of vegetation allows the wonderful colors of the soil to show through in places like the Painted Hills and Blue Basin.

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Highlights

Scenic views, geologic formations, fossils, museum

Must-Do Activity

The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center gets our vote for the best museum in the entire National Park Service System.   Across from Sheep Rock, it has awesome exhibits on the 40-million years of mammalian history this monument protects.  Plus, watch real laboratory specimens being prepared by archaeologists.  Across the highway, have a picnic at the James Cant Ranch Historic District and learn about sheep and cattle ranching in this region.

Best Trail

The Blue Basin is accurately named at the end of the one-mile Island in Time Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

If you can only see one unit of the monument, make sure it is the surreal Painted Hills. Stunning colors on large clay hills with several interpretive loop trails describe the geological history and fossils found there.

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Peak Season

Summer, though wildfires can cause road closures.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/joda/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Dirt roads at the Painted Hills are passable with most vehicles when dry.

Camping

None within the monument, but there are several campgrounds in the area, including a nice one we stayed at in the town of Fossil, Oregon.

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The John Day River running through the National Monument.

Rock formations like the ones at Devils Postpile NM
The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center gets our vote for the best museum in the entire NPS System.

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The blue badlands at the end of the one-mile Island in Time Trail. 

Group shot

 

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There are several trails through the Painted Hills for up-close views of the colorful soil.

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Explore More – Which unit of the National Monument is known for its fossil plants in mudstone?

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