Of all the many reasons why waterfalls are great, here’s another: they expose bedrock! And that bedrock tells a story extending back in time long long before the waterfall. This posting describes 9 waterfalls that together paint a partial picture of Washington’s geologic history. The photos and diagrams will all appear in my forthcoming book Roadside Geology of Washington (Mountain Press) that I wrote with Darrel Cowan of the University of Washington.
And waterfalls in heavily forested areas are especially great because they may give the only view of bedrock for miles around! Take Rainbow Falls, for example–the small waterfall on the left. It’s in Washington’s Coast Range along State Highway 6–a place where a roadside geologist could otherwise fall into total despair for lack of good rock exposure. But this beautiful waterfall exposes a lava flow of the Grande Ronde Basalt, which belongs to the Columbia River Basalt Group. Significant? Yes!
This lava erupted in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon between about 16 and 15.6 million years ago and completely flooded the landscape of northern Oregon and southern Washington. We know how extensive these flows are because we can see them–and they cover the whole region. The photo below shows them at Palouse Falls in the eastern part of Washington. Take a look at my earlier blog post about the Columbia River Basalt Group? (includes 15 photos and a map)
You might also notice in the photo above that the waterfall is actually pretty small compared to its amphitheatre. That’s because Palouse Falls is part of another flood story –of the Ice Age Floods, described in rich detail on the Ice Age Floods Institute website. Basically, some 40 or 50 gigantic floods coursed through the area towards the end of the Ice Age, between about 15-18,000 years ago. and among other things, carved this canyon. Lobes of the continental ice sheet repeatedly dammed the Clark Fork River in northern Montana and then failed, repeatedly, after forming Glacial Lake Missoula. Imagine the flow volume in the above photo multiplied more than 100,000 times!
Mount Rainier and the Cascade Volcanoes
At 14,410 feet above sea level, Mount Rainier is the highest volcano in the Cascade Range –and one of the highest spots in the conterminous United States. The volcano itself consists mostly of andesite flows that date back nearly a half million years.
Beneath those lava flows are older rocks that speak to a history of volcanic activity reaching back 70 times that of Rainier’s oldest lavas –to about 35 million years ago. At Christine Falls, you can inspect granitic rock of the Tatoosh Pluton, which is a crystallized magma chamber that formed beneath some early Cascade volcanoes. It was probably active at different times between 26-14 million years ago. At Narada Falls, you can see where Rainier andesite actually flowed over the top of the granite–which tells us that the granite was exposed at the surface 40,000 years ago when that flow erupted. Both these waterfalls are right along the road that winds its way from Longmire up towards Paradise Meadows.
If you go to the south entrance of the national park, you can walk a quarter mile from the highway to Silver Falls and exposures of Rainier’s oldest rocks. The Ohanapecosh Formation, made mostly of tuffs and re-deposited volcanic particles, formed by explosive volcanic activity that stretches back 35 million years. The Ohanapecosh Formation forms cliffs throughout much of the national park –and shows up northward as far as Interstate 90.
Finding the oldest volcanic rock in the Cascade Volcanoes is important because this incredibly active volcanic chain is fueled by magma generated through the sinking of oceanic lithosphere at the Cascadia subduction zone –and the oldest rocks allow us to estimate when this process started. They get even older at Snoqualmie Falls, just north of I-90. There, rocks of the Mount Persis Volcanics reach ages of 38 million years. Most geologists agree that for Washington, these rocks mark the first volcanic activity after the formation of the Cascadia subduction zone.
Early Volcanic Roots and Continental Accretion
Here it gets a little complicated, because subduction also drove much of Washington’s geologic history before the Cascade volcanoes started to form. This older subduction also formed volcanic chains and through the process of continental accretion, caused Washington to grow westward.
This diagram, modified from my book Roadside Geology of Oregon, illustrates the process of accretion. Basically, some element of the subducting seafloor is unable to fully sink beneath the continent, probably because it’s topographically high– such as with a series of seamounts. This material jams up the subduction zone and causes the sinking to stop temporarily. Eventually, a new subduction zone forms farther offshore and the thing that jammed up the zone in the first place gets added, or accreted, to the edge of the continent. In Washington and Oregon, the younger Cascadia subduction zone is the one that formed the Cascade Volcanoes and the stuff that jammed the zone was a huge fragment of oceanic lithosphere called “Siletzia”. Siletzia now makes up the bottom of Washington and Oregon’s Coast Range. The older subduction zone that got jammed up is the one that’s responsible for the rocks described below.
Gorge Falls along State Highway 20 in the North Cascades cuts this narrow slot through rocks formed because of that older subduction zone. These rocks started as the granitic roots to volcanoes, much in the same way as the Tatoosh Pluton formed the roots to some Cascade volcanoes. Those roots then got squeezed and reheated to make a metamorphic rock called gneiss. In some places it even partially re-melted.
The inset gives a close-up view of the rock. It’s called “orthogneiss” because it started out as an igneous rock. It forms a big part of the Skagit Gneiss Complex, which makes up the core of the North Cascades.
It’s hard to say if the Skagit Gneiss Complex was actually added to the edge of North America from somewhere else, but a lot of other rocks in Washington were–and those episodes of accretion are what caused much of the metamorphism in the North Cascades.
For accreted rock, here’s probably my favorite waterfall: Nooksack Falls, along State Highway 542 between Bellingham and the Mt. Baker ski area. It’s made of conglomerate of the Nooksack Group, which accumulated in a submarine fan somewhere off the coast of North America during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, maybe 140 million years ago.
Ancient North America
If you go eastward towards Spokane, you eventually find yourself on the North America that existed before all this accretion. Of course, much of the area is now covered by the Columbia River Basalt, but in the northeast corner of the state, you encounter Paleozoic sedimentary rocks that formed along the continental margin of that older continent. Sweet Creek Falls is one place to see these rocks, right off State Highway 31. There, the beautiful stream spills over ledges of Ledbetter Slate, deposited as shale during the Ordovician Period. In the foreground are cobbles of Addy Quartzite, formed as beach-deposited sandstone in the Cambrian.
Washington’s Geologic Timeline
The timeline below shows Washington’s main geologic events –and you can see where these 9 waterfalls fit. The red text and red-colored bars represent geologic events represented by individual waterfalls, shown in blue. Kind of amazing… these 9 waterfalls show many of Washington’s most important elements: the Cascade Volcanoes, the Columbia River Basalt Group, continental accretion, and the old continental margin.
And they’re nice places to hang out!
For more geology photos, please check out my website–it contains a searchable database of more than 2000 geology photos for free download.
Roadside Geology of Washington should be out and available in August, 2017.
Thanks for reading!