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Smith Rock State Park –great geology at the edge of Oregon’s largest caldera

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Smith Rock, the Crooked River, and modern Cascade volcanoes from Misery Ridge.

The view from outside the small visitor center at Smith Rock State Park offers a landscape of contrasts. The parking lot, and nearby camping and picnic areas, are flat, underlain by the edge of a basaltic lava flow that drops off in a series of steps to a narrow canyon, some 120 feet (37 m) below. The Crooked River, which rises about 100 miles (162 km) away in the High Lava Plains, fills much of the canyon bottom. Across the canyon, tan cliffs and spires of tuff, another volcanic rock, soar overhead. Smith Rock itself forms a peninsula of this rock, enclosed by a hairpin bend of the Crooked River. The tuff erupted 29.5 million years ago in the largest volcanic eruption to occur entirely within Oregon.

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View down the Crooked River from near the parking lot. On the left is the Newberry basalt flow; the reddish tower just right of the river is the rhyolite dike intruding the Smith Rock Tuff.

The eruption created the gigantic Crooked River Caldera, which stretches like an ellipse southeastward from Smith Rock more than 20 miles (32 km) and traversed along its length by the Crooked River. Around its perimeter are rhyolite bodies that intruded after the eruption along ring fractures surrounding the caldera. These rhyolites include Gray Butte, just north of the park, Grizzly Mountain, to the northeast, and Powell Buttes, some 15 miles (24 km) to the southeast. The imposing red-colored tower, just downstream from the hikers’ bridge in the state park, is a rhyolite dike that also intruded after caldera collapse.

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Geologic maps: of Smith Rock State Park (left) and the Crooked River Caldera (right). Compiled from McClaughry et al. (2009A), Robinson and Stensland (1979), Walker and MacLeod (1991), and the State Park trail map.

Some of the finer-grained, airborne material likely accumulated 75 miles to the east to form much of the green-colored Turtle Cove Member of the John Day Formation, which has the same age. All told, the eruption produced more than 140 cubic miles (580 km3) of material. The eruption size as well as its caldera, however, eluded detection until about 2006 when Jason McClaughry and Mark Ferns of DOGAMI completed detailed mapping of the region. Now, some researchers even consider the eruption to be an early phase of the Yellowstone hot spot!

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Much of the green Turtle Cove Member of the John Day Formation, so well exposed at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, was probably derived from alteration of ash derived from eruption of the Crooked River Caldera, 29.5 million years ago.

Hiking any of the state park’s numerous trails gives you plenty of chances to see the rock close-up. It’s pretty much all tuff, the volcanic rock made mostly of consolidated ash and pumice. Many tuffs become welded into hard rocks because of the high temperatures as they compact, but most of these tuffs are not welded and so relatively soft. Some exceptions include the red-colored welded tuffs at the crest of the Misery Ridge trail.

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Close-up view of the Smith Rock Tuff. The faint green layers contain a higher proportion of fine ash, whereas the intervening areas typically contain coarser ash and more pumice. The greenish color consists of the alteration mineral celadonite.

You might also notice that parts of the cliffs display layering inclined roughly southward. Up-close, you can see that some layering is defined by subtle changes in the proportions of fine to coarse ash to suggest variations in the ferocity of the eruption. Many layers contain small rock fragments, the rocks being older material incorporated into the eruption. Most of these rocks are volcanic, derived from the underlying Clarno Formation. A tiny fraction, however, are pieces of Permian-age limestone. These limestones are significant as they came from the basement rock, accreted to North America during the later Jurassic or early Cretaceous periods.

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Fine-scale layering in the Smith Rock Tuff

Numerous pocket-like holes dot many of the cliff faces. The outer edges of these features typically consist of more durable rock whereas the insides typically consist of softer, more easily erodible material. The durable crusts form because minerals in the tuff dissolve in pore water and re-precipitate on the surface as the pore water evaporates. At Smith Rock, the responsible minerals are mostly zeolites, a group of minerals with wide-ranging compositions but containing silica, aluminum, and water. Along with the enhanced weathering and erosion along fractures, this case-hardening results in an endless variety interesting shapes and pinnacles.Case-hardening in tuff

The case hardening also creates outstanding surfaces for climbing, so on sunny weekends, the state park draws hundreds of rock climbers of all abilities. Considered one of Oregon’s top climbing areas, Smith Rock offers more than 1500 routes. Moreover, the cliffs are recognized as the birthplace of American sport climbing, which unlike traditional climbing, benefits from anchors placed permanently in the rock

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Rock climber reveling in a crack on the pillar called “Monkey Face”. Note the reddish upper part of the rock –it’s welded tuff above the non-welded tuff. Note also the layering in the tuff.

IMG_2255lrcThe basaltic lava flows at the state park have their own story, as they originated from vents on the north side of Newberry Volcano some 400 thousand years ago. If you look closely at the basalt, you’ll see that it’s uniformly very finely crystalline, but in some places full of air bubbles called vesicles. Because gases tend to rise through lava flows, the vesicles tend to become larger and more abundant towards the top of individual flows–as shown in the photo on the left –although you really need to click on it to see the larger version. The photo is 4 feet high from bottom to top.

For the most part, the lavas covered the older Smith Rock Tuff. They blanket the southwestern part of the caldera and sit on top the tuff in many places within the canyon. However, the cliffs of Smith Rock soar far above, so the lavas had to flow around them on their way to the Deschutes Canyon, some ten miles to the northwest. The interface between the high-standing tuff and the basaltic lava must have been highly irregular to make it ripe for erosion by the Crooked River, which now meanders through a lovely gorge.

And this post! It’s a draft of an entry I’m planning for my upcoming book, “Oregon Rocks!” –to be published by Mountain Press, probably sometime in 2021. I’m only allowed a few photos per entry, so here are a few more! You can click on each to see them at a larger size.


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Newberry Basalt overlying Smith Rock Tuff on the west side of the Crooked River, just downstream from its hairpin bend. Note the channeled base of the basalt.

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Lithic (rock) fragments in the tuff

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View northward from the west side of Misery Ridge, showing the red-colored welded part of the tuff overlying the less welded part.

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Contact of ash-and pumice-rich tuff overlying lithic-rich tuff near the bottom of the Misery Ridge Trail.

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View upstream: tuff on the left and in the background; basalt in the right middleground.

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Some useful references:

Bishop, E.M., 2003, In search of ancient Oregon: Timber Press, Portland, 288p.

McClaughry, J.D., Ferns, M.J., Gordon, C.L., and Patridge, K.A., 2009A, Field trip guide to the Oligocene Crooked River caldera: Central Oregon’s Supervolcano, Crook, Deschutes, and Jefferson Counties, Oregon, Oregon Geology, v. 69, p. 25-44.

McClaughry, J.D., Ferns, M.L., Streck, M.J., Patridge, K.A., and Gordon, C.L., 2009B, Paleogene calderas of central and eastern Oregon: Eruptive sources of widespread tuffs in the John Day and Clarno Formations, in O’Connor, J.E., Dorsey, R.J., and Madin, I.P., eds., Volcanoes to Vineyards: Geologic Field Trips through the dynamic landscape of the Pacific Northwest: Geological Society of America Field Guide 15, p. 407-434.

Miller, M.B., 2014, Roadside Geology of Oregon: Mountain Press, Missoula, 386p.

Robinson, P.T., and Stensland, D.H., 1979, Geologic Map of the Smith Rock Area, Jefferson, Deschutes, and Crook Counties, Oregon. US Geological Survey Miscellaneous Investigations Map I-1142. 1:48,000.

Walker, G.W., and MacLeod, 1991, Geologic Map of Oregon. US Geological Survey. 1:500,000.

And some links:
Smith Rock State Park: https://oregonstateparks.org/index.cfm?do=parkPage.dsp_parkPage&parkId=36

Climbing article: https://www.climbing.com/places/thanks-volcanoes-climbing-in-oregon/

Columbia River Basalt Group–outrageous!

I can’t stop thinking about the Columbia River Basalt Group–the series of basalt flows that blanketed so much of my state of Oregon about 15 million years ago. Abbreviated as “CRBG”, it covers a lot of Washington too, as well as parts of western Idaho and northern Nevada. If you’re driving across those parts, you’ll likely travel miles and miles and miles over basalt basalt basalt –and that causes some people to say (mistakenly) that it’s boring. Some geologists even get grumpy about it because it covers up all the older rock.  Outrageous!

Lava flows of the CRBG in northern Oregon and Mt. Adams of southern Washington.  With views like this, how can you say the CRBG is boring? (Location "F" on map below.)

Lava flows of the CRBG in northern Oregon and Mt. Adams of southern Washington. With views like this, how can you say the CRBG is boring? (Photo “F” on map below.)

But of course, the CRBG is outrageous for a whole host of other reasons. For one thing, it really is huge: it covers an area of more than 77,000 square miles with a volume of more than 52,000 cubic miles –that’s more than 50x the volume of air between the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon! Really—the National Park Service estimated the volume of “Grand Canyon Air” to be about 1,000 cubic miles. It also erupted over a fairly short period of time: from about 17 million years ago to 6 million –but 96% of it erupted between 17 and 14.5 million years ago.

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And… most of it erupted from fissures in eastern Oregon and Washington –the roots of which are now preserved as dikes. And… many of the lavas made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And… (here’s the outrageous part), on reaching the Pacific, many of the flows re-intruded into the existing sediments and sedimentary rocks along the coastline to form their own magma chambers, some of which were thousands of feet thick! AND… some basaltic magma from those chambers then re-intruded the country rock to form dikes –and some even re-erupted on the seafloor!

All these outrageous details. Now think about them for a moment. They really happened. That’s what I find so wonderful and amazing about geology. We learn all these things and we put them in some part of our consciousness that doesn’t really let them soak in –but once in awhile they do.

Finally, the CRBG is beautiful and forms beautiful landscapes! Below are some photos to illustrate it, from feeder dikes in eastern Oregon to sea stacks eroded from a giant sill on the coast.

And I’ll save my snarky comments about young earth creationism for another post.

–and at the bottom, I’m adding a short glossary to explain some of the terms.

Ok… the photos!

 

Photo A. Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert.  The CRBG started with eruption of the Steens Basalt about 16.7 million years ago, which makes up the upper 3000′ or so of Steens Mountain, shown here.  Steens Mountain is one of our state treasures –it’s a fault-block mountain, uplifted by Basin-Range extension along a normal fault along its eastern side.

Fault-bounded east front of Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert.

Fault-bounded east front of Steens Mountain; mudcracked playa of Alvord Desert in foreground.

 

Photo B. Steens Basalt at Abert Rim. Like most of the CRBG, The Steens basalt covered outrageously huge areas.  It also makes up the cliffs above Lake Abert about 75 miles to the east.  Called Abert Rim, the cliffs are also uplifted by a big normal fault.  Lake Abert occupies the downdropped basin.  And much of the Steens basalt consists of this really distinctive porphyry with outrageously big plagioclase crystals!

Photo B.  Steens Basalt at Lake Abert; Abert Rim in background.

Photo B. Steens Basalt at Lake Abert; Abert Rim in background.

 

Photos C-1, C-2. CRBG dikes.  One reason we know that the CRBG erupted from fissures is that we can see their roots, as dikes cutting through older rock.  C-1 shows a dike cutting through previously erupted basalt flows in Grande Ronde Canyon, Washington; C-2 shows some narrow little dikes cutting accreted rock of the Triassic Martin Bridge Limestone. Photos 5 and 6 of my last post shows some aerial photos and describes this area in more detail.C. Feeder dikes

 

Photo D. Imnaha Canyon. The next major unit of the CRBG is the Imnaha Basalt, followed by the Grande Ronde Basalt.  Both these units erupted from sites in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.  This view of Imnaha Canyon in Oregon shows the Imnaha Basalt near the bottom and the Grande Ronde Basalt at the top.

Photo D.  Imnaha Canyon, Oregon.

Photo D. Imnaha Canyon, Oregon.

 

Photo E. Picture Gorge Basalt at the Painted Hills.  And the next youngest unit of the CRBG was the Picture Gorge Basalt, shown capping the ridge in the background. Unlike most of the CRBG, the Picture Gorge Basalt originated in central Oregon, not too far from here–there’s a whole swarm of dikes near the town of Monument, Oregon.

The colorful hills in the foreground make up the Painted Hills of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, another of our state treasures.  I like this photo because it gives a sense of what lies beneath the CRBG –and the John Day Fossil Beds are outrageous in their own way–but save that for another time.

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Photo F. Lava Flows of the CRBG and Mt. Adams, a modern volcano of the High Cascades in Washington.  See the first picture at the top of the post!

 

Photo G. Wanapum Basalt near The Dalles. This exposure of the Wanapum Basalt, which overlies the Picture Gorge Basalt, tells the story of the CRBG as it flowed into and filled a lake along the Columbia River some 15 million years ago. At the bottom of the flow, pillow basalt formed as the lava poured into the lake, while the upper part of the flow shows the columnar jointing typical of basalt that flows across land.  What’s more, this exposure lies less than a mile off I-84 in The Dalles, Oregon.  See page 251 of the new Roadside Geology of Oregon for another photo and more description!

Photo G. Single flow of Wanapum Basalt near The Dalles, Oregon.

Photo G. Single flow of Wanapum Basalt near The Dalles, Oregon.

 

Photo H.  Upper North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon.  This wonderful state park hosts about a zillion waterfalls that spill over cliffs of CRBG, 14 of which lie in the main river channels of the north and south forks of Silver Creek.  The falls depicted in this photo are 136 feet high!

Upper North Falls at Silver Falls State Park, OR.  The roof of the alcove consists of Wanapum Basalt, the bedrock near the river channel consists of Grande Ronde Basalt.

Upper North Falls at Silver Falls State Park. The roof of the alcove consists of Wanapum Basalt, the bedrock near the river consists of Grande Ronde Basalt.

Notice that the picture’s taken from behind the water. The trail goes into a big alcove, so it’s easy and safe.  The alcove formed because this particular waterfall crosses the contact between the Wanapum Basalt and the underlying Grande Ronde Basalt –and there is a 10-20′ thick, easily eroded, sedimentary unit between the two.  Remember the Grande Ronde Basalt –from Photo D in northeastern Oregon? Here it is, just east of Salem!

 

Photo I.  Saddle Mountain, northern Coast Range.  Here starts the truly outrageous part of the CRBG story.  Saddle Mountain, the highest point in the northern Coast Ranges, consists almost entirely of the rock on the right: brecciated pillow basalt, full of the alteration mineral palagonite. Apparently, the basalt started to flow into the ocean at about here, formed pillows and fragmented like crazy in the water-lava explosions. I. Saddle Mtn

But!  These flows were likely confined too –such as in a submarine canyon–which allowed them to develop enough of a pressure gradient to intrude downward into bedding surfaces, faults, and fractures of the Astoria Formation.  The diagram below illustrates the process in cross-section.  The diagram also give a context for photos I-L.  intrusive CRBG diagram4

 

Photo J.  Sea stacks of intrusive Columbia River Basalt Group at Ecola State Park.  Some of the magma chambers were several thousand feet thick and are now exposed as gigantic sills along the coast.  One such sill is Tillamook Head, of which Ecola State Park is a part –and it’s eroding into the sea stacks you can see in the distance.J.130120-11lrs

 

Photo K.  Haystack Rock at Cannon Beach, OR.  Go figure, one of our iconic state landmarks is an undersea volcano?  You can actually walk out to this thing at low tide and see lots of pillow basalt and dikes intruding the Astoria Formation.  The smaller sea stacks are part of the same complex.K.130121-12

 

Photo L. Seal Rock, Oregon.  Seal Rock is the southernmost exposure of CRBG on the coast –and it too, is intrusive.  It’s a big dike that trends NNW for about a quarter mile out to sea.  And along its edges, there are smaller dikes that you can see intruding the Astoria Formation, such as in the smaller photo.  The arrow points to where you can see the small intrusion, at low to medium tides.

L. Seal Rock


Some Terms:
dike: a tabular-shaped intrusion that cuts across layering in the surrounding rock.  Imagine magma flowing along a crack and eventually cooling down and crystallizing.  That would form a dike.  A feeder dike is a dike that fed lava flows at the surface.

normal fault: a type of fault along which younger rocks from above slide down against older rocks below.  They typically form when the crust is being extended.

porphyry: an igneous rock with larger, easily visible crystals floating around in a matrix of much smaller ones.

sill: an intrusion that runs parallel to layering in the surrounding rock.


 

Some references:

Reidel, S.P., Camp, V.E., Tolan, T.L., Martin, B.S. 2013. The Columbia River flood basalt province: stratigraphy, areal extent, volume, and physical volcanology. In The Columbia River Basalt Province, Geological Society of America Special Paper 497, eds. S.P. Reidel, V.E. Camp, M.E. Ross, J.A. Wolff, B.S. Martin, T.L. Tolan, and R.E. Wells, p. 1-44.

Wells, R.E., Niem, A.R., Evarts, R.C., and Hagstrum, J.T. 2009. The Columbia River Basalt Group—From the gorge to the sea. In Volcanoes to Vineyards: Geologic Field Trips through the Dynamic Landscape of the Pacific Northwest, Geological Society of America Field Guide 15, eds. J.E. O’Connor, R.J. Dorsey, and I.P. Madin, p. 737-774.


Some links:

Roadside Geology of Oregon
Geology pictures for free download
Geologic map of Oregon

Just scratching the surface. A geologic cross-section of Oregon speaks to unimaginable events.

The cross-section below runs from the Cascadia subduction zone across Oregon and into eastern Idaho.  It outlines Oregon’s geologic history, beginning with accretion of terranes, intrusion of granitic “stitching plutons”, and deposition of first North American-derived sedimentary rocks, and ending with High Cascades Volcanic activity and glaciation.

Schematic geologic cross-section across Oregon, from the Cascadia Subduction zone into western Idaho.

Schematic geologic cross-section across Oregon, from the Cascadia Subduction zone into western Idaho.

The cross-section barely scratches the surface of things. Moreover, it boils everything down to a list, which is kind of sterile. But the cross-section also provides a platform for your imagination because each one of these events really happened and reflects an entirely different set of landscapes than what we see today.

Think of the CRBG about 15 million years ago. The basalt flows completely covered the landscape of northern Oregon and southern Washington. Or the Clarno volcanoes –only a part of the green layer called “Clarno/John Day”. They were stratovolcanoes in central Oregon –when the climate was tropical! Or try to wrap your mind around the accreted terranes, some of which, like the Wallowa Terrane, contain fossils from the western Pacific.

To emphasize this point, here’s Crater Lake. Crater Lake formed because Mt. Mazama, one of the Cascades’ stratovolcanoes, erupted about 7700 years ago in an eruption so large and violent that it collapsed in on itself to form a caldera. It’s now a national park, with a whole landscape of its own. And if you visit Crater Lake, you’ll see evidence that Mt. Mazama had its own history –which dates back more than 400,000 years. But Crater Lake and Mt. Mazama make up just a tiny part of the Cascades, which are represented on this diagram by just this tiny area that’s shaped like a mountain.

Crater Lake occupies the caldera of Mt. Mazama, which erupted catastrophically some 7700 years ago.

Crater Lake occupies the caldera of Mt. Mazama, which erupted catastrophically some 7700 years ago.

So the cross-section is kind of sterile and just scratches the surface. But what makes geology so incredible is that we’re always learning new things and digging deeper –and we know we’re just scratching the surface –that there will always —always— be something  to learn.


click here and type “Oregon” into the search for photos of Oregon Geology.
click here for information about the new Roadside Geology of Oregon book.

Crater Lake caldera, Oregon –some things happen quickly!

Crater Lake never ceases to amaze me.  It’s huge –some 6 miles (10 km) across, deep –some 1700 feet deep in parts –the deepest lake in the United States and 7th deepest on the planet– incredibly clear, and really really blue.  And for volcano buffs, one of the best places ever!

Crater Lake as seen from The Watchman.  Wizard Island, which formed after the caldera collapse, occupies the center of the photo.

Crater Lake as seen from The Watchman. Wizard Island, which formed after the caldera collapse, occupies the center of the photo.

Crater Lake is a caldera, formed when ancient Mt. Mazama erupted so catastrophically that it emptied its magma chamber sufficiently for the overlying part of the mountain to collapse downward into the empty space.  That was about 7700 years ago.  Soon afterwards, Wizard Island formed, along with some other volcanic features that are now hidden beneath the lake–and then over the years, the lake filled to its present depth.  It’s unlikely to rise any higher because there is a permeable zone of rock at lake level that acts as a drain.

Here’s one of the coolest things about the cataclysmic eruption: Not only was it really big, but it happened really fast.  We know it was big because we can see pumice, exploded out of the volcano, blanketing the landscape for 100s of square miles to the north of the volcano –and we can see the caldera.  We can tell it happened quickly because the base of the pumice is welded onto a rhyolite flow that erupted at the beginning stages of the collapse; the rhyolite was still HOT when the pumice landed on it!  You can see the welded pumice on top the Cleetwood Flow along the road at Cleetwood Cove.

pumice welded onto top of Cleetwood rhyolite flow at Cleetwood Cove.  Note how the base of the pumice is red from oxidation --and forms a ledge because it's so hard.

pumice welded onto top of Cleetwood rhyolite flow at Cleetwood Cove. Note how the base of the pumice is red from oxidation –and forms a ledge because it’s so hard.  Pumice blankets the landscape all around Crater Lake.

Crater Lake though, is so much more than a caldera –it’s the exposed inside of a big stratovolcano!  Where else can you see, exposed in beautiful natural cross-sections, lava flow after lava flow, each of which erupted long before the caldera collapse and built the original volcano? Within the caldera itself, these flows go back 400,000 years–the oldest ones being those that make up Phantom Ship –the cool little island (some 50′ tall) in Crater Lake’s southeast corner.

Phantom Ship, in Crater Lake's southeast corner, is made of the caldera's oldest known rock, at 400,000 years old.

Phantom Ship, in Crater Lake’s southeast corner, is made of the caldera’s oldest known rock, at 400,000 years old.

I can’t resist.  The caldera formed about 7700 years ago, incredibly recent in Earth history–incredibly recent in just the history of Mt. Mazama!  To a young earth creationist though, that’s 1700 years before Earth formed.  Now THAT’S amazing!


Click here if you want to see a Geologic map of Crater Lake.
Or… for more pictures of Crater Lake, type its name into the Geology Search Engine.  Or… check out the new Roadside Geology of Oregon book!

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