Fires of the Aztecs, Fires of the Earth (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 31 Mar 2005

Fires of the Aztecs, Fires of the Earth

Valley of Fire State Park, in Nevada, is in the Lake Mead National Recreational Area near the northeast end of Lake Mead.

It's an auspicious location, because the Valley of Fire exit from interstate 15 is at the trading post run by our favorite local Indian tribe, the Moapa. In addition to not-completely-unreasonable gas prices and a huge assortment of fireworks, they sometimes have a trailer outside the store from which they sell "Really Good Beef Jerky" (it says so right on the sign). It really is "really good", the best I've had anywhere, even though it turns out to be imported from Wyoming and not made locally by the Moapa. Dave and I always look for the jerky trailer when we're passing through.

We had some idea what to expect from the Valley of Fire, because on a recent trip we stumbled upon an excellent little rest area north of Lake Mead called "Redstone", which included well made interpretive signs explaining that the deep red rock was Aztec Sandstone.

Indeed, the Valley of Fire is Aztec Sandstone, whose fiery color inspires the name; but the park turned out to be sizeable and varied, full of color changes and scenic vistas, excellent petroglyphs, and, oh, yes, a wildflower assortment that puts Death Valley's celebrated wildflowers to shame.

We expected a quick drive-through, but had no trouble whiling away the entire day in the park, including three short hikes and a lot of happy scrambling over rocks. It's comparable to the excellent Arches national park near Moab, in size, variety, and character. The Aztec even forms arches like the Entrada above Moab, though it tends toward lots of small arches rather than the big sweeping spans of the Entrada.

Unlike Arches, though, it isn't terribly informative (Arches being surprising good about explanations compared to most national parks). The Valley of Fire's signs and visitor's center are rather light on details. Why is the sandstone so deeply red in some places (well, iron, sure, but why so much more iron than other places?) and white or bright yellow in others? Why is it called Aztec? What makes the seams/dikes which are so prominent in the white formations near White Domes area? Is it just coincidence that Aztec and Entrada sandstone, both so intensely red compared to most sandstone, also share the unusual property of forming arches?

The visitor's center has a decent geology timeline with stratigraphic columns and a diagram of the fault as a fixed exhibit, plus kiosks with photos of common flora and fauna, but nothing you can take away with you, and they sell no books beyond lightweight coffee table fluff. "Sorry -- we keep telling them they should make something like that," apologized the lady at the gift shop counter.

We had just enough light left after leaving the park to make a quick trip down a dirt road to a ledge overlooking the north end of Lake Mead. The lake level was quite low; the ingress of the lake was far downstream of the location given on the map. Last summer, the LA Times reported that Mead was at record low levels, and the lost town of St. Thomas, submerged since the reservoir was first filled, had reappeared, delighting archaeologists and historians. I'd assumed that this was long past, after this year's unusually wet winter, but the lake level was still quite low: and at the St. Thomas overlook, several objects looking like the tops of buildings peeked out from beneath the water's surface. Further research will be required to find out whether we actually spotted St. Thomas.

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[ 08:55 Mar 31, 2005    More travel/mojave | permalink to this entry ]