Monday, February 7, 2011

Sunday's Visit to the Salton Buttes Volcano - The Drive


On Sunday, I went to the very place I have been blogging about so much. I drove for two hours to the Salton Buttes Volcano. Indeed, if I were to chose to miss a game between two of my favorite teams, the Steelers and the Packers, it should be for a good reason. Well, heading off to this very volcano, the one that stirs my curiosity, is worth missing such a game!

I live to the northwest from Salton Buttes, and the drive from Palm Springs in itself is dramatic. First I drove past the large casinos and what small sand dunes are left in the Coachella Valley. Once the big box stores, strip malls, housing developments, gated communities and casinos thinned out, we entered a very wide area of farmland. This is a very fertile jewel in the middle of a harsh and very dry desert. The ground in this part of the California desert is normally gravel and sand derived from the surrounding granite mountains. The mountains are amazing to look at and to study. The Coachella Valley is a narrow valley that lies between the young Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains to the west and the much older Little San Bernardino mountains to the east. The Santa Rosas and San Jacinto had once been underground plutons of magma. San Jacinto is about 2 million years old, while parts of the Little San Bernardinos are more than a billion years old! The Little San Bernardinos contain gneiss, schist, and intrusions of granite. In the past gold was mined in these mountains.

We drove a long time on Hwy 111 through date groves, alfalfa farms and other growers. During the drive through the farmland near the town of Mecca, you'll would be unaware of the large body of water ahead, and a bit to your right. Then suddenly the farms fall away, and it's sun bright empty desert and a glimmering splinter of lake off the right. On some days, you won't realize it's a lake until it widens out. You're looking at a vast salt water inland lake - the Salton Sea!

The present Salton Sea is an accidental sea, and worth Goggling and learning more! Long ago, a manmade water channel broke, and the colorado river flowed into the dry lake bed where now lies the Salton Sea. The area remains a lake to this day, and it has grown very salty and polluted over the decades. Today, there is a vigorous clean up going on, and the lake is a bit less polluted. There is a lot more work needed in cleaning up this strange lake.

The drive along the Salton Sea takes about 45 minutes, and this Sunday, the sky was very clear. We could see the Santa Rosas across the lake, and then the more distant mountains near Julian, CA. Soon, I could make out the pyramid shaped Signal Mountain, just over the US/Mexico border. On this day, at about 4 o clock pm, there was a 4.0 earthquake near Signal Mountain. I didn't feel it, for I was still in the car.

When driving along the lake, about half way down the shore, you'll notice a rocky shallow rise that parallels the road. It follows the road and is about two hundred to one hundred yards to the left. That very rise is a trace of the San Andreas fault! At one point you'll notice a rocky deformed outcropping right in front of you, which is the same trace, and then the road turns slightly, and goes by it. Soon after this, you will drive past the tiny community of Bombay Beach. This is a dusty small town right on the shore of the lake. It is also the point where the strike slip San Andras fault ends. That 700 mile fault ends right off shore!

After that, its yet more empty desert road, with shimmering lake to the right ......

On, and on ......

The farmland starts again, and the small town of Niland is just ahead. This is the start of an area of rich and productive farmland that extends down into Mexico, past Mexicali, extending far south, and east to Yuma. This farmland lies within a spreading zone, and when seen from space, almost illustrates this rift valley's shape with it's green.

Thus, we pass Niland, a one gas station, two cafe town - and then some hydrothermal power plants with their steam, cross more farms, past fields crowded with flocks of white geese, past a dry salt plain that smells like hell, past Red Hill lava dome off in the distance, and then Obsidian Butte lava dome, a small stinking marsh, some shiny black lava boulders ... and then the volcano's vents!

The living, hissing, gurgling boiling volcanic vents indeed. The mud pots!

As we approached this living volcanic visible evidence of a rare 'on-land rift', we were hesitant. Should we walk on that ground? Would the ground be soft? Will the ground be thin? My assistant and I looked at each other, and said, "What the hell ..."

And we don't regret what we witnessed once we crossed the grey lifeless field to meet our living volcano.

More to come...

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