Even if you’d never seen southern California in person, you’d know what it looks like.
Its landscape is so scenic that it’s served as the backdrop for countless films and television shows that have been shown all over the world – with SoCal’s many mountains, deserts, grasslands, and beaches standing in for Africa, the Middle East, Ireland, and even the planet Sha Ka Ree.
Most notable among the topographic features here in SoCal are a number of so-called “natural wonders.” Whether they’re arches or caverns that have been carved out over time or craters that were created spontaneously, these geologic oddities provide a visual representation of the chaotic events of the past – volcanic eruptions, tectonic shifts, glacial melt – that have formed the earth as we know it today.
Whether you’re a rock hound, a gem enthusiast, or just a lover of geology, here are five of the best places to explore the ancient geologic record of southern California.
1. Trona Pinnacles and Searles Lake, Trona
Just west of Death Valley is the site of the Searles Dry Lake basin, most recognizably marked by the rising of several towers of tufa (a.k.a. calcium carbonate) -- but, unlike the ones at Mono Lake that rise out of the water, these pinnacles stand out from a prehistoric-looking landscape that's long since been dry. Thanks to the mineral-rich (formerly underwater) land, the Searles Dry Lake basin was part of the historic Searles wagon route and near the abandoned Trona Railway and Epsom Salts Monorail – and it’s still in the mining business even today. That dry lake’s natural minerals are abundant enough to create a number of salt compounds and boron products, which the Searles Valley Minerals plant processes valuable commodities out of the mud, salt, and brine that’s out there. In fact, one of the world’s richest deposits of naturally occurring minerals can be found at Searles Lake, whose brine is 10 times saltier than seawater. And although Searles Valley Minerals has already mined and produced a significant volume of products from Searles Dry Lake, it’s so mineral-rich and geologically abundant that they predict they have at least another 100 years' supply (at least at the current rate of production) before running out.
And every year, on the second weekend of October, the Searles Lake Gem & Mineral Society invites the public to join them a field trip out onto the lake for Gem-O-Rama, a blitz of prospecting for evaporate minerals – in fact, some of the most desirable ones in the world! As for the rest of the year, Trona Pinnacles can be viewed along a scenic drive or, preferably, on foot. Look for sprouts of desert holly (Atriplex hymenelytra), which is pale green in the early spring season and, as things get hotter and dry out, stark white.
2. Font’s Point, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
When you reach Font's Point – an excursion through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park that will require four-wheel drive – pause for a moment before walking the top of the overlook, at the highest point above the Borrego Badlands. Close your eyes. Breathe in the desert air and listen to the howling wind. With the help of a friend, take a blind step forward (please don’t try this on your own, as there is no railing to keep you from falling in), and then let your eyelids lift slowly. And gasp.
It’s California’s version of the Grand Canyon, a wrinkled maze of fossils that was scarred by the waters of the Gulf of California and the Colorado River. This prehistoric expanse of geologic mystery is much the same now as in the 1770s, when Juan Bautista de Anza first reached this very same summit on his way to Monterey. Of course, he somehow managed to trudge through the deep, soft, sandy washes in order to get here and take a look at the sediments that were first deposited as many as five million years ago (probably during the Pliocene and Pleistocene Epochs). But if you don’t want to risk it yourself, a local guide with a military-grade four-wheel drive vehicle can take you there safely, letting you focus on being inspired by the vastness of it all while somebody else does the driving. For the best experience, plan your trip at sunrise or sunset (ideally on the night of a bright, full moon) to see how the epic view changes with the shifting of the light.
3. Ubehebe Crater, Death Valley National Park
On the edge of the Ubehebe Crater in the Cottonwood Mountains, the wind can violently gust up to 50 mph and leave you teetering along the edge. But that kinetic energy is nothing compared to the powerful steam explosion that created the crater, which is 600 feet deep and 0.5 miles across. It may be the biggest crater in Death Valley, but it’s not the only one – there are two clusters of maar volcanic sites, to the west (which is older) and to the south (which is younger).
If you walk about a mile and a half around the rim of Ubehebe Crater, you’ll pass a smaller crater known as “Little Hebe” as well as a number of gullies. As it’s technically considered a spatter cone, Little Hebe has a significant deposit of lava – which you really won’t find elsewhere in this volcanic field. Note that because of all the loose debris, maintaining solid footing around the rim is a challenge – but, if you’re up for it, you can actually hike down into the main crater. Just make sure you’re prepared for the vertical climb upon your return, which is much more challenging than the trip down. Or, gaze out onto the crater from the parking lot at the end of the one-way road that leads out of Titus Canyon. From there, you can see its small alluvial fans, its red, orange, and yellow stripes of sediment on its walls, and its silt-covered bottom.
4. Fossil Falls, Inyo County
Just off the 395 Highway, between the Sequoia National Forest and the Coso Mountains range, you’ll find a “dry waterfall” of sorts, known as Fossil Falls. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as there are no “fossils” there, per se – but you’ll still get to see a piece of history that’s been frozen in time, so to speak.
Pull over and drive up to a cinder cone known as “Red Hill” to discover an ancient lava flow that’s been eroded over time into a shiny, black, sculptural geologic formation of basaltic rock. Late in the Ice Ages, as the glaciers were melting and water was aplenty, the Owens River was raging through this area – and, as a result, it polished the black lava rock that had settled into the gorge into its current “fluid” form. To visit, take a short but somewhat rumbly drive up to the unpaved parking area and look for a flat boardwalk that’s been installed as an accessible pathway. That will lead you to a perch where you can look down at the falls, but the whole volcanic field is ripe for exploring by foot. (Just be careful with rock climbing, as the eroded basalt is so smooth that it can be slippery.)
5. Alabama Hills, Lone Pine
When people travel to the Owens Valley, it's often to go to the mountains. They're on their way up the 395 to either Yosemite or Mammoth Mountain, or they're sticking around Lone Pine to climb the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mount Whitney. But one of the most fascinating natural wonders of the area – one that you can both climb and drive through -- is known as Alabama Hills.
Named after a Confederate warship named the CSS Alabama, these hills are about as old as the Sierra Nevada mountain range (one of Earth's oldest!). The picturesque landscape fascinated moviemakers enough in the 1920s to transform this area of 30,000 acres into a natural "back lot" for Hollywood. Its distinctive rock formations and a dozens of arches – formed by a type of erosion called chemical weathering -- have served as the backdrop for over 400 films and TV shows, including "Hopalong Cassidy," "How The West Was Won," "Gunga Din," "The Gene Autry Show" and "The Lone Ranger." But while the public lands are currently managed by the BLM, you still might find yourself in the middle of a Hollywood film shoot -- with the more modern-day productions of "Django Unchained," "Gladiator," "Iron Man," "Maverick," and "Tremors" having also been shot there. Standing there, looking through Mobius Arch at the ancient landscape, it certainly feels like being in an old western movie with the likes of John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, and Errol Flynn. Most visitors meander along “Movie Road” and “Movie Flat Road” in search of interesting boulders to climb (guided perhaps by a map courtesy of The Museum of Western Film History), but you can also join the local BLM office for occasional guided hikes, which are also offered during the annual Owens Lake Bird Festival in April and the Lone Pine Film Festival in October. As well, on the first Saturday of May, you’ve got your chance to run the trails through the Alabama Hills and the foothills of Mount Whitney during the Wild West Marathon.
Mitchell Caverns, part of the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area since 1972, is finally reopening after nearly seven years of closure. The two main limestone caves -- El Pakiva (“The Devil’s House”) and Tecopa – will be once again be available to tour, as they were when Jack and Ida Mitchell ran a nearby resort from 1934 to 1954. Expect to see ancient pools of water and gravity-defying limestone formations (stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, lily pads, draperies, curtains and cave coral), now both illuminated by newly installed LED lighting. To make a reservation for the hour-long guided excursion, call 760-928-2586 starting October 30, 2017 (no walk-ups). Considering the remoteness of the site, the primitive roads, and the limited offerings of the tours (just two per day, on weekends only), it’s well worth the effort to plan ahead.