Fossil Falls

Fossil Falls overview
The gash carved by the ancient Owens River as it encountered a lava flow.

To Celebrate our 25'th wedding anniversary Ellen and I took a trip to Bishop California. We had a great time visiting remote natural hot springs in the long valley caldera, soaking in their warm waters, enjoying views of the snow covered Sierra...When it came time to go home however the snow had blocked the passes so we ad to go around the south end of the Sierra near Mojave. On our way south I saw a sign that said "Fossil Falls." so I had to investigate.

There were several cars in the parking lot when we arrived. We ate a quick picnic lunch and then hiked to the fossil falls. Ellen pointed out the spring flowers decorating the desert. I pointed out the interesting lava flows. When we finally reached the fossil falls we both just stopped and stared. The lava had been carved into fantastic shapes by flowing water.

Fossil Falls CA carved wall
The walls of the chasm at Fossil Falls have been carved into potholes by swirling rocks.

We had read the geology signs that told us that at the end of the last ice age the Owens valley was much wetter than it is today. A river flowed down the valley. The valley is still volcanically active. The Coso volcanos had extruded a lava flow which dammed the river. The river flowed over the lava dam and carved the chasm which is today dry.

view downstream from fossil falls CA
A view downstream along the cliffs below fossil falls.

We hiked along the north rim of the dry falls. Ellen noticed metal bolts in the rock which indicated that this was a climbing area. She asked if I knew there was climbing here. I laughed, of course I knew there was climbing here, I've memorized most of the climbing areas in the U.S.

potholes in the canyon of fossil falls CA
Looking down into the canyon of fossil falls we saw amazing potholes.

We returned to the head of the falls and began to climb down into the canyon. It was fun climbing. We descended into a pothole then climbed over the downstream rim into the next pothole. There was little exposure. Eventually we came to the top of a short cliff, well polished by flowing water. I looked and noticed that there seemed to be a way don a crack at the north edge of the cliff. I popped over the edge and down the crack which was a third class climb. Soon I reached the platform at the base of the first waterfall. Below me there was a second fall. I couldn't find an easy way down the second fall so I returned to Ellen.

Looking through a window in the wall of a huge pothole I could see Ellen waiting at the top of a cliff.

I climbed back up to join Ellen and we hiked together out of the canyon.

At the top we met a man with three children. Ellen asked him the question she had asked everyone,"what brought you to this place." He replied,"I'm a quaternary geologist." I could understand that. This was a fantastic example of a landscape carved during the quaternary, or recent geologic time interval. His kids swarmed all over the potholes. As we departed we heard one kid say,'Dad, this is the coolest place ever!"

The kid was right.

Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty


8 May 2003