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Park History: How Volcanics Sculpted Parts of the National Park System


Lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. NPS Photo.

Talk volcanoes and national parks and folks usually think of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and perhaps Lassen Volcanic National Park. In truth, though, there are at least 13 units of the national park system that have a volcanic past in some form or fashion.

It might be hard to believe, but even Isle Royale National Park and Voyageurs National Park, two parks best associated with lakes and the northwoods, have some volcanic geology.

To learn more about volcanics and the national park system, I turned to Dr. Robert Janiskee, a distinguished professor emeritus in the Geography Department at the University of South Carolina's Columbia campus. Dr. Janiskee, you might recall, offers a course available via the Internet that takes you through much of the national park system. Dubbed simply "Geography C370," the independent learning course is designed to familiarize students with "the physical, cultural, managerial, and user characteristics of America’s national park system."

The following checklist of national parks with volcanic histories comes courtesy of Dr. Janiskee.

Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, which is situated in the Cascade Range, features America’s deepest and clearest lake, a six-mile wide, 1,932-foot deep, indescribably beautiful caldera lake formed by the collapse of ancient Mount Mazama about 7,700 years ago. Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902 and is our fifth-oldest national park. The grand old Crater Lake Lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve is situated on the Snake River Plain in Idaho. It has a weird looking “moonscape” appearance because of its three geologically young lava fields that cover almost half a million acres. In addition to the massive lava flows, related processes created lava tubes, cinder cones, and other interesting volcanic features.

Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming was America’s very first national monument (established 1906). The dramatic tower, which was featured in the film “Close Encounters of the Third kind,” is not a volcanic plug, as some people think, but rather an eroded sill of basalt that exhibits highly distinctive columnar fracture.

Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui in Hawaii is focused on a dormant shield volcano that towers more 10,000 above sea level. Like the shield volcanoes of the Big Island (Hawaii), Haleakala (Hawaiian for “House of the Sun”) was formed as the Pacific Plate slowly moved over a “hotspot” that supplied vast amounts of magma.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island features two giant shield volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. Both volcanoes are active, and Kilauea is one of the most active in the world. This park is perhaps the single best place on the planet to see active volcanism.

Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park is situated on a Lake Superior island that consists of ancient volcanic bedrock that is part of the vast Canadian Shield. Isle Royale is renowned for its remote wilderness qualities and its wildlife, especially moose and the wolves that prey on them.

Katmai National Park & Preserve on the southeastern coast of Alaska exhibits classic “Ring of Fire” activity. In 1912, the park’s Novarupta Volcano erupted, creating the ash-filled “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” where steam rises from countless fumaroles.

Volcanic interests aside, the main reason tourists go to Katmai is to watch brown bears (coastal grizzlies). Katmai has the world’s largest concentration of brown bears, and the bears’ seasonal gathering to feed on migrating salmon makes it easy to view them from observation platforms overlooking waterfalls where the bears catch the fish.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is situated in the Cascade Mountains of northern California where volcanic activity has been going on for about 600,000 years. This park has a stratovolcano, cinder cones, and lots of other interesting features such as steam vents, mudpots, boiling pools, and painted dunes. A series of eruptions in 1914-1921 created lots of “fresh” volcanic features.

Violent eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano created an extremely rugged landscape at Lava Beds National Monument in northern California. In addition to more than 500 lava tube caves, which are very popular with visitors, the park has cinder cones, lava flows, spatter cones, pit craters, and other volcanic features. Indians used this rugged site for a natural fortress during the Modoc War of 1872-1873 when a group of 53 Modoc Indian warriors and their families held off a U.S. force ten times their size for five months

Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park is also in the Cascade Range. Mt. Rainier is a huge stratovolcano that is dormant, but not extinct. Some geologists fear that renewed volcanic activity could cause catastrophic damage and loss of life in the Seattle vicinity. Being easily accessible from the Seattle area – and visible on clear days -- Mount Rainer is very popular with hikers, climbers, and sightseers.

The main attraction at Sunset Crater National Monument in Arizona is a classic cinder cone volcano. The upper part of the cone is colored as if by sunset.

The core of Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) occupies a giant caldera. The park’s famed geothermal features owe their existence to a hot spot lying relatively close to the surface at this location. The geologic record reveals that volcanic eruptions of stupendous proportions have occurred here and could happen again.

Voyageurs National Park on the Canadian border in northern Minnesota encompasses a sprawling area of glacier-scraped ancient volcanic bedrock called the Canadian Shield (or Laurentian Shield). The wilderness and backcountry landscape is blanketed with lakes, streams, wetlands, and forest.


Here's a stretch. Did you know there's evidence of volcanic activity in South Florida's Biscayne National Park? In this land of limestone, you can find pumice on the oceanside shoreline of Elliott Key. Amidst the piles of other marine debris (both natural and unnatural), this floating volcanic rock likely came from Caribbean volcanoes which have erupted over the past several decades.

Don't forget Pinnacles National Monument, south of the San Francisco CA area.
From the park's web page:
"Pinnacles National Monument gets its name from rock spires and crags that are remnants of an ancient volcano. The volcano eroded over millions of years as it moved northward along the San Andreas Fault. Rock debris in the form of boulders has weathered and settled, leaving behind spires of volcanic rock and talus caves."

The bigger they are, the harder they claw...

I see you're up to date on the Native American lore Jon. Yup, hunting bears can be a dangerous undertaking. FYI- the would-be hunter lived to tell the tale.

I heard that Devils Tower was created by a giant bear trying to claw its way up the side of the mountain... now who do I believe? Hmmm...

Jeez, you guys are sharp. Nick is absolutely right that Devil’s Tower consists of phonolite porphyry, not basalt. That’s a good catch, since the distinction is quite important. Differing chemical composition aside, the two rocks aren’t formed the same way and don’t look alike. Porphyritic phonolite is an intrusive igneous rock that is formed from magma that cools relatively slowly below the earth surface. It is lighter- colored, and when formed from magma that begins cooling slowly enough it will have distinctive mineral crystals (phenocrysts) imbedded in a groundmass matrix. Basalt, an extrusive igneous rock that cools quickly on the surface, is fine-grained and also much darker than phonolite. You don’t find big mineral crystals in basalt because the hurry-up cooling process that produces it doesn’t provide enough time for the various molecules in the melt to get together and line up at the leisurely pace needed to form big crystals. A quick glance at Devil’s Tower might lead you to think you’re looking at basalt because the phonolite exhibits columnar jointing similar to that of Devil’s Postpile and many other basalt landforms.

There's a great arch of pillow basalt on the way to the Pt. Bonita Lighthouse in GGNRA, Sausalito, Ca. And Olympic N.P., west of Seattle, has some near Hurricane Ridge.

The ranger program 'Above the River's Roar' featured lava dams to the Colorado River in Grand Canyon; the tallest was 2,388 feet tall and 84 miles long.

I believe the columns at Devil's Tower are of phonolite.

R.I.P., Eric York.

Here's one I wasn't aware of -- from a William and Mary (flat hat) news article today. I assumed anywhere there's continental drift there's a chance for magma and the like, but didn't know these details...


According to the National Park Service, 1 to 1.2 billion years ago, tectonic plates collided to form the Grenville Mountain range in the area where the Appalachian Mountains now stand.

Around 570 million years ago, tectonic plates moved apart and lava began to flow, erupting at rift zones along the surface. The lava flows that exuded from the rift zones formed the Catoctin Formation, creating broad, rolling plains similar to those found around Big Meadows in the Shenandoah National Park. The original lava flows were originally composed of basalt.

As they metamorphosed, they became richer in chlorite and epidote, and then became greenstones, which cap many peaks in the park. These greenstones produce jagged cliffs composed of very fine grains. The rocks tend to be of a light gray to rusted red color, but if freshly exposed, they appear green.

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