Volcanics in the National Parks: They Ain't All Tied to "Redoubt"

Volcanic activity, and signs of it, can be found throughout the National Park System. This January 2008 photo depicts molten lava flowing from the Kilauea Volcano at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. USGS photo

Yellowstone National Park entered the new year shaking and rattling. Fortunately, there hasn’t been any real rolling just yet. But over at Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Redoubt Volcano has been going through its own gyrations, and volcanologists suspect it just might erupt any time now.

Against that backdrop, if you want to see volcanics in action, or signs thereof, the National Park System has many opportunities for you. Here are just a few, in no particular order.

Yellowstone National Park. This one’s well-known as an open-air volcanic classroom. Not only do you have the world’s greatest concentration of geothermal features (more than 10,000), but you’ve also got one of the world's most impressive and potent super volcanoes (it's there, beneath much of the park's center). Spend a couple of days in Yellowstone and on your volcanic checklist you can cross off having seen the world’s most famous geyser, hot springs, fumaroles, paint pots, and a travertine hillside.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Okay, okay, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve is grabbing the headlines today, but Hawaii Volcanoes has a tad more staying power when it comes to bubbling, boiling, and flowing molten rock, aka lava. Sure, you have to pay attention to those dangerous gases, but the Park Service will steer you clear of those areas. As a bonus, it’s easier to view Kilauea (the world’s most active volcano) up close and personal than it is Redoubt Volcano. Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes also gives you the chance to hike on the world’s largest shield volcano. Mauna Loa contains about 9,700 cubic miles of rock, and although its summit elevation is only 13,675 feet above sea level, it is considerably higher than Mt. Everest when measured from top to bottom (the ocean floor, that is).

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 is one of the few areas of its size in the world that has all four major types of volcanoes – plug dome, cinder cone, shield volcano, and stratovolcano. There are lots of other interesting features such as steam vents, mudots, boiling pools, and painted dunes. A series of eruptions from 1914-1921 created lots of “fresh” volcanic features.

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. You want volcanic rocks to look at? This place has lots of them. Here’s what the National Park Service has to say about Craters of the Moon: The monument “encompasses the entire Great Rift volcanic rift zone. It contains a huge concentration of volcanic landforms and structures along the more than 50-mile zone of fractures and eruptions. A composite field made up of about 60 lava flows and 25 cones, the Craters of the Moon Lava Field is the largest of its type in the lower 48 states.”

Mount Rainier National Park. Ahh, like Yellowstone’s sleeping giant, this volcano is dormant as well. Also in the Cascade Range, but far north of Lassen, in Washington state, Mount Rainier is a huge stratovolcano. Some geologists fear that renewed volcanic activity could cause catastrophic damage and loss of life in the Seattle area. Being easily accessible from that large metropolitan area – and visible from Seattle on clear days – Mount Rainier is very popular with hikers, climbers, and sightseers.

Pinnacles National Monument. Located in the Galiban Mountains, a small range near Salinas in central California, the hallmark of this park are the impressive pinnacles – spire-like rock formations that soar 500 to 1,200 feet high. They’re remnants of an eroded volcano that formed about 23 million years ago along the San Andreas Fault. The park is popular with advanced climbers because of its many difficult climbing routes.

Petroglyph National Monument. Although this is primarily a cultural history park, Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, New Mexico, has three small fissure volcanoes near its western boundary.

Devils Postpile National Monument. According to the Natinal Park Service, some 80,000-100,000 years ago "a lava vent began spewing hot basaltic lava into the Reds Meadow Valley near present-day Upper Soda Springs, a few miles north of the monument. Basalt lava is rich in iron and magnesium and is typically much hotter than other types of lava. Because of these traits, basaltic lava tends to have a lower viscosity and will flow more quickly than other lava types. The lava flowed down the valley like a river until it was blocked by a natural dam, probably a glacial moraine left down-valley by a receding glacier during a previous ice age. The lava began filling the valley behind this dam, creating a lava lake 400 feet deep in some areas. Such depth is uncommon among lava flows and plays a crucial role in the formation of the long columns we see today."

Sunset Crater National Monument. The main attraction at this national monument in Arizona is a classic cinder cone volcano. The upper portion of the cone is colored by the sunset, hence the name.

Voyageurs National Park. Located on the U.S.-Canadian border in northern Minnesota, Voyageurs encompasses a sprawling area of glacier-scraped, ancient volcanic bedrock called the Canadian Shield (aka the Laurentian Shield).

Zion National Park. True, Zion perhaps is best known for the soaring monoliths that tower above Zion Canyon, but the western portion of the park has three volcanic cones – Spendlove Knoll, Firepit Knoll, and Crater Hill. A considerable amount of basaltic material produced by the lava flows can be seen along the Kolob Terrace Road. Interestingly, the single highest point in Zion is called Lava Point!

Contributing writer Bob Janiskee, whose distance learning class on national parks contains material on park volcanics, assisted with this article.


How about Lava Beds MN? If you add it, you can delete this entry.

What about Mount St. Helens National Monument? Is this not volcanic? Erupted in 1980? I did not see it on the above list! How on earth could you leave that off?

I agree that Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is an outstanding example of a volcanic-themed resource. The thing is, it's not a National Park System component. Proclaimed by President Reagan in 1982, it was placed under U.S. Forest Service administration (which made a good deal of sense, since it's in a national forest). The action set a precedent, being the first time a national monument was placed under Forest Service administration.

Thanks for the suggestion, MRC. The list was not intended to be comprehensive, but merely to show some examples. That said, if others mention sites to add we can build a new list for the next volcanic occasion;-)

What about Crater Lake, Kurt? The catastrophic eruption of prehistoric 12,000' Mt. Mazama around 6,850 years ago is the largest known in the Cascades, at least ten times as large as St. Helens in 1980. It left the deepest lake in North America and deposits of ash in eight western States and three Canadian Provinces.

Ah, that one's too obvious;-)

Also not mentioned initially was Death Valley -- Ubehebe Crater is volcanic in nature.

You missed two in New Mexico:

El Malpais, which preserves lava flows from 10,000 to 2,000 years old. It's not quite as impressive as Craters of the Moon, but it's close.

Bandelier is the other one. Now Bandelier doesn't directly have volcanic features, but it does have native cliff dwellings that are dug into tuff, ancient volcanic ash from the nearby Valles caldera. What's cool about that is you can directly see how volcanism directly relates to mankind. Plus just outside the park you can drive by the Valles Caldera itself and marvel at the size of the thing.

There's also the Capulin Volcano in N.M., but I haven't been there yet so I can't speak to it.


My travels through the National Park System: americaincontext.com

Don't forget Katmai. When it comes to volcanism it is hard to beat the Valley of 10k Smokes and the several other volcanic features found in the park. A far less visited park is Aniakchak Nat. Monument. A never-to-be forgotten experience was landing on Surprise Lake with a NPS float plane in the caldera.