Fossil Falls

Page 3

As you work your way southwestward past the crest of the falls along the canyon rim you become aware of just how high that crest is. The BLM says the first fall is about forty feet, but our eyes suggest it is much more, probably on the order of 100 feet. Your first view is of the dry river bed below the falls, then the second, smaller crest a few hundred feet beyond.

So, like, how did all this come about? During the Pleistocene epoch, stretching back about two million years before now, much of the Sierra Nevada was covered with glaciers. Meltwater from the glaciers flowed downstream into the Owens River, which in turn flowed south past the present site. About 450,000 years ago a series of volcanic eruptions began in the Coso Hills to the east of the site (turn around. You can see the volcanoes and the lava flows; the flows look like frozen black rivers). At least three times lava flowed across the Owens River and caused it to change course. The final flow from the Coso volcanoes dammed the Owens briefly at the present Fossil Falls site, until the water level rose enough to flow over the lava blockage, and Fossil Falls was born. Erosion over thousands of years cut the present gorge and smoothed the normally angular lava (in this case a dark, iron rich lava called "basalt"). In the wetter and cooler years of the Pleistocene, the area was much more verdant and much less desert-like. Numerous lakes fed by the glacial melt dotted most of the Mojave, including Owens Lake 20 miles to the north, and the lakes of the Indian Wells Valley to the south. Trees, willows, and tules lined the shores of the lakes and rivers and wildlife was abundant (ducks and geese mostly). As the glaciers reteated and the inundation of meltwater slowed, the Owens River shrank to a near trickle. In the early twentieth century the City of Los Angeles usurped the water rights of the Owens Valley residents by diverting the waters of the eastward-flowing Sierra streams into the two Los Angeles aqueducts at a point upstream of Owens Lake. That diversion spelled the end of the Owens River and made Fossil Falls a permanently dry feature, as you see it today.

As you move farther southwestward along the canyon rim you can look back at the upper Fossil falls gorge. Note the two hikers at the bottom of the picture for an idea of the scale.

Continue hiking southwestward along the crest and you will come to the second teir of Fossil Falls, This tier is about two hundred feet below the upper falls. As you gaze at this second teir and if you aren't already creeped out by the height, be careful. The rock at this point is still slippery with small blocks that can cause you to trip. As we looked down into this gorge I was reminded the Road Runner cartoons where we see Wile E. Coyote falling off a very high cliff from our vantage point atop the cliff, and we watch him shrink to a dot until we see a puff of dust and hear the faint "paff!" of his impact. We did not wish to repeat Wile E.'s performance. If you look on the horizon in the upper right of this picture you can see the volcanoes and lava flows of the Coso Hills which produced Fossil Falls.