From Sea Level to the Sierra

The sun sets over the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Pika Lake.

My journey to the Sierra actually began one year ago. I was a Florida girl living in a shabby, but expensive, Brooklyn apartment and working at a café in Manhattan. Living in New York City had always been my dream, and that was just enough for me — until I was reawakened to the importance of wild places and introduced to the incredible naturalist John Muir while watching Ken Burns’ documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Looking back, my road to service in conservation seems unconventional — I was living in the big city but dreaming of a life in the wilderness. I never expected to realize that goal just a year later. I could not be more grateful to the SCA for facilitating a way for me to work in the Range of Light.<p>Upon my arrival in Mammoth Lakes, California, besides feeling a true appreciation for the lack of humidity in this region, I was ecstatic to see mountain behemoths, colorful wildflowers, noble pines and firs, and wide expanses of open land. The next day, I arrived at Devils Postpile National Monument for work and was bewildered by the pristine beauty in which I would be working this summer.<p>As an interpretation intern, one of my main tasks is to lead a daily hike up to the Devils Postpile and provide scientific and historical background of the resources while interpreting the area through universal themes for visitors. During my first week of service, I attended a few of these ranger-led hikes. I began experiencing the serene clarity of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River, observing the wind as it plays throughout the high Sierra meadows, and learning about the formation of the crazy geologic structure that is the Devils Postpile.

The basaltic lava of the Devils Postpile cooled in just 25 years! Columns are shown above, and the heap of fallen columns in the foreground detached during a history of earthquakes, seasonal weather changes, and mining blasts.

Formerly within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, the area designated as Devils Postpile NM has undergone numerous evolutionary changes and disputes over resources throughout its history. Beginning 82,000 years ago, a volcanic vent roughly 2 miles north of the Monument seeped basaltic lava, which filled the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River Valley to a depth of 400 feet. Exposed to the cool air, the outer layers of lava began forming cracks at 120° angles that eventually connected to form a consistent pattern of hexagons. The cracks extended deeper into the flow over 25 years (a very short time, in geologic terms), which formed columns within the solidified basaltic lava. 60,000 years later during a period of glaciations, a river of ice plowed its way through the valley, carving out most of the basaltic rock, which exposed the hexagonal pattern and a sheer structure of columns. Many years later, a group of influential Californians, including John Muir, petitioned the federal government for official protection of the Postpile formation, as well as Rainbow Falls and the Sierra ecosystem in this region. President Taft invoked the Antiquities Act and in 1911, Devils Postpile National Monument was officially created.

The hexagonal pattern on the top of Devils Postpile is the most energy efficient pattern in nature.

In more recent years, the monument has become one of the most well-known displays of columnar basalt, but is also working diligently to promote awareness about the effects of pollution and climate change within our valley.<p>During the beginning of my first summer in the Sierra, I have learned about local geology, plant and tree identification, history, and preservation, and have had the opportunity to share my newfound knowledge with others. I will continue to increase my familiarity with this incredible area over the course of my internship. My heart is rapidly attaching itself to the Sierra Nevada region, and I don’t think it will ever really leave this place.

Pika Lake is tucked within the southeastern Sierra Nevada range.