Hidden amongst the 50 million acres of arid ranch and potato land of Idaho are a few intriguing rocks, and last week my girlfriend Aubrey and I decided to go find them, and climb a few of them. When we told our friends that we were going to Idaho, most of them said something like, “oh, my brother-in-law lives there; he hates it!” Well, after spending 4 days wandering the backroads around interstate 84, we completely understand. Idaho is known as “the gem state,” because nearly every kind of gem has been found somewhere in Idaho. Indeed, rocks – and their geological origin – are just about the only thing of interest there, unless you are looking for sage-fed free-range cattle, or potatoes. Even the geological features of interest are rather scarce, though they are quite fascinating – gems in the own right. Unfortunately the ranchscape between these few gems was so uninspiring to me that I completely neglected to take any images of it, so I’m afraid that I might leave you thinking that Idaho is a spectacular photo-destination, almost on par with Utah and Arizona as far as photogenic rocky features goes. It’s not. Please bear this in mind if you decide to make a similar journey.

Click image for larger view!

Colorful Lichens and Rhyolite Formations, Bennett Hills, Idaho

Fairyland of Grotesque Rocks : Prints Available
Colorful lichens adorn the bizzare rhyolite formations in southern Idaho’s Bennett Hills.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 0.5 and 1/8th sec
Notes: 4 exposures bracketed for depth of field, blended with Helicon Focus, and a final exposure for dynamic range, exposed for the sky.

Our first destination was a patch of BLM land known as the Bennett Hills. David Alt describes it best in his book, Roadside Geology of Idaho, as a “fairyland of grotesque rocks”. Instead of the stately formations of brilliantly colored sandstone you can find on the Colorado Plateau, these crumbling “hoodoos” are relatively drab pillars of pinkish Rhyolite, covered in moldy looking black lichens with a few splashes of color. They look like abused and abandoned statues from the age of the dinosaurs, though they are quite a bit younger than that – they did not age very well! On the bright side, the only other visitors we met here were a father and son looking for a place to shoot rabbits (they kindly waved and left us in peace), and a beat up sedan filled with beer drinking farm workers out for a Sunday evening joy ride. No tourists! This was actually our favorite spot of the trip, and we returned for three out of our four nights; the final night being the most successful of our trip between our fire-roasted mojito-marinated chicken tenders and a quiet and lovely sunrise the following morning.

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Basalt Swirls, Galaxy, Idaho

Basalt Galaxy : Prints Available
Swirls of eroded basalt abstractly resemble a spiral galaxy.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/6th sec
Notes: 3 exposures blended for depth of field with Helicon Focus.

Many miles of arid ranch land from here, we found another fascinating patch of BLM land where thousands of years of erosion have carved a spectacular deep slot canyon (well, by ranchland standards) out of ancient layers of basalt. Where, you might wonder, did all this basalt come from in the first place? Well, the theory is that about 17 million years ago a meteorite hit the Earth somewhere in southeast Oregon – what we now think of as the Columbia Plateau – creating a “bruise” that extended deep inside the Earth. As the continental plates shifted above this “bruise” there was frequent volcanic activity that coated the Snake River Plain with layers of rhyolite and basalt. That “bruise” is now sitting under Yellowstone, and over the next many million years it will slowly eat away at Montana and beyond. Basalt often seems to erode into fantastical shapes (here are some from Owen’s Valley, CA: Fossil Falls), but never before had I seen such a deep and extensive network of chocolaty shapes! The reflected light brought some color into the otherwise gray, black, and brown tones – a far cry from the red sandstone of the Southwest, but the fascinating shapes and forms more than made up for the lack of brilliant colors.

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Basalt Canyon, Snake River Valley, Idaho

Pliocene Truffle : Prints Available
Bizzare sculptures of basalt formed through thousands of years of erosion can be found in the Snake River Valley in southern Idaho. This particular piece, inside a basalt slot canyon which was likely formed sometime in the Pliocene period about 2-3 million years ago, reminded me of partially melted and eaten chocolate, hence my title.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, 24-105mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/11, 0.4 sec
Notes: 2 exposures blended by hand for depth of field.

Our third destination for the trip was the (Silent) City of Rocks National Preserve, where we hoped to do some rock climbing. Unfortunately an unseasonably cold front moved in, and when I crawled out of the truck at 6am to await the sunrise it was 12 degrees F. When I’m out skiing, 12 deg is cold, but actually close to perfect. It means that the snow will be dry, fluffy, and somewhat less likely to slide. But when you escaped Washington for the eastern desert sun and rocks, 12 degrees is very unpleasant. The pools of water in the ubiquitous potholes atop this granite lookout had frozen completely solid overnight.

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Silent City of Rocks, Granite Boulders, Idaho

City of Rocks : Prints Available
An ice filled bath serves as the foreground for the spectacular view of the sculptured granite boulders strewn across landscape of Idaho’s Silent City of Rocks National Preserve.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 100, f/16, 1/4th sec

This area was once an important landmark along the Oregon trail, where those headed for California began to veer south. Now it is a quiet destination only inhabited by happy campers and rock climbers. Since we had come all this way, we decided to climb the famous Bath Rock despite (and in spite of) the cold, but after our feet turned numb in the 35 deg temperatures, we decided it was time to begin our journey back home to Washington. It is always valuable to explore new environments, and although I don’t think we will be back (except to see the mountains and hot springs in the summer some day), we’ve learned a few valuable lessons (ie. that we like living in a place where shooting rabbits, rocks, and road signs is not the primary source of entertainment).

To any Idahoans reading this – please note that my jabs at the landscape and culture are intended to be read with a strong sarcastic tone. The geological gems we came across on our trip were certainly as unique and beautiful as any I’ve seen!

2 Comments to “Fairyland of Grotesque Rocks – Idaho”

  1. Juanli says:

    Very interesting ready, the middle 2 images have very delicate feel to it and the depth of the image is superb.

  2. Greg Russell says:

    Who’da thunk it? Idaho!

    Wonderful images, Floris–it just goes to show you that there amazing gems everywhere, if you’re willing to look for them.