Red Hill, Little Lake and Fossil Falls
Red Hill, Little Lake and Fossil Falls
Wikimedia: The Fossil Falls is a unique geological feature, located in the Coso Range of California in the United States. Volcanic activity in the mountain range, along with meltwater from glaciers in the nearby Sierra Nevada, played a role in the creation of the falls. They are located near Little Lake, Inyo County, California, 1.0 mi (1.6 km) off US 395 (at a red cinder cone called “Red Hill”) on Cinder Road to Red Hill, with signs to Fossil Falls.
During the last ice age, glaciers formed in the Sierra Nevada. Meltwater from the glaciers pooled into large lakes, including Owens Lake and the Owens River. The river traveled through to Indian Wells Valley, and its course was diverted several times by volcanic activity. The falls were formed when the river was forced to divert its course over a basalt flow, polishing and reshaping the rock into a variety of unique shapes and forms.
All the lava flows at Fossil Falls are basaltic. The Coso Volcanic Field brought flows from the north east and later Red Hill, which can be viewed from Fossil Falls, released the younger lava. The flows occurred between 400,000 years ago and 10,000 years ago. During this period, the glacial flows would run through Fossil Falls and smooth the vesicular basalt. The erosion found at Fossil Falls was formed by the youngest glacial runoff, called the Tioga, from the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range about 20,000 to 10,000 years ago.
In addition to the small gas vesicles in the basalt, there are large, perfectly circular penetrations in the basalt. These are erosional features called potholes. It is speculated that Red Hill cast out granitic detritus which fell into Fossil Falls. Water accelerates as it moves past the rocks. The relatively still water ahead forced the moving water to slow down and rotate to form an eddy. The high velocity currents were enough to catch the granitic rocks from Red Hill and spiral them downwards in multiple vortices, drilling them into the basalt. Sediments would get trapped and continue to circularly erode the holes.
Fossil Falls originally started downstream from where it sits today; it moved upstream as waterfalls typically do. Water falling over the edge of the waterfall undercut the falls and caused them to move upstream and grow taller. This process is called plunge-pool erosion.
Native Americans near Fossils Falls
Bands of Native Americans, such as the Coso People, lived in the region as early as ten to twenty thousand years ago, camping along the now dry river. They harvested resources and hunted the large animals which lived there at the time. By 6000 BCE, however, these early inhabitants were forced by increasingly arid conditions to partially abandon the region. As conditions began to switch back to a relatively moderate climate at around 4000 BCE, Native Americans started to return to the area. They practiced a new culture, which emphasized using the resources available to them in the desert. The way of life that these people practiced survived until the 19th century, when the native tribe called the Little Lake Shoshone first made contact with Europeans.
Flakes of obsidian can be found in the area, for the Native Americans would camp near Fossil Falls and chip obsidian from the Coso Mountains to form their tools. The Fossil Falls archeological District is on the National Register of Historic Places. Fossil Falls is protected as an area of Critical Environmental Concern by the Bureau of Land Management. Native American artifacts may not be removed from the area.
See also Coso Volcanic Field
AREA DESCRIPTION: Fed by the rains and snows of the last Ice Age, the Owens River once flowed from Owens lake down through this narrow valley between the Coso and Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges. Several times during the last 100,000 years, the discharge from the Owens river has been great enough to form a vast interconnected system of lakes in what are now the arid basins of the Mojave Desert. The rugged and primitive features of Fossil Falls are the produce of volcanic activity. As recent as 20,000 years ago, lava from the local volcanic eruptions poured into the Owens River channel. The erosional forces of the Owens River acted upon this volcanic rock, forming the polished and sculptured features that now can be seen at Fossil Falls.
The red cinder cone visible to the north is the result of the violent ejection of trapped gases and molten material into the air from vent in the earth’s crust. Cooling quickly when exposed to the air, the molten material formed a porous rock known as scoria, which built up around the original vent forming a cone-shaped hill.
EARLY CULTURE: Some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, the first human beings camped along the ancient rivers and lakes of the Mojave Desert. These prehistoric people harvested lakeshore resources and hunted large animals. By 6000 B.C., extreme aridity caused the last of these ancient rivers and lakes (including the Owens River) to disappear. The grasslands, marshes, and large mammals that had once flanked these lakes vanished. Prehistoric human populations may have partially abandoned low-lying desert areas in search of food and water in upland mountains areas.
WAY OF LIFE: Around 4000 BC, climatic conditions again shifted from the extreme aridity of the preceding period to the relatively moderate conditions that exist today. A cultural pattern was established that emphasized the use of a wide variety of desert plant foods that included both small and large mammals, reptiles, insects and waterfowl as well.
With only slight adjustments such as the additions of pottery and the bow and arrow, this way of life was still being practiced by the Little Lake Shoshone Indians at the time of the first European explorations of the Mojave Desert. Many of the archaeological sites at Fossil Falls are dated between 4000 BC and European contact in the 19th century.
ADAPTING: Most of the archaeological materials found in the Fossil Falls vicinity, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, reflect this unique cultural adaptation to the desert environment.
The rock-ring features directly adjacent to Fossil Falls supported conical brush or tule structure that served as shelter for only few weeks or month of the year. As mentioned previously, the need for mobility as various plant foods ripened at different localities made permanent structures unnecessary.
A number of rocks and boulders possess smooth basins on their upper surface. These rocks are called metates and were used for plant processing: hard desert seeds were placed on the metate surface and ground with a handheld cobble called a miano. Over time, this grinding motion produced the characteristic smooth concave surface of the metate.
The surrounding desert also contained the raw materials for a simple hunter-gatherer technology. The black scar seen on the dome-shaped hill to the east is a mile-long seam of volcanic glass, obsidian. Obsidian was used almost exclusively in the manufacture of stone tools such as projectile points, knives, and scrapers. The large scatters of obsidian waste flakes seen in the Fossil Falls vicinity are the byproducts of stone tool manufacture.
GETTING THERE: Fossil Falls is located 45 minutes north of the city of Ridgecrest on the east side of US 395. Take the Cinder Road exit. Once you reach the parking area, there is a trail for you to follow, though not difficult, sturdy shoes are recommended due to its uneven surface. NOTE: PLEASE SUPERVISE YOUNG CHILDREN IN THIS AREA AS THE TRAIL LEADS TO THE TOP OF A SHEER CLIFF.
CAMPING: The Fossil Falls are includes the Fossil Falls Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and the Fossil Falls Campground. The Fossil Falls Campground has 11 sites that are located within the ACEC. The campground fee is $6.00 per night. The camping area has a restroom, a hand pump for potable water, fire rings and picnic tables.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: The late fall, winter and early spring are the best times to visit Fossil Falls.
The BLM encourages all recreationists and travelers exploring public land, not only within southern California but throughout the west, to use a propylene glycol based antifreeze/coolant in their touring and recreation vehicles. Proven safer, it will have minimal impacts on both the wildlife and the environment should a leak occur.
Archaeological sites are protected by the Antiquities Protection Act of 1906 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. The 1979 Act provides stiff penalties, plus a reward for information that leads to a conviction. Please notify rangers or other federal land management authorities if you discover illegal activity.
Remember to practice Leave No Trace principles:
Plan Ahead and Prepare; Camp and Travel on Durable Surfaces; Pack It In Pack It Out; Properly Dispose of What You Can’t Pack Out; Leave What You Find; Minimize Use and Impact of Fires
Photo of Red Hill cinder cone courtesy of: http://rock.gamefrosting.com/fossil-falls/
Photos courtesy of: Death Valley Jim – one of the best online sources for all things Death Valley!