Volcanic Columns of Wonder

Basalt columns, unusual lava formations, draw geology buffs—and the rest of us—to four places the West.

Devils Postpile National Monument, basalt columns, image

Basalt columns tower 60 feet tall at Devils Postpile National Monument in the eastern Sierra.

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Devils Postpile National Monument
Lego-loving kids can’t help but gawk at this geological marvel in the eastern Sierra Nevada, a 45-minute drive from Mammoth Yosemite Airport. Its 60-foot-tall basalt columns, formed when an ancient lava lake rapidly cooled and cracked, appear snapped together. The bluff’s glacier-polished top “looks like a tiled floor,” says park guide Jillian Marotz, “one so shiny it reflects the sun.” Set aside on July 6, 1911, to prevent mining interests from blowing up the volcanic formation to create a dam, Devils Postpile National Monument celebrates its centennial this summer with speakers and events. (760) 934-2289, nps.gov/depo.

Latrourell Falls
The basalt columns behind Latourell Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge seem to hang from a cliff. At Guy W. Talbot State Park, west of Bridal Veil, follow the 2.2-mile loop trail under a bridge to the 249-foot-tall ribbon. (800) 551-6949, oregonstateparks.org/park_154.php.

Palisade Falls
Basalt columns form the backdrop for Palisade Falls near Hyalite Reservoir, 15 miles south of Bozeman, Mont. To reach the trailhead, take the East Fork off Hyalite Canyon Road. A paved, half-mile path leads to the 80-foot cascade. (406) 522-2520, fs.usda.gov/gallatin.

Oat Hill Mine Trail
The serene Oat Hill Mine Trail, which starts near Calistoga, Calif., winds upward eight miles through volcanic terrain. The payoff: wide valley and canyon views, diverse forestland, and vestigial wagon-wheel ruts. (707) 337-3885, napaoutdoors.org/parks-trails/oat-hill-mine-trail.

Photography by Russ Bishop

This article was published in July 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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