Fossil Falls California

Fossil Falls on the 395

I hate missing historical markers. Or plaques that catch your eye at 65 miles per hour and you can’t stop. What happened there? Why did it happen there? Other than dreaming of creating an app that has information via GPS of all historical markers, sometimes I have to be content not knowing.

Fossil Falls is one of those signs I’ve driven past again and again on the way to and from the Eastern Sierra.

We’d enjoyed the Longines Masters on Friday evening and decided to take a spontaneous overnight camping trip to explore Horseshoe Meadows. On the Sunday, driving back to Los Angeles it was 3pm and we were relaxed and energetic, rather than tired from hiking or climbing in the mountains.

It’s a strange name Fossil Falls. Would it be dinosaurs? Dire wolves like the tar pits in LA? Or maybe there’d be little trilobite fossils like the Brachina Gorge in the Flingers Ranges, all the way back in South Australia. I had no idea.

Fossil Falls California

Finally, we were stopping to investigate this little site off the 395

Pulling off the 395 and seeing the rocks up close it became more obvious what kind of fossils were being referred to. It had a lot to do with volcanoes! Who doesn’t love volcanoes?! They’re awesome even if they’re long “retired”. This was going to be a cool little exploration.

Fossil Falls California

The black glacier (I just named it that) in the distance

We followed a road as I thought we could get closer to the above scene. I wanted to investigate the frozen river of rock. It was like a glacier cutting through the rolling foothills of the White Mountains. The landscape was still and quiet except the hum of gigantic powerlines.

I drove on, across what looked like a small salt flat where a huge RV bus and a small private aircraft was parked. Yes, a small plane. As you do.

Continuing on I drove toward the black glacier, only to round a hill and be stopped by a high fence with a sign indicating government activity. I turned the car around with some mumbled swearing, at the fact we couldn’t go further, and at the fact we probably weren’t meant to be on that particular road.

Fossil Falls California

The powerlines overhead, this picture is for Dikko’s Dad!

We drove back to the main area, passing a mine that had produced an impressive pile of red rocks. At least that’s what I thought had formed it until I read it’s actually a cinder cone called Red Hill. A cinder cone is a conical hill of volcanic rock that accumulates around a volcanic vent! Cooooolness. I wasn’t altogether wrong in my mining assumption, as Red Hill is mined for scoria (reddish, porous, lightweight rock I’ve seen people use in gardens).

Red Hill is visible from the 395 and it was interesting to see what was around the other side, and even more fascinating to learn what created it.

We followed the signage to Fossil Falls proper, a huge coach passing us on the way out (points for the driver taking a shiny white bus on a narrow, rocky road!) Parking in a well maintained area there were four other vehicles. To be honest I was surprised, and a little guilty I hadn’t stopped before, it must be worth it.

Grabbing my camera we followed a flat trail about 300m long which took us to the actual falls.

Fossil Falls California

Volcanic rock along the trail

Fossil Falls California

Interesting shapes and silhouettes

When we arrived at the falls I was really impressed. The beautiful twists and pools and holes were formed by water about 10-20,000 years ago. The local volcanoes erupted anywhere from 10,000 to 400,000 years ago and poured into the Owens Valley, where water from melting glaciers eroded and shaped the lava flow into what I was seeing today.

The rock was smooth to touch and incredibly unique, both in terms of each part of the falls, and that I’d never seen anything like it.

Also interesting was learning about Native American culture in the area 10-20,000 years ago, where people lived along the lakes and hunted wooly mammoth and mastedons! When the climate changed and the animals became extinct, they moved on. When the climate became more moderate Native Americans returned to the area. Fossil Falls is on the National Register of Historical Places and is protected as an area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Fossil Falls California

The rocks of Fossil Falls

Fossil Falls California

Someone thought it was worthwhile climbing there

Fossil Falls California

Looking down the cliff to a long gone, invisible river

Chuffed with our little nano-exploration Dikko and I walked back to the car and continued our drive back to LA. My mind boggled with thoughts about the time spans of the area, the volcanic activity, the glacial lakes, the Native Americans living in the area, and how I had driven past so many times!

Lastly, I have to thank The Last Adventurer‘s blog post for inspiring me to stop when we had the time (and it was daylight). Funnily enough in his blog post he mentions he was inspired to stop by another person’s blog!

Maybe someone will be inspired by this blog post and pass on the word about Fossil Falls. It’s most definitely worth a stop.

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