Friday, June 13, 2014

June 2014: Menan Butte, aka the R Mountain

My four sons on the summit of the North Menan Butte, otherwise known as the R Mountain
On my oldest son's first full day back from a two year ecclesiastical mission for our church in Arizona, we decided to do a local hike.  He's the one in the orange shirt at the extreme left of the lead photo.  It was my son's first day back and our sister, D'lynn's last day with us for awhile.  She'll be returning later this summer with her two boys.

The R Mountain
It seems the western states, especially those in the Rocky Mountains, have a strange habit of labeling mountains.  College or high school students climb up to a spot on the mountain, overlooking the town and paint a big letter on it.  There's a giant Y on the mountain overlooking BYU in Provo, Utah for example. That may be the most famous of them.  In Madison County, Idaho, there are two extinct volcanoes misnamed the Menan Buttes.  The north butte is sometimes called the "R Mountain" because of the giant whitewashed "R" on the eastern face.  I remember when I was a boy and the students at then Ricks College would go each year and whitewash the R.  Then for homecoming night, they'd soak burlap bags in kerosene, drape them over the R and ignite them.  It was spectacular!  They don't do that anymore.  Ricks College evolved into BYU-Idaho and the students no longer had need of a giant R, on fire or not.  The R is fading into history now.

Buttes, mesas and plateaus are sedimentary features while volcanoes are igneous features. That is why I said these mountains were misnamed.  Around here though, if you say you are going to hike the butte, everyone knows you are hiking up the north volcano.  In the western plain of Madison County, the two old tuff cones dominate the otherwise flat landscape.

The north butte has been declared a National Natural Landmark by congress and is administered by the BLM.  These volcanoes are unique in all the world because as they erupted, they projected up through an aquifer and an existing river.  There are parts of the volcanoes that have chunks of river rock embedded in the tuff where it was dragged from the riverbed and deposited in the molten rock.  These are called xenoliths. The Snake River actually had to change it's course because of these eruptions.

Vulcanologists from all over the world come here to study these volcanoes.  The south butte is currently privately owned.  There are two main trails and a road up to the top of the North Butte.  The road leads to radio antennas and cell towers.  One trail is on the south side but the main trail is on the west side.  That is the trail we ascended to the volcano.

The Ascent
The trail is a switchback style trail for most of the ascent, although parts of it are quite steep.  The last hundred yards or so the trail is quite steep and doesn't switch back much.  There is a chain railing for the steepest part of the trail.  Other parts of the trail have jack fences placed across old trails to discourage people who may be looking for a shortcut or who wish to go bushwhacking or adventuring.  The BLM is allowing the natural vegetation to restore itself after years of trailblazing and dirt biking.  We decided to honor the trails and leave as little impact on the mountain as possible.

The higher up you climb on the mountain, the stranger the rock formations become.  Weird columns and cliff faces with gas bubbles and caves become fairly commonplace. Since it is spring, there are many different wildflowers in bloom.  Most of these will be done blooming in a few weeks and the mountain will return to it's earthy tones.

The family on the flanks of the volcano

This may be a fleabane but I am not certain

I have not yet been able to identify this plant

By all appearances this is an Evening Primrose

Blossom with associated plant

Another view of the as yet unidentified flower

The rugged terrain

What the path looked like on the ascent

World famous St. Anthony Sand Dunes

Contrary to popular belief, the white markings on this rock are oxidization rather than graffiti, paint or giant bird poop

My four sons in a cave near the summit

Odd formation on the side of the volcano

Evidence that I was actually on this trip.  That's us near the chain railing, after climbing the face

The Three Sisters igneous features that dominate the desert of Idaho

The two sisters.

Remnants of gas bubbles that formed and broke as the lava cooled

Strange features like this dot the sides of the volcano.  Funny, you don't tend to see them from below, only when you climb

The fam just before heading to the Rim Trail
The Rim Trail
I had been up the R Mountain three times before.  Once in junior high school, once in high school and two years ago when I hiked it with my three younger sons.  In junior high and high school, we climbed up the road to the radio tower.  It also provided access to the R.  Two years ago, we hiked up the west face of the mountain.  That is the trail we took this time as well.

In junior high and high school, we got to the rim, looked out onto the valley, looked into the crater, listened to our teacher warn us about rattlesnakes and then we went home.  Two years ago, we hiked the west face trail, then we hiked around the south rim trail.  We were short of time so we cut through the crater on a trail that bisects it in a straight shot and terminates near the trail descending to the parking area.  So I had never been on the north rim trail.  That was where we decided to hike.

There isn't a single trail on the rim.  Generations of hikers have cut several criss-crossing trails up there.  It is much freer to hike and look out over the valley and over the crater than the trail going up.  When we rounded the corner to the north side, we found the radio tower road and followed it for awhile, but to me it looked kind of ugly so I kept my eyes open for a trail to skirt it.  I found it and we went that way.  I found some great wildflowers because of that.

On the east side, the crater dips down quite a bit and on that trail we encountered dozens of mariposa lilies. None of them were close together, just one here, one there.  The prickly pears were in bloom as well.

The trail continued up the south side where we encountered the xenoliths and a volcanic glass called tachylite.  It was a solid mass that had been eroded by wind and water, and was not unlike some of the features in Zion National Park.  I realize Zion was a sedimentary zone and the buttes were an igneous zone, both created differently but this section seemed to erode in much the same way.  It was weird and wonderful all at the same time.  We went full circle this time.

North end of the crater

Middle of the crater

South end of the crater

Pretty desert fern

The rim hike begins

I believe this is another primrose but not in bloom

My boy and me

Prickle pear bloom


Caves and dens

Xenolith completely eroded out of the host rock

Cool rocks like this abounded

The sky was really blue that day

This looks like a skull in a sombrero.  I now name this, "Dia Des Los Muertos Rock"

This rock looks like a perched falcon

The cliff face was pretty steep in places

as shown here

I just liked this picture

One of my younger sons wanted me to take a picture of the cloud shadows in the valley

This is the big nosed man.  All right, I just named it that, but still...

The steppes of Idaho.  Collapsed lava tubes all over


Gas bubbles

Very cool rock

The two youngest in a cave with gas bubbles.  I don't think they provided the gas...

Lichen is the first stage of life in a lava flow.  It begins breaking down the rock into it's component parts

What the trail on the rim looked like

and again

Tried to identify this, failed

The trail also looked like this

Indian paintbrush

Probably some type of dandelion.  Not like the ones in your lawn

Why they call it the "Snake River"

The Tetons dominate the landscape around here. You can see them from almost anywhere.

I believe this to be a penstemon

Here's that pesky plant again

Rocks on the north end

This one's cooler

More penstemon

I added this photo because I can.  Haven't seen my son for two years

This tree or bush, maybe has been here for a long time and has been dead for a long time.  Stuff doesn't rot up here very fast

Cool rock with the Snake River behind

Turkey Vulture

Random cairn.  I always have to photograph them when I see them.

Another shot of the turkey vulture

The hot chick was there too

This tree is not dead

Can't think of anything witty to say

More Indian paintbrush

How steep the trail was

Looking forward down the trail

The south butte

Mariposa lily

And another



Petrified gas bubbles

Strange rocks like this were everywhere

This looks like either the prow of a wooden ship or a dragon

Xenolith with healthy lichen medallion on it

Most everyone photographs this when they get up here.

My sons next to a very large xenolith 

Climbing up the tachylite

Tachlyite formation

The whole south side of this butte was made of the tachylite

The predominant mode of farming in this valley

Some form of flowering succulent

The Descent
We descended the same trail that we ascended.  However, sometimes things look different when you change direction.  I saw a few things on the way down that I had missed on the way up.  I also saw some of the same things differently, so go figure.

There and back again

Some form of flowering bush

Still don't know what these are but I like them

Apparently I liked them a lot

I was taking a picture of a butterfly when a dragonfly photobombed it

Parting shot

A science teacher told me once, many years ago that these big rocks were part of the core of the volcano that was ejected during the eruption.  Don't know if it's true or not, but they're cool

The "R" is fading, soon to be forgotten

We had a great day hiking up the R Mountain.  It was a nice day to spend with the family and I will climb this mountain many many more times.  It's good to be me.

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