Travel Log: Volcanoes Under Our Noses

(Fallon, Nevada; May 11, 2021) – I’ve departed Washington State and begun Cross Country 2021 on my way to settling in Tennessee!

If you’ve followed this blog for a bit, you’ll know I’m fascinated by volcanoes.  I’d have been a happy vulcanologist if my math skills were better.  These systems are amazing examples of natural engineering, and our growing geological knowledge has revealed a great many more volcanoes and volcanic fields around our ever-changing planet than we thought just a few years ago.

Four cities in the United States own their own volcanoes (all are extinct; don’t worry!): Honolulu, Hawai’i; Portland and Bend, Oregon; and Jackson, Mississippi.  Now, in order to be on the same page and not have anyone’s temper erupt in frustration, I’m using the Smithsonian’s Global Vulcanism Program (GVP) definition for an active vs. extinct volcano.  The GVP defines an ‘active’ volcano as one that has erupted within the past 10,000 years and is not a monogenetic vent.  (‘Monogenetic’ volcanoes may erupt for years, but, once their magma chamber is drained, they go silent forever.  Paricutin in Mexico is a great example of a monogenetic volcano that was born and died within the 20th century.)

Bend, Oregon, is the proud owner of Pilot Butte, an extinct cinder cone rising to about 500 feet in prominence.  Pilot Butte went off and went out about 600,000 years ago, and the immediate area surrounding it is now geologically quiet.  The butte is part of a volcanic field with numerous visible cones on the edge of Newberry Volcano, a major shield volcano in Oregon that sits just east of the Cascade Range.

Pilot Butte is an extinct, 600,000-year-old cinder cone (volcanic cone built by rocks, ash, and explosion debris) smack in the middle of modern-day Bend, Oregon. The cone rises nearly 500 feet, and can be climbed by trail or by car. Bend is one of four cities in the U.S. with an extinct volcano within the city limits (Bend and Portland, Oregon; Jackson, Mississippi; Honolulu, Hawai’i). Bend, Oregon. (Nathanael Miller, 9 May 2021)

‘Cinder cones’ are a type of volcanic cone built by ‘dry’ volcanic debris (ash, rocks, partially-cooled lava chunks) thrown into the air by explosions that produce little to now lava.  Cinder cones can morph into stratovolcanoes if the system begins alternately erupting lava flows onto the surface, followed by other ‘dry’ eruptions of debris, but Pilot Butte is a straight-up cinder cone.

The butte’s summit can be hiked or reached by car.  The butte is maintained as an Oregon state scenic area and is open year-round.  The summit provides a 360º view that includes the Cascades, Newberry Volcano, Lava Butte to the south, Mount Hood, and, on good days, even Mount Adams in Washington State.  If you drive up, be careful and go slow; you’ll be sharing the road with bikes and pedestrians.

Following my visit to Pilot Butte, I got up early and crossed into Nevada yesterday, setting up camp in a hotel in Fallon.  I’ve been to Fallon several times, beginning back in my F-14 Tomcat maintenance days when my squadron flew out here to train with live ordnance at the naval air station’s bombing range.  Big and Little Soda Lakes were just one of the features we noticed near Fallon.  I noticed them again as I drove into Fallon in 2018 for Grand Tour USA.

Turns out those lakes are the craters of Nevada’s only active volcano.

Yep, active.

Big and Little Soda Lakes are ‘maars.’  A maar is a relatively shallow volcanic crater formed when groundwater comes into contact with subsurface magma.  The magma flashes the water to steam, causing a rather gnarly (and BIG) explosion.

There’s not much research done on the Soda Lakes, but it’s believed both craters were formed during the same event about 6,000 years ago.  The area is still quite geologically active.  A geothermal plant is located nearby, and the lakes are monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey’s California Volcano Observatory.

Multi-image composite panorama. Big Soda Lake and its next-door neighbor, Little Soda Lake, and the craters of the only active volcano in Nevada. The craters are maars—craters formed when ground water came into contact with subsurface magma, flashed to steam, and exploded. Big and Little Soda Lakes are estimated to have formed at the same time during an eruption about 6,000 years ago, but research is ongoing. The likelihood of another eruption in the near future is extremely remote, but the system is still geologically active. Fallon, Nevada. (Digital illustration by Nathanael Miller, 10 May 2021)

There’s a great walking trail that circles Big Soda Lake, but it’s not a paved or well-maintained trail.  The ground is very sandy and loose, so you’ll need to watch your footing.  Also, be on the lookout for wildlife because you’ll be walking amongst desert scrub brush.

Soda Lake and the nearby, extinct, Rattlesnake Hill (both of which are outside the city limits of Fallon), aren’t fueled by tectonic plates subducting under each other like the Cascades volcanoes, but are by a rift zone.  A ‘rift zone’ is a place where continental crust is stretching and slowly spreading apart, creating a weak spot where magma can well up and erupt onto the surface as lava.  This rift is still active as the North American plate stretches, so further volcanic activity in this part of the country is a distinct possibility.

I’ve included the links for two short videos below.  One is my Sparks1524 Travel Log video on these two formations, and the other is an informative video by Geology Hub, a YouTuber I follow.

Take a look around; you’ll be surprised at the geological formations you’ll find if you just take some time to read up on the subject.  You don’t need a chemistry or geology degree to be able to spot and appreciate the different formations and phenomena that help keep our planet alive and kicking!

Check out my video on these two formations at:

Check out Geology Hub’s video on the Soda Lake volcano:

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

Instagram:      @sparks1524


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