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Geology of the National Parks - Death Valley


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Ubehebe Crater

Ubehebe and little Hebe craters
Over a dozen volcanoes dot the landscape of Ubehebe volcanic field. Ubehebe Crater is the largest and youngest volcanic feature, Little Hebe crater is at lower right. Photo by Peter Sanchez, NPS

At the edge of Ubehebe Crater, you'll be greeted by an eerie, surreal landscape. All is quiet now, but imagine yourself transported to a time just over two thousand years ago...

...Following weaknesses in the Earth's crust, searing basaltic magma rose upward. A fault along the western base of Tin Mountain, responsible for uplift of the entire Cottonwood mountain range, lay in the path of the molten mass, providing an easy escape route to the surface. Breaking through the bedrock below, black lava races through the gravely alluvial fan draped across the valley floor.

Fire and water

Magma worked its way through the fault-weakened rock toward the surface. Some of Ubehebe Crater field's most dramatic eruptions occurred when magma met water-soaked bedrock and alluvial fan sediments. In an instant, water flashed to steam, and a violent release of steam-powered energy blasted away the confining rock above. (This is called a hydrovolcanic eruption.) It produced a dense, ground-hugging cloud of rocky debris which surged out from the base at up to 100 miles/hour, decimating the landscape. A fiery fountain of lava erupted with a roar, forming a vent to the south of what is now Ubehebe Crater. Liquid rock was thrown into the air, then fell to the ground as solidified cinders or partially-molten lava blocks and bombs. A ring of black volcanic material soon builds around the central vent. The first of the Ubehebe Crater complex is born.

View inside Ubehebe Crater
A look into the depths of Ubehebe Crater, the largest and youngest volcanic feature at this stop. The eruptions that created Ubehebe Crater blasted through older conglomerate layers, now revealed in the crater walls. Photo by W.R. Jones, NPS.

The largest of these eruptions produced Ubehebe Crater, over a half a mile wide and 770 feet deep. Up to 150 feet of rock debris mantles the countryside near the site of the explosion.

Over a dozen other explosion craters and tuff rings in the Ubehebe Crater field are the result of this type of hydrovolcanic eruption.

Ubehebe in time
geologic time scale
If you're going... Split Cinder Cone image gallery
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