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Updated 4:23pm - Sep 16, 2014

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The marble in the sky

The marble rim sparkles in the sunlight due to calcite crystals that were enlarged when limestone was converted to marble in a metamorphic process. Wildflowers are abundant in the Marble Valley leading up to the marble outcrop.
The marble rim sparkles in the sunlight due to calcite crystals that were enlarged when limestone was converted to marble in a metamorphic process. Wildflowers are abundant in the Marble Valley leading up to the marble outcrop. Del Norte Triplicate /Adam Spencer
“Do you wanna go see the marble in the sky?”

That’s the text message I sent to entice a few friends to join me for the long drive and strenuous hike to the namesake of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, a white outcrop of marble vaulted more than 7,000 feet above sea level, overlooking the mid-Klamath River and its large tributary, the Scott River.

I told my potential hiking companions that if they had any doubts about the payoff, they should just search the web for a picture of Marble Mountain. Soon, they were just as hooked on the hike as I was.

The Marble Mountains are part of the Klamath Mountains, a broader range that extends from northern California into southern Oregon. They are composed primarily of ancient seafloor sediments such as limestone, chert and shale, along with submarine volcanic rocks, according to Juan de la Fuente, a leading U.S. Forest Service geologist for the region. 

These rocks were converted into metamorphic rocks, like marble, when subduction processes pushed them deep into the earth’s crust, subjecting them to high temperature and pressure. 

Limestone was converted to marble, and later, when the Klamath Mountains were uplifted and subjected to erosion, the subduction process created soaring mountain peaks over 7,000 feet above sea level, de la Fuente said. Marble Mountain itself has peaks of 7,321 and 6,990 feet, along with the neighboring 7,442-foot peak called Black Marble Mountain, which is really
a misnomer since the outcrop is made of a dark-colored, metamorphosed volcanic rock known as schist, de la Fuente said.

With a limited amount of time, we had to limit our wilderness visit to the dominant Marble Mountain, taking the fastest approach possible: Canyon Creek Trail, accessed from Lovers Camp Trailhead.

Being closer to an interstate highway and larger population centers, the Marble Mountain Wilderness is quite heavily used, and for multiple reasons: the Sky High Lakes, a chain of breathtaking glacial cirques perched high in the marble mountains, get the most attention. Some of the lakes were created when moraines — piles of debris that accumulate at the head of a glacier — became natural dams in the upper parts of the U-shaped valleys. Other lakes, called tarns, were created when glaciers scoured out hollows in the bedrock, according to de la Fuente.

But the Marbles are even more renowned for a less noticeable feature: some of the deepest caves in the country.

Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
As we reached the Lovers Camp trailhead, we were reminded of the caves by a sign that warns hikers not to go caving with any gear that’s been in caves east of the Mississippi River, a precaution to avoid the spread of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has devastated bat populations in the eastern United States.

The Canyon Creek Trail is short on vistas, as it travels far from the creek through forest and undergrowth, but the towering old-growth conifers, including stands of healthy but charred Port Orford Cedar, are awe-inspiring and impressive in their size and provide great shade from the summer heat. 

After a couple miles, a hiker passed by, heading back to the trailhead with a white helmet strapped to his pack, again reminding me of the caves. After the man confirmed to me that he had been caving, I asked how deep he went.

“Bigfoot Cave; the second deepest cave in California,” the hiker replied. Bigfoot Cave is 12.4 miles in length and 1,205 feet deep by one account, making it the deepest cave in California — greater than those at Oregon Caves National Monument — and considered one of the top 12 deepest caves in the country. 

With no gear, experience or intention to do vertical caving, we pressed onwards, with tunnel vision on Marble Mountain.

The Canyon Creek trail crosses several trickle-like streams and four substantial creeks that can be used for a water supply, although all water should be treated or filtered. White marble rocks are dominant in the third creek, providing a preview for the geology that lies ahead.

The first 3 miles of trail climbs gradually, gaining 600 feet, but soon after the marble-filled creek the climb increases, gaining 600 feet over the last mile. This is where hikers encounter the “Marble Staircase.” Constructed of marble rocks from the area, it help hikers with the ascent.

Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
When limestone (composed mostly of the mineral calcite) was converted into marble, the calcite crystals grew to larger sizes (more than ¼ inch). These crystals sparkle when a fresh surface of the marble is exposed to sunlight, which can first be seen on the “Marble Staircase” De la Fuente said.

After the stair climb, a 40-foot waterfall just left of the trail crossing on the fourth creek foreshadows the lofty views that come with more altitude. More steep sections lie ahead.

After 0.2 miles, a trail junction  sign said “Sky High Lakes” are to the left and “Marble Valley” to the right. We took the direct route to Marble Mountain by going right to Marble Valley. After 0.3 miles, another trail junction sign indicates Sky High Lakes to the left. Again stay right for Marble Valley.

Here’s where the fun starts. Upon reaching the U-shaped Marble Valley, Marble Mountain and the rest of the Marble Rim come into full view, first augmented by a picturesque cabin in the foreground built in the 1930s by the Forest Service for fire suppression, packing and cattle grazing. It was staffed until the 1960s. An impressive stand of old-growth Douglas Fir trees covered with neon-green lichens neighbors the cabin. At this point you can see the final destination, the Marble Gap, a saddle between the two main outcrops of marble.

Just past the cabin is a trail junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Take a right, heading north on the PCT for about 0.3 miles before reaching another signed junction: the PCT continues to the right heading to Paradise Lake, and the trail to Marble Gap is to the left, the route to the “marble in the sky.”

This last leg of the hike is the most strenuous, climbing several hundred feet over one mile, but it is also by far the most scenic, with the views improving every step you take closer to the Marble Gap. During our hike in early-July, bright wildflowers still dotted the lush U-shaped valley below the gap as we ascended.  

The U-shaped valleys and the Sky High Lakes were formed during a period of glaciation. Softer rock that might have overlain the Marble Mountains would have been scraped off during this last ice age,  from 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, de la Fuente said. 

From the Marble Gap, the tallest point of Del Norte, Bear Mountain above Devil’s Punchbowl can be seen, and even grander views are afforded if you climb higher up the rim, although caution should be taken, with loose rocks abundant.

Being a wilderness area, wilderness ethics must be practiced in the Marble Mountains. If you pack it in, pack it out, and hikers should leave as little evidence of human impact as possible. With summer 2013 being a very dry year, it is also advised that campfires be avoided if possible.

Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
Before attempting any trek into the Marble Mountain Wilderness, obtain a map of the area from a District Forest Service office (Happy Camp is on the way) or online at store.usgs.gov, and call Salmon and Scott River Ranger District at 530-468-5351.

Although it’s a long-drive to reach the Marble Mountain Wilderness from Crescent City, it’s incredibly scenic throughout: first travel northeast on U.S. Highway 199 until you reach the hamlet of O’Brien, Ore., where thrifty travelers will fill up on cheap on Oregon gas. Travel another 1–2 miles east on Highway 199, before turning right on Waldo Road. This route will take you to Happy Camp.  Take a left on Highway 96 and travel to Scott River Road.  Take a right, and travel until you reach signs for Indian Scotty Campground and Lovers Camp Trailhead.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

 


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