1. Education

Toward a National Geologic Trail


Columbia River Bend

Ice Age Flood water stripped the rock bare near The Dalles

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

A long-term effort is under way to create the first National Geologic Trail. That would raise public appreciation of the unique and stupendous features made by giant floods during the latest ice age. It would also help Americans fall in love with their magnificent countryside in a new way.

What's on the National Geologic Trail

The proposed trail is actually a network of road trips, not a hiking trail. It spreads across the Ice Age Floods Geologic Region, where an ancient Ice Age lake in Montana repeatedly burst out of its glacial dam (an event geologists call a jökulhlaup) and washed across Idaho and down the Columbia River valley to the sea.

Much of central Washington, an area called the Channeled Scablands, was scoured down to bedrock, leaving gigantic ripple marks, "sandbars" up to 100 meters high and great erosional channels, now high and dry. Where the Columbia cuts through the Cascade Range in a deep gorge, the floodwaters reached 1000 meters in depth. Backwash up the Willamette Valley in western Oregon left thick sediment beds as far as Eugene. Huge beds of flood sediment lie on the continental shelf off the mouth of the Columbia River.

This gigantic set of flood-related features stretching across 1000 kilometers was not widely recognized by geologists until about 30 years ago. Public interest has grown ever since, and in 1993 a government task force began meeting to consider ways to formally recognize this fascinating attraction. In 1994 the Ice Age Floods Institute was founded to involve the private sector, and in 1999 the National Park Service launched a major study that brought forth the plan for the National Geologic Trail. In 2009, after several years of introducing a bill, the park was enacted into law. Next comes actually funding and implementing the plan.

The area is nearly untouched by human changes in many respects, thanks to the great size of its features. It already contains seven National Natural Landmarks and other parklands. And it extends over four major geographic zones of the Pacific Northwest, including significant natural resources that are poorly represented in the National Park System. And as a whole, says the NPS study, "the array of Flood features is evidence of an incredible series of events that are indeed rare and unique."

How the National Geologic Trail works

Unlike the National Scenic Trails in other parts of the country, the National Geologic Trail will be a virtual trail, consisting of road maps, interpretive centers and roadside exhibits. It will be more like the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, less like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails. The point of the trail is to help everyone—individual cities, public parks, Indian tribes, highway agencies, educational institutes and interested landowners—tell and teach the public a unified story in a coordinated way.

No land will need to be purchased, and the whole "park without boundaries" will be accessible from public roads and pullouts. The National Park Service will not have any regulatory authority in establishing the trail.

Tour routes are laid out all over the Floods region among 13 "gateway communities" from Missoula, Montana to Astoria, Oregon. Many existing parks, museums and scenic routes can be augmented with exhibits related to the Floods. And it won't be limited to cars, either: a boat tour in Montana's Flathead Lake is already incorporating Ice Age Floods features. Plane flights would be the best way to see the Channeled Scablands. Even hot-air balloons could take part.

Major interpretive centers are foreseen for five places:

  • Missoula, Montana, at the lake where the Floods originated
  • Cabinet Gorge, Idaho, where the continental glacier dammed the lake
  • Sun Lakes-Dry Falls, Washington, in the Channeled Scablands
  • Wallula Gap, Washington, where the Floods entered the Columbia Gorge
  • The Dalles, Oregon, in the heart of the Gorge

But other smaller centers will arise. And hundreds of places can get roadside plaques and signage. The Ice Age Floods Geologic Region promises to become a destination, a geologic tourist attraction. And a fine example will be set for other National Geologic Trails, perhaps in your own region. And the new trail is a prime candidate to become America's first geopark.

PS: Although there are many similar projects in the federal parks system, only one other focuses exclusively on geology: the Ice Age National Scientific Reserve in Wisconsin with its planned thousand-mile Ice Age Trail.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.