Volcanoes That Built National Parks

Volcanic processes are constantly changing the Earth. Eruptions can create new islands, build and destroy mountains, and alter landscapes. Active, dormant, and ancient remnants of eruptions are all contained within America’s national parks.

Many features we see when visiting the national parks are created by volcanic processes such as geysers, ash flows, and hot springs. Different types of volcanoes, rocks created from eruptions, and landforms exist as a result of volcanic processes in the national parks.

From the glowing lava flows of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to the bubbling paint pots of Lassen Volcanic National Park where all four types of volcano can be found, and from the richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument to Yellowstone’s spewing geysers, national parks provide a window into the molten interior of our planet.

Dozens of National Parks Service sites with volcanic origins have been set aside for preservation. Others, like Big Bend, Zion, and Badlands National Park, have been protected for other reasons, but still contain volcanologist resources.

Following are four parks that show the range and diversity of volcano-related National Park Service sites.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Bumpass Hell, Devils Kitchen, and Sulphur Works are a few of the colorful names applied to the Yellowstone-like hydrothermal features of this park, which include roaring fumaroles, boiling mud pots, and steaming ground.

One of the most active volcanoes in the continental U.S., Lassen last exploded in 1915 and has been threatening a repeat performance ever since. Lassen Peak is the world’s largest plug dome volcano, and the park is one of the few areas in the world where all four types of volcano can be found: plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and strato.

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history, sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano.

The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region on the tumultuous day of May 18, 1980.

Beginning March 14, 2016, a number of small magnitude earthquakes have occurred beneath Mount St. Helens, at a depth between 1.2 and 4 miles. Over a period of 8 weeks, there were over 130 earthquakes formally located by the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and many more earthquakes too small to be located. The earthquakes have low magnitudes of 0.5 or less; the largest a magnitude 1.3.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A first-rate example of a volcanic field, El Malpais was named by the Spanish explorers using their word for “badlands”. The formidable terrain is made from large basalt lava flows.

Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails.

Sandstone Bluffs overlooks millions of years of geologic history, from the 200-million year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, to the 3000 year-old lava that borders the bluffs.

Sandstone Bluffs offers an accessible viewing point of the lava flows and lands surrounding El Malpais.

Pinnacles National Park, California

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You know at once why this park is called Pinnacles. Here you face spires and crags that bear no resemblance to the surrounding smooth, round hills. The pinnacle rock formations dominate the scene.

These rocks are the remains of an ancient volcano. 23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park.

Please Note: This is part of an on-going series on America’s National Parks Centennial

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

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