Geology Lesson

Native American Trail

Trail marked with a line

“Basically you are standing on the Grand Canyon,” our guide explained. The Colorado River winds through the canyons way north digging deeper and deeper into the rock and washing stones to the end of the line. Every 1,000 years or so, the end of the line was the Imperial Valley. The Valley is below sea level vis a vie the Grand Canyon rocks were under our feet as we walked. This flooding was a natural flushing cycle, reducing the salt in the area, filling the Salton Sea with fresh water and fish and providing food for the people who lived along its banks. Here you can see a trail clearly worn by the marching of thousands upon thousands of feet as they walked from the mountains to the waters edge.


In the 1900’s, a big rain caused the might river to burst the dikes of the Alamo Canal and the rush of water once again began filling in the Sea. Then we built the Hoover dam, the river was tamed, and now the salinity of the Sea is a problem. Cause and effect people.


Also in the early 1900’s the Mexican revolution inspired the building of the All American Canal. The Alamo canal followed the shape of the earth, allowing gravity to do most of the work and let the waters trickle down the hill sides and into the fertile Imperial Valley silt. That path just happened to cross the border into Mexico. The unrest was risky to the American desert farmers, so we built the All American Canal. It has recently been re-lined. Look at how they diverted the water.

Diverted All American Canal

Diverted All American Canal


Other things I learned:


– This area MOVES. The San Andres fault runs directly through the valley. The part of the highway that cuts over it has been known to shift up to three feet. You can watch the real time evidence on


– Way back in the day, the Imperial Valley was part of the California Gulf. “This was the ancient Gulf of Mexico,” I was told by our guide.


– There is a geothermal anomaly here. Magma runs close to the surface. You can observe steam coming off Hoover beach. There are also several hot springs. We stopped at one. There was a group camped across who come here each winter to enjoy the spring and the desert environment. When we returned for a night time dip, a group of Navy boys (who were actually men) from the local base arrived around the same time. We swapped stories. If it was a competition, they would win: Prince Charles is training at the base.


Imperial Valley Hot Springs

Imperial Valley Mineral Hot Spring

- The The Algodones Dunes, near El Centro were the site of filming for Luke’s home planet of Tatooine. I HAD to get picture of this. I was threatened with getting left behind if I didn’t make it to the car before the driver, so I sprinted up a nearly vertical mound of sand for the best possible view. Enjoy it.

Algodones Dunes outside El Centro, CA

Algodones Dunes outside El Centro, CA


Dune season has just begun. If you have a permit, you can ride your 4×4 like a mad man up and down the shifting hills. Sometimes nearly vertical climbs. Don’t get lost: People disappear. I was browsing a list of top ten things to bring with you when you camp here. I remember “fire wood” and “lots of water”. I wish I’d kept the list.


– We also saw some of the geogylphs. I like the way this guy puts it: “America’s Nasca Lines”. Most people who ride the desert don’t know they are here. We observed 4×4 tracks in the same area as the lines. This is not to say that if people knew about them they’d be safer. This is one of the big debates in the area: preservationists versus recreationalists … versus energy companies (lots of sun and wind in this valley).


Because I am unfamiliar with the local traditions, I don’t want to share too much. I can tell you that I saw a horse figure, which excites the archeologists because horses were brought to the America’s by the Spanish in the 1500’s or so, so these representations might document the first meeting of these peoples. I wished more than once that I had a cultural liaison to share the real stories. Without the stories, it’s just a pile of rocks.

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