6 December 2008

The Fish Lake Plateau: “A most eligible summer camping-place” (Accretionary Wedge #14/15)

Posted by Jessica Ball

I haven’t done a whole lot of research yet, but I always enjoy a good chance to get out in the field. For my undergraduate thesis, this meant spending a few weeks in south-central Utah, on the High Plateaus. The work was part of the 2006 NSF Fish Lake Research Experience for Undergraduates, a joint effort between the College of William & Mary and Coastal Carolina University. The project was in its second year, and had been inspired by past W&M; field trips to Fish Lake.

My first visit to Fish Lake was on one of those trips – I had just finished my freshman year, and I was still struggling to learn all the basic skills of field mapping. As I remember, we had a discussion about whether Fish Lake was formed by glacial or tectonic processes (and I was on the glacial side, which ended up being not a great choice). Shortly after that, however, my advisor mentioned that the REU would be doing research there, and (dropping a blatant hint to get me interested) that there might be some volcanology I could work on.

So, in the summer of my junior year, I helped drive a minivan full of equipment from the East Coast to Utah. With three people rotating through, and not stopping other than for gas and food, we made it there in about 40 hours. (The rest of the group flew to Salt Lake City and drove from there, but at least they left us a couple of days to recover.) The three weeks that followed were an amazing, challenging, and at times frustrating experience, but I couldn’t have picked a more fascinating place to spend them.

The Fish Lake Plateau has something for everyone*: Mesozoic sedimentary rocks,

Tertiary volcanics,






and scads of Quaternary sedimentary deposits.

It has been a geologist’s playground since Clarence Edward Dutton’s expedition reached it in the 1880s, and since my brain is a bit fried from studying for finals, I’ll let him do a little of the describing for me:

“…we may look down upon the beautiful surface of Fish Lake. This sheet of water, about 5 1/2 miles in length and a mile and a half in breadth, is walled in by two noble palisades…”

“Not the smallest among its attractions for the geologist is the fact that it is a most eligible summer camping-place. In the daytime, throughout July, August, and most of September, it is mild and genial, while the nights are frosty and conducive to rest. The grass is long, luxurient, and aglow with flowers.”

“Clumps of spruce and aspen furnish shade from the keen rays of the sun, and fuel is in abundance for camp-fires.”

“Thus the great requisites for Western camp-life, fuel, water, and grass, are richly supplied, while neither in in such excess as to be an obstacle to progress and examination.

“On every side it is bounded by precipitous cliffs, except along a part of its southwestern flank, but here and there the malls are broken and notched. Along the side facing west-northwest runs a cliff of vast proportions, second only to the western front of the Sevier Plateau in magnitude and grandeur. Upon the very brink of this wall is the highest point of the plateau, from which, in a clear day, we may easily discern the peaks of the Wasatch around Salt Lake City and beyond.”

“Upon the east side rise two conspicuous masses – Mount Terril and Mount Marvine.”

“No resort more beautiful than this lake can be found in Southern Utah. Its grassy banks clad with groves of spruce and aspen; the splendid vista down between its mountain walls, with the massive fronts of Mounts Marvine and Hilgard in the distance; the crystal-clear expanse of the lake itself, combine to form a scene of beauty rarely equaled in the West.”

*As far as it concerns me, however, Fish Lake has no fish. Or, rather, it has fish, but they didn’t want to be caught by me – not even after two days of fishing attempts. So much for that 4th of July fish fry we had planned.