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Trail of the Gargoyles & Columns of the Giants

There are two wonders that share a common history as to how the geologic forces relate to them - the Trail of the Gargoyles and Columns of the Giants.  Gargoyles and grotesques created by sculptors and carvers stir our imagination.  The most common belief is that they are protectors, keeping evil away from the buildings and their occupants.  These formations were created by rocks weathered into fantastic shapes. 

            The “Columns of the Giants” are a rare example of columnar hexagonal basalt rock finely polished by previous glacial ages.  Basalt, a hard, black volcanic rock with less than 52 percent silica, is the most common rock type in the Earth’s crust.  The low silica content allows for flow over long distances.  Crystals can form because the lava cools slowly after erupting out of a volcano, sometimes taking months or years to cool all the way through. 

History and Background

            Geologic evidence currently shows the earth was formed over four and a half billion years ago.  The granite in the Sierra Nevada formed one million years ago.  Other types of rocks found here, such as volcanic rocks, were shaped about ten million years ago and weathered into figures that look like gargoyles. 

            The oldest rocks in the area were formed by sediments along a continental margin, dating back 300-400 million years and can be viewed in downtown Sonora along Woods Creek.  Due to pressure and temperatures, these sediments have changed into slate and marble.  The granitic rocks, mostly in the eastern parts of the county, formed about 100 million years ago and up to five miles deep within the earth as magma cooled and hardened into crystal shapes. 

            Volcanic activity, the Little Walker Caldera, occurred east of Sonora Pass, burying much of the exposed granite up to 2,000 feet or more in some areas.  The volcanic rocks include volcanic ash, lava flows, and mudflows.  After the volcanoes died out about five million years ago, the Sierra Nevada was born, although the rocks are much older than the mountains. 

            Glaciers later eroded away some of the volcanic and granitic rocks as they receded across valley floors and lower ridges.  Rain, snow, ice, and wind have further changed the rock into spires, cracks, holes, cliffs, and gullies.

            The Columns of the Giants were created by perfect conditions, when lava flowed into an ancient riverbed and pooled behind a natural dam.  As this deep pool of lava slowly cooled, the molten rock hardened and shrank, splitting into multi-sided vertical columns.  As the hot lava cooled, like most liquids, it shrank, causing tension in the new rock.  Cracking relieved the vertical stress.  Vertical columns occurred only where lava of uniform composition and thickness cooled evenly from top to bottom.  During the first lava flow the straight columns were formed.  The second flow left twisted upper layers over the already cooled first layer.  The vanished glacier during the ice age polished the tops of these columns, leaving behind their scrape marks and exposing the columns.  The rocks at the base of the columns are called talus.  As water seeped into cracks in the rock and froze, the expanding ice crystals slowly wedged the massive blocks apart.  Heaps of smaller rocks collected at the bottom where they’ve separated and fallen.  You can feel the cool air rising through the talus.  Remnants of this ancient ice still remain, covered and preserved by the fallen rock.  

 Current Features

            At the Trail of the Gargoyles you will see evidence of glaciations, with erratic boulders of granitic rock that glaciers left perched on top of younger volcanic rocks.  There are two trails – the North Rim Trail and the South Rim Trail.  Both trails are one and one-half miles roundtrip. 

            The walk to the Columns of the Giants is a short nature walk to the basalt formation.  Be careful crossing a steep gully to the left side of the ancient volcanic flow. 

How to Get There—GPS Coordinates: N38° 20.23' W119° 48.19' (Columns of the Giants)

            Hike an easy trail to the Gargoyles located nine miles east of Strawberry, off Herring Creek Road (Forest Service Road 4N12) in the Stanislaus National Forest.  The Columns of the Giants are located next to Pigeon Flat Campground, twenty-four miles east of Pinecrest on Highway 108.

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