Hiking Red Mountain near Flagstaff, Arizona

Hiking Red Mountain near Flagstaff, Arizona

Red Mountain —

Exposed Interior of a Volcano

hiking red mountain volcano near flagstaff, az


Welcome to Flagstaff, the land of towing pines, golden-leafed aspens, and ancient volcanoes.  Today you will have the pleasure of visiting Red Mountain, one fo the most scenic and interesting hikes in the area, and a treasure trove of geology, history, and scenery.  Enjoy, and don’t forget to give Canyons and Chefs a shout on a Google review.

How do I get there?

Getting here is quite simple, scenic, and about a 25-minute drive from downtown Flagstaff.  You will travel through large stands of old-growth ponderosa forest and the towering mountains of the San Francisco Volcanic Field.  These mountains dominate the skyline of Flagstaff, and are well-known as the tallest mountains in Arizona.

After you pass Snowbowl Road and break through the trees, be sure to look out your window to catch a glimpse of Humphrey’s Peak, Arizona’s loftiest peak at 12,635 feet.  Humphrey’s summit is quite inauspicious, as it is just the simple crested hump on the most-northern side of the peak complex.  Continue on your journey.

From downtown, head north to HWY 180 (Fort Valley Rd).  Continue on HWY 180, then turn left at at mile marker 247 and forest road 9023V the signed junction for Red Mountain.  You will can see Red Mountain looming over the landscape from the road.  Take the easy dirt road for about 0.25 mile before parking in the designated lot.  Enjoy!

What should I bring?

For all hikes in Flagstaff, it is wise to be prepared for the weather to change, sometimes very quickly.  Locals say “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes”.  There is often wind, especially in the spring, and rain/snowstorms can occur at any time, sometimes without much warning.  Wear sturdy shoes (no open toes, sandals, or flip-flops), and as always avoid cotton or denim.

For this hike I also strongly advise bringing a camera (phone is fine) and geologist’s hand lens.  You may purchase one here, or they can be found at most jewelry stores (they are also known as jewelers loupes), hardware stores (HomCo in Flagstaff) is great place, or online.

For a full checklist of what to bring on any hike, check out The Goat’s Day Hiking Essentials.

hiking red mountain volcano near flagstaff, az

The History of the Landscape

Red Mountain is what is known as a “cinder cone”, which is essentially a dwarf volcano.  These features, which dot the landscape of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, typically lie along fault lines, or fractures in the crust.  Magma pushes through the crustal weakness creating a bulge in the landscape, and extrudes onto the surface as basaltic lava.  The lava bubbles and flows over the landscape in pulses, building up one pulse after another to form a dome, or  cinder cone.

Beginning about 4 million years ago, widespread volcanic activity started in earnest in this region that is now known as the southern portion of the Colorado Plateau.  The landscape is dotted with thousands of features born from magma, lava, and the ever-churning molten interior of the Earth.  Among these are the aforementioned San Francisco Peaks that graced your window view on the way here, lava tubes and caves, and of course cinder cones.

The Mountains Rise….

The San Francisco Volcanic Field rose as part of the massive tectonic forces that are responsible for the Colorado Plateau and its neighboring geologic province known as the Basin and Range.  The Plateau hosts features such as deep canyons and intricate erosional features, while the Basin and Range is punctuated by isolated mountain ranges spaced by isolated basins.

The large, saucer-shaped uplift that is the Colorado Plateau is a relatively stable tectonic area, while the Basin and Range is the product of extension, or tectonic movement that results in “stretching”.  The Basin and Range is pulling away from the Colorado Plateau like Silly Putty, and that is the action responsible for the San Francisco Volcanic Field.  As the crust stretches, magma from the subsurface is able to penetrate upwards, leaving its signatures behind.

hiking red mountain volcano near flagstaff, az

Volcanoes and Such

The San Francisco Peaks form what once was part of a singular massive volcano standing roughly 16,000 feet tall, the main feature in the area.  The extensional tectonics pulling the Basin and Range resulted in several periods of volcanism of varying intensities at the southern margin of the Plateau, forming the features surrounding you.  On the most intense scales, volcanic activity created the massive mountain that ultimately erupted catastrophically, blowing its top and collapsing in on itself.

On the less intense spectrum, the volcanism created thousands of smaller features; among them are the cinder cones that surround the massive caldera known as the San Francisco Peaks.  Red Mountain is one of these cinder cones.  Roughly 740,000 years ago, myriad pulses of volcanic activity produced basaltic lava that extruded, or flowed, out onto the surface.

These eruptions included several types of pyroclastic (stuff from volcanoes, simply put) ejecta such as cinders, bombs, and ash in addition to the lava.  Layers hardened, only to be covered by subsequent flows and eruptions.  Over and again, the lavas flowed and hardened, building Red Mountain into the classic cinder dome shape.

hiking red mountain volcano near flagstaff, az

Collapse and Dissection

Through the wonderful forces of erosion, the Red Mountain cinder cone has been excavated and exposed.  Faulting along the same lines that created the cinder cone are also responsible for the collapse of the eastern side.  This collapse allowed for rain, snow, frost, and wind to take a scalpel over the several hundred thousand years after.

The amphitheater that has been created provides an inside-out look at this volcanic structure, giving geologists tremendous insight into their formation processes.  Contained within Red Mountain is a fairyland of spires, hoodoos, and cliffs carved out by the forces of water, wind, and time.


Cultural History

Although there is little evidence of prolonged habitation in and around Red Mountain, the greater area was host to generations of Ancestral Puebloan Tribes.  The most prominent tribe in the area are known as the Sinagua People, or “the people without water”.  They are known as such given the dry conditions under which they lived, with few perennial water sources.

These peoples farmed, hunted, and traded in the area beginning around 1500 years ago before moving on around 850 years ago.  The eruption of the Sunset Caldera around 960 years ago is surmised to be the main reason for their disappearance.  The remnants of their once-flourishing society can be observed in Sunset-Wupatki National Monument, where they’ve left large, well-preserved structures on the rolling hillsides, and Walnut Canyon National Monument where structures have been built into the cliffs of the canyon itself.

hiking red mountain volcano near flagstaff, az

Hiking Red Mountain near Flagstaff

The hike here is more of a leisurely, scenic stroll, just one mile to the interior of the amphitheater.  The trail is well-worn and easy to follow.  Begin from the signed trailhead at the edge of the parking lot.

Point of Interest #1

At .75 mile, you will come to a small, dam-looking apparatus.  Stop and look down in the sand.  The unconsolidated material underfoot is known as alluvium, or material deposited by water.  Upon closer inspection, you will see black material that glints in the sun.  Pick it up.  This is the mineral known as hornblende, which is a member of the amphibole family.  Hornblende is an associate mineral of basalt, the type of lava that extruded from this cinder cone.  If you have brought a geologic hand lens, inspect the specimen closely.  Take note of its habit (the character of its form), its cleavage (the way the mineral breaks or fractures), and its hardness (how hard it is; the best way to test this is to scratch it on another rock).

You are now being a geologist!  This is how geologists make determinations about what kind of mineral they are observing out in the field.  Mineralogy is an important tool for any geologist, as it allows us to make inferences about the type of rocks that are present, and most importantly, under what type of conditions they formed.  In this case, we know that the mineral horblende forms in the upper mantle under particular sets of pressure and temperature conditions.  This allows us to delve deeply into the history of this magma, and pinpoint exactly where it came from.  Hooray!

From here, take the small ladder or scramble up the right side of the structure.  Watch your footing, loose cinder can act like ball bearings under your feet!

Point of Interest #2

At 1.0 mile, you have reached the main attraction!  You are now in the amphitheater of the Red Mountain Cinder Cone.  Take stock of what you see.  The landscape reveals a fairyland of carefully-sculpted pinnacles, and forms known as hoodoos.  The sunset red-orange is set brilliantly against the deep green of the surrounding ponderosa pines, adding a wonderful contrast of color to the beautiful scenery.  Examine the hoodoos.  You can tell the difference between a hoodoo and a pinnacle by its formation mechanism.  The hoodoos are protected by a caprock, or harder rock on top of softer rock.

The harder rock protects the soft stuff below it from erosion, over time forming the hoodoo.  Though it is more difficult to see without serious inspection, the pinnacles form along joints, or weaknesses in the rock as a whole.  Mapping joints and fractures can be a very complex task!  Take our your hand lens and inspect a caprock that tops a hoodoo.  You will again see the mineral hornblende, but this time you will also be able to observe the mineral feldspar (the little whitish flecks), the mineral pyroxene (more black, tough to distinguish from hornblende), and olivine (green, a common mineral in basalt).

Point of Interest #3

Explore deeper into the walls of the amphitheater.  Look up.  Observe the bedding features present in the walls.  You will notice the horizontal layers, which are bedding planes, and the tilted nature of the overall bedding.  Go up close to the walls and look closely at the bedding planes.  Contained within these structures is massive amounts of information helpful to a geologist.  Notice the thickness of each layer.

This will tell you the volume of the eruptive pulse.  Observe what is contained within the beds, feel with you hands.  You will observe layers of consolidated rock, the basalt, fine layers of what looks like blonde sand )the ash), and small chunks of basalt mixed with ash; evidence of more violent eruptive pulses.  Sweet!

Point of Interest #4

Continue to observe the nature of the bedding.  You will undoubtedly notice a tilting toward you of the bedding planes.  This is what geologists call dip, or bedding attitude.  The degree of bedding is very helpful in understanding formational processes.

In this case, the bedding dipping toward you is a good clue the the actual center, or caldera, of the volcano is not actually in the amphitheater center, but on the other side of the walls.  The radial nature also gives away another important clue; wind presence and direction during periods of eruption.

Low or no wind presence will allow for a symmetrical structure, while sustained or high winds will result in an asymmetrical formation.  You may notice that the bedding planes seem to “lean” to the north, or to the right of where you stand.  This tells you that the wind was a-blowin’, which gives us ideas about the natural environment at this time in geologic history.

The walls also hold other clues to the formation of this feature.  You may observe holes in the upper reaches.  These are dissolution features, oftentimes remnant of hydrothermal activity (hot water moving through the subsurface).  This activity may have played an important part in the tearing and subsequent erosion of this cinder cone.

Most cones are consolidated, and therefore not observable from the inside.  But the collapse of the side of Red Mountain has provided a spectacular look into its anatomy.  It is highly likely that faulting along the Mesa Butte Fault, whose trace is essentially right under your feet, produced superheated water that dissolved the feature from the inside, leading to its collapse.

Point of Interest #5

Take a moment to quiet your body and mind to revel in the silence, sunlight, and beauty.  Oftentimes the high walls and ledges are great nesting grounds for Peregrine Falcons, Red-Tailed Hawks, and even Bald Eagles.  Watch for them swooping in the mid-day or evenings, and listen for their bird-of-prey screeches, much different from the average songbird!

When you are finished enjoying the natural beauty, scenery, solitude, and quiet, turn and follow the path the way you came.


What’s for Lunch?

Chef’s Selection of Cheeses

Chef’s Selection of Charcuterie

Fresh-Baked Crusty Bread

House-Smoked Atlantic Salmon – Salmon is from Randal’s Fine Meats

Chef’s Fresh-Squeezed Juice of the Moment

Chef’s Selection of Wine from the Cellar

Going Guided

Hiking and exploring The Wave, or any of our public lands, is a special experience.  Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guiding outfitter is a great idea.  For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip.  They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.

Canyons and Chefs provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with professional chefs and expert geologist/guides.  Our meals use fresh ingredients and are inspired by local farms, culture, and cuisine. We utilize a mobile professional kitchen as a backbone for cooking over the fire.  Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore. In conclusion, you can explore these wild places, but going with an outfitter can create an even more memorable experience.  Don’t be shy, and call us!

Read our blog!

For adventure Chef-Driven Outdoor Experiences, see our epic tours in Grand Canyon, Utah, and Arizona!

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram

Explore Further, Be Wild, Eat Like Kings —

Canyons and Chefs


#2 Best (Worst) Geology Disaster Movie of All-Time

#2 Best (Worst) Geology Disaster Movie of All-Time

#2:  Dante’s Peak

Look Mom, a pyroclastic flow!

Geologic Sin Meter:  Volcanoriffic

This rating system seems to be getting more stupid and vague with every post, so let’s just say that this rating means that this movie is actually pretty cool and relatively scientifically accurate (aside from a few hilariously foolish gaffs)

Movie Background:

This is mid-90’s geological disaster movie at its finest.  A large, dormant volcano in the Pacific Northwest is showing signs of coming back to life, and will threaten the summer tourism activities of a small Washington State town.  Mayor Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton) has a town that has just been voted “the second most desirable place to live in America”; quite the distinction.  However, when volcanologist Dr. Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) arrives at the behest of his USGS superiors to check out unusual seismic activity, that idyllic moniker is threatened.  

To add some spice to the mix, the first scene in the movie (spoiler alert) shows Dr. Dalton and his girlfriend studying a volcano in Colombia.  She is tragically killed as they try to escape an eruption, which may explain Dr. Dalton’s anxiety and caution regarding this new threat and the evacuation of the small town.

Not unexpectedly, a romantic bond forms between Mayor Wando and Dr. Dalton, and it is left to them to warn the townspeople, save lives, and outrun an erupting volcano with two kids and a stubborn grandma/mother-in-law in tow.

Geology Background:

The town depicted in this movie is in the Northern Cascades of Washington State.  The Cascades are a chain of volcanically-active mountains that run from northern California through Washington into Canada and include Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Lassen. Mt. Shasta, and of course most famously (or infamously) Mt. St. Helen’s that erupted in 1980.

General Map of the Cascades and its volcanoes. (Courtesy natural history.si.net)

The best thing to do here is start with the basics.  What is a volcano?  Well, a volcano can be counted as any landform that is capable of extruding lava from the mantle onto the Earth’s surface.  This lava, which is called magma when it is under the surface, finds cracks and spaces in the lithosphere (crust) from which to escape, and upon these cracks is where the volcanoes are typically found.

They come in many shapes and sizes, and can be found all over the world in both active and extinct forms.  The most famous volcanoes are the Hawaiian Island Chain, Mt. Fuji, Mt. St. Helens, The Yellowstone Caldera, Mt. Pinatubo, Krakatoa, and Mt. Vesuvius.  The Cascades are a chain of mountains that are known as composite or stratovolcanoes.  Stratovolcanoes are the stereotypical image that one conjures up when thinking about what a volcano looks like.

This shows the varying forms and types of volcanoes found in the world (Courtesy schoolworkhelper.net)

They are generally tall in elevation, and have a distinct cone shoes with relatively steep sides.  This is due to their propensity to extrude more viscous lava that builds a tall cone, then explodes the top off.  This is in contrast to shield volcanoes that extrude less viscous lava that flows outward, creating a large dome-like structure.

The Cascades are the product of subduction, where the Juan de Fuca and Gorda plates are moving southeast and under (subducting) the North American plate which is moving to the northwest.  This tectonic action is the perfect setting for a north-south trending chain of active stratovolcanoes that explode from time to time, such as the Cascade Range.  

Simple rendering of a subduction zone.  As tectonic plates slide under and

over each other, they create pressure and build volcanically-active mountains (Courtesy livescience.com)

The mountain range is but a small part of the larger “Ring of Fire”, which is the 5,000 mile ring of active volcanoes that follow the Pacific tectonic plate as it transforms and subducts other tectonic plates circumventing the Pacific Ocean.  Roughly 85% of the world’s volcanic activity happens along this margin, and it has produced some of the largest eruptions and earthquakes in modern history including the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo in 1974, and the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011 that registered as a 9.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale.  

Map of the famed Ring of Fire, the chain of active volcanism

at the margins of the Pacific tectonic plate (Courtesy livescience.com)

Geologic Sin QnA:

Could a dormant volcano “wake up”?

Absolutely.  The activity of volcanoes fall into two categories, active and extinct.  If a volcano has erupted within the last 10,000 years, it is considered active, and when it is not actively erupting it is considered dormant.  Also, if a volcano shows sigs of active volcanism (i.e. geysers, fumaroles, hot springs, mud pots, gassing, etc), it is considered active even if it has not erupted in more than 10,000 years.  Hood, Shasta, Rainier, and even now Mt. St. Helen’s are all examples of dormant volcanoes.  As we saw in 1980 when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted, a dormant volcano can quickly and violently spring back to life.

The real question here is why a town is built in the shadow of an active volcano?  The townsfolk seem to be aware, as one quips “yeah, just like Pompeii” in response to Dr. Dalton commenting on the cozy mountain town feel (Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, wiping out the village of Pompeii and killing 16,000 people, many of whom were entombed in various living poses by the pyroclastic flow).  Hmmmm…

Is the eruption portrayed in the movie accurate?

There are several questions encased in this question.  Are the signs before the eruption accurate?  Is the timeline accurate?  Are the effects of the eruption accurate?  

The simple answer here is that yes, the eruption itself and the general ideas of the events leading put to it are an accurate depiction of a stratovolcanic eruption.  Although volcanoes are very unpredictable as to when or if they might erupt, they rarely erupt without any signals.  These signals are typically increased gas flows, increased seismic activity up to and including earthquakes, acidification of nearby bodies of water, rising temperatures in those bodies of water, small-scale eruptions, small lava flows, etc.  

The eruption itself, despite one flaw, is visually accurate and the damage that results is more than true to life.  The flaw is that the audience sees fast-flowing lava (the protagonists actually drive over it) extruding from a vent mid-mountain.  Stratovolcanic lavas are typically andesitic (intermediate) or rhyolitic (felsic) in composition, meaning that they have higher relative silicon oxide content.  SiO2 tends to make lava more viscous, meaning that it is more resistant to flow.  

This is actually one of the main drivers behind a stratovolcanic eruption.  As pressure builds, a liquid magma that is more resistant to flow is likely to explode more violently.  This is in stark contrast to a basaltic lava eruption, which will flow quickly and without much resistance.  The Hawaiian volcano Mauna Loa, which has been steadily erupting since 1984, erupts fast-flowing basaltic lava in a non-explosive fashion.  Bottom line here: large stratovolcanic eruptions with lahars and pyroclastic flows are almost never seen in concert with flowing lavas as they are depicted in the movie.  

Other than that flaw, everything else is geologically accurate including the eruption plume cloud, the pyroclastic flow, the lahar (volcanic mud flow) resulting from melted snow on the mountain, the earthquakes, the suddenness of the eruption, and the resulting devastation of the quaint mountain town.

Could a Jeep drive over a lava flow?

Um, no.  First, please see the previous question as to why rapidly free-flowing lava would not be seen in this type of eruption.  Second, even if there was flowing lava extruding during this eruption, the notion that a car could drive across it with minimal damage (popped tires) is flatly ridiculous.  Extruding lava can reach temperatures in excess of 2000F, which is not only enough to burn and melt the tires, but is frankly hot enough to melt the entire vehicle, which would likely just simply burst into flames.

Would a lake near the volcano turn highly acidic?

Yes.  The pH levels in lakes near volcanoes have been recorded as dropping to close to 0, which is extremely acidic.  Often sulfuric acid will bubble up through soils into water, causing lakes, ponds, streams, springs, etc. to become highly acidic.

In the movie, one of the more gut-wrenching scenes occurs on a lake of this type.  During their escape, Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, the two kids, and the stubborn grandma must cross a lake near Grandma’s house.  As they paddle desperately, the lake begins to eat their boat and Grandma jumps out to heroically push them to safety, sacrificing herself for the greater good.  This eats her clothes and skin rapidly and she perishes, quite painfully I imagine.

The issue with this is not that it would not happen, but that it would certainly not happen this quickly.  Although sulfuric acid is highly corrosive, dangerous stuff, it will not eat through metal in a matter of seconds or even minutes.  It may take roughly a day for a 5mm metal rod to dissolve in pure sulfuric acid, so the speed at which the acidified lake, which would still likely not be pure acid and therefore less corrosive, corrodes the boat is slightly (cough, cough) exaggerated.

Could people be boiled alive in a hot spring as a precursor to an eruption?

Again, this question encompasses a few things in this movie.  It alludes to the dead animals, trees, shrubs, and of course, the boiled-to-death teenage couple in the hot springs.  This is all supposedly related to CO2 seeping from the ground as an effect of the awakening of the volcano.

Phenomenon such as this has been documented as a precursor to volcanic eruptions.  Often, as a byproduct of gases that are escaping from the magma chamber as the pressure from the rising plume pushes them outward will contaminate the atmosphere above the chamber.  Elevated CO2 levels in the air can suffocate animals, and CO2 saturation in the soil can lead to suffocation of plants.

The one thing here that is quite hokey is the boiling hot spring.  Although some springs and other bodies of water have displayed increased temperatures prior to an eruption, they are not nearly hot enough to boil someone to death.  The movie depicts this phenomenon as happening quite quickly as well, as the spring is nice and inviting when the teens show up.  As they are swimming and enjoying themselves, the spring suddenly heats up to boiling temperatures and cooks them alive.  Bummer dude.

This would not only likely not happen at all, but it would certainly not happen that quickly.

How might one outrun a pyroclastic flow?

In short, you would not.  These monsters can travel at speeds up to 450/mph, So no, just no.

Final Word:

I saw Dante’s Peak around the time it came out in 1997.  I was about 12 years old and it was randomly on television at my grandparents’ house in Cincinnati.  I remember being very intrigued by Dr. Dalton and his crack team of volcano scientists and their tools, lingo, and ultimate heroism.  This movie may be one of those deep-seeded reasons why I ultimately became a geologist (although I study sedimentary rocks and have been known to abhor volcanics).

I remember feeling the frustration that the USGS scientists felt as they tried to decipher the message that this living, breathing, beast of nature was encoding.  I remember being exasperated at the Mayor, her townspeople, and even one of the USGS honchos that were far more concerned about the potential economic harm of evacuating the town rather than the potential harm of the town being wiped out and everyone killed (“Gasp!  But this is our tourist season!”).   Such is the life of a volcanologist: always chasing “The Big One”, being everyone’s hall monitor in the face of resistance and economic concern, and risking your life to measure sulfuric gas emissions…..sigh.  

What I also remember, as both an adult and child, is that I really enjoyed this movie.  The science is generally solid (save for a few nonsensical Hollywoodisms), the acting is good, the special effects around the volcano are well executed and realistic, the plot is believable, and it is overall very entertaining.  As a bonus, the final scene in the movie is actually a shot of the Mt. St. Helen’s Caldera (framed as Dante’s Peak), a foreboding reminder of the destructive power of nature.  The movie itself was filmed in the mountains of Idaho, which are some of my favorite stomping grounds (although they have no relation to the Cascades).  All things considered, even as a scientist it is easy to enjoy and be entertained by this movie, even as you smile wryly during their drive over flowing lava.  Enjoy it Rockheads!

May The Goat be always with you

Going Guided

Hiking and exploring the National Parks, or any of our public lands, is a special experience.  Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guiding outfitter is a great idea.  For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip.  They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.

Canyons and Chefs provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with professional chefs and expert geologist/guides.  Our meals use fresh ingredients and are inspired by local farms, culture, and cuisine. We utilize a mobile professional kitchen as a backbone for cooking over the fire.  Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore. In conclusion, you can explore these wild places, but going with an outfitter can create an even more memorable experience.  Don’t be shy, and call us!

Read our blog!

For adventure Chef-Driven Outdoor Experiences, see our epic tours in Grand Canyon, Utah, and Arizona!

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram

Explore Further, Be Wild, Eat Like Kings —

Canyons and Chefs


#2 Best (Worst) Geology Disaster Movie of All-Time

#3 Best (Worst) Geology Disaster Movie of All-Time

#3.  The Core

Look Mom, the core is…it’s….doing something?!

Geologic Sin Meter:  Off the Charts

This rating means that this movie literally broke the meter, and I had to repair it while laughing madly.  This movie takes the proverbial cake for bad science movies.

Movie Background:

The premise of this movie is that the the core of the Earth is shutting down, likely taking the entire planet  down with it.  Roughly 3/4 of the way through the movie, it is revealed that the likely cause is D.E.S.T.I.N.Y, a fancy acronym for weaponized seismic waves created by our very own government (with the help of one of the geophysicists tabbed with saving the planet).

Four scientists (two geophysicists ( (Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart), Dr. Conrad Zimsky (Stanley Tucci)), a geochemist/physicist ((Dr. Ed “Braz” Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo)), nuclear physicist (Serge (Tcheky Karyo)) and two astronauts (navigator Maj. Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank), Mission Commander Robert Iverson (Bruce Greenwood)) are to save the planet by drilling directly to the core of the Earth to detonate nuclear bombs, restarting its spinning motion and restoring the Earth’s electromagnetic field.

Using the collective scientific knowledge of some of the smartest people on the planet, a plan is devised (under complete media blackout) to build a machine capable of getting there, and guiding a crack team of heroes to detonate said nuclear weapons and save the human race (and many other species).

Geology Background:

The Earth is (simply speaking) composed of three general layers.  The crust, which is cold and brittle, forms the surface of the planet on which we trod. The mantle, which is variably liquid and solid/plastic, and the core, which is theorized to be molten iron.

Each of these layers can be further divided into sublayers.  The two most important in regards to this movie are the inner and outer cores.  The inner core is theorized to be a solid, roughly spherical ball of pure iron, and the outer core is theorized to be molten iron, rotating in three dimensions around the inner core beneath the lower mantle.

The core as a whole is thought of as our planet’s engine, providing energy in the form of heat generated from the formation of primordial Earth and radioactive decay.  This drives convection in the mantle, which drives tectonics on the crust.  It also is theorized to be responsible for the creation of the Earth’s electromagnetic field, which acts as a protective shield for our surface.

The solid inner and spinning molten outer core produces energy, electric currents, and magnetic fields.  Working with the Coriolis effect of the Earth (spinning), this creates enough electricity and magnetism to produce a field that surrounds the Earth. This field prevents 99.9% of meteors from hitting the surface, as well as deflects potentially harmful solar activity (solar flares, solar storms) away from the surface of Earth.  Aurora Borealis, more commonly referred to as The Northern Lights, is a product of light refraction from solar flares though the EM field.  Aurora Borealis is typically seen near the poles where the solar rays hit the magnetic field at an angle that produces visible light.

Geologic Sin QnA:

Is it possible that the core of the Earth would start “shutting down”?

Given our current theories on the way the core works, no.  As described in the Geologic Background section, the core is both solid and molten iron emitting that is a highly condensed ball of iron still burning from the formation of the planet.  In addition, the radioactive material found in the mantle decays keeping the fires burning  The half-life of Uranium 293 is 14.6 billion years, meaning that only half of this element created in the Big Bang has decayed into thorium 287 or lead 286. 

The rotation of the core is due to differential pressures, temperatures, convection currents, and, in part, the Coriolis Effect. 

In terms of what this means for Earth, it can be simply said that what drives the heat and rotation in the core and mantle of the Earth, that drive the EM field and lithospheric (crustal) tectonics, remains and will remain intact for potentially billions of years into the future.  In fact, the prevailing theory about what will ultimately kill our planet is the death of our sun, and not the burnout or shutdown of the core.  Current estimates based on the amount of hydrogen present in the sun puts this occurrence at 5 billion years from today.  Plan ahead accordingly.

Could “seismic weapons” be the cause?

Simply: Hell No.  Frankly, most of our knowledge of what the core is and how it operates directly results from sending seismic waves through the Earth and measuring their responses.  It is how we know that each layer of the Earth differs in its mineralogic composition, is ductile, solid, or molten, and how thick each layer is and where the boundaries are.

Apparently these “weaponized” seismic waves, which would have been used to cause earthquakes in enemy territory, somehow differ from actual seismic waves.  Any suggestion that seismic waves of any magnitude or depth would effect how the core of the Earth operates is pure nonsense.

Would the effects of the core shutting down be similar to the effects in the movie?

Let’s assume for a moment that the core did actually shut down (stop rotating).  What might happen?  To be honest, the effects depicted in the movie might actually be relatively accurate.  The shutdown of the core, and the resulting failure of the EM field would cause widespread phenomena that could potentially be extremely destructive.  

The pigeons losing their minds at the beginning of the movie?  Not far-fetched considering that many birds, mammals, and amphibians use what are known as magnetoreceptors in their brains, using the EM field to navigate.  The lightning storms that destroy much of Rome?  Quite possible considering that changing EM fields in the atmosphere due to the breakdown may result in enormous, spectacular, and very dangerous lightning storms.  People’s pacemakers simultaneously stopping?  A severe spike in the EM field frequency could wreak havoc with any device that runs on electricity or magnetic fields including cell phones, computers, watches, and yes, pacemakers.

Could a machine be built to access the core?

With our current technology, no.  The furthest below the Earth’s surface penetrated by humans is 6 miles by a Russian oil drill.  In the movie, the machine built by Lindo’s character Dr. Ed Brazzleton out of “Unobtanium” (a fictional metal that can convert heat to energy and withstand pressures found at the core) does the job.  This element does not, and potentially will not ever exist or be discovered/created.

Furthermore, it is quite unclear in the movie who Dr. Brazzleton is working for or where he might get the funding to work on this kind of a project.  Any good academic knows that in order to do anything that requires money and time, grants must be applied for and received through painstaking and competitive review processes.  It is nearly improbable that Dr. Brazzleton used his own money to develop this material without the knowledge or funding of any outside entity.  That is one hell of a pet project. 

He unveils his prototype from under a dusty tarp in a lab set up in the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, a highly remote and inhospitable place where experiments of this kind would almost certainly never take place.  Area 51 you say?  My friends Area 51, although it is located in the wilds of the Nevadan Mojave Desert, is one of the most high-tech, state-of-the-art, clean research facilities in the world that is funded (in the tens of millions $/year) by the federal government and employs many scientists, engineers, and specialists.

As far as can be gathered from the film Dr. Brazzleton is working solo in his dusty garbage heap of a lab without any federal funding or knowledge.  The military General (Gen. Thomas Purcell) in charge of the mission quips “Do you know the potential applications of this material?”, thereby indicating that the federal government and military (the only two entities who would or could fund a project like this) has no prior knowledge, which leaves very few options for money and purpose.  What am I missing here?  Oh right, the fact that this is completely ridiculous.

Would a package of nuclear weapons “restart” the spinning of the outer core?

Theoretically, this is not completely bogus.  Calculated nuclear explosions detonated at specific times in specific areas may provide the energy that would be necessary to induce a convection current in the molten metal that could potentially restart a slowdown in the core’s rotation (if we once again assume that any of this is legitimate).  

Eckhart and Tucci make these calculations on the fly when they realize that the original plan they made did not account for the density of the material in the core, which is found to be less than they had planned for.  I don’t have to tell you that these calculations could take weeks or months with exact measurements and empirical observation (experiments), not mere heated moments.

Can lasers melt, or perfectly blast though rock?

Once again current technology points to an answer of “no”.  And once again, Dr. Brazzleton has discovered and developed this technology with no discernible financial support or research purpose.  The machine made of Unobtanium is fitted with a laser that essentially vaporizes rock (except diamonds?), but does not effect living things as demonstrated by “Braz” and a small mouse in a metal box.  

Maybe one day our progeny several generations down the line will laugh at us for being as primitive as to not have this kind of technology, but in 2016 (and certainly in 2003) we do not have this capability, crazy genius one man shows aside.

What would a trip through the mantle actually look like?

This is where the movie starts (or continues) to play fast and loose with the idea that all of our knowledge of the mantle and core is generally theoretical.  From giant geodes to giant floating diamond fields, their trip through the mantle is nothing short of a wild adventure.

Let’s begin with the geode where their ship crashes after having nothing to blast through and becoming marooned by giant quartz crystals.  A geode is a geological oddity of sorts that has a solid outer shell and a hollow center typically filled with quartz crystals.  They form in sedimentary and igneous environments where a cavity is created (by gas bubbles in magma/lava or erosion of limestone or sandstone) and then filled as quartz (SiO2) precipitates through the solid shell into the hollow center.  

The likelihood that there are geodes being created and preserved in the mantle is, shall I say, not bloody likely.  The pressures, temperatures, convection currents, mineralogical compositions (lack of oxygen and silica), and lack of liquid water to seep and precipitate quartz all add up to a lack of opportunity for a geode to form.  In geologic terms, this mantle geode is akin to saying that sand dunes can form without wind, or that coral reefs can form with no calcium carbonate.  The conditions and elements necessary for this geode to be created simply do not exist in the mantle.

Now, onto the giant floating diamond field that damages the ship and costs our dear Dr. Brazzleton his life.  Diamonds form in the upper mantle at very specific temperatures and pressure (roughly 2000F and about 150km below the Earth’s surface).  They are then brought to the surface by deep-sourced eruptions into vertical tubes called kimberlite pipes, an igneous feature.  

Diamonds are mantle xenoliths, or chunks ripped from the mantle in these eruptions and deposited in the kimberlite pipes.  So, the presence of diamonds during their journey to the core is not wholly ridiculous, and even the fact that they might be mobile and unpredictable is not ridiculous.  And who knows?  The diamonds gathered at the surface may just be tiny pieces of enormous diamonds residing in the mantle.  Again, this is where the movie plays fast and loose with the term theoretical.  

My real gripe here is with the laser’s inability to blast through them.  Since we’re making things up, why stop here?  I suppose some writer got a sense that there needs to be some kind of restraint and boundary, and of course you need some sort of contrived plot device to ensure that Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart’s characters are left alone on the ship together.

To answer the question, nobody really knows exactly what this journey would look like, least of all me, a humble sedimentary geologist that only cares about surface processes.

Are geophysicists famous jerks like Stanley Tucci?

Dr. Conrad Zimsky, portrayed by the great Stanley Tucci, is an unapologetic, self-righteous, self-serving, chain-smoking egomaniac.  Although he does make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the human race that does redeem him to a point,  Dr. Zimsky is a one-note character that gives even the most pompous research scientists a bad name.  

The funny thing is that throughout the movie, it is clear that he is a research-stealing glory hound who is, in fact, the cause of the core shutdown with his weaponized seismic waves (research that he apparently swiped from Dr. Brazzleton, who can officially be called the greatest scientist that ever lived).

I have met and worked with several geophysicists, none of whom remotely resembled Dr. Zimsky.  From his autograph signings to his “do you know who I am?” speeches, this character is simply another razor thin plot device to make Eckhart’s humble-genius-that-gets-the-girl character look all that more likable.  The bottom line here is that most scientists are devoted to their research and to the Earth and not on some fame-seeking quest (even geophysicists, who don’t even like rocks).

Final Word:

The Core takes quite a bit of deserved flack.  My theory on this, and you can decide for yourself, is that it seems to try to present this far-fetched plot as being valid.  I have heard people invoke Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and other Sci-Fi movies as comparisons, and on this I could not disagree more.  Those are fantasy movies, and this movie tries to represent itself with geologists, geophysicists, astronauts, and chemists, not Wookies and Hobbits.

Even if you want to make those comparisons, you still cannot ignore the little voice in your head during this movie that says “I can’t believe I am actually seeing this…”  This movie is not a fantasy Sci-Fi movie, but rather a movie that tries to represent itself under the guise of plausible science.  All scientists can typically laugh at and enjoy other geologic disaster movies, particularly the ones on this list; but there is something about The Core that just arouses some deep-seeded vitriol.

It is because one of the opening scenes of the movie depicts Eckhart’s character as a true Man of Science, lecturing at a prestigious university and conducting a valid demonstration on sound waves?  It is not a Jedi Knight swinging a laser sword or a Wizard with a long stick pontificating about “The One Ring.”  The Core portrays Stanley Tucci’s character as a celebrity scientist, highly respected, lauded, and sought.  There are no small green beings in swamps or ogres swinging axes in epic battles for “Middle Earth”.  It includes highly-skilled astronauts, mathematicians, computer programmers (hackers), and well-heeled military personnel, not heavy-breathing masked men dressed in black or William Shatner.

All of this adds up to the backlash against The Core.  Although it is on this list, I suspect it is here because it is a truly terrible movie with actually bad geology in all its glory.  That being said, it is also important to realize that movies intend to dazzle and entertain, not to inform us on reality, which seems to be a line that is consistently blurred in Hollywood.  If you want excellent special effects, cool action sequences, and a predictable happy ending, then this is your film.  If you want real science, watch a documentary you nerds!

May The Goat be always with you

Going Guided

Hiking and exploring the National Parks, or any of our public lands, is a special experience.  Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guiding outfitter is a great idea.  For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip.  They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.

Canyons and Chefs provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with professional chefs and expert geologist/guides.  Our meals use fresh ingredients and are inspired by local farms, culture, and cuisine. We utilize a mobile professional kitchen as a backbone for cooking over the fire.  Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore. In conclusion, you can explore these wild places, but going with an outfitter can create an even more memorable experience.  Don’t be shy, and call us!

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