I've mentioned Fossil Falls a few times on the blog. Many of you have undoubtedly driven by the big sign on Hwy 395 while flying northward toward Mammoth, and I can appreciate that most of you didn't have the time or inclination to go explore an unknown patch of desert and had better places to be. This little post is meant to remind you that the place is worth a look.
Fossil Falls is part of a huge lava flow which, as it cooled, formed three distinct tiers. The walk up to the rim passes through jagged lava fields and ends abruptly at a big drop. This is where the cooling flow piled up on itself. Below the rim is a jagged and polished collection of curvaceous forms, bubbled shapes, and sculpted edges. There are a couple ways to down climb into the first tier of the "falls". This short stretch descends into a widening chasm that feel much like a narrow box canyon, with the rim being 40 or so feet overhead. Walking further "downstream" one descends an easy 4th Class down climb to the lowest level 30 feet below. At this point the canyon widens dramatically and basalt shelves stack up to one's right while on the left growing towers of ferrous basalt form mesas and eroded summits. The floor of this lowest part of the canyon is pure Mojave desert, chamisa and cracked earth.
Scattered throughout the lower canyon are bits and pieces of razor sharp obsidian, evidence of the people who once inhabited the region and shaped their arrowheads, spear points, and knives from the hard, glass-like substance. I'd known there were petroglyphs somewhere in Fossil but had never really searched for them. Jack Elliott, who had accompanied me on this excursion, spotted a single panel cleverly placed on a west facing boulder. Having seen numerous petroglyphs within the Owens Valley I was a bit surprised that there weren't a lot more at Fossil Falls. My experience in the Owens has been that petroglyph sites are often huge, and may contain hundreds of elements. Not so here, but I was happy nonetheless.
Jack has written a post that may be of interest, an overview of the geology and human history of Fossil Falls. (Link)
An hour in Fossil is about all one needs to really explore the place, however there are endless opportunities to frame interesting photos. When you've got the time, take the time. It's an interesting side trip.