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The Beartooth Plateau

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#1 OlDoinyo

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Posted 09 October 2020 - 16:12

Millions of years ago, on what is now the Montana-Wyoming border, a block of Precambrian metamorphic rock was thrust upward along a fault. The sedimentary rocks on top were mostly eroded away, leaving an extended area of high terrain which is also transected in places by deep, broad-bottomed glacial gorges which subdivide the uplift into smaller regions with picturesque names such as "Hellroaring Plateau." The top of the uplift is a true alpine plateau, with extensive areas of gently pitched and rolling terrain above the timberline at 3,000 meters. This is something rare in North America: most alpine tundra here is on the flanks or summits of mountain peaks. I suppose the nearest European equivalent might be the Hardangervidda, although that has a somewhat wetter climate.

It is a severe environment, where the snowpack starts building in early October and is not gone until late May the following year. Temperatures may plunge to -30 degrees in the winter, and a centimeter of topsoil may take thousands of years to form. Most of it is also designated as wilderness, and is thus roadless and strictly off-limits to any sort of mechanized access. However, US Highway 212 traverses a southern corner of the plateau, including about 15 kilometers above timberline and cresting at 3,321 meters above sea level. The Beartooth Highway, as it is known, has become one of the nation's favorite scenic drives, and offers a unique window on this high world.

I recently visited it in mid-September. I hoped to find some wildflowers blooming, but it was too late for that--the season's first significant snowstorm had already happened and everything was brown and withered on the plateau. Even at lower elevations not much was blooming except a few scraggly Mertensia and some miscellaneous asteraceous weeds. The wind would also have made any plant photography difficult: it seemed never to be blowing less than about 25 km/h and sometimes seemed more than twice that. So it was landscape photography only this time, and I sought to portray this environment in the UV as well as other bands. It was also the height of wildfire season in the west, and the atmosphere was smoky some days, though it cleared a bit on others. My UV images of the Beartooth Plateau follow. Unless otherwise indicated, images were taken with the Sony A900, the Steinheil Cassar-S 50mm lens at f/16, and the Baader U2 filter. Display intent is BGR.

"Between the Summits:"
Attached Image: Between the Summits j small ex DSC00026.jpg

The tundra vegetation, golden to the naked eye, appears a sort of chocolate-brown in these UV images, due to preferential absorption at shorter wavelengths.

"Bear's Tooth View:"
Attached Image: Bear's Tooth View j small ex DSC00115.jpg

This is looking across the border into Montana, and across one of the glacial gorges and up another one. Visible near the center of the frame is the namesake rock spire Bear's Tooth
(3,632 meters.) I am not sure I would wish to meet the bear to whom this fang belonged!

"View to Hellroaring Plateau:"
Attached Image: View to Hellroaring Plateau j small ex DSC00028.jpg
A view more easterly than the previous frame, and also looking across the gorge.

"Beyond the Hills" (Asahi 20, U360/S8612 filter:)
I struggled with white balance on this one, and it shows a bit.
Attached Image: Beyond the Hills j small ex DSC00113.jpg

"High Wyoming:"
Attached Image: High Wyoming j small ex DSC00030.jpg

"Where Sky Meets Earth:"
Attached Image: Where Sky Meets Earth j small ex DSC00032.jpg

"Pensive Hill:"
Attached Image: Pensive Hill j small ex DSC00033.jpg

The final two images were taken in one of the glacial gorges, at lower elevation. Many of these have scenery reminiscent of Yosemite (but without the crowds.) Access to the most scenic sections is difficult due to wilderness restrictions, but the Rock Creek gorge has a gravel road that goes fairly far in.

"Rock Creek Gorge:"
Attached Image: Rock Creek Gorge j small ex DSC00042.jpg

"Twin Domes:"
Attached Image: Twin Domes j small ex DSC00045.jpg

In the future, I would like to return to this area earlier in the season, when alpine flowers might still be blooming and when it might not be fire season. The vegetation might also show a different background color.

#2 colinbm

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Posted 09 October 2020 - 23:54

Looks like a place where everything struggles, you have emphasized that admirably.

#3 Cadmium

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Posted 10 October 2020 - 00:04

Clark, Nice photos! :smile:

#4 Stefano

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Posted 10 October 2020 - 00:56

It looks like a harsh, lonely place. UV, as always, made it look even harsher. I imagine walking there, alone. Rough and beautiful.

#5 Bill De Jager

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Posted 10 October 2020 - 03:22

I was there not so long ago, fulfilling a decades-long ambition. Unfortunately I didn't have UV gear. The weather was decent for such a high elevation, but it must be absolutely brutal during winter. Frankly, I would expect the temperature to get below -50 C on rare occasions.

Thanks for the explanation of the geology and ecology. Yes, such a high plateau is unusual in North America. There are a few other places in the 48 contiguous U.S. states that have alpine plateaus with tundra. One that comes to mind is portions of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado where there is some extensive gently rolling terrain above timberline, though still far smaller than the Beartooth Plateau. The Uinta Mountains in Utah have some similar terrain. Another couple of alpine plateaus are found on top of the White Mountains of California at elevations of around 3700-4000 meters, with technically a much drier and sparser plant community called alpine fell fields. I'm pretty sure that the Beartooth is still by far the largest such high-elevation plateau in the U.S.

In each of these cases the terrain in question consists of one or more ancient erosion surfaces that have been at most only partly dissected by erosion after their massive uplift long ago.