Columnar basalt formations like Devils Tower and the Giant’s Causeway have amazed and mystified humans from time immemorial. We now know that these spectacular geological wonders formed when extruded molten lava cooled, crystallized and cracked along precise angles. When exposed en masse, these magnificent symmetrical pillars look anything but natural… but they are: SUPER natural!
Devils Tower, Wyoming, USA
Devils Tower, located in northeastern Wyoming, was designated America’s first national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Geologists are not completely sure how the 1,267 ft (386 m) tall tower came to be, with most theories centering on it being the core, or plug, of an ancient volcano whose outer layers have eroded away. Though the columnar basalt on the formation’s exterior is eroding, so is the softer sandstone surrounding its base.
Devils Tower was known of and venerated by several Native American tribes. One legend concerning the formation involves 7 young girls pursued by a bear. When the ground rose, carrying them upward and out of the creature’s reach, the bear frantically scratched and clawed at the rock until it died of exhaustion. Devils Tower burst into modern pop culture consciousness with the release of the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Tower first appears as a kitchen construction made of mashed potatoes and then, later on, as the contact point between humans and a more-advanced alien race.
Hexagon Pools, Golan Heights, Israel/Syria
The Hexagon Pools and their related watercourses are fed by cold, clear water draining off the nearby hills of the Golan Heights. Surprisingly to many who expect the region to have a classic Middle eastern desert environment, the area is well-watered and the rocks are mainly of volcanic origin.
Sheets of columnar basalt tinted a burnished gray hue hang alongside the Hexagon Pools – it’s the polygonal sections of rock that give the pools their name. The rock formations have been acted on by shifting subterranean fault lines over a very long time, which accounts for their unusual twisted appearance.
Cyclopean Isles, Italy
Located off the southeastern coast of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, the Cyclopean Isles are a small group of volcanic islands associated with nearby Mount Etna. The islands are mainly made up of black basalt that, under the influence of water and weathering, has evolved into a wide variety of otherworldly formations including vertical columns and horizontal polygonal mosaics.
The Cyclopean Isles feature prominently in The Odyssey, the ancient Greek poet Homer’s tale of the warrior king Odysseus (Ulysses) and his lyric journey home from the city of Troy. Odysseus and his crew were captured and imprisoned by a monstrous, one-eyed Cyclops when they landed on one of the islands, only escaping when Odysseus blinded the Cyclops while he slept. In his rage, the pain-crazed Cyclops wildly threw huge boulders in the direction of Odysseus’s sailing ship.
Jusangjeolli, Jeju Island, South Korea
Jusangjeolli is a huge formation of columnar basalt extending along a 3.5km () stretch of the Jungmun and Daepo seashore in Seogwipo, Jeju Island.” In some places, sheer cliffs made up of vertical basalt columns rise up to 20m (60 ft) above the beach. Often compared to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Jusangjeolli also juts out into the ocean and owes its unique character to age-old forces acting at the interface between sea and land.
Exposure to the elements over untold millions of years has left its mark on the once sharply delineated columns. In some areas the columns have partially separated into individual spires; closer to the shore crashing waves have softened and rounded their contours to the point where they resemble man-made walls similar to those constructed by the Incas.
Fingal’s Cave, Staffa, Scotland
Fingal’s Cave is an enormous sea grotto located on the rugged coast of Staffa, Scotland. The island is uninhabited and is graced with a host of natural geologic wonders formed from the same eruption of black basalt that composes the Giant’s Causeway. Show Caves of the World notes the dimensions of Fingal’s Cave as being 85 m (279 ft) deep and 23 m (75 ft) high.
Described by visitors as a “truly natural cathedral complete with basaltic organ pipes”, Fingal’s Cave is endowed with unusual acoustic properties that distort and magnify the sounds of crashing waves. Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott visited Fingal’s Cave and described it as “one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it… eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble, it baffles all description.”
Garni Gorge, Armenia
Garni Gorge is located 23 km (14.3 miles) east of Yerevan, the capitol of the country of Armenia. Due to the fact that it’s an inland canyon and not a seaside cliff formation, Garni Gorge offers a rare opportunity to view vast expanses of well-preserved columnar basalt on both sides of the onlooker. A notable landmark dating far back into prehistory, visitors to Garni Gorge can visit a restored 1st century AD Hellenistic temple situated on a promontory overlooking the canyon’s depths.
Garni Gorge’s most famous feature is the “Symphony of the Stones”, a frozen cascade of basaltic “organ pipes” likened to a hanging garden due to erosion and undercutting of the valley floor. It’s a brave tourist who attempts to take photos or film video from beneath thousands of tons of suspended stone!
Gilbert Hill, Mumbai, India
Gilbert Hill is a 197 ft (60 m) tall monolithic black basalt extrusion located in the outskirts of Mumbai in India’s state of Maharashtra. With its sheer vertical face and precisely etched vertical rock columns, the 65 million year old formation is said by some to resemble a much smaller version of Devils Tower.
Unlike most other famous large formations of columnar basalt, Gilbert Hill finds itself located in an urban setting as the city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) has expanded around it. Though its summit provides a remarkable view over the densely packed roofs of Mumbai, years of quarrying around the formation’s base has both degraded the Gilbert Hill’s original, natural appearance and has created an increasingly dangerous hazard as the basalt columns lose their ground-level support.
Devils Postpile, California, USA
Devils Postpile is located near Mammoth Mountain in eastern California near the border with Nevada. Along with 101-ft high Rainbow Falls, this unusually symmetrical formation of columnar basalt is included in Devils Postpile National Monument, established in 1911 by a presidential proclamation. The order to create the park was in response to a dam-building proposal that would have seen Devils Postpile blasted into oblivion. The basalt formation offers visitors easy access to both the face and the top – the latter looking much like a man-made parquet floor.
The lava flow that created Devils Postpile is relatively young, geologically speaking, being between 100,000 and 700,000 years old. Surface topography at the time of the eruption prevented the lava from spreading out and as a consequence, the original 400-ft (122 m) thick layer of basalt cooled slowly and evenly. It’s thought that this slow cooling allowed the basalt to form very long and uniform columns, most of which are six-sided in cross section.
Svartifoss, Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
Svartifoss (“Black Falls”, in Icelandic) is located in Iceland’s Skaftafell National Park. This rare and striking example of a columnar basalt formation combined with a 12 meter (39 ft) high waterfall can be appreciated in all 4 seasons. The undercut structure of the columns accentuates their visual similarity to traditional church organ pipes.
The basalt columns that make up the escarpment over which the falls flows are virtually unweathered and display straight, sharp edges that advertise their crystalline structure. This is due to the more rapid erosion caused by the constant, fast-flowing falls combined with Iceland’s perpetual freeze-thaw cycle.
Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
The Giant’s Causeway is a spectacular assemblage of around 40,000 black basalt columns, weathered and eroded to varying degrees by the harsh seaside environment of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. The columns are up to 60 million years old, and the passage of time has acted to form a series of terraces leading down – and into – the frigid North Channel of the Irish Sea.
The Giant’s Causeway has another claim to fame, one which has contributed to the site being declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (1986) and a National Nature Reserve (1987) by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. It seems that the Girona, a straggler ship of the Spanish Armada was shipwrecked just offshore of the Giant’s Causeway in late October of 1588. The ship was carrying over 1,000 sailors from other sunk or shipwrecked Spanish ships, along with their valuables, in addition to her own crew of about 300 – it’s estimated less than 10 survived.
It’s somewhat surprising that the Giant’s Causeway was little known in learned geological circles until the last years of the 17th century. Part of this ignorance has to do with the formation’s isolated location, and anecdotal accounts of the features size and grandeur were deemed too grandiose to be true. Thanks to the wonders of modern photographic technology, the world can see that reports of the Giant’s Causeway were anything BUT an exaggeration!
The otherworldly beauty of columnar basalt formations like the Giant’s Causeway lends itself to most any artistic endeavor, including music. Those familiar with Led Zeppelin’s fifth album Houses of the Holy, released in March of 1973, may have wondered where on Earth the bizarre landscape on the album cover was located. Well, now you know… Rock On!!