Obsidian Dome, testimony to utility and greed

Obsidian Dome, testimony to utility and greed

Page Type Page Type: Article
Activities Activities: Hiking
Northern Aspect of Obsidian Dome
Looking for the high point
Trail to secondary parking area
Large loading area
Obsidian Boulder
View from the parking area
Another dead-end road
Sierras seen from Obsidian Dome

Not your everyday nice looking, cone-shaped dome, Obsidian Dome is just another one of the hundreds of volcanic domes as a part of Mono-Inyo Craters of east-central California. At first look, this dome may seem so unattractive that you may not want to waste your time to explore further. But, on the other hand, maybe there are a number of reasons you would want to visit and explore this well-hidden dome.

This dome is primarily made of obsidian rocks. The sharpest natural material known to man, obsidian rocks have played a significant role in the evolution of homo-sapiens' tool-making ability. During the Stone-Age and beyond, in fact far beyond to nearly the present day, obsidian rocks have played a major part as primary cutting tools in many cultures.

The native Americans of this area made tools with obsidian rocks and traded them with other tribes for hundreds of years before the white man stepped onto this land. It is reasonable to assume that hand-collecting obsidian rocks by Native Americans could not have had a significant impact on changing the landscape. Walking the short distance to the top of this dome will demonstrate the impact that heavy mining activity using modern machinery can leave behind.

The summit plateau of Obsidian Dome is wide and convoluted. There are many heavily fractured, unstable rock formations one of which may very well be the highest point. I climbed a few of the high points without knowing whether or not there were other higher points. Hence, no actual summit was reached.

From a mere geologic point of view, however, Obsidian Dome is a very interesting place to visit. According to the informal information brochure provided by the Inyo National Forest, "to understand how obsidian is extruded from the earth, imagine holding a tube of toothpaste upright and slowly squeezing the tube. The thick viscous material forms a column that will fall quickly for lack of solid support. Now go a step further and imagine that instead of toothpaste, your tube is full of melted glass (like obsidian). When the column of glass comes in contact with air, the outside cools and stops moving. The inside of the column continues to move because it's under pressure. The outside skin becomes brittle and falls away." This is the process that occurs here except that the columns are volcanic obsidian oozing from the earth.

Viewed from the parking area, the sides of Obsidian Dome are steep and covered with sharp, angular and black obsidian boulders. You will not readily find lots and lots of pocket-size obsidian rocks due to the fact that the area has been picked over for centuries. The trail to the top area heads north skirting the base of the dome to a secondary parking area and a locked gate. Past the gate, an old mining road rises gently toward the top. A short hike up this road will bring you to a large open area.

This area was constructed as a loading zone for mining trucks. It is obvious that this and all other roads and flat areas were carved out of the top of Obsidian Dome. There are a number of roads leading to dead-end hillsides. Upon further exploration, you will see areas that escaped the ravages of mining activity. The terrain is extremely rough and unstable. It is a good idea to wear gloves and ankle-high boots to navigate the convoluted landscape that was an active volcano in the not too distant past.

How to get there

Mining Road and locked gate
Sign at the fork
Obsidian Dome Parking area sign

To get to Obsidian Dome, drive 10.4 miles north on Highway 395 from its intersection with Devil's Postpile/ Mammoth Lakes Exit to a dirt road called by at least two names, Glass Flow Road and Obsidian Dome Road. Drive about one mile to a fork on the road with a sign directing you to Obsidian Dome.

Another .3 miles up this road to a large parking area. You may drive another .3 miles to a secondary parking area with a gate. Driving to this secondary parking possibility is not recommended for low clearance vehicles.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-12 of 12

dyusem - Sep 11, 2011 10:54 am - Hasn't voted

one clarification

Thanks for the write-up!

One clarification: you stated that Obsidian Dome is located in the "Owens Valley of Central California", this is incorrect.

A more apt description of the location would be that it is located in east-central California and is a part of the Mono-Inyo Craters which are roughly parallel to the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.


Marcsoltan - Sep 11, 2011 11:30 am - Hasn't voted

Re: one clarification

You are absolutely right. I was pouring over my maps yesterday to see if Obsidian Dome was part of Owns Valley or not. My maps were inconclusive. In either case, I will change the text to reflect that correction.
Thank you.


dyusem - Sep 11, 2011 11:43 am - Hasn't voted

Visiting in Winter

You're welcome! Also, it is a wonderful area to snowshoe or XC ski during the winter with some great skiing in the trees and over what looks like marshmallows covering the obsidian.

Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Sep 13, 2011 7:12 am - Voted 10/10

Great place

The volcanic landforms around the eastern Sierra are under-appreciated, in my opinion. There is a lot of great stuff to see, like the obsidian domes, craters and explosion pits. Bouldering on obsidian presents a serious challenge! Here are a few photos of my own from Panum Crater:


Marcsoltan - Sep 13, 2011 11:05 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great place

Thank you for the photos. I've done the Panum rim hike but next time in the area I'll try to get into the crater.

Buz Groshong

Buz Groshong - Sep 13, 2011 1:35 pm - Hasn't voted


The title says "testimony to utility and greed," but there is no explanation. You do talk about mining activity, but you fail to explain what they were mining it for and how this activity is greedy. We have converted a lot of forest and prairie land to farms so that we can eat but we don't call that greedy, so is mining automatically greedy? Please explain.


Marcsoltan - Sep 13, 2011 2:52 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Greed?

It seems that there was sufficient explanation to reach the conclusion that you have reached even though you do not agree with my assessment of the situation. Yes, I consider changing the landscape for commercial use, to the degree that we have, is nothing short of greed. In the case of changing forestlands to grow crops, if we leave the land untouched for a few hundred years, it will recover from that change. The top of Obsidian Dome, unfortunately, will be permanently scarred. In my article, I have expressed only my opinion, and I do not expect everyone to agree with it.


blackhawk - Sep 14, 2011 12:14 pm - Hasn't voted

a lil unclear

Thanks for a little explanation of what native americans did with obsidian. Im also into the primitive skills and arts(bowyering and flintknapping),and make primitive bows and stone points. I collect natural resources with my own hands and make tools and weapons to hunt with and to feed my family much like man did for thousands of years. So are you just upset with the machine scars from the mining past, or from people who still go there to collect rock to make stone tools?or both? I see no wrong in taking resources from the earth and correctly using them for our needs and survival. Its what they were put here for. Yes i agree the mining scars from the past are ugly,but it was a different time and era back then,and we can't change what happened. .. By the way my avatar pic is a dacite stonepoint...lol.


Marcsoltan - Sep 14, 2011 12:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: a lil unclear

I have no problem with individuals, such as yourself, collecting and making tools to make a living as Native Americans did for eons of time. I just didn't like to see the impact that heavy machinery and mass exploitation has left behind.


MoapaPk - Sep 15, 2011 10:32 am - Voted 10/10

remember it well

I worked on a scientific drilling platform that punched a small hole (core sample) through the dome, between that and the next dome farther south, and at the end of the chain. I spent a lot of time walking around that and other domes. It surely isn't in pristine shape, but it isn't an Armageddon; you can't even see the one-lane road till you round the bend.

Of interest is White Wing Mountain, which was stripped bare by the violent explosion that preceded the birth of the domes about 600 years ago. White Wing still has a forest of dead trees, killed by the explosion.

It's a neat area, testimony to the recent volcanic activity below the caldera.

As for mass exploitation for profit, try visiting Mammoth Lakes, a short distance away! That is a volcanic mountain, and the ski slopes are not natural, nor are the wide macadam roads that take tourists into the park. Where the city is, was once forest.


Marcsoltan - Sep 15, 2011 11:00 am - Hasn't voted

Re: remember it well

Thank you, Harlan. You are putting a lot of information on the table. I'm going to have to visit White Wing Mountain at some point in time.
My main issue was not really the road so much as it was what has happened to the top area of the dome. But, I certainly understand your point about Mammoth Mountain and mass exploitation. The scars left behind from creating those ski runs are an eye sore during the summer months. As it turns out Mammoth is my family's favorite resort for skiing. I guess my selfishness blinded me to those scars. Thanks for putting things more in perspective.


MoapaPk - Sep 15, 2011 12:35 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: remember it well

It's useful to go to Google Earth and look down on the Dome. You'll be stunned how little of the cow pie plateau is actually disturbed-- far less than 1%, and not near the top. The top is a very nasty jumble of sharp, porous obsidian/pumice blocks (I've been there). Without the narrow roads, travel anywhere on the dome would be extremely difficult.

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