The scientific tourist #295 — Huerfano Butte

This isolated butte was nicknamed El Huerfano (“The Orphan”) by early Spanish explorers in the late 1700s. It became a landmark used by trappers and later settlers for generations — in modern days, it’s conveniently near I-25 in southern Colorado.

Huerfano Butte

At first blush, you might think the butte is a volcanic plug (the remains of the core of an ancient volcano).  But it turns out that this isn’t quite the case.  Based on the chemistry of the butte’s rock, it seems that this is what’s left of a “wanna be” volcano — it’s a hypabyssal plug.  So, back when this spot was still under hundreds or thousands of feet of sediment, this intrusion of basalt made its way toward the surface (as part of the same event that raised the Spanish Peaks, once actual volcanoes, to its west), but didn’t quite get there.

So now it truly is an orphan, all by its lonesome on the plains miles east of its more acomplished basaltic relatives — but easily seen and visited just a few hundred meters from the highway.

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