Utah’s Big Rock Candy Mountain

August 04, 2011

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Photographer: Ray Boren
Summary Author: Ray Boren

Big Rock Candy Mountain, along U.S. Route 89 north of Marysvale, Utah, is a geologic kaleidoscope made famous and familiar by Burl Ives. The singer/actor sanitized, recorded and popularized a whimsical song about a hobo paradise previously sung by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock. The wonder evoked by Big Rock Candy Mountain, and by the colorful and serpentine Sevier River Canyon of which it is a part, got its start eons ago.

About 22 million to 35 million years ago, according to the Utah Geological Survey, stratovolcanoes similar to Mount St. Helens exploded, strewing lava and ash over what is today central Utah. Approximately 21 million years ago, at least six magma intrusions pushed into these earlier formations. Add in chemical reactions and mineralization involving oxygen, groundwater, steam, and hydrogen sulfide, plus massive erosion over time, and voila – you have the fantasy world of Big Rock Candy Mountain. Golds and vermilions result from iron-based minerals such as hematite, pyrite and jarosite. Shades of white are born of potassium-laced alunite and kaolinate, the Geological Survey states. Hardy and determined ponderosa pines get a grip wherever they can, adding life – and greenery – to this primordial landscape.

Today, a small resort sits at the base of Big Rock Candy Mountain. McClintock’s paradise of “lemonade springs” and “soda water fountains” (as well as “cigarette trees” and “lakes of stew and whiskey too”) also inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner. He used the song’s themes and images as metaphors and titles, for “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” an epic 1943 novel, and “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs,” a 2002 collection of essays. McClintock’s 1939 version of the song was featured in the Coen Brothers’ "O Brother Where Art Thou", and in its Grammy-winning soundtrack album. Photo taken on May 21, 2011.

Photo details: Camera Maker: NIKON CORPORATION; Camera Model: NIKON D60; Focal Length: 70.0mm; Aperture: f/10.0; Exposure Time: 0.0040 s (1/250); ISO equiv: 200; Exposure Bias: none; Metering Mode: Matrix; Flash Fired: No (enforced); Orientation: Normal; Color Space: sRGB.