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The Geological Society of America


Special Paper 489
2012

Introduction to Grand Canyon geology


Karl E. Karlstrom
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 1 University of New Mexico, MSC03 2040,
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131-0001, USA
J. Michael Timmons
New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, New Mexico Tech, 801 Leroy Place, Socorro, New Mexico 87801, USA
Laura J. Crossey
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 1 University of New Mexico, MSC03 2040,
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131-0001, USA
fication of the continental crust of the region in the Paleoproterozoic Era between 1840 and 1660 Ma. Throughout this monograph, readers need to be familiar with the geologic time scale,
the larger subdivisions of which are listed in Table 1.
This monograph accompanies the detailed Geologic Map
of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona1 (previously published as
Geologic Map of the Butte Fault/East Kaibab Area by the Grand
Canyon Association). This part of the canyon is special because it
contains nearly all the rock units of Grand Canyon. It is the only
part of the canyon where the 800742 Ma Chuar Group strata
are found, and the only place where the Sixtymile Formation is
found. It also provides excellent exposures of the Butte fault, a
major fault line in the crust with an interesting history of multiple
movements, including formation of the East Kaibab monocline.
The eastern canyon also contains Marble Canyon, the confluence
of the Little Colorado River with the Colorado River, and river
gravel and travertine deposits that record how fast the river has
been carving the canyon. The purpose of this volume is to present
an up-to-date and easy-to-understand summary of the geologic
history of Grand Canyon, with emphasis on the eastern Grand
Canyon. Geology, like any science, has complicated concepts
and a necessary vocabulary, but we try to present difficult concepts in a context of familiar ones, and new words with enough
context to help in understanding the vocabulary.
Each of the rock sets is becoming increasingly well understood, and our goal is for this monograph and the new geologic
map to help readers get to know all the rocks in Grand Canyon

INTRODUCTION
Grand Canyon is one of the premier geologic landscapes in
the world. It is a geologically young canyon, carved in the last
6 million years (6 Ma) by the Colorado River and its tributaries. These waters, primarily sourced by snow melt in the Rocky
Mountains, have utilized their percussion tools of boulders, cobbles, and sand, acting for millions of years, to carve a canyon that
is up to one mile (1 mi; 1.62 km) deep (Fig. 1). The canyon has
widened to >10 mi (16.2 km) through the same processes acting
in side streams, aided by additional processes of hillslope erosion. The formation of the canyon and sculpting of the present
landscape by erosional forces can be thought of as the youngest
chapter of the geologic evolution of the Grand Canyon region.
This carving of the canyon has revealed three sets of rocks in
the walls of the canyon that record progressively older chapters:
(1) The horizontal sedimentary rock layers that make up the upper
strata throughout Grand Canyon are Paleozoic rocks, deposited
between ~525 and 270 million years (m.y.) ago (between 525
and 270 Ma). (2) The tilted rock layers, exposed selectively
in fault blocks and exceptionally well preserved in the eastern
Grand Canyon, are Meso-Neoproterozoic sedimentary rocks of
the Grand Canyon Supergroup that were deposited between 1255
and 700 Ma. (3) In the depths of Grand Canyon, the oldest rocks
are the igneous and metamorphic rocks we call the Vishnu basement rocks (Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite plus the Zoroaster
Plutonic Complex). These rocks record the formation and modi1

The map is available on inserts accompanying this volume and also as GSA Data Repository Item 2012287, online at www.geosociety.org/pubs/ft2012.htm, or on
request from editing@geosociety.org or Documents Secretary, GSA, P.O. Box 9140, Boulder, CO 80301-9140, USA.
Karlstrom, K.E., Timmons, J.M., and Crossey, L.J., 2012, Introduction to Grand Canyon geology, in Timmons, J.M., and Karlstrom, K.E., eds., Grand Canyon
Geology: Two Billion Years of Earths History: Geological Society of America Special Paper 489, p. 16, doi:10.1130/2012.2489(00). For permission to copy,
contact editing@geosociety.org. 2012 The Geological Society of America. All rights reserved.

DESERT
VIEW

1130'0"W

Diamond Creek

10

10

20

30

40

11230'0"W

30

1:1,000,000

20

Havasupai
Villiage

11230'0"W

50

Kilometers

40

64

180

Miles

50

Grand Canyon
South Rim Villiage

67

64

1120'0"W

Red Butte

89

1120'0"W

89

Little
Colorado
River

Marble
Canyon

Figure 1. Digital elevation model (DEM) of Grand Canyon region, showing coverage of the new eastern Grand Canyon geologic map.

11330'0"W

CAPE
ROYAL

CAPE
SOLITUDE

WALHALLA
PLATEAU

1130'0"W

360'0"N

3630'0"N

360'0"N

3630'0"N

NANKOWEAP
MESA

POINT
IMPERIAL

11330'0"W

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Karlstrom et al.

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Introduction to Grand Canyon geology


TABLE 1. TIME INTERVALS AND DURATION OF GEOLOGIC ERAS
Geologic era
Cenozoic
Mesozoic
Paleozoic
Neoproterozoic
Mesoproterozoic
Paleoproterozoic

Time intervals
(Ma = million years)
650 Ma
25165 Ma
542251 Ma
1000542 Ma
16001000 Ma
25001600 Ma

Duration
(in millions of years)
65
186
291
458
600
900

better by exploring and pondering the rich geologic database


of this new detailed geologic map. The rock record at Grand
Canyon is one of the most complete and best preserved in the
world, and thus is a superb geologic laboratory for understanding geologic history and geologic processes. A sense for the
vastness of deep time, dramatically changing environments,
and evolving life forms are all revealed by the rocks in the
walls of Grand Canyon. Yet, there are also many gaps in the
rock record. In fact, as shown in Figure 2, there is more time
that is not recorded by the rocks in Grand Canyon than that
is recorded. These missing episodes were periods of erosion
that are marked by rock contacts called unconformities, where
there is a significant time gap between two rock layers. These
erosional periods, represented by the unconformities, are also
very important for understanding the complete geologic history
of the Grand Canyon region.
WHAT ARE GEOLOGIC MAPS, HOW ARE THEY
MADE, AND WHAT DO THEY TELL US?
Geologic maps are to the geologist as equations are to the
physicist and chemical reactions are to the chemista way to
encode large bodies of hard-won scientific information. Geologic maps represent the cumulative observations of geologic
relationships examined both in the field, from aerial photos and
images, and with knowledge gained from laboratory studies
of rocks from the map area. The field mapping was done by a
collaborative team from the University of New Mexico using
an expedition-style team approach. River access was essential
to reach remote regions, so most trips involved multi-day river
trips. The new information was compiled and merged with
information from previous studies. The resulting map shows
the distribution and subdivisions of rock units in more detail
than previous maps. As maps improve, new insights emerge
about the rocks; many of the papers in this volume reflect new
insights gained from the mapping effort combined with subsequent laboratory analyses, including new radiometric dating
of the rocks.
The Geologic Map of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona is
the summary of >10 years of new geologic mapping, including work from three masters theses (Ilg, 1992; Timmons, 1999;
Anders, 2003), and three Ph.D. dissertations (Ilg, 1996; Dehler,
2001; Timmons, 2004). It also includes previous mapping from
several theses done at Northern Arizona University and from

Huntoon et al. (1996) for areas not covered by the new mapping.
Detailed new air-photo interpretation was incorporated to refine
the positions of Paleozoic contacts and structures in Paleozoic
rocks. Funding was provided primarily by the U.S. National Science Foundation as part of a series of research grants. Additional
financial support came from the University of New Mexico, the
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, numerous student grants, as well as this revised map printing by the Geological Society of America. Grand Canyon National Park provided a
research permit that enabled the research.
A geologic map is like a birds eye view. It is a twodimensional (map view) representation of the rock types and
deposits that are exposed at every place on the surface. In addition
to showing the distribution of different rock types, it also shows
structures like faults and folds that deformed the rocks. Combining these field relationships with other encoded data, such as rock
ages, relative timing observations, and structural measurements,
the map provides abundant information about the rocks and how
they formed. But more than a historical perspective of the geology, geologic maps encode the processes that shape these materials, revealing the structures and landscape that result from those
processes. Geologic maps, once you learn to read them, contain
information on all of these topics.
Geologic Map of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona
The Geologic Map of Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona
includes ~670 km2 of northeastern Grand Canyon National Park,
the Kaibab National Forest, and the Navajo Nation Reservation
(Sheets 1, 2). It includes parts of the Point Imperial, Nankoweap
Mesa, Walhalla Plateau, Cape Solitude, Cape Royal, and Desert
View 7.5 quadrangles (Fig. 1). The map area lies within the Colorado Plateau physiographic province and includes the Marble
Canyon segment of the Colorado River, the confluence of the Little Colorado River, the Chuar Valley, and numerous side-canyon
tributaries of the Colorado River.
The map includes the river corridor along the Colorado
River from river mile 53 to river mile 80 (measured from Lees
Ferry at river mile 0). In this distance the river descends ~400 feet
(ft; 122 m) in elevation, from ~2800 to 2400 ft (854732 m).
Total relief in the area is ~3200 ft (975 m) in Marble Canyon,
east of the East Kaibab monocline, and ~4800 ft (1450 m) in the
southwestern part of the map, west of the East Kaibab monocline. The highest elevation in the map is on the Walhalla Plateau
at ~8490 ft (2588 m) elevation.
Rocks exposed in the map area include Paleoproterozoic basement rocks of the Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite
(Chapter 1; Hawkins et al., 1996; Ilg et al., 1996); the MesoNeoproterozoic Grand Canyon Supergroup, including the
Unkar and Chuar Groups (Chapters 2 and 3; Dehler et al., 2001;
Timmons et al., 2001; Hendricks and Stevenson, 2003; Timmons et al., 2005); relatively flat-lying and mildly deformed
Paleozoic strata (Chapter 5); and Quaternary surficial deposits
(Chapter 8). Collectively, the exposed geologic record in the

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Karlstrom et al.

eastern Grand Canyon encompasses 1.75 Ga (billion years),


most of the 1.84 Ga history recorded in Grand Canyon. Of particular focus in this map is new mapping of the Grand Canyon
Supergroup and the structures related to Supergroup deposition,
deformation, and preservation, an interesting chapter in the history of our continent that is uniquely well preserved in Grand
Canyon. Below, we introduce the elements of the Grand Canyon geologic history, summarizing over a century of geologic
research and highlighting the latest understanding of the eastern
Grand Canyon. As most stories go, we will explore this history
through time, beginning with the oldest rocks.

OVERVIEW OF THE GEOLOGIC MAP OF EASTERN


GRAND CANYON AND THIS VOLUME
Vishnu Basement RocksFormation of the Continental Crust
The oldest chapter of Grand Canyon geology is recorded by
the basement rocks at the bottom of Grand Canyon. These rocks
are exposed in the southwestern part of the eastern Grand Canyon
map area, from river mile 77 to 80, which marks the beginning
of the Upper Granite Gorge. The metamorphic rocks are called
the Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite, and the igneous rocks are

GEOLOGIC RECORD OF THE GRAND CANYON REGION


Cenozoic Era

Mesozoic Era

500

Neo

Paleozoic Era

Meso

1000

Paleo

1500

6 Ma to Present: Carving of Grand Canyon


70 Ma: Laramide Orogeny: Uplift of Colorado Plateau
250 - 60 Ma: Mesozoic Strata
385 - 260 Ma: Upper Paleozoic Strata
540-515 Ma: Tonto Group Strata:
Uplift and erosion, faulting and tilting
700 Ma: Sixtymile Formation
800 - 740 Ma: Chuar Group
900 Ma: Nankoweap Formation
1.1 Ga: Diabase and Cardenas Basalt
1.2 - 1.1 Ga: Unkar Group
Great Unconformity: Uplift and erosion of
middle crustal rocks
1.4 Ga: Granites
1.71 - 1.66: Peak Deformation and Metamorphism
1.74 - 1.71 Ga: Arc Plutons
1.75 - 1.74 Ga: Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite
1.84 Ga: Elves Chasm Gneiss

2000

2.7 - 2.5 Ga: Archean Crust (Wyoming and Mojave)

Neo

2500

Meso

3000

3.5 - 3.8 Ga: Old Rocks (Wyoming)

4000

4.0 - 4.3 Ga: Oldest Rock (Canada)

Paleo

3500

4.5 - 4.3 Ga: Meteorite Bombardment

4500

4.567 Ga: Earth Formation

Ma = Millions of Years Before Present


Ga = Billions of Years Before Present

Figure 2. Time recorded (white) and


time not recorded (black) by rocks
at Grand Canyon. Note that the oldest rock found so far in Grand Canyon
(1840 Ma) is about two-fifths the age
of the Earth (4567 Ma); Ma = megaannum = million years.

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Introduction to Grand Canyon geology


called the Zoroaster Plutonic Complex. These rocks include the
Vishnu Schist and, because of familiarity with this term, we refer
to the entire rock suite as the Vishnu basement rocks. Chapter
1 (Karlstrom et al., this volume) summarizes the evolution
recorded by these rocks. This includes the formation of volcanic
island arcs above subduction zones in marine settings from 1840
to 1710 Ma (Ma means million yearsa mega annum), and
the welding together of arcs from 1710 to 1680 Ma to each other
and to the growing protoNorth American continent called Laurentia. Additional growth of Laurentia took place by addition of
granites from 1450 to 1350 Ma. Features in the basement rocks
formed during plate collisions deep in the Earth, beneath a noweroded mountain range we call the Vishnu Mountains. Although
the basement rocks were dramatically changed by heating and
compression during metamorphism, they provide a record of
the processes that operated to build and erode ancient mountain
belts. Minerals such as garnet within the basement reveal how hot
(up to 750 C [1380 F]!) and how deep (~25 km [15.5 mi] deep!)
the rocks got during mountain building. Other minerals, such as
mica, record the history of subsequent cooling due to erosional
unroofing as the basement rocks came back to the surface before
the Unkar Group was deposited upon them. In summary, the
basement rocks record how the crust in this portion of our continent was formed and deformed deep in the core of mountains that
were then eroded away to form the Great Unconformity before
the Grand Canyon Supergroup, the next chapter, was deposited.
The Grand Canyon SupergroupRecord of Assembly and
Disassembly of the Supercontinent of Rodinia
Throughout the geologic evolution of the Grand Canyon region the protoNorth American plate, called Laurentia,
changed position on the Earths surface at a rate of several centimeters per year because of plate tectonics. Ocean basins are
subducted and recycled, but continents, because they are buoyant, preserve the long-term record of Earth history. The history
of the Earth involves cycles of assembly of continental fragments
to form supercontinents about every 600800 Ma, followed by
their breakup and refragmentation by rifting. The most recent and
best documented supercontinent, called Pangea, came together
by plate collisions in the interval 400300 Ma; it started breaking up ca. 250 Ma, and its fragments are still rifting apart as the
Atlantic Ocean widens. The supercontinent that predated Pangea
is called Rodinia (a Russian term meaning motherland); it came
together in the interval ca. 1100900 Ma by collision of continents, including our continent of Laurentia. The Unkar Group of
the Grand Canyon Supergroup provides a sedimentary record,
inside the continental interior, of collisions that were going on at
the plate margin in what is now the Texas region. Likewise, the
Chuar Group of the Grand Canyon Supergroup preserves part of
the record of rifting of our part of the Rodinian continent from
800 to 600 Ma.
The Grand Canyon Supergroup rocks are preserved only in the
Grand Canyon region, although correlative rocks are also preserved
in Death Valley, California, and the Uinta Mountains of Utah.

The Grand Canyon Supergroup strata, although tilted and


preserved only in isolated fault blocks, provide a stratigraphic
record that is nearly four times as thick as the flat-lying Paleozoic strata, and an amazing record of Meso-Neoproterozoic time.
Chapter 2 (Timmons et al., this volume) discusses the Unkar
Group, which overlies the basement rocks with profound unconformity. The Unkar Group records events within North America
that represent an inboard expression of events happening at the
southern margin of the North American plate during assembly
of the supercontinent of Rodinia. These rocks are increasingly
well dated. They contain grains dating to 1255 Ma, when volcanoes to the south were erupting ash that settled in the lower
Unkar Group. Sedimentary grains of circa 1175 Ma must have
come from the collisional mountain belt that spanned from the far
northeast of North America through what is now west Texas, and
beyond. The Unkar Group is capped by massive basalt flows of
the Cardenas Basalt, which erupted into rift basins ca. 1100 Ma.
Thus these rocks record the exciting interplay between deformation by NW squeezing and NE stretching within the continent,
and the related sedimentation in subsiding rift basins, during the
12001100 Ma collisional assembly of Rodinia.
Chapter 3 (Dehler et al., this volume) discusses new
insights from work done on the overlying Chuar Group. These
rocks are found in the relatively small area of the Chuar Valley, and the entirety of their outcrop area is depicted within the
Geologic Map of Eastern Grand Canyon. These rocks and stratigraphic sections are among the best preserved rocks from this
part of Earths history (the Neoproterozoic) found anywhere on
the planet. Chuar rocks record an amazing time in Earths history
that just predated the first of the globally important Snowball
Earth glaciations, when equatorial glaciers existed at sea level.
Chuar rocks record the diversification of single-celled life and
the appearance of the first heterotrophic organisms. These were
the first organisms on Earth to derive energy from organic compounds (e.g., by gaining nutrition from other organisms) instead
of using energy directly from the Sun via photosynthesis or from
chemical reactions with Earth materials. Chuar rocks (and other
rocks of the Neoproterozoic Era worldwide) also record the largest variations in the carbon isotope composition of seawater ever
recorded on Earthand a continuing global puzzle about different ways that the carbon cycle has operated on Earth in the past.
As mentioned above, from a tectonic perspective, Chuar rocks
record the early stages of the breakup of the supercontinent of
Rodinia, as shown by evidence for east-west extensional faulting
of the Chuar rocks to the Butte fault.
The Great UnconformityThe Missing Pieces
The Great Unconformity, described first in Powell (1875),
and named by Dutton (1882), represents several rock contacts
that record erosional intervals between the basement rocks and
the overlying, flat-lying Paleozoic strata. We now know that in
some places as much as 1200 Ma (1700500 Ma) of rock record
has been removed by erosion. This is true where the Vishnu basement rocks are overlain directly by Paleozoic strata, with no

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Karlstrom et al.

intervening Grand Canyon Supergoup. This amount of time


missing is ~25% of Earth history and 65% of Grand Canyons
geologic record. What happened during this vast time span?
Chapter 4 (Karlstrom and Timmons, this volume) summarizes the data that show that the Great Unconformity is a series
of nested unconformities. This new anatomy for an erosional
episode integrates the recent field and geochronologic studies of
the Grand Canyon Supergroup. Basement and Paleozoic strata
can be found throughout Grand Canyon, whereas outcrops of the
Grand Canyon Supergroup are more isolated and occur as tilted
fault-bounded regions. It is in these areasthe best example
being eastern Grand Canyonwhere we can study what happened within the 1.2 Ga time gap between the Vishnu basement
and the Paleozoic strata. The main erosional unroofing (the greatest unconformity), and the most rock removed by erosion, are
now marked by this contact between the basement rocks and the
basal Unkar Group, an erosional episode that took place between
1660 and 1255 Ma and that removed a thickness of >20 km (12.4
mi) of rock from the region. This would be analogous to taking
high mountains, like the Alps, and eroding them down bit by bit
to form a flat erosional surface that exposed rocks that were once
20 km (12.4 mi) deep in the core of the mountain belt.
The Paleozoic ChapterChanging Environments and
the Evolution of Life
Chapter 5 (Blakey and Middleton, this volume) summarizes the evolution of the flat-lying layered strata that make up the
upper part of the grand scenery of Grand Canyon. This chapter
presents a series of paleogeographic maps that visually portray
the progression of environments through time from beach sands,
to shallow seas, to dune fields that occupied this region at different times between 525 and 270 Ma. During this time interval,
the Paleozoic Era, lifeforms on Earth were evolving dramatically,
e.g., from early invertebrate fossils such as trilobites in the Cambrian Period, to early fish in the Devonian Period, to the age of
the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic Era. (The Grand Canyon paleontological record is not discussed extensively in this monograph,
although references to key papers are provided.) The position
of the protoNorth American plate relative to the equator and
to other plates was also rapidly changing. For example, North
America was part of the supercontinent of Pangea in the middle
Paleozoic (ca. 350 Ma), and the Grand Canyon region was part of
the west coast of this vast landmass.
The Mesozoic ChapterInitial Uplift of the Colorado
Plateau Region
Mesozoic layered strata accumulated in the Grand Canyon
region to a thickness of >1 mi (~2000 m), yet all but isolated
erosional remnants such as Red Butte and Cedar Butte (Fig. 1)
were stripped during the Great Denudation (Dutton, 1882).
These strata are well exposed, with increasing thickness, across
the Grand Staircase that steps northward toward Zion and Bryce

National Parks. Chapter 6 (Karlstrom and Timmons, this volume) summarizes the faults in eastern Grand Canyon, many of
which moved during the Laramide orogeny, when the region was
lifted from sea level to perhaps 1 km or more in elevation. The
elevation of the plateau, driven by compression and uplift processes related to subduction at the western margin of the North
American plate, provided impetus for the ensuing denudation
and, eventually, for carving Grand Canyon. The faults have long
histories involving multiple movements and provide evidence
that once a major fault system forms in the Earths crust, the
zone of weakness can persist and be reactivated by later tectonic
events. Chapter 7 (Kelley and Karlstrom, this volume) summarizes the post-Laramide denudation history of the region,
based on apatite fission-track studies. These data reveal when
Grand Canyon rocks cooled through 110 C (230 F) on their
path toward the Earths surface as the higher Mesozoic rock layers were progressively stripped from the Grand Canyon region by
erosion and transport.
The Ongoing ChapterLandscape Evolution
Grand Canyon is an iconic emblem, but it is just a part of
the larger spectacle of erosion of the Colorado Plateau itself. The
erosional processes that shaped the region were recognized early
by Dutton (1882), who used the phrase Great Denudation. This
region hosts other parks such as Canyonlands, Arches, and Grand
Staircase, whose names help to evoke the erosional features and
the processes that have shaped the region. As in all erosional
landscapes, erosion acts to remove many of the details of the erosional history and process. The landscape is the tangible record
of the cumulative erosional processes, but geologists look hard
for any preserved clues that can be used to reconstruct its history of development. Understanding the nature of this erosional
stripping of the Colorado Plateau, and the youngest rocks and
deposits in Grand Canyon, is the subject of two of the papers in
this volume. Chapter 8 (Pederson, this volume) describes the
Quaternary (last 1.8 Ma) geomorphology of Grand Canyon and
discusses recent work on landscape evolution, incision history,
and responses to changing climate in the context of a rich history
of previous investigations. Chapter 9 (Crossey and Karlstrom,
this volume) summarizes new work on the active springs and
Quaternary travertines of eastern Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon,
so famous for the rocks that form its walls, is also a window into
the groundwater system. The springs record complex fluid mixing and long flow paths of the indigenous waters of the Colorado Plateau. Travertine deposits are made of calcium carbonate
(fresh-water limestone) that form from the indigenous CO2-rich
spring waters. They are the youngest rocks in Grand Canyon:
new rocks that are still forming today!

MANUSCRIPT ACCEPTED BY THE SOCIETY 6 JANUARY 2012


Printed in the USA

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Geological Society of America Special Papers


Introduction to Grand Canyon geology
Karl E. Karlstrom, J. Michael Timmons and Laura J. Crossey
Geological Society of America Special Papers 2012;489; 1-6
doi:10.1130/2012.2489(00)

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2012 Geological Society of America