USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 1393
The Geologic Story of Arches National Park


Uplift and Erosion of The Plateau

NEXT AMONG the main events leading to the formation of landforms in the park was the raising and additional buckling and breaking of the Plateau by Earth forces partly during the Late Cretaceous but mainly during the early Tertiary. After uplift and deformation, the Plateau was vigorously attacked by various forces of erosion, and the rock materials pried loose or dissolved were eventually carted away to the Gulf of California by the ancestral Colorado River. Some idea of the enormous volume of rock thus removed is apparent when one looks down some 2,000 feet to the river from any of the high overlooks farther south, such as Dead Horse Point (Lohman, 1974, fig. 15). Not so apparent, however, is the fact that younger Mesozoic and Tertiary rocks more than 1 mile thick once overlaid this high plateau but have been swept away by erosion. In all, the river has carried thousands of cubic miles of sediment to the sea and is still actively at work on this gigantic earth-moving project. In an earlier report (Lohman, 1965, p. 42) I estimated that the rate of removal may have been as great as about 3 cubic miles each century. For a few years the bulk of the sediment was dumped into Lake Mead, but now Lake Powell is getting much of it. When these and other reservoirs ultimately become filled with sediment—for reservoirs and lakes are but temporary things—the Gulf of California will again become the burial ground.

According to Cater (1970, p. 65-67), who made an intensive study of the salt anticlines, collapse of their crests seemingly occurred in two stages—the first stage following Late Cretaceous folding; the second following uplift of the Plateau later in the Tertiary. Solution and removal of salt by ground water played the leading role in the ultimate collapse.

As shown by Dane (1935, pl. 1, p. 121-126), collapse of the Salt Valley and Cache Valley anticlines was accompanied by considerable faulting and jointing, particularly along their northeast sides; by the upward intrusion of two large areas of the Paradox Member of the Hermosa Formation, one just northwest of the park and one in the middle of Salt Valley south of the campground; and by two downdropped masses of rock known to geologists as grabens (pronounced gräbns)—one just northwest of the park and one called the Cache Valley graben, which extends both east and west from Salt Wash. The Cache Valley graben has preserved from erosion the youngest rock formations in the park, as shown in figure 11.

TILTED BLOCK OF ROCKS IN CACHE VALLEY GRABEN, viewed to the east toward Cache Valley from point on gravelled side road to Wolfe's cabin, about half a mile east of paved road. Steep slope on left composed of Jurassic Morrison Formation, hogback on top formed by Dakota Sandstone of Late Cretaceous age, and gentle slopes to right composed of the Mancos Shale of Late Cretaceous age. (Fig. 11)

The remarkable jointing of the rocks on the northeast limb of the Salt Valley anticline is shown in figure 12. All the arches in this section of the park were eroded through thin fins of the Slick Rock Member of the Entrada Sandstone, and some, like Broken Arch, figure 16, are capped by the Moab Member.

Differences in the composition, hardness, arrangement, and thickness of the rock layers determine their ability to withstand the forces of fracturing and erosion and, hence, whether they tend to form cliffs, ledges, fins, or slopes. Most of the cliff- or ledge-forming rocks are sandstones consisting of sand deposited by wind or water and later cemented together by silica (SiO2), calcium carbonate (CaCO3), or one of the iron oxides (such as Fe2O3), but some hard, resistant ledges are made of limestone (calcium carbonate). The rock column (fig. 4) shows in general how these rock formations are sculptured by erosion and how they protect underlying layers from more rapid erosion. The nearly vertical cliffs along the lower reaches of Salt and Courthouse Washes and the Colorado River canyon upstream from Moab consist of the well-cemented Wingate Sandstone protected above by the even harder sandstones of the Kayenta Formation. (See figs. 21, 22.) To borrow from an earlier report of mine (Lohman, 1965, p. 17), "Vertical cliffs and shafts of the Wingate Sandstone endure only where the top of the formation is capped by beds of the next younger rock unit—the Kayenta Formation. The Kayenta is much more resistant than the Wingate, so even a few feet of the Kayenta * * * protect the rock beneath." In some places, as shown in figures 19 and 20, the overlying Navajo Sandstone makes up the topmost unit of the cliff.

Last but far from least among the factors responsible for the grandeur of Arches National Park and the Plateau in general is the desert climate, which allows one to see virtually every foot of the vividly colored naked rocks, and which has made possible the creation and preservation of such a wide variety of fantastic sculptures. A wetter climate would have produced a far different, smoother landscape in which most of the rocks and landforms would have been hidden by vegetation. On the Plateau the vegetation grows mainly on the high mesas and the narrow flood plains bordering the rivers, but scanty vegetation also occurs on the gentle slopes or flats.

The combination of layers of sediments of different composition, hardness and thickness, the bending and breaking of the rocks, and the desert climate, has produced steep slopes having many cliffs, ledges, and fins with generally sharp to angular edges, rather than the subdued rounded forms of more humid regions.

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Last Updated: 8-Jan-2007