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geology fieldnotes title

Bryce Canyon

National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
Photo of Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Ancient Sedimentation
Our dynamic planet is constantly being shaped and reshaped by dramatic events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and mudslides. Other changes may not be detected in a human lifetime. Geological timespans or Periods cover millions of years. The Cretaceous Period began some 144 million years ago and lasted until about 63 million years ago. The rock formations you see exposed at Bryce Canyon began to develop during this time. For 60 million years a great seaway extended northwestward into this area, depositing sediments of varying thickness and composition as it repeatedly invaded, retreated, then re-invaded the region. Retreating to the southeast, it left sediments thousands of feet thick. Their remnants form the oldest, lowest, gray-brown rocks at Bryce Canyon.

In the Tertiary Period, between 66 and 40 million years ago, highlands to the west eroded into shallow, broad basins. Iron-rich, limy sediments were deposited in the beds of a series of lakes and streams. These became the reddish rocks of the Claron Formation from which the hoodoos are carved and for which the Pink Cliffs are named.

Cretaceous seaway The Cretaceous Seaway moved northward from the Gulf of Mexico into this region of North America (left). Sediments deposited as the sea invaded and retreated became the brown and gray marine rocks now exposed at the park's lowest elevations and across the Paria Valley.


Deformation, Uplift, and the Grand Staircase

Horizontal compression related to the formation of the Rocky Mountains deformed these rocks. Then volcanic flows from the north covered parts of the region: black rocks at the mouth of nearby Red Canyon and on the Sevier Plateau to the north still protect softer underlying layers. About 10 million years ago the Earth pulled apart, moving and tilting great blocks along north-south trending fault lines. Layers, once connected, were displaced vertically by several thousand feet, forming the High Plateaus of Utah.

Older Cretaceous layers rested side by side with younger Tertiary layers across fault lines. Streams began to remove sediments deposited by their ancestors. Working on the weakened edges of the upthrown blocks, water gradually removed the uppermost Tertiary layers and exposed Cretaceous rocks once again. Now these drab former marine sediments lay on the surface of the land side by side with the brightly colored deposits of freshwater lakes and streams.

Differential Erosion
Water erodes rock mechanically and chemically. Scouring, abrading, and gullying occur when fast-moving water scrapes its silt, gravel, and rock debris against firmer bedrock. Slow-moving or standing water enters minute rock pores and dissolves cements holding the rock together. This leaves loose grains to wash away. Softer Cretaceous rocks were loosened and carried away from the upthrown block by the Paria River. The resulting Paria Valley is carved out of rocks that lie deep beneath the Paunsaugunt Plateau, whose edge now is exposed to erosion.

Formation of Bryce Canyon
Along the plateau rim, conditions are optimal for erosion. Its steep slope increases water speed and energy. Faults and joints from ancient compressional forces influence erosion patterns. Freezing and thawing loosen slope surfaces. Debris carried by runoff, scours softer rock and creates gullies; harder rock remains as fins.
fins & vertical columns
Further erosion of Bryce Canyon
As gullies widen to canyons, fins (left) become exposed to further erosion along vertical cracks. In winter, freezing water expands within cracks to peel off layers and carve vertical columns (right).

Hoodoos Cast Their Spell
Hoodoo - a pillar of rock, usually of fantastic shape, left by erosion.
Hoodoo - to cast a spell. At Bryce Canyon National Park erosion forms a remarkable array of fantastic shapes we know as hoodoos. Surrounded by the beauty of southern Utah, these hoodoos cast their spell on all who visit. Geologists say that ten million years ago forces within the Earth created and then moved the massive blocks we know as the Aquarius and Paunsaugunt plateaus. Rock layers on the Aquarius now tower 2,000 feet above the same layers on the Paunsaugunt. Ancient rivers carved the tops and exposed edges of these blocks, removing some layers and sculpting intricate formations in others. The Paria Valley was created and later widened between the plateaus.

The Paria River and its many tributaries continue to carve the plateau edges. Rushing waters carrying dirt and gravel gully the edges and steep slopes of the Paunsaugunt Plateau on which Bryce Canyon National Park lies. With time, tall thin ridges called fins emerge. Fins further erode into pinnacles and spires called hoodoos. These in turn weaken and fall, adding their bright colors to the hills below.

Early Native Americans left little to tell us of their use of the plateaus. We know that people have been in the Colorado Plateau region for about 12,000 years, but only random fragments of worked stone tell of their presence near Bryce Canyon. Artifacts tell a more detailed story of use at lower elevations beyond the park's boundary. Both Anasazi and Fremont influences are found near the park. The people of each culture left bits of a puzzle to be pieced together by present and future archaeologists. Paiutes lived in the region when Euro-Americans arrived in southern Utah. Paiutes explained the colorful hoodoos as "Legend People" who were turned to stone by Coyote.

The Paiutes were living throughout the area when Capt. Clarence E. Dutton explored here with John Wesley Powell in the 1870s. Many of today's place names come from this time. Dutton's report gave the name Pink Cliffs to the Claron Formation. Other names — Paunsaugunt, place or home of the beavers; Paria, muddy water or elk water; Panguitch, water or fish; and Yovimpa, point of pines— were derived from the Paiute language.

The Paiutes were displaced by emissaries of the LDS Church who developed the many small communities throughout Utah. Ebenezer Bryce aided in the settlement of southwestern Utah and northern Arizona. In 1875 he came to the Paria Valley to live and harvest timber from the plateau. Neighbors called the canyon behind his home Bryce's Canyon. Today it remains the name not only of one canyon but also of a national park.

Shortly after 1900, visitors were coming to see the colorful geologic sights, and the first accommodations were built along the Paunsaugunt Plateau rim above Bryce's Canyon. By 1920 efforts were started to set aside these scenic wonders. In 1923 President Warren G. Harding proclaimed part of the area as Bryce Canyon National Monument under the Powell (now Dixie) National Forest. In 1924 legislation was passed to establish the area as Utah National Park, but the provisions of this legislation were not met until 1928. Legislation was passed that year to change the name of the new park to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Each year the park is visited by more than 1.5 million visitors from all over the world. Languages as varied as the shapes and colors of the hoodoos express pleasure in the sights. Open all year, the park offers recreational opportunities in each season. Hiking, sightseeing, and photography are the most popular summer activities. Spring and fall months offer greater solitude. In the winter months, quiet combines with the area's best air quality for unparalleled views and serenity beyond compare. In all seasons fantastic shapes cast their spell to remind us of what we protect here in Bryce Canyon National Park.

park maps subheading

The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

View the park's map to create your own personal maps and images right here.

For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

photo album subheading

A geology photo album for this park can be found here.

For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

books, videos, cds subheading

Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
ISBN 0-393-92407-6
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

geologic research subheading

Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

selected links subheading

NPS Geology and Soils Partners

NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
NRCS logoGeological Society of America
NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

teacher feature subheading

General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/brca/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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