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geology fieldnotes title

Mesa Verde

National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
Photo of Cliff Palace ruins
Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

The early Spanish explorers of the 18 th Century named Mesa Verde, which is Spanish for “ green table.” The Mesa Verde area includes about 520 square miles of deeply dissected tableland on the Colorado Plateau of southwestern Colorado. Mesa Verde National Park (MEVE) comprises 81 square miles (52,073 acres) of this tableland and was created in 1906 to preserve the archaeological treasures left by the Ancestral Puebloans.

Point Lookout stands about 430 m (1,400 ft) above the broad valley, and like past explorers, visitors are greeted by this impressive promontory when driving into the Park. While the mesa appears flat, regional uplift has tilted the table about 2-3 degrees to the south. Many of the streams that drain the south side of Mesa Verde have eroded headward until the canyons they carved reach, or almost reach, the North Rim. The rugged topography consists of flat-topped mesas, which are separated from each other by the narrow, finger-like, parallel canyons with vertical cliffs etched into the landscape.

Located in the southwestern corner of Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is part of a geological feature called the Colorado Plateau Province. Covering parts of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau is a region of high plateaus and broad, rounded uplands separated by vast rangelands. Beneath the rangelands are large, elliptical basins that can be seen in detail through geophysical seismic profiling. Northeast and east of the Colorado Plateau are the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The Mesozoic-age overthrust belt marks the west-northwest edge of the Colorado Plateau. The extensional, normal-faulted Basin-and-Range Province borders the Colorado Plateau to the west and south. The Rio Grande Rift forms the southeast border.

The Colorado Plateau also is known for its laterally extensive monoclines that formed during the Late Cretaceous – Tertiary Laramide Orogeny. The basins adjacent to the steep limbs of the monoclines have been filled with sediment eroded from these folds. The steeply dipping eastern limb of the Hogback Monocline forms the west-northwest flank of the San Juan Basin located in northwest New Mexico. Mesa Verde lies on the gently dipping northwest limb of the Hogback Monocline (Condon, 1991; Wanek, 1959). The mesa is part of a wide, shallow syncline that plunges or tilts to the south. The sedimentary rocks at Mesa Verde are nearly flat lying but dip away from the structural high of the La Plata Mountains with gentle dips between 2-3 degrees to the south (Wanek, 1959).

Very few faults have been mapped in Mesa Verde National Park relative to the surrounding physiographic provinces. Along the north rim (sections 13 and 14, T35N, R15W), a normal fault trends east-west and can be traced across several promontories below Park Point (Wanek, 1959). The northern structural block has dropped down about 15 m (50 ft) relative to the southern block. Along the northwest rim, several small normal faults trend southeastward and coalesce. Displacement on the fault is about 30 m (100 ft). Farther south, a small normal fault cuts the western rim of the Mesa. The fault trends east-west, and displacement is only about 12 m (40 ft) (Wanek, 1959). Most faults in MEVE appear to be associated with gravity sliding near the edges of the escarpment. Joints that vertically fracture the Mancos Shale and Mesaverde Group sedimentary rocks are common on the Mesa.

The massive cliffs at Mesa Verde are composed of erosion resistant sandstones. Sandstone also forms the surface bedrock of the mesa. The slopes beneath the cliffs are less resistant to erosion and are composed of siltstone, mudstone, or shale.

The sandstones and shales at Mesa Verde rise abruptly for nearly 607 m (2,000 ft) above the surrounding plain. The mesa of Mesa Verde slopes gently southward until it is truncated by the southwest flowing Mancos River, a tributary to the San Juan River (Wanek, 1959; Condon, 1991). Over a distance of about 18 km (11 mi), the elevation in the Park changes from about 2,612 m (8,571 ft) above sea level at Point Lookout to roughly 2070 m (6,800 ft) on Chapin Mesa near the southern edge of the Park. Such a change in elevation results in a topographic slope to the south of about 28 to 29 m per kilometer (145 to 150 ft per mile).

The sandstone that surfaces Mesa Verde is relatively porous and permeable so that water can flow through the sandstone. Melting snow and rain soak into the sandstone and percolate downward. Conversely, the shale beneath the sandstone is not very permeable so water does not travel through it very well. Instead, the groundwater flows along the contact of the sandstone and shale and emerges as springs or seeps along the canyon walls. The alcoves in which the Ancestral Puebloans built their cliff dwellings are the result of these seeps and of continued seasonal freezing and thawing processes that helped dissolve the cement holding the sand grains together.

The rugged La Plata Mountains lie to the northeast and the Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west of Mesa Verde National Park. On a clear day, the La Plata and Rico mountains to the northeast, the Sleeping Ute Mountain near Cortez, Colorado, the Carrizo Mountains in northeastern Arizona, the Henry Mountains and La Sal Mountains in Utah, and the lone spire of Shiprock are all visible from the mesa’s rim. Except for Shiprock, which is the remnant of a central volcanic chamber, these mountain ranges are the result of igneous intrusions that formed laccoliths in the Early to Middle Tertiary Period. Over time, erosion has exposed the inner igneous core of the ranges.

Igneous dikes mapped in Mesa Verde National Park have a similar orientation to some of the dikes radiating from Shiprock and are the same type of rock (Wanek, 1959). The dikes at Mesa Verde National Park, however, are somewhat of an enigma. Usually, as at Shiprock, volcanic dikes are more resistant to erosion than the surrounding sedimentary rocks and thus form obvious ridges in the landscape. In Mesa Verde National Park, a low mound or ridge is visible where the dike has cut through the soft Menefee Formation, but the trace of the dike through the more resistant Cliff House Sandstone appears as a sharp-sided slot cut into the wall of the canyon and as a gully (not a ridge) across the surface of the mesa top.

With a fairly abrupt increase in elevation from near sea level to several thousand feet above sea level in the Late Tertiary, the pace of erosion accelerated in the Colorado Plateau and Rocky Mountain region, carving the giant monoclines, laccoliths, radiating volcanic dikes, and other topographic features.

During Pleistocene glaciation (1.6 Ma to 10,000 years ago), when large ice sheets covered much of North America, alpine glaciers scoured the mountains into peaks, knife-edge ridges, and shallow mountain lakes. Glaciers put the finishing touches on the higher peaks, transforming the San Juan Mountains, for example, from a rolling mountainous upland to an alpine wonderland of jagged peaks and mountain lakes.

Locally on the Colorado Plateau, glaciers formed at elevations below 1,828 m (6,000 ft) (Dr. Jim Johnson, Mesa State College, retired, personal communication, 2001). For example, the maximum extent of glaciation on the Grand Mesa near Grand Junction, Colorado, reached 1,650 m (5,400 ft). In the White River area, where Canyon Creek enters the Colorado River, glaciers reached an elevation of 1,768 m (5,800 ft). In the West Fork of the Mancos River area, east of MEVE, glaciers flowing from the La Plata Mountains reached an elevation of at least 2,620 m (8,600 ft) above sea level, but the maximum extent is questionable (Dr. Jim Johnson, personal communication, 2001). Streams rushing from the toes of the glaciers carried voluminous amounts of debris down the canyons and out onto the plains.

The Colorado Plateau has been uplifted about 3,660 m (12,000 ft) since the end of the Cretaceous about 66 million years ago (Fillmore, 2000). Some of this uplift occurred geologically rapidly. As the rate of uplift increased, so did the rate of erosion. The Colorado River, for example, carved its present course within the last 6 million years. With uplift, streams throughout the Colorado Plateau began to dissect the landscape, forming the topography that is present today.


park maps subheading

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

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

photo album subheading

A general park photo album can be found here.

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

books, videos, cds subheading

book cover
Guide to the Geology of Mesa Verde National Park
by Mary O. Griffitts
Mesa Verde Museum Association
ISBN: 0-937062-11-1
88 pages, glossary, geological map

This book begins with a road log including brief descriptions of the geology at many park viewpoints. The second section contains a more detailed geologic history of the region from two billion years ago to the present, along with the explanation of some of the geological processes at work. References are given throughout the road log to the more detailed discussion of specific topics in the second section of the text.

The Guide and other resources can be ordered from the Mesa Verde Museum Association at http://mesaverde.org/

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

Geology References:

Aubrey, W. M., 1991, Geologic framework and stratigraphy of Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks of the southern Ute Indian Reservation, southwestern Colorado : USGS Professional Paper 1505-B, 24 p.

Baars, D. L, 1995, Navajo Country: University of New Mexico press, Albuquerque, NM, 255 p.

Baars, D. L., 2000, The Colorado Plateau: University of New Mexico press, Albuquerque, NM, 254 p.

Chapin, C. E. and Cather, S. M., 1983, Eocene tectonics and sedimentation in the Colorado Plateau – Rocky Mountain area, in James Lowell, ed., Rocky Mountain Foreland Basins and Uplifts: Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists, Denver, CO, p. 33-56.

Christiansen, E. II, Kowallis, B. J., and Barton, M. D., 1994, Temporal and spatial distribution of volcanic ash in Mesozoic sedimentary rocks of the Western Interior: an alternative record of Mesozoic magmatism, in Mario V. Caputo, James A. Peterson, and Karen J. Franczyk, eds., Mesozoic Systems of the Rocky Mountain Region, USA: Rocky Mountain Section, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), Denver, CO, p. 73-94.

Cobban, W. A., Merewether, E. A., Fouch, T. D., and Obradovich, J. D., 1994, Some Cretaceous shorelines in the Western Interior of the United States, in Mario V. Caputo, James A. Peterson, and Karen J. Franczyk, eds., Mesozoic Systems of the Rocky Mountain Region, USA: Rocky Mountain Section, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), Denver, CO, p. 393-414.

Condon, S. M., 1991, Geologic and structure contour map of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation and adjacent areas, southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico: USGS Map I-2083, Scale: 1:100,000.

Erdman, J. A., Douglas, C. L, and Marr, J. W., 1969, Environment: Wetherill Mesa Studies of Mesa Verde, Colorado: US Dept. of Interior, National Park Service, Archeological Research Series #7B, Washington, 72 p.

Elder, W. P. and Kirkland, J. I., 1994, Cretaceous paleogeography of the southern Western Interior Region, in Mario V. Caputo, James A. Peterson, and Karen J. Franczyk, eds., Mesozoic Systems of the Rocky Mountain Region, USA: Rocky Mountain Section, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), Denver, CO, p. 415-440.

Fassett, J. E., 1985, Early Tertiary paleogeography and paleotectonics of the San Juan Basin area, New Mexico and Colorado, in R.M. Flores and S.S. Kaplan, eds., Cenozoic Paleogeography of West-Central United States: Rocky Mountain Section, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), p. 317-334.

Fillmore, R., 2000, The Geology of the Parks, Monuments and Wildlands of Southern Utah: The University of Utah Press, 268 p.

Gregson, J., 1998, Geologic resources inventory workshop report, Mesa Verde National Park, CO: NPS Inventory and Monitoring Program, Ft. Collins, CO.

Griffitts, M. O., 1990, Guide to the Geology of Mesa Verde National Park, Mesa Verde Museum Association, Inc., Mesa Verde National Park, CO, 88 p.

Harris, A. G., Tuttle, E., Tuttle, S. D., 1997, Geology of National Parks , 5 th edition, Kenkall/Hunt Publishing Company, pg. 92-102.

Haynes, D. D., Vogel, J. D., and Wyant, D G., 1972, Geology, structure, and uranium deposits of the Cortez Quadrangle, Colorado and Utah: USGS Map I-629, Scale 1:250,000.

Kauffman, E. G., 1977, Geological and biological overview: Western Interior Cretaceous Basin: Mountain Geologist, v. 14, p. 75-99.

Kirkland, J. I., Leckie, R. M., and Elder, W. P., 1995, A new principal reference section for the Mancos Shale (Late Cretaceous) at Mesa Verde National Park, in Vincent L. Santucci and Lindsay McClelland, eds., National Park Service Paleontological Research: US Department of Interior, National Park Service Technical Report NPS/NRPO/NRTR-95/16, Denver, CO, p. 77-81.

Leckie, R.M., Kirkland, J.I., and Elder, W.P., 1997, Stratigraphic framework and correlation of a principal reference section of the Mancos Shale (Upper Cretaceous), Mesa Verde, Colorado, in Mesozoic Geology and Paleontology of the Four Corners Region, New Mexico Geological Society Guidebook, 48 th Field Conference, p. 163-216.

Molenaar, C. M., 1983, Major depositional cycles and regional correlations of Upper Cretaceous rocks, southern Colorado Plateau and adjacent areas, in Mitchell W. Reynolds and Edward D. Dolly, eds., Mesozoic Paleogeography of the West-Central United States: Rocky Mountain Section, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), Denver, CO, p. 201-224.

Morris, T., H., Manning, V. W., and Ritter, S. M., 2000, Geology of Capitol Reef National Park, Utah: in D.A. Sprinkel, T.C. Chidsey, Jr., and P.B. Anderson, eds., Geology of Utah’s Parks and Monuments: Utah Geological Association Publication 28, p. 85-106.

Nobel, D. G., 1991, Ancient Ruins of the Southwest: Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ., 218 p.

Pemberton, S. G., 1992, Applications of Ichnology to Petroleum Exploration: SEPM Core Workshop #17, 429 p.

Rice, D. D. and Shurr, G. W., 1983, Patterns of sedimentation and paleogeography across the Western Interior Seaway during time of deposition of Upper Cretaceous Eagle Sandstone and equivalent rocks, northern Great Plains, in Mitchell W. Reynolds and Edward D. Dolly, eds., Mesozoic Paleogeography of the West-Central United States: Rocky Mountain Section, SEPM (Society for Sedimentary Geology), p. 337-358.

Roberts, L. N. R. and Kirschbaum, M. A., 1995, Paleogeography of the Late Cretaceous of the Western Interior of Middle North America – Coal Distribution and Sediment Accumulation: USGS Prof Paper 1561, 115 p.

Scott, R., Santucci, V.L., and Connors, T., 2001, An Inventory of Paleontological Resources from the National Parks and Monuments in Colorado, in V.L. Santucci and L. McClelland, eds., Proceedings of the 6 th Fossil Resource Conference: Geological Resources Division Technical Report NPS/NRGRD/GRDTR-01/01, National Park Service, Lakewood, CO., p. 178-202.

Stegner, W., 1954, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West: Penguin books, 438 p.

Wanek, A. A., 1959, Geology and fuel resources of the Mesa Verde area Montezuma and La Plata Counties, Colorado: USGS Bulletin 1072-M, p. 667-721.


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/meve/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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