Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title


National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
geology photo
Zion National Park, Utah

Geologic History
Folds and faults are not abundant in Zion; however, fault locations are important because faults are zones of weakness where earthquakes and mass- movements tend to reoccur. The Hurricane fault, created by Tertiary- age (Miocene) Basin- and- Range faulting, coincides with part of the older Sevier thrust fault. This coincidence suggests. . . read more

Geologic Setting
Protected within the 593 square kilometers (229 square miles) of Zion National Park, the Kolob Arch is the world’s largest arch with a span measuring 94.5 m (310 ft), a window height of 101 m (330 ft), and a thickness of 24 m (80 ft) (Biek et al. 2000). In other monuments and parks, this arch would be the centerpiece of a visitor’s experience, but Zion is probably best known for. . . read more

Geologic Features & Processes
Biek et al. (2000) identified 24 outstanding geologic features in Zion. These features are summarized below and located. . . read more

Zion National Park is a showcase of geology. Geologic processes have played an important role in shaping Zion. The arid climate and sparse vegetation allow the exposure of large expanses of bare rock and reveal the park's geologic history.

Zion is located along the edge of a region called the Colorado Plateau. The rock layers have been uplifted, tilted, and eroded, forming a feature called the Grand Staircase, a series of colorful cliffs stretching between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. The bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon is the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion is the top layer at the Grand Canyon.

Zion was a relatively flat basin near sea level 240 million years ago. As sands, gravels, and muds eroded from surrounding mountains, streams carried these materials into the basin and deposited them in layers. The sheer weight of these accumulated layers caused the basin to sink, so that the top surface always remained near sea level. As the land rose and fell and as the climate changed, the depositional environment fluctuated from shallow seas to coastal plains to a desert of massive windblown sand. This process of sedimentation continued until over 10,000 feet of material accumulated.

stratigraphic column Rock Layer Appearance Where To See Deposition Rock Type
Dakota Formation cliffs top of Horse Ranch Mountain streams conglomerate and sandstone
Carmel Formation cliffs Mt. Carmel Junction shallow sea and coastal desert limestone, sandstone and gypsum
Temple Cap Formation cliffs top of West Temple desert sandstone
Navajo Sandstone steep cliffs 1,600-2,200' thick

red lower layers are colored by iron oxides

tall cliffs of Zion Canyon; highest exposure is West Temple and Checkerboard Mesa

believed to be the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world

desert sand dunes covered 150,000 square miles

shifting winds during deposition created cross-bedding

Kayenta Formation rocky slopes throughout canyon streams siltstone and sandstone
Moenave Formation slopes and ledges lower red cliffs seen from Zion Canyon Visitor Center streams and ponds siltstone and sandstone
Chinle Formation purpleish slopes above Rockville streams shale, loose clay and conglomerate
Moenkopi Formation chocolate cliffs with white bands rocky slopes from Virgin to Rockville shallow sea shale, siltstone, sandstone, mudstone, and limestone
Kaibab Formation cliffs escarpment of Hurrican Fault along I-15 near Kolob Canyons shallow sea limestone

Mineral-laden waters slowly filtered through the compacted sediments. Iron oxide, calcium carbonate, and silica acted as cementing agents, and with pressure from overlying layers over long periods of time, transformed the deposits into stone. Ancient seabeds became limestone; mud and clay became mudstones and shale; and desert sand became sandstone. Each layer originated from a distinct source and so differs in thickness, mineral content, color, and eroded appearance.

In an area from Zion to the Rocky Mountains, forces deep within the earth started to push the surface up. This was not chaotic uplift, but very slow vertical hoisting of huge blocks of the crust. Zion's elevation rose from near sea level to as high as 10,000 feet above sea level.

Uplift is still occurring. In 1992, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake caused a landslide visible just outside the south entrance of the park in Springdale.

This uplift gave the streams greater cutting force in their descent to the sea. Zion's location on the western edge of this uplift caused the streams to tumble off the plateau, flowing rapidly down a steep gradient. A fast-moving stream carries more sediment and larger boulders than a slow-moving river. These streams began eroding and cutting into the rock layers, forming deep and narrow canyons. Since the uplift began, the North Fork of the Virgin River has carried away several thousand feet of rock that once lay above the highest layers visible today.

The Virgin River is still excavating. Upstream from the Temple of Sinawava the river cuts through Navajo Sandstone, creating a slot canyon. At the Temple, the river has reached the softer Kayenta Formation below. Water erodes the shale, undermining the overlaying sandstone and causing it to collapse, widening the canyon.

rockfall photo
Rockfall at Zion National Park, Utah
Geology in Action
A landslide once dammed the Virgin River forming a lake. Sediments settled out of the quiet waters, covering the lake bottom. When the river breached the dam and the lake drained, it left behind a flat-bottomed valley. This change in the character of the canyon can be seen from the scenic drive south of the Zion Lodge near the Sentinel Slide. This slide was active again in 1995, damaging the road.

Flash floods occur when sudden thunderstorms dump water on exposed rock. With little soil to absorb the rain, water runs downhill, gathering volume as it goes. These floods often occur without warning and can increase water flow by over 100 times. In 1998 a flash flood increased the volume of the Virgin River from 200 cubic feet per second to 4,500 cubic feet per second, again damaging the scenic drive at the Sentinel Slide.

"There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power and kindles in the mind ... a glowing response.... Nothing can exceed the wondrous beauty of Zion.... in the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison."

When geologist Clarence E. Dutton wrote that description in 1880, southern Utah was a wild, rugged country of little-known canyons and plateaus. Slowly, scientific reports, magazine articles, and photographs spread the word that deep within this remote territory lay the scenic phenomenon of Zion. Some refused to believe such a place existed, just as others had scoffed at the first stories of Yellowstone. But the massive multi-colored vertical cliffs and deep canyons were real, and in 1909 this area was added to the National Park System. Take time and discover Zion on its roads, and beyond.

On the Road
The roads of Zion introduce you to the park's spectacular cliff-and-canyon landscape. You can drive, bicycle, or take a guided tram tour, depending on your time and interest. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, and the Kolob Canyons Road are open year-round. The Knob Terrace Road is usually closed by snow from late November to May.

If you are driving, remember the roads are designed for sightseeing, not speed. They are narrow, winding, and sometimes steep. Obey posted speed limits. If you want to stop, use a roadside parking area. Be alert for hazards, particularly pedestrians, bicyclists, wildlife, fallen rocks, and other motorists. Bicycles must be carried through the long tunnel in a vehicle.

All buses and many recreational vehicles are too large to pass safely through the long tunnel in two-way traffic. A fee is charged for the escort required for large vehicles to use the tunnel. During the busier seasons large vehicles are restricted in where they may park in Zion Canyon.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
Sheer, vividly colored cliffs tower above as you follow this road along the floor of Zion Canyon. This narrow, deep canyon is the centerpiece of the park. It awed early visitors like Frederick Vining Fisher, a Methodist minister who named the Great White Throne, Angels Landing, and many other monoliths. Today the canyon continues to spark a sense of wonder and disbelief in those who come and stand beneath its 2,000- to 3,000-foot high walls.

Along the bottom of the canyon flows the Virgin River. It is a river with the looks of a creek and the muscle of the Colorado. This small river almost single-handedly carved the profound rock gorge of Zion Canyon. It began its downcutting more than 13 million years ago and continues its work today. You may witness the river's power during a flash flood, when it turns muddy and violent, carrying cottonwoods and boulders like twigs and pebbles.

On most days, though, the Virgin winds through the canyon peacefully. Fremont cottonwoods, willows, and velvet ashes along its banks provide shady spots for a picnic or a short walk. Muledeer and many birds, too, seek refuge from the extreme midday heat of summer beneath this canopy. Other wildlife, including ringtail cats, bobcats, foxes, rock squirrels, and cottontails, rest under rocky ledges. The best times to see animals along the road are early morning, evening, and at night, when they are most active. These are also ideal times to see the conspicuous white trumpet-shaped flowers of the sacred datura. This common roadside plant is also called moonlily because its blossoms open in the cooler hours of evening and wilt with the rising heat of the day.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway
Outstanding works of man and nature compete for attention along this route. The road, completed in 1930, was considered an "almost impossible project", an engineering marvel of its time. Built across rough up-and-down terrain, it connects lower Zion Canyon with the high plateaus to the east. Two narrow funnels, including one 1.1 miles long, were drilled and blasted through the cliffs to finish the construction job.

As you travel from one side of the long tunnel to the other, the landscape changes dramatically. On one side lies Zion Canyon with its massive cliff walls. The colossal size of the canyon is matched by one of the most striking attractions along this road - "the Great Arch of Zion", a "blind" arch carved high in a vertical cliff wall.

On the other side of the tunnel is slickrock country. Here rocks colored in white and pastels of orange and red have been eroded into hundreds of fantastic shapes, etched through time with odd patterns of cracks and grooves. The mountain of sandstone known as Checkerboard Mesa stands as the most prominent example of this naturally sculptured rock art.

Roads to the Kolob
Two roads lead into the northwestern corner of the park, where streams have carved spectacular canyons at the edge of the Kolob Terrace. The Kolob Canyons Road enters the park from I-15 at exit 40 and penetrates 5 miles into the red rock, perpendicular walled Finger Canyons, ending at a high viewpoint. The Kolob Terrace Road overlooks the white and salmon-colored cliffs of the Left and Right Forks of North Creek. Both routes climb into forests of pinyon and juniper; ponderosa pine, fir, and quaking aspen are found at Lava Point. In summer there is often a feel of mountain coolness to the air atop the Kolob's high country plateaus. And in the early spring the Kolob is buried under a thick snowpack. The sparkling white of the snow heightens the colors of this already colorful landscape. Interpretive road guides are for sale at the visitor centers.

Beyond the Road
The names of the trails in Zion - Emerald, Hidden Canyon, Gateway to the Narrows, Canyon Overlook - hint at some of what you can find beyond the road. There are surprises, too, a desert swamp, a petrified forest, springs and waterfalls, and the always unpredictable appearance of wildlife. You may be overwhelmed by the size and scale of the park as it surrounds you, or fascinated by the tiny details of a rock pattern or a cactus bloom.

Before you head out on your first hike, consult "Hiking Zion", a brief guide to the park's trails on the opposite side of this folder. Naturalists take guided trips along some of these trails from late March to November. They also lead off-trail hikes through canyons, up the Virgin River, and over slickrock country.

Concessioner-guided horseback trips are offered from March into November. Private horse back parties should check in at either visitor center. In the Zion Canyon portion of the park, only the Sandbench Trail to the Emerald Pools trailhead is open to horses. The large amount of pedestrian traffic throughout the park prevents more extensive use by horses.

Technical climbing is permitted in the park. A free backcountry permit is required for overnight climbs. Climbing alone is not recommended. Certain areas may be closed for public safety or resource management concerns; therefore, check routes at the visitor center before beginning your trip.

A Gallery of Sculpted Rock
A hiker stands dwarfed by the walls of Navajo sandstone in a Zion side canyon. Many visitors enjoy hiking in these places that give overwhelming testimony to the creative powers of erosion. There are many such displays of wind- and water-sculpted rock beyond the roads end. From trails on the plateau rim there are sweeping vistas of Zion Canyon and of other massive canyons to which access is much more difficult. Other trails lead through smaller, narrow side canyons with graceful curving walls as smooth as polished stone.

One observer called Zion "a singular display of nature's art mingled with nonsense." The hoodoos readily seen on the east side of the park reflect this idea well. These weird, iron capped rocks resemble enormous mushrooms, or king-sized footstools, or whatever your imagination fancies. A multitude of other interesting rock forms - from arches to alcoves to potholes - are scattered here, there, everywhere.

A Refuge for Wildlife
The name Zion suggests a place of peace and refuge. This is true not only for visitors but for wildlife as well. The park is a sanctuary for roadrunners and golden eagles, mule deer and mountain lions, cactus and cottonwood. Some of the best opportunities for encountering wildlife are along park trails. You may surprise lizards or Gambel's quail on a hike along a wooded wash on the deserts edge. Or hear echoes of the dear gushing song of the canyon wren in a pygmy forest of pinyon and juniper. Watch for tracks, they may be the closest you get to rarely seen species like the mountain lion or the nocturnal ringtailed cat.

Wildflowers are common throughout the park, particularly in spring and fall. Even where there is nothing more than a tiny pocket of soil in a rock crack, plants manage to take root and grow. Some cliffs, like those at Weeping Rock, are thick with golden and western columbine, scarlet monkeyflower, and maidenhair fern. Springwater seeping through the porous rock walls nourishes these lush hanging gardens.

A Wilderness Preserved
Protected within Zion's 229 square miles is a wilderness full of the unexpected. It included what may be the world's largest arch -Kolob Arch spanning 310 feet -and simpler natural wonders, such as small waterfalls and clear backcountry pools. The fundamental qualities of wild America - quiet and solitude - are here, too.

Anasazi and Paiute Indians may have lived in Zion Canyon year-round. Mormon settlers once did. They were here in summer, when dramatic thunderstorms send dozens of waterfalls large and small, cascading off the cliffs; in autumn, when the green canyon trees turn gold; in winter, when light snow dusts the rocks and in spring, when wildflowers fed by melting snows bloom. You may want to sample a different season on your next visit to Zion Canyon. You can be sure that whenever you return, and no matter how often Zion Canyon will always repay you generously for the time you spend here.

rockfall photo
GRE Report Cover


Full Report
Geologic Resource Evaluation Report
– A detailed geologic report is available that provides an introduction to the geologic history of the park and its geologic formations, identifies geologic features and processes that are important to park ecosystems, describes key resource management challenges and possible solutions, and lists geologic research and monitoring needs.

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 general 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/zion/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
This site is best viewed in Internet Explorer 6.0 or Netscape 7.0