Geology and Geologic Time through Photographs

Archive for the tag “unconformity”

Cove Palisades, Oregon: a tidy short story in the vastness of time

If I were a water skier, I’d go to Lake Billy Chinook at Cove Palisades where I could ski and see amazing geology at the same time. On the other hand, I’d probably keep crashing because the geology is so dramatic! Maybe a canoe would be better.

Lake Billy Chinook, Oregon

View across the Crooked River Arm of Lake Billy Chinook to some of the 1.2 million year old canyon-filling basalt (right) and Deschutes Fm (left). The cliff on the far left of the photo is also part of the 1.2 million year basalt.

The lake itself fills canyons of the Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius Rivers. It backs up behind Round Butte Dam, which blocks the river channel just down from where the rivers merge. The rocks here tell a story of earlier river canyons that occupied the same places as today’s Crooked and Deschutes Rivers. These older canyons were filled by basaltic lava flows that now line some of the walls of today’s canyons.

CovePalisades2From the geologic map, modified from Bishop and Smith, 1990, you can see how the brown-colored canyon-filling basalt, (called the “Intracanyon Basalt”) forms narrow outcrops within today’s Crooked and Deschutes canyon areas. It erupted about 1.2 million years ago and flowed from a vent about 60 miles to the south. You can also see that most of the bedrock (in shades of green) consists of the Deschutes Formation, and that there are a lot of landslides along the canyon sides.

The cross-section at the bottom of the map shows the view along a west-to-east line. Multiple flows of the intracanyon basalt filled the canyon 1.2 million years ago –and since then the river has re-established its channel pretty much in the old canyon. While the map and cross-section views suggest the flows moved down narrow valleys or canyons, you can actually see the canyon edges, several of which are visible right from the road.

Probably the best place to see a canyon edge is where you enter the park from the east and start down the grade into the Crooked River Canyon. That area’s shown in the white box in the cut-out of the lead photo (below).


cut-out photo showing locations described in text

There, you can see canyon-filling basalt flows cutting down through the bedding in the older rock. Their contact marks the walls of the old canyon. In my opinion, the best place to photograph this spot is from the road directly below—at the little star on the lead photo. There’s even a waterfall!

Buttress Unconformity, Oregon (Pan)

View upwards to preserved canyon edge, where the intracanyon basalt cuts down through the Deschutes Fm. Location marked by star in previous photo.

The photo below shows another view of a canyon edge—on the west side of the Deschutes River Canyon. It tells pretty much the same story, except that researchers have determined the lava came from downriver. According to Bishop and Smith (1990), some of the basalt, flowing down the Crooked River Canyon, encountered an obstacle somewhere beyond its confluence with the Deschutes River. This obstacle caused the flowing lava to pond and flow back up the Deschutes River Canyon!

Buttress Unconformity, Oregon (Pan)

Intracanyon basalt on skyline cutting down through older Deschutes Fm.


The Deschutes Formation. The rock of the original canyons, shown as the well-bedded material in the photos above, belongs to the Deschutes Formation. It formed as deposits from the early High Cascade volcanoes between 7.5 – 4 million years ago. Altogether, the formation exceeds 2000 feet in thickness. At Cove Palisades, the Deschutes Formation beautifully displays nearly its whole range of features, including braided channels, ash fall deposits, sandy debris flows, welded ash flow tuffs, and basaltic lava flows. It even hosts a small shield volcano, shown on the map as Round Mountain. Most of these features appear in the quarter-mile continuous exposure along the grade into the Crooked River Canyon –located by the pink-colored box on the photo above.

Volcaniclastic rock, Oregon

Deschutes Fm. as exposed near upper end of roadcut along eastern grade into canyon


Here’s one part of that roadcut—across from the large pullout near the top of the grade. You can see cross-bedded gravel filling scours and channels in underlying volcanic-rich sandstone and tuff. In the background, the shaded cliff and flat area is made of a basalt flow. It forms the rimrock of the Crooked River Canyon. The next photo shows this basalt, with some wonderful colonnade, at the very top of the grade.

Columnar-jointed basalt, Oregon

Colonnade in basalt of Deschutes Fm. The roadway makes the gray band at the bottom.

Then there’s “The Ship” –a beautifully exposed outcrop of ash flow tuff called the “Cove Ignimbrite”. This tuff, which is also exposed along the long roadcut, points to a period of unusually explosive volcanic activity in the early High Cascades. It turns out there are 13 other ash flow tuffs preserved in the Deschutes Formation. They’re described by Pitcher and others (2017) who found that they all erupted between about 6.25 and 4.45 million years ago.

Ash Flow tuff, Oregon

Cove Ignimbrite at “The Ship”

And Geologic Time  We see evidence of early canyons, carved into the Deschutes Formation by weathering and erosion. Later, these canyons filled with basaltic lava flows that erupted some 60 miles to the south near today’s Newberry Volcano. Weathering and erosion continued its work and carved the canyons again. But that’s not all. Landslides speak to weathering and erosion that continues today in the canyon. The Deschutes Formation, which formed the original canyon walls, is much older than all of this –it’s made of more than 2000 feet of material from volcanoes that no longer exist! Among other things, it tells us of an especially explosive period in the history of these former volcanoes. All within 7.5 million years.

Most geologists (me included) tend to think of 7.5 million years as a pretty short time. After all, the Cenozoic Era started about 66 million years ago –and before that was another 4,484 million years of Earth history. When you dig into the details though, you come to appreciate just how long that 7.5 million years really is –and then the vastness of geologic time becomes almost overwhelming.

You can view and download any of these images–and others from Cove Palisades– at a resolution that works for power point by typing “Cove Palisades” into the keyword search at

Bishop, E.M., and Smith, G.A., 1990, A field guide to the geology of Cove Palisades State Park and the Deschutes Basin in central Oregon: Oregon Geology, v. 52, p. 3-16.

Pitcher, B.W., Kent, A.J.R., Grunder, A.L., and Duncan, R.A., 2017, Frequency and volumes of ignimbrite eruptions following the Late Neogene initiation of the Central Oregon High Cascades: Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v. 329, p. 1-22.









Great Unconformity in Montana –and rising seas during the Cambrian

Here’s yet another picture of the Great Unconformity –this time in southwestern Montana.  Once again, Cambrian sandstone overlies Precambrian gneiss.  You can see a thin intrusive body, called a dike, cutting through the gneiss on the right side.  You can also see that the bottom of the sandstone is actually a conglomerate –made of quartzite cobbles derived from some nearby outcrops during the Cambrian.

Great unconformity in SW Montana.

Photo of Cambrian Flathead Sandstone overlying Proterozoic gneiss in SW Montana.


And that’s me in the photo.  My left hand is on the sandstone –some 520 million years or so old; my right hand is on the gneiss, some 1.7 BILLION years old.  There’s more than a billion years of missing rock record between my two hands.  Considering that the entire Paleozoic section from the top of the Inner Gorge in the Grand Canyon to the top of the rim represents about 300 million years and is some 3500′ thick… yikes!

And… just like in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, there is Cambrian age shale and limestone above the sandstone.  This rock sequence reflects rising sea levels during the Cambrian.  It’s called the “Cambrian Transgression”, when the sea moved up onto the continent, eventually inundating almost everywhere.  If you look at the diagram below, you can see how this sequence formed.

Marine transgression

Sequence of rock types expected during a transgression of the sea onto a continent.

If you look at time 1, you can see a coastline in cross-section, with sand being deposited closest to shore, mud a little farther out, and eventually carbonate material even farther out.  As sea levels rise (time 2), the sites of deposition for these materials migrates landward, putting mud deposition on top the earlier sand deposition and so on.  At time 3, the sequence moves even farther landward, resulting in carbonate over mud over sand.  If these materials become preserved and turned into rock, they form the sequence sandstone overlain by shale overlain by limestone –just what we see on top the Great Unconformity.




Great Unconformity –in the Teton Range, Wyoming

As it turns out, the “Great Unconformity”, the contact between Cambrian sedimentary rock and the underlying Precambrian basement rock, is a regional feature –it’s not only in the Grand Canyon, but found all over the Rocky Mountain West –and for that matter, it’s even in the midwest.  As an example, here are a couple photos from the Teton Range in Wyoming.

The yellow arrow points to the contact between the Cambrian Sandstone and underlying Precambrian metamorphic rock... the Great unconformity.

This top photo shows the Grand Teton (right) and Mt. Owen (left) in the background… in the foreground, you can see a flat bench, which is underlain by flat-lying Cambrian sandstone.  Below that are darker-colored cliffs of Precambrian metamorphic rock.  The unconformity is right at their contact (arrow).

Also notice that the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen are made of metamorphic (and igneous) rock –but they’re much much higher in elevation than the sandstone.  That’s because there’s a fault, called the “Buck Mountain fault” that lies in-between the two.  The Buck Mountain fault moved the rock of the high peaks over the ones in the foreground during a mountain-building event at the end of the Mesozoic Era.  Because the metamorphic and igneous rock is so much more resistant to erosion than the sandstone, it stands up a lot higher.

Precambrian metamorphic and igneous rock of the Teton Range and overlying sedimentary rock.

This lower photo shows the view of the Teton range from the top of the sandstone bench (appropriately called “Table Mountain”).  As you look eastward towards the range, you can pick out the Buck Mountain fault (between the metamorphic and igneous rock of the high peaks) and the Cambrian sedimentary rock (the layered rocks).  Significantly, the Cambrian rocks, just like in the Grand Canyon, consist of sandstone, overlain by shale, overlain by limestone.

And geologic time… remember… for the sandstone to be deposited on the metamorphic or igneous rock, the metamorphic and igneous rock had to get uplifted from miles beneath the surface and exposed at sea level.  And since then, it’s been uplifted to the elevation of The Grand Teton (13370′) and Mt. Owen (12, 928′) !

Click here to see more photos of unconformities.
or… click here to see a geologic map of Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Great Unconformity –Grand Canyon, Arizona

So just like intrusive igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks require great lengths of time to accomplish the uplift and erosion in order to be exposed at Earth’s surface.

So what do we make of this photograph?  It shows a sequence of sandstone, shale, and limestone sitting on top metamorphic rock (called the “Vishnu Schist”) in the Grand Canyon.  The sandstone was deposited right on top the schist.

Great unconformity, Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sequence of Cambrian sandstone (the ledge across the middle of the photo), shale (the overlying slopes) and limestone (the upper cliffs) deposited on top the Vishnu Schist in the Grand Canyon.


Since sedimentary rocks, like sandstone, shale, or limestone, are deposited at Earth’s surface –and metamorphic rock forms beneath the surface, this photo shows that BEFORE the sedimentary rocks were deposited, the metamorphic rock (schist) had to have been uplifted and exposed.  So all the time required to bring the schist to the surface had to take place before the sandstone was even deposited.

The surface of contact between the sandstone and the schist is called an unconformity because it is here that we see evidence for a great deal of missing rock record.  The sandstone must be much younger than the schist –for the very reason that the schist first had to get uplifted and exposed at the surface before the sandstone was deposited on top of it.  So… because the sandstone is so much younger, but it was deposited right on top the schist, there must be a gap in the rock record between them … an unconformity.

And here is where we see evidence for even LONGER periods of time.  Overlying the sandstone?  Thousands and thousands of feet of more sedimentary rock.  And much of that sedimentary rock was marine… formed at sea level.  It is now over a mile above sea level.

And the schist itself?  The people who’ve studied it have determined that much of it was originally volcanic –which means that it originally formed at the Earth’s surface.  So… over geologic time, it must have been buried to the depths needed to turn it into a metamorphic rock BEFORE it was uplifted and exposed.

So… how old is Earth?  Some say 6 or 10,000 years… I think we’re looking at 10s of millions in this photo.  And if we consider the numerical ages for these rocks, 1.7 billion is the age of metamorphism of the schist –its original volcanic rock must have been older!

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