What an incredible story can by told by rocks that are not there! Seriously, the Grand Canyon is full of rocks, but some of the most important parts of the geological story emerge when we realize just how much rock is missing. In the picture above, erosion has scooped out a small alcove on the right side. The rocks forming the roof of the alcove are crossbedded sandstones that formed on a beach around 500 million years ago. The rocks underneath are composed of schist and granite pegmatite (an extremely course-grained type of the plutonic rock) that date to between 1.4 and 1.8 billion years. The picture below shows a typical intrusion of the pegmatite between the layers of schist. What's missing? Just a billion years or so of geologic history!
On one horizon, a landmass...it is large, more than a thousand miles across, the core of the North American continent. It has existed already for most of a billion years. In the other direction, an island is visible in the distance. It is also large, hundreds of miles long. The two lands are on a collision course. It is not an overly fast collision, as they approach at the stunning speed of three or four inches a year. But over millions of years, they collide, first disturbing and folding the sediments on the seafloor between them, and then a vast mountain range grows as one land mass is pushed up and over the other. And within a few tens of millions of years, a second island collides, pushing the mountains even higher. A vast range now extends across the edge of the continent, from what is now the southeastern United States to California, and an unknown distance westward.
It was a mountain range that no eyes ever saw. Eyes would not develop in this world for another billion years. No trees ever graced its slopes, not a blade of grass, no terrestrial life at all. The mountain was composed of barren rock, and was touched only by snow and flowing water. But no life. The mountain range was pushed to great heights, and erosion tore away at its flanks. Over several hundred million years the mountain range was eroded away until it was a low plain, interrupted here and there by low hills no more than a few hundred feet high. The rocks that now lie exposed were once buried 12 miles deep in the crust. They have been changed by the extreme heat and pressure into schist and gneiss.
The Great Unconformity was one of our objectives while traveling down the Peach Springs Road into the Grand Canyon on our trip last month. In 21 miles we drove 4,000 feet into the canyon to the Colorado River at Diamond Creek. I'm not superstitious or anything, but in May we only got to the 17 mile mark before our car broke down, so this time our vans made the trip to the river without stopping, except for the rather incredible distraction of a herd of Bighorn Sheep grazing by the road.
Hole in the Wall and the trip down to the river, it had been a full day! And it was only our second day out in the field...
PS: I forgot...there were more furry distractions on the way out of the canyon. I don't know how wild they were, given the rope on one of them, but there they were on the open range....
Here is the explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series: http://geotripper.blogspot.com/2012/06/abandoned-landsa-journey-through.html