Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Ancestral Rocky Mountains and their Eroded Remnants

“First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”
Buddhist proverb and 1967 Donovan’s song

North America has experienced two lofty mountain ranges called the Rockies during the Phanerozoic Eon, the time period in which multicellular life existed on Earth (the last 542 million years). The first was the Ancestral Rocky Mountains that has long since eroded away. We know of its existence because of its eroded remnants. The second, the modern Rocky Mountains in all their majesty, are also eroding, but are still in a state of uplift.

The details of the origin of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains remains a mystery to this day. What explanation we have is based on circumstantial evidence, namely their remnants and other geological clues. Of interest to this discussion are those remnants. "How did they get there?" "Where can they be seen today?" To bring greater meaning to the geological significance of these deposits, let's explore the process of formation of both mountain ranges.

The ancient supercontinent of Rodinia rifted apart in the Late Proterozoic, spawning the smaller, but no less diminutive, supercontinents of Laurentia and Gondwana in the process. Amongst other effects, that event left a long passive margin on the western seaboard of Laurentia. Beginning with the Cambrian Period, extensive sedimentation took place on this long and broad, coastal margin, where subsidence prevailed for over 200 million years. The orogenic rise of the future Ancestral Rocky Mountains and the modern Rocky Mountains would occur from this sea level locale, but both ranges were more cratonically positioned. During the early and middle Paleozoic, Laurentia gradually morphed into Laurussia by the accretion of various magmatic arcs and micro-continents along its eastern seaboard. Laurussia’s passive, western seaboard became active in the late Paleozoic, and continues as such to this day. The new tectonic regime changed the face of western North America and the future Colorado Plateau, while its eastern seaboard has remained passive with the spreading of the Atlantic Ocean.

Both the ancestral and modern ranges were formed as a result of the interactions of converging tectonic plates. In the case of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, the convergence involved two massive plates, the Gondwana and the Laurussia plate. That formed a continent-continent boundary in the late Paleozoic. The modern Rocky Mountains, on the other hand, formed from the convergence of an ocean-continent boundary between the Farallon and the North American plate, respectively, in the Mesozoic and early Paleogene.

Modern plate tectonic theory establishes the location of orogeny or mountain-building in association with the converging plate boundaries. In the case of ocean-continent plate convergence, mountain-building is where the collision zone replaces the consuming margin. This produces subduction, destruction of ocean lithosphere, earthquakes, and a line of very active volcanoes. For continent-continent plate convergence, a powerful collision occurs. This produces intense compression, folding and faulting of rocks, and deformation extending into the plates' interiors. In either case, mountain ranges are generated in association with the plate margins. In contradiction to tectonic-tenets, both the Ancestral and modern Rocky Mountains occupied decidedly intraplate-locations and at significant distances from their converging plate boundaries. The specifics of the collisions and the types of structural deformation that formed both mountain ranges differ greatly.

In the case of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, the austral-polar supercontinent of Gondwana converged upon the plate of the low- to mid-latitude supercontinent of Laurussia during the Pennsylvanian and Early Permian Periods. The ensuing continent-continent collision, approximately at today’s eastern seaboard of North America, created the lofty Appalachian Mountains at the juncture of the converging plates. That event is referred to as the Alleghenian Orogeny. That massive collision put the finishing touches on the assembly of a new, massive supercontinent called Pangaea. It wasn't until Pangaea was torn apart by rifting from the Late Triassic through the earliest Paleogene that the Appalachian chain would remain on North America's eastern margin.

The supercontinents of Gondwana (visible in lower right) and Laurussia (nascent North America)
are on a collision course during the Late Devonian (365 Ma).
Note that western North America
is largely submerged.
From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology and Ancient Landscapes by Blakey and Ranney
A Middle Pennsylvanian (307 Ma) depiction of the Gondwanan-Laurussian supercontinental collision 
showing the uplifted Appalachian Mountain chain.
Note the Ancestral Rocky Mountains in the southwest.
From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology and Ancient Landscapes by Blakey and Ranney 

Gondwana was an amalgamation of the modern continents of South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica at the time of its collision with Laurussia. Gondwana being so large, several orogenies occurred from the collision at various times and locations. One in particular, the Ouachita-Marathon Orogeny, resulted from the South American portion of Gondwana striking the future Gulf Coast region of North America. Far to the west of that suture-line and situated in an intraplate location, the Ancestral Rocky Mountains were created in parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma from the late Mississippian to early Permian.

Competing hypotheses exist in attempts to explain the widespread deformational event (also referred to as the Ancestral Rocky Mountain Orogeny) being so far from the site of the Gondwanan collision and with structures oriented obliquely to the "known" compressional forces. No general consensus has been reached, although the  Gondwanan collision from the southeast is favored. Those advocates focus on pre-existing crustal weaknesses along fractures in the basement rocks in association with strike-slip faulting. More recent explanations invoke a tectonic collision from the southwest, a more logical explanation from a compressional mountain-building perspective. In such a scenario, the orientation of the Ancestral Rockies and their basins would be appropriately oriented perpendicular to the stress that formed them. Advocates of this hypothesis are looking at what was then the southwest margin of Mexico for a telltale subduction zone and ancient volcanic arcs.  

Regardless of a universally agreed upon tectonic genesis, the Ancestrals began their rise and created a very complex paleogeography that dominated sedimentation for the next 100 million years, give or take.

A Late Pennsylvanian (300 Ma) close-up depiction of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains
and their associated basins, currently inundated by marine highwater.
Note the uplifts in Texas and off to the southeast, located closer to the converging plates. 
Modified from Ron Blakey, NAU Geology and Ancient Landscapes by Blakey and Ranney

The Ancestral Rocky Mountains consisted of a series of mountain ranges (uplifts and highlands) and deep, associated, assymmetrical bounding basins (troughs). Tectonically-induced block-faulting was responsible for the formation of the intracratonic ranges which trended north- to northwest and radically affected sedimentation into the respective basins, especially marine shale, carbonates and coarse-grained arkosic detritus. Over this region, basin subsidence and basement uplift were approximately synchronous. Relevant to this post were the Uncompahgre Uplift and its neighboring Paradox Basin to the west, the Central Colorado Basin, the Front Range (Frontrangia) Uplift and the Denver Basin to the east. As the Ancestrals eroded, they shed their sediments into the basins filling them with thousands of feet of red, arkosic sandstone and shale. In regard to the Uncompahgre Uplift, sedimentation extended onto far reaching regions of the future Colorado Plateau. By the end of the Permian, the uplifts had completely eroded away, reduced to subdued, low hills and plains. 

A diagram of the numerous uplifts (red) and basins of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains.
Pertinent to our discussion, note the Uncompahgre Uplift (32), its associated Paradox Basin (44),
the Central Colorado Trough (36), and the Front Range Uplift (30) and its associated Denver Basin (31).

A diagrammatic view showing the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, its uplifts and basins.
The three red dots correspond to my discussion of erosional remnants at the end of this post:
Fisher Towers (near Moab, UT), the Maroon Bells (near aspen, CO) and the Flatirons (Boulder, CO).
Modified from Lindsey et al (1986)

A Middle Pennsylvanian close-up view of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains,
and the uplifts and basins germane to this post:
Paradox Basin (PaB), Central Colorado Basin (CCB) and Denver Basin (DnB).
Modified from Ron Blakey, NAU Geology

The Ancestral Rocky Mountains were completely eroded away by the time the modern Rocky Mountains formed. The western migration of the North American plate, driven in part by the rifting Atlantic Ocean, converged with the oceanic Farallon plate. The ensuing subduction of the more dense, Farallon plate beneath the more buoyant, continental North American plate, approximately at what is today the western seaboard of North America, created crustal thickening and associated magmatism at the continental margin. This subduction event is known as the Sevier Orogeny (from the latest Jurassic to the Eocene). The Sevier is distinguished by having a second “phase” called the Laramide Orogeny (from the Late Cretaceous through the Eocene). The two are basically one continuous orogenic event with arbitrarily separated-phases occurring over a considerable overlap in time. Their differing effects on the landscape  are attributable to changing geometries over time associated with the subducting Farallon plate.

Unlike the Sevier event, the Laramide Orogeny penetrated deeply into and profoundly affected the craton. It was the greatest mountain-building episode to affect the western U.S. That uplift was at considerable distance from the plate boundary and created the modern Rocky Mountains, and uplifted a fair share, if not most of, the Colorado Plateau. Uplift of the plateau is commonly linked with its erosional denudation. Thus, many of the existing erosional features of the Colorado Plateau were created such as its canyons, mesas, buttes, arches, bridges, hoodoos, spires, pedestals and towers. More on that later!

Interestingly, the Ancestral Rocky Mountains and the modern Rocky Mountains bear a vaguely similar position within the continent, near present-day Colorado. Laramide uplifts in many cases coincide with the location raised by the Ancestral Orogeny. This is no coincidence of location, indicating the "susceptibility" of the continental crust, once broken, to future re-activity. A subject for another discussion, preexisting Precambrian folds and faults comprising the cratonic basement exert a long-lasting affect.       

No sooner had the Ancestrals begun to assume their lofty status than erosion began to wear them down. The  rocks that formed the core of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains were Precambrian metamorphic and sedimentary rock, the latter from the vast seas of the early Paleozoic, both forming the basement of the western North American continent. As the Ancestrals eroded throughout the late Paleozoic, they left extensive deposits of rock that was a signature of their core and cratonic basement (confirmed by dating techniques of detrital zircon geochronology). Those remnants can be viewed at Fisher Towers near Moab, Utah, the Maroon Bells of Aspen, and the Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado.

The Uncompahgre Uplift dominated sedimentation into its associated Paradox Basin and throughout large areas of the Southwest during the Pennsylvanian and Permian Periods. Closest to the Uncompahgre Mountains, thick deposits of coarse-grained arkose were formed on huge alluvial fans and their flood plains, built against the mountainous front and stretching from eastern Utah to northern New Mexico. Uplift of the Colorado Plateau region during the Laramide Orogeny triggered the erosion that sculpted the towers, spires and pedestals of Fisher Towers.

Fisher Towers is located in Fisher Valley (a collapsed salt-anticline), which is about 20 miles northeast of Moab. On display are various shades of red-brown, red-purple and maroon sedimentary rock. Several of the upper, darker parts of Fisher Towers are capped by the lower sandstone remnant of the Triassic Moenkopi Formation. The Moenkopi is more resistant to erosion than the softer, underlying layers and, therein, helps to form the pedestals and towers of Fisher. The middle and lower parts of the towers are sandstone, mudstone and conglomerate of the Permian Cutler Formation. These rocks were deposited within rivers and streams flowing south from the Uncompahgre Uplifts that formed at the beginning of the Pennsylvanian Period (about 320 million years ago). By the end of the Permian Period (about 250 million years ago) the highlands of the Uncompahgre had succumbed to erosion, being reduced to low hills and plains. 

The conglomerate of the Cutler Formation contains cobbles and pebbles of quartz, feldspar, mica, granite, schist and quartzite derived from Precambrian crystalline rocks that were eroded into the Paradox Basin from the Uncompahgre Uplifts of the Ancestral Rockies. The coarseness of the conglomerate in the low cliffs is indicative of the nearness to the source of the sediments. Contained within the red, sandy-matrix of the Cutler Formation are Middle Proterozoic crystalline-clasts that look identical to the Vishnu-Zoroaster complex at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. These clasts represent the basement-core of the long-eroded Ancestral Rocky Mountains. The uplift of the Colorado Plateau that began 80 to 50 million years ago carved the erosional features of Fisher Towers. By the end of the Permian period, the highlands no longer existed but their erosional remnants remain as a signature of their presence.

Fisher Towers illuminated by the late day sun not far from Moab

There are two peaks in the Elk Mountains of Colorado, southwest of Aspen, both of which are over 14,000 feet. They are the Maroon Bells, called the "Deadly Bells" by the US Forest Service, owing to the "rotten and unstable" rock  for climbers that comprises the Maroon Formation. Between the Uncompahgre Uplift and Front Range Uplifts of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains existed an intervening basin called the Central Colorado Trough. It is here where the Pennsylvanian and Permian dark red clays, sandstones and conglomerates shed from the eroding Ancestrals accumulated known as the Maroon Formation. During the Laramide Orogeny, the Maroon Formation was folded and thrust westward over itself and over younger strata. Mesozoic rocks that lay above the Maroon Formation have largely eroded away.

Note that in central Colorado further to the east in the modern Eagle Basin, the Pennsylvanian Minturn Formation along the eastern margin of the Central Colorado Basin reflects a similar depositional lithofacies of largely arkosic, fan-delta and open marine deposits in a tectonically active setting. Similarly, the Sangre de Cristo Formation formed to the southeast in the Central Colorado Basin and the contiguous Taos Trough.

Looking up a classic, U-shaped glacial valley near Aspen at the Maroon Bells in the distance. 
The Flatirons form the most recognizable feature of the Boulder backdrop, soaring upward at an angle of over 50 degrees. The mudstone, sandstone and arkosic conglomerates of the Early Pennsylvanian to Early Permian Fountain Formation were deposited in the Denver Basin in the erosional shadow of the Front Range (Frontrangia) Uplift of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Faulting during the much later Laramide Orogeny is responsible for the extreme, near-vertical uplift, angulation and erosion of the strata.

The escalloped and vegetated Middle Permian Lyons Formation can be seen at the base of the Flatirons. The Lyons Formation visually tends to merge with the Fountain Formation, on which it lies. The dunes that lithified into the Lyons were blown from stream channels descending from the low remnants of the Ancestral Front Range.

The upthrown Flatirons shine in the morning sun above Boulder

Fisher Towers, the Maroon Bells and the Flatirons bear a common thread. They all tell the story of an orogeny that happened long ago, of mountains that rose from the sea and towered over the region,  eventually succumbing to the forces of erosion and the ravages of time. If it wasn't for the Ancestral's erosional signature, we might well not have known of their existence. Such is the geological evidence. Our knowledge is partial and biased, constructed only from the fragmentary evidence that has been preserved. Yet, an incredible story is told. The beauty of it all. 


  1. I loved this one. I 'got' some of it but I think got the gist of it as you have those images, maps and photographs - very effective. As a lay person my one suggestion is to show a map of the US or locale, and put some dots on it to show us the journey you're taking us on? (like you have time to do that?). Going to spend some time on the Roxbury story this week. Thanks JS. Best pb

  2. I'm a lay person but found this very interesting. I'll have to read it a few more times for sure. I have spent a good deal of time landscape painting in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and am been to Maroon Bells many times, and it's nice to see an explanation of the landscapes I have so enjoyed. You've inspired me to go to Moab and see Fisher Towers.

  3. Anonymous,
    I'm pleased that you found my post on the ARM so interesting, and welcome to my blog! It's truly challenging to grasp the concept of a range of ancestral Rockies that preceded the existing Rockies and a concept based partially on eroded remnants!
    Doctor Jack

  4. As a tour manager trying to first learn about the geology of areas and then to simplify in layman's terms these geological processes to my clients, this was an amazing learning tool for me. The pictures, especially with the states delineated in the background, were especially inciteful. Geological terminology was brought down to the level of non-professionals as close as possible, though I did look up a few words. Thanks.

  5. I have been told that the jutting red rocks in Red Rocks Park just to the West of Denver and the jutting red and some white rocks located in the Garden of the Gods in western Colorado Springs are also remnants of the Ancestral Rockies. Is that a possibility?

  6. Anonymous, It's not a possibility but an actuality! Yes, the eroded remnants of the Ancestral Rockies can be found in many locations in Colorado, and elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau. Along the Front Range, they are preserved within the uplifted beds of the Red Rocks, the Garden of the Gods and the Flatirons. See the above photos! Doctor Jack

    1. Some pops up near Castle Rock as well. Love this geological history. Especially as a former Front Range resident (Colorado Springs and Denver).

  7. Fisher towers look amazing

    1. Thanks for the comment! They are indeed amazing and have an incredible geological story to tell of a vanished mountain range. Go there! Check them out at sunset!

  8. I still can't get big picture. When Gonwana and Larurussia colapsed, to rise up Appalacian and Rockies, did they form another supercontinent, or that was one in many accidental colisions? Between the rise up of Ancestral Rockies and rise of present day rockies, oceans moved several time in this area and volcanic activites added new layers for the build up of mauntain ranges like San Juan., but, on what continent did it all happen?

    1. Mr. Anonymous,
      It goes something like this. Very simplistically, Gondwana's and Laurussia's tectonic unification formed the supercontinent of Pangaea. The region of their unification formed the Appalachian Mountain range, a protracted process that actually occurred via a number of collisions throughout the Paleozoic. Two basic schools of thought exist about the Ancestrals. Either the Ancestral Rocky Mountains originated as a consequence of the collision that formed the Appalachians from the southeast or a collision from the southwest in Mexico. Regardless, when Pangaea ultimately fragmented apart, forming the Atlantic Ocean and the modern continents we see today, the Pacific Ocean began its subduction, which at the present western margin of North America, began to form the modern Rocky Mountains. By this time, the Ancestrals had completely eroded away. It's an incredibly basic explanation. Does that help?

    2. It really does. Thank you very much.

  9. Like a previous contributor, I am also a landscape painter (and have painted at Fisher Towers). I live in the Livermore Valley in northern Colorado. Here, the Fountain Formation lies flat and abuts granite at the southern end of the Laramie Range without any apparent deformation. Is it possible that these low, granite hills on the west edge our valley are actually an un-erodeded remnant of the Ancestral Rockies?

  10. First detailed map of Colorado with uplifts and basins: Uncompahgre Uplift should be re-labeled #42

  11. Fisher Towers illuminated by the late day sun looks so amazing.

  12. Matthew 13
    [9] Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

    Revelation 13
    [9] If any man have an ear, let him hear.



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  13. I finally found the information I was looking for that "the great unconformity" is not really missing. Some of it is just transferred from one place to another but of course most washed out to sea. Living now in Las Vegas I am seeking information on the keystone thrust because most of the basin range mountains including frenchman on the east side of Vegas I assume are the final remnants of what actually was a huge limestone plate that thust over the entire area. Because of erosion and tilting many of the limestone mountains stand alone now confusing the issue. If it was 100 million years ago would not the entire area be covered with the Keystone thrust? I know its off subject but am wondering if any of your writings address it? Most people look only at Red Rock canyon and see the limestone mountains and think "there it is the thrust right where it stopped"--are not ALL of our limestone upthrusts we see driving they keystone thrust which has been thrust up in local areas?? I would like to pin this down. The mountains just south of Valley of Fire are limestone and are they not also keystone thrust remnants with not much time left? thanks any info appreciated

  14. I forgot to click "notify me" so am posting this also. More on subject I would like to add that in our shinarump conglomerate I have often wondered if it also contains the gravel from the ancestral Rockies or their outlying ranges? Heading east on Lake Meade blvd is an amazing 40 miles or so of unbelievable layers of all ages including many massive flood downbursts with huge pre cambrian boulders. Can parts of the ancestral Rockies remnants be actually in deep but visible layers as opposed to standing formations?

  15. If you have some time, watch "Is Genesis History?" - it talks about these parts in a different light. Maybe the real origin is explained differently.

  16. I am trying to understand where the sand came from of our aztec sandstone sandunes all over the southwest. Is it acurate to say that the sand came from all this washdown from the ancestral rockies into the various basins? and during the blowing apparently wind directions all over the place only the quartz sandgrains survived to make the sand dunes?

    1. Great question, Jeff! The Aztec came much later in the Jurassic than the sedimentary derivatives shed from the eroding Ancestrals in the Pennsylvanian-Permian. Recall that the proto-Rockies had many subranges such as the Uncompahgres. They shed sandstones to the south and southwest. The sediments of Monument Valley are an example. The Aztec, which is a local descriptive deposit of the Navaho Sandstone in southern Arizona, Nevada and California, possesses a zirconic signature of the Appalachians back East. River systems delivered the sandstones, shed from granite, to the northwest and winds distriubted the erg on the Colorado Plateau. Make sense?

  17. Yes thanks I had heard the Appalachian thing one time before but it is and was hard for me to fathom out that the floods and sand ended up a thousand or more miles away plus I picture the winds pretty much always blowing generally from the west towards the east so it is hard for me to understand. For instance there were several exposed uplifts in various places yet now I have to contemplate the washdown--and then combined with winds after things became hot and arid again--the sand ending up all the way over here. Thanks I will look up and analyze the info before it gets away..

    1. Jeff, Indeed there are so many things geological that are difficult to fathom! May I suggest "Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau" by Blakey and Ranney. The paleographic maps arranged chronologically will provide great visual reinforcement as to the evolution of both the Aztec and Navajo. And, by the way, thanks for visiting my blog!

  18. it arrives in a few hours but actually I want to home in more on your stuff. Ranney speaks highly of you and thats good enough for me. I would like to do a couple of cautious follow ups on the aztec sandstone such as how long it took for it to be laid down which my understanding is a few thousand years not millions and I understand that concept fully. (this part that follows is "quite a stretch") also there is one thing I might possibly ask that in the shinarump conglomerate and the other carnian conglomerate I have thought--that is floodstones washing down from the triassic sonomas and I pick and tumble the rocks which I view as as the dna of the triassic sonomas crushing in from the west. The layers I speak of for example are "crater hill" on the west side of zion. In which astonishing logs and everything are within the carnian gravels. These the same layers as all over of the carnian floods.

    1. You'll love the book. The text (alla Wayne Ranney) is a masterpiece, in my opinion, of simplicity and clarity. But for the Aztec-Navajo specifics, you'll have to dig deeper (no pun intended) into the literature. There's lots to read. As for the Shinarump, it's one of my favorite and enigmatic formations-submembers with its massive distribution and multi-source components.