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FIELD TRIP STOP - Layer-cake Stratigraphy; Impact Crater


LOCATION: To the Island in the Sky entrance - From Moab drive 10 miles north on US 191, or from I-70 (Crescen Junction) drive south for 22 miles. Then turn onto US 313 southwest for 22 miles.  

GEOLOGIC FEATURES: Permian through Jurassic sedimentary layers; Unconformities; Meteor Impact structure; Canyon formation through erosion.

DESCRIPTION:  Canyonlands National Park is divided into 4 Districts only one of which is commonly visited, the Island in the Sky District located between the Colorado and Green Rivers in the northern part of the Park.  We will visit this part of the Park in addition to Dead Horse Point State Park which is located shortly beyond the northeast corner of the Park boundary.


Canyonlands N.P. is located about 30 miles south of Arches N.P. and for the most part exposes rocks older than at Arches. In the northern part of Canyonlands, from top (youngest) to bottom (oldest), the dominant rock formations are the Navajo SS (L.J.), Kayenta Fm. (L.J.), and Wingate SS (U. Tr to L. J).  Below these formations are the Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi Fms., followed by the Permian Cutler Group.  Unconformities border both the upper and lower contacts of the Moenkopi.


This Cutler Group is composed of the very resistant White Rim Sandstone, the Organ Rock Shale, Cedar Mesa Sandstone and Elephant Canyon Fm., the latter two being more prominently exposed in other Districts of the Park.  Rocks throughout Canyonlands are horizontal, or nearly so, with the exception of Upheaval Dome which has high-angled strata likely attributed to a Cretaceous meteor impact.


A broad loop in the Colorado River at Dead Horse Point State Park provides a beautiful exposure of the layercake stratigraphy of the area with rocks spanning the Lower Jurassic Navajo SS through the Permian Cutler Group. The Cutler at Dead Horse Point is assigned a Formational status (instead of a Group) and then simply divided into an Upper and Lower Member. not retaining the subdivisional names assigned further to the south within the confiines of the Park.


Uplift of the plateau and commencement of erosion is associated with the Laramide Orogeny (about 70 to 38 mya).  Environments represented by the rocks include evidence of Floodplains, Lakes, Rivers, and Sand Dunes. Within the Island in the Sky, the latter environment is found within the Navajo, Wingate, and White Rim Fms. whose cross-bedded outcroppings commonly form resistant cliffs.

Upheaval Dome: Most rocks within Canyonlands National Park are flat-lying sedimentary rock layers.  Rocks in the area of Upheaval Dome, however, are dramatically deformed.


The dome is located in the northwestern part of the Park.  It is a structural dome in which erosion of the rock layers above the dome caused the basin-like appearance of the present landform.  The structure is at least 3 miles across and over 1000 ft deep.


A dome is a geologic structure in which the center is uplifted compared to its surroundings. A transect parallel to the Earth’s surface exposes concentric rings of strata that appear as a bullseye and dip away from the center.  The oldest rocks are found near the center of the bullseye and get progressively younger towards the periphery.


Upheaval Dome itself possess 2 prominent concentric rings (or ridges) of resistant strata around a central bulge. The outermost ridge is composed of the Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone.  The innermost ring is formed of the Triassic to Jurassic Wingate Sandstone, the area between the ridges being underlain by the Jurassic Kayenta Fm.  Inside the inner ring are the Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi Fms.  In limited areas, rocks of the Permian Cutler Group can be distinguished. 


The origin of the Dome is speculative.  For a long time it was thought to be the result of a salt dome pushing upwards from the Pennsylvanian Paradox Fm.  The more commonly accepted explanation for this geologic structure is that of an impact crater resulting from the collision with a 1/3 mile diameter meteor about 60 mya.  The domal structure would be the result of the fractured rock layers rebounding upward.


(1) Sediments of the Wingate Sandstone are clear quartz yet the rock color can be reddish.  Why might this be so?

(2) Why is red coloration often associated with rocks whose origin is of a non-marine environment (e.g. floodplain, river)

(3) Why are sandstones more likely to be well-cemented than mudstones or shales?

(4) On what basis(es) are rock “formations” distinguished from one another?

(5) How did the canyons of Canyonlands N.P. form?

(6) How did Candlestick Tower form?

(7) Draw a series of several sketches showing how Candlestick Tower will change over the next few million years.

(8) CHALLENGE: What initial evidence led some investigators to propose an origin of Upheaval Dome caused by salt?

(9) CHALLENGE: What was one of the main pieces of evidence for a meteor impact origin for the crater at Upheaval Dome? (Hint: It involves the quartz minerals within the rocks.)

(10) CHALLENGE: Why do some rivers meander?


-Chidsey, Jr., Thomas C. and Hellmut H. Doelling. 2019. Dead Horse Point, Southeastern Utah. Utah Geological Association Publication 48, 17 pp. Accessed on June 14, 2024 from

-Chidsey, Jr., Thomas C. and Hellmut H. Doelling. 2019. Green River Overlook, Island In The Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Southeastern Utah, Utah Geological Association Publication 48, 12 pp. Accessed on June 14, 2024 from

-Doelling, Hellmut and Thomas Chidsey. 2000. Dead Horse Point State Park and Vicinity Geologic Road Logs, Grand and San Juan Counties, Utah. Utah Geological Association Publication 29, 38 pp. Accessed on June 14, 2023 from

-Harris, A. and E. Tuttle. 1983 (3rd ed). Geology of the National Parks. Kendal/Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque, IO, 554 pp.

-Harris, David V. and Eugene P. Kiver. 1985 (4th ed.). The Geologic Story of the National Parks and Monuments. John Wiley and Sons, New York, 464 pp.

-Huntoon, Jacqueline and Russell Dubiel. 2000. Geologic Road Guide to the Shafer Trail,  Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Utah Geological Association Publication 29, 15 pp. Accessed on June 15, 2023 from

-NASA Earth Observatory.  Upheaval Dome, Utah. Accessed on June 14, 2023 from

-National Park Service. Geology. Canyonlands National Park. Accessed on June 14. 2023 from

-National Park Service. Upheaval Dome. Canyonlands National Park. Accessed on June 14, 2023 from

-USGS. The Geologic Story of Canyonlands National Park. Geological Survey Bulletin 1327. Accessed on June 14, 2023 from

-USGS. Geology of Canyonlands National Park. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed on June 14. 2023 from

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FIGURE A - Figure illustrates the main Island in the Sky District.

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FIGURE B - Figure illustrates the 3 major Districts of the Park: The Island in the Sky, Needles, and Maze Districts.


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Figure 1 - Dead Horse Point.  Located just beyond the upper boundary of Canyonlands, this overlook (found within Dead Horse Point State Park) illustrates the Lower Permian Cutler Fm. (Upper Member, Lower Member, and White Rim Sandstone), Triassic Moenkopi and Chinle Fms., Triassic to Lower Jurassic Wingate Sandstone, and Lower Jurassic Kayenta Fm.

                                  (See a video of this outcrop at

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Figure 2 -  Shafer Canyon.  About a mile past the Visitor Center is the first roadside pullover, Shafer Canyon. 

Within immediate view the rocks within the Canyon proper vary between the Triassic Chinle Fm and the lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone.  (Upper Permian Rocks are found further down the road.)

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Figure 3 -  From here, Shafer Canyon Rd (= Shafer Trail) begins its 1500 ft descent. The Moenkopi and White Rim Sandstone are visible at lower elevations. The road, accessible in part through the use of a 4 wheel drive vehicle, can be followed 39 miles all the way to Moab, UT.

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Figure 4 - Shafer Canyon. Uplift during the Laramide Orogeny initiated the process of erosion that carved to present topography.

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Figure 5 -  Shafer Canyon.  The Canyon's Overlook is capped by the Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone.  Here we see the crossbedded strata indicative of sand dunes.

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Figure 6 - Grand View Point.  At this overlook you are standing on the top of a cliff composed of the Kayenta Fm. .  The wide bench at the base of the cliff is underlain by the Lower Permian White Rim Sandstone of the Cutler Group as it makes an unconformable contact with the Triassic Moenkopi Fm.  The Organ Rock Shale is found below the White Rim.

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Figure 7 - Grand View Point. The reddish sediment of the Moenkopi lies directly on the large platform formed by the White Rim Sandstone. Above the Moenkopi is the crumbly slope of the Chinle Fm which is topped by the steep cliffs of the Wingate Sandstone to be capped by the Kayenta Fm. 


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Figure 8 -  Grand View Point. Below the White Rim Sandstone is the dark red Organ Rock Fm. that makes up the pinnacles and columns of Monument Valley. The White Rim Sandstone lies about 13-1400 ft below the viewpoint which itself is 6,080 ft in elevation. The Colorado River lies in the distance but is not visible from the Point.  The distant Arajo Mts lie 35 miles to the southeast of the viewpoint.

                          (See a short video clip of Grand View Point at

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Figure 9 - Buck Canyon. Found just north of the Grand View overlook, we see rock exposures similar to those found at Grand View.

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Figure 10 - Candlestick Tower Overlook.  Easily photographed from a roadside pullover, Candlestick Tower is a 450 ft. erosional remnant of the relatively   resistant Triassic-Jurassic Wingate Sandstone. The tower lies on the gentle slopes of the red Triassic Chinle Fm.  The whitish Kayenta Fm. appears in the foreground.

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Figure 11 - Green River Overlook. Here, the nearby Green River flows through Stillwater Canyon.  The Canyon is rimmed by the Permian White Rim Sandstone. This is underlain by the red-brown Organ Rock Fm.  The red Moenkopi is present in the foreground.  Above the Moenkopi and seen in the distance are the Triassic Chinle Fm. and cliff-forming Wingate Fm. exposed within Ekker Butte in the upper left of center of the photo. The Kayenta and Navajo Fms. are also present near the Overlook.  Thickness of the Organ Rock to Navajo sequence is 3000 ft.

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Figure 12 - Aerial photograph of Upheaval Dome illustrating its bullseye structure. The central part of the structure is composed of Permian through Triassic rock (Cutler, Moenkopi and Chinle Fms.). The inner ring of resistant rock is the Triassic to Jurassic Wingate Sandstone. The Syncline Loop trail is underlain by the Kayenta Fm.  The outer ring is formed from the Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. 


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Figure C - Cross-section through Upheaval Dome showing the anticlinal (domal) geologic structure seen in Figure 12 above.

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Figure 13 - Upheaval Dome. Photograph taken from the First Overlook (see Figure 12) which is floored by the Wingate Sandstone.. The wall in the upper third of the photo is the same Wingate Sandstone but found on the opposite side of the inner ring.  An exposure of the Navajo Sandstone can be seen in the upper left of the photo through a notch in the inner ring. The central rocks (red and white) in the center of the structure are mainly the Triassic Moenkopi and Chinle Fm.

             (A video clip of Upheaval Dome can be viewed at

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Figure 14 - Photograph taken from the First Overlook (see Figure 12). The wall in the upper third of the photo is of the Wingate Sandstone.  An exposure of the Navajo Sandstone can be seen in the upper left of the photo through a notch in the inner ring.

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Figure 15 - Upheaval Dome. A slightly wider view from the First Overlook,

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