Field Guide to Plutons, Volcanoes, Faults, Reefs, Dinosaurs, and Possible Glaciation in Selected Areas of Arizona, California, and Nevada

Edited by Ernest M. Duebendorfer and Eugene I. Smith


This guidebook, prepared in conjunction with the 2008 joint meeting of the GSA Cordilleran and Rocky Mountain Sections, contains background information and road logs for eleven field trips in Nevada, Arizona, and California. Southern Nevada and adjoining areas contain a rich geologic history spanning the interval from the Paleoproterozoic to the present. Las Vegas lies at or near several critical geological junctures and localities including the structural boundary between the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range, the physiographic boundary between the Great Basin and the southern Basin and Range, the eastern margin of the Sevier fold-and-thrust belt, the tectonically active Death Valley area, tilted and faulted volcanic-plutonic systems exposing the upper part of the crust, and the enigmatic “amagmatic zone.” With guides in this volume spanning the geologic record from the Ediacaran (late Neoproterozoic) to the Holocene, covering ground from the middle crust to the surface, and looking at topics from tectonics to paleontology, volcanism to glaciation, this volume offers something for everyone.

  1. Page 1

    This field trip will visit the River Mountains volcanic section (12.17 ± 0.02 to 13.45 ± 0.02 Ma) and Wilson Ridge pluton (13.10 ± 0.11 Ma) in southern Nevada and northwestern Arizona. Although this volcanic-plutonic system was disrupted by the Saddle Island detachment fault during Miocene crustal extension, there are convincing lithological, mineralogical, geochemical and geochronological indicators that suggest a cogenetic relationship. The trip consists of 17 stops that emphasize evidence that links the volcanic and plutonic sections. In addition we will visit the Saddle Island detachment fault at its type locality on Saddle Island.

  2. Page 21

    In central Nevada, a series of angular unconformities records protracted orogenic activity between middle Mississippian and late Permian time. These unconformities are regional, and can be correlated with lithofacies boundaries at their distal edges. Both the unconformities and the tectonically created sedimentary basins they bound are best expressed in a north-south belt of localities from Winnemucca south to the Las Vegas area.

    This paper briefly describes seven localities where rocks display both structural and stratigraphic features related to one or more of these unconformities and their related tectonic events. At Edna Mountain, the record is both stratigraphic and structural, and is mostly from the Pennsylvanian. At Carlin Canyon, we will look at both Mississippian and Pennsylvanian folding, thrusting, and unconformities. In the Diamond Range, we will see evidence that Pennsylvanian folding is regionally important. At Secret Canyon, the record is mostly of Permian deformation and sedimentation. In the Hot Creek Range, we will see southern versions of Mississippian stratigraphy, and thrusting that is late Paleozoic in age. In the Timpahute Mountains, complex faulting is also believed to be late Paleozoic.

  3. Page 43

    The eastern California shear zone is an important component of the Pacific–North America plate boundary. This region of active, predominantly strike-slip, deformation east of the San Andreas fault extends from the southern Mojave Desert along the east side of the Sierra Nevada and into western Nevada. The eastern California shear zone is thought to accommodate nearly a quarter of relative plate motion between the Pacific and North America plates. Recent studies in the region, utilizing innovative methods ranging from cosmogenic nuclide geochronology, airborne laser swath mapping, and ground penetrating radar to geologic mapping, geochemistry, and U-Pb, 40Ar/39Ar, and (U-Th)/He geochronology, are helping elucidate slip rate and displacement histories for many of the major structures that comprise the eastern California shear zone. This field trip includes twelve stops along the Lenwood, Garlock, Owens Valley, and Fish Lake Valley faults, which are some of the primary focus areas for new research. Trip participants will explore a rich record of the spatial and temporal evolution of the eastern California shear zone from 83 Ma to the late Holocene through observations of offset alluvial deposits, lava flows, key stratigraphic markers, and igneous intrusions, all of which are deformed as a result of recurring seismic activity. Discussion will focus on the constancy (or non-constancy) of strain accumulation and release, the function of the Garlock fault in accommodating deformation in the region, total cumulative displacement and timing of offset on faults, the various techniques used to determine fault displacements and slip rates, and the role of the eastern California shear zone as a nascent segment of the Pacific–North America plate boundary.

  4. Page 83

    Esmeralda County, Nevada, is extraordinary for the presence of Ediacaran and early Cambrian reefs at several stratigraphic positions. In this road log and field guide we present descriptions and interpretations of the most instructive exposures of three of these reef-rich intervals: (1) the Mount Dunfee section of the Middle Member of the Deep Spring Formation (Ediacaran in age), (2) the Stewart's Mill exposure of the Lower Member of the Poleta Formation (mid-early Cambrian), and (3) an exposure on the north flank of Slate Ridge of reefs near the top of the Harkless Formation (latest early Cambrian). We introduce the term “congruent ecosystems” for ecosystems of different age that occupied similar environments. The Ediacaran reefs of the Deep Spring Formation and the early Cambrian reefs of the Lower Member of the Poleta Formation occupied similar environments but exhibit distinctively different ecological structure. Thus we propose these two reef complexes as our premier example of non-congruent communities within congruent ecosystems.

  5. Page 101

    This field guide describes a two-and-one-half day transect, from east to west across southern California, from the Colorado River to the San Andreas fault. Recent geochronologic results for rocks along the transect indicate the spatial and temporal relationships between subarc and retroarc shortening and Cordilleran arc magmatism. The transect begins in the Jurassic(?) and Cretaceous Maria retroarc fold-and-thrust belt, and continues westward and structurally downward into the Triassic to Cretaceous magmatic arc. At the deepest structural levels exposed in the southwestern part of the transect, the lower crust of the Mesozoic arc has been replaced during underthrusting by the Maastrichtian and/or Paleocene Orocopia schist.

  6. Page 119

    In northwest Arizona, the relatively unextended Colorado Plateau gives way abruptly to the highly extended Colorado River extensional corridor within the Basin and Range province along a system of major west-dipping normal faults, including the Grand Wash fault zone and South Virgin–White Hills detachment fault. Large growth-fault basins developed in the hanging walls of these faults. Lowering of base level in the corridor facilitated development of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. This trip explores stratigraphic constraints on the timing of deformation and paleogeographic evolution of the region. Highlights include growth-fault relations that constrain the timing of structural demarcation between the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range, major fault zones, synextensional megabreccia deposits, nonmarine carbonate and halite deposits that immediately predate arrival of the Colorado River, and a basalt flow interbedded with Colorado River sediments.

    Structural and stratigraphic relations indicate that the current physiography of the Colorado Plateau–Basin and Range boundary in northwest Arizona began developing ca. 16 Ma, was essentially established by 13 Ma, and has changed little since ca. 8 Ma. The antiquity and abruptness of this boundary, as well as the stratigraphic record, suggest significant headward erosion into the high-standing plateau in middle Miocene time. Thick late Miocene evaporite and lacustrine deposits indicate that a long period of internal drainage followed the onset of extension. The widespread distribution of such deposits may signify, however, a large influx of surface waters and/or groundwater from the Colorado Plateau possibly from a precursor to the Colorado River. Stratigraphic relations bracket arrival of a through-flowing Colorado River between 5.6 and 4.4 Ma.

  7. Page 153

    There is a long history of debate over glacial versus non-glacial interpretations of both Quaternary and pre-Quaternary diamicts in various places around the world, and the Spring Mountains in southern Nevada are the site of one such debate. Here the debate focuses not only on Quaternary diamicts, but also on landforms and erosional features. The deposits and geomorphic features in question will be examined on this field trip.

    The Spring Mountains are developed in a fault block in the southern Basin and Range Province; elevations range from ~4000 ft (1220 m) at the eastern base to 11,918 ft (3634 m) at Charleston Peak. The range is farther south than any other glaciated range in Nevada; however, the glaciated San Gorgonio Mountains on the border of the Basin and Range in California are farther south, though in a much more maritime position. The Spring Mountains lie in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada; rainfall increases from ~4 in (10 cm) per year in the Las Vegas Valley to ~20 in (50 cm) per year at the crest of the range.

    A published interpretation of sedimentary and geomorphic features at the head of Kyle Canyon claims that steep valley heads of Kyle Canyon and Big Falls wash are degraded cirques, that a ridge at the mouth of Big Falls wash is a lateral moraine, and that diamicts exposed in the ridge include glacial till. An alternative view is that the “cirques” are normal valley heads as are found in high-relief desert ranges, that the “lateral moraine” owes some of its ridge character to erosion along Big Falls wash and may originally have been a debris flow levee or a protalus rampart, and that the “till” is actually colluvium. Abundant clast striations constitute a key element of the glacial interpretation, and much rests on whether glacial striations can be distinguished from mass movement striations.

  8. Page 173

    The San Francisco Volcanic Field, located in northeastern Arizona, is host to over 600 volcanoes. These volcanoes began erupting approximately 6 million years ago in the western portion of the field and through time, the locus of activity has migrated eastward. Eruptive products range from basalt to rhyolite, with basalt dominant. Pleistocene vents include Merriam Crater and two associated cinder cones as well as The Sproul, a spatter rampart. One, or several, of these vents produced the Grand Falls flow which spilled over into the Little Colorado River gorge and flowed both up and downstream. Lava filled the canyon producing a dam and continued to flow ~ 1 km beyond the eastern rim. This changed the course of the river creating the waterfall at Grand Falls. Quaternary volcanism began as a fissure eruption that culminated with the building of Sunset Crater cinder cone. The eruption, which produced a blanket of tephra and two lava flows, was most certainly witnessed by the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians and had a dramatic impact on their lives. The eruption may have caused a shift in population to places such as Wupatki, 30 km to the north, where farming in the arid climate may have been temporarily enhanced by a thin layer of ash that acted as a water-retaining mulch.

    Melts that produced these dominantly basaltic cinder cones were derived by variable amounts of partial melting of an oceanic island basalt–like mantle source that underwent differing degrees of contamination from the lower crust. Subsequent fractional crystallization of olivine ° clinopyroxene further modified these melts. Discrete packets of these melts ascended rapidly to produce short-lived volcanic events in the eastern San Francisco Volcanic Field.

    The purpose of this field trip is to examine these young cinder cones and their eruptive products in an effort to understand the origin of the eruptions as well as the effects they had on the physiography and native inhabitants of the area.

  9. Page 187

    Extreme extension along the Colorado River has exposed the shallow to mid-crustal Spirit Mountain batholith and the roots of the roughly coeval Secret Pass Canyon volcanic center. Examination of the Spirit Mountain batholith reveals evidence for multiple replenishment and rejuvenation over a two million year period (ca. 17.5−15.3 Ma), with extensive coarse cumulate granites and leucogranite (high-silica rhyolites) sheets, mafic-felsic mingling and mixing, and a major dike swarm. The roots of the possibly related Secret Pass Canyon volcanic center comprise a large, very shallow, composite laccolith and smaller dikes, sills, and a volcanic neck. The volcanic sequence was emplaced within about a one million year period (ca. 18.5–17.3 Ma) and includes volcanogenic sediments, ignimbrites, domes, and block-and-ash flow deposits. An appended road log serves as a geologic guide to this magmatic region.

  10. Page 215

    Devonian limestone and dolostone formations are superbly exposed in numerous mountain ranges of southeastern Nevada. The Devonian is as thick as 1500 m there and reveals continuous exposures of a classic, long-lived, shallow-water carbonate platform. This field guide provides excursions to Devonian outcrops easily reached from the settlement of Alamo, Nevada, ~100 mi (~160 km) north of Las Vegas. Emphasis is on carbonate-platform lithostratigraphy, but includes overviews of the conodont biochronology that is crucial for regional and global correlations. Field stops include traverses in several local ranges to study these formations and some of their equivalents, in ascending order: Lower Devonian Sevy Dolostone and cherty argillaceous unit, Lower and Middle Devonian Oxyoke Canyon Sandstone, Middle Devonian Simonson Dolostone and Fox Mountain Formation, Middle and Upper Devonian Guilmette Formation, and Upper Devonian West Range Limestone. Together, these formations are mainly composed of hundreds of partial to complete shallowing-upward Milankovitch-scale cycles and are grouped into sequences bounded by regionally significant surfaces. Dolomitization in the Sevy and Simonson appears to be linked to exposure surfaces and related underlying karst intervals. The less-altered Guilmette exhibits characteristic shallowing-upward limestone-to-dolostone cycles that contain typical carbonate-platform fossil- and ichnofossil-assemblages, displays stacked biostromes and bioherms of flourishing stromatoporoids and sparse corals, and is punctuated by channeled quartzose sandstones. The Guilmette also contains a completely exposed ~50-m-thick buildup that is constructed mainly of stromatoporoids, with an exposed and karstified crest. This buildup exemplifies such Devonian structures known from surface and hydrocarbon-bearing subsurface locations worldwide. Of special interest is the stratigraphically anomalous Alamo Breccia that represents the middle member of the Guilmette. This spectacular cataclysmic megabreccia, produced by the Alamo Impact Event, is as thick as 100 m and may be the best exposed proven bolide impact breccia on Earth. It contains widespread intervals generated by the seismic shock, ejecta curtain, tsunami surge, and runoff generated by a major marine impact. Newly interpreted crater-rim impact stratigraphy at Tempiute Mountain contains an even thicker stack of impact breccias that are interpreted as parautochthonous, injected, fallback, partial melt, resurge, and possibly post-Event crater fill.

  11. Page 249

    This field trip covers sedimentological and paleontological research being conducted on the Jurassic Aztec Sandstone and Lower Cretaceous Willow Tank Formation in Valley of Fire State Park. Valley of Fire State Park is located in southern Nevada, just outside of the town of Overton. The Jurassic Aztec Sandstone is equivalent to the Navajo and Nugget Sandstones; these formations together record an aerially large erg complex along the western margin of North America during the time of deposition. Invertebrate and vertebrate ichnofossils are not uncommon in portions of these Jurassic formations.

    The Willow Tank Formation is composed of the deposits of both a braided and anastomosed fluvial system. This system drained off the paleohigh of the Sevier fold and thrust front to the west, during Early Cretaceous time. Recently a diverse vertebrate assemblage has been discovered from this formation. The fauna of the Willow Tank Formation are similar to other Early Cretaceous faunas from western North America. The vertebrate remains recovered include three taxa of fish, three to four taxa of turtle, crocodilian, iguanodontian, thyreophoran, dromaeosaur, tyrannosauroid, two theropod ootaxa, and a titanosauriform. In addition to the vertebrate elements, two fern morphotypes have been found. Through the course of this field trip participants will see extensive exposures of Aztec Sandstone, including vertebrate ichnofossils. Participants will also hike to vertebrate bearing-beds of the Willow Tank Formation.

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