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LittleCottonwoodCanyonoftheWasatchmountainsprovidesexposuresoftheprimary

geologic events of western North America over the past 850 million years. From the

accumulationofsedimentstolarge­scaleorogenesis,extension,andlaterglaciation,thiscanyon

hasbeenasiteofinterestforthestudyoftheseeventsbygeologistsfromaroundtheworld.

Ingeneral,therocksofLittleCottonwoodCanyondecreaseinagefromthebottomofthe

canyontothetop. ConsistentwiththistrendisanexposureoftheLittleWillowMetamorphic

Complexonthenorthsideatthecanyon’smouth,depositedabout750myaduringthebreakup

ofthesupercontinentRodinia (Harris,2011). LongbelievedtobemucholderPaleoproterozoic

basementrocks,andshownassuchonmanygeologicmaps,recentradiometricdatingofdetrital

zirconsrevealsthatinrealitythislayerisbutametamorphosedsegmentoftheBigCottonwood

formation,underwhichitlies (Spencer,2012).

TheLittleWillowFormationconsistsofbandedquartziteandmica­richschistoriginally

depositedassandstoneandshale. Thesesedimentarydepositsrepresentthebeginningof500

millionyearsofaccumulationinthisregion,assemblingseveralthousandfeetofrockalongthe

passivemarginsofthepost­RodiniaPanthalassicsea (Burke,2014). Locally,theUintarift

transectedtheshorelineofthisseaandprovidedabasinforgatheringthesesediments,which

weretransportedbyalargeriverfromtheeast (Spencer,2012). Becausesuchanaccumulation

ofsedimentisveryheavy,thecrustcontinuedtosinkasitwasthickened (Harris,2011).

AtoptheLittleWillowandBigCottonwoodcomplexesliestheMineralForkTillite,a

shalylayerembeddedwithglacialtill,depositedinacoldenvironmentinwhichglaciersmelted

intoabodyofwater. However,discordantbandsoflimestonefromawarm,shallowseaare

interbeddedwiththesecold­watertillites. Thispointstoadepositionaleraofclimaticextremes,

duringwhichtheCO2 ­holdingplantsofthetimearethecoldweatherculprits,andvolcanoes,

exhalingCO2 backintotheatmospherewhereitcanheattheplanet,aretheperpetratorsofwarm

weather. TheadventoftheCambrianexplosionbrokethiscyclewiththeconsistentexhalingof

CO2 by animals,andbroughtwithitthedepositsofPaleozoicrocksnowexposedinLittle

CottonwoodCanyon. TheTinticQuartzite,OphirShale,MaxfieldLimestone,andMississippian

periodlimestonesrepresentaclassictransgressivesequenceastheseamovedinlandalongthis

margin (Harris,2011).

FollowingtheendofthisdepositionthesupercontinentofPangeabeganitsassembly.

Tectonicplatemovementshifted,andby100myathegreatcompressionalforcesoftheSevier

Orogeny began acting upon thisoncepassivecontinentalmargin. Neatlystackedlayersof

sedimentbegannotonlycrumplingintoanelevatedmass,butbeingbrokenandshavedoffalong

theirweaklayersofshale,sothattheirentiresequenceswereultimatelystackedoneontopof

another. Across­sectionofthesesedimentsyieldsanexposureoftheserepeatinglayers,with

manysegmentsoverlyingthosewhichareyoungerby200millionyearsormore(Harris,2011).

Thisstackinghappenedalongtwodistincttransformfaults,firsttheGrizzly,andthenthe

Altathrusts. Itsbestexposuresareseenintheuppercanyon,wheretheentiretyofMt.Baldy

waspushedoverlayerswithwhichitoncelayinline,andonCardiffandFlagstaffpeaks,where

CambrianTinticquartzitebothrestsbelow,andsitsatop,thestarkwhiteMississippianlimestone

oftheHellgateCliffs (Harris,2011).

WhiletheeventsoftheSevierOrogenythickenedandfoldedthecrust,nosignificant

elevationwasgaineduntiltheLaramideOrogeny,whichbeganabout50myaandacteduponall

of western North America (Armstrong, 1965). Because the continental lithosphere was

under­riddenfarinlandbytheshallow­anglesubductionoftheoceaniccrust,itwasheatedand

subjectedtomuchgreaterdeformationandupliftthanbefore. Existingweaknesseswerefurther

exploitedbyintrusivemagmabodiesfrombelow,sothatbetween36­30myatheUintaRiftaxis

wasfilledwiththequartzmonzoniteoftheLittleCottonwoodStockandthegranodioriteofthe

AltaStock (Harris,2011).

Overlainatthetimebythousandsoffeetofsediment,theseigneousbodiescooledslowly

andformedlargecrystals. Theircontactaureolesbecamesitesforthecirculationofheated

solutionsofwater,carryingandeventuallydepositingconcentratedmineralswhichwerelater

extractedasore (Cook,2000). Identifiableasoxidationstainsonthelimestonesadjacentto

thesedeposits,thesemineralveinsultimatelybecamedifficultforminerstotracebecauseof

theirextensivefoldingandfaulting. Lead,copper,silverandgoldwereminednearAltafrom

1870to1938,atwhichtimethemininglandwasdonatedtotheForestServiceandutilizedfor

recreationalskiing (Harris,2011).

Following the Laramide Orogeny tectonic motion shiftedonceagain,andtheforces

whichoncepushedagainsttheedgeofthecontinentwerereleased. Thusbegantheextensionof

theBasinandRangeprovince,agradualspreadingofthisoncehigh,flatplateauintoalternating

peaksandvalleysacrosstheentirewesternUnitedStates. Locallythisspreadinghappensalong

the Wasatch Fault, which trends north­south in line with the westernedgeoftheWasatch

Mountains,andmarkstheeasternterminusoftheBasinandRangeextension (Cluff,1980).

AninterruptionintheWasatchfault’sorientationisfoundafewmilessouthofLittle

CottonwoodCanyonatthe“PointoftheMountain.” ThispointisinfactaprotrusionofLittle

Cottonwood stock through which the faultcouldnotcut,butinsteadmadeitswayaround.

Seventeenmillionyearsofactivityalongthisfaulthasoffsetthewesternblockby11km,ashift

happeningin1,300yearintervalsofabout2.5metersatatime. Theseperiodiclarge­scale

seismiceventsareevidencedintheterracedfaultscarpsofthelateralmorainesatthecanyon’s

mouth,whichshowthatthenextslipisimminent (Harris,2011).

Asthefaultspreadinghascontinuedwithitswesternblockdippingeverlower,theload

of sediments over the western foothills of the Wasatchmountainshasbeenreduced. This

focusedunloadingfacilitatesacrustalreboundintherocksalongtherange’swesternedge,and

hasresultedinthe25degreeeastwardtiltoftheirstrata. Thistilthasproducedhighermountain

peaksflankingthemouthofthecanyonthanthoseatitshead,contrarytoconventionalintuition.

Becausethefaultmarginatthelowercanyonexposesever­deeperrocks,theoldestlayersare

foundhere,thoughtheirexposuretimeisyoungerthanthosefurthereast (Harris,2011).

WiththecreationthusofabasinintheSaltLakevalley,arepositorywasnowavailable

forthematerialsbeingerodedoffofthesenewly­formedpeaks. Aswatercarriedawaymaterial

itbegantheprocessofcarvingcanyonsalongthetemplateofexistingcracks. InthiswayLittle

CottonwoodCanyonwasslowlyestablishedasadrainage,sothattheglaciationofourmost

recenticeagecouldfurthererodeitsmargins (Harris,2011).

Thecoldclimateandwetconditionsofthelasticeagelentthemselvestothedamming

andfillingofLakeBonneville,whosebordersstretchedfarbeyondtheSaltLakevalley,and

whoseancientshorelinesarestillvisibleasprominentbenchesalongthefoothills.(Utah)The

lakewasfullyformedby20,000yearsago,andforthenextseveralthousandyearstheglaciers

chokingLittleCottonwoodCanyonemptiedintoandfedthelake’sicywaters (Madsen,1979).

Aglacierisformedwhenabodyofpermanenticebeginscreepingdownhillunderthe

stressofitsownweight. Apositivefeedbackcycleoferosionbeginsastheicecontinually

addedtotheheadoftheglacierfreezestothesurroundingrocks,whichthendetachastheglacier

flowsaway. Thiscarvesoutanever­wideningcirqueattheglacier’shead,whichallowsforan

evengreaterbuild­upoficeduringsubsequentcycles. Wheretheheadsoftwocirquesmeet,

“horned”mountainsarecreated,connectedtoothersteep­sidedpeaksbynarrow­edgedaretes.

LonePeakandthePfeifferhornaretwosuchexamples (Harris,2011).

As a glacier flows downhill it continues to pluck rocks from the canyon’s walls,

providingevenmorematerialtocarveawayevenmorerock,whichintimecreatesaprominent

U­shapedvalley. Thetributaryglacierswhichoncelinedthecanyon’smaindrainageweremuch

smaller,andwerethereforeunabletocarvetherockasdeeply. Thiscreatedsteepescarpmentsat

theirconfluenceswiththemainglacier,backedbyflathangingvalleys,andobvioustodayto

skierswhosedownhillterrainalternatesfromsteep,toflat,tosteepagain (Harris,2011).

Becausethesouth­facingsideofthecanyonisexposedtomuchmoresunlightthanthe

north,largetributaryglaciersdidnotformalongitswalls,anderosionhasbeenminimal. Asa

result,theclimberstodaygototheleftsideoftheroad,andthehikersgototheright. The

hangingvalleysofthenorth­facingsidehaveallowedformorewatercollectionandinturn,more

soilbuildupandvegetation. Thesouth­facingsidehasmaintaineditssteepquartzmonzonite

walls. Depositsofglacialtillremainthroughoutthecanyon (Harris,2011).

Abillionyearsofgeologicprocesseshaveprovidedustodaywiththegeologicwonder,

naturalrefuge,andrecreationalplaygroundofLittleCottonwoodCanyon. Preservingthisland

inperpetuityisthekeytoourcontinuedenjoymentofit,andtoitsongoinghealth.