Yosemite is a glaciated landscape, and the scenery that resulted from the interaction of the glaciers and the underlying rocks was the basis for its preservation as a national park. Iconic landmarks such as Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy, Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls, Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, the Clark Range, and the Cathedral Range are known throughout the world by the photographs of countless photographers, both amateur and professional. Landforms that are the result of glaciation include U-shaped canyons, jagged peaks, rounded domes, waterfalls, and moraines. Glacially-polished granite is further evidence of glaciation, and is common in Yosemite National Park.
Although many geologists have worked in Yosemite, beginning with the amateur geologist John Muir and his studies of remnant glaciers, Dr. King Huber of the U.S. Geological Survey has authored the definitive works on the geology of Yosemite National Park. In The Geologic Story of Yosemite National Park (Yosemite Association, 1989), Dr. Huber provides a clear and concise overview of the rocks, the landscape, and the processes that formed the landscape:
Topographically, the Sierra Nevada is an asymmetric mountain range with a long, gentle west slope and a short, steep east escarpment that culminates in the crest of the Sierra Nevada. It is 50 to 80 miles wide and extends in altitude from near sea level along its west edge to more than 13,000 feet along the crest in the Yosemite area, and more than 14,000 feet along the crest in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon area. The highest peak in the Sierra Nevada, and in the continental United States, can be found to the south: Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park. Geologically, the Sierra Nevada is a huge block of the Earth's crust that has broken free on the east along a bounding fault system and has been uplifted and tilted westward. This combination of uplift and tilt, which is the underlying geologic process that created the present range, is still going on today.
Layered metamorphic rocks in the foothills at the west edge of the park and along the eastern margin in the summit area are remnants of ancient sedimentary and volcanic rocks that were deformed and metamorphosed in part by the invading granitic intrusions. Other metamorphic rocks that once formed the roof beneath which the granitic rocks solidified were long ago eroded away to expose the granitic core of the range, and only small isolated remnants are left. Because Yosemite is centered on this deeply dissected body of granite, metamorphic rocks are sparse; they occupy less than 5 percent of the area of the park.
As the world grew colder, beginning about 2 or 3 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada had risen high enough for glaciers and a mountain icefield to form periodically along the range crest. When extensive, the icefield covered much of the higher Yosemite area and sent glaciers down many of the valleys. Glacial ice quarried loose and transported vast volumes of rubble, and used it to help scour and modify the landscape. Much of this debris eventually accumulated along the margins of the glaciers and in widely distributed, hummocky piles. The greatest bulk of this debris, however, was flushed out of the Sierra to the Central Valley by streams swollen with meltwater formerly stored in the glaciers as ice and released as the glaciers melted away.
Although many of today's general landforms existed before modification by glacial action, some of them surely did not. Can you imagine the Yosemite landscape with no lakes? Virtually all the innumerable natural lakes in the park are the result of glacial activity. But even these lakes are transitory, doomed to be filled with sediment and become meadows; many lakes already have undergone this transformation. Yosemite Valley itself once contained a lake.The geologic story of Yosemite National Park can be considered in two parts: (1) deposition and deformation of the metamorphic rocks and emplacement of the granitic rocks during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic; and (2) later uplift, erosion, and glaciation of the rocks during the Cenozoic to form today's landscape.
The vast majority of Yosemite is comprised of plutonic igneous rocks. Plutonic rock forms deep underground when molten rock cools and solidifies very slowly, allowing large crystals to form. In contrast, volcanic igneous rocks form at the surface when molten rock cools and solidifies quickly, resulting in small crystals. Granite, granodiorite, tonalite, quartz monzonite, and quartz monzodiorite are all forms of plutonic rock that are found in Yosemite, and are loosely referred to as granitic rocks. Quartz diorite, diorite and gabbro are plutonic rocks found in Yosemite, but are not technically considered to be granitic rocks. Plutonic rocks are primarily comprised of 5 minerals: quartz, potassium feldspar, plagioclase feldspar, biotite, and hornblende. Plutonic rocks, including granitic rocks, differ primarily in the relative proportions of quartz and feldspar, although texture is also an important consideration. The plutonic rocks were generally formed during the Cretaceous period.
Volcanic igneous rocks are erupted onto the Earth's surface and cool/solidify much more quickly that plutonic igneous rocks. There are small amounts of volcanic igneous rocks within Yosemite and large amounts east of the Sierra Nevada Crest. The volcanic rocks inside the park include basalt flows, latite tuff, and latite lava flows. The volcanic rocks outside the park include these same rocks as well as ash-flow tuff, rhyolite, pumice, obsidian, etc. The Mono Craters, east and southeast of the park, are volcanoes that erupted 3,000 to 550 years before present. The Inyo Craters, southeast of the park, are volcanoes that erupted 40,000 to 3,000 years before present.
An episode of Yosemite Nature Notes covers Yosemite's granitic rocks.
Learn more about Yosemite's geology:
Did You Know?
In March 1987, the largest historical rockfall in Yosemite National Park deposited an estimated 1.5 million tons of debris at the base of Three Brothers, closing Northside Drive for several months.