NPS Geodiversity Atlas—Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Geodiversity refers to the full variety of natural geologic (rocks, minerals, sediments, fossils, landforms, and physical processes) and soil resources and processes that occur in the park. A product of the Geologic Resources Inventory, the NPS Geodiversity Atlas delivers information in support of education, Geoconservation, and integrated management of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) components of the ecosystem.

canyonlands report cover with desert landscape image
In-depth geologic information is contained in the baseline inventory products of the Geologic Resources Inventory, see table below.


Canyonlands National Park was established to preserve the striking geologic landscapes and associated ecosystems and the magnificent scenic, scientific, and cultural features of the area around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers in southeastern Utah.

The rivers divide the park into three districts. The Needles District is located east of the Colorado River, the Maze District is west of the rivers, and the Island in the Sky District is between the two rivers, with its mesa top standing high above the canyons below it.

Canyonlands National Park’s superlative geologic resources include its well-exposed section of late Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks and its classic landforms formed by arid-land erosion.

Geologic Significance & Geodiversity Highlights

Canyonlands National Park’s 527 square miles (1,365 km2) contain some of the most scenic lands in the American southwest and encompass a wide array of erosional landforms including canyons, natural arches, rock alcoves, mesas, buttes, and spires. The park is known for its miles of red rock cliffs, soaring rock alcoves and domes, rounded rock spires in the Needles District and the Maze District’s Doll House, and enigmatic features such as Upheaval Dome. It is not nearly as deep as Grand Canyon, but its quintessential canyon landscapes rival those of the better-known park.

Canyonlands National Park offers scenic vistas, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and rough four-wheel drive roads as well as outstanding opportunities for solitude, natural quiet, and contemplation of the geologic events that have shaped the planet.


Canyonlands National Park contains a wide variety of sedimentary rock types including sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, limestone, and bedded gypsum. But sandstone is the most prevalent rock type in the park. Most of the park’s prominent landscape features are made of sandstone. Specifically, eolian sandstones (e.g., those made of grains transported and deposited by the wind) dominate the park. Important eolian units exposed in Canyonlands include Cedar Mesa, White Rim, Wingate, and Navajo sandstones.

Young Erosional Landscape

The cliffs, canyons, natural arches, alcoves, mesas, buttes, and rock spires that make up the landscape of Canyonlands National Park are all extremely young erosional features.

The park is located within the part of the Colorado Plateau that is undergoing very rapid erosion, with the current landscape most likely being carved during the last few million years.

Paleontological Resources

With its rock record spanning from the late Paleozoic to the Mesozoic and with diverse depositional environments, Canyonlands National Park has a rich fossil record.

Most of the rock units exposed in the park contain fossils. Marine invertebrate fossils including brachiopods, crinoids, bryozoans, corals, and rare vertebrate fossils have been found in the Paleozoic units, especially the Honaker Trail Formation and lower Cutler beds, as well as some Mesozoic rocks.

The Chinle Formation is the most fossiliferous of Canyonlands’ Mesozoic units. Petrified wood is common in the Chinle, and the unit also contains other plant fossils, as well as invertebrate and vertebrate fossils.

Pleistocene packrat middens in alcoves and overhangs are present in the park and may contain pollen, invertebrate, and other fossils.

Other fossils found in Canyonlands National Park include:

  • Cedar Mesa Sandstone: Root traces and burrows

  • Moenkopi Formation: Marine invertebrate fossils and swimming trackways

  • Kayenta Formation: Dinosaur tracks

All NPS fossil resources are protected under the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-11, Title VI, Subtitle D; 16 U.S.C. §§ 470aaa - 470aaa-11).

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Geologic Setting

Canyonlands National Park is located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, one of 25 physiographic provinces in the contiguous United States. The Colorado Plateau has an overall high elevation, thick continental crust, and has experienced relatively little structural deformation. The arid to semiarid environment as well as the immense erosional power of the Colorado and Green rivers and their tributaries has led to excellent exposures of sedimentary rock units in the park.

Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau covers approximately 130,000 square miles (337,000 km2) across the Four Corner states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The greatest concentration of national park sites in the country, including 30 units of the National Park System, is found on the Colorado Plateau.

The Colorado Plateau is divided into six sections, each with a distinctive character. Canyonlands is within the Canyon Lands section of the Colorado Plateau, which is dominated by gently tilted sedimentary rock layers that have been intricately carved into canyons.

The Colorado Plateau has a complex geologic history and experienced multiple periods of uplift. Much of the uplift of the Canyonlands region occurred during the Laramide orogeny, a mountain-building event that impacted most of the interior west, between 70 and 40 million years ago. Unlike the neighboring Rocky Mountains, the Colorado Plateau was relatively undeformed, experiencing general uplift and the formation of broad upwarps throughout the region. One of these folds, the Monument uplift, extends into the park from the south and tapers out a bit north of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

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Geologic History and Stratigraphy

Rocks exposed in Canyonlands National Park were deposited between about 310 and 160 million years ago (late Paleozoic through the Mesozoic eras) in both marine and continental environments spanning the time period when the Ancestral Rocky Mountains (to the northeast of the park) that were formed during the Pennsylvanian and Permian were eroding away during subsequent time periods.

The geologic history of the greater Canyonlands region changed dramatically with the onset of the Laramide Orogeny, the mountain building event that formed the Rocky Mountains and uplifted the Colorado Plateau. The erosional events that formed the park’s landforms are very recent, occurring within the last few million years. Incision by the Green and Colorado rivers and evolution of the Canyonlands landscape occurred after the river system established its course to the Gulf of California.

Paleozoic Era

Paleozoic rock units exposed in Canyonlands National Park include (from oldest to youngest):

Mesozoic Era

Mesozoic rock units exposed in Canyonlands National Park include (from oldest to youngest):

Cenozoic Era

The Cenozoic geologic history of the Canyonlands region is strikingly different than its previous geologic history. Instead of being part of depositional basins, as it was throughout much of the Late Paleozoic and Mesozoic, southeastern Utah was impacted by the tectonic and erosional events that have shaped the entire Intermountain West, and ultimately led to the formation of the dramatic canyon scenery that the park was established to protect.

Geologic Features and Processes

Needles District

The Needles District is named for the rock spires made of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone that are the dominant feature of the park east of the Colorado River. There, two sets of rock fractures (joints) intersect at roughly right angles. Erosion and widening of these joint sets have left free-standing rock spires and toadstool-shaped rocks. Rock spires form in areas where the Cedar Mesa Sandstone has a more uniform resistance to erosion, and toadstools form where a more resistant layer is undercut by more erosive strata underneath it.

Rock Layers/Stratigraphy

(Oldest to youngest)

  • Honaker Trail Formation: Limestone, sandstone, and shale beds exposed in Cataract Canyon.

  • Lower Cutler beds: Limestone and sandstone layers exposed in some of the district’s deeper canyons and in upper part of the walls of Cataract Canyon.

  • Cedar Mesa Sandstone: The predominant rock unit of the Needles District where it has been eroded into canyons with slickrock divides and the district’s eponymous rock spires.

Places and Geomorphology

Island in the Sky District

The Island in the Sky District contains nearly the complete stratigraphic section found in Canyonlands National Park. It has outcrops of the Honaker Trail Formation in the deepest parts of the canyons just above the rivers to the Navajo Sandstone on the mesa top. It has the most stereotypical canyon country landforms of cliffs and slopes leading from the canyon rim of the Island in Sky mesa top to the Colorado River below of any of the three Canyonlands districts.

Although it looks like a mesa when viewed from the Needles District, the Island in the Sky is not a true mesa as it is connected by a narrow spit of land (the Neck) to the rest of the high plateau to the north.

Rock Layers/Stratigraphy

  • Organ Rock Formation: Dark red thinly bedded sandstones and conglomerates exposed underneath the White Rim Sandstone.

  • White Rim Sandstone: Resistant white eolian sandstone that forms a broad bench approximately halfway between the Island in the Sky mesa and the rivers below.

  • Moenkopi Formation: The lower portion of the slopes above the White Rim leading up to the Island in the Sky mesa. Except where it has been bleached by hydrocarbons during diagenesis, the Moenkopi is deep red in color. Nearly ubiquitous ripple marks are the unit’s signature feature.

  • Chinle Formation: Colorful siltstones and ledgey sandstones make up the upper section of the slopes beneath the Island in the Sky cliffs.

  • Wingate Sandstone: Cliff-forming eolian sandstone usually cut by prominent vertical jointing that together with the Kayenta Formation form the Island in the Sky.

  • Kayenta Formation: Fluvial sandstones that make up the ledgey upper part of the Island in the Sky cliffs.

  • Navajo Sandstones: Forms white sandstone domes on the Island in the Sky mesa top.

Places and Geomorphology

Maze District

The Maze District is the most rugged and remote section of Canyonlands National Park. Accessible only via difficult four-wheel drive roads or on foot, the Maze District is mostly made of a series of intricate side canyons with steep slickrock walls made of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Rock spires of the Organ Rock Formation sit below the Maze Overlook which is on a broad bench held up by the White Rim Sandstone.

Rock Layers/Stratigraphy

(Oldest to youngest)

  • Cedar Mesa Sandstone: Much of the Maze proper and the adjacent Doll House is made of the eolian Cedar Mesa Sandstone.

  • Organ Rock Formation: The Land of Standing Rocks, and the Chocolate Drops are characterized by vertical exposures of the Organ Rock Formation, sometimes with caps of the White Rim Sandstone.

  • White Rim Sandstone: Resistant eolian sandstone containing elaterite (tar) seeps.

  • Moenkopi Formation, Chinle Formation, Wingate Sandstone, and Kayenta Formation: Together these Mesozoic units form a set of slopes capped by vertical cliffs such as at Ekker and Elaterite Buttes and in the Orange Cliffs of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Places and Geomorphology

Green and Colorado Rivers

The Green and Colorado rivers join in Canyonlands National Park. Upstream of the Confluence, both rivers are calm flatwater. But Cataract Canyon below the Confluence contains some of the most challenging whitewater in the United States.

Caves and Karst

Deep alcoves are common in Canyonlands National Park, particularly where more resistant rock units overlie softer rock units that erode more rapidly, creating deep overhangs. The Cave Springs alcove in the Needles District is a good example in the park of a deep overhang formed by sapping. Sapping are the processes that create alcoves by undercutting cap rocks, including those that occur at the location of springs or seeps. These alcoves and overhangs are not solution caverns, and would be considered pseudokarst.

Alcoves and overhangs are most common in the massive sandstone units in Canyonlands National Park, including the Cedar Mesa, White Rim, Wingate, and Navajo sandstones, or at their contacts with other layers.

Paleontological and archeological resources may be present in alcoves and overhangs in the park. Alcoves were used by prehistoric peoples and by cowboys prior to park establishment. Packrat middens are also common in alcoves and overhangs.

An evaluation of caves and karst programs and issues in national park sites identified 27.1% of Canyonlands National Park as potentially being karst based on the presence of limestone bedrock at the surface.

All NPS cave resources are protected under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 (FCRPA)(16 U.S.C. § 4301 et seq.).

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Other Geodiversity Values

The geologic significance of Canyonlands National Park is clearly identified by its park name. In addition to the park’s geomorphology, its geologic history and exceptionally well exposed rock record is of equal significance. Other geodiversity values of the park include its salt tectonic features, well-developed biological soil crusts, seeps and springs, and desert varnish and other rock surface coatings.


Geohazards present in Canyonlands National Park include those associated with slope stability, rock fall and other mass wasting events, as well as flash flooding during intense rainfall events. Geohazards are also present at abandoned mineral lands, including radioactivity (including radon), unsafe structures, cave-ins, deadly gases and oxygen deficiency, and potentially unstable explosives.

Seismic Hazards

Overall, Canyonlands National Park has a moderate seismic hazard. The USGS 2014 Seismic Hazard Map indicates that the Canyonlands area has a 2% chance that earthquake peak ground acceleration of between 10 and 12 %g (percent of gravity) being exceeded in 50 years. This peak ground acceleration is roughly equivalent to VI on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale. The expected number of damaging earthquake shaking in the vicinity of Canyonlands National Park in 10,000 years is between 4 and 10.

Abandoned Mineral Lands

Canyonlands National Park contains extensive evidence of past mineral development, from both uranium mining and prospecting and oil and gas exploration.

Southeastern Utah where Canyonlands National Park is located has a rich history of uranium exploration and mining. The region was the center of the 1950s uranium boom, when US government incentives and rags-to-riches stories in popular media that told of prospectors who became millionaires overnight after discovering rich uranium deposits propelled widespread exploration for uranium deposits. Prospectors built roads, including the Island in the Sky’s Shafer Trail, staked claims, and developed small mines on lands that later became the park. Doghole mines were even worked by some miners after park establishment.

Most of the uranium prospecting that occurred on lands that later became Canyonlands National Park occurred in the Island in the Sky District because of the exposures of Chinle Formation there. The Chinle Formation is one of the two main uranium-bearing units in southeastern Utah, with some of the ore deposits being found in association with petrified wood. The Chinle Formation makes up the upper part of the slopes beneath the Island in the Sky cliffs. Numerous road scars and mining features are found throughout this layer.

Oil and gas development also occurred in Canyonlands National Park lands, again predominantly in the Island in the Sky district and along the river, particularly where anticlines provided likely sites to drill for hydrocarbons.

The National Park Service has inventoried 74 Abandoned Mineral Land (AML) features in Canyonlands National Park, including 24 AML sites, many requiring remediation.

NPS AML sites can be important cultural resources and habitat, but many pose risks to park visitors and wildlife, and degrade water quality, park landscapes, and physical and biological resources. Be safe near AML sites—Stay Out and Stay Alive!

Related Link

Burghardt, J. E., E. S. Norby, and H. S. Pranger, II. 2014. Abandoned mineral lands in the National Park System—comprehensive inventory and assessment. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NRSS/GRD/NRTR—2014/906. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. [PDF]

Maps and Reports

The Geologic Resources Inventory produces digital geologic maps and reports for more than 270 natural resource parks. The products listed below are currently available for this park, check back often for updates as many maps, reports, and posters are still in progress.
  • Scoping summaries are records of scoping meetings where NPS staff and local geologists determined the park’s geologic mapping plan and what content should be included in the report.
  • Digital geologic maps include files for viewing in GIS software, a guide to using the data, and a document with ancillary map information. Newer products also include data viewable in Google Earth and online map services.
  • Reports use the maps to discuss the park’s setting and significance, notable geologic features and processes, geologic resource management issues, and geologic history.
  • Posters are a static view of the GIS data in PDF format. Newer posters include aerial imagery or shaded relief and other park information. They are also included with the reports.
  • Projects list basic information about the program and all products available for a park.

Source: Data Store Saved Search 2761. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.

NPS Soil Resources Inventory project has been completed for Canyonlands National Park and can be found on the NPS Data Store.

Source: Data Store Saved Search 2743. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.

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Canyonlands National Park

National Park Service Geodiversity Atlas

The servicewide Geodiversity Atlas provides information on geoheritage and geodiversity resources and values within the National Park System. This information supports science-based geoconservation and interpretation in the NPS, as well as STEM education in schools, museums, and field camps. The NPS Geologic Resources Division and many parks work with National and International geoconservation communities to ensure that NPS abiotic resources are managed using the highest standards and best practices available.

Canyonlands National Park

Last updated: March 21, 2024