Geologic Formations

Hiking the top of El Morro
Lines incised in the sandstone atop the cuesta help visitors navigate the scenic Headland Trail.

NPS Photo

Zuni Sandstone
Zuni sandstone

NPS Photo: Dale Dombrowski

Zuni Sandstone

The rock outcropping of El Morro is composed of yellowish-gray Zuni sandstone from the Jurassic Period (200-145 million years ago). The quartz grains that make up this sandstone are the same size and are characteristic of wind-blown dunes that form in arid lands; El Morro was part of a sand dune field that stretched across northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, southwestern Colorado, and southeastern Utah approximately 150 million years ago. This rock formation was never buried deep enough for the sand grains to be tightly squeezed together. As a result, it is a perfect medium for the finely detailed inscriptions we see carved on the rock face today. The dark, vertical streaks found in numerous places are from rainwater that has trickled down from the top of the bluff and left behind a patina of minerals such as iron and manganese.

Dakota sandstone

NPS Photo Jessie Wagner

Dakota Sandstone

The darker layer of Dakota sandstone that caps the pale Zuni sandstone on top of the bluff is from the Late Cretaceous time period (145-65 million years ago). Dakota sandstone is made up of a number of components, including beach and lagoonal sandstones, shale, and conglomeratic (large-grained) sandstone layers deposited in the area as a shallow sea advanced through New Mexico. Dakota sandstone is tan to yellowish brown and is interbedded with dark gray.

Last updated: February 21, 2021

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