Creation of the Teton Landscape:
The Geologic Story of Grand Teton National Park
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THE TETON RANGE is one of the most magnificent mountain ranges on the North American Continent. Others are longer, wider, and higher, but few can rival the breathtaking alpine grandeur of the eastern front of the Tetons. Ridge after jagged ridge of naked rock soar upward into the western sky, culminating in the towering cluster of peaks to which the early French voyageurs gave the name "les Trois Tetons" (the three breasts). The range hangs like a great stone wave poised to break across the valley at its base. To the south and east are lesser mountains, interesting and scenic but lacking the magic appeal of the Tetons.

This is a range of many moods and colors: stark and austere in morning sun, but gold and purple and black in the softly lengthening shadows of afternoon; somber and foreboding when the peaks wrap themselves in the tattered clouds of an approaching storm, but tranquil and ethereal blue and silver beneath a full moon.

These great peaks and much of the floor of the valley to the east, Jackson Hole (a hole was the term used by pioneer explorers and mountain men to describe any open valley encircled by mountains), lie within Grand Teton National Park, protected and preserved for the enjoyment of present and future generations. Each year more than 3 million visitors come to the park. Many pause briefly and pass on. Others stay to explore its trails, fish its streams, study the plants and wildlife that abound within its borders, or to savor the colorful human history of this area.

Most visitors, whatever their interests and activities, are probably first attracted to the park by its unsurpassed mountain scenery. The jagged panorama of the Tetons is the backdrop to which they may turn again and again, asking questions, seeking answers. How did the mountains form? How long have they towered into the clouds, washed by rain, riven by frost, swept by wind and snow? What enormous forces brought them forth and raised them skyward? What stories are chronicled in their rocks, what epics chiseled in the craggy visage of this mountain land. scape? Why are the Tetons different from other mountains?

Geologic Map of Grand Teton National Park. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

First questions, brief answers

How did the Tetons and Jackson Hole form? They are both tilted blocks of the earth's crust that behaved like two adjoining giant trapdoors hinged so that they would swing in opposite directions. The block on the west, which forms the Teton Range, was hinged along the Idaho-Wyoming State line; the eastern edge was uplifted along a fault (a fracture along which displacement has occurred). This is why the highest peaks and steepest faces are near the east margin of the range. The hinge line of the eastern block, which forms Jackson Hole, was in the highlands to the east. The western edge of the block is downdropped along the fault at the base of the Teton Range. As a consequence, the floor of Jackson Hole tilts westward toward the Tetons (see cross section inside back cover).

When did the Tetons and Jackson Hole develop the spectacular scenery we see today? The Tetons are the youngest of all the mountain ranges in the Rocky Mountain chain. Most other mountains in the region are at least 50 million years old but the Tetons are less than 10 million and are still rising. Jackson Hole is of the same age and is still sinking. The Teton landscape is the product of many earth processes, the most recent of which is cutting by water and ice. Within the last 15,000 years, ice sculpturing of peaks and canyons and impounding of glacial lakes have added finishing touches to the scenic beauty.

Why did the Tetons rise and Jackson Hole sink? For thousands of years men have wondered about the origin of mountains and their speculations have filled many books. Two of the more popular theories are: (1) continental drift (such as South America moving away from Africa), with the upper lighter layer of the earth's crust moving over the lower denser layer and wrinkling along belts of weakness; and (2) convection currents within the earth, caused by heat transfer, resulting in linear zones of wrinkling, uplift, and collapse.

These concepts were developed to explain the origin of mountainous areas hundreds or thousands of miles long but they do not answer directly the question of why the Tetons rose and Jackson Hole sank. As is discussed in the chapter on mountains, it is probable that semifluid rock far below the surface of Jackson Hole flowed north into the Yellowstone Volcanic Plateau-Absaroka Range volcanic area, perhaps taking the place of the enormous amount of ash and lava blown out of volcanoes during the last 50 million years. The origin of the line of weakness that marks the Teton fault along the east face of the Teton Range may go back to some unknown inequality in the earth's composition several billion years ago. Why it suddenly became active late in the earth's history is an unanswered question.

The ultimate source of heat and energy that caused the mountains and basins to form probably is disintegration of radioactive materials deep within the earth. The Tetons are a spectacular demonstration that the enormous energy necessary to create mountains is not declining, even though our planet is several billion years old.

An extraordinary story

Visitors whose curiosity is whetted by this unusual and varied panorama are not satisfied with only a few questions and answers. They sense that here for the asking is an extraordinary geologic (geo—earth; logic—science) story. With a little direction, many subtle features become evident features that otherwise might escape notice. Here, for example, is a valley with an odd U-shape. There is a sheer face crisscrossed with light- and dark-colored rocks. On the valley floor is a tuft of pine trees that seem to be confined to one particular kind of rock. On the rolling hills is a layer of peculiar white soil—the only soil in which coyote dens are common. All these are geologically controlled phenomena. In short, with a bit of initial guidance, the viewer gains an ability to observe and to understand so much that the panorama takes on new depth, vividness, and excitement. It changes from a flat, two-dimensional picture to a colorful multi-dimensional exhibit of the earth's history.

Figure 1. The Tetons from afar—an astronaut's view of the range and adjacent mountains, basins, and plateaus. Width of area shown in photo is about 100 miles. Stippled pattern marks boundary of Grand Teton National Park. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

An astronaut's view

The Tetons are a short, narrow, and high mountain range, distinctive in the midst of the great chain of the Rocky Mountains, the backbone of western North America. Figure 1 shows how the Tetons and their surroundings might appear if you viewed them from a satellite at an altitude of perhaps a hundred miles. The U. S. Geological Survey topographic map of Grand Teton National Park shows the names of many features not indicated on figure 1 or on the geologic map inside the back cover. The Teton Range is a rectangular mountain block about 40 miles long and 10-15 miles wide. It is flanked on the east and west by flat-floored valleys. Jackson Hole is the eastern one and Teton Basin (called Pierre's Hole by the early trappers) is the western.

The Teton Range is not symmetrical. The highest peaks lie near the eastern edge of the mountain block, rather than along its center, as is true in conventional mountains, and the western slopes are broad and gentle in contrast to the precipitous eastern slopes. The northern end of the range disappears under enormous lava flows that form the Yellowstone Volcanic Plateau. Even from this altitude the outlines of some of these flows can be seen.

On the south the Teton Range abuts almost at right angles against a northwest-trending area of lower and less rugged mountains (the Snake River, Wyoming, and Hoback Ranges). These mountains appear altogether different from the Tetons. They consist of a series of long parallel ridges cut or separated by valleys and canyons. This pattern is characteristic of mountains composed of crumpled, steeply tilted rock layers—erosion wears away the softer layers, leaving the harder ones standing as ridges.

On the east and northeast, Jackson Hole is bounded by the Gros Ventre and Washakie Ranges, which are composed chiefly of folded hard and soft sedimentary rocks. In contrast, between these mountains and the deepest part of Jackson Hole to the west, thick layers of soft nearly flat-lying sedimentary rocks have been sculptured by streams and ice into randomly oriented knife-edge ridges and rolling hills separated by broad valleys. The hills east of the park are called the Mount Leidy Highlands and those northeast are the Pinyon Peak Highlands.

Figure 2. Sketch of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole, southwest view. BLOCK DIAGRAM VIEW SOUTHWEST SHOWING THE TETON RANGE AND JACKSON HOLE Drawing by J. R. Stacy. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

A pilot's view

If you descend from 100 miles to about 5 miles above the Teton region, the asymmetry of the range, the extra ordinary variety of landscapes, and the vivid colors of rocks become more pronounced.

Figure 2 shows a panorama of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole from a vantage point over the Pinyon Peak Highlands. The rough steep slopes and jagged ridges along the east front of the range contrast with smoother slopes and more rounded ridges on the western side. Nestled at the foot of the mountains and extending out onto the floor of Jackson Hole are tree-rimmed sparkling lakes of many sizes and shapes. Still others lie in steep-sided rocky amphitheaters near the mountain crests.

One of the most colorful flight routes into Jackson Hole is from the east, along the north flank of the Gros Ventre Mountains. For 40 miles this mountain range is bounded by broad parallel stripes of bright-red, pink, purple, gray, and brown rocks. Some cropout as cliffs or ridges, and others are badlands (bare unvegetated hills and valleys with steep slopes and abundant dry stream channels). In places the soft beds have broken loose and flowed down slopes like giant varicolored masses of taffy. These are mudflows and landslides. The colorful rocks are bounded on the south by gray and yellow tilted layers forming snowcapped peaks of the Gros Ventre Mountains.

These landscapes are the product of many natural forces acting on a variety of rock types during long or short intervals of geologic time. Each group of rocks records a chapter in the geologic story of the region. Other chapters can be read from the tilting, folding, and breaking of the rocks. The latest episodes are written on the face of the land itself.

A motorist's view

Most park visitors first see the Teton peaks from the highway. Whether they drive in from the south, east, or north, there is one point on the route at which a spectacular panorama of the Tetons and Jackson Hole suddenly appears. Part of the thrill of these three views is that they are so unexpected and so different. The geologic history is responsible for these differences.

View north.—Throughout the first 4 miles north of the town of Jackson, the view of the Tetons from U. S. 26-89 is blocked by East Gros Ventre Butte. At the north end of the butte, the highway climbs onto a flat upland at the south boundary of Grand Teton National Park. Without any advance warning, the motorist sees the whole east front of the Teton Range rising steeply from the amazingly flat floor of Jackson Hole.

From the park boundary turnout no lakes or rivers are visible to the north but the nearest line of trees in the direction of the highest Teton peaks marks the approximate position of the Gros Ventre River. The elevation of this river is surprising, for the route has just come up a 150-foot hill, out of the flat valley of a much smaller stream, yet here at eye-level is a major river perched on an upland plain. The reason for these strange relations is that the hill is a fault scarp (see fig. 16A for a diagram) and the valley in which the town of Jackson is located was dropped 150 feet or more in the last 15,000 years.

On the skyline directly west of the turnout are horizontal and inclined layers of rocks. These once extended over the tops of the highest peaks but were worn away from some parts as the mountains rose. All along the range, trees grow only up to treeline (also called timberline—a general elevation above which trees do not grow) which here is about 10,500 feet above the sea. To the southeast and east, beyond the sage-covered floor of Jackson Hole, are rolling partly forested slopes marking the west end of the Gros Ventre Mountains. They do not look at all like the Tetons because they were formed in a very different manner. The Gros Ventres are folded mountains that have foothills; the Tetons are faulted mountains that do not.

Three steepsided hills called buttes rise out of the flat floor of Jackson Hole. They are tilted and faulted masses of hard, layered rock that have been shaped by southward-moving glaciers. Six miles north of the boundary turnout is Blacktail Butte, on the flanks of which are west-dipping white beds. Southwest of the turnout is East Gros Ventre Butte, composed largely of layered rocks that are exposed along the road from Jackson almost to the turnout. These are capped by very young lava that forms the brown cliff overlooking the highway at the north end of the butte. To the southwest is West Gros Ventre Butte, composed of similar rocks.

Figure 3A. The Teton landscape as seen from Signal Mountain. View west across Jackson Lake. Major peaks, canyons, and outcrops of sedimentary rocks are indicated by "s." Drawing by J. R. Stacy. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Figure 3B. The Teton landscape as seen from Signal Mountain. View northeast; a study in contrast with the panorama above. Drawing by J. R. Stacy. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

View west.—The motorist traveling west along U. S. 26-287 is treated to two magnificent views of the Teton Range. The first is 8 miles and the second 13 miles west of Togwotee Pass. At these vantage points, between 20 and 30 miles from the mountains, the great peaks seem half suspended between earth and sky—too close, almost, to believe, but too distant to comprehend.

Only from closer range can the motorist begin to appreciate the size and steepness of the mountains and to discern the details of their architecture. The many roads on the floor of Jackson Hole furnish ever-changing vistas, and signs provided by the National Park Service at numerous turnouts and scenic overlooks help the visitor to identify quickly the major peaks and canyons and the principal features of the valley floor. Of all these roadside vantage points, the top of Signal Mountain, an isolated hill rising nearly 1,000 feet out of the east margin of Jackson Lake, probably offers the best overall perspective (fig. 3). To the west, across the shimmering blue waters of Jackson Lake, the whole long parade of rugged peaks stretches from the north horizon to the south, many of the higher ones wearing the tattered remnants of winter snow. From here, only 8 miles away, the towering pinnacles, saw-toothed ridges, and deep U-shaped canyons are clearly visible.

Unlike most other great mountain ranges, the Tetons rise steeply from the flat valley floor in a straight unbroken line. The high central peaks tower more than a mile above the valley, but northward and southward the peaks diminish in height and lose their jagged character, gradually giving way to lower ridges and rounded hills. Some of the details of the mountain rock can be seen—gnarled gray rocks of the high peaks threaded by a fine white lacework of dikes, the dark band that cleaves through Mount Moran from base to summit, and the light brown and gray layers on the northern and southern parts of the range.

At first glance the floor of Jackson Hole south of Signal Mountain seems flat, smooth, and featureless, except for the Snake River that cuts diagonally across it. Nevertheless, even the flats show a variety of land forms. The broad sage-covered areas, low isolated hills, and hummocky tree-studded ridges that form the foreground are all parts of the Teton landscape, and give us clues to the natural processes that shaped it. A critical look to the south discloses more strange things. We take for granted the fact that the sides of normal valleys slope inward toward a central major stream. South of Signal Mountain, however, the visitor can see that the Snake River Valley does not fit this description. The broad flat west of the river should slope east but it does not. Instead, it has been tilted westward by downward movement along the Teton fault at the base of the mountains.

View south.—About a million motorists drive south from Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park each year. As they wind along the crooked highway on the west brink of Lewis River Canyon (fig. 1), the view south is every where blocked by dense forest. Then, abruptly the road leaves the canyon, straightens out, and one can look south down a 3-mile sloping avenue cut through the trees. There, 20 to 30 miles away, framed by the roadway, are the snow-capped Tetons, with Jackson Lake, luminous in reflected light, nestled against the east face. This is one of the loveliest and most unusual views of the mountains that is available to the motorist, partly because he is 800 feet above the level of Jackson Lake and partly because this is the only place on a main highway where he can see clearly the third dimension (width) of the Tetons. The high peaks are on the east edge; they rise 7,000 feet above the lake but other peaks and precipitous ridges, progressively diminishing in height, extend on to the west for a dozen miles (fig. 14). Giant, relatively young lava flows, into which the Lewis River Canyon was cut, poured southward all the way to the shore of Jackson Lake and buried the north end of the Teton Range (figs. 13 and 53). South of Yellowstone Park these flows were later tilted and broken, by the dropping of Jackson Hole and the rise of the mountains.

A mountaineer's view

As in many pursuits in life, the greatest rewards of a visit to the Tetons come to those who expend a real effort to earn them. Only by leaving the teeming valley and going up into the mountains to hike the trails and climb the peaks can the visitor come to know the Tetons in all their moods and changes and view close at hand the details of this magnificent mountain edifice.

Even a short hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point affords an opportunity for a more intimate view of the mountains. Along the trail the hiker can examine outcrops of sugary white granite, glittering mica-studded dikes, and dark intricately layered rocks. Nearby are great piles of broken fragments that have fallen from the cliffs above, and the visitor can begin to appreciate how vulnerable are the towering crags to the relentless onslaught of frost and snow. The roar of the foaming stream and the thunder of the falls are constant reminders of the patient work of running water in wearing away the "everlasting hills." Running his hand across one of the smoothly polished rock faces below Inspiration Point, the hiker gains an unforgettable concept of the power of glacial ice and its importance in shaping this majestic landscape. Looking back across Jenny Lake at the encircling ridge of glacial debris, he can easily comprehend the size of the ancient glacier that once flowed down Cascade Canyon and emerged onto the floor of Jackson Hole.

The more ambitious hiker or mountaineer can seek out the inner recesses of the range and explore other facets of its geology. He can visit the jewel-like mountain lakes—Solitude, Holly, and Amphitheater are just a few—cradled in high remote basins left by the Ice Age glaciers. He can get a closeup view of the Teton Glacier above Amphitheater Lake, or explore the Schoolroom Glacier, the tiny ice body below Hurricane Pass. He may follow the trail into Garnet Canyon to see the crystals from which the canyon takes its name and to examine the soaring ribbonlike black dike near the end of the trail. In Alaska Basin he can study the gently tilted layers of sandstone, limestone, and shale that once blanketed the entire Teton Range and can search for the fossils that help determine their age and decipher their history. From Hurricane Pass he can see how these even layers of sedimentary rock have been broken and displaced and how the older harder rocks that form the highest Teton peaks have been raised far above them along the Buck Mountain fault.

Of all those who explore the high country, it is the mountaineer who has perhaps the greatest opportunity to appreciate its geologic story. Indeed, the success of his climb and his very life may depend on an intuitive grasp of the mountain geology and the processes that shaped the peaks. He observes the most intimate details—the inclination of the joints and fractures, which gullies are swept by falling rocks, which projecting knobs are firm, and which cracks will safely take a piton. To many climbers the ascent of a peak is a challenge to technical competence, endurance, and courage, but to those endowed with curiosity and a sharp eye it can be much more. As he stands shoulder to shoulder with the clouds on some windswept peak, such as the Grand Teton, with the awesome panorama dropping away on all sides, he can hardly avoid asking how this came to be. What does the mountaineer see that inspires this curiosity? From the very first glance, it is apparent that the scenes to the north, south, east, and west are startlingly different.

Looking west from the rough, narrow, weather-ravaged granite summit of the Grand Teton, one sees far below him the layered gray cliffs of marine sedimentary rocks (solidified sediment originally deposited in a shallow arm of the ocean) overlapping the granite and dipping gently west, finally disappearing under the checkerboard farm land of Teton Basin. Still farther west are the rolling timbered slopes of the Big Hole Range in Idaho. A glance at the foreground, 3,000 feet below, shows some unusual relations of the streams to the mountains. The watershed divide of the Teton Range is not marked by the highest peaks as one would expect. Streams in Cascade Canyon and in other canyons to the north and south begin west of the peaks, bend around them, then flow eastward in deep narrow gorges cut through the highest part of the range, and emerge onto the flat floor of Jackson Hole.

In the view north along the crest of the Teton Range, the asymmetry of the mountains is most apparent. The steep east face culminating in the highest peaks contrasts with the lower more gentle west flank of the uplift. From the Grand Teton it is not possible to see the actual place where the mountains disappear under the lavas of Yellowstone Park, but the heavily timbered broad gentle surface of the lava plain is visible beyond the peaks and extends across the entire north panorama. Still farther north, 75 to 100 miles away, rise the snowcapped peaks (from north west to northeast) of the Madison, Gallatin, and Beartooth Mountains.

The view east presents the greatest contrasts in the shortest distances—the flat floor of Jackson Hole is 3 miles away and 7,000 feet below the top of the Grand Teton. Along the junction of the mountains and valley floor are blue glacial lakes strung out like irregular beads in a necklace. They are conspicuously rimmed by black-appearing margins of pine trees that grow only on the surrounding glacial moraines. Beyond these are the broad treeless boulder-strewn plains of Jackson Hole. Fifty miles to the east and northeast, on the horizon beyond the rolling hills of the Pinyon Peak Highlands, are the horizontally layered volcanic rocks of the Absaroka Range. Southeast is the colorful red, purple, green, and gray Gros Ventre River Valley, with the fresh giant scar of the Lower Gros Ventre Slide near its mouth. Bounding the south side of this valley are the peaks of the Gros Ventre Mountains, whose tilted slabby gray cliff-forming layers resemble (and are the same as) those on the west flank of the Teton Range. Seventy miles away, in the southeast distance, beyond the Gros Ventre Mountains are the shining snowcapped peaks of the Wind River Range, the highest peak of which (Gannett Peak) is about 20 feet higher than the Grand Teton.

Conspicuous on the eastern and southeastern skyline are high-level (11,000-12,000 feet) flat-topped surfaces on both the Wind River and Absaroka Ranges. These are remnants that mark the upper limit of sedimentary fill of the basins adjacent to the mountains. A plain once connected these surfaces and extended westward at least as far as the conspicuous flat on the mountain south of Lower Gros Ventre Slide. It is difficult to imagine the amount of rock that has been washed away from between these remnants in comparatively recent geologic time, during and after the rise of the Teton Range.

From this vantage point the mountaineer also gets a concept of the magnitude of the first and largest glaciers that scoured the landscape. Ice flowed southwestward in an essentially unbroken stream from the Beartooth Mountains, 100 miles away, westward from the Absaroka Range, and northwestward from the Wind River Range (fig. 57). Ice lapped up to treeline on the Teton Range and extended across Jackson Hole nearly to the top of the Lower Gros Ventre Slide. The Pinyon Peak and Mount Leidy High lands were almost buried. All these glaciers came together in Jackson Hole and flowed south within the ever-narrowing Snake River Valley.

The view south presents a great variety of contrasts. Conspicuous, as in the view north, is the asymmetry of the range. South of the high peaks of crystalline rocks, gray layered cliffs of limestone extend in places all the way to the steep east face of the Teton Range where they are abruptly cut off by the great Teton fault.

The flat treeless floor of Jackson Hole narrows southward. Rising out of the middle are the previously described steepsided ice-scoured rocky buttes. Beginning near the town of Jackson, part of which is visible, and extending as far south as the eye can see are row upon row of sharp ridges and snowcapped peaks that converge at various angles. These are the Hoback, Wyoming, Salt River, and Snake River Ranges.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2007