Creation of the Teton Landscape:
The Geologic Story of Grand Teton National Park
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Mountains appear ageless, but as with people, they pass through the stages of birth, youth, maturity, and old age, and eventually disappear. The Tetons are youthful and steep and are, therefore, extremely vulnerable to destructive processes that are constantly sculpturing the rugged features and carrying away the debris. The mountains are being destroyed. Although the processes of destruction may seem slow to us, we know they have been operating for millions of years—so why have the mountains not been leveled? How did they form in the first place?

Kinds of mountains

There are many kinds of mountains. Some are piles of lava and debris erupted from a volcano. Others are formed by the bowing up of the earth's crust in the shape of a giant dome or elongated arch. Still others are remnants of accumulated sedimentary rocks that once filled a basin between preexisting mountains and which are now partially worn away. An example of this type is the Absaroka Range 40 miles northeast of the Tetons (figs. 1 and 52).

The Tetons are a still different kind—a fault block mountain range carved from a segment of the earth's crust that has been uplifted along a fault. The Teton fault is approximately at the break in slope where the eastern foot of the range joins the flats at the west edge of Jackson Hole (see map inside back cover), but in most places is concealed beneath glacial deposits and debris shed from the adjacent steep slopes. The shape of the range and its relation to Jackson Hole have already been described. Clues as to the presence of the fault are: (1) the straight and deep east face of the Teton Range, (2) absence of foothills, (3) asymmetry of the range (fig. 14), and (4) small fault scarps (cliffs or steep slopes formed by faulting) along the mountain front (fig. 15).

Figure 14. Air oblique view south showing the width and asymmetry of Teton Range. Grand Teton is left of center and Mt. Moran is the broad humpy peak still farther left. Photo taken October 1, 1965.

Figure 15. Recent fault scarp (arrows indicate base) offsetting alluvial fan at foot of Rockchuck Peak. View west from Cathedral Group scenic turnout. National Park Service photo by W. E. Dilley and R. A. Mebane.

Recent geophysical surveys of Jackson Hole combined with data from deep wells drilled in search of oil and gas east of the park also yield valuable clues. By measuring variations in the earth's magnetic field and in the pull of gravity and by studying the speed of shock waves generated by small dynamite explosions, Dr. John C. Behrendt of the U. S. Geological Survey has determined the depth and tilt of rock layers buried beneath the veneer of glacial debris and stream-laid sand and gravel on the valley floor. This information was used in constructing the geologic cross section in the back of the booklet. The same rock layers that cap the summit of Mount Moran (fig. 27) are buried at depths of nearly 24,000 feet beneath the nearby floor of Jackson Hole but are cut off by the Teton fault at the west edge of the valley. Thus the approximate amount of movement along the fault here would be about 30,000 feet.

Anatomy of faults

The preceding discussion shows that the Tetons are an upfaulted mountain block. Why is this significant? The extreme youth of the Teton fault, its large amount of displacement, and the fact that the newly upfaulted angular mountain block was subjected to intense glaciation are among the prime factors responsible for the development of the magnificent alpine scenery of the Teton Range. An understanding of the anatomy of faults is, therefore, pertinent.

A fault is a plane or zone in the earth's crust along which the rocks on one side have moved in relation to the rocks on the other. There are various kinds of faults just as there are various types of mountains. Three principal types of faults are present in the Teton region: normal faults, reverse faults, and thrust faults. A normal fault (fig. 16A) is a steeply dipping (steeply inclined) fault along which rocks above the fault have moved down relative to those beneath it. A reverse fault (fig. 16B) is a steeply inclined fault along which the rocks above the fault have moved up relative to those below it. A thrust fault (fig. 16C) is a gently inclined fault along which the principal movement has been more nearly horizontal than vertical.

Figure 16. Types of faults.

Normal faults may be the result of tension or pulling apart of the earth's crust or they may be caused by adjustment of the rigid crust to the flow of semi-fluid material be low. The crust sags or collapses in areas from which the subcrustal material has flowed and is bowed up and stretched in areas where excess subcrustal material has accumulated. In both areas the adjustments may result in normal faults.

Reverse faults are generally caused by compression of a rigid block of the crust, but some may also be due to lateral flow of subcrustal material.

Thrust faults are commonly associated with tightly bent or folded rocks. Many of them are apparently caused by severe compression of part of the crust, but some are thought to have formed at the base of slides of large rock masses that moved from high areas into adjacent low areas under the influence of gravity.

The Teton fault (see cross section inside back cover) is a normal fault; the Buck Mountain fault, which lies west of the main peaks of the Teton Range, is a reverse fault. No thrust faults have been recognized in the Teton Range, but the mountains south and southwest of the Tetons (fig. 1) display several enormous thrust faults along which masses of rocks many miles in extent have moved tens of miles eastward and northeastward.

Time and rate of uplift

When did the Tetons rise?

A study of the youngest sedimentary rocks on the floor of Jackson Hole shows that the Teton Range began to rise rapidly and take its present shape less than 9 million years ago. The towering peaks themselves are direct evidence that the rate of uplift far exceeded the rate at which the rising block was worn away by erosion. The mountains are still rising, and comparatively rapidly, as is indicated by small faults cutting the youngest deposits (fig. 15).

How rapidly? Can the rate be measured?

We know that in less than 9 million years (and probably in less than 7 million years) there has been 25,000 to 30,000 feet of displacement on the Teton fault. This is an average of about 1 foot in 300-400 years. The movement probably was not continuous but came as a series of jerks accompanied by violent earthquakes. One fault on the floor of Jackson Hole near the southern boundary of the park moved 150 feet in the last 15,000 years, an average of 1 foot per 100 years.

In view of this evidence of recent crustal unrest, it is not surprising that small earthquakes are frequent in the Teton region. More violent ones can probably be expected from time to time.

Why are mountains here?

Why did the Tetons form where they are?

At the beginning of this booklet we discussed briefly the two most common theories of origin of mountains: continental drift and convection currents. The question of why mountains are where they are and more specifically why the Tetons are here remains a continuing scientific challenge regardless of the wealth of data already accumulated in our storehouse of knowledge.

The mobility of the earth's crust is an established fact. Despite its apparent rigidity, laboratory experiments demonstrate that rocks flow when subjected to extremely high pressures and temperatures. If the stress exceeds the strength at a given pressure and temperature, the rock breaks. Flowing and fracturing are two of the ways by which rocks adjust to the changing environments at various levels in the earth's crust. These acquired characteristics, some of which can be duplicated in the laboratory, are guides by which we interpret the geologic history of rocks that once were deep within the earth.

The site of the Teton block no doubt reflects hidden in equalities at depth. We cannot see these, nor in this area can we drill below the outer layer of the earth; nevertheless, measurements of gravity and of the earth's magnetic field clearly show that they exist.

We know that the Tetons rose at the time Jackson Hole collapsed but the volume of the uplifted block is considerably less than that of the downdropped block. This, then, was not just a simple case in which all the subcrustal material displaced by the sinking block was squeezed under the rising block (the way a hydraulic jack works). What happened to the rest of the material that once was under Jackson Hole? It could not be compressed so it had to go somewhere.

As you look northward from the top of the Grand Teton or Mount Moran, or from the main highway at the north edge of Grand Teton National Park, you see the great smooth sweep of the volcanic plateau in Yellowstone National Park. Farther off to the northeast are the strikingly layered volcanic rocks of the Absaroka Range (fig. 52). For these two areas, an estimate of the volume of volcanic rock that reached the surface and flowed out, or was blown out and spread far and wide by wind and water, is considerably in excess of 10,000 cubic miles. On the other hand, this volume is many times more than that displaced by the sagging and downfaulting of Jackson Hole.

Where did the rest of the volcanic material come from? Is it pertinent to our story? Teton Basin, on the west side of the Teton Range, and the broad Snake River down-warp farther to the northwest (fig. 1) are sufficiently large to have furnished the remainder of the volcanic debris. As it was blown out of vents in the Yellowstone-Absaroka area, its place could have been taken deep underground by material that moved laterally from below all three down-dropped areas. The movement may have been caused by slow convection currents within the earth, or perhaps by some other, as yet unknown, force. The sagging of the earth's crust on both sides of the Teton Range as well as the long-continued volcanism are certainly directly related to the geologic history of the park.

In summary, we theorize as to how the Tetons rose and Jackson Hole sank but are not sure why the range is located at this particular place, why it trends north, why it rose so high, or why this one, of all the mountain ranges surrounding the Yellowstone-Absaroka volcanic area, had such a unique history of uplift. These are problems to challenge the minds of generations of earth scientists yet to come.

The restless land

Among the greatest of the park's many attractions is the solitude one can savor in the midst of magnificent scenery. Only a short walk separates us from the highway, torrents of cars, noise, and tension. Away from these, everything seems restful.

Quiescent it may seem, yet the landscape is not static but dynamic. This is one of the many exciting ideas that geology has contributed to society. The concept of the "everlasting hills" is a myth. All the features around us are actually rather short-lived in terms of geologic time. The discerning eye detects again and again the restlessness of the land. We have discussed many bits of evidence that show how the landscape and the earth's crust beneath it are constantly being carved, pushed up, dropped down, folded, tilted, and faulted.

The Teton landscape is a battleground, the scene of a continuing unresolved struggle between the forces that deform the earth's crust and raise the mountains and the slow processes of erosion that strive to level the uplands, fill the hollows, and reduce the landscape to an ultimate featureless plain. The remainder of this booklet is devoted to tracing the seesaw conflict between these inexorable antagonists through more than 2.5 billion years as they shaped the present landscape—and the battle still goes on.

Evidence of the struggle is all around us. Even though to some observers it may detract from the restfulness of the scene, perhaps it conveys to all of us a new appreciation of the tremendous dynamic forces responsible for the magnificence of the Teton Range.

The battle is indicated by the small faults that displace both the land surface and young deposits at the east base of Mount Teewinot, Rockchuck Peak (fig. 15), and other places along the foot of the Tetons.

Jackson Hole continues to drop and tilt. The gravel-covered surfaces that originally sloped southward are now tilted westward toward the mountains. The Snake River, although the major stream, is not in the lowest part of Jackson Hole; Fish Creek, a lesser tributary near the town of Wilson, is 15 feet lower. For 10 miles this creek flows southward parallel to the Snake River but with a gentler gradient, thus permitting the two streams to join near the south end of Jackson Hole. As tilting continues, the Snake River west of Jackson tries to move westward but is prevented from doing so by long flood-control levees built south of the park.

Recent faults also break the valley floor between the Gros Ventre River and the town of Jackson.

The ever-changing piles of rock debris that mantle the slopes adjacent to the higher peaks, the creeping advance of rock glaciers, the devastating snow avalanches, and the thundering rockfalls are specific reminders that the land surface is restless. Jackson Hole contains more landslides and rock mudflows than almost any other part of the Rocky Mountain region. They constantly plague road builders (fig. 17) and add to the cost of other types of construction.

Figure 17. Slide blocking main highway in northern part of Grand Teton National Park. National Park Service photo by Eliot Davis, May 1952.

All of these examples of the relentless battle between constructive and destructive processes modifying the Teton landscape are but minor skirmishes. The bending and breaking of rocks at the surface are small reflections of enormous stresses and strains deep within the earth where the major conflict is being waged. It is revealed every now and then by a convulsion such as the 1959 earthquake in and west of Yellowstone Park. Events of this type release much more energy than all the nuclear devices thus far exploded by man.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2007