Creation of the Teton Landscape:
The Geologic Story of Grand Teton National Park
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The Mesozoic Era in the Teton region was a time of alternating marine, transitional, and continental environments. Moreover, the highly diversified forms of life, ranging from marine mollusks to tremendous, land-living dinosaurs, confirm and reinforce the story of the rocks. Living things, too, were in transition, for as environment changed, many forms moved from the sea to land in order to survive. It was the time when some of the most spectacularly colored rock strata of the region were deposited.

Colorful first Mesozoic strata

Bright-red soft Triassic rocks more than 1,000 feet thick, known as the Chugwater Formation, comprise most of the basal part of the Mesozoic sequence (table 4). They form colorful hills east and south of the park. The red color is caused by a minor amount of iron oxide. Mud cracks and the presence of fossil reptiles and amphibians indicate deposition in a tidal flat environment, with the sea lying several miles southwest of Jackson Hole. A few beds of white gypsum (calcium sulfate) are present; they were apparently deposited during evaporation of shallow bodies of salt water cut off from the open sea.

As the Triassic Period gave way to the Jurassic, salmon-red windblown sand (Nugget Sandstone) spread across the older red beds and in turn was buried by thin red shale and thick gypsum deposits of the Gypsum Spring Formation. Then down from Alaska and spreading across most of Wyoming came the Sundance Sea, a warm, muddy, shallow body of water that teemed with marine mollusks. In it more than 500 feet of highly fossiliferous soft gray shale and thin limestones and sandstones were deposited. The sea withdrew and the Morrison and Cloverly Formations (Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous) were deposited on low-lying tropical humid flood plains. These rocks are colorful, consisting of red, pink, purple, and green badland forming claystones and mudstones, and yellow to buff sandstones. Vegetation was abundant and large and small dinosaurs roamed the countryside or inhabited the swamps.

Table 4. — Mesozoic sedimentary rocks exposed in the Teton region.
Age Formation Thickness
Description Where exposed
CRETACEOUS Harebell Formation 0-5,000 Sandstone, olive drab, silty, drab siltstone, and dark-gray shale; thick beds of quartzite pebble conglomerate in upper part. Eastern and northeastern parts of Jackson Hole.
Meeteetse Formation 0-700 Sandstone, gray to chalky white, blue-green to gray siltstone thin coal, and green to yellow bentonite. Spread Creek area.
Mesaverde Formation 0-1,000 Sandstone, white, massive, soft, thin gray shale, sparse coal. Eastern Jackson Hole.
Unnamed sequence of lenticular sandstone, shale, and coal. 3,500± Sandstone and shale, gray to brown; abundant coal in lower 2,000 feet. Eastern Jackson Hole and eastern margin of the park.
Bacon Ridge Sandstone 800-1,200 Sandstone, light gray, massive, marine, gray shale, many coal beds. Eastern Jackson Hole and eastern margin of the park.
Cody Shale 1,300-2,200 Shale, gray, soft; thin green sandstone, some bentonite; marine. Eastern and northern parts of Jackson Hole.
Frontier Formation 1,000 Sandstone, gray, and black to gray shale, marine; many persistent white bentonite beds in lower part. Eastern and northern parts and southwestern margin of Jackson Hole.
Mowry Shale 700 Shale, silvery-gray, hard, siliceous, with many fish scales; thin bentonite beds; marine. Gros Ventre River Valley, northern margin of the park, and southern part of Jackson Hole.
Thermopolis Shale 150-200 Shale, black, soft, fissile, with persistent sandstone at top; marine. Gros Ventre River Valley, northern margin of the park, and southern part of Jackson Hole.
JURASSIC Cloverly and Morrison (?) Formations 650 Sandstone, light gray, sparkly, rusty near top, underlain by variegated soft claystone; basal part is silty dully-variegated sandstone and claystone. North end of Teton Range and Gros Ventre River Valley.
Sundance Formation 500-700 Sandstone, green, underlain by soft gray shale and thin highly fossiliferous limestones; marine. North end of Teton Range, Blacktail Butte, Gros Ventre River Valley.
Gypsum Spring Formation 75-100 Gypsum, white, interbedded with red shale and gray dolomite; partly marine. North end of Teton Range, Blacktail Butte, Gros Ventre River Valley.
TRIASSIC Nugget Sandstone 0-350 Sandstone, salmon-red, hard. North flank of Gros Ventre Mountains, southern Jackson Hole.
Chugwater Formation 1,000-1,500 Siltstone and shale, red, thin-bedded; one thin marine limestone in upper third. North flank of Gros Ventre Mountains, north end of Teton Range, southernmost Jackson Hole.
Dinwoody Formation 200-400 Siltstone, brown, hard, thin-bedded, marine. North flank of Gros Ventre Mountains, north end of Teton Range, southernmost Jackson Hole.

Drab Cretaceous strata

The youngest division of the Mesozoic Era is the Cretaceous Period. Near the beginning of this period, brightly colored rocks continued to be deposited. Then, the Teton region, as well as most of Wyoming, was partly, and at times completely, submerged by shallow muddy seas. As a result, the brightly variegated strata were covered by 10,000 feet of generally drab-colored sand, silt, and clay containing some coal beds, volcanic ash layers, and minor amounts of gravel.

The Cretaceous sea finally retreated eastward from the Teton region about 85 million years ago, following the deposition of the Bacon Ridge Sandstone (fig. 40). As it withdrew, extensive coal swamps developed along the sea coast. The record of these swamps is preserved in coal beds 5 to 10 feet thick in the Upper Cretaceous deposits. The coal beds are now visible in abandoned mines along the east margin of the park. Coal is formed from compacted plant debris; about 5 feet of this material is needed to form 1 inch of coal. Thus, lush vegetation must have flourished for long periods of time, probably in a hot wet climate similar to that now prevailing in the Florida Everglades.

Figure 40. The yardstick and the sea. The shaded part of the yardstick shows the 500-million-year interval during which Paleozoic and Mesozoic seas swept intermittently across the future site of the Tetons. When they finally withdrew about 85 million years ago, a little more than 5/8 of an inch of the yardstick remained to be accounted for.

Sporadically throughout Cretaceous time fine-grained ash was blown out of volcanoes to the west and northwest and deposited in quiet shallow water. Subsequently the ash was altered to a type of clay called bentonite that is used in the foundry industry and in oil well drilling muds. In Jackson Hole, the elk and deer lick bentonite exposures to get a bitter salt and, where the beds are water-saturated, enjoy "stomping" on them. Bentonite swells when wet and causes many landslides along access roads into Jackson Hole (fig. 17).

The Cretaceous rocks in the Teton region are part of an enormous east-thinning wedge that here is nearly 2 miles thick. Most of the debris was derived from slowly rising mountains to the west.

Cretaceous sedimentary rocks are much more than of just scientific interest; they contain mineral deposits important to the economy of Wyoming and of the nation. Wyoming leads the States in production of bentonite, all of it from Cretaceous rocks. These strata have yielded far more oil and gas than any other geologic system in the State and the production is geographically widespread. They also contain enormous coal reserves, some in beds between 50 and 100 feet thick. The energy resources alone of the Cretaceous System in Wyoming make it invaluable to our industrialized society.

As the end of the Cretaceous Period approached, slightly more than 80 million years ago, the flat monotonous landscape (fig. 41) which had prevailed during most of Late Cretaceous time gave little hint that the stage was set for one of the most exciting and important chapters in the geologic history of North America.

Figure 41. Grand Teton National Park region slightly more than 80 million years ago, fast before onset of Laramide Revolution. The last Cretaceous sea still lingered in central Wyoming.

Birth of the Rocky Mountains

The episode of mountain building that resulted in formation of the ancestral Rocky Mountains has long been known as the Laramide Revolution. West and southwest of Wyoming, mountains had already formed, the older ones as far away as Nevada and as far back in time as Jurassic, the younger ones rising progressively farther east, like giant waves moving toward a coast. The first crustal movement in the Teton area began in latest Cretaceous time when a broad low northwest-trending arch developed in the approximate area of the present Teton Range and Gros Ventre Mountains. However, this uplift bore no resemblance to the Tetons as we know them today for the present range formed 70 million years later.

One bit of evidence (there are others) of the first Laramide mountain building west of the Tetons is a tremendous deposit of quartzite boulder debris (several hundred cubic miles in volume) derived from the Targhee uplift (fig. 42). Nowhere is the uplift now exposed, but from the size, composition, and distribution of rock fragments that came from it, we know that it was north and west of the northern end of the present-day Teton Range. Powerful streams carried boulders, sand, and clay eastward and southeastward across the future site of Jackson Hole and deposited them in the Harebell Formation (table 4). Mingled with this sediment were tiny flakes of gold and a small amount of mercury. Fine-grained debris was carried still farther east and southeast into two enormous depositional troughs in central and southern Wyoming. Most of the large rock fragments were derived from Precambrian and possibly lower Paleozoic quartzites. This means that at least 15,000 feet of overlying Paleozoic and Mesozoic strata must first have been stripped away from the Targhee up lift before the quartzites were exposed to erosion.

Figure 42. Teton region at the end of Cretaceous time about 65 million years ago. The ancestral Teton-Gros Ventre uplift had risen and prominent south eastward drainage from the Targhee uplift was well established. See figure 41 for State lines and location map.

Remains of four-legged horned ceratopsian dinosaurs, possibly Triceratops (fig. 43), reflecting the last population explosion of these reptiles, have been found in pebbly sandstone of the Harebell Formation in highway cuts on the Togwotee Pass road 8 miles east of the park.

Figure 43. Triceratops, a horned dinosaur of the type that inhabited Jackson Hole about 65 million years ago. Sketch by S. H. Knight.

Near the end of Cretaceous time, broad gentle uplifts also began to stir at the sites of future mountain ranges in many parts of Wyoming. The ancestral Teton-Gros Ventre arch continued to grow. Associated with and parallel to it was a series of sharp steepsided elongated northwest-trending upfolds (anticlines). One of these can be seen where it crosses the highway at the Lava Creek Campground near the eastern margin of Grand Teton National Park.

During these episodes of mountain building, erosion, and deposition, the dinosaurs became extinct all over the world. The "Age of Mammals" was about to begin.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2007