Creation of the Teton Landscape:
The Geologic Story of Grand Teton National Park
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The Cenozoic (table 1), last and shortest of the geologic eras, comprises the Tertiary and Quaternary Periods. It began about 65 million years ago and is represented by only the final one-half inch of our imaginary yardstick of time (fig. 19). Nevertheless, it is the era during which the Tetons rose in their present form and the landscape was sculptured into the panorama of beauty that we now see. In order to show the many Tertiary and Quaternary events in the Teton region, it is necessary to enlarge greatly the last part of the yardstick (fig. 44). There are two reasons for the extraordinarily clear and complete record. First, the Teton region was a relatively active part of the earth's crust, characterized by marry downdropped blocks. The number of events is great and their records are preserved in sediments trapped in the subsiding basins. Second, the geologically recent past is much easier to see than the far dimmer, distant past; the rocks that record later events are fresher, less altered, more complete, and more easily interpreted than are those that tell us of older events.

Figure 44. The last inch of the yardstick, enlarged to show subdivisions of the Cenozoic Era.

Table 5. — Cenozoic sedimentary rocks and unconsolidated deposits exposed in the Teton region.
Age Formation Thickness
Description Where exposed
QUARTERNARY RecentModern stream, landslide, glacial and talus deposits 0-200± Sand, gravel, and silt along present streams; jumbled broken rock in landslides and on talus slopes; debris around existing glaciers. Floor of Jackson Hole and in canyons and on mountain sides throughout the region.
Pleistocene Glacial deposits and loess 0-200± Gravel, sand, silt, and glacial debris. Floor of Jackson Hole.
Unnamed upper lake sequence 0-500 Shale, brown-gray, sandstone, and conglomerate. Gros Ventre River Valley.
Unnamed lower lake sequence 0-200 Shale, siltstone, and sandstone, gray, green, and red. National Elk Refuge.
?Pleistocene or Pliocene Bivouac Formation 0-1,000 Conglomerate, with purplish-gray welded tuft in upper part. Signal Mountain and West Gros Ventre Butte.
TERTIARY Pliocene Teewinot Formation 0-6,000 Limestone, tuff, and claystone, white, soft, National Elk Refuge, Blacktail Butte, and eastern margin of Antelope Flat.
Camp Davis Formation 0-5,500 Conglomerate, red and gray, with white tuff, diatomite, and red and white claystone. Southernmost tip of Jackson Hole.
Miocene Colter Formation 0-7,000 Volcanic conglomerate, tuft, and sandstone, white to green-brown, with locally-derived basalt and andesite rock fragments. Pilgrim and Ditch Creeks, and north end of Teton Range.
Oligocene Wiggins Formation 0-3,000 Volcanic conglomerate, gray to brown, with white tuff layers. Eastern margin of Jackson Hole.
Eocene Unnamed upper and middle Eocene sequence 0-1,000 Tuft, conglomerate, sandstone, and claystone, green, underlain by variegated claystone and quartzite pebble conglomerate. Eastern margin of Jackson Hole.
Wind River and Indian Meadows Formations 2,000-3,000 Claystone and sandstone, variegated, and locally-derived conglomerate; persistent coal and gray shale zone in middle. Eastern margin of Jackson Hole.
Paleocene Unnamed greenish-gray and brown sandstone and claystone sequence 1,000-2,000 Sandstone and claystone, greenish-gray and brown, intertonguing at base with quartzite pebble conglomerate. Eastern margin of Jackson Hole.
Pinyon Conglomerate 500-5,000 Conglomerate, brown, chiefly of rounded quartzite; coal and claystone locally at base. Eastern part of Jackson Hole, Mt. Leidy and Pinyon Peak Highlands, and north end of Teton Range.

During the early part of the Tertiary Period, mountain building and basin subsidence were the dominant types of crustal movement. Seas retreated southward down the Mississippi Valley and never again invaded the Teton area. Environments on the recently uplifted land were diverse and favorable for the development of new forms of plants and animals.

Rise and burial of mountains

The enormous section of Tertiary sedimentary rocks in the Jackson Hole area (table 5) is one of the most impressive in North America. If the maximum thicknesses of all formations were added, they would total more than 6 miles, but nowhere did this amount of rock accumulate in a single unbroken sequence. No other region in the United States contains a thicker or more complete nonmarine Tertiary record; many areas have little or none. The accumulation in Jackson Hole reflects active uplifts of nearby mountains that supplied abundant rock debris, concurrent sinking of nearby basins in which the sediments could be preserved, and proximity to the great Yellowstone-Absaroka volcanic area, one of the most active continental volcanic fields in the United States. The volume and composition of the Tertiary strata are, therefore, clear evidence of crustal and subcrustal instability.

The many thick layers of conglomerate are evidence of rapid erosion of nearby highlands. The Pinyon Conglomerate (fig. 45), for example, contains zones as much as 2,500 feet thick of remarkably well-rounded pebbles, cobbles, and boulders, chiefly of quartzite identical with that in the underlying Harebell Formation and derived from the same source, the Targhee uplift. Like the Harebell the matrix contains small amounts of gold and mercury. Rock fragments increase in size northwestward toward the source area (fig. 46) and most show percussion scars, evidence of ferocious pounding that occurred during transport by powerful, swift rivers and steep gradients.

Figure 45. Pinyon Conglomerate of Paleocene age, along the northwest margin of the Teton Range.

Figure 46. Teton region near end of deposition of Paleocene rocks, slightly less than 60 million years ago. The ancestral Teton-Gros Ventre uplift farmed a partial barrier between the Jackson Hole and Green River depositional basins; major drainages from the Targhee uplift spread an enormous sheet of gravel for 100 miles to the east. See figure 41 for State lines and location map.

Conglomerates such as the Pinyon are not the only clue to the time of mountain building. Another type of evidence—faults is demonstrated in figure 16. The youngest rocks cut by a fault are always older than the fault. Many faults and the rocks on each side are covered by still younger unbroken sediments. These must, therefore, have been deposited after fault movement ceased. By dating both the faulted and the overlying unbroken sediments, the time of fault movement can be bracketed.

Observations of this type in western Wyoming indicate that the Laramide Revolution reached a climax during earliest Eocene time, 50 to 55 million years ago. Mountain-producing upwarps formed during this episode were commonly bounded on one side by either reverse or thrust faults (fig. 16B and C) and intervening blocks were down-folded into large, very deep basins. The amount of movement of the mountain blocks over the basins ranged from tens of miles in the Snake River, Salt River, Wyoming, and Hoback Ranges directly south of the Tetons to less than 5 miles on the east margin of Jackson Hole (the west flank of the Washakie Range shown in figure 1). The ancestral Teton-Gros Ventre uplift continued to rise but remained one of the less conspicuous mountain ranges in the region (fig. 47).

Figure 47. Teton region at climax of Laramide Revolution, between 50 and 55 million years ago. See figure 41 for State lines and location map.

The Buck Mountain fault, the great reverse fault which lies just west of the highest Teton peaks (see geologic map and cross section), was formed either at this time or during a later episode of movement that also involved the southwest margin of the Gros Ventre Mountains. The Buck Mountain fault is of special importance because it raised a segment of Precambrian rocks several thousand feet. Later, when the entire range as we now know it was uplifted by movement along the Teton fault, the hard basement rocks in this previously upfaulted segment continued to stand much higher than those in adjacent parts of the range. All of the major peaks in the Tetons are carved from this doubly uplifted block.

The brightly colored sandstone, mudstone, amid claystone in the Indian Meadows and Wind River Formations (lower Eocene) in the eastern part of Jackson Hole were derived from variegated Triassic, Jurassic, and Lower Cretaceous rocks exposed on the adjacent mountain flanks. Fossils in these Eocene Formations show that it took less than 10 million years for the uplifts to be deeply eroded and partially buried in their own debris.

The Laramide Revolution in the area of Grand Teton National Park ended during Eocene time between 45 and 50 million years ago, and as the mountains and basins became stabilized a new element was added. Volcanoes broke through to the surface in many parts of the Yellowstone-Absaroka area and the constantly increasing volume of their eruptive debris was a major factor in the speed of filling of basins and burial of mountains throughout Wyoming. This entire process only took about 20 million years, and along the east margin of Jackson Hole it was largely completed during Oligocene time (fig. 48). However, east and northeast of Jackson Lake a Miocene downwarp subsequently formed and in it accumulated at least 7,000 feet of locally derived sediments of volcanic origin.

Figure 48. Teton region near the close of Oligocene deposition, between 25 and 30 million years ago, showing areas of major volcanoes and lava flows. See figure 41 for State lines and location map.

Teewinot Lake (fig. 49), the first big freshwater lake in Jackson Hole, was formed during Pliocene time, about 10 million years ago, and in it the Teewinot Formation was deposited. These lake strata consist of more than 5,000 feet of white limestone, thin-bedded claystone, and tuff (solidified ash made up of tiny fragments of volcanic rock and splinters of volcanic glass). The claystones contain fossil snails, clams, beaver bones and teeth, aquatic mice, suckers, and other fossils that indicate deposition in a shallow freshwater lake environment. These beds underlie Jackson Lake Lodge, the National Elk Refuge, part of Blacktail Butte, and are conspicuously exposed in white outcrops that look like snowbanks on the upper-slopes along the east margin of the park across the valley from the Grand Teton.

Figure 49. Teton region near close of middle Pliocene time, about 5 million years ago, showing areas of major volcanoes and lava flows. See figure 41 for State lines and location map.

Teewinot Lake was formed on a down-faulted block and was dammed behind (north of) a fault that trends east across the floor of Jackson Hole at the south boundary of the park. Lakes are among the most short-lived of earth features because the forces of nature soon conspire to fill them up or empty them. This lake existed for perhaps 5 million years during middle Pliocene time; it was shallow, and remained so despite the pouring in of a mile-thick layer of sediment. This indicates that downdropping of the lake floor just about kept pace with deposition.

Other lakes formed in response to similar crustal movements in nearby places. One such lake, Grand Valley Lake (fig. 49), formed about 25 miles southwest of Teewinot Lake; both contained sediments with nearly the same thickness, composition, appearance, age, and fossils. Although these two lakes are on opposite sides of the Snake River Range, the ancestral Snake River apparently flowed through a canyon previously cut across the range and provided a direct connection between them.

Development of mammals

The Cenozoic Era is known as the "Age of Mammals." Small mammals bad already existed, though quite inconspicuously, in Wyoming for about 90 million years before Paleocene time. Then about 65 million years ago their proliferation began as a result of the extinction of dinosaurs, obliteration of seaways that were barriers to distribution, and the development of new and varied types of environment. These new environments included savannah plains, low hills and high mountains, freshwater lakes and swamps, and extensive river systems. The mammals increased in size and, for the first time, became abundant in numbers of both species and individuals. The development and widespread distribution of grasses and other forage on which many of the animals depended were highly significant. Successful adaption of herbivores (vegetation-eating animals) led, in turn, to increased varieties and numbers of predatory carnivores (meat-eating animals).

During early Eocene time, coal swamps formed in eastern Jackson Hole and persisted for thousands of years, as is shown by 60 feet of coal in a single bed at one locality. Continuing on into middle Eocene time, the climate was subtropical and humid, and the terrain was near sea level. Tropical breadfruits, figs, and magnolias flourished along with a more temperate flora of redwood, hickory, maple, and oak. Horses the size of a dog and many other small mammals were abundant. Primates, thriving in an ideal forest habitat, were numerous. Streams contained gar fish and crocodiles (fig. 50).

Figure 50. Restoration of a middle Eocene landscape showing some of the more abundant types of mammals. Moral painting by Jay H. Matterness; photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Early in the Oligocene Epoch, between 30 and 35 million years ago, the climate in Jackson Hole became cooler and drier, and the subtropical plants gave way to the warm temperate flora of oak, beech, maple, alder, and ash. The general land surface rose higher above sea level, perhaps by accumulation of several thousand feet of Oligocene volcanic rocks (fig. 52) rather than by continental uplift. Titanotheres (large four-legged mammals with the general size and shape of a rhinoceros) flourished in great numbers for a few million years and then abruptly vanished. Horses by now were about the size of a very small modern colt. Rabbits, rodents, carnivores, tiny camels, and other mammals were abundant in Jackson Hole, and the fauna, surprisingly, was essentially the same as that 500 miles to the east, at a much lower elevation, on the plains of Nebraska and South Dakota (fig. 51).

Figure 51. A typical Oligocene landscape showing some of the more abundant types of mammals. Mural painting by Jay H. Matterness; photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

Figure 52. Layers of volcanic conglomerate separated by thin white tuff beds in Wiggins Formation. These cliffs, on the north side of Togwotee Pass, are about 1,100 feet high and represent a cross section of part of the enormous blanket of waterlaid debris that spread south and east from the Yellowstone-Absaroka volcanic area. These and younger deposits from the same general source filled the basins and almost completely buried the mountains in this part of Wyoming.

The Miocene Epoch (15 to 25 million years ago) was the time of such intense volcanic activity in the Teton region that animals must have found survival very difficult. A few skeletons and fragmentary parts of camels about the size of a small horse and other piglike animals called oreodonts comprise our only record of mammals; nothing is known of the plants. Farther east the climate fluctuated from subtropical to warm temperate, gradually becoming cooler toward the end of the epoch.

Fossils in the Pliocene lake deposits (8 to 10 million years old; see description of Teewinot Formation) include shallow-water types of snails, clams, diatoms, and ostracodes, as well as beavers, mice, suckers, and frogs. Pollen in these beds show that adjacent upland areas supported fir, spruce, pine, juniper, sage, and other trees and shrubs common to the area today. Therefore, the climate must have been much cooler than in Miocene time. No large mammals of Pliocene age have been found in Jackson Hole. The record of life during Quaternary time is discussed later.


Volcanoes are one of the most interesting parts of the geologic story of the Teton region. Although ash from distant volcanoes had settled in northwestern Wyoming at least as far back in time as Jurassic, the first nearby active volcanoes (since the Precambrian) erupted in the Yellowstone-Absaroka region during the early Eocene, about 50 million years ago. From then on, the volcanic area grew in size and the violence of eruptions and volume of debris increased until Pliocene time. This debris bad a profound influence on the color and composition of the sediments and on the environment and types of plants and animals.

The color of the volcanic rocks and the sediments derived from them varies significantly from one epoch to another. For example, the middle Eocene rocks are white to light-green, red, and purple, upper Eocene are dark-green, Oligocene are light-gray, white, and brown, Miocene are dark-green, brown, and gray, and Pliocene are white to red-brown.

As mentioned earlier, it is probable that the vast outpouring of volcanic rocks during late Tertiary time in the Teton region and to the north and northeast is directly related to the subsidence of Jackson Hole and the rise of the Tetons.

The spectacular banded cliffs of the Wiggins Formation on both sides of Togwotee Pass (fig. 52) and farther north in the Absaroka Range are remnants of Oligocene volcanic conglomerate and tuff that once spread as a blanket several thousand feet thick across eastern Jackson Hole and partially or completely buried the nearby older folded mountain ranges.

About 25 million years ago, with the start of the Miocene Epoch, volcanic vents opened up within, and along the borders of, Grand Teton National Park. Major centers of eruption were at the north end of the Teton Range, east of Jackson Lake, and south of Spread Creek. They emitted a prodigious amount of volcanic ash and fragments of congealed lava. For example, adjacent to one vent a mile in diameter, about 4 miles north-northeast of Jackson Lake Lodge, is a continuous section, 7,000 feet thick, of water-laid strata derived in large part from this volcanic source. These sedimentary rocks comprise the Colter Formation which is darker colored and contains more iron and magnesium than the Wiggins Formation. The site of deposition at this locality was a north-trending trough that represented an early stage in the downwarping of Jackson Hole.

Pliocene volcanoes erupted in southern and central Yellowstone Park. The volcanoes emitted viscous, frothy, pinkish-gray and brown lava called rhyolite. This is an extrusive igneous rock that has the same composition as granite, but is much finer grained. In several places, lava apparently flowed into the north end of Teewinot Lake, chilled suddenly, and solidified into a black volcanic glass called obsidian. Because it chips easily into thin flakes having a smooth surface, obsidian was prized by the Indians, who used it for spear and arrow points (fig. 54). Some of this obsidian has a potassium-argon date of 9 million years.

Figure 53. Air oblique view south, showing the north end of the Teton Range disappearing beneath Pleistocene lava flows. Light-colored bare area at lower left is vertical Paleozoic limestone surrounded on three sides by nearly horizontal rhyolite lava flows. Bare slope at lower right is west dipping Pinyon Conglomerate, also overlapped by lava. Grand Teton is on right skyline and Mt. Moran is rounded summit on middle skyline.

Figure 54. Obsidian, a volcanic glass less than 10 million years old, especially prized by Indians who used it for spear and arrow points and for tools.

After Teewinot Lake was filled with sediment, the floor of Jackson Hole became a flat boulder-covered surface. Nearby vents erupted heavy fiery clouds of gaseous molten rock that rolled across this plain and then congealed into hard layers with the general appearance of lava flows. Under a microscope, however, the rock is seen to be made up of compressed fragments of glass that matted down and solidified when the clouds stopped moving. This kind of rock is called a welded tuff. One of these forms the conspicuous ledge in the Bivouac Formation on the north and east sides of Signal Mountain (fig. 55), and is especially important because it has a potassium-argon date of 2.5 million years. More of this welded tuff flowed southward from Yellowstone National Park, engulfed the north end of the Teton Range (fig. 53), and continued southward along the west side of the mountains for 35 miles and along the east side for 25 miles.

Figure 55. East face of Signal Mountain showing Bivouac Formation (upper Pliocene or Pleistocene). Tilted ledge is rhyolitic welded tuff 2.5 million years old, and slopes above and below it are conglomerate. National Park Service photo by W. E. Dilley.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2007