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Geology of the National Parks - Death Valley


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Titus Canyon

Mouth of Titus Canyon
Titus Canyon can be seen as a deep gash cut into the Grapevine Mountains. Photo courtesy of Marli Miller

Ancient rocks - youthful mountains

The deep, narrow gorge of Titus Canyon cuts into the steep face of the Grapevine Mountains. Although the mountain range was uplifted quite recently, geologically-speaking, most of the rocks that make up the range are over half a billion years old.

Tropical seas

The gray rocks lining the walls of the western end of Titus Canyon are Cambrian age (570-505 million years old) limestones. These ancient Paleozoic rocks formed at a time when Death Valley was submerged beneath tropical seas. By the end of the Precambrian, the continental edge of North America had been planed off by erosion to a gently rounded surface of low relief. The rise and fall of the Cambrian seas periodically shifted the shoreline eastward, flooding the continent, then regressed westward, exposing the limestone layers to erosion.
Earth, 520 million years ago
Earth, 520 million years ago. Illustration modified from C. Scotese.
Most of California, Oregon, and Washington states had not yet joined what we now call North America. Death Valley lay at the equator, submerged beneath the tropical sea for much of the Cambrian period. Click here to see the location of Death Valley through time.
Mouth of Titus Canyon
Titus Canyon's Cambrian limestone. Photo by M. Moreno, USGS.

Limey layers

Although some of the limestone exposed in the walls of Titus Canyon originated from thick mats of algae (stromatolites) that thrived in the warm, shallow Death Valley seas, most of the gray limestone shows little structure. Thousands of feet of this limey goo were deposited in the Death Valley region. You'll see similar limestone layers if you visit Lake Mead National Recreation Area or hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Titus Canyon in time
geologic time scale
On to next stop If you're going... Split Cinder Cone image gallery
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