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Arches National Park Geology >>

How did the Arches form?

Arches National Park lies atop an underground salt bed, which is the main cause of the formation of the arches and spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and eroded monoliths in the area. Thousands of feet thick in places, this salt bed was deposited over the Colorado Plateau some 300 million years ago when a sea flowed into the region and eventually evaporated. Over millions of years, the salt bed was covered with residue from floods and winds and the oceans that came in intervals. Much of this debris was compressed into rock. At one time this overlying earth may have been one mile thick.

Salt under pressure is unstable, and the salt bed below Arches was no match for the weight of this thick cover of rock. Under such pressure it shifted, buckled, liquefied, and repositioned itself, thrusting the Earth layers upward into domes. Whole sections fell into cavities. In places they turned almost on edge. Faults occurred. The result of one such 2,500-foot displacement, the Moab Fault, is seen from the visitor center.

As this subsurface movement of salt shaped the Earth, surface erosion stripped away the younger rock layers. Except for isolated remnants, the major formations visible in the park today are the salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone, in which most of the arches form, and the buff-colored Navajo Sandstone. These are visible in layer cake fashion throughout most of the park. Over time water seeped into the superficial cracks, joints, and folds of these layers. Ice formed in the fissures, expanding and putting pressure on surrounding rock, breaking off bits and pieces. Winds later cleaned out the loose particles. A series of free-standing fins remained. Wind and water attacked these fins until, in some, the cementing material gave way and chunks of rock tumbled out. Many damaged fins collapsed. Others, with the right degree of hardness and balance, survived despite their missing sections. These became the famous arches.





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