Posts Tagged ‘Red Canyon’

It is the east side of Red Canyon that gives it its name. The curious fact is that the west side is completely different. The soil is not particularly red, maybe a little in spots, and the land sweeps away from the canyon road in a gentle slope with just a few dry cliffs because the soil is so weak.

This is the west side of the road, not red at all, and belonging to a much earlier era.

How did this happen?

First of all, we need to look a little farther west, at the Wind River Mountains. These were built – that is, they came up from the earth – at the end of the Cretaceous. The Cretaceous is the third period of the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous). Now, to review: the red shales and siltstones date from the Triassic, and the pink sandstones from the Jurassic, and both were laid down flat, as sediments must be; you remember that Nicholas Steno explained this way back in the 17th century.

But then, in the Cretaceous, the third part of the Mesozoic, something completely different happened. The Wind River Mountains were born; they pushed upwards from below the landscape and tilted everything sideways. They lie just west of our canyon, and when they rose out of the earth, it was crumple time for everything. The sandstones held out best, but whenever they broke up and gave way, the silt and shale followed quickly, and whatever rivers formed on the new landscape took away all the debris, leaving what was under the Triassic soils.

Well, what’s under the Triassic is the Permian, the last period of the Paloezoic.

The Permian Phosphoria formation has some sandstones that are windblown (not river borne) and some limestones, which is to say underwater shell deposits, and some dolomites and other things. None of it is particularly red; it’s mostly white and gray, rather drab, a nice place to rest your eyes from the intensity across the road. So at the bottom of the canyon is Red Canyon Creek, which carried away the soft stuff; then on one side the Permian Phosphoria slopes away to the west, and on the other, the bright Chugwater leaps up towards the Jurassic Nugget on the eastern horizon. It’s two different worlds, dating from millions and millions of years apart, with a little creek and a little red road running between, and all sorts of gray-green sages and things that must notice the difference between the soils, but they just grow along as if time and soils made no difference at all.

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Red Canyon WY

A few miles down the road from the ranch site where Wyoming Catholic is starting its campus is an extraordinarily scenic spot called Red Canyon. In fact, if you have time, you can drive into the canyon along the reddest road you are ever likely to see.

The redbeds of the Triassic Era are beautifully displayed in this canyon by the Wind River Range in Wyoming

These red formations are siltstones and shales from the Triassic – about a quarter of a million years ago; that’s 250 – 200 million years ago. In those days, all the continents of the earth were gathered into a single continent which we call Pangaea. The important thing to understand about such a large landmass is that there must always be widespread deserts when so much land is far from the ocean. Even now, the continents of Africa, Australia, Asia, and South America have major deserts because moist ocean winds do not fully refresh their interiors. North America also has deserts, but smaller ones, mainly because humid air from the Gulf of Mexico is drawn north across the continent before it turns east with the prevailing winds; in this way it brings moisture to large parts of the continental center.

But in a single continent, there can be no Gulf to fix things, and thus there developed the most striking characteristic of the Triassic era: worldwide formations brilliant with intensely red-staining iron oxides.

Here in Wyoming, the redbeds are called the Chugwater formation and consist of soft red shales, harder red siltstones, and very strong red sandstones. In the middle distance of the photograph, you can see some shelves set into the cliffside; these are the sandstones and siltstones which do not erode so easily as the shales.

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