The oldest rocks in Canyonlands date back nearly two billion years. The park is home to sandstones, mudstones, conglomerates and limestones deposited in ancient seas or rivers. These sedimentary rocks are visible throughout the park, particularly in its high mesas and canyon walls.
The park’s spectacular canyons result from millions of years of erosion caused by the Colorado and Green Rivers and their tributaries. These waterways cut through layers of sandstone and limestone, creating deep gorges with steep canyon walls. The rivers have also created various side canyons, adding to the park’s rugged beauty.
Island in the Sky District
The Island in the Sky district is home to some of the most spectacular views of Canyonlands. The mesas and cliffs are composed of horizontal layers of sandstone, mudstone and shale that have been neatly stacked over millions of years. These layers can clearly be seen from a distance, providing visitors with a unique opportunity to appreciate the park’s geology.
Discover the awe-inspiring beauty of the Triassic period through the dark red rocks of the Moenkopi Formation. These magnificent formations, including the iconic Balanced Rock, can be seen along the White Rim Road. Above the Moenkopi Formation lies the vibrant Chinle Formation, a multi-colored sedimentary rock that forms gradual slopes. This unique formation also boasts volcanic ash and bentonite clays, adding to its natural allure.
The Needles District
The Needles district starkly contrasts Island in the Sky, with its colorful rock spires and deep canyons. Here, visitors will find domes of sedimentary rocks made up of sandstone, shale and mudstone. The area also contains many hoodoos, and tall thin formations created by years of erosion.
Over 200 million years ago, this remarkable landscape was submerged under a vast shallow sea that spanned from here to California. Today, the sandstone spires that dominate the area were once part of an expansive desert dune field on the sea's fringes. The captivating layers of red sediment, visible in The Needles, were formed through intermittent floods of vibrant sediment from Colorado's majestic mountains.
In a monumental shift around 20 million years ago, the majestic Colorado Plateau began its ascent propelled by the forces of tectonic uplift. As the land mass reached higher elevations, a remarkable transformation occurred- sediment deposition stopped, paving the way for a mesmerizing erosion spectacle. The powerful currents of rivers, combined with the relentless action of water and the cycles of freezing and thawing ice, sculpted and shaped the landscape with their unyielding force. Witnessed for the first time, the fascinating fractures on the surface of The Needles District were born, as water tirelessly chipped away at the cement-bonding grains of sandstone. The cracks and crevices acted as catalysts, accelerating the erosive processes, and leaving behind a breathtaking testament to the passage of time.
The Maze District
The Maze is a wild and remote area of Canyonlands and the least visited district in the park. This area is renowned for its spectacular geology and captivating landforms, with layers of sandstone, shale and limestone that dominate the landscape. Visitors are drawn to explore this area due to its remoteness and unique topography.
The dramatic rock formations of the Maze result from millions of years of erosion. The intense forces caused by wind, water and ice have slowly carved out this area, gradually creating jagged spires, domes and canyons. It is also home to exposed volcanic rocks such as basalts and rhyolites, which were formed from molten lava that cooled billions of years ago.