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Quick Geology Guide to Rocky Mountain National Park
Families traveling to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado will be faced with a geology lesson like no other.

And this is the kind of geology that makes a kid's heart race.

From massive volcanic eruptions to glaciers with the power to rip mountains in two and grind giant boulders to dust, Rocky Mountain National Park represents an impressive array of forces.

What's more, the family can get out and actually touch the stuff, climb around on the remains of these geologic tantrums, and watch the processes first hand.

Kids might even forget this is supposed to be educational.

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Photo: A family in Rocky Mountain National Park hikes amongst the evidence of colossal geologic forces that tore a few mountains down.

Rocks Like Soap 

ay, way back when the earth was still pretty young (about 1.7 billion years ago), a small chunk of continental dirt, called a craton, was rafting around on the earth’s crust in a process known as continental drift.

The rocks that are now in Rocky Mountain National Park were formed on the edge of this craton when some islands bumped into it and began to grind under it. That set off volcanoes, which puffed material all over the surrounding area. The volcanic and sea sediments were pushed together and heated up so much that they turned into metamorphic rock.

About 1.4 billion years ago, another slow collision caused subsurface crust to melt and squeeze up into cracks on the new little continent’s underside, forming granite intrusions.

Through the years this old, old rock floated nearly halfway around the globe, crunching with continents that rammed into one another and broke apart again. More than once collisions caused the ground to wrinkle up into mountains, only to be eroded nearly flat again by wind, water, and gravity.

Much more recently, about 72 million years ago, an intense period of mountain building began again, and the high ground of Rocky Mountain National Park rose up. Thick layers of sedimentary rock eroded away, to be deposited at the base of the mountains and out onto the plains. And the crust compressed the mountains until the old rock that once lay at the edge of the craton slid up along faults “like a wedge of soap squeezed between your hands,” according to geologists Halka Chronic and Felicie Williams. What once lay in the basement of the continent now juts 14,000 feet above sea level.

Volcanoes in Rocky Mountain National Park

Just when the “soap” was slipping up between the “hands” of the continent, about 25 million years ago, volcanoes began to erupt in and near Rocky Mountain National Park as well. As you drive over Trail Ridge Road west of the Alpine Visitor center, look for a large mountain northwest of the road, across the Poudre River valley. That’s Specimen Mountain, a 12,489-foot high volcano. If you are observant, you’ll see that its color differs from the granite and schist of the surrounding peaks. When it was active, it was likely much taller, but erosion and glaciers have taken their toll. Look for bands of light-colored volcanic ash in roadcuts near the continental divide. The Never Summer Mountains, guarding the west side of the Kawuneeche Valley, are volcanic as well.

Photo: In Rocky Mountain National Park,
Colorado, the Never Summer Mountains
(old volcanoes) guard the deep, U-shaped
Kawuneeche Valley (which was dug by glaciers).

Making Glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park

The soaring heights of Rocky Mountain National Park affect the weather. Moist winds travel across the land until they bump into the slopes, where the air rises and slows down. With cooler temperatures and stalled winds, moisture drops out as rain or snow.  This extra water and the steepness of the terrain create rushing streams and rivers. The energy of the falling water digs out narrow, V-shaped valleys and deposits large alluvial fans at the edge of the mountains.

From time to time the climate cooled, compounding this effect. Glaciers grew and then cut away at the mountains. Some geologists believe that the process, though hidden from our eyes, is still continuing today.

Starting twenty or thirty thousand years ago, during the most recent ice age, wind-driven snow built up on the east side of the peaks. When year after year more snow accumulated than melted, it turned to ice under its own weight. In some places, the snow and ice filled entire valleys to the brim, with only the highest peaks poking out of the ice cap that surrounded them.

Eventually some of the ice began to slowly groan its way down the mountainsides. As it flowed, it dragged giant boulders and tiny grains of dirt with it. These scraped against the ground, leaving long striations in the rocks and digging huge U-shaped valleys. The glaciers extended from the highest elevations down to about 8,000 feet above sea level, where they melted into rushing rivers of water. At their bottom-most reaches, along their sides, and sometimes down the middle when two glaciers came together, they piled up giant, long hills of debris. When a toddler pushes a plastic bulldozer through the dirt, he will pile up lines of sand in the same way.

The piles of debris are called moraines and can easily be seen around Moraine Park. The Moraine Park Museum sits on the flanks of 8906-foot-tall Eagle Cliff Mountain, a moraine left at the base of a huge glacier. The steep, heavily forested slope to the south of Moraine Park is the South Lateral Moraine. When viewed from the sunroom of the museum, the size of the moraine helps children and their parents understand the magnitude of the ice rivers that once flowed through the area.

The high country on Trail Ridge Road, around Bear Lake, and along the Continental Divide towards Longs Peak shows textbook examples of several glacial features. Look for cirques, arêtes, horns, and hanging valleys.
Numerous glacial tarns (small lakes) dot cirques along the east side of the high peaks. Forest Canyon and the Kawuneeche Valley are plunging, forest-filled gaps in the mountainous terrain. Their depths were dug in relatively straight lines not by the rivers that flow through them, but by colossal glaciers. The masses of ice could plow a direct path, instead of winding around as liquid water does.

There is some evidence that deep ice, now covered by rocks, continues to flow downhill carving away at the bedrock beneath it. One such possible rock glacier is the boulder field of Longs Peak.

Photo: Does a rock glacier still grind down the slopes of Longs Peak today?
The controversy continues . . .

Excerpted from The Family Guide to Colorado's National Parks and Monuments,
(c) Carolyn Sutton 2006, all rights reserved. Copies available from Westcliffe Publishers and

Related Links:

Best Family Attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park
Ranger Programs for Kids in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Restaurants and Picnicking
Lodging and Campgrounds in Rocky Mountain National Park
Towns near Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Quick Wildlife Guide
Rocky Mountain National Park Quick History Guide
Travel Information for Rocky Mountain National Park
Family Safety in Rocky Mountain National Park

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