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Self-Guided Field Trip Report: Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon

Self-Guided Field Trip Report:


Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon
Emily Rasmussen
Salt Lake Community College
Geology 1010
November 24th, 2015

Self-Guided Field Trip Report: Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon

Chances are, if you live in Utah, you have heard of Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon in
the Sandy area, and you may be most familiar with its many ski resorts. What you may not know,
is that this area is home to a plethora of geologic history involving glaciers, Lake Bonneville, the
Wasatch Fault, a variety of rocks, and a past human history involving mining that could affect
our future.
From the G.K. Gilbert View Park in Sandy, one can see the obvious U-shaped valleys of
the Cottonwood Canyons. This shape is an indicator that these canyons were formed by ancient
glaciers. Evidence of these glaciers can be seen all across the bottom edges of these canyons as
landforms called moraines. Moraines are areas at the bottom of a glacier where erosion has
pushed particles to settle and pile up forming ridges. Years ago during a time called the
Pleistocene, snow and ice piled up in the area forming these ancient glaciers that fed a giant lake
that was 1,585m above sea level. This lake is now known as Lake Bonneville. (Harper &
Petersen, 1990).
Lake Bonneville spread across about 20,000sq/mi of Utah, and also made its way into
small areas of Nevada and Idaho. The deepest area of the lake was about 1,000ft deep. (Gwynn
1996). Carbon dating in Utah areas show that changing levels in the Lake Bonneville shorelines
correlate with the growth and retreat of glaciers. This evidence lead Hetzel and Hampel (2006) to
the conclusion that the changing levels caused earthquakes to happen at the Wasatch Fault line
years ago, causing it to gradually slip.
Scarps from the Wasatch Fault are easily visible at the edge of Little Cottonwood
Canyon. Interestingly enough, one can also see that just a bit above it, there sits moraines from
the canyons glacier days. This seems to relate with Hetzel and Hampels statement in the
previous paragraph. These scarps certainly do show signs of slippage on the fault line at various
different levels. Regardless of these signs, there are a number of houses nestled right above and
below the fault. Sure they get a great view of the valley, but what will they do when the next

Self-Guided Field Trip Report: Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon

earthquake strikes? How long will it take for that to happen? Well, according to the Utah
Geologic Survey (Eldredge, 1996), the last huge earthquake was 400-600 years ago, and the
average rate of recurrence is every 350 years. This means that they could get hit with an
earthquake at any second. However, the likelihood of them or their grandchildren experiencing
one there is still somewhat low. There are still many individuals who are studying the soil, rocks,
and landscapes that were involved in earthquakes in the past, in an effort to better predict when
and where one may occur next. Not all areas of the Wasatch Fault are the same, so it is tough to
tell where the next earthquake will be. One of the areas being researched now is on Penrose
Drive near the University of Utah, were many different layers of silt, sand, and gravel from Lake
Bonneville have been found. (DuRoss et al., 2014).
Looking over at the Big Cottonwood area, there is an obvious variety of rocks and other
landforms present. At the G.K. Gilbert Geologic View Park, informational signs list the three
most visible rock formations as the Little Willow Formation (metamorphic), Big Cottonwood
Formation (metamorphic), and the Little Cottonwood Stock (igneous). At 1.7 billion years old, it
is said that the Little Willow Formation is the oldest rock in Salt Lake County, and it is made up
of quartz, schist, and gneiss. The Big Cottonwood Formation on the other hand is made up of
quartzite, shale, and slate. At the bottom of Big Cottonwood Canyon, there are a few smaller
rocks made of granite that have been swept there by the ancient glaciers. These piles of rocks are
called glacial boulders, and they serve as further evidence of the appearance of glaciers in the
Cottonwood Canyons. Granite can be found everywhere there, but the most known granite rock
in the canyon is the Little Cottonwood Stock. It is a very unique rock with coloring around it that
has been changed to a red color due to heat and igneous material, which has chemically changed
the base surrounding the rock. (Harper & Peterson, 1990). According to the informational signs
at G.K. Gilbert slabs of granite from the Little Cottonwood Stock was also used to build the Salt

Self-Guided Field Trip Report: Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon

Lake City LDS temple. If one looked around at the hills below the stock, they would also see odd
little green piles sitting in various spots along the canyon. These arent actually rock formations,
but they are old mine dumps.
It doesnt seem so now, but the Cottonwood Canyons used to be a very popular mining
area. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people mined many types of ore such as gold, silver,
zinc, lead etc., and the area became known as the Gold City. What made the area great for
mining, was the intrusions of mineral-rich magma in the rocks, causing them to create the
desired ore. Near the Little Willow Formation was a vast underground mining area. Although
mining in this area has vanished, there is still a measurable amount of mining particles found in
the area today (James, 1979).
Understanding the geology of Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons is very important to
our society today. The area has so much history involved that is just waiting to be heard. Much of
this geologic history is vital for the prediction of certain events around it. The history of the
Wasatch Fault for instance, is a perfect example of what dating its rock layers and studying its
slipping scarps can tell us. We need this knowledge to better prepare us for future earthquakes. It
is also important that we acknowledge the mining history in this area, so that we can be aware of
contamination threats in the ground water. When we learn about the past, we get a glimpse into
the future.

Self-Guided Field Trip Report: Big & Little Cottonwood Canyon

References
DuRoss, C.B., Hylland, M.D., McDonald, G.N., Crone, A.J., Personius, S.F., Gold, R.D., and
Mahan, S.A. "Holocene and Latest Pleistocene Paleoseismology of the Salt Lake City
Segment of the Wasatch Fault Zone, Utah, at the Penrose Drive Trench
Site." Paleoseismology of Utah: Utah Geological Survey Special Study 24.149 (2014): 139. Utah Geologic Survey. Web. November 25, 2015
Eldredge, S.N. (1996). The Wasatch Fault. Utah Geologic Survey Public Information Series, 40,
1-17. Utah Geologic Survey. PDF. November 23, 2015
Gwynn, J.W. (1996). Commonly Asked Questions About Utah's Great Salt Lake and Ancient
Lake Bonneville. Utah Geologic Survey Public Information Series, 39, 1-3. Utah
Geologic Survey. PDF. November 23, 2015
Harper, K.T., & Peterson, M.S. (1990). Natural History of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.
Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 71(2), 381-386. November 23, 2015.
Hetzel, R., & Hampel, A. (2006). "Long-Term Rates Of Faulting Derived From Cosmogenic
Nuclides And Short-Term Variations Caused By Glacial-Interglacial Volume Changes Of
Glaciers And Lakes." Int. J. Mod. Phys. B International Journal of Modern Physics B
20(03), 270-76. Web. November 23 2015
James, L.P. (1979). Geology, ore deposits, and history of the Big Cottonwood Mining District,
Salt Lake County, Utah (pp. 1-95). Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Geological and Mineral
Survey, Utah Dept. of Natural Resources.