Stories in the Rocks

To those who have learned to read their language, the Blue Ridge rocks tell of momentous events. But their story as written here, in English, is like the story of the mountain people: both are based on educated guesses. Experts study the evidence, then decide, "It must have been like this..." The guesses of geologists are highly educated, and geologists all agree on what happened here. Only when you get down to details, such as why it happened and exactly when, are there differing opinions.

The oldest rocks in the Park are the ancient granites that form the core of the mountains. In most places they lie hidden under more recent rocks. But they are exposed on some of the higher peaks, such as Hogback, Marys Rock, and Old Rag, and in road cuts along the Drive. Geologists divide this granite core into two categories:

Old Rag granite, which is exposed on Old Rag, and on the crest of Oventop, and on a rather narrow strip of land that connects the two.

Granodiorite of the Pedlar formation, which is far more extensive, exposed in many places along the main Blue Ridge.

The two differ somewhat in chemical composition. Old Rag granite is a little lighter in color than the granodiorite. Both have been somewhat changed from their original structure by what happened later.

Q: What's a "Pedlar" formation?
A: The dictionary says that a "formation" is a mass of rock that's considered as a unit for the purpose of geological mapping. We can assume that all the rocks in a given formation were formed by the same process and at roughly the same time. A formation is named for the place where it was first described.

As we've seen, the human history of the Blue Ridge spans eleven thousand years. The history of the rocks is a hundred thousand times that long. The granite that forms the core of these mountains is a fourth as old as the earth itself. It crystalized from molten magma 1,100,000,000 years ago. That date can be fixed, with a reasonably small percentage of error, by measurement of radioactive elements and their decay products.

There's a certain satisfaction in assigning dates to events, even though we can't appreciate their meaning. Eleven hundred million years, in human terms, is an inconceivable span of time. We might try to grasp its magnitude by analogy: if the age of the oldest Blue Ridge rocks were twelve hours, then all the time that has elapsed since the birth of Christ would be considerably less than a tenth of a second. But such comparisons don't really work. Let's get on with the story, assigning dates as best we can, without trying to understand them in human terms.

Evidence tells us that the ancient rocks cooled and crystalized very slowly, for the different minerals form an interlocking mosaic of moderately large crystals. Such a structure forms only when the rocks solidify slowly, at high temperature and under great pressure. Thus we know that the granite core of the mountain was more than a mile underground when it solidified from molten magma. What lay on top of it we'll never know. Over a period of three hundred million years, the land was slowly lifted upward. And as it rose, the higher rocks weathered, disintegrated, and washed into the sea.

With a little effort we can picture the landscape as it was eight hundred million years ago. Hills and low mountains of bare granite, from a few hundred to perhaps two thousand feet high, covered the land. Streams flowed down the hollows and through the valleys. Here and there on a wet shaded rock, there may have been a green film of algae; but there was no other life outside the oceans. As the granite hilltops weathered, the streams carried sand and gravel to the lowlands, and spread them in a layer up to 200 feet thick over the valleys.

Then to this bleak landscape came the lava flows. The granite, strained by the forces that were lifting it upward, cracked and split. The lava that surged up through the fissures was so hot that it spread out in the valley and formed a smooth flat sheet before it hardened. Where the eruptions were especially violent, clouds of volcanic dust and ash poured through the fissures and settled on the land, and were covered by the lava.

Now the landscape was different. The low mountains of bare granite were still there, but a sheet of lava covered the valley floor. The streams still flowed down the hollows, and began to carve channels through the lava. They carried more sand and pebbles from the eroding granite hills, and spread them here and there over the lava on the valley floor.

The lifting force continued, until at last the rocks split again. More dust and cinders spewed out, and more lava flowed, forming a new and higher floor in the valleys. And this was repeated at least a dozen times, for we find evidence of a dozen separate lava flows in the Park. With each new eruption, the lava reached higher on the granite hillsides, and eventually covered all but the highest peaks.

The valley sediments that were covered by the first lava flow were cemented by mineral fluids from the lavas, and compacted by heat and pressure. These sediments now form the rocks of the Swift Run formation, which is exposed at several places along the Drive.

The lava flows, collectively, comprise the Catoctin formation, consisting mostly of igneous rocks (which hardened from a molten state.) But in places the lava flows are separated by sedimentary rock (formed of sediments laid down by water, and later hardened by pressure.) These relatively thin layers of sedimentary rocks were the sand and pebbles that washed down onto each new lava surface before the next flow occurred. In many places, soil that had formed on top of a lava flow was torn up and churned into the base of the next flow. There's a good example of this at Little Stony Man.

Near its upper surface, newly hardened lava is porous and filled with gas bubbles. We can assume that in many places the pores and voids were filled with ground water when a new flow of white-hot lava covered them. Minerals crystalized from the superheated solutions. Bubble cavities filled with concentric shells of minerals such as epidote (bright yellow green), chlorite (dark green); feldspar (bone white); and quartz (glassy, milky white to nearly transparent.)

The epidote that filled the lava pores served as a cement; when this lava was later compacted by the pressure of overlying rocks it became greenstone, which makes up nearly 80 percent of the Catoctin formation within the Park. Greenstone caps our highest peaks, and forms nearly all our waterfalls. Where rock surfaces are old and weathered and covered by lichens, the green color may be hidden under shades of gray; on freshly broken rock it's very evident.

As each flow of lava cooled it contracted, and cracks traced polygons on its surface as they do on the surface of drying mud. As cooling continued the cracks spread downward, forming long prismatic columns of five, six, or seven sides—from a few inches to more than two feet across. This columnar jointing is evident at many points in the Park, and I'll point out examples in the log of the Drive.

The fissures through which the lava poured are now filled with dikes of solidified lava. Within the Park more than a hundred greenstone dikes in the granite rock have been found and mapped. The best example beside the Drive is at the north portal of the Marys Rock tunnel, Mile 32.2.

Just how long the intermittent volcanic activity lasted, no one can say. It had probably ended entirely by the beginning of the Cambrian period, something less than 600 million years ago. After the last lava flow a few hilltops of granite were still exposed, and it's likely that there were higher granite hills or mountains to the west. New streams cut channels through the lava beds, and deposited sand and pebbles that washed down from the granite mountains. These deposits became the rocks that now constitute the Weverton formation.

Now the land was sinking. As it neared sea level, the streams stopped flowing and became bogs. The sea came nearer. The land that is now the Park was covered by shallow lagoons, separated by sand bars from the open ocean. Sandy mud and clay washed into the lagoons and, as the land continued to sink, built up to a depth of hundreds of feet. This material later became the sandstone and shale of the Hampton formation.

The land sank farther. The sea advanced, and the Blue Ridge area became a sandy shore. The white beach sands later became the white quartzite of the Erwin formation.

And then the land sank beneath the sea. The sediments now were carbonates—some precipitated by chemical action in the sea water, and some consisting of shells of marine animals. The land continued sinking for perhaps another eighty million years, while the sediments built up limestone and dolomite deposits two or three miles thick. Then the land rose again, and the limestone emerged from the sea. That must have been roughly 450 million years ago.

The story of the rocks during the next 225 million years is somewhat garbled, or maybe it loses something in translation. The details are uncertain. We know that a number of things happened, though we can't put them in exact sequence, or assign exact dates. The rocks we now see in the Park were metamorphosed, which means their physical nature was changed by the pressure of rocks above them. Second, the uplift of the land continued. Third, tremendous forces thrust against the land, pushing toward the northwest. The rocks buckled and broke; fault lines developed; great masses of rock were thrust on top of others; formations in some places were tilted, and in others turned on their sides. But this didn't happen in one great, literally earth-shaking event. It must have resulted from continued thrust, and intermittent slippage along the fault lines, spread out over nearly all of the 225 million years.

The final chapter brings us from 225 million years ago to the present. During most of this time uplift continued, and during all of it the land eroded. The miles of sediments that lay above the granite and greenstone of the Blue Ridge crest were washed away. But granite and greenstone are more resistant than the sedimentary rocks, and when they were exposed the erosion slowed. To the west, the softer carbonate rocks had been pushed downward by the buckling of the land that shaped these mountains. The limestone eroded rapidly, forming what is now the Shenandoah Valley.

Uplift of the land may still be going on; if so, it's too slow to detect. Erosion of the Blue Ridge speeded up during the ice ages when, most likely, the talus slopes that we now see along the western slopes of the mountain were formed. Erosion is slower now, but it continues nevertheless.

Q: Why should the surface of the land rise and fall?
A: Questions that begin with "why" are hard to answer. Each answer leads to another question beginning with "why", and the conversation spirals outward toward infinity.

Q: Give it a try.
A: The earth has a solid outer crust maybe fifty miles thick, floating on hot plastic material. "Plastic" in this sense means capable of flowing. But it's not a liquid. It can flow very slowly, in response to great pressure. A sideways pressure can make the crust buckle, so that it rises in some places and sinks in others. That's a simplified version of one theory. There are others.

Q: Why should there be sideways pressures on the earth's crust? What caused the "tremendous forces" that pushed the land toward the northwest and made it buckle and break?
A: Again, we have a choice of theories. Here's a simplified version of one of them. The earth's crust is not a continuous mass; rather, it consists of a number of separate "plates". Hugh Crandall, in Shenandoah, the Story Behind the Scenery, aptly compares the plates to ice floes that are loosely frozen together at their edges. Currents in the sea can break the floes apart and grind one floe against another, or crush two floes together. In much the same way, plates in the earth's crust can be moved by slow but powerful convection currents in the hot plastic material underneath. The forces that thrust one plate against another can cause earthquakes and, over a period of time, can build mountains.

Q: Remind me once more: what has all this got to do with me?
A: As you tour the Drive and hike the trails you'll see rocks belonging to all the formations I have mentioned. You will see how one lava flow rests on another, sometimes separated by the sediments of ancient streams. You will see the prismatic columns into which the lava cracked as it cooled, and you will see dikes of cooled lava in the granite. I find satisfaction in knowing how these things came about. I hope you will too.

What I've given is no more than a simplified outline of the story of the rocks. To fill in some of the details, look for this book at one of the Park's sales outlets:

Rocks and Minerals, by Herbert S. Zim and Paul R. Shaffer (Golden Guide Series). 160 pages; small and inexpensive. Color illustrations help identify the most common rocks and minerals.

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© Copyright 1997 Antony Heatwole, All rights reserved