Geology of the Grand Canyon: The Vermilion Cliffs.


To this great wall, terminating the Triassic terrace and stretching from the Hurricane Ledge to the Paria, Powell has given the name of the Vermilion Cliffs. Their great altitude, the remarkable length of their line of frontage,the persistence with which their proportions are sustained throughout the entire interval, their ornate sculpture and rich coloring, might justify very exalted language of description. But to the southward, just where the desert surface dips downward beneath the horizon, are those supreme walls of the Grand Cañon, which we must hereafter behold and vainly strive to describe; and however worthy of admiration the Vermilion Cliffs may be w must be frugal of adjectives, lest in the chapters to be written we find their force and meaning exhausted. They will be weak and vapid enough at best. Yet there are portions of the Vermillion cliffs which in some respects lay hold of the sensibilities with a force not much less overwhelming than the majesty of the Grand Cañon; not in the same way, not by virtue of the same elements of power and impressiveness, but in a way of their own and by attributes of their own. In mass and grandeur and in the extent of the display there is no comparison; it would be like comparing a private picture gallery containing a few priceless treasures with the wealth of art in the Vatican or Louvre. All of the really superlative portions of the Vermilion Cliffs could be comfortably displayed in any one of half a dozen amphitheaters opening into the Kaibab division of the Grand Cañon. These portions occur in the beautiful valley of the Virgen, and they, as well as the features which characterize the entire front of the Vermilion Cliffs, merit some attempt at description.

Each of the greater sedimentary groups of the terraces from the Eocene to the Permian inclusive, has its own style of sculpture and architecture; and it is at first surprising and always pleasing to observe how strongly the several styles contrast with each other. The elephantine structures of the Nile, the Grecian temples, the pagodas of China, the cathedrals of Western Europe, do not offer stronger contrasts than those we successively encounter as we descend the great stairway which leads down from the High Plateaus. As we pass from one terrace to another the scene is wholly changed; not only in the bolder and grander masses which dominate the landscape, but in every detail and accessory; in the tone of the color-masses, in the vegetation, and in the spirit and subjective influences of the scenery. Of these many and strong antitheses, there is none stronger than that between the repose of the Jura and the animation of the Trias.

The profile of the Vermilion Cliffs is very complex, though conforming to a definite type and made up of simple elements. Although it varies much in different localities it never loses its typical character. It consists of a series of vertical ledges rising tier above tier, story above story, with intervening slopes covered with talus through which the beds project their fretted edges. The stratification is always revealed with perfect distinctness and is even emphasized by the peculiar weathering. The beds are very numerous and mostly of small or moderate thickness, and the partings of the sandstones include layers of gypsum or gypsiferous sand and shale. The weathering attacks these gypseous layers with great effect, dissolving them to a considerable depth into the wall-face, producing a deeply engraved line between the including sandstones. This line is always in deep shadow and throws into strong relief the bright edges of the strata in the rock-face, separating them from each other with uncommon distinctness. Where the profiles are thrown well into view the vertical lines, which bound the faces of the ledges, are quite perpendicular and straight, while the lines of the intervening slopes are feebly concave, being, in fact, descending branches of hyperbolas. They are graceful in form and indeed genuine lines of beauty. The angles where the straight and curved lines meet, at the bases and summits of the ledges, are very keen and well cut. The composite effect thus given by the multiple cliffs and sloping water-tables rising story above story, by the acute definition of the profiles and horizontal moldings, and by the refined though unobtrusive details, is highly architectural and ornate, and contrasts in the extreme with the rough, craggy, beetling aspect of the cliffs of other regions. This effect is much enhanced by the manner in which the wall advances in promontories or recedes in alcoves, and by the wings and gables with sharp corners and Mansard roofs jutting out from every lateral face where there is the least danger of blankness or monotony. In many places cañons have cut the terrace platform deeply, and open in magnificent gateways upon the broad desert plain in front. We look into them from afar, wonderingly and questioningly, with a fancy pleased to follow their windings until their sudden turns carry them into distant, unseen depths.

Northwestward of the southernmost promontory at Pipe Spring, the cliffs steadily increase in grandeur and animation, and also assume new features. Near the summit of the series is a very heavy stratum of sandstone, which is everywhere distinguishable from the others. This member is seen at Kanab with a thickness of about 200 feet. It increases westward, becoming 400 feet at Pipe Spring. Beyond that it still increases, reaching a thickness of more than 1,200 feet in the valley of the Virgen. It has many strong features, and yet they elude description. One point, however, may be seized upon, and that is, a series of joints nearly vertical with which the mass is everywhere riven. The fissures thus produced have been slowly enlarged by weathering, and down the face of every escarpment run the dark shadows of these rifts. They reach often from top to bottom of the mass and penetrate deeply its recesses. Whenever this great member forms the entablature-and west of Pipe Spring it usually does so-its crest is uneven and presents towers and buttresses produced by the widening of these cracks. Near Short Creek it breaks into lofty truncated towers of great beauty and grandeur, with strongly emphasized vertical lines and decorations, suggestive of cathedral architecture on a colossal scale. Still loftier and more ornate become the structures as we approach the Virgen. At length they reach the sublime. The altitudes increase until they approach 2,000 feet above the plain. The wall is recessed with large amphitheaters, buttressed with huge spurs and decorated with towers and pinnacles. Here, too, for the first time, along their westward trend, the Vermilion Cliffs send off buttes. And giant buttes they verily are, rearing their unassailable summits into the domain of the clouds, rich with the aspiring forms of Gothic type, and flinging back in red and purple the intense sunlight poured over them. Could the imagination blanch those colors, it might compare them with vast icebergs, rent from the front of a glacier and floating majestically out to sea; only here it is the parent mass that recedes, melting away through the ages, while its off-spring stands still. Yet the analogy would be a feeble one, for the buttes are grander, more definite in form, and many times loftier. But the climax of this scenery is still beyond.

Late in the autumn of 1880 I rode along the base of the Vermilion Cliffs, from Kanab to the Virgen, having the esteemed companionship of Mr. Holmes. We had spent the summer and most of the autumn among the cones of the Uinkaret, in the dreamy parks and forests of the Kaibab, and in the solitudes of the intervening desert; and our sensibilities had been somewhat overtasked by the scenery of the Grand Cañon. It seemed to us that all grandeur and beauty thereafter beheld must be mentally projected against the recollection of those scenes, and be dwarfed into commonplace by the comparison; but as we moved onward the walls increased in altitude, in animation, and in power. At length the towers of Short Creek burst into view, and, beyond, the great cliff in long perspective thrusting out into the desert plain its gables and spurs. The day was a rare one for this region. The mild, subtropical autumn was over, and just giving place to the first approaches of winter. A sullen storm had been gathering from the southwest, and the first rain for many months was falling, mingled with snow. Heavy clouds rolled up against the battlements, spreading their fleeces over turret and crest, and sending down curling flecks of white mist into the nooks and recesses between towers and buttresses. The next day was rarer still, with sunshine and storm battling for the mastery. Rolling masses of cumuli rose up into the blue to incomprehensible heights, their flanks and summits gleaming with sunlight, their nether surfaces above the desert as flat as a ceiling, and showing, not the dull neutral gray of the east, but a rosy tinge caught from the reflected red of rocks and soil. As they drifted rapidly against the great barrier, the currents from below, flung upward to the summits, rolled the vaporous masses into vast whorls, wrapping them around the towers and crest-lines, and scattering torn shreds of mist along the rock-faces. As the day wore on the sunshine gained the advantage. From overhead the cloud-masses stubbornly withdrew, leaving a few broken ranks to maintain a feeble resistance. But far in the northwest, over the Colob, they rallied their black forces for a more desperate struggle, and answered with defiant flashes of lightning the incessant pour of sun-shafts.

Superlative cloud effects, common enough in other countries, are lamentably infrequent here; but, when they do come, their value is beyond measure. During the long, hot summer days, when the sun is high, the phenomenal features of the scenery are robbed of most of their grandeur and cannot or do not wholly reveal to the observer the realities which render them so instructive and interesting. There are few middle tones of light and shade. The effects of foreshortening are [U. S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. TOWERS AT SHORT CREEK. VERMILION CLIFFS. ANNUAL REPORT 1881, PL. XIX] [U. S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY. TOWERS AT SHORT CREEK. VERMILIO CLIFFS. ANNUAL REPORT 1881, PL. XIX] excessive, almost beyond belief, and produce the strangest deceptions. Masses which are widely separated seem to be superposed or continuous. Lines and surface, which extend towards us at an acute angle with the radius of vision, are warped around until they seem to cross it at a right angle. Grand fronts, which ought to show depth and varying distance, become flat and are troubled with false perspective. Proportions which are full of grace and meaning are distorted and belied. During the midday hours the cliffs seem to wilt and droops as if retracting their grandeur to hide it from the merciless radiance of the sun whose very effulgence flouts them. Even the colors are ruined. The glaring face of the wall, where the light falls full upon it, wears a scorched, overbaked, discharged look; and where the dense black shadows are thrown-for there are no middle shades-the magical haze of the desert shines forth with a weird, metallic glow which has no color in it. But as the sun declines there comes a revival. The half-tones a length appear, bringing into relief the component masses; the amphitheaters receded into suggestive distances; the salients silently advance towards us; the distorted lines range themselves into true perspective; the deformed curves come back to their proper sweep; the angles grow clean and sharp; and the whole cliff arouses from lethargy and crects itself in grandeur and power as if conscious of its own majesty. Back also come the colors, and as the sun is about to sink they glow with an intense orange-vermillion that seems to be an intrinsic luster emanating from the rocks themselves. But the great gala-days of the cliffs are those when sunshine and storm are waging an even battle; when the massive banks of clouds send their white diffuse light into the dark places and tone down the intense glare of the direct rays; when they roll over the summits in stately procession, wrapping them in vapor and revealing cloud-girt masses here and there through wide rifts. Then the truth appears and all deceptions are exposed. Their grandeur, their true forms, and a just sense of their relations are at last fairly presented, so that the mind can grasp them. And they are very grand-even sublime. There is no need, as we look upon them, of fancy to heighten the picture, nor of metaphor to present it. The simple truth is quite enough. I never before had a realizing sense of a cliff 1,800 to 2,00 feet high. I think a definite and abiding one at present.

As we moved northward from Short Creek, we had frequent opportunities to admire these cliffs and buttes, with the conviction that they were revealed to us in their real magnitudes and in their true relations. They awakened an enthusiasm more vivid than we had anticipated, and one which the recollection of far grander scenes did not dispel. At length the trail descended into a shallow basin where a low ledge of sandstones, immediately upon the right, shut them out from view; but as we mounted the opposite rim a new scene, grander and more beautiful than before, suddenly broke upon us. The cliff again appeared, presenting the heavy sandstone member in a sheer wall nearly a thousand feet high, with a steep talus beneath it of eleven or twelve hundred feet more. Wide alcoves receded far back into the mass, and in their depths the clouds floated. Long, sharp spurs plunged swiftly down, thrusting their monstrous buttresses into the plain below, and sending up pinnacles and towers along the knife edges. But the controlling object was a great butte which sprang into view immediately before us, and which the salient of the wall had hitherto masked. Upon a pedestal two miles long and a thousand feet high, richly decorated with horizontal moldings, rose four towers highly suggestive of cathedral architecture. Their altitude above the plain was estimated at about 1,800 feet. They were separated by vertical clefts made by the enlargement of the joints, and many smaller clefts extending from the summits to the pedestal carved the turrets into tapering buttresses, which gave a graceful aspiring effect with a remarkable definiteness to the forms. We named it Smithsonian Butte, and it was decided that a sketch should be made of it; but in a few moments the plan was abandoned or forgotten. For over a notch or saddle formed by a low isthmus which connected the butte with the principal mesa there sailed slowly and majestically into view, as we rode along, a wonderful object. Deeply moved, we paused a moment to contemplate it, and then abandoning the trail we rode rapidly towards the notch, beyond which it soon sank out of sight. In an hour's time we reached the crest of the isthmus, and in an instant there flashed before us a scene never to be forgotten. In coming time it will, I believe, take rank with a very small number of spectacles each of which will, in its own way, be regarded as the most exquisite of its kind which the world discloses. The scene before us was.