The Geology of   Gooseberry Mesa
During the Permian period (285-245 million years ago), western Utah was covered with ocean. The Ancestral Rockies were in east-central Utah, and provided sediments that deposited in this area. Sediments mixed with marine deposits to form limestone. These deposits can be seen on the Hurricane Cliffs (to the east of I-15 as you drive south, before descending to Hurricane, and seen again as you climb up towards Gooseberry). Permian deposits include (bottom to top) the Toroweap Formation, the Kiabab Limestone, then the Plympton Formation. These hard marine deposits support the valley floor, forming the flat area from which Gooseberry Mesa rises.
Botany Break, #1. I get a lot of questions about this plant, because its shiny round evergreen leaves and bright red bark make it stand out. This is manzanita. You'll see this in many of the shadier areas on the mesa.This plant is seen mostly in southern Utah, but small patches of manzanita species can be found in the north -- for example, on the Ogden Skyline trail.
By the Triassic Period (245-205 million years ago), the Ancestral Rockies were eroded away. The southeast corner of the state was a large flat floodplain, with the seashore moving back and forth over huge mudflats. The Moenkopi Formation is formed of layers of mud. The variable color is determined by the minerals in the mud layers.
The rippled areas on the slopes of Gooseberry Mesa are the Moenkopi Formation. Harder layers create horizontal ridges -- the hardness depends on the fineness of the clay grains that formed it, and the amount of lime in the matrix.At the top, we see the Chinle Formation (see below), formed later in the Triassic.
In the middle Triassic, western Utah rose up. The "break line" was the Wasatch and Hurricane Faults. Now sediment was coming from the opposite direction, in bigger chunks -- sand and pebbles instead of fine clay. As the Gooseberry area began to dry, layers of shale alternate with layers of conglomerate and sandstone. This is the Chinle Formation. Erosion of Precambrian rock from these western highlands produced the round quartzite rocks seen everywhere at Gooseberry.
This is the Shinarump conglomerate, part of the Chinle Formation. As the softer matrix of the Shinarump comglomerate weathers away, the harder river-rounded pebbles of quartzite lie loose on the surface.Forests grew along the edge of the highlands. Periodic floods buried the trees, creating the petrified wood found at Gooseberry. The wood-like objects in this photo are petrified wood.
Here and there, dark tubular areas are seen within the sandstone and conglomerate. These are "fossilized" animal burrows. The ones in the photo are about 8 inches across.An animal, like today's muskrat, creates a burrow. When the burrow fills in, the chemical and grains in the burrow are different from the surrounding rock, creating differential erosion.
The newly-risen highlands of western Utah were the source of the sediment. River-rounded pebbles of pink and white Precambrian quartzite (dating from 500 to 1000 million years ago) washed down and were included in the conglomerate. Because these rocks are harder than the sand matrix, they lie on the surface of the mesa, everywhere you look.In this photo, chunks of fossilized wood sit near quartzite pebbles.
From the late Triassic through mid Jurassic Period (205-140 million years ago), the southern part of Utah was covered by deep sand dunes. This formed the Wingate and the Navajo sandstone of Zion National Park. In later Jurassic time, the area east of the Wasatch line became a river floodplain (with rivers running east out of western Utah and meandering towards the Gulf of Mexico).
Botany Break, #2. This plant is ephedra, or "Brigham Tea." The leaves are round green vertical sticks, with some branching. These leaves contain the drug ephredrine, a potent stimulant and vasoconstrictor (raises blood pressure, narrows blood vessels).Because the Mormon pioneers were forbidden imported tea, they brewed their own energy-booster and decongestant concoction. In honor of brother Brigham, who probably did not approve, they called it Brigham Tea.
For most of the Cretaceous (140-65 million years ago), the Gulf of Mexico spread through the middle of the continent, covering eastern Utah. During this time, shales were deposited.
During the Tertiary (65 million years ago), the Rockies and Uinta Mountains began to rise, and the entire western continent was uplifted. At first, western Utah remained stable, and the area around Gooseberry was covered by freshwater Lake Claron, creating the colored limestones of the Virgin Rim and Bryce Canyon. Then, in middle Tertiary time, the Great Basin area began to slump and pull away relative to eastern Utah. What had formerly been highland was now a deep valley. The break-point was along the Hurricane Cliffs.
Gooseberry Mesa is an example of "headward erosion." Rather than becoming rounder and flatter, the entire cliff moves back. The erosion eats "headward" into the cliff between an erosion-resistant cap rock and an erosion-resistant basement rock. If our illustration were Gooseberry, the higher cliff-line would be the skirts of the mesa. The cap-rock is Chinarump Conglomerate. The basement is Kaibab Limestone. The second (lower) cliff line would be the cliffs above Hurricane, 10 miles away.