A Guide to the Geology of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Wave Rock at sunset
Adria Photography / Getty Images
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Crossbeds

Tilted dunes
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

Valley of Fire State Park is located 58 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, near the Arizona border. The park covers about 40,000 acres and was named for its fiery red sandstone formations dating from the age of the dinosaurs. 

These formations were exposed where older rocks of Cambrian age (about 500 million years old) were pushed sideways on a thrust fault over younger rocks (Jurassic, about 160 million years old) of the Aztec Sandstone. The sandstone was originally laid down in a colossal, long-lived sandy desert much like today's Sahara. Before the area was a dry desert, it was an inland sea. The red color is from the presence of iron oxides in the sand.

In addition to fascinating geological history, you can also find evidence of human and animal habitation. The Anasazi people created petroglyphs or rock art, that can still be seen today.

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Entrance to the Valley

A welcome sight
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

At the park entrance, miles of gray limestone gives way to dramatic exposures of red sandstone. The park was given its name by a traveler during the 1920s who reached the site at sunset. The view, he said, looked like the rocks had been set aflame! The eyes hunger for this color after the long desert drive and it must be even more amazing after some rain, he concluded.

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Cambrian Cliffs

The overthrust sheet
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

The older limestones of the Bonanza King Formation make rugged mountains in this dry climate; here and there red sandstone ​peeks out from beneath their ​talus.

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Jurassic Crags

Response to erosion
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

The red rocks of the Aztec Sandstone take attractive, craggy shapes under the erosive environment of the Nevada desert. They formed in an ancient sand sea.

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Valley of Fire Vista

Chevrons and all
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

On the road to White Domes at the north end of Valley of Fire State Park, overlying rocks are well displayed behind the sandstones that give the park its name.

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Petroglyph Canyon

Good place to hide
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

This is the view downstream from Mouse's Tank, a stream-carved hollow in Petroglyph Canyon that holds water into the dry summer. See a stereo view of the gorge.

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Concretions

Not fossils
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

The knobs in this sandstone boulder are not fossils but concretions feature formed by subtle variations in sediment chemistry.

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Sandstone Bedding Plane

Enigmatic shapes
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

A boulder has split along the surface of one of its layers. Shapes may represent original features in the Jurassic desert setting, or younger erosional marks.

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Incipient Arch

A little one a-borning
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

When a surface of the sandstone hardens from groundwater minerals, erosion can work beneath this crust to create arches of all sizes.

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Tafoni

A great example
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

The multiple small hollows called tafoni are thought to form as salts crystallize and flake off bits of the sandstone surface.

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Desert Varnish

A ready canvas
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

The dark mineral coating called desert varnish is easily shed by the coarse-grained sandstone except in sheltered canyons. Early desert dwellers drew pictures in the varnish, thus leaving a record of their daily activities.

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Petroglyphs

Precious pictures
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Photo (c) 2008 Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

The Anasazi and Paiute tribes that inhabited this area made pictures on the black patina, or varnish, covering the desert rock. These petroglyphs depict images from daily life centuries ago. Atlatl Rock, one of the red rock formations, was named for petroglyphs of spear-throwing devices used by ancient desert dwellers.  

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Alden, Andrew. "A Guide to the Geology of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada." ThoughtCo, Sep. 10, 2017, thoughtco.com/valley-of-fire-state-park-nevada-4123246. Alden, Andrew. (2017, September 10). A Guide to the Geology of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/valley-of-fire-state-park-nevada-4123246 Alden, Andrew. "A Guide to the Geology of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/valley-of-fire-state-park-nevada-4123246 (accessed November 20, 2017).