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Geology is the Way

The origin of the granite landscape of Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is a place where geology reigns supreme. Visitors cannot help but feeling in awe with the majestic landscape around and ask themselves: what geological processes produced such beautiful rock formations?

Joshua Tree landscape

The over 3000 square kilometers [about 1200 square miles] of the park are sprinkled by piles of massive boulders of granite – rock formations known as tors – towering the surrounding sparsely vegetated hilly landscape . These formations vary in size from isolated groups of boulders to entire mountains.

Joshua Tree landscape

granite tors Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree landscape

The origin of these rock formations has in part to do with the climate of the area, but there is also a sweet geological explanation, related to the nature of the granitic rocks that crop out in Joshua Tree. If you venture to the outskirt of the park, the tors rapidly disappear when we pass from the granites to the metamorphic rocks surrounding them: the Pinto gneiss. The spectacular contact, whom I have talked about in one of the first posts of this blog, clearly shows that the tors do occur only in the granites, while the gneiss produce a much gentler landscape.

This is because granites are much more resistant to erosion than the surrounding metamorphic rocks, because they consist of weathering-resistant igneous minerals like quartz and feldspar, resulting from the crystallization of magma.

Joshua Tree granite
Close up of the granitic rocks cropping out in Joshua Tree. More details in my previous post.

Not only that. Granites are typically very compact and offer few pathways for water to infiltrate and alter the rock. Nevertheless, even granites have their Achilles’ heel:

fractured granite Joshua Tree

Even massive granite boulders like the one above are, indeed, crosscut by joints, regular sets of fractures that formed after the crystallization of magma. Granites crystallize at a depth of several miles into the crust. As erosion removes the several miles thick pile of rocks above the granite, the pressure acting over it decreases and the granite body starts to fracture. In Joshua Tree there are at least three dominant sets of fractures, one roughly horizontal and other two varying from vertical to steeply inclined, separating the granite into a series of rectangular blocks, as you can see in the slider below.

These fractures are the pathways used by percolating meteoric water to infiltrate deep within the otherwise intact granite. The feldspar minerals contained in granite slowly break down in the presence of water, reacting to produce clay minerals, which are the primary constituents of mud and soils. Granites slowly turns into a loose, unconsolidated material, known as regolith, that starts to form into the fractures and gradually replaces the intact granite cores, away from fractures. As water further reacts with these cores, the original cubes of granite gradually become more smoothed, starting to round along the corners.

When this mix of boulders and loose regolith reaches the surface, erosion easily removes the unconsolidated material, leaving behind piles of boulders, the intact material far from the joints that resisted weathering. Soil erosion happens very easily in Joshua Tree, thanks to the barren landscape, with little to no vegetation able to hold soil against the occasional flash floods. Indeed, tors are typical of arid climates, not only deserts but also periglacial environments like tundra.

granite tors Joshua Tree
Boulders of granite topple over each other producing irregular formations, as the soil in the fractures is eroded away. This is the final stage of tor formation.

Here you can see summarized in four stages (the slider below has four slides), the processes leading to the development of tors from granite outcrops.

Tors are my favorite geomorphological landform, because – to me – they are a reminder of the different forces that contribute to shape our planet: endogenous processes (magma emplacement and crystallization) and the exogenous ones (erosion and climate), acting together like a sculptor and its block of marble.

This post was possible thanks to the support of Sandra McLaren, Silvio Ferrero, and Ellie Coffelt (thank you!). In particular, it was inspired by Ellie, who supported geologyistheway because “our website answered our questions from our hike today”. If you like my geological posts and you wish to support me, you can do it by offering me a coffee at ko-fi!

Powell, R. E., Matti, J. C., & Cossette, P. M. (2015). Geology of Joshua Tree National Park geodatabase (No. 2015-1175). US Geological Survey.
Joshua Tree National Park
Hike the Parks – Joshua Tree NP
Geology of Joshua Tree NP

7 thoughts on “The origin of the granite landscape of Joshua Tree National Park”

  1. As a non geologist but confirmed geology nerd, I appreciate posts like these more than just about any other. Solid scientific information communicated in a way that a non professional can digest, and lavish, clear photos to illustrate the text. Thanks for this contribution.

  2. La Vella Tomlinson

    So the Alabama Hills in the Owens Valley is a Tor?
    Thank you for your explanation and the photos.

    1. Dear Tomlinson,
      Thank you for your comment!
      I have never been to the Alabama Hills, but I can redirect you to a few nice geological posts from Callan Bentley

      Also wikipedia:

      According to what I read and see, I think the processes are similar but in Alabama Hills we are not yet at the stage of having loose blocks and soil (tors). Rather, outcrops of solid granite have been rounded by spheroidal weathering and they are well rooted in solid rock. Of course we might see Alabama Hills and Joshua Tree as two stages of weathering of granitic rocks, with Joshua Tree being in a more advanced stage.

  3. Thanks, enjoyed your insightful blog on the geology of Joshua Tree National park! a similar type of rock boulders and even dolerite dykes formation in my native and your website ist useful for the Nongeologists quite an interest in Geology and the landscape.

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