Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Formation of the Grand Canyon 5 to 6 million years ago through integration of older palaeocanyons



The timing of formation of the Grand Canyon, USA, is vigorously debated. In one view, most of the canyon was carved by the Colorado River relatively recently, in the past 5–6 million years. Alternatively, the Grand Canyon could have been cut by precursor rivers in the same location and to within about 200 m of its modern depth as early as 70–55 million years ago. Here we investigate the time of formation of four out of five segments of the Grand Canyon, using apatite fission-track dating, track-length measurements and apatite helium dating: if any segment is young, the old canyon hypothesis is falsified. We reconstruct the thermal histories of samples taken from the modern canyon base and the adjacent canyon rim 1,500 m above, to constrain when the rocks cooled as a result of canyon incision. We find that two of the three middle segments, the Hurricane segment and the Eastern Grand Canyon, formed between 70 and 50 million years ago and between 25 and 15 million years ago, respectively. However, the two end segments, the Marble Canyon and the Westernmost Grand Canyon, are both young and were carved in the past 5–6 million years. Thus, although parts of the canyon are old, we conclude that the integration of the Colorado River through older palaeocanyons carved the Grand Canyon, beginning 5–6 million years ago.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Map of Grand Canyon.
Figure 2: Thermal constraints.
Figure 3: Proposed palaeocanyon depths and gradients.
Figure 4: Westernmost Grand Canyon.


  1. 1

    Wernicke, B. The California River and its role in carving Grand Canyon. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 123, 1288–1316 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Flowers, R. M., Wernicke, B. P. & Farley, K. A. Unroofing, incision, and uplift history of the southwestern Colorado Plateau from apatite (U-Th)/He thermochronometry. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 120, 571–587 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Flowers, R. M. & Farley, K. A. Apatite 4He/3He and (U-Th)/He evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon. Science 338, 1616–1619 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Flowers, R. M. & Farley, K. A. Response to comments on apatite 4He/3He and (U–Th)/He evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon. Science 340, 143–146 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Blackwelder, E. Origin of the Colorado River. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 45, 551–565 (1934).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    McKee, E. D. & McKee, E. H. Pliocene uplift of the Grand Canyon region: Time of drainage adjustment. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 83, 1923–1932 (1972).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Lucchitta, I. History of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado river in Arizona. Ariz. Geol. Soc. Dig. 17, 701–718 (1989).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Karlstrom, K. E. et al. Model for tectonically driven incision of the less than 6 Ma Grand Canyon. Geology 36, 835–838 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Lee, J. P. et al. New thermochronometric constraints on the Tertiary landscape evolution of Central and Eastern Grand Canyon, Arizona. Geosphere 9, 21–36 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Ketcham, R. A. et al. Improved modeling of fission-track annealing in apatite. Am. Min. 92, 799–810 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Farley, K. A. Helium diffusion from apatite: General behavior as illustrated by Durango fluorapatite. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 105, 2903–2914 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Shuster, D. L. & Farley, K. A. 4He/3He thermochronometry. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 217, 1–17 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Reiners, P. W. & Ehlers, T. A. Low-temperature thermochronology: Techniques, interpretations, and applications. Rev. Mineral. Geochem. 58, 620 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Braun, J. et al. Quantifying rates of landscape evolution and tectonic processes by thermochronology and numerical modeling of crustal heat transport using PECUBE. Tectonophysics 524–525, 1–28 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Kelley, S. A., Chapin, C. E. & Karlstrom, K. E. Laramide cooling histories of Grand Canyon, Arizona, and the Front Range, Colorado, determined from apatite fission-track thermochronology. Grand Canyon Assoc. Mon. 12, 37–46 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Dumitru, T. A., Duddy, I. R. & Green, P. F. Mesozoic-Cenozoic burial, uplift, and erosion history of the west-central Colorado Plateau. Geology 22, 499–502 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Polyak, V., Hill, C. & Asmerom, Y. Age and evolution of the Grand Canyon revealed by U-Pb dating of water table–type speleothems. Science 319, 1377–1380 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Billingsley, G. H. Volcanic rocks of the Grand Canyon region. Grand Canyon Assoc. Mon. 12, 223–232 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Lucchitta, I., Holm, R. F. & Lucchitta, B. K. A Miocene river in northern Arizona and its implications for the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. GSA Today 21, 4–10 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    McKee, E. D., Wilson, R. F., Breed, W. J. & Breed, C. S. Evolution of the Colorado River in Arizona. Museum Nor. Ariz. Bull. 44, 1–67 (1967).

    Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Young, R. A. Geomorphic, structural, and stratigraphic evidence for Laramide uplift of the southwestern Colorado Plateau margin in northwestern Arizona. Utah Geol. Assoc. Pub. 30, 227–237 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Young, R. A. & Hartman, J. H. Early Cenozoic rim gravel of Arizona—Age, distribution and geologic significance. US Geol. Surv. OFR 2011–1210, 274–280 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Young, R. A. Brief Cenozoic geologic history of the Peach Springs Quadrangle and Hualapai Plateau, Mohave County, Arizona (Hualapai Indian Reservation).Ariz. Geol. Surv. Cont. Rep. CR-11-O, 1–28, geologic map and cross section (2011)

  24. 24

    Strahler, A. N. Geomorphology and structure of the West Kaibab fault zone and Kaibab Plateau, Arizona. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 59, 513–540 (1948).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Young, R. A. in Mesozoic-Cenozoic Tectonic Evolution of the Colorado River region, California, Arizona, and Nevada (eds Frost, E. G. & Martin, D. L.) 29–39 (Cordilleran Publishers, 1982).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Huntoon, P. W., Billingsley, G. H. & Clark, M. D. Geologic map of the Hurricane fault zone and vicinity, western Grand Canyon, Arizona. Grand Canyon Assoc. 1, 48000 (1981).

    Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Karlstrom, K. E. et al. 40Ar/39Ar and field studies of Quaternary basalts in Grand Canyon and model for carving Grand Canyon: Quantifying the interaction of river incision and normal faulting across the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 119, 1283–1312 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Karlstrom, K. E. et al. Comment on: Apatite 4He/3He and (U–Th)/He evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon. Science 340, 143 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Young, R. A. AGU 28th Int. Geol. Cong. Field Trip T115/315 (American Geophysical Union, 1989)

  30. 30

    Faulds, J. E., Price, L. M. & Wallace, M. A. Pre-Colorado River paleogeography and extension along the Colorado Plateau–Basin and Range boundary, northwest Arizona. Grand Canyon Assoc. Mon. 12, 93–99 (2001).

    Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Lucchitta, I. Comment on apatite 4He/3He and (U–Th)/He Evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon. Science 340, 143 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Dorsey, R. J. et al. Chronology of Miocene-Pliocene deposits at Split Mountain Gorge, Southern California; A record of regional tectonics and Colorado River evolution. Geology 35, 57–60 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Ingersoll, R. V. et al. Detrital zircons indicate no drainage link between southern California rivers and the Colorado Plateau from mid-Cretaceous through Pliocene. Geology 41, 311–314 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Karlstrom, K. E. et al. Surface response to mantle convection beneath the Colorado Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. Lithosphere 4, 3–22 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Farley, K. A., Wolf, R. A. & Silver, L. T. The effects of long alpha-stopping distances on (U–Th)/He ages. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 60, 4223–4229 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Flowers, R. M. et al. Apatite (U–Th)/He thermochronometry using a radiation damage accumulation and annealing model. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 73, 2347–2365 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Shuster, D. L., Flowers, R. M. & Farley, K. A. The influence of natural radiation damage on helium diffusion kinetics in apatite. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 249, 148–161 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Shuster, D. L., Cuffey, K. M., Sanders, J. W. & Balco, G. Thermochronometry reveals headward propagation of erosion in an alpine landscape. Science 332, 84–88 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by NSF Grant EAR-1242028 from the Tectonics Program. Support for our whitewater raft facility was from the NSF EAR Instrumentation and Facilities Program. We acknowledge a research agreement with Grand Canyon National Park that has allowed river corridor access. Formal reviews by P. Reiners and R. Ingersoll, and an informal review by W. R. Dickinson, helped improve the paper.

Author information




K.E.K. did the writing and data analysis. J.P.L., S.A.K., M.F., D.L.S. and J.W.R. did the thermochronology data analysis. R.S.C., L.J.C., R.A.Y., G.L. and L.S.B. did the geology data analysis.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karl E. Karlstrom.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1822 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Karlstrom, K., Lee, J., Kelley, S. et al. Formation of the Grand Canyon 5 to 6 million years ago through integration of older palaeocanyons. Nature Geosci 7, 239–244 (2014).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing