The Geology of Nevada's Red Rock Canyon

The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area covers almost 200,000 acres of beautiful, natural terrain in the Mojave Desert. Visitors flock to this park for the outdoor activities as well as to gaze at the splendor of the geologic formations.

The first thing to strike a visitor’s eye is the stunning rock formations and their red coloring. The sandstone formations are the result of millions of years in formation. In far-ancient times, shallow seas once covered this land. Tectonic movement of the earth’s crust forced this land to rise, draining the seas. In the arid times that followed, sand dunes began to form. The sandstone at Red Rock is an example of this. Over the course of time, the dunes became hardened through water, winds, and even some particles blowing in from the nearby mountains of limestone, which are visible all around the sandstone formations at Red Rock Canyon. The red color comes from the rock being exposed to the elements causing the iron particles to oxidize, or as we commonly refer to it – rust.

The limestone mountains around the park were once the bottom of the shallow seas that covered this area and are millions of years older than the nearby sandstone mountains. Limestone contains the fossils of the sea life that was once here. Thousands of feet of limestone are exposed today due to ground movement over the course of millennia.

Fossils can be found in numerous places throughout the park. The majority of easily identified fossils are small, simple sea creatures or plant life whose remains have hardened into today’s limestone. Although remote, dinosaur tracks can be located as well. The most spectacular find was in 2013 when geologists uncovered the oldest identified fossil of a land animal ever found in Nevada, a vertebrae between 220 to 230 million years old. Scientists feel that it may have belonged to an early ancestor of the crocodile.


The most impressive geologic feature of the park rests in an area known as the Keystone Thrust. Here, the ancient limestone has been pushed up and over the much younger Sandstone rock. This is the result of a process known as “subduction” where certain parts of earth’s plate drop and other plates are thrust over them. This particular fault line stretches thousands of miles northward, but here at Red Rock is the best place to actually observe the results of the folding of rocks under pressure. The best observation points in the park are along the Rocky Gap Road, which can be hiked from Willow Springs or reached via a four-wheel drive vehicle. 

While visiting Red Rock Canyon, make sure you stop at the visitor’s center located at the park entrance. A Park Geologist is usually on duty to answer any questions. They regularly lead groups on geologic hikes in the park, mainly to the Keystone Thrust. There is also an excellent gift shop in the visitor’s center with a good selection of local geology books.