Conor Watkins And J. David Rogers
Grand Canyon Research
Landsliding And Channel Blockages
In Tapeats Creek

In 1978 Dave Rogers and Marvin Pyles, grad students at U.C. Berkeley, began studying massive landslides in the Grand Canyon region.  They hired a private aircraft to take stereopair images of landslide features throughout the canyon, sometimes from as low as a few hundred feet!  They noticed a buried channel of Tapeats Creek in the Hakatai Shale in lower Tapeats Creek, shown above.  Low level flights over Grand Canyon are now prohibited to maintain peace and quiet in the canyon. 

The same buried channel of Tapeats Creek is easily viewed on the western side of Tapeats Creek from the hiking trails between Lower and Upper Tapeats Campgrounds.  Ancient landslide debris fills this older channel and appears to have emanated from the older Surprise Valley Landslide Complex above and to the west.  The complex 3D nature of this slide complex will require high tech mapping tools and techniques to sort out the respective elevations and sequence of landslipage events in shaping this portion of the Grand Canyon.

Close-up view of the old channel of Tapeats Creek clearly defined in the Hakatai Shale, approximately 200 feet above the present channel. The slide debris is cemented by travertine.

The same proto channel can be traced for almost a kilometer along the west side of lower Tapeats Creek.  Notice that the rusty colored travertine cement has held the slide debris together, allowing it arch across a gap where the underlying Hakatai Shale has been removed.  Travertine is a form of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) usually deposited in water.  It is possible that these slides were activated in conjuntion with some of the younger lava eruptions downstream, which dammed the Colorado River. 

There are conflicting theories as to how the drainages in what is now Surprise Valley evolved.  Some theorize that Tapeats Creek used to continue westward through Surprise Valley and flow into the Colorado River near Deer Creek until divereted by massive landslides.  Others believe that a creek equivalent to modern day Bonita Creek used to drain Surprise Valley into Tapeats Creek and was infilled by the landsliding in Surprise Valley.  Peter Huntoon believes that Tapeats Creek used to flow southwesterly across what later became Bonita Creek, joining the Colorado River below Cogswell Butte.  We hope to unravel these mysteries using laser range finders with GPS receivers, to obtain prescise location and leveling data of key geologic contacts.

This image of landslide debris to the west of Tapeats Creek was taken during the July 1978 flights over Grand Canyon.  It shows a potential buried channel outline with an axis leading into Surprise Valley.

Tapeats Spring gushes an estimated 48 million gallons of water per day (Huntoon 1970) and is the largest spring in the Grand Canyon.  Thunder River Spring is the second largest with an estimated discharge of 21 million gallons per day.  Negligable discharge emanates from upper Tapeats watershed upstream of its confluence with the Tapeats Spring branch.  Several small springs in Crazy Jug and Saddle Canyons provide somewhat fetid and mineralized water, containing epsom salts.

Smaller rotation slide blocks comprised of resistant Tapeats Sandstone sit atop the Hakatai Shale along Tapeats Creek upstream of Thunder River.  Although small when compared to the slides flooring in the Bright Angel Shale, these are interesting to note.  These are not classified as landslides on the most recent USGS geologic map of the Grand Canyon, released in 2000.

Debris flows play a dominant role in transporting sediment down tributaries of the Grand Canyon and into the Colorado River.  These mass wasting events are one of the main forces acting to widen the Grand Canyon.  Debris flows are typified by angular and subangular clasts that are matrix supported, as shown here. These materials are pasted to the south side of Tapeats Canyon upstream of Thunder River.

Questions or comments on this page?
E-mail Dr. J David Rogers at
or Conor Watkins at