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How were the canyons in the Copper Canyon region formed?

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Aug 062012

According to a local Tarahumara Indian legend, the canyons were formed when “a giant walked around and the ground cracked.” However, geologists believe that a sequence of volcanic rocks varying in age from 30 to 135 million years was slowly uplifted to an average elevation of 2275 m (7500 ft) while being dissected by rivers.

Mexico's Copper Canyon

Where did the rocks come from?

The Sierra Tarahumara is part of the Western Sierra Madre, an extensive volcanic tableland, affected by grabens (rift‑valley faulting) and faults which deprive it, especially on its flanks, of any homogeneous appearance. Its eastern side merges gradually into the Chihuahua basin and range landscape; its western side is much steeper, marked by major normal faults of considerable vertical extent, and by deep canyons.

Stage 1. The lower rocks.

McDowell and Clabaugh (1979) describe two different igneous sequences, which were separated in time by a prolonged period of non‑activity. The older series is mainly comprised of intermediate igneous rocks between 100 and 45 million years old; it shows evidence of lava flows and violent eruptive activity which produced andesitic pyroclasts. There are also layers of siliceous ignimbrites. This lower series includes many rich mineral deposits, though it outcrops in only restricted parts of the Canyon system. The volcanic activity in this area was associated with the subduction of the small (now destroyed) Farallon Plate which was pushed beneath the North American Plate by the expanding Pacific Plate. The line between the lower, older series and the higher, newer one is very irregular, indicating intensive erosional activity in the period between their times of formation.

Stage 2. A break in activity allowing erosion to take place.

The major lull in volcanic action, between 45 and 34 million years ago, may have been due to a change in the inclination of the subducting Farallon plate.

Stage 3. The upper rocks.

After this break in activity, there was a sudden resumption of vulcanism. The upper series is the most extensive cover of ignimbrite known anywhere in the world, covering an area which is 250 km wide, and 1200 km long from NW to SE. It stretches as far north as the southern USA. To the south, it disappears beneath the newer volcanic rocks of Mexico’s Volcanic Axis in Jalisco and Michoacán. The ignimbrites are rhyolitic and rhyo‑dacitic in composition, generally approximately horizontal, or slightly tilted, and with ages between 34 and 27 million years. In places, these ignimbrites are more than 1000 m thick (Demant & Robin, 1965).

It is unclear precisely where all these volcanic rocks originated. One estimate is that for such large volumes of rock to have been formed, there would have been between 200 and 400 volcanic outlets, some up to 40 km across. An alternative hypothesis (proposed by Aguirre-Díaz & Labarthe-Hernández) is that large bodies of magma (molten rock underground) reached shallow parts of the crust and then partially erupted, explosively, along the fault lines of the existing basin and range structures.

The common rock types in the Copper Canyon region

Volcanic Ash is unconsolidated fragments <2 mm in diameter. Volcanic ash commonly contains larger (up to 64 mm) fragments called lapilli. Ash may be composed of crystalline rock (eg. rhyolitic and andesitic ashes), of glassy fragments (vitric ash), or of individual crystals (crystal ash). In general, the size of individual particles comprising the ash diminishes as distance increases from the volcano where it originated.

Tuff is consolidated volcanic ash.

Ignimbrites are essentially pieces of light, vesicular, pumice, in a matrix of glassy fragments. Ignimbrites are often layered and sometimes split into vertical columns. They are deposited from ash flows that included large volumes of hot, expanding gases and incandescent glass fragments.

Lavas (molten rock on the surface). When lava cools and solidifies, it produces massive (as opposed to fragmentary) rocks, generally crystalline but of variable chemical composition (andesite, rhyolite, basalt).

The major landforms of the Copper Canyon region

These layers of igneous rocks were uplifted, forming a plateau with an average elevation of 2275 m (almost 7500 feet). Rivers have carved deep gashes, up to 1400 m deep, into the plateau surface, forming a series of steep-walled canyons, separated by giant blocks, remnants of the original, continuous plateau.

Incised meanders near Umira, Chihuahua

Incised meanders near Umira, Chihuahua

Since some of the rivers exhibit superb examples of incised meanders [see photo], some, possibly most, of these rivers already existed prior to the main periods of uplift. They were meandering across a gently sloping flood plain prior to the tectonic upheavals. Then, as the landscape slowly rose around them, they carved these giant canyons. These antecedent rivers retained their courses; the meanders were incised into the landscape.

Centuries of erosion by the various rivers, including the Urique river and its tributaries, have resulted in the present-day landscape of structurally-guided plateau remnants, termed mesas, buttes and pinnacles (depending on their size). There are many examples of these distinctive landforms in the Copper Canyon region.

Landforms resulting from dissection of a plateau

Landforms resulting from the dissection of a plateau

It is likely that some of the many waterfalls in the region were formed in places where the downward vertical erosion of rivers was insufficiently powerful to counteract the forces of uplift. Other waterfalls are more likely to have resulted from differences in the relative resistance of different rocks. The effects of differential erosion are noticeable in many smaller-scale features in this landscape, such as perched “mushroom” rocks.

Perched block near San Ignacio

Perched block near San Ignacio. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

Examples of many of these landforms can be seen by anyone driving along the Creel-Batopilas road. At km 5 (from Creel) is the entrance to the Mission village of San Ignacio, near which are strange tor‑like rock formations, including “mushroom” rocks, where a more resistant capstone sits perched atop weaker rocks that are slowly being eroded away.  At km 20 in  Cusárare, a short walk south of the road through woods and along the Cusárare river leads to the very pretty 30-metre high Cusárare waterfall. At km 44 (Basihuare), there are fine views of a mesa of pink and white rocks that overlooks the road. This is Cerro el Pastel (“Cake Mountain”) with its pinnacles. At km 56, near  Umirá (or Humirá) are several spectacular incised meanders formed when the river’s course was preserved while the surrounding land was undergoing relatively rapid uplift.

Small wonder that the Copper Canyon region is one of Mexico’s most important geomorphosites!


  1. Aguirre-Díaz, Gerardo J. & Guillermo Labarthe-Hernández. 2003. Fissure ignimbrites: Fissure-source origin for voluminous ignimbrites of the Sierra Madre Occidental and its relationship with Basin and Range faulting. Geology September, 2003 v. 31, no. 9, p. 773-776
  2. Gajdusek, D.C. (1953) “The Sierra Tarahumara” in Geographical Review, New York. 43: 15‑38
  3. Demant, A & Robin, C (1975) “Las Fases del vulcanismo en Mexico” Revista Instituto de Geologia, UNAM, Mexico City. 75 (1) pp 70‑83
  4. Schmidt, R.H. (1973) A Geographical Survey of Chihuahua, monograph #37 Texas Western Press.
  5. McDowell, F.W. & Clabaugh, S.E. (1979) “Ignimbrites of the Sierra Madre Occidental and their relation to the tectonic history of western Mexico” in “Ash flow tuffs” edited by Chapin, C.E. & Elston, W.E., Geol. Soc. of America special paper # 180.

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Mexico’s highest volcanoes

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Apr 302012

In a previous post, we saw how most of Mexico’s volcanoes are located in a broad band that crosses central Mexico known as the Volcanic Axis (Eje neovolcánico). In this post, we provide brief descriptions of some of the major volcanoes in Mexico.

Starting in the west, the first active volcanoes are Everman and Barcenas in the Revillagigedo Islands. Two of the westernmost volcanoes on the mainland are near Colima. At 4260 m (13,976 ft), the inactive Nevado of Colima, Mexico’s sixth-highest peak, is as tall as the highest mountains in the contiguous USA. Its younger brother, Colima Volcano (or Volcán de Fuego) is lower (3820 m) but highly active and considered potentially very dangerous. It has erupted in cycles for several hundred years, and is capped by a dacitic plug characteristic of a silica-rich Pelean volcano. Such volcanoes have the potential to erupt suddenly, not emitting vast quantities of molten lava, but shooting out less spectacular, but far more devastating, clouds of red‑hot asphyxiating gasses.

Tequila Volcano, overlooking the town where the beverage is distilled, is also in Jalisco. In neighboring Michoacán state, the most noteworthy volcanoes are Jorullo (which last erupted in 1759) and Paricutín, which began life in a farmer’s field in 1943 and ceased activity in 1952, but only after its lava had overwhelmed several small villages.

Closer to Mexico City, the Nevado of Toluca (4680 m) has a drive-in crater and is a favored destination for Mexico City families in winter to take their children to play in the snow. It is Mexico’s fourth highest peak (see table below).

VolcanoStatesHeight (meters)Height (feet)
Pico de OrizabaVeracruz; Puebla5 61018 406
PopocatapetlMéxico; Morelos; Puebla5 50018 045
IztaccihuatlMéxico; Puebla5 22017 126
Nevado of Toluca México 4 68015 354
MalincheTlaxcala; Puebla4 42014 501
Nevado of Colima Jalisco4 26013 976
Cofre de PeroteVeracruz 4 20013 780
TacanáChiapas 4 08013 386
TelapónMéxico 4 06013 320
El AjuscoFederal District3 93012 894
Colima VolcanoJalisco; Colima3 82012 533

Continuing eastwards, we reach several other volcanoes that are among Mexico’s highest volcanic peaks (and are also included in the table).

The most famous volcano in the Volcanic Axis is the still active Popocatepetl (“Popo”), which rises to 5500 meters (18,045 feet). Alongside Popocatepetl is the dormant volcanic peak of Iztaccihuatl (5220 m or 17,126 ft). On a smog-free day, both are clearly visible from Mexico City. The southern suburbs of Mexico City are overshadowed by a smaller active volcano, Ajusco, which reaches 3930 m (12,894 ft).

The Nevado de Toluca volcano

The Pico de Orizaba, a dormant volcano on the border between states of Veracruz and Puebla, is Mexico’s highest mountain. At 5610 m (18,406 ft) it is the third highest peak in North America. By way of contrast, not very far away, in the outskirts of the city of Puebla, is the world’s smallest volcano!

Only a few volcanoes appear to be located outside the Volcanic Axis and therefore in an anomalous location to the general pattern. They include two volcanoes in Chiapas which lie south of the Volcanic Axis: El Chichón (which erupted in 1982) and Tacaná (4080 m).

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Mexico’s Volcanic Axis

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Apr 192012

Mexico’s active seismic zones have created numerous volcanoes, many of which are still active. Virtually all the country’s active and recently dormant volcanoes are located in a broad belt of high relief which crosses Mexico from west to east: the Volcanic Axis (see map).

volcanic-axisAltitudes in this region vary from a few hundred to several thousand meters. The principal peaks are shown on the map. They include many of Mexico’s most famous mountains, such as Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, near Mexico City; Pico de Orizaba, Mexico’s highest peak; Paricutín, the only completely new volcano in the Americas in recent times; and Colima, considered the most active at present. Many of the volcanoes are surprisingly young. For instance, a study using Carbon‑14 dating on the palaeosols (ancient soils) under 12 volcanoes in the Toluca area yielded ages ranging from 38,600 to 8400 years before present.

It is unclear precisely why this broad belt of Mexico should be so active. Elsewhere in the world all major tectonically active areas have been linked in terms of their location to the margins or meeting‑zones of tectonic plates. Some Mexican geologists believe that Mexico’s Volcanic Axis is a rare example of activity associated with a gently dipping plate margin, one where the edge of the Cocos plate is subsumed, but at only moderate gradient, beneath the North American plate.

Almost all the volcanic activity in this zone has taken place in the last 25 million years, from the upper Oligocene period, through the Miocene and Pliocene and up to Recent. Two distinct periods of activity are recognized by some geologists. The first, in the late Oligocene and early Miocene, produced volcanic rocks often found today tightly folded by later earth movements. The second, responsible for all the major composite cones as well as dozens of ash and cinder cones, started in the Pliocene and continues today.

Erosion has had relatively little time to work on these “new” volcanic peaks, some of which are still developing. As a result, this region includes Mexico’s highest mountains, reaching over 5500 m or 18,000 ft.

Thick, lava-rich volcanic soils make this one of the most fertile areas in North America. Though the relief is very rugged, this area has supported relatively high population densities for hundreds of years, including the current large metropolitan areas of Mexico City, Guadalajara and Puebla. Legacies of previous volcanic activity are found in craters, mud‑volcanoes, geothermal activity, and the numerous hot springs (and spa towns) scattered throughout the Volcanic Axis.

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