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Geology along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia

January 1, 2017

Detailed geologic mapping and new SHRIMP (sensitive high-resolution ion microprobe) U-Pb zircon, Ar/Ar, Lu-Hf, 14C, luminescence (optically stimulated), thermochronology (fission-track), and palynology reveal the complex Mesoproterozoic to Quaternary geology along the ~350 km length of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Traversing the boundary of the central and southern Appalachians, rocks along the parkway showcase the transition from the para-autochthonous Blue Ridge anticlinorium of northern and central Virginia to the allochthonous eastern Blue Ridge in southern Virginia. From mile post (MP) 0 near Waynesboro, Virginia, to ~MP 124 at Roanoke, the parkway crosses the unconformable to faulted boundary between Mesoproterozoic basement in the core of the Blue Ridge anticlinorium and Neoproterozoic to Cambrian metasedimentary and metavolcanic cover rocks on the western limb of the structure. Mesoproterozoic basement rocks comprise two groups based on SHRIMP U-Pb zircon geochronology: Group I rocks (1.2-1.14 Ga) are strongly foliated orthogneisses, and Group II rocks (1.08-1.00 Ga) are granitoids that mostly lack obvious Mesoproterozoic deformational features.

Neoproterozoic to Cambrian cover rocks on the west limb of the anticlinorium include the Swift Run and Catoctin Formations, and constituent formations of the Chilhowee Group. These rocks unconformably overlie basement, or abut basement along steep reverse faults. Rocks of the Chilhowee Group are juxtaposed against Cambrian rocks of the Valley and Ridge province along southeast- and northwest-dipping, high-angle reverse faults. South of the James River (MP 64), Chilhowee Group and basement rocks occupy the hanging wall of the nearly flat-lying Blue Ridge thrust fault and associated splays.

South of the Red Valley high-strain zone (MP 144.5), the parkway crosses into the wholly allochthonous eastern Blue Ridge, comprising metasedimentary and meta-igneous rocks assigned to the Wills Ridge, Ashe, and Alligator Back Formations. These rocks are bound by numerous faults, including the Rock Castle Creek fault that separates Ashe Formation rocks from Alligator Back Formation rocks in the core of the Ararat River synclinorium. The lack of unequivocal paleontologic or geochronologic ages for any of these rock sequences, combined with fundamental and conflicting differences in tectonogenetic models, compound the problem of regional correlation with Blue Ridge cover rocks to the north.

The geologic transition from the central to southern Appalachians is also marked by a profound change in landscape and surficial deposits. In central Virginia, the Blue Ridge consists of narrow ridges that are held up by resistant but contrasting basement and cover lithologies. These ridges have shed eroded material from their crests to the base of the mountain fronts in the form of talus slopes, debris flows, and alluvial-colluvial fans for perhaps 10 m.y. South of Roanoke, however, ridges transition into a broad hilly plateau, flanked on the east by the Blue Ridge escarpment and the eastern Continental Divide. Here, deposits of rounded pebbles, cobbles, and boulders preserve remnants of ancestral west-flowing drainage systems.

Both bedrock and surficial geologic processes provide an array of economic deposits along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway corridor in Virginia, including base and precious metals and industrial minerals. However, common stone was the most important commodity for creating the Blue Ridge Parkway, which yielded building stone for overlooks and tunnels, or crushed stone for road base and pavement.

Publication Year 2017
Title Geology along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia
DOI 10.1130/2017.0047(01)
Authors Mark W. Carter, C. Scott Southworth, Richard P. Tollo, Arthur J. Merschat, Sara Wagner, Ava Lazor, John N. Aleinikoff
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70191083
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Geology and Paleoclimate Science Center