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Long Valley Caldera Lake and reincision of Owens River Gorge

December 16, 2016

Owens River Gorge, today rimmed exclusively in 767-ka Bishop Tuff, was first cut during the Neogene through a ridge of Triassic granodiorite to a depth as great as its present-day floor and was then filled to its rim by a small basaltic shield at 3.3 Ma. The gorge-filling basalt, 200 m thick, blocked a 5-km-long reach of the upper gorge, diverting the Owens River southward around the shield into Rock Creek where another 200-m-deep gorge was cut through the same basement ridge. Much later, during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 22 (~900–866 ka), a piedmont glacier buried the diversion and deposited a thick sheet of Sherwin Till atop the basalt on both sides of the original gorge, showing that the basalt-filled reach had not, by then, been reexcavated. At 767 ka, eruption of the Bishop Tuff blanketed the landscape with welded ignimbrite, deeply covering the till, basalt, and granodiorite and completely filling all additional reaches of both Rock Creek canyon and Owens River Gorge. The ignimbrite rests directly on the basalt and till along the walls of Owens Gorge, but nowhere was it inset against either, showing that the basalt-blocked reach had still not been reexcavated. Subsidence of Long Valley Caldera at 767 ka produced a steep-walled depression at least 700 m deeper than the precaldera floor of Owens Gorge, which was beheaded at the caldera’s southeast rim. Caldera collapse reoriented proximal drainages that had formerly joined east-flowing Owens River, abruptly reversing flow westward into the caldera. It took 600,000 years of sedimentation in the 26-km-long, usually shallow, caldera lake to fill the deep basin and raise lake level to its threshold for overflow. Not until then did reestablishment of Owens River Gorge begin, by incision of the gorge-filling ignimbrite.

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