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A river is born: Highlights of the geologic evolution of the Colorado River extensional corridor and its river: A field guide honoring the life and legacy of Warren Hamilton

September 4, 2019

The Colorado River extensional corridor, which stretched by a factor of 2 in the Miocene, left a series of lowland basins and intervening bedrock ranges that, at the dawn of the Pliocene, were flooded by Colorado River water newly diverted from the Colorado Plateau through Grand Canyon. This water and subsequent sediment gave birth, through a series of overflowing lakes, to an integrated Colorado River flowing to the newly opened Gulf of California. Topock Gorge, which the river now follows between the Chemehuevi and Mohave Mountains, is a major focus of this field guide, as it very nicely exposes structural, stratigraphic, and magmatic aspects of the Miocene extensional corridor, a core complex, and detachment faults as well as a pre-Cenozoic batholith. Topock Gorge also is the inferred site of a paleodivide between early Pliocene basins of newly arrived Colorado River water. Overspilling of its upstream lake breached the divide and led the river southward. The Bouse Formation in this and other basins records the pre–river integration water bodies. Younger riverlaid deposits including the Bullhead Alluvium (Pliocene) and the Chemehuevi Formation (Pleistocene) record subsequent evolution of the Colorado River through a succession of aggradational and re-incision stages. Their stratigraphic record provides evidence of local basin deepening after river inception, but little deformation on a regional scale of the river valley in the last 4 m.y. except in the Lake Mead area. There, faults interrupt both the paleoriver grade and incision rates, and are interpreted to record 100’s of m of true uplift of the Colorado Plateau. Warren Hamilton’s insightful work beginning in the 1950s helped set the stage for interpretation of Mesozoic orogeny and Cenozoic extension in this region, as well as the record of the Bouse Formation.