Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Layering of Volcanic Rocks in Yellowstone Reveals Eruption Sequence Repetition

Decades of geologic work in Yellowstone has led scientists to understanding how and when eruptions took place from the Plateau.

 Stratigraphic layers of volcanic rocks can be grouped into three sequences. The major ash-flow tuffs that erupted explosively at the climax of each cycle are the primary rock units of Yellowstone in areas beyond the caldera complex. The table below is a rough stratigraphy depicting the work of geologists who identified, described, and mapped the different volcanic rock deposits in the Yellowstone area and determined the order in which they erupted during each of the three cycles of activity. The units are shown in stratigraphicsequence (the youngest at the top of the table, oldest at the bottom). Table is from Christiansen (2001).


Stratigraphic units of the Yellowstone Plateau volcanic field

Volcanic Cycle Precaldera Rhyolite Caldera-forming ash-flow tuff Postcaldera Rhyolite Contemporanious platau-marginal basalts1
Third     Plateau Rhyolite2 Basalts of Snake River Group Osprey Basalt Madison River Basalt Basalt of Geode Creek Swan Lake Flat Basalt Basalt of Mariposa Lake
  Lava Creek Tuff (0.64 Ma)    
Mount Jackson Rhyolite Lewis Canyon Rhyolite     Undine Falls Basalt Basalt of Warm River Basalt of Shotgun Valley
Second     Island Park Rhyolite Basalt of the Narrows
  Mesa Falls Tuff (1.3 Ma)    
Big Bend Ridge Rhyolite3      
First     Big Bend RidgeRhyolite3  
  Huckleberry Ridge Tuff (2.1 Ma)    
Rhyolite of Snake River Butte     Junction Butte Basalt

1 Plateau-marginal basaltic volcanism has been intermittently active throughout the history of the Yellowstone area. The basaltic volcanism is not inherently part of the rhyolitic cycles, but for descriptive purposes they are discussed together.
2 The Plateau Rhyolite comprises more than 20 individual flows ranging in age from 70,000 to 160,000 years. Flows of the contemporaneous basalts (Madison River basalt, etc.) range in age from > 110,000 to < 640,000 years ago.
3 Part of the Big Bend Ridge Rhyolite comprises postcaldera flows of the first cycle and part comprises precaldera flows of the second cycle.