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Powderhorn Rocks – A Geology Lesson

A glimpse of the unique views offered at Powderhorn. A glimpse of the unique views offered at Powderhorn.

Powderhorn Mountain Resort near Mesa, Colorado is little known, and that much is well known. Asking many skier and snowboarder friends, even some who grew up skiing in Colorado, a common reply is either Wheres that? or Powder-what? To answer that right away, Powderhorn is reminiscent of locals favorite Sunlight. Boasting 1,600 acres of skiable terrain, Powderhorn perches on the edge of the Grand Mesa, which happens to be the largest flat-topped mountain in the world.

From the chairs of the aptly named Flattop Flyer, skiers are privy to a unique resort view unlike any other in the state. While bundled up in your layers and cheeks a little rosy from the cold, you can scan out across what seems like hundreds of miles of nearly desert landscape. Red and orange and pink undertones swirl in and out of their snowy white sheathings as the desert rolls away for what could be a thousand square miles for all the adventure possible there.

Aside from its varied and wonderful skiing opportunities, free parking, family-oriented and friendly lodge, Powderhorn is actually a place of incredible geologic history for those who are interested in the foundation of their snow sliding adventures.

Beneath 250 inches of average snowfall, the Grand Mesa is crowned by hard volcanic basalt which was formed around ten million years ago, similar to when the lakes of the Great Rift Valley in Africa formed. The Colorado and Gunnison rivers eroded and carved away layer by layer of adjacent sedimentary rock, yet the Powderhorn districts hardy basaltic covering protects it from such forces.

Beneath the basalt lies softer Eocene-era sandstones and shales, called the Wasatch and the Green River Formations, followed by the Mesa Verde Group below, which composes the steep cliffs on the sides of the mesa. The very lowest layers are made of Mancos shale that tapers into the valleys surrounding the mesa where it has then eroded enough on the surface to provide the fertile agricultural soil that is so prized in the Gunnison Valley.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) put into motion a study of the uncommon mineral resources in the area during 2006. Many of the minerals that they found have not been studied within the last twenty-five years, and some even have applications in modern technology. For instance, the Powderhorn district turns out to be a carbonatite complex. Carbonatite is an igneous carbonate rock that is created by peridotites (igneous rocks made of pyroxene and olivine) that are incompletely melted in the upper mantle of the earth.

A up close at Niobium crystals. Photo: Wikipedia. A up close at Niobium crystals. Photo: Wikipedia.

Aside from what might be gibberish to those of us not geologically-minded or particularly interested, what is interesting is that this area is considered a potential host of the largest stashes of niobium and titanium anywhere in the country. For reference, niobium can be used in stainless steel alloys as well as in pipeline construction because of its hardy nature. Titanium, certainly the more well-known of the two, is used anywhere from the nose rings you see on younguns on the hill to the aerospace industry.

Skiing in itself is an activity for nature-adorers. I wont even say nature lovers because adoration carries a stronger sentiment, and who else would go endure the cold cheeks, soggy socks, and sore rear ends, than dedicated skiers and devoted snowboarders ready to thank the skies for the snow and the earth for its geologic genius.

Powderhorn Mountain Resort happens to be one of those rare places where the sky truly does kiss the earth way out there across the desert while you stand in those soggy socks on cold and fluffy snow and the wind that whips your hair tendrils flies from hundreds of miles away, sometimes with a chill from the east or a heat surge from the west. Perhaps nowhere else in the country can you feel so small against the geology and climate of two polar-opposite ecosystems while also feeling so large, so important, because you are privy to such beauty as that!


Colorado Geological Survey
Geological Survey Bulletin
Geoscience World
New Mexico Geological Society