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America's Volcanic Past
Appalachians Mountains and Scenic Trail
Blue Ridge Mountains and National Parkway
Great Smoky Mountains and National Park
Shenandoah National Park

"Though few people in the United States may actually experience an erupting volcano, the evidence for earlier volcanism is preserved in many rocks of North America. Features seen in volcanic rocks only hours old are also present in ancient volcanic rocks, both at the surface and buried beneath younger deposits." -- Excerpt from: Brantley, 1994

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Map, Location of the Appalachians

Volcanic Highlights and Features:
[NOTE: This list is just a sample of various Appalachian features or events and is by no means inclusive. All information presented here was gathered from other online websites and each excerpt is attributed back to the original source. Please use those sources in referencing any information on this webpage, and please visit those websites for more information on the Geology of the Appalachians.]

  • Appalachian Mountains
  • Southern Appalachian Mountains - Brief Geologic History
  • Appalachian National Scenic Trail
  • Blue Ridge Mountains
  • Blue Ridge National Parkway
  • Great Smoky Mountains
  • Great Smoky National Park
  • Shenandoah National Park
  • White Top Mountain, Virginia

Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachians are old. A look at rocks exposed in today's Appalachian mountains reveals elongate belts of folded and thrust faulted marine sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks and slivers of ancient ocean floor. Strong evidence that these rocks were deformed during plate collision. The birth of the Appalachian ranges, some 480 million years ago, marks the first of several mountain building plate collisions that culminated in the construction of the supercontinent Pangea with the Appalachians near the center.

Southern Appalachian Mountains - Brief Geologic History

The Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. In the Southern Appalachians, the history of the last billion years is recorded in the rocks. By reading the rocks, we can trace their incredible history.


The rocks at the core of the Appalachian Mountains formed more than a billion years ago. At that time,all of the continents were joined together in a single supercontinent surrounded by a single ocean. About 750 million years ago, the crust of the supercontinent began to thin and pull apart. As the crust expanded, a deep basin -- the Ocoee -- formed in what is now the western Carolinas, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia. Seawater filled the basin.

Sediments formed by the weathering of surrounding hills were transported by water and deposited in layers on the floor of the basin. Over a long period of time, a great thickness of sediments accumulated. These sediments now form the bedrock of the Great Smoky Mountains. Within these sediments, minerals like pyrite and metals like copper were deposited.

At the same time that the sediments were being laid down volcanoes were erupting in present-day Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Lava from some volcanoes flowed in slow moving sheets, but some eruptions were explosive.

Then, about 540 million years ago, the supercontinent split into pieces that drifted away from each other. Seawater spread into low areas between crustal plates and,in time, formed new oceans. A shallow sea covered most of what is now the United States.


About 470 million years ago, the motion of the crustal plates changed, and the continents began to move toward each other. Eventually, about 270 million years ago, the continents ancestral to North America and Africa collided. Huge masses of rock were pushed west-ward along the margin of North America and piled up to form the mountains that we know as the Appalachians.

As blocks of continental crust rode across one another, some rocks became so hot that they melted. Some of the molten rock remained deep below ground. There, it cooled slowly and crystallized to form bodies of rock that are called plutons. Granite is an example of an plutonic rock. Some molten rock cooled very slowly and formed coarse-grained veins called pegmatites. Pegmatites have been the source of high-purity minerals (such as feldspar,quartz,and mica) and gemstones (such as emeralds and beryl).

When continental masses collided with the edge of ancestral North America, rocks were subjected to intense pressure and heat. Where the temperature was high but below the melting point of the rocks, the rocks deformed and recrystallized to become metamorphic rocks. The components separated into bands, and some flowed with a consistency like that of toothpaste. During metamorphism, temperatures and pressures can vary. In less extreme conditions, original rock layers may be partly retained. As a result, some minerals recrystallized in sheets, forming rocks (slate or schist) that split easily into thin, smooth layers.

The collision of continental plates is also expressed in the rocks by folds (bends)and faults (breaks). Earthquakes happen because of slippage along a fault. Although earthquakes are now rare in the Southern Appalachians, during the time of continental collision, earthquakes were a common occurrence.


Although a collision of continents caused the formation of the Appalachian Mountains, the present-day margin of North America is the result of a reversal in crustal plate movement. After the continents collided, the continental mass began to pull apart. About 240 million years ago, at the beginning of the age of the dinosaurs, a new ocean basin began to form -- the present-day Atlantic. The widening of the Atlantic Ocean at the mid-Atlantic Ridge is evidence of this continuing movement.


At the time they formed, the Appalachians were much higher than they are today -- more like the present-day Rocky Mountains. While the Atlantic Ocean was still in its infancy, the Appalachians were already being attacked by erosion. For the last 100 million years, erosion has carved away the mountains, leaving only their cores standing. Erosion continues today and is constantly altering the landscape of the Southern Appalachians.

Four times during the past 2 million to 3 million years, great sheets of ice advanced steadily southward from the polar region. The glaciers did not extend as far south as the Southern Appalachians, but they triggered a change in climate that can be seen today in both the rocks and the life of the region.

Excerpts from: USGS/NPS Geology in the Parks Website, August 2001, and Sandra Clark,, 2001, Teacher's Guide for the U.S. Geological Survey Video -- The Southern Appalachians, A Changing World.


Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Appalachian National Scenic Trail:4
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a 2,167-mile (3,488 kilometers) footpath along the ridge crests and across the major valleys of the Appalachian Mountains from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in north Georgia. The trail traverses Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

Blue Ridge Mountains -
Blue Ridge National Parkway

Blue Ridge Mountains:6
Most of the rocks that form the Blue Ridge are ancient granitic and metamorphosed volcanic formations, some exceeding one billion years in age. By comparison, humans have been associated with this land only about 9,000 years.

Blue Ridge National Parkway:5,8
The Blue Ridge Parkway extends 469 miles along the crests of the Southern Appalachians and links two eastern national parks: Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains. In many places along the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are metamorphic rocks (gneiss) with folded bands of light-and dark-colored minerals, which sometimes look like the folds and swirls in a marble cake.

Great Smoky Mountains -
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains:2
Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies within the Appalachian Blue Ridge geologic and physiographic province. The highest mountains in eastern North America occur in the Blue Ridge province, and some of the highest peaks in this province are in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The oldest rocks in the Blue Ridge province are at least 1 billion years old and consist of metamorphosed sedimentary and igneous rocks. These Proterozoic rocks form the core of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. Sediments deposited over these older rocks form the majority of rocks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Rocks:2
Most of the rocks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are metamorphosed sedimentary rocks. These sedimentary rocks were formed from approximately 800 to 450 million years ago from deposits of clay, silt, sand, gravel, and lime or calcium carbonate. The oldest sedimentary rocks consist of vast amounts of clastic material that washed down into lowland basins from adjacent highlands. Rocks of the ancient highlands are similar to the ancient granite, gneiss, and schist found in the eastern parts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Approximately 450 million years ago, the rocks were metamorphosed or "changed" by heat and pressure. For example, sandstone was changed to quartzite and shale to slate.

Last Phase:2
About 200 to 300 million years ago, the last phase of Appalachian Mountain building, (the Alleghenian orogeny) occurred when the North American continent collided with the African and European continents, closing the early Atlantic Ocean. This process, part of a continuous mountain building cycle known as "plate tectonics," ended sedimentation in the Appalachian region and uplifted the entire Appalachian mountain chain from Newfoundland, Canada to Georgia. These mountains may have been much higher than they are today, with elevations perhaps similar to the present-day Rocky Mountains. As the continents collided, the original horizontal layers were bent or folded and broken by fractures and faults. Tremendous forces caused huge masses of older rocks to be pushed westward, up and over younger rocks, along nearly flat-lying faults. Rocks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park moved westward on the Great Smoky Mountain fault.

Oldest Rocks in the Park:3
Granitic gneiss with foliation defined by bands of black biotite mica and white plagioclase feldspar is exposed near Cherokee (Cades Cove). At 1 billion years old they are the oldest rocks in the park.

Shenandoah National Park

Shenandoah National Park:6
Shenandoah National Park lies astride a beautiful section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which form the eastern rampart of the Appalachian Mountains between Pennsylvania and Georgia. The Shenandoah River flows through the valley to the west, with Massanutten Mountain, 40 miles long, standing between the river's north and south forks. The rolling Piedmont country lies to the east of the park. Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that winds along the crest of the mountains through the length of the park, provides vistas of the spectacular landscape to east and west. The oldest rocks in Shenandoah National Park were formed between 1 and 1.2 billion years ago. These granitic rocks can be seen at Old Rag Mountain and Mary's Rock Tunnel. Two other major rock types you can see in the park include basalts, made from individual lava flows, each 30 to 90 feet deep, formed about 570 million years ago; and sedimentary rocks (including sandstone, quartzite and phyllite) formed later.

Columnar jointing in an ancient lava flow in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia:7
The flow that contains the columns of an extensive series of lava flows, each averaging about 200 feet thick, poured over the land more than 570 million years ago. Columns formed as cooling or shrinkage joints when a hot lava flow cools quickly; the columns form perpendicular to the cooling surface.

Old Rag Granite:1
Old Rag Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge province of Virginia. The craggy rock peak is exposed billion year old granitic gneiss called the Old Rag Granite. Blue Ridge to the west is underlain by Late Proterozoic Catoctin Formation which is comprised of massive 575 million year old basalt metamorphosed to greenstone in the Middle Paleozoic. Blue Ridge forms the provincial boundary with the Great Valley of the Valley and Ridge province.

White Top Mountain

White Top Mountain:8
Although volcanic activity ended hundreds of millions of years ago, rocks that formed from ancient volcanoes can still be seen at White Top Mountain in southern Virginia. Some rocks in this area contain angular fragments that had cooled and solidified, then later broke up, and were engulfed in lava flow. Others contain small, irregular, mineral-filled holes that formed as gases slowly bubbled up through hot lava.

Excerpts from:
1) USGS/NPS Geology in the Parks Website, Geologic Provinces of the United States, 2001
2) USGS Website, Geologic Information about the Eastern Region, 2001
3) USGS Website, Geologic Story of Cades Cove, 2001
4) U.S. National Park Service Website - Appalachian National Scenic Trail, 2001
5) U.S. National Park Service Website - Blue Ridge Parkway: Appalachian Geology Website, 2000
6) U.S. National Park Service Website - Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, 2000, 2001
7) Brantley, 1994, Volcanoes of the United States: USGS General Interest Publication
8) Clark,, 2001, Teacher's Guide for the U.S. Geological Survey Video -- The Southern Appalachians, A Changing World.

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05/20/03, Lyn Topinka