How Rocks Form

The Teton Range is a good example of metamorphic rock that formed millions of years ago and then was lifted to its present position through changes in the Earth’s crust.

In the course of a week, we have ventured from Island Park to spend time in the Upper Blackfoot River near Soda Springs, Grand Teton National Park, Sinks Canyon near Lander, Wyoming, and a few nights in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park before winding up in eastern Virginia (okay, we flew from Denver to Washington DC, we didn’t drive). We wound through willow-lined canyons, over high mountain passes, through glacially scraped valleys, across sagebrush covered plains, up wide river plains lined with aspens, across a tundra-covered plateau and an alluvial fan before plopping down into the middle of an eastern deciduous forest. The variety of landscapes was absolutely amazing, but there was one thing in common through it all: rock.

Rocks form the foundation of this world that we see. Through our travels the past week, the rocks—geology, changed as dramatically as the vegetation—from red canyon sandstone, tilted sedimentary rock, extremely rugged “teen-aged” gneiss mountains (the Teton Range) made from some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, glacially shaped cirques to volcanically formed mountain ranges (Never Summer Range, Colorado), and peaks that reached nearly to heaven. Yet, despite the differences, there were only three kinds of parent material when considering the rocks themselves.

Geologists classify rock as either igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary. Of course, there are many types of rocks within each of these classifications, but these are the three basic ways that rock forms.

A dictionary definition of igneous is, “having solidified from lava or magma. Relating to or involving volcanic processes.” Lots of rock, particularly in Southern Idaho, is of igneous origin. Lava, basalt and obsidian are all igneous as well as solidified ash deposits. This is rock that has melted under extreme heat and then cooled. Igneous rock formed inside the earth is called intrusive or plutonic igneous rock. When formed on top of the Earth’s crust by lava these rocks are extrusive or volcanic, igneous rocks. Intrusive rocks cool very slowly and tend to form very large-grained crystals. Granite is an example of intrusive igneous rock. Lava that cools on the surface cools much more quickly and has finer grain. Obsidian cools so quickly that the grain is not visible to the naked eye and appears to be grainless.

Metamorphosis means a complete change of physical form and that is what happens with metamorphic rock. A rock starts out as igneous, sedimentary or earlier metamorphic rock and through the application of intense pressure and/or heat, changes into something else, much like a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. Schist, gneiss, quartzite, slate and marble are examples or metamorphic rock.

When you see rock in layers, it is sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock often forms from the bottom of ancient seas, lakes or floodplains where fine silts, sand and/or biological elements such as shells settled to the bottom to form layers. The youngest layers are on top and the oldest on the bottom. Over time, these sea beds were buried and subjected to great pressure compacting the sediments to stone. Sedimentary rock always forms horizontally. This may seem strange as layered rock is often seen in angled repose. The angles are created after the sediments are turned to stone and are uplifted by forces in the Earth’s crust. Examples of sedimentary rock include sandstone, shale and limestone.

There seems to be a lesson in all this rock stuff. Sedimentary rocks are some of the softest of rocks on the Mohs hardness scale. However, there is one soft organic sedimentary rock, coal, made from biological materials such as plants, that can go through metamorphosis and become diamond, the hardest natural material on the Mohs scale. Life likely works the same way: rather than hoping to escape from the pressures of mortality, we should embrace them in order to discover which lumps of coal can become diamonds.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure. 

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho