The late Cenozoic evolution of the Tuolumne River, central Sierra Nevada, California

GSA Bulletin



Erosional remnants of volcanic rock deposited in a lO-m.y.-old channel of the Tuolumne River permit its partial reconstruction. Projection of the reconstructed channel west to the Central Valley and east to the range crest, together with several assumptions about the position of the hinge line and changes in channel gradient, allows estimates of the amount of uplift at the range crest during the past 10 m.y. At Tioga Pass, this amounts to as much as 1,830 m, as compared to the 2,150 m estimated in an earlier study for Deadman Pass at the San Joaquin River 30 km to the south. Comparison of the geometry of these river systems leads to the conclusion that 10 m.y. ago an ancestral range of hills occupied the present site of the Sierran crest, and, although of relatively moderate relief, it was a barrier to westward drainage even before late Cenozoic uplift. At that time, the San Joaquin River was apparently the only river flowing westward across the range from well south of Mount Whitney north to Sonora Pass. The Tuolumne River evidently never extended east of this range. Comparison of the ancient channel with the modern channel of the Tuolumne River permits analysis of the later evolution of the river system and the development of Hetch Hetchy Valley and the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. At Rancheria Mountain, where the volcanic "dam" in the ancient channel was highest, the river was forced to shift laterally southward around the dam and adjacent to the volcanic infilling, and start its new channel in granitic bedrock. Near Rancheria Mountain, as much as 1,525 m of new channel incision has taken place in the past 10 m.y., and the modern channel is about 915 m lower than the abandoned channel. An undetermined amount of this downcutting was from glacial erosion. The Tuolumne river system provides no direct evidence for timing the onset of uplift, but the shape of the lO-m.y.-old channel at Rancheria Mountain suggests that uplift had been underway for some time before the volcanic infilling. This timing is compatible with evidence from the upper San Joaquin River. Hetch Hetchy Valley on the Tuolumne is a much "fresher" glaciated valley than is Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy was filled to the brim with glacial ice as recently as 15,000-20,000 yr ago (Tioga glaciation), whereas Yosemite Valley probably has not been filled for 750,000 yr or more (Sherwin glaciation). Thus the upper reaches of Yosemite Valley cliffs have been shaped by spalling rather than by glacial scour and are much more irregular than those in Hetch Hetchy.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The late Cenozoic evolution of the Tuolumne River, central Sierra Nevada, California
Series title GSA Bulletin
DOI 10.1130/0016-7606(1990)102<0102:TLCEOT>2.3.CO;2
Volume 102
Issue 1
Year Published 1990
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Description 14 p.
First page 102
Last page 115
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial Sierra Nevadas
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