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Red-Rocks-file-photo---mal.jpgWith just about 3 million visitors a year, Sedona gets nearly as much traffic as the Grand Canyon.

Why? Among other things, people come to see the extraordinary rock formations.

By Tyler Midkiff
Larson Newspapers

With just about 3 million visitors a year, Sedona gets nearly as much traffic as the Grand Canyon.

Why? Among other things, people come to see the extraordinary rock formations.

Nestled right along the edge of the Colorado Plateau, “It’s a geological wonderland,” Grand Canyon tour guide and geology enthusiast Chad Graf said.

Every Monday at 10:15 a.m., Graf stops by the Institute of EcoTourism’s Sinagua Theater to give a free presentation, “Geology of the Red Rocks.”

His presentation, which is not a boring lecture filled with technical jargon only scientists could comprehend, does a good job of explaining a few of the Earth events responsible for Sedona’s unique appearance. Graf also presents the information in ways the uninitiated can understand. 

On the Colorado Plateau and in Sedona specifically, geologists don’t need to drill deep into the Earth to get a good look at the past.

They can learn a lot about the Earth just by looking at what a massive geological event called the Laramide orogeny, forced thousands of feet above the surface.

With energy and enthusiasm, Graf gets into the details.

The Colorado Plateau — formed during the Paleozoic Era millions of years before the dinosaurs — spans the four corners of Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.

Sedona, which is situated along the edge of the plateau, is a geological anomaly.

Here, layers of rock representing millions of years of the Earth’s history are visible, particularly on Thunder Mountain, where even distinct sea fossil layers are visible from afar.

Rust, or iron oxide, is the simple explanation for why Sedona’s rocks are red, but there’s a little more to it than that, Graf said.

The concentration of iron in Sedona’s soil is less than 1 percent, which is not even enough to mine, Graf said.

There are plenty of places on Earth with similar environments and a lot more iron that aren’t red, so why is Sedona?

Millions of years ago, when Sedona was essentially a pile of mud and sand, iron mixed with the muddy sand and spread, rusting and creating a red dye, Graf explained.

When the Colorado Plateau formed, the western coast of what is now the United States was deep underwater and the North American Plate hadn’t even floated north of the equator yet.

When the Pacific Plate shoved another smaller plate underneath the North American Plate, it slowly forced the Western states out of the ocean and the Colorado Plateau popped up as the land was bunched together.

The event, the Laramide orogeny, forced the North American Plate up at a range of about two to four inches every 100 years — over a 40-million year period, to about 15,000 feet, Graf said.

Iron particles drifted down from eroding mountain ranges and into Sedona where they mixed with the mud and sand, turned red, and were slowly compressed into rock.

If one were to rub two red rocks together, the scratches would be white, Graf said.

The reason is that the red dye only covers the outside of the individual sand particles that make up the rock. When the rocks are scratched, the sand particles are broken up and the white inside is revealed, Graf said.

It’s not magic. It’s science, he said.

With an entertaining teaching style, Graf keeps people engaged and interested, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

The institute is located at 91 Portal Lane, at Los Abrigados Resort & Spa.

For more information, visit or call 282-2720.

Tyler Midkiff may be reached at 282-7795, Ext. 122, or e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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