Imagine standing in any national park. Underneath your feet lies a surprisingly dynamic geological history. All around you are geological processes in action, at least on geological timescales: mountains heaving upward, glaciers sculpting valleys, and rivers carving gorges. National parks protect these geological treasures and processes. The visual impact can be breathtaking - whether viewed from a lookout point, a hiking trail or from space. We can use satellite imagery to observe some of the geological processes at work and to make inferences about how a particular landscape was formed. Take a space-based view of the geological stories of selected national parks with these Earth Observatory images and articles.

Guiding Questions and Explorations

  1. What unique information can a NASA satellite image tell us about the geology of a national park that can't be determined from a photograph taken on the ground?
  2. Water – whether in the form of ice or precipitation, or moving in glaciers, rivers or the ocean – plays a significant role in the creation of many geological formations found in national parks such as Zion, Everglades, and Petrified Forest. Read articles about each of these parks to discover water's past and current impacts. As you explore other articles, note how often, and in what ways, water plays a role in the parks.
  3. Glaciers are integral to Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Glacier Bay and Glacier national parks. View the images and read the articles to explore the role of glaciers on these landscapes.
  4. Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Katmai and Lassen are parks that have geological features created by tectonic activity. Very different landforms and processes characterize each of these sites. Read the articles to discover similarities and differences exhibited in the geological features and tectonics of these sites.
  5. If you were a geologist, which national park would you want to work in and why?
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List of Parks:

Arches National Park
Renowned for its namesake rock arches and unique geology, this 119 square mile park also harbors many rare and endangered desert species.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park offers a multitude of rock formations. Sparse vegetation makes finding and observing the rocks easy, but they document a complicated geologic history extending back 500 million years.
Biscayne National Park
With 95 percent of this park under shallow coastal waters, Biscayne protects one of the most extensive stretches of coral reef in the world. But what's on land is equally important - the longest stretch of mangroves on the east coast.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Popular with ice climbers for its cold winters and steep canyon walls, the Black Canyon was carved by the Gunnison River all the way down to the very hard Precambrian "basement" rocks until the river could no longer change course.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Inhabited by humans for nearly 10,000 years, and known for its rich collection of rock spires, known as "hoodoos," this satellite view reveals the varied rock and vegetation colors of the park.
Canyonlands National Park
Inhabited by humans for nearly 10,000 years, and known for its rich collection of rock spires, known as "hoodoos," this satellite view reveals the varied rock and vegetation colors of the park.
Capitol Reef National Park
Big Thomson Mesa is part of a large feature known as the Waterpocket Fold — a geologic structure called a monocline–layers of generally flat–lying sedimentary rock with a steep, one-sided bend, like a carpet runner draped over a stair step.
Colorado National Monument
West of Grand Junction lies Colorado National Monument, a network of canyons and mesas. The varied landscapes of Colorado National Monument show the effects of tens of millions of years of erosion.
Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park is one of the oldest parks in the United States. Formed by a volcanic caldera, the lake is the deepest in the United States.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
The unearthly landscape formed by this lava field appears so foreign and grim it earned the name "Craters of the Moon." The basaltic lava that formed the flow spilled out of the volcanically active Great Rift that runs through the monument.
Death Valley National Park
In Oct. 2015, a series of storms across the U.S. Southwest brought a deluge of rain to the area's desert valleys. This animation shows satellite-based estimates of rainfall from a particularly large storm that passed over the area.
Denali National Park
Formally renamed in 2015 from Mt. McKinley to Denali, the highest point in North America was also resurveyed to a revised height of 20,310 feet.
Dinosaur National Monument
This oblique view of Dinosaur National Monument was formed from a mosaic of four astronaut photographs taken from the International Space Station.
El Malpais National Monument
On the surface, the landscape has been sculpted by volcanic activity and weathering, where formations like cinder cones and hoodoos abound. Underground, a network of lava tubes and caves are open for exploration by park visitors.
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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has been declared as a UN Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage site. As new land has been revealed by the retreating glaciers, a sequence of new species have gradually moved into the exposed areas.
Glacier National Park
In combination with Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park, the area is the first International Peace Park, declared in 1932 to solidify the peaceful friendship between Canada and the United States and to protect ecology across the border.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon stretches 277 river miles across northwestern Arizona. It's not size alone that makes it a natural wonder. It is the spectacular variety of ecosystems, micro-climates, and life forms that make it the grandest of canyons.
Grand Teton National Park
The Tetons form the youngest section of the Rocky Mountains, yet conversely their uplifting exposes some of the oldest rock formations in North America.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
This oblique view of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve comes from the International Space Station. This view clearly shows the topography which gives rise to the dune fields.
Haleakalā National Park
The name Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “House of the Sun.” The valley that now makes up the core of Haleakalā National Park was sculpted by the forces of erosion rather than by events related to volcanology.
Hot Springs National Park
The natural hot springs for which this park and the surrounding city are named introduces water back to Earth's surface that has been underground for thousands of years.
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
Uniquely spread out through three different areas of the John Day River drainage, this national monument features an expansive collection of fossils representing a period of over 40 million years.
Katmai National Park and Preserve
First established by the U.S. government in 1918 to protect an extreme volcanic landscape, Katmai came to be recognized for more than just its volcanism as ecologists learned about the thriving ecosystem there.
Kings Canyon National Park
Spectacular cliffs surround this deep valley carved by Pleistocene glaciers. The numerous lakes and ponds in Kings Canyon help supply water to California's Central Valley.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Peak is the southernmost volcanic peak in a chain of 13 that stretches from Washington to California. Although dormant since a seven-year-long series of eruptions in 1914, it maintains a relatively high probability of eruption.
Lava Beds National Monument
Selected for national monument status primarily in honor of a conflict during the 1872-73 Modoc War, the site features basaltic lava flows, cinder and spatter cones, and a network of caves from lava tubes.
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Mammoth Cave National Park
This cave system consists of roughly 350 miles of known passages and nearly 600 additional miles of suspected passages, making it the largest known cave system in the world.
North Cascades National Park
More than any other park in the contiguous U.S. North Cascades National Park is dominated by glaciers. Because glaciers are among its most valuable resources and sensitive to climate change, USGS has been monitoring the glaciers since 1993.
Olympic National Park
If you walked east across Olympic National Park, you would start at the rocky Pacific shoreline, move into rare temperate rainforests, ascend glaciers and rugged mountain peaks, and then descend into a dry rain shadow and alpine forest.
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park preserves traces of an ancient, vastly different landscape. Petrified wood occurs throughout the United States, but some of the most abundant and highest quality examples of these fossils occur here.
Pinnacles National Park
Steep rocky crags and towering cliffs rise out of the Gabilan Mountains in Central California. Called Pinnacles National Monument, the landscape was formed as wind, water, and earthquakes carved away a 23-million-year-old volcano.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument
Though it might look manmade, this bridge owes nothing to human invention: its sculptor was water. The bridge is made of ancient sandstones laid down more than 200 million years ago by inland seas and massive desert sand dunes.
Redwood National and State Parks
This image of the Redwood National Park includes two stands of trees: Lady Bird Johnson Grove and Tall Trees Grove. Redwood National Park occupies an area considered to be the most seismically active in the United States.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Much of the park was shaped by glaciers, the remainder of which have retreated to the high passes in the mountains. The mountains in the park stand taller than 11,000 feet and maintain snow pack through the entire year.
Shenandoah National Park
This elevation data visualization displays clearly the distinct ridgeline which comprises Shenandoah National Park. Massanutten Mountain is another distinctive landform, consisting of highly elongated looping folds of sedimentary rock.
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Voyageurs National Park
Park visitors wanting to experience the park to its fullest must leave their cars behind. Almost a third of the park is water, and travel through the park is usually by boat. The forested landscape belies the region's ice age past.
White Sands National Monument
Within White Sands National Monument, the largest gypsum dune field in the world was formed by the erosion of gypsum from sedimentary rock outcroppings being deposited in the Tularosa Valley.
Yellowstone National Park– Mammoth Hot Springs
Yellowstone National Park sits atop vast, ancient, and still-active volcanic plumbing. Heat radiates off of an underground magma chamber, fueling Yellowstone's ten thousand hot springs, mud pots, terraces, and geysers.
Yellowstone National Park– Landscape
Established in 1872, Yellowstone was the first national park in the United States. The park exemplifies the spirit and purpose of the National Park Service, blending modern and ancient human history with nature in its raw complexity.
Yosemite National Park
Naked summits alternate with forested lowlands in Yosemite National Park. During the Pleistocene Ice Age, glaciers sculpted the underlying rocks in this region, leaving behind canyons, waterfalls, rugged peaks, and granite domes.
Zion National Park
Formed over a period of four million years, the canyons of Utah's Zion National Park plunge 2,000-3,000 feet through red and white sandstone.