Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fascinating Geology of Ear Mountain in Montana

Above: Drone photo of my daughter and I on top Ear Mountain

The front of what?
Ear Mountain stands along the boundary between the mountains and the prairie 70 miles northwest of Great Falls (map); an area Montanans refer to as “The Front”. The name probably originates from the view enjoyed by those approaching from the east - That of a long wall marking the abrupt end of the great plains and the beginning of (front of) the mountains. The area, which extends northward to Glacier Park and beyond is known for its scenic beauty, grizzly bears, Chinook winds, and fascinating geology.

Sea creatures in Montana?
Ear Mountain along with many of its neighboring ridges, peaks, and cliffs consist of the Madison formation; layers of limestone and other carbonates, ranging from 275-520 meters thick, and made of sediment laid down 330-340 mya when much of the western USA was the floor of a shallow, tropical ocean (map). The Madison forms many of the state’s most iconic landforms, including the Gates of the Mountains, Mission Canyon, the Lewis and Clark Caverns, and the Bighorn Canyon. The Grand Canyon’s “Redwall limestone” and the limestone that surrounds the Black Hills of South Dakota are equivalent strata. In places the Madison is especially fossiliferous. Those adventurous enough to climb Ear Mountain will be treated to an abundance of horn coral, as they walk the perimeter of the plateau.

Not your ordinary faults.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect the Ear Mountain and the surrounding region is the way the Madison formation and other layers were deformed as these mountains were built. In response to the collision of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate 115-50 mya, immense slabs of rock broke, and then slid up and over younger layers to their west. Mountains formed by this over-thrust faulting extend from Helena northward through Glacier Park into Alberta (called the Lewis Thrust Belt). Although this provided some of the most scenic mountains in the state, the orientation of the slabs in the 60-mile stretch between Augusta and Heart Butte (map) is especially unique. In this area thinner slabs of rock slid eastward over younger rock layers like shingles on a roof to form distinct high ridges and deep valleys that run parallel to each other as shown in this photo.

Term: Mississippian Period

Related links:

Hiking on Top of Ear Mountain

More About the Thrust-Faulting Along "The Front"

More About the Madison Limestone

More About the Sevier Orogeny

The Madison Limestone in Montana


  1. Had heard a lot about the ear mountain and also watched a documentary featuring the mountain and other areas. It was good to read more about the mountain.

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