Unaweep Canyon (Colorado, USA) is a large, Precambrian-cored gorge that bisects the Uncompahgre Plateau of the northeastern Colorado Plateau, but has no through-flowing axial stream; it is drained by two underfit creeks (East and West Creek) that head at a divide within the canyon. The history of the canyon and its role in drainage evolution of the Colorado River system remain controversial. New mapping of both bedrock and Quaternary units as well as analyses of Quaternary deposits in and near the canyon shed light on its late Cenozoic history, and call into question whether the canyon was incised by a Cenozoic river, or merely exhumed by one. Gravels near the western mouth of Unaweep Canyon (Gateway, Colorado) exhibit a distinctive intermediate volcanic provenance recording the presence of an ancestral Gunnison River; the youngest gravels are dated to 1.46 ± 0.33 Ma. Previously documented coring within the canyon reveals a thick (locally >330 m) fill that includes a lacustrine succession (∼140 m thick), dated to 1.4–1.3 Ma, overlain by stacked paleosols and a thick (∼160 m) conglomeratic unit emplaced between 1.3 Ma and the present, in addition to a basal unit of possible late Paleozoic age. Lake formation reflects catastrophic mass wasting in western Unaweep Canyon that blocked the ancestral Gunnison River, causing partial backfilling of the canyon, and forcing the river to seek a lower elevation exit eastward by breaching the Mesozoic rim at the northeast end of Cactus Park (Mesa County, Colorado). Ultimately, the ancestral Gunnison River joined the lower elevation Colorado River near Grand Junction by 1.3 Ma, incising the East Creek of Unaweep Canyon during the overspilling event.

Thermochronological data from Precambrian basement within Unaweep Canyon and Permian strata at the western mouth of the canyon indicate onset of incision in latest Miocene time (ca. 6–5 Ma), at a time-averaged rate of ∼210–275 m/m.y. Onset of canyon occupation and rapid incision by the ancestral Gunnison River coincided with the timing of integration of the lower Colorado River system to the Gulf of California. The synchroneity of this incision across the Colorado Plateau supports the inference of an ultimate tectonic or epeirorogenic driver for this widespread incision and ultimate drainage integration.

Several aspects of this data set support the previously published hypothesis that the ancestral Gunnison River exhumed a paleovalley. New mapping at the western mouth of the canyon documents a paleovalley filled with Permian strata that leads into the modern Precambrian-hosted gorge of Unaweep Canyon. In addition, the ancestral Gunnison River paralleled the Uncompahgre Plateau before making a 90° turn to bisect the structural axis in a manner that opposes both the northwestward plunge of the uplift and the northeastward dip of its northern flank. The rate of incision of Unaweep Canyon exceeds regional time-averaged incision rates, consistent with removal of sedimentary fill rather than incision of crystalline basement. This hypothesis implies that very ancient landforms can influence drainage evolution in even tectonically active landscapes.

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