The Surprise Valley landslide complex is the name used here for a group of prominent river-damming landslides in Grand Canyon (Arizona, USA) that has shifted the path of the Colorado River several times in the past 2 m.y. We document a sequence of eight landslides. Three are Toreva-block landslides containing back-rotated but only mildly disrupted bedrock stratigraphy. The largest of these landslides, Surprise Valley landslide, is hypothesized to have dammed the Colorado River, cut off a meander loop through Surprise Valley, and rerouted the river 2.5 km south to near its present course at the Granite Narrows. Another bedrock landslide, Poncho’s runup, involved a mass detachment from the north side of the river that drove a kilometer-scale bedrock slab across the river and up the south canyon wall to a height of 823 m above the river. A lake behind this landslide is inferred from the presence of mainstem gravels atop the slide that represent the approximate spillway elevation. We postulate that this landslide lake facilitated the upriver 133 Mile slide detachment and Toreva block formation. The other five landslides are subsequent slides that consist of debris from the primary slides; these also partially blocked and diverted the Colorado River as well as the Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek tributaries into new bedrock gorges over the past 1 m.y.
The sequence of landslides is reconstructed from inset relationships revealed by geologic mapping and restored cross-sections. Relative ages are estimated by measuring landslide base height above the modern river level in locations where landslides filled paleochannels of the Colorado River and its tributaries. We calculate an average bedrock incision rate of 138 m/m.y. as determined by a 0.674 ± 0.022 Ma detrital sanidine maximum depositional age of the paleoriver channel fill of the Piano slide, which has its base 70 m above the river level and ~93 m above bedrock level beneath the modern river channel. This date is within error of, and significantly refines, the prior cosmogenic burial date of 0.88 ± 0.44 Ma on paleochannel cobbles. Assuming steady incision at 138 m/m.y., the age of Surprise Valley landslide is estimated to be ca. 2.1 Ma; Poncho’s runup is estimated to be ca. 610 ka; and diversion of Deer Creek to form modern Deer Creek Falls is estimated to be ca. 400 ka. The age of the most recent slide, Backeddy slide, is estimated to be ca. 170 ka based on its near-river-level position. Our proposed triggering mechanism for Surprise Valley landslides involves groundwater saturation of a failure plane in the weak Bright Angel Formation resulting from large volumes of Grand Canyon north-rim groundwater recharge prior to establishment of the modern Deer, Thunder, and Tapeats springs. Poncho’s and Piano landslides may have been triggered by shale saturation caused by 600–650 ka lava dams that formed 45 river miles (73 river km; river miles are measured along the Colorado River downstream from Lees Ferry, with 1 river mile = 1.62 river kms) downstream near Lava Falls. We cannot rule out effects from seismic triggering along the nearby Sinyala fault. Each of the inferred landslide dams was quickly overtopped (tens of years), filled with sediment (hundreds of years), and removed (thousands of years) by the Colorado River, as is also the potential fate of modern dams.