The Virgin River depression and surrounding mountains are Neogene features that are partly contiguous with the little-strained rocks of the structural transition to the Colorado Plateau province. This contiguity makes the area ideally suited for evaluating the sense, magnitude, and kinematics of Neogene deformation. Analysis along the strain boundary shows that, compared to the adjacent little-strained area, large-magnitude vertical deformation (both uplift and depression, locally exceeding 10 km) greatly exceeds extensional deformation and that significant amounts of lateral displacement approximately parallel the province boundary. Extensional kinematics, the directions of lateral displacements, and the position and orientation of uplifts and one major depression are such that isostatic rebound following tectonic denudation is an unlikely direct cause of the strong vertical structural relief adjacent to the strain boundary. Instead, the observed structures are first-order features defining a three-dimensional strain field produced by approximately east-west extension, vertical structural attenuation, and extension-normal shortening.
All major structural elements of the strain-boundary strain field are also found in the adjacent Basin and Range. Especially evident is a discontinuous and inhomogeneous distribution of vertical structural relief resulting from uplift and tilting of the footwalls on convex-upward normal faults, combined with formation of extension-parallel folds. Deformation resulted in a bewilderingly complex mixture of coeval folds, normal faults, strike-slip faults, and, in some areas, reverse faults, thrust faults, and thrust faults reactivated as extensional detachment faults. These complexly mixed structures exhibit a tectonically important aspect of scale independence, ranging from micro- structures to mountain-range scale. Many intensely extended domains appear to reflect a process of surface-relief minimization above uplifted and tilted blocks. Some intensely extended zones are depth-limited by relatively undeformed rocks above, and intact tilted blocks below, and are best viewed as subhorizontal zones of accommodation for the uplift and tilt of subjacent blocks. Whether or not the intense deformation extends to the surface, its depth distribution commonly reflects lithologic or paleostructural controls. Whatever the cause for the concentration of extensional strain, many gently dipping zones are more accurately viewed as local features recording small to moderate extension-parallel translations than a regionally interconnected detachment faults recording enormous extension-parallel translations.
Although the total Neogene strain field in the Nevada-Utah-Arizona tricorner area has unique aspects, other parts of the Basin and Range contain generally similar structures that presumably formed from similar processes. These processes include lateral mass transfer, probably by viscoelastic flow, of the material needed to inflate areas of strong uplift and to translate blocks laterally by tectonic rafting. Directions of mass transfer vary but are commonly both parallel and normal to the direction of extension or parallel to the boundaries of extended areas. Much of the strong vertical structural relief probably reflects boundary-condition or localized perturbations (in the form of restraints or releases) of the lateral flow system. These conclusions are consistent with modern concepts of the flexural strength and rheological stratification of the crust in regions undergoing extension.