The northwestern margin of the Española basin, part of the Rio Grande rift in northern New Mexico, is characterized by a zone >17 km wide of oblique-slip faults that offset upper Paleozoic and Mesozoic strata of the eastern Colorado Plateau from Eocene and younger sedimentary rocks of the rift. Along this margin, a reasonably complete section of pre- and synrift Tertiary sediments is exposed. Combined interpretations of seismic reflection, seismic refraction, gravity, and geologic data acquired along a profile perpendicular to this boundary define the geometry of faulting, possible rotation of sedimentary units, and stratigraphy of rift fill. Vertical separation on the westernmost major fault, assumed to be the bounding fault between the rift and the Colorado Plateau, is <500 m; separation on other faults in the zone is <200 m. Thus the northwestern part of the Española basin ("Abiquiu embayment") is a shallow platform rather than a deep rift basin. The embayment is separated from the main Española basin by the east-northeast-striking Embudo transfer fault, which appears to act as the northern bounding fault of the main basin.
Although Tertiary units are progressively faulted downward toward the axis of the rift, depth to inferred Precambrian crystalline rocks becomes shallower and the stratigraphic thickness of the intervening Paleozoic and Mesozoic units decreases toward the axis. We interpret pinching out of these units toward the east as erosional thinning on the western flanks of the Laramide-age Sangre de Cristo/Brazos geanticline, which underlay much of the present rift basin.
Imprecise age constraints suggest that faulting of the rift margin began 10-7 Ma, but was not active after 7 Ma. Extension was apparently transferred to the Embudo fault zone, which remained active until at least 2.5 Ma and possibly into Quaternary time. The Embudo transfer zone effectively decoupled the Abiquiu embayment from the main Española basin. Thus the boundary at Abiquiu preserves an early stage in the formation of the rift boundary. The shift in activity may have resulted from a change in regional stress field, or from increasing magnitude of strain, or both. The change in locus of extension reflects a narrowing of rift basins through time and an integration of main bounding structures between adjacent basins.
Although we are uncertain whether the Abiquiu region, which uniquely preserves an early stage of deformation, is representative of other areas of continental extension, our results indicate that the initial formation of rift basins may occur as high-angle, planar normal faults distributed over a broad zone. No evidence from seismic data or from rotation of beds exists to indicate that faults become listric with depth, which is compatible with the small amount of extension (3.5%) inferred at this boundary.