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Formation of the Appalachian Mountains       West Virginia's mountains present a fascinating portrait drawn from geologic time. The story is one of massive continental plates - North American and North African, crashing into each other forming the Appalachian Mountians. In times the two tectonic plates separted as the Atlantic Ocean widened.  For an explanation see

      The original Appalachia. More than half a billion years ago there was no North American continent as we know it. Rather, along what is now the Atlantic seacoast was a land called Appalachia.   West of it was a huge sea with a narrow trough which extended along the same belt as is occupied by today's Appalachian Mountains.

     Trough. The trough, which lasted 400 million years, was a repository for sediments from the rivers which flowed down the west side of Appalachia.  Through time (Paleozoic Era) the trough would fill with sediments then sink from the weight and repeat the process again and again, ultimately establishing a multi-layered deposition more than 50,000 feet thick.  These sediments were compacted into thousands of individual beds of rocks resting at the bottom of a sea; hence the term "sedimentary rocks."

      Organic sediments. Among these sediments, starting in the era's Devonian period commencing 410 million years ago, was decaying organic matter from forests.  Later, in the Pennsylvanian Period which began 330 million years ago when the trough was full of sediments, vast swamplands near sea level dominated the region. 

      Plants. Coal swamps contained a wealth of plant life now extinct.  Giant ferns up to 50 feet in height paired with 100-feet-tall lycopods, or scale trees, whose distinctive fossils can be found in eroded creek beds on occasion or during coal mining. In fact, seams of coal can be identified by microscopically examining fossil spores contained in layers of rock. These plants would die, turn into peat, be compacted twenty-fold, and become coal.  To learn more about the coal-forming process you can access Thus, the Pennsylvania Period became known as the Great Coal Age. Important oil and gas deposits originate from this time period, too.

      Mountains form. At the end of the Paleozoic Era, during the Permian Period which began 275 million years ago, there was tremendous mountain-building throughout the planet including Appalachia.  Great pressures buckled the sedimentary beds of rock upward from the sea bottom and the Appalachian Mountains came into being (as did the Great Plains region).  Their height may have been as tall as the highest Alaskan mountains are today. West Virginia has not been under a sea since then.

      Peneplain forms. The next era, the Mesozoic, is familiar to most people.   Its' three periods -- Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, spanning  220 million to 70 million years ago, is known for the Age of Reptiles, specifically dinosaurs.   Mammals appeared.  The tall Appalachian Mountains slowly eroded by action of the many streams which flowed down from them. Ultimately these mountains were worn down into a giant plain known as a peneplain and it has been called the Appalachian Peneplain. 

     Uplift. In the Cretaceous Period this peneplain was gently uplifted again to a great plateau during the same time the Rocky Mountains were formed.  The Appalachians were not elevated evenly, though.  Like a tilted table, the eastern part was raised the most and so the mountains to this day slant downward toward the west.  The lowest portion (west) tips toward the Mississippi Valley and the highest area (east) became the present day Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Mountains. 

      Valleys form. Also lifted were the rivers of the peneplain which, once elevated, carved steep valleys and canyons into the plateau which was the remnant of the original Appalachian Mountains.  These flat and narrow tops of the Appalachian Peneplain are what we can see in the distance from a viewing position on the state's highest peaks.  More information on West Virginia's geologic history can be found at

      You can view a color geologic map of West Virginia at
Last updated on Wednesday, August 22, 2001