Research Articles

Contrasting characteristics and origin of Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang, China, and natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau, USA

  • TAN Yufang , 1, 2 ,
  • LI Lihui , 3, 4, 5, * ,
  • HUANG Beixiu 3, 4, 5
  • 1. Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey, Guangzhou 510760, China
  • 2. Key Laboratory of Marine Mineral Resources, Ministry of Natural Resources, Guangzhou 510760, China
  • 3. Institute of Geology and Geophysics, CAS, Beijing 100029, China
  • 4. Innovation Academy for Earth Science, CAS, Beijing 100029, China
  • 5. University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
* Li Lihui (1976–), Associate Professor, specializing in engineering geology and rock mechanics. E-mail:

Tan Yufang (1990-), specialized in engineering geology and geohazard. E-mail:

Received date: 2020-03-31

  Accepted date: 2020-09-11

  Online published: 2021-08-25

Supported by

National Natural Science Foundation of China(41372322)


The red beds in Zhejiang province of China host the highest concentration of Danxia arched rock shelters in the world, just as the Colorado Plateau in the western USA hosts the world’s largest concentration of natural arches and bridges. This study investigated the geological background of the arched rock shelters and compared them to the natural arches and bridges, based on field study and a literature review. It was found that Zhejiang arched rock shelters differ from Colorado Plateau natural arches and bridges in geometry and formation mechanism. Statistical geometric data on arch geometry shows that Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang tend to be relatively flat. They are relatively low features with long spans, and great depth. The natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau are similar to each other, but the bridges are larger than the arches. The geometric differences between the arched landforms could be attributed to their different geologic history and to their different formation mechanisms. The arched rock shelters in Zhejiang are formed by differential weathering between sandstone and conglomerate due to moisture-induced tensile stresses. In contrast, natural arches on the Colorado Plateau are closely related to the Salt Valley anticline, vertical tectonic fractures, and horizontal discontinuities in rock fins. The Colorado Plateau natural bridges were formed by river erosion.

Cite this article

TAN Yufang , LI Lihui , HUANG Beixiu . Contrasting characteristics and origin of Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang, China, and natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau, USA[J]. Journal of Geographical Sciences, 2021 , 31(6) : 802 -818 . DOI: 10.1007/s11442-021-1872-6

1 Introduction

Red beds were deposited throughout geological time, and their erosional landform is called red-bed landform (Peng et al., 2013). Researchers have studied the mineralogy, natural remanent magnetism, paleoclimate, and paleontology of red beds, and provided a theoretical basis for explaining the genesis of the red beds and the evolution of the paleogeographic environments in which they were deposited (Walker, 1967; van Houten, 1968; Kent and Opdyke, 1978; Turner, 1980; Marriott et al., 2009; Yamashita et al., 2011). However, the red-bed landform has not yet been studied by itself as a geomorphological type although it has been considered during the study of sandstone landforms and karst landforms (Migon, 2010; Young and Young, 1992). The Danxia landform is a type of red-bed landform, with easily identifiable steep red cliffs. Chinese geomorphologists have paid much attention to this landform because of its special morphology and aesthetic value (Peng, 2000; Qi, 2005; Qi et al., 2005; Zhu et al., 2010; Ren, 2009; Huang et al., 2015a, b; Peng et al., 2015; Zhu et al., 2015).
Arched rock shelter is a negative landform formed by weathering of soft rock layer in Danxia cliff and is common on Danxia landscapes in Danxiashan, Jianglangshan, Longhushan, Langshan and Taining, etc. (He, 2012; Peng et al., 2014; Liu et al., 2018; Chen et al., 2019; Yan et al., 2019; Guo et al., 2020). Great efforts have been taken to reveal the formation mechanism of the arched rock shelters, but no consensus has been reached (Liu, 2018; Peng et al., 2014; Tan, 2019; Tan et al., 2019; Zhu et al., 2010; Zhu et al., 2015). Similarly, the formation mechanisms of the natural arches and bridges developed in red beds of the Colorado Plateau are still controversial issues (Gregory and Moore, 1931; Young and Young, 1992; Cruikshank and Aydin, 1994; Migon, 2010). A comparative study on these arched landforms would contribute to a better understanding of their counterparts these critical questions.
Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang and natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau are natural arched landforms formed in red beds, and have become popular tourist attractions. Comparative research among them is of great scientific significance because they share some similarities but also have some different properties. In this paper, we have reviewed the literature and investigated their similarities and differences in terms of the geological structure, red bed distribution, and lithology. We measured some of the Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang, and obtained the dimensions for the rest of them from the literature. We compared these dimensions with the dimensions recorded by the Natural Arches and Bridges ( for the natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau. In addition, we viewed persuasive formation mechanisms of these arched landforms from literatures that could explain their different features.

2 Geologic backgrounds

Red beds are widely distributed in Zhejiang province, China, host 39 large Danxia arched rock shelters, the highest concentration in the world. The rock shelters are landforms with arched entrances, concave inner walls, extended overhangs, and relatively flat and smooth roofs and floors. Figure 1 shows photographs of a number of typical Danxia arched rock shelters. The rock shelters are formed in Danxia cliffs that have alternating hard conglomerate (σsc≈70MPa) and soft sandstone (σsc≈20MPa) layers. Where the cliffs are low, there are few layers of soft and hard rocks, and only solitary rock shelters are formed (Figures 1a and 1b); where the cliffs are narrow, a rock shelter may penetrate the entire width of the cliff, forming a natural arch (Figure 1c); However, where the cliffs are high, there are numerous layers of soft and hard rocks, and multiple rock shelters are formed in the different layers, making the cliffs resemble magnificent ancient castles (Figures 1d-1j). The arched rock shelters have spacious interiors and their red color makes them auspicious symbols in China. These tall cliffs are therefore natural sites for Taoist temples, and Buddhist temples and convents, and this makes them tourist attractions because they have significant religious and cultural values (Figures 1d-1i).
Figure 1 Photographs showing typical Danxia rock shelters (a. Meiyan with Taoist statues; b. Dafodong with a giant Buddha statue; c. A natural arch with giant Go board and black and white stone pieces under the arch; d. Zhongdong with Buddha statues of the monk Jigong; e. Canludong with three Taoist statues; f. Yujingdong with six Taoist statues; g. Ruixiadong with three Buddha statues of the monk Jigong; h. Baiyundong with hundreds of Buddha statues of the monk Jigong; i. Ziyundong serves as a Buddha convent; j. Lingxiadong serves as playground for natives)
Numerous protected areas in the USA (e.g. Arches National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument and Rainbow Bridge National Monument) locate on the Colorado Plateau, host more than 2000 natural arches and 20 natural bridges, the highest concentration in the world (Cruikshank and Aydin, 1994; Oard, 2009; Migon, 2010). The curved structure of the natural arches and bridges is the main landform structure on the Colorado Plateau (Gregory and Moore, 1931; Young and Young, 1992).
Figure 2 presents photographs of some natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau and shows that the natural arches (Figures 2a-2c) and bridges (Figures 2d-2f) have similar shapes. The Natural Arches and Bridges Society stresses that flowing water is the main agent that forms natural bridges, but consider them to be subclass and special form of natural arches. Cleland (1910), Lohman (1975), Young and Young (1992), and Goudie (2004) emphasized the difference in the origin of the two arched landforms, that is, natural arches are formed because of sandstone weathering and collapse, while natural bridges are formed by water or wave erosion. They distinguished natural bridges from arches and stressed that bridges spanned over erosional canyons.
Figure 2 Typical natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau, United States (a. Landscape Arch; b. Double Arch; c. Delicate Arch; d. Owachomo Bridge; e. Kachina Bridge; f. Sipapu Bridge; a-c are in Arches National Park, Utah; d-e are in Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. The original pictures are taken by Jay Wilbur and downloaded from the Arches National Park Service,
The terranes hosting the red beds in both Zhejiang and the Colorado Plateau have undergone “basin formation—red bed deposition— structural uplift—external force shaping”. However, the regional geologic structures in the two areas are very different.
The Yanshan Movement refers to tectonic events that took place in northern China in the Jurassic-Cretaceous. Three stages of the Yanshan Movement occurred during red-bed basin formation in Zhejiang (BGMR, 1989; Chen and Guo, 2017; Chen et al., 2017).
Stage I: From Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous period, the third Yanshan Movement, a fault-depression basin formed, and continental fluvial-lacustrine sandstones related to active block faulting were deposited.
Stage II: During the fourth Yanshan Movement, from Early Cretaceous to Late Cretaceous, an unconformity between the Upper and Lower Cretaceous red beds developed due to faulting and folding.
Stage III: In the fifth Yanshan Movement, from Late Cretaceous to Paleocene time, magma intruded into the red bed during differential block faulting and uplift.
The Zhejiang red-bed landforms were formed in the Oligocene to Miocene; the red-bed basin was uplifted and many fractures and joints formed during the Himalayan Movement. Erosion along these fractures and joints controlled and shaped the red-bed landform in Zhejiang (BGMR, 1989).
Red bed formations on the Colorado Plateau also experienced three stages of tectonism (Pan et al., 2018), these activities occurred earlier than their counterparts in Zhejiang.
Stage I: At the end of the Triassic, the paleocontinent disintegrated and the Pacific plate subducted beneath the western North American plate, forming Western Interior Basin, in which continental sediments were deposited (Beaumont et al., 1993).
Stage II: During the Early Jurassic, the Western Interior Basin was in a subtropical rain shadow during Nevadan Orogeny (Schweickert et al., 1984), and thick aeolian sandstones were deposited (Blakey et al., 1988).
Stage III: During the Middle Jurassic to Early Cretaceous, the Sevier orogeny caused mountain building in western North America, the Western Interior Basin expanded, and a marine transgression formed the Western Interior Seaway. Coastal and shallow marine sandstones were deposited.
The red-bed landforms on the Colorado Plateau formed in the Late Cretaceous. The Rocky Mountains rose and the Western Interior Basin was uplifted during the Laramides Orogeny to form the Colorado Plateau (English and Johnston, 2004). Subsequent erosion produced the red-bed landform.
Table 1 Geologic setting of red beds in Zhejiang province, China, and the Colorado Plateau, USA
Geological background Red beds of Zhejiang province Red beds of Colorado Plateau
In red-bed
J3-K1, Yanshan Movement Act III; basin formation
K1-K2, Yanshan Movement Act IV; fault and fold stratigraphic discordance
K2-E, Yanshan Movement Act IV; differential vertical movement; magmatic intrusion
T3 Indosinian; plate subduction;
continental deposit in Western Interior Basin
J1-J2, Nevadan orogeny; continental aeolian sand deposit
J2-K1, Seviler orogeny; Western Interior Seaway
In landscape
E-N, Himalayan movement crustal uplift K2, Lamian orogeny; the Rocky
Mountain uplifting, Colorado Plateau formation
Basin types Fault/down-warped basin Back-arc basin
Red-bed deposition time K2, K1 Mainly T3, J1, J2
Sedimentary facies Continental (river-lake) facies, lack of marine facies Mainly continental (aeolian)facies, consist of shore-neritic transitional facies

3 Material and methods

We studied red beds distribution, depositional environment and geologic structure in Zhejiang through regional geology of Zhejiang province (BGMR, 1989). We studied red beds distribution on the Colorado Plateau through the national geologic map database created by United States Geological Survey ( pl) and regional geologic background from reported literatures (Schweickert et al., 1984; Blakey et al., 1988; Beaumont et al., 1993; Pan et al., 2018; Pan and Ren, 2020).
We collected meteorological data of the two study areas for the past five years (from October 2015 to September 2020). Data on monthly mean temperature and maximum daily rainfall of the month of Zhejiang province were downloaded from Meteorological Data Center, China Meteorological Administration (, while that of the Colorado Plateau were obtained from National Weather Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USA (
We conducted detailed field study on Dafodong in Taizhou, Mount Lanke in Quzhou and Mount Chicheng in Tiantai of Zhejiang province and measured rock shelters there with Leica laser distance meter DISTO D5, with 1 mm resolution. In total, we measured the span, width and height of 13 Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang, and collected correlative data for 12 other Zhejiang arched rock shelters from the literatures (Table S1). We collected similar data for 167 natural arches (Table S2) and 20 natural bridges (Table S3) on the Colorado Plateau from data compiled by the Natural Arches and Bridges Society (
Table S1 Information of Danxia rock shelters in Zhejiang Province, China
Name Latitude
Mountain Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata Source
Tianshengshiliang 28.88 118.92 Mt.
28.97 30.66 7.06 0.94 4.10 K1
Field study
Meiyan shelter 1 28.87 118.92 16.11 20.70 4.15 0.78 3.88
Meiyan shelter 2 28.87 118.92 9.18 22.71 4.18 0.40 2.20
Meiyan shelter 3 28.87 118.92 4.43 14.62 2.08 0.30 2.13
Dafo shelter 28.76 120.46 Mt.
128.13 41.54 9.69 3.08 13.22 K1
Canxia shelter 29.17 121.02 Mt. Chicheng 8.00 9.60 3.80 0.83 2.11 K2
Ruixia shelter 29.17 121.02 23.87 5.18 3.00 4.61 7.96
Middle shelter 29.17 121.02 12.46 8.72 4.63 1.43 2.69
Yujing shelter 1 29.17 121.02 12.14 9.22 8.46 1.32 1.43
Yujing shelter 2 29.17 121.02 7.39 7.81 6.56 0.95 1.13
Ziyun shelter 29.17 121.02 34.37 11.00 13.00 3.12 2.64
Baiyun shelter 29.17 121.02 27.00 10.00 8.50 2.70 3.18
Lingxia shelter 29.17 121.02 41.42 7.53 4.63 5.50 8.95
Huixian shelter 28.53 118.57 Mt.
20.23 24.73 3.16 0.82 6.40 K1
Peng et al.,
Zhu et al.,
Zhang et al.,
Tiangong shelter 28.53 118.57 15.73 8.67 4.60 1.81 3.42
Jingxinshi shelter 28.53 118.57 14.50 9.15 4.50 1.58 3.22
Zhongguyan shelter 28.54 118.57 20.50 4.35 3.77 4.71 5.44
Xiaohuixian shelter 28.54 118.57 30.40 6.70 9.80 4.54 3.10
Xuankongsi shelter 28.53 118.56 27.17 11.85 4.80 2.29 5.66
Lingyansi shelter 28.93 120.18 Mt.
40.00 7.00 2.50 5.71 16.00 Zhu et al.,
Ouyang et al.,
Hongfusi shelter 28.93 120.18 100.00 21.00 15.00 4.76 6.67
Wufeng canteen 28.93 120.19 90.00 8.00 7.00 11.25 12.86
Wufeng Yaodong 28.93 120.19 56.00 36.00 30.00 1.56 1.87
Wufeng academy 28.87 120.13 21.12 51.29 4.30 0.41 4.91
Gongpoyan shelter 28.90 120.18 17.86 50.47 2.59 0.35 6.90
Table S2 Information of natural arches on the Colorado Plateau, USA
Name Latitude
Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata
Kolob Arch 37.42 113.16 87.48 10.67 8.20 Navajo
Jug Handle Arch 37.20 112.99 Navajo
Square Arch 37.64 112.85 Abandoned
Vermillion arch 36.81 112.06 9.14 Navajo
Unnamed natural arch 36.85 112.05 1.83 Navajo
Joannes arch 36.99 112.01 3.05 Navajo
Dannys arch 36.99 112.01 3.66 Navajo
Hole in the rock 33.46 111.95 3.05 Sandy
Skylight Arch 37.29 111.89 Dalota entrada
Fay canyon arch 34.91 111.86 28.65 Supai
Hole in the rock 36.94 111.85 9.14 Navajo
Wrather arch 36.96 111.78 48.77 Navajo
Vultee arch 34.94 111.77 12.19 Supai
Indian head arch 34.94 111.75 14.63 Navajo
Metate Arch 37.77 111.60 Entrata
Hole in rock 36.57 111.41 1.07 Navajo
Navajo arch 36.94 111.32 3.66 Navajo
Diagenetic arch 36.97 111.21 7.62 Navajo
Sitting lizard arch 36.63 111.18 9.14 Navajo
Tsai Skizzi 36.81 111.09 12.19 Navajo nation
White craig arch 36.55 111.02 9.14 Navajo nation
Arch in the sky 36.90 110.99 22.86 Navajo
Buffalo rock 36.75 110.98 1.52 Navajo
Stevens arch 27.43 110.98 67.06
White Mesa arch 36.47 110.98 16.15 Dakota
Mikes arch 36.84 110.96 8.53 Navajo
Margaret arch 36.55 110.96 12.19 Dakota
Quick arch 36.98 110.94 10.36 Navajo
Egg shell arch 36.68 110.79 33.22 Navajo
Flying Eagle Arch 37.05 110.77 Navajo
Wild Horse Arch 38.37 110.71 13.72
Eagle Canyon Arch 38.99 110.69 Wingate
The Grotto 37.81 110.43
Honeymoon arch 36.89 110.18 8.23 Dechelly
The spectacles 36.92 110.14 12.19 Dechelly
Full moon arch 36.91 110.14 8.23 Dechelly
Clara Bernheimer natural bridage 36.88 110.03 8.23 Dechelly
Unnamed 37.60 110.01 6.10 2.44 2.50 Cedar mesa
Name Latitude
Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata
Unnamed 37.60 110.01 4.57 Cedar mesa
Unnamed 37.60 110.01 15.24 Cedar mesa
Skeleton arch 36.89 109.97 12.19 Dechelly
Genevieves arch 36.91 109.93 15.24 Dechelly
Sunrise arch 36.91 109.93 10.67 Dechelly
Unnamed 36.92 109.92 4.57 Dechelly
The Colonnade 38.19 109.89 6.10 4.88 3.05 1.25 2.00
Forbidden arch 36.96 109.88 7.62 Dechelly
Mesa Arch 38.39 109.86 27.43 Navajo
Faraway Arch 37.63 109.81 3.96 Navajo
Unnamed 37.63 109.81 6.10 Navajo
Unnamed 37.63 109.81 3.35 1.52 2.20 Abandoned
Paul Bunyans Potty 37.63 109.81 10.67 Cedar mesa
Musselman Arch 38.17 109.76 Organ rock
Angel Arch 38.17 109.76 36.58 41.15 0.89 Cedar mesa
Castle Arch 38.17 109.76 4.57 0.30 15.00 Cedar mesa
Unnamed (Klingon Bird of Prey) 38.17 109.76 13.72 Cedar mesa
Unnamed fin natural arch 36.29 109.70 25.91 Wingate
Unnamed fin natural arch 36.19 109.70 4.57 Wingate
Window rock 36.28 109.69 10.67 Wingate
Hope arch 36.20 109.69 19.81 1.83 21.34 10.83 0.93 Wingate
Window rock 36.39 109.69 12.19 Wingate
Landscape Arch 38.79 109.61 88.39 Entrata
Wall Arch (fallen) 38.79 109.61 21.64 10.21 2.12 Entrata
Window rock 36.89 109.57 6.71 Wingate
Big Eye Arch 38.68 109.57 Entrata
Double-O Arch 38.68 109.57 Entrata.double
Top Story Window 38.68 109.57 Entrata
Black Arch 38.68 109.57 19.81 13.72 1.44 Entrata
Surprise Arch 38.68 109.57 18.29 15.24 1.20 Entrata
Ribbon Arch 38.68 109.57 Entrata. abandoned
Rock window 36.62 109.56 21.34 Wingate
Hidden Canyon Rim Arch 38.99 109.56 2.13 1.37 1.56 Rim
Unnamed 38.99 109.56 Wingate
Biscuit Arch 38.99 109.56 2.44 1.37 1.78 /
Window rock 36.50 109.56 18.29 39.62 0.46 Wingate
Unnamed 38.57 109.55
Gold Bar Arch 38.57 109.55 Navajo
Corona Arch 38.57 109.55 Navajo
Pritchett Arch 38.57 109.55 Navajo
Double Arch 38.69 109.54 45.11 31.70 1.42 Entrata
Unnamed 36.14 109.50 6.10 Dechelly
Name Latitude
Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata
Delicate Arch 38.74 109.50 18.29 Entrata
Unnamed 36.16 109.47 2.74 Dechelly
The window 36.11 109.40 10.67 Dechelly
Arrowhead Arch (fallen) 38.82 109.34 4.57 Entrata
unnamted butterss natural arch 36.62 109.29 19.81 36.58 Wingate
Royal arch 36.61 109.24 23.16 Wingate
Unnamed fin natural arch 36.61 109.23 1.22 3.66 0.33 Wingate
Unnamed fin natural arch 36.62 109.21 3.05 Wingate
Blackhorse arch 36.70 109.18 9.14 Wingate
Unnamed 37.21 109.16
Elephant rock 36.65 109.15 4.57 Wingate
Jonathan Jones Arch 39.07 109.05 9.14 Glen Group
Window rock 35.68 109.05 19.81 Entrada
Unnamed 37.41 109.03 1.83 Dakota
Opinion Arch 39.10 109.01 14.33 15.24 0.94 Entrada
Unnamed 35.92 109.00 4.57 Entrada
Sand Canyon Arch 40.48 109.00 6.10 Weber
Unnamed 40.50 108.98 2.44 Park city
Unnamed 39.07 108.96 4.57 Entrada
Aperture Arch 38.32 108.94
The Great Eye 35.93 108.94 4.57 San Paphael group
Unnamed 38.97 108.93 2.44 Kayenta
Unnamed 40.50 108.93 13.72 Weber
Unnamed 38.97 108.92 9.14 Wingate
Outlaw Arch 40.51 108.92 60.96 Weber
Dolores River Arch 38.20 108.92
Unnamed 39.14 108.91 6.10 0.00 Entrada
Will Minor Arch 39.13 108.91 9.14 10.67 0.86 Entrada
Bulwark Arch 39.12 108.91 6.10 Entrada
Arete Arch 39.12 108.91 6.10 Entrada
Unnamed 38.98 108.90 9.14 Wingate
Crown Arch 39.13 108.90 3.66 Entrada double
Tubloc Arch 39.13 108.90 3.05 Entrada
Juanita Arch 38.57 108.89 30.48 Wingate meander
Bent Pine Tree Arch 38.98 108.89 14.94 Chinle
Two Feathers Arch 39.14 108.89 3.05 Entrada
Unnamed 39.05 108.89 6.71 3.96 1.69 Entrada
Protractor Arch 39.12 108.89 9.14 Entrada double
Unnamed (fallen) 38.99 108.88 1.83 Kayenta
Unnamed 39.15 108.86 2.44 Entrada
Trail Arch 39.16 108.86 Entrada
Unnamed 39.04 108.85 9.14 Entrada
Name Latitude
Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata
Unnamed 39.15 108.85 3.05 Entrada
Unnamed 39.15 108.85 2.13 Entrada
Centennial Arch 39.14 108.85 19.81 Entrada
Unnamed 39.14 108.85 4.57 Entrada
Unnamed 39.03 108.85 13.72 Entrada
Finger Arch 39.13 108.85 21.34 Entrada
Unnamed 39.14 108.85 Entrada
Trap Arch 39.14 108.84 9.14 Entrada
Cedar Tree Arch 39.14 108.84 15.24 Entrada
Unnamed 39.15 108.83 7.62 Entrada
Window Rock Tower 39.14 108.83 1.83 Entrada
West Pollock Arch 39.14 108.82 10.67 Entrada
Unnamed 38.40 108.82 3.66 Wingate
Unnamed 39.15 108.82
Windows of Pollock Cyn 39.12 108.82 15.24 Entrada double
E Rock Creek Cyn Arch 37.37 108.81 10.67 Entrada
Unnamed 39.45 108.78 3.35 Mount garfield
Unnamed 39.84 108.74 3.05 Mesa verde
Unnamed 39.08 108.73 1.22 Wingate
Window Rock 39.11 108.73 4.57 Kayenta
Unnamed 39.05 108.72 1.68 Entrada
Squaw Finger Arch 39.07 108.72
Kissing Couple 39.09 108.71 Wingate
Culvert Arch 39.03 108.65 0.91 Wingate
Unnamed 37.57 108.26 3.66
Escarpment Arch 40.30 108.12 2.44 Fort union
Unnamed 35.62 108.11 Point lookout
Unnamed 39.90 107.96 2.44 4.88 0.50 Williams fork
La Ventana 34.87 107.89 41.15 24.38 1.69 Dakota
Rhoda's Arch 37.66 107.00 15.24 /
Unnamed 38.59 105.25 3.05
Seventeenth Hole Arch 39.61 105.18 5.49 Fountain formation
Eighteenth Hole Arch 39.61 105.18 3.66 Fountain formation
La Veta Arches 37.45 105.03
Elephant Rock 39.12 104.89 5.49 10.67 0.51 Dawson formation
Siamese Twins 38.87 104.89 1.83 Fountain formation
Pigs Eye 38.87 104.88 4.57 Lyons formation
Kissing Camels 38.88 104.88 2.44 Lyons formaiton
Name Latitude
Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata
Picture Window 37.62 103.61 1.83 Dakolta
Window Rock 37.62 103.61 3.66 1.22 3.00 Dakota abandoned
Wisdom Tooth 37.02 102.77 7.62 4.57 1.67 Dakota
Unnamed 35.04 101.76 3.05
Judys Arch 34.93 101.65 3.66 9.45 0.39 Quartermaster formation
Unnamed 34.39 87.63 37.19 8.23 4.11 4.52 9.04
Unnamed 34.18 87.28 15.24 6.10 2.50
Table S3 Information of natural bridges on the Colorado Plateau, USA
Name Latitude
Span Width Height S/W S/H Strata
NB Mountain Arch 37.21 112.97 12.19 Navajo sandstone, propped
Devils NB 34.90 111.81 13.72 Supai sandstone
Escalante,Utah 37.77 111.60 39.62 3.66 21.34 10.83 1.86
Hickman Natural NB 38.20 111.17 40.54 Kayenta sandstone, shelter
Rainbow NB 37.08 110.96 71.32 74.68 0.96 Navajo sandstone, menader
Kachina Natural NB 37.60 110.01 58.52 Cedar mesa sandstone, meander
Owachomo Natural NB 37.60 110.01 54.86 8.23 26.21 6.67 2.09 Cedar mesa sandstone, meander
Sipapu Natural NB 37.60 110.01 68.58 12.50 43.89 5.49 1.56 Cedar mesa sandstone, meander
Hawkeye Natural NB 37.63 109.81 45.42 Navajo sandstone, alcove
Moring glory NB 38.61 109.53 74.07 22.86 3.24 Sandstone, alcove
Three turkey natural NB 36.02 109.40 15.24 5.49 6.71 2.78 2.27 Sandtone, waterfall, wash
Black rock natural NB 35.71 109.10 14.94 Shinarump conglomerate, waterfall, creek
Red Lake Natural NB 35.93 109.02 30.48 Entrada sandstone, shelter
Snake NB 36.42 109.02 62.18 6.10 18.59 10.20 3.34 Entrada sandstone, meander
Hole in the NB Arch 39.15 108.85 12.19 Entrada sandstone, cave
Ela Natural NB 39.00 108.83 13.72 Entrada sandstone, alcove
Eagles Point Natural NB 34.44 101.07 4.27 15.85 2.44 0.27 1.75 Quartermaster formation, sandstone, gypsum, waterfall
Rock NB 34.36 87.93 18.29 15.24 1.20
Natural NB 34.09 87.61 30.48
Hartselle natural NB 34.48 86.89 6.10 0.91 6.67

4 Results

4.1 Differences in material basis

The red beds in Zhejiang and the Colorado Plateau are very different because of the different geologic structures in these two regions.
The red beds in Zhejiang were deposited in a fault-depression basin that evolved into an intermontane basin during the Yanshan Movement where fluvial and lacustrine clastic rocks, mainly conglomerates and sandstones, are deposited. From base to top, the sedimentary sequence is conglomerate, sandy conglomerate, sandstone, siltstone, and shale. These sedimentary sequences are repeated many times during the tectonic cycles and form an extremely thick and cyclic sedimentary pile. The strata also display horizontal facies changes, from coarse clastic rocks (pluvial conglomerate and sandy conglomerate) at the basin’s rim to finer-grained clastic rocks (lacustrine siltstone and silty mudstone) at its center. As shown inFigure 3, the red beds in Zhejiang area are mainly Cretaceous in age.
Rivers and lakes are interconnected in Zhejiang (Figure 3) and the main river valleys are approaching their regional erosional base level. The red-bed landforms have been shaped into clusters of peaks, hoodoos, rock walls, or isolated peaks by lateral erosion. The form of the red-bed basin is closely related to an ancient river system, while the shaping of the Danxia landforms is still in process and is controlled by the current river system.
Figure 3 Map showing the distribution of Upper and Lower Cretaceous strata in Zhejiang province (Blue stars indicate arched rock shelters in red beds.)
The Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang are mainly in Cretaceous red beds. Specifically, 16 arched rock shelters (43.2%) have formed in the Lower Cretaceous Fangyan Formation (Table 2). The Zhejiang intermontane basin deposits are mainly poorly sorted medium- to coarse-grained clastic rocks (conglomerates and sandy conglomerates). The Fangyan Formation, which hosts most of the arched rock shelters, is a thick conglomerate with sandy conglomerate and sandstone interlayers. The rocks are composed of pebble fragments, sand, and interstitial material. The pebble fragments make up about 8 wt% of the rock, and are subangular to subrounded clasts of tuff, granite, or sandstone, 2-5 mm in size. The sandy fragments are rock clasts, and detrital mineral grains (plagioclase, K-feldspar, quartz, and biotite), 20 wt% of 0.05-0.25 mm in diameter, 25 wt% of 0.25-0.50 mm, and 35 wt% of 0.5-2.0 mm. The interstitial material constitutes 10 wt% of the rock and is composed of fine-grained mineral debris, clay minerals, and iron oxide grains smaller than 0.05 mm in diameter.
Table 2 The studied number of arches (shelters, arches and bridges) in the red-bed formations in Zhejiang province, China, and the Colorado Plateau, USA
Strata Formation I* Strata Formation II*
K2 Quxian Group 1 E Fort Union Formation 1
Mt. Chicheng Group 8 Dawson Formation 1
K1 Fangyan Group 16 K2 Mesa verde sandstone 1
Zhongdai Group 8 Williams fork sandstone 1
Tangshang Group 2 Dakota sandstone 8
Hengshan Group 2 K1 De Chelly sandstone 12
Chaochuan Group 2 J2 Mount Garfield, Escalante Member 1
Entrada sandstone 32
J1 Navajo sandstone 27
T3 Kayenta sandstone 3
Wingate sandstone 23
Chinle sandstone 1
Glen Canyon Group 1
P2 Lyons Formation 2
Strata Formation III* P1 Quartermaster Formation 1
J2 Entrada sandstone 4 Cedar mesa sandstone 7
J1 Navajo sandstone 3 Organ Rock Formation 1
P1 Quartermaster 1 Supai sandstone 2
Cedar mesa sandstone 3 C2 Fountain Formation, Late Pennsylvanian 3
Supai sandstone 1 Weber sandstone, Early Pennsylvanian 3

* I-Numbers of Danxia arched rock shelters; II-Numbers of natural arches; III-Numbers of natural bridges

Red beds on the Colorado Plateau were deposited in back-arc basins and the Western Interior Basin, where the sedimentary environment was complicated and related to orogenic marine transgression and regression cycles. The red beds are mainly Triassic and Jurassic strata (Figure 4) that were deposited in inland desert, shore-neritic, or transitional zone environments.
Figure 4 Map showing the distribution of Pennsylvanian, Permian, Triassic, and Jurassic red beds on the Colorado Plateau (updated from Pan et al. 2018; Blue symbols indicate natural arches and bridges in red beds.)
Today the climate on the Colorado Plateau is arid with little precipitation (the annual average rainfall is only about 300 mm) and a sparse river network. Canyons and valleys are the main landforms in the areas where red beds are exposed, and the landforms are either in a late youth or early mature stage because of low river erosion rates. Rainstorms in the summer produce flood currents with strong undercutting; this is the main force shaping the landforms on the Colorado Plateau at that stage. Sandstone on the Colorado Plateau is disintegrated because of severe physical weathering (frost and salt weathering) and weak chemical weathering promoted by low calcite content (Pan et al., 2018).
Figure 4 shows that on the Colorado Plateau, most of the natural arches have developed in the Jurassic and Triassic red beds. Specifically, 82 natural arches (62.6%) are in the Upper Triassic Wingate Sandstone, the Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, or the Middle Jurassic Entrada Sandstone (Table 2).
The red beds on the Colorado Plateau are composed of fine sandstones, siltstones, and mudstones with little coarse clastic rock (like conglomerates). The Glen Canyon Group, includes the Late Triassic Wingate Sandstone and the Early Jurassic Navajo Sandstone, aeolian sandstones formed in a vast inland desert. The Wingate Sandstone forms a dark brown cliff of well sorted fine sands (D.Brown, 1985). The Navajo Sandstone crops out in southern Utah and northern Arizona, where it is the most conspicuous aeolian sandstone on the earth. It forms red cliff of medium- to fine-grained quartz sandstone (SiO2> 90 wt%). The Navajo Sandstone can be divided into three informal members by color. From top to base, these are the White, Pink, and Brown members. The White member is composed of light yellow sandstone and has a high porosity (30%-40%), the sand grains in this member have point contacts, are weakly cemented and have a loose structure. The sandstone is homogeneous and forms a vertical cliff under the protection of the overlying strata, even though it is weak with fragments flaking off easily. The Pink and Brown members are resistant to weathering, and the sandstone is well cemented by iron-rich cement (Panet al., 2018).
The Middle Jurassic Entrada Sandstone of the San Rafael Group has, from top to base, been divided into the Moab Tongue, the Slick Rock Member, and the Dewey Bridge Member (Brown, 1985). The Moab Tongue Member is light yellow, fine- to medium-grained sandstone. It is resistant to erosion and forms steep cliffs on the flanks of the Salt Valley anticline. The Slick Rock Member, the thickest of the three Members, is an orange-red, fine-grained sandstones. It is less resistant to weathering than the overlying Moab Tongue Member but more resistant than the underlying Dewey Bridge Member. The Dewey Bridge Member is a dark red fine-grained siltstone interbedded with thin-bedded white sandstone.

4.2 Difference in temperature and precipitation

Figure 5 shows temperature and precipitation features of Zhejiang province and the Colorado Plateau. In general, temperatures on the Colorado Plateau have changed more drastically, with average temperature of 0.3℃ and 28.3℃ in January and July, while that in Zhejiang is 7.2℃ and 30.1℃, respectively. On the other hand, Zhejiang has abundant rainfall, with the maximum daily rainfall up to 131 mm, while Colorado Plateau is relatively dry, with the maximum daily rainfall of only 50 mm. The rainy season in Zhejiang is from April to July, while Colorado Plateau gets more rain from March to May.
Figure 5 Temperature and precipitation features of two study areas (a. Zhejiang province; b. Colorado Plateau)

4.3 Difference in geometrical features

Span, width and height are important dimension features for arched landforms. As shown in Figure 6, the span is the maximum length of the horizontal projections of the chord of opening; the width is the maximum length of the horizontal opening chord orthogonal to the span projection and the height is the maximum length of the vertical projection of the chord of opening.
Figure 6 Schematic sketches showing measurement of (a) rock shelters and (b) natural arches and bridges (s - span; w - width; h - height)
Figure 7 shows a summary of the dimensions of these arched landforms and demonstrates how the size and shape of these three types of arched landforms differ. The spans of arched rock shelters and natural arches cover a wide range whereas the range of natural bridge spans is more restricted. The data for individual arched landforms, the “Discrete data” in Figure 8, show the maximum values in each dimension category. For instance, the rock shelter with a giant Buddha statue (the Dafodong, Figure 1b) has the greatest span among arched rock shelters in Zhejiang (128 m). On the Colorado Plateau, the Landscape Arch (Figure 2a) has the longest span of all the arches (88 m) and the Rainbow Bridge has the greatest span of all the natural bridges (71 m). The median span of natural bridges is the largest, followed by that of arched rock shelters and natural arches. The median width of both arched rock shelters and natural bridges is similar, twice that of natural arches. The median height of natural bridges is approximately three times that of arched rock shelters and around four times that of natural arches.
Figure 7 Box-whisker plot of the dimension of the arched rock shelter, natural arches and bridges. The box indicates the interquartile range (25%-75%) of all data. The whisker upper/lower limit is the maximum/minimum data point that extends to 1.5 times the height of the box at the top/bottom of the box. The discrete points are the data beyond the whisker upper and lower limits. Data 25, 167, and 20 are included in the statistic diagram of the rock shelter, the natural arch, and the natural bridge, respectively.
The dimension of Danxia arched rock shelters is affected by the cliffs in which the shelters are developed and the width and thickness of the interbedded sandstones. In contrast, the size of the natural arches on the Colorado Plateau is predominantly related to the thickness of the rock fins. Very thin fins are more likely to develop arches, so the median arch span is small compared to arched rock shelters and natural bridges. The large scale of the natural bridges on the Colorado Plateau could be attributed to the intense abrasive forces of the rivers there. In general, Danxia rock shelters tend to be short and flat, with a median span to height ratio of 3.1, larger than that ratio for natural arches and bridges (2.0). The median span to width ratio of natural bridges is the largest (6.0) followed by that of natural arches (4.5) and arched rock shelters (2.6).

4.4 Differences in formation mechanisms

4.4.1 Zhejiang Arched Rock Shelters

The majority of the Cretaceous red beds in Zhejiang are competent rocks (conglomerates or sandy conglomerates) with interbedded or local concentrations of softer rocks (sandstones and siltstones). The hard and soft rocks are not very different in their mineral contents, porosity, or permeability, but the conglomerates are mechanically stronger than the sandstones and siltstones (Zhu et al., 2010; Peng et al., 2015; Zhu et al., 2015). It has been reported that the rock surface deterioration is closely related to changes in internal moisture regimes, which determines where arched rock shelters form in the red bed section (Mol and Viles, 2010; Mol, 2011; Mol, 2014).
Rainfall is abundant in Zhejiang, with an average annual precipitation of 980-2000 mm. Water from rain and the rivers infiltrates from the surface to the interior of both sandstone and conglomerate beds. Figure 8a shows that the minimum principal stress traces and tensile fractures are almost concentric circles in sandstone section, resulting in grains disintegration along the tensile fractures from outer boundary to inner core. It causes spheroidal tensile stress and onion-peeling-like weathering in the homogeneous sandstones. By comparison, Figure 8b presents tensile stress concentrations occur at the interfaces between the gravels and the matrix in the heterogeneous conglomerates, causing the gravels falling out of the matrix because of water conductivity differences and abrupt moisture changes between them. The tensile stress, also called the moisture stress, is the external differential weathering force between sandstone and conglomerate (Tan, 2019; Tan et al., 2019). This force causes the sandstone to disintegrate much more quickly than conglomerate. The sandstone flakes off and becomes recessed and the overlying conglomerate collapses until the arched structure can support the overlying strata, thus forming an arched rock shelter. The side- walls of Danxia arched rock shelters display natural curves because of the moisture stress.
Figure 8 Schematic sketches showing the difference between moisture stresses in (a) sandstone and (b) conglomerate (Tan et al. 2019)
The sandstone has a much higher expansive clay content than conglomerates, and this enhances the effect of moisture stress and accelerates sandstone disintegration (Heald et al., 1979; Chatterjee and Raymahashay, 1998; Su, 2006; Ding et al., 2015). In addition, chemi cal reactions between water and rocks weaken the rock structure and reduce rock strength (Hall and Hall, 1996; Wells et al., 2005; Zhou et al., 2005).

4.4.2 Colorado Plateau Natural Arches

Many researchers have agreed that the high density of natural arches on the Colorado Plateau is closely related to the numerous rock fins in that area (Doelling, 1985; Blair, 1986; Cruikshank and Aydin, 1994; Migon, 2010). Arches National Park is centered on the Salt Valley anticline and most of the arches are in Entrada sandstone, exposed on the flanks of the anticline (Cruikshank and Aydin, 1994). The Entrada Sandstone consists of marine and aeolian sands that overlie a thick salt layer, which has deformed and flowed. The Entrada Sandstone was deformed and produced the Salt Valley anticline, where dense joints and fractures occur after the salt layer solution. The Entrada sandstone has been weathered and eroded along the joints and fractures, and many densely oriented rock fins are formed, separated by narrow canyons. Many of the natural arches are within these rock fins (Doelling, 1985).
How the rock fins were penetrated and the arches formed are controversial. Gregory and Moore (1931) suggested that seepage and undercutting of groundwater along rock structures played a great role, and that the surface water was not closely related to arch formation. Young and Young (1992) thought sandstone collapsed along arched fractures formed the arches. However, the origin of the arched fractures remains obscure. Blair (1986) and Lohman(1975) attributed natural arch formation to the properties of the Entrada Sandstone, a sandstone unevenly cemented by calcite and clay. They believed that sandstones with little cement were dissolved by carbonic acid in groundwater and the loose sand was eroded away by gravity, wind, and water. They believed that differential erosion caused natural arches formation. Carl and Akridge (2014), Cruikshank and Aydin (1994) argued that weak cement, unloading, and exfoliation are not the primary agents responsible for the initiation and formation of arches, because these processes act on similar rocks in nearby rock fins without producing the same abundance of natural arches. They believed that the growth of the Salt Valley anticline produced closely spaced vertical fractures, and shear displacement along these fracture and horizontal discontinuities localized more intense fracturing (Figure 9). Erosion along these features formed openings in rock fins and produced natural arches.
Figure 9 Photograph (a) and illustrative sketch (b) showing intense fractures and shear displacement on the southeast leg of Broken Arch, Arches National Park, Utah, USA. The fractures end close to the bedding plane between the Slick Rock and Moab Tongue Members of the Entrada Sandstone. The Moab Tongue Member is hard enough to stop the fractures and keep an intact roof on the natural arch (Cruikshank and Aydin, 1994).

4.4.3 Colorado Plateau Natural Bridges

Natural bridges are formed in deep valleys occupied by highly sinuous rivers when water erosion cuts through the neck of a meander (Goudie, 2004). The natural bridges in White Canyon in Natural Bridges National Monument and Rainbow Bridge National Monument could be attributed to stream erosion (Gregory and Moore, 1931; Sproul, 2001). Sproul (2001) has explained that the process that formed Rainbow Bridge is closely related to the flow in historic Bridge Creek. In the past, the erosive power of the creek was more intense when more water flowed during the Pleistocene, and the creek formed a wider and deeper trench. Immense swirls of abrasive water eroded and thinned the walls and formed many great ox-bow loops and elongated fins at wide points in the canyon (Figure 10a). The base of the fin that became Rainbow Bridge was a thick bed of Kayenta sandstone, a harder rock than the upper part of the Navajo Sandstone. Bridge Creek followed the path of least resistance and penetrated the fin through the Navajo Sandstone. The hole in the fin was expanded as pluvial erosion, rain, and wind took their toll and eventually Rainbow Bridge was formed (Figure 10b).
Figure 10 Formation of the natural bridge (a. Initial stage; b. Mature stage)

5 Discussion

The arched landforms are tremendous tourist resources in Danxia and red-red landscapes because of their unique features and aesthetic value. Danxia rock shelters have gained persistent attention among Chinese scholars (Zhu et al., 2010; Peng et al., 2014; Tan, 2019; Tan et al., 2019), while their counterparts in red beds on the Colorado Plateau have aroused less interests in international researchers (Gregory and Moore, 1931; Young and Young, 1992; Cruikshank and Aydin, 1994). However, the tourist value of the arched landforms on the Colorado Plateau have attracted attention of the government (Arches National Park Service: and civil organizations (Natural Arches and Bridges:, both of them have recorded detailed information about the arched landforms on the Colorado Plateau. Scientific utilization of the database and a comparative study between them and Danxia arched rock shelters in China would contribute to a better understanding of both landforms and lay foundation for further intensive study.

6 Conclusions

Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang, China, are found in red beds, but the properties of those red beds are different from the red beds on the Colorado Plateau that host the highest concentration of natural arches and bridges in the world. The red-bed formations in Zhejiang are Cretaceous continental sediments that were deposited in fault-depression basins. The sedimentary units exhibit conspicuous facies changes both horizontally and vertically caused by tectonic activity. Thick layers of harder rock (e.g. conglomerate and sandy conglomerate) were deposited with interbedded layers of softer rocks (e.g. sandstone and siltstone) or mudstone lenses. On the Colorado Plateau, the red beds were deposited in back-arc basins in a complex and varied sedimentary environment, and the sediments deposited were lithified mainly to aeolian sandstones, and marine, transitional, or continental sandstones with few conglomerate.
Danxia arched rock shelters in Zhejiang and natural arches and bridges on the Colorado Plateau have different sizes and shapes. Danxia arched rock shelters are short and flat with a median span to height ratio of 3.1 and a span to width ratio of 2.6. Natural arches and bridges share some geometric similarities in that they both have a median span to height ratio of 2.0. However, the median span and height of the natural bridges are sound 4.5 times greater than the span and height of the natural arches.
Although the arched landforms in both regions are erosional landforms developed in red beds, the differences between them can be attributed to differences in regional geological structures, lithology, and domain weathering and erosional forces.
Rainfall is abundant in Zhejiang, and moisture stress is the factor that controls differential weathering in the red beds there. Differential weathering is, in turn, the external force that controls the formation of the Danxia arched rock shelters. Expansive clay minerals in the softer rocks in the red bed sequence enhance the moisture stress effect and contribute to the soft rock’s disintegration. In contrast, salt solution from the Salt Valley anticline on the Colorado Plateau generates dense vertical fractures in the strata overlying the salt horizons and these fractures, along with horizontal discontinuities like interbedded shales and shale lenses, control the locations of rock fins that host the natural arches. In contrast, the formation of natural bridges on the Colorado Plateau is closely related to river erosion, where bridges form when abrasive swirling water elongates and thins canyon walls that is then penetrated by running water.

The authors thank the photographer, Jay Wilbur, for providing the photos of natural arches and bridges, and David Brandt-Erichsen, the webmaster of Natural Arch and Bridge Society, for his assistance in obtaining the photographer’s permission to use the photos in this paper.

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