I've always considered myself a mountain girl. But the more I have traveled in the Colorado Plateau, the more it has crept into my soul.
The Colorado Plateau, a landscape of levels, is a physiographic province encompassing 130,000 square miles of the Four Corners states, including Utah's southeastern quarter. There are 25 geographic provinces in the U.S., and arguably, it is the least-tamed country remaining in the lower forty-eight states.
The name is deceptive. Originally named by John Wesley Powell, it is not a single plateau but comprises of a series of tablelands where stream valleys are typically narrow and widely spaced, dissecting the region until it forms into the grandest valley.
Named for the Colorado River, it extends across the southwest covering the southeastern half of Utah, extreme western and southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and the northern half of Arizona. Its size about 130,000 square miles. The plateau is dominated by high mountains that are gashed by river canyons or scarred with dry gullies and washes and the beds of intermittent streams Often waterless). Elevations range from 2,000 feet (600 m) in the Grand Canyon to more than 12,700 feet (3,870 m) in the La Sal Mountains near Moab. Erosion by the Colorado River system has carved deep, brilliantly colored gorges, most notably the Grand Canyon. About 90% of the area is drained by the Colorado River and its main tributaries: the Green, San Juan, and Little Colorado. And it is home to many Indian reservations. The Ancestral people lived in the region, leaving behind artifacts as simple as spear points 10,500 years old and as sophisticated as the great 1,000-year-old stone villages of the Anasazi culture. More recently Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos moved in, and these tribes remain important parts of the modern culture.
It is a land of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity, sparsely vegetated, where the rocks tell the story. The region is actually a gigantic basin studded with a variety of landforms, ranging from 5,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation. The Colorado Plateau is largely high desert, with scattered areas of forests. Plants and animals here are neither mountain nor desert typical, but a patchwork of both. Scrub and cacti are similar to the deserts of Mexico and Southern Arizona, but firs and aspens resemble boreal forests of Canada and Alaska.
Yes, there are large rivers flowing through but the water is out of reach, in inaccessible deep canyons. While much of the land looks uninhabited, it has a rich history of human existence. It contains the largest concentration of prehistoric ruins in the world.
Much of the Plateau's landscape is related, in both appearance and geologic history, to the Grand Canyon. The nickname "Red Rock Country" suggests the brightly colored rock left bare to the view by dryness and erosion. Domes, hoodoos, fins, reefs, goblins, river narrows, natural bridges, and slot canyons are only some of the additional features typical of the Plateau. Other features include great shallow basins, sunken deserts, picturesque buttes and mesas, and rare verdant sections of valley. There are rugged plateaus, mountains, river gorges with whitewater rapids, the Grand Canyon, and nearly every conceivable type of desert landscape.
The variety of the region extends to its life as well as its geology.
The Colorado Plateau has the greatest concentration of U.S. National Park Service (NPS) units in the country.
• Petrified Forest National Park
• Grand Canyon National Park
• Zion National Park
• Bryce Canyon National Park
• Capitol Reef National Park
• Canyonlands National Park
• Arches National Park
• Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
• Mesa Verde National Park
• Chaco Culture National Historical Park
National Monuments (alphabetical):
• Aztec Ruins National Monument
• Canyon De Chelly National Monument
• Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
• Cedar Breaks National Monument
• Colorado National Monument
• Dinosaur National Monument
• Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
• Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
• El Malpais National Monument
• El Morro National Monument
• Hovenweep National Monument
• Navajo National Monument
• Natural Bridges National Monument
• Rainbow Bridge National Monument
• Sunset Crater National Monument
• Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
• Walnut Canyon National Monument
• Wupatki National Monument
• Kachina Peaks Wilderness
• Strawberry Crater Wilderness
• Kendrick Mountain Wilderness
• Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness
• Paiute Wilderness
• Grand Wash Cliffs Wilderness
• Mount Logan Wilderness
• Mount Trumbull Wilderness
• Kanab Creek Wilderness
• Cottonwood Point Wilderness
• Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
• Saddle Mountain Wilderness
• Mount Baldy Wilderness
• Escudilla Wilderness
• Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness
• Flat Tops Wilderness
• Uncompahgre Wilderness
• Mount Sneffels Wilderness
• Lizard Head Wilderness
• Weminuche Wilderness
• South San Juan Wilderness
• Cebolla Wilderness
• Ojito Wilderness
• West Malpais Wilderness
• Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness
• Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness
• Ashdown Gorge Wilderness
• Box-Death Hollow Wilderness
• Dark Canyon Wilderness
• High Uintas Wilderness
The province is bounded by the Zach Mountains of Rocky Mountains in Colorado (north and east), and by the Uinta Mountains and Wasatch Mountains branches of the Rockies in northern and central Utah, the Great Basin (west), and the Sonoran Desert (south). It is also bounded by the Rio Grande Rift, Mogollon Rim and the Basin and Range Province. Isolated ranges of the Southern Rocky Mountains such as the San Juan Mountains in Colorado and the La Sal Mountains in Utah intermix into the central and southern parts of the Colorado Plateau. It is composed of seven sections:
• Uinta Basin Section
• High Plateaus Section
• Grand Canyon Section
• Canyon Lands Section
• Navajo Section
• Datil-Mogollon Section
• Acoma-Zuni Section
In Utah, the province includes several higher fault-separated plateaus:
• Awapa Plateau
• Aquarius Plateau
• Kaiparowits Plateau
• Markagunt Plateau
• Paunsaugunt Plateau
• Sevier Plateau
• Fishlake Plateau
• Pavant Plateau
• Gunnison Plateau and the
• Tavaputs Plateau.
The mostly flat-lying sedimentary rock units that make up these plateaus are found in component plateaus that are between 5000 ft. to over 11,000 ft. above sea level. A super-sequence of these rocks is exposed in the various cliffs and canyons (including the Grand Canyon) that make up the Grand Staircase. The levels show the layers of aging of the Grand Staircase that extend north of the Grand Canyon and are named for their color:
• Chocolate Cliffs,
• Vermillion Cliffs,
• White Cliffs,
• Gray Cliffs, and the
• Pink Cliffs.
Within these rocks are abundant mineral resources that include uranium, coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
A rain shadow from the Sierra Nevada far to the west and the many ranges of the Basin and Range means that the Colorado Plateau receives 6 to 16 in. of annual precipitation. Higher areas receive more precipitation and are covered in forests of pine, fir, and spruce.
One of the most geologically intriguing features of the Colorado Plateau is its remarkable stability. Relatively little rock deformation such as faulting and folding has affected this high, thick crustal block within the last 600 million years or so. In contrast, provinces that have suffered severe deformation surround the plateau. Mountain building thrust up the Rocky Mountains to the north and east and tremendous, earth-stretching tension created the Basin and Range province to the west and south.
The common factor in the Colorado Plateau is EROSION. The sedimentary rock like limestone and sandstone erode with dramatic shape and color. The rocks were created in or near ancient seas. Much later, the layers were lifted out of the seas to become land. The Colorado Plateau was lifted especially high (land has to have a high elevation before it can carve deep canyons). To carve you need a "knife" like the Colorado River and this great river and its tributaries are powerful knives. For over 5 million years the layers have been exposed and reveals earth's history.
Electrical power generation is one of the major industries that takes place in the Colorado Plateau region. Most electrical generation comes from coal fired power plants.
The rocks of the Colorado Plateau are a source of oil and a major source of natural gas. Major petroleum deposits are present in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico and Colorado, the Uinta Basin of Utah, the Piceance Basin of Colorado, and the Paradox Basin of Utah, Colorado, and Arizona.
The Colorado Plateau holds major uranium deposits, and there was a uranium boom in the 1950s. The Atlas Uranium Mill near Moab has left a problematic tailings pile for cleanup, which is soon to happen.
Major coal deposits are being mined in the Colorado Plateau in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, though large coal mining projects, such as on the Kaiparowits Plateau, have been proposed and defeated politically. The ITT Power Project, eventually located in Lynndyl, Utah, near Delta, was originally suggested for Salt Wash near Capitol Reef National Park. After a firestorm of opposition, it was moved to a less beloved site. In Utah the largest deposits are in aptly named Carbon County. In Arizona the biggest operation is on Black Mesa, supplying coal to Navajo Power Plant.
Perhaps the only one of its kind, a gilsonite plant near Bonanza, southeast of Vernal, Utah, mines this unique, lustrous, brittle form of asphalt, for use in "varnishes, paints,...ink, waterproofing compounds, electrical insulation,...roofing materials."
The scenic appeal of this unique landscape had become, well before the end of the twentieth century, its greatest financial natural resource. The amount of commercial benefit to the four states of the Colorado Plateau from tourism exceeded that of any other natural resource.