The Colorado Plateau

This region is one of the world's premier natural showcases for Earth history. Encompassing 240,000 square miles or an area the size of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York combined, the Colorado Plateau straddles the region known as Four Corners, where the states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet.

Ancient volcanic mountains, plateaus and buttes, deeply carved canyons, and amazing ranges in color are the region's major claims to fame. Elevation for the Colorado Plateau starts at about 2,000 feet above sea level, with plateau tops ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 feet and mountaintops reaching nearly 13,000 feet.

Much of the Plateau is desert or high desert, and temperatures throughout the year vary greatly: winter lows can dip below zero and summer highs regularly break into the hundreds. Climate, elevation, soil, and rock combine to create many micro-zones that support an amazing range of plants and animals.

Nestled in the southwestern part of the plateau is Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, a million acres of canyons, plateaus, and deserts holding numerous opportunities for outdoor learning and recreation.

 

Geologic History of the Colorado Plateau

Some areas on the Colorado Plateau are famous for the colorful sedimentary rocks. These rocks, so dramatically exposed in Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, Monument Valley, and Canyon de Chelly, were formed many millions of years ago when a vast ocean covered Arizona and much of the western United States. Sandstone, shale, and limestone formed along the edge and underneath this ancient sea, building up to great thicknesses. In many areas, these layers of rock have remained flat, undisturbed by faulting. In other places however, the level layers were warped and folded, forming what are known as monoclines, great “steps” on the earth’s surface. Because vegetation is sparse in many areas, these great folds are obvious.

Not all of the rocks exposed on the Colorado Plateau were deposited by water or wind, however. Numerous volcanoes dot the region, adding variety to the landscape. The Uinkaret Mountains, which includes the Mt. Trumbull area in Parashant, Hopi Buttes, Vulcan's Throne in the Grand Canyon, and Sunset Crater and the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, are all volcanoes.

Despite abundant precipitation in certain areas, surface water is rare on the Colorado Plateau because the limestone bedrock tends to absorb water into cavities. So where does the water go? It sinks through the ground and eventually reaches the surface again as springs at lower elevations. Many springs in the Grand Canyon are fed by water falling high atop the Plateau.

 

Ecology of the Colorado Plateau


With such varied climate and landforms, the Plateau is an area of great ecological diversity. Low-lying rocky areas support desert shrubs like Joshua trees, saltbush and greasewood while stands of pinyon pine and several species of juniper, interspersed with grasses, herbs, and shrubs like sagebrush, blanket much of the region. At higher elevations, there are forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, and aspen. Numerous species of cacti grow throughout, some of these found nowhere else.

Animal life is equally diverse. Some of the Plateau’s inhabitants include the collared lizard, jackrabbit, coyote, mule deer, bobcat, cougar, desert bighorn sheep, elk, gray fox, and rattlesnakes. Stellar jays, turkeys, red-tailed hawks, falcons, and a myriad of small migratory birds soar in the Plateau’s skies. Watch for the rare California condors with their massive 91/2 foot wingspan as they float on the thermals. Cottonwoods trees and hanging gardens fringe the riparian areas that thread throughout the Plateau. These wet areas are home to frogs, toads, snails, beavers, dragonflies, and fish.

 

Cultural History of the Colorado Plateau


Humans have lived on the Colorado Plateau for 12,000 years. First to arrive were big game hunters, followed by the Archaic culture (8,000 years ago) who hunted small game and gathered food plants. Later, the Ancestral Puebloans (300 A.D. to circa 1250) met the Plateau’s challenges, and settled into permanent homes to farm. This culture has become famous world wide for the archaeological evidence and treasures they left behind - Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks are some well-known sites.

When Spanish explores arrived in the 1500s, various Native American groups still populated the Colorado Plateau. These populations were tragically reduced by the spread of European diseases and by the military superiority of the Spanish. Later, numerous non-native explorers and trappers ventured onto the Colorado Plateau between 1776 and 1847, making contact and trading with the native peoples. The arrival of the Mormon pioneers to Utah and later the opening of the west to other Anglo-American settlers ended Native American domination on the Plateau.

The resident population of the Colorado Plateau today exceeds one million. Growth on the Plateau is now outpacing growth in the western U.S. Human impacts that have affected the status of Colorado Plateau ecosystems include forest management practices, grazing, logging, mining, power generation, introduction of non-native species, dams and water diversion, and fragmentation of wildlands by roads and other construction. Many scientists and public land managers are viewing the rapid deterioration of fragile landscapes throughout the Southwest as an emerging ecological crisis. Grand Canyon-Parashant was created to protect this area from these and other potential threats.

 

Where Grand Canyon-Parashant fits into the Colorado Plateau

The southern portion of the Colorado Plateau is called the Arizona Strip (Strip) and is home to Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument. This isolated area lies north and west of the Colorado River and supports forests, desert grasslands, mountains, and canyons that cover 14,000 square miles, yet supports only 3,200 people. The area is isolated from the rest of the Colorado Plateau by a significant barrier, the Grand Canyon.

How isolated is it? If a person wished to travel from Moccasin, AZ (near St. George, Utah) to Kingman, AZ to get to their county seat, they would drive through Utah and Nevada before reentering Arizona. As the crow flies it would be 140 miles, but by car, it is 357 miles one way. Take a look at how far away these large cities are from the monument to get another idea of how remote the area is.

Today, the Strip appeals to those who love wilderness and solitude. In addition to Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, nine designated wilderness areas totaling nearly 400,000 acres protect some of the most scenic sections. Travelers can wander along the canyons, back roads, and trails without meeting another soul - you’ll never have to joust with tour-bus crowds or search for a parking spot here.

 

Links

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument Index

Introduction

Virtual Visitor Center

The Colorado Plateau

Journey Through Time

Ecology of the Monument

Teacher Resource Center

 

Help and Information Center

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