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Arizona Experience Store

Colorado Plateau

The Colorado Plateau hosts the largest ponderosa pine forest in North America.
Monument Valley’s haunting buttes are among Arizona’s most iconic landscapes.
Quaking Aspen is common in elevations ranging from 8,500–10,000 feet.
What makes the Colorado Plateau geologically unique?

The Colorado Plateau of Northern Arizona is a vibrant mix of high deserts and forests over a mile above sea level. Climate, geology, and vegetation draw visitors for water activities, hiking, canyoneering, and skiing. Roughly centered on the Four Corners Region of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, its windswept mesas and sandstone formations create an unforgettable geographic experience. A living sculpture formed over millions of years by the cutting action of water, wind, and even ice slicing through layers of sedimentary rocks, the landscape is a montage of spires, canyons, and buttes in a rainbow of hues.

Lands governed by the Navajo and Hopi tribes feature breathtaking geology. Find dinosaur tracks around the Glen Canyon and Lake Powell area. Monument Valley’s hulking buttes rise 1,000 feet into an often cloudless sky. Sandstone ledges of Canyon de Chelly shield a flourishing riparian area that has sustained countless generations of Anasazi and Navajo. To the south, the fossilized trees of the Petrified Forest and banded badlands of the Painted Desert reveal inland seas and even tropical forests from Arizona’s geologic past. In fact, the Colorado Plateau has the greatest concentration of National Parks in the U.S.

The Grand Canyon is the Colorado Plateau’s most famous place, and one of the world’s seven Natural Wonders. Carved over five to six million years, the mile-deep crevasse winds 277 colorful miles down the Colorado River. Over four and a half million visitors tour the Canyon every year for hiking, rafting, biking, and other outdoor recreation. A trek to the canyon floor reveals springs and waterfalls that have fed the Colorado River and sustained Native Americans who arrived over 12,000 years ago. Over a dozen Native American tribes claim physical or spiritual connections with the Grand Canyon, including the Hualapai, the Navajo, and the Hopi, whose lands border the canyon. The Havasupai tribe, whose name means “people of the blue-green water,” has lived within the Canyon for generations. Today, the main Havasupai village, located halfway up the canyon walls, is the only place in America where mail is delivered by mule.

The Grand Canyon’s geology is remarkable. Precambrian bedrock estimated to be 1.6–1.8 billion years old is exposed in the Vishnu Schist on the canyon floor. Conversely, some basaltic lava flows from cinder cones of the Uinkaret volcanic field on the North Rim erupted just over 1,000 years ago—making them some of the youngest rocks in North America. To help visitors understand a time frame so vast that it stymies human comprehension, Grand Canyon National Park and its partners created the Trail of Time, a three mile walk where every step traveled represents one million years of Earth history.

Fort Valley Experimental Forest Webcam

Coconino Experiment Station (now Fort Valley Experimental Forest) was the first USFS forestry research facility established in the nation. It opened in August, 1908 with the goal to determine why the ponderosa pine forest was not regenerating after logging. Plots established in 1927 to monitor range grasses and wildlife grazing are still watched today. Take a peek through the Fort Valley webcam, or view more webcams.

Like all of the Colorado Plateau, the Grand Canyon features extremes in climate as well as geology. The canyon floor receives only nine inches of precipitation every year, while the North Rim, at 8,000 feet above sea level, may receive up to 25 feet of snow. Temperatures on the desolate canyon floor can soar to 110°F, while a cool 80°F breeze blows through the woodlands of the rim. Though water is extremely scarce on the eastern Plateau, snow can cloak the San Francisco peaks into June and July.

Uplands of the Colorado Plateau are thickly forested and rich with wildlife. Arizona’s highest peaks are found in the ancient volcanic center of the San Francisco Peaks, which contains the state’s only tundra. In the fall, vibrant yellows of quaking aspen forests are a favorite site of visitors to the White Mountains, Kaibab Plateau, and San Francisco Peaks.

The Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine, distinctive by the vanilla-butterscotch scent of its sap, is the area’s signature tree. The largest ponderosa pine forest in North America stretches along the Mogollon Rim from Flagstaff to the White Mountains. The rough-textured, cinnamon colored bark of a mature tree is a common sight in campgrounds and recreation areas from the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon to the Sky Islands of southern Arizona’s Chiricahua, Huachuca, Dragoon, Santa Catalina mountains. In 1908, the U.S. Forest Service established the first forestry research facility in the U.S. in Flagstaff to study regeneration of the ponderosa pine forests after logging activity.


Arizona’s National Parks in the Colorado Plateau

Over four million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year.

Over four million people visit Grand Canyon National Park each year.

  • Canyon de Chelly National Monument
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Navajo National Monument
  • Parashant National Monument
  • Petrified Forest National Park
  • Pipe Spring National Monument
  • Sunset Crater National Monument
  • Wupatki National Monument

Click here to find a recreation area near you!

Find a recreation area near you!

  Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau and other titles by Wayne Raney are available at the Arizona Experience Store.