Colorado Plateau Region (page 2 of 4)
Wheeler. Adapted from: The Colorado Plateau
Region, In Wilderness at the Edge: a citizen proposal to protect Utah's
canyons and deserts, Utah Wilderness Coalition, Salt Lake City, 1990,
Coconino sandstone formation along S.
Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo © 1999 Eldon L.
Riddle, paradox, and anomaly are the Plateau's stock-in-trade. A structural
and topographic depression, the entire region has been uplifted more than
a mile. A desert, it contains two of the continent's largest rivers, and
channels enough water to supply millions of people in four western states.
Its landscape is a conjugation of the vertical and the horizontal; its
landforms, a debate between hard and soft rock. It is a world of sudden
displacements and bizarre juxtapositions. Separated only by cliff-walls,
subarctic tundra and Sonoran desert are next-door neighbors on the Colorado
Plateau. Snow-capped mountains rise improbably off the desert floor, each
carrying its arctic-alpine biota like the cargo of Noahs singular
ark. Among petrified sand dunes are deep pools of water; on burning cliff-faces,
luxurious flower gardens hide in alcoves, watered by springs.
|Aerial view of Escalante River Canyon,
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Photo © 1999 Ray
Perpetually carved by erosion, the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau
are one of the most intricate landscapes on earth. Consider a single canyon
system -- that of the Escalante River and its side canyons -- which comprise
a network of nearly one thousand miles. Yet the Escalante is itself
but a side canyon -- one of 50 major side canyon systems tributary to
the Colorado and Green rivers. To borrow a term recently coined by mathematicians,
the landscape is "fractal;" no matter how closely you examine
or how thoroughly you explore it, its complexity remains infinite. You
could spend a lifetime in the Escalante without fully exploring it; yet
a single week there can exhaust the mind with its diversity. Such intricacy
gives rise to the final and greatest paradox of them all: a strange fusion
of the vast and the intimate.
Natural Alcove in Navajo Sandstone, Grand
Staircase Escalante National Monument. Photo © 1985 Ray
Bowl, basin, canyon, alcove. Everywhere the land is concave. Hidden within
this huge river basin are bowls within bowls: the Canyonlands Basin, the
interior of the San Rafael Swell, the Circle Cliffs amphitheater, the
anomalous, "paradoxical" salt valleys near Moaband countless
smaller hidden valleys known as "holes" in the cowboy vernacular.
From nearly any vantage point the land drops away only to rise again far
in the distance. This concave structure, coupled with the lack of screening
vegetation, the gigantic scale of the landforms, and the clarity of the
air, makes for vistas of breathtaking hugeness. Yet the same features
create intimacy as well. One has always a feeling of being enclosed, surrounded,
sheltered, accompanied. Magnified in the crystalline air, distant objects
seem deceptively close -- a compression of space neatly balanced by an
equal and opposite expansion of time. That butte may seem close
enough to hit with a tossed stone but if it lies on the opposite
side of a sheer-walled canyon, it could take you hours or even days to
reach it on foot.
Follow these links to:
Suspended in Time
A Textbook of Geomorphology