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Science and Children >  > The Colorado Plateau > Introduction 


Photo of bighorn sheep grazing
As they roam the alpine tundra and pinyon-juniper life zones, bighorn sheep rely on more than 100 different plant species for food.

 Photo by Jerry Sintz

When film director John Ford made a movie about the American West he would often include two superstars to ensure its success – John Wayne, and the Colorado Plateau.  Breathtakingly beautiful, the Colorado Plateau is one of the most intricate landscapes on earth.  Here, on a grand scale, erosion has carved arches, alcoves, canyons, domes, towers, temples, and hoodoos out of vividly colored rock.  Magnificent vistas take in landscapes of salmon, purple, pink and red stone, set in blazing contrast against intensely blue desert skies and dotted with dark green pinyon trees and soft sagebrush.  It is a wild land, even today.

Sprawling across southeastern Utah, western Colorado, northern Arizona, and northwestern New Mexico, the Colorado Plateau contains the most extensive blocks of undeveloped land in the West.  It includes millions of acres of Federal land that meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.  A sizeable part of it was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped.  The Utah portion of the Plateau includes the single largest roadless area in the lower 48 states.  While five of the country’s fastest-growing cities (Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Las Vegas) ring the Plateau, its population is low and dispersed. 

Photo of claretcup cactus
The claretcup cactus, which stores water in its stems and roots, blankets the desert floor with flowers in the spring.

Photo by Jerry Sintz

For much of geologic time, the Colorado Plateau has remained insulated and intact.  Even in historic times, it was isolated from mainstream Western expansion.  Today, all that is changing, and changing rapidly; the Colorado Plateau has been “discovered”.  Millions of visitors now come here to bike the slickrock, hike the twisting slot canyons, raft the whitewater, and find solitude in a place of rare natural beauty.  Largely federal land, the Colorado Plateau boasts some of America’s most popular parks and recreation areas.  Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, designated in 1996 by Presidential Proclamation, is the Plateau’s most recent area to attract worldwide attention.

In this article, we explore the natural forces that have created such geologic drama, examine a few of the myriad plants and animals inhabiting the six life zones on the Plateau, and provide an overview of the challenges faced by land managers seeking to preserve the Plateau’s extraordinary lifeforms and landforms.  Classroom activities at the end of the article and on the poster back provide students a chance to learn why riparian areas are critically important to ecosystem health, how wind, water, and air sculpt the landscape, and how plants and animals here have adapted to their unique environments.  Another poster-back activity describes how students can create their own customized field guide of the plants and animals in their area.


Last updated: 11-13-2009