Nowhere else in the world will you find landscapes quite like those that characterize southern Utah, northern Arizona and southwestern Colorado.
Here, in the middle of the Colorado Plateau—and incidentally also at the top of the plateau—scattered woods alternate with high desert scenery. This region’s huge density of canyons and red rock formations sets it apart from all other places in the world.
- Desert Landscapes Created by Water
- An Abundance of National Parks
- My Favorite Colorado Plateau National Parks Photos
Desert Landscapes Created by Water
Even though this is unquestionably a desert environment, it’s water that shapes it. It has been doing this for millions of years and continues to do so today. This is exactly what makes the Colorado Plateau a special place.
From the highest points of the Colorado Plateau, rainwater seeps into the soil or runs off across the surface, cutting its way to lower elevations. Almost all (90%) of this water is drained by the mighty Colorado River and its tributaries—the San Juan, Little Colorado and Green Rivers. A result of this age-old process is the region’s truly impressive number of rock formations. From rock domes, hoodoos and fins to natural bridges, arches and slot canyons, you find it all here. It’s truly a photographer’s dream destination.
An Abundance of National Parks
Luckily, the presence of such a wealth of natural beauty isn’t ignored by governing bodies. The Colorado Plateau is home to the second-largest number of National Park Service sites in the U.S. (Only the Washington, D.C. area has more sites.)
There are no fewer than nine national parks, sixteen national monuments and one national historical park. Four of these 26 sites are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Note that this huge number of visit-worthy sites doesn’t even include Monument Valley, arguably the most iconic place in this entire region. I know, amazing, right?!
Of the nine Colorado Plateau national parks, I visited eight during our road trip earlier this spring:
- Petrified Forest, Arizona
- Grand Canyon, Arizona
- Zion, Utah
- Bryce Canyon, Utah
- Capitol Reef, Utah
- Canyonlands, Utah
- Arches, Utah
- Mesa Verde, Colorado
The only one I didn’t visit was Black Canyon of the Gunnison and that was mainly due to the adverse weather conditions at the time (read: impossible to camp because of snowfall). I’ll be back, though, to check that one off my list as well.
My Favorite Colorado Plateau National Parks Photos
As you know, I don’t go anywhere without my camera. Of course, it would’ve been ridiculous to not take my camera with me on my visits to these world-class Colorado Plateau national parks. Here are my favorite photos of the Colorado Plateau national parks. I’m honestly super-excited about sharing these because I just know you’ll like them.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Area: 341 square miles (884 km²)
Annual visitors: 800,000
What to see: Painted Desert, Blue Mesa, Puerco Pueblo, Painted Desert Inn, Agate House, petrified logs
What to do: Hiking, wilderness camping, cultural exploration
Fun fact: Petrified Forest National Park is the only national park home to a section of Historic Route 66.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Area: 1,902 square miles (4,926 km²)
Annual visitors: 5,000,000
What to see: Yavapai Geology Museum, Rim Trail and Bright Angel Trail, Desert View Tower, and Mather, Hopi, Mohave and Lipan Points
What to do: Hiking, scenic flights, sunrise and sunset watching, rafting
Fun fact: Grand Canyon’s landscape is so extreme that, as you go down, you pass seven of the nine life zones on earth. It’s said it’s like walking from southern Canada to northern Mexico. Because of its sheer magnitude and magnificence, Grand Canyon National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Zion National Park, Utah
Area: 229 square miles (593 km²)
Annual visitors: 4,300,000
What to see: Emerald Pools, Court of the Patriarchs, Weeping Rock, Angels Landing, Observation Point, Virgin River, The Narrows
What to do: Hiking, camping, bird watching, cycling, rock climbing
Fun fact: When the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel was completed in 1930, its length of 1.1 miles (1.8 km) made it the longest non-urban tunnel in the United States.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Area: 56 square miles (145 km²)
Annual visitors: 2,350,000
What to see: Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, Wall Street, Thor’s Hammer, Silent City, and Sunset, Sunrise and Inspiration Points
What to do: Horseback riding, hiking in Bryce Amphitheater, sunrise watching, stargazing
Fun fact: The world’s largest concentration of hoodoos, tall rock spires protruding from the bottom of desert basins and canyons, is found in Bryce Canyon.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Area: 378 square miles (979 km²)
Annual visitors: 1,050,000
What to see: Orchards in Fruita, Chimney Rock, Cathedral Valley, Grand Wash, Hickman Bridge, Capitol Dome, Golden Throne, petroglyphs
What to do: Hiking, 4-wheel driving, fruit picking, learning about Native American culture
Fun fact: The park’s unusual name comes from the different rock formations in the area, specifically a red rock ridge that looks like a petrified reef and a white rock dome resembling the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Area: 527 square miles (1,365 km²)
Annual visitors: 775,000
What to see: Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Horseshoe Canyon
What to do: Mountain biking, hiking, (4-wheel) driving, stargazing
Fun fact: The Green and Colorado Rivers cut through Canyonlands National Park, chiseling away massive canyons and dividing the park into four distinct districts: the Island in the Sky, Needles, Maze and Rivers districts.
Arches National Park, Utah
Area: 120 square miles (310 km²)
Annual visitors: 1,550,000
What to see: Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Double Arch, The Windows, Balanced Rock, Park Avenue, Courthouse Towers, Fiery Furnace
What to do: Hiking, stargazing, photography, sunset watching
Fun fact: Arches National Park boasts the highest density of natural rock arches in the world. There are more than 2,000 of them, ranging in length from three to almost three hundred feet.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Area: 82 square miles (212 km²)
Annual visitors: 550,000
What to see: Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, Long House, Cliff Canyon
What to do: Touring the cliff dwellings, hiking, immersing yourself in Native American culture and history
Fun fact: With more than 5,000 known archaeological sites, including no fewer than 600 cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. Because of this immense cultural value, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Have You Ever Visited Any of the Colorado Plateau National Parks? Which Ones? Share Your Story in the Comments Below!