THE COLORADO PLATEAU
Ferry on the Colorado River near Moab, 1911
The Colorado Plateau is a physiographic province encompassing 130,000
square miles of the Four Corners states, including Utah's southeastern quarter.
Arguably, it is the least-tamed country remaining in the lower forty-eight
It is a land of outstanding natural beauty and ecological diversity. The
high, semi-arid region is actually a gigantic basin studded with a variety
of landforms, ranging from 5,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation. There are
rugged plateaus, slot canyons, mountains, river gorges with whitewater rapids,
the Grand Canyon, and nearly every conceivable type of desert landscape.
Rodney D. Millar and Joan Degiorgio wrote in June 1986 in the state of Utah's
proposal to designate the region as a World Heritage Site: "It is easily
the most colorful area of comparable size on the earth."
The variety of the region extends to its life as well as its geology. Animals
and plants have adapted to the exposed rock strata and harsh climatic conditions.
Separated by chasms, clinging to shelves of exposed rock, or making their
living in roaring rivers, they evolved into unique species like the Colorado
squawfish, a minnow that can reach nearly six feet in length.
Through the millennia, ancient people also lived here, leaving behind artifacts
as simple as spear points 10,500 years old and as sophisticated as the great
1,000-year-old stone villages of the Anasazi culture. More recently Utes,
Paiutes, and Navajos moved in, and these tribes remain important parts of
the modern culture.
The first Europeans to reach the Grand Canyon section of the Colorado Plateau
were Spaniards under Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, part of Francisco Vazquez
de Coronado's quest for the "Seven Cities of Cibola." Cardenas
reached the Hopi towns of Arizona, and then the Grand Canyon, in 1540. The
next recorded visit there was on 26 June 1776 by Francisco Garces, a missionary.
The same year, an expedition led by Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominquez
and Silvestre Velez de Escalante set out to find a better route between
the Catholic missions at Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Monterey, California.
They spent nearly all of the period from 11 September until 7 November 1776
in what is now Utah. They failed to reach California but discovered a valuable
crossing of the Colorado River and explored as far into Utah's interior
as Utah Lake.
Traders in slaves and livestock established the Old Spanish Trail from Santa
Fe to central Utah early in the nineteenth century. It arched around the
San Rafael Reef and onto the Wasatch Plateau. At first, it terminated around
Utah Lake; eventually, it headed south and west and reached Los Angeles--1,200
miles from Santa Fe. It was in use from at least 1813 until the middle of
the nineteenth century, when it was supplanted by the more northern Mormon
American explorers pushed into the Colorado Plateau, often in grave danger
from the weather and hostile Native Americans. They included members of
expeditions led by Captain John Williams Gunnison, massacred along with
seven men in his command, in central Utah by Paiutes, October 1853; John
Charles Frémont, who got lost in the snows of the Aquarius Plateau,
at the cost of one man dead, before stumbling into Parowan in February 1854;
J.N. Macomb of the Army Topographical Engineers, 1859; and Lt. George M.
Wheeler, who explored the western and southern sections of the Grand Canyon
in 1869 and 1871.
Probably the most daring expeditions were those of John Wesley Powell. His
small group of adventurers traveled the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869,
working their way through the canyons in wooden boats. Three men tried to
hike out overland in late August 1869, shortly before the remaining six
rode the rapids out of the canyons and returned to safety; the three were
killed by Indians. Powell led another team to explore the river canyons
in 1871-72. Eventually, federal surveys operated throughout the region.
In February 1872 Powell's photographer, E.O. Beaman, quit the second expedition,
leaving Kanab on his own photography trip. He made his way through the Buckskin
Mountains, into Kanab Wash, and reached the Colorado River. Sometimes hiring
a helper from local ranching families but often working alone, he hauled
his heavy camera and supplies by horse and mule, and took some of the first
photographs of the Grand Canyon. Beaman also photographed the Hopi towns.
In 1889-90, railroad promoters Robert B. Stanton and Frank M. Brown led
a foolhardy survey along the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers, trying
to prove that a railroad could be built through the Grand Canyon. Three
men, including Brown, drowned when their boats capsized.
Earlier, Mormons had set out in 1855 from Manti, charged with converting
the Indians and settling the region near present-day Moab. Three months
after they arrived, on 23 September 1855 Indians attacked, killing three
and wounding another. The survivors returned to Manti.
Throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, gold miners, settlers,
ranchers, missionaries, soldiers, and outlaws pushed into the wilderness
of the Colorado Plateau. During the uranium boom of World War II through
the 1950s, prospectors gouged out mines and built tarpaper shacks in scattered
locations. Their trails still criss-cross much of the landscape.
Today, with Interstate 70 cutting through the region and numerous secondary
roads offering easy access, the area is a tourist's mecca of numerous parks,
monuments, and wilderness regions. Tourism, ranching, mining, and farming
are some of the main sources of income in the area.
Among the most spectacular protected areas of the Plateau are Canyonlands,
Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde national
parks; Rainbow Bridge, Canyon de Chelly, Natural Bridges, and Wupatki national
monuments; Kodachrome Basin State Reserve, Deadhorse Point State Park, and
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
See: Gregory Crampton, Land of Living Rock (1985); F.A. Barnes, Utah
Canyon Country (1986); and Deseret: 1776-1976, Henry A. Smith
Joseph M. Bauman, Jr.