The Grand Circle

and the Colorado Plateau

by Jay Sharp

The Grand Circle is really a grand adventure of over 1000 miles of great views and parks. It takes about 7 days to cover the route, longer if you want to spend lots of time in each park. A good digital camera with video is a must. A traveler winding through the area can find phenomenal historic locations and unforgettable geologic vistas, such as the Four Corners, the Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, Utah's Canyonlands, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Meteorite Crater, Grand Canyon National Park, and Montezuma Castle National Monument.

Map of Grand Circle area

The Grand Circle extends from southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico westward across northern Arizona and up into southern Utah. It holds a concentration of some of the most stunning geologic features, exotic plant and animal communities, spectacular prehistoric ruins and fabled historic sites in the entire southwest.


The Grand Circle is in a large part defined by the area of the Colorado Plateau, a 3000- to 7000-foot-high 130,000-square-mile geological wonderland with warm summers and frigid winters. In reality a series of plateaus, it drains through the Colorado River system, which empties through the majestic Grand Canyon.

The Colorado Plateau rests on a foundation of rock that was uplifted by monumental forces and formed into a relatively level plain more than 600 million years ago. Its foundation was blanketed by thick layers of sedimentary rocks laid down by advancing and retreating seas from 300 to 600 million years ago. During periods free of seawater, its surface was shaped by wind and flowing streams, which created sand dunes and stream deposits. Over a vast time period the plateau was further formed and reformed yet again by the wind and water, and then volcanoes, which erupted in the west and blanketed large regions with ash between 250 and 300 million years ago.

Zion National Park, southwestern Utah.

As it formed over the past 600 million years, the Colorado Plateau experienced relatively minor geologic structural folding and faulting, especially compared with the active Rocky Mountain region to the north and east, and the desert basin and mountain range region to the south and west. Geologists regard it as a comparatively stable formation. It's unclear why the Colorado Plateau, which seems to be its own block of continental crust, has remained as intact as it has; some speculate it is floating on a sort of magma cushion.

The forces of wind and water, and the sheer age of the exposed rock, have created a phantasmagoric land of natural arches, bridges, balanced rocks and basaltic dikes which amaze and delight the eyes and hearts of travelers.


The region’s plants and animals reflect the diversity of the land itself. Its fossil record ranges from ancient single-cell organisms to petrified forests, and from dinosaurs to Ice Age animals. Today’s salty desert basin floors and slopes, and frigid mountain peaks host distinct and interrelated communities of plants and wildlife.

Grand Canyon, north rim, northern Arizona

Desert basins support shrubs such as greasewood, saltbush and various sagebrush as well as rare species of cacti. Mountain slopes, boreal, or “pygmy” forests host pinyon pine and various juniper species, while the higher mountain ranges are home to forests of ponderosa pine, aspen, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Near mountain peaks, Englemann spruce and subalpine fir exist, while in southern Utah and northern Arizona, the amazing 3000-year-old bristlecone pine can be found.

The diverse landscape supports an astonishing variety of animal species as well: Colorado chipmunks, pronghorn, elk, black-chinned hummers, golden eagles, collared lizards, rattlesnakes and pond animals, from snails to frogs to fish, to mention just a few. Nearly 80 species of fish and 340 species of plants are native to this area, and more than 80 plants are listed or recommended for protection as threatened or endangered species.

Human History

The Grand Circle’s prehistoric human history began with nomadic bands who hunted the big game of the last Ice Age. Hunting and gathering groups took the smaller game and collected wild food plants after the Ice Age ended, some 8000 to 10000 years ago. They were followed by the early agriculturists who were master basketmakers. These people lived in caves, rock overhangs, or open “pithouse” villages and raised corn. Several Puebloan traditions followed, most famously the Anasazi, who lived in beautifully-planned and well-crafted stone villages and raised various corn, beans and squash as well as other crops. Finally hunters and raiders came, such as the Navajos, who assumed command of the region after the Puebloan peoples abandoned their communities and moved south and east during the first third of the second millennium.

Montezuma's Castle, northern Arizona

The Grand Circle region’s historic era opened in the summer of 1540 when Francisco Vásquez de Coronado dispatched officers to investigate stories about the Hopi villages and the Grand Canyon. Four and a half centuries later, the Grand Circle's historical legacy includes famous passageways, pioneer heritage sites, ghost towns, military forts, gold and silver mines, trading posts and famous buildings and inns—landmarks of the Southwest.

The Grand Circle's stunning natural history, prehistory and history are visible in the nine national parks, 21 national monuments, three national recreation areas, national historic park, national forest and two national conservation areas found here, making it a traveler's paradise.


Destinations in the Four Corners region are spectacular, and include southern Utah’s canyonlands, northern Arizona and the incomparable Grand Canyon, as well as prehistoric sites, legendary historic sites, and modern communities of Indian peoples of the Southwest.


U. S. Geological Survey's Science for a Changing World Internet site

Annabelle Foos, Geology of the Colorado Plateau

Ray Wheeler, The Colorado Plateau Region, 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, p. 97-104.

More about the Grand Circle

DVDs of interest

Grand Circle Part 2: The Four Corners, the Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Mesa Verde
Grand Circle Part 3: Utah's Canyonlands, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park
Grand Circle Part 4: Arizona, the Navajo, Meteorite Crater, Grand Canyon National Park, Montezuma Castle National Monument

Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms



The Saguaro Video
The Saguaro often begins life in the shelter of a "nurse" tree or shrub which can provide a shaded, moister habitat for the germination of life. The Saguaro grows very slowly -- perhaps an inch a year -- but to a great height, 15 to 50 feet.

The Desert Food ChainDesert Food Chain Video
A food chain constitutes a complex network of organisms, from plants to animals, through which energy, derived from the sun, flows in the form of organic matter and dissipates in the form of waste heat.

Prickly pear cactus Video
Prickly pear cactus are found in all of the deserts of the American Southwest. Most prickly pears have large spines on their stems and vary in height from less than a foot to 6 or 7 feet.

Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

DesertUSA is a comprehensive resource about the North American deserts and Southwest destinations. Learn about desert biomes while you discover how desert plants and animals learn to adapt to the harsh desert environment. Find travel information about national parks, state parks, BLM land, and Southwest cities and towns located in or near the desert regions of the United States. Access maps and information about the Sonoran Desert, Mojave Desert, Great Basin Desert, and Chihuahuan Desert.

Copyright © 1996-2017 and Digital West Media, Inc. - -