Exploring The Greater Southwest

The Grand Circle

Jay W. Sharp

I discovered the Southwest, beginning with Mesa Verde, when I was a teenager, a country kid growing up on small dry land farm in the hardscrabble Rolling Plains of Texas.

Cliff Palace ruin at Mesa Verde, southwestern Colorado

I had seen the Rolling Plains’ nearby Medicine Mound, a 300-foot-high mesa where Comanche and Kiowa warriors went to find their “medicine” back in the 19th century, but I had never seen a mountain where snow clung to the peaks until almost summertime. I had seen pasturelands bounded by fences and grown up with mesquites and buffalo grass and populated with coyotes and prairie dogs, but I had never seen true desertlands open to the horizon and thinly vegetated by creosote and yuccas and cholla and presided over by soaring Red-tailed Hawks. I had seen the Pease River “Breaks,” with sandy dry stream beds bounded by Salt Cedar and low red hills blanketed by juniper, but I had never seen canyonlands, with sculpted sandstone chasms and soaring arches bare of trees or shrubs or even a blade of grass. I had seen prehistoric Indian campsites, usually adjacent to a small stream, marked only by long-cold fire hearths, occasional stone arrow points, chert flakes, and small pottery fragments, but I had never seen standing multi-story communities, frozen in time, sequestered in canyon recesses, their rooms and ceremonial chambers littered with shards of bowls, jars and mugs and their walls painted with images of unfathomable meaning.

Tower ruin at Hovenweep, near Utah/Colorado border.

I had taken Spanish in grade school (Este es el gato, I learned), but I had never actually heard anyone speak any language other than Texas Rolling Plains English, let alone Athapascan, Zuni, Tiwa, Tewa or Keresan. I had read about how Coronado crossed the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the Great Plains, about how Spanish colonists settled the land and built mission churches, and about how the U. S. military built forts and fought Geronimo and Cochise, but such events, outside of the library and John Wayne movies, seem imaginably remote to a country kid from the Rolling Plains.

When I looked over the edge of the canyon wall, down into the alcove that embraces Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace ruin, I truly saw, for the first time in my life, beyond the boundaries of a small Texas community with stern-looking buildings and houses of lumber or brick and a population of farmers in overalls and straw hats, cowboys in worn boots and jeans and sweated “Silver Belly” Stetsons, railroad workers in coveralls and stripped caps, small business owners in starched shirts and dark ties and snap-brim hats, and grave-looking Protestant pastors in perfectly pressed blue or black suits and plain black shoes. Within Cliff Palace’s ancient walls, crafted by master stonemasons, I could see the promise of new dimensions in the life experience. In the Cliff Palace’s yawning alcove and Mesa Verde’s sheer-walled canyons, I could see the potential for new vistas in earth’s landscape. I felt liberated.

Mittens, Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona border.

A Yearning to Return

When I returned to the eroded red-dirt rolling fields of my home in the southeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle, I hungered for the chance go back the Southwest, where I could explore the prehistoric communities, desert basins, canyons and mountain ranges. I felt drawn by tales of ghost towns, isolated villages, abandoned military forts, living pueblos, trading posts, Spanish missions and lost gold mines and treasures. I wanted to see and hear for myself people who painted their faces and wore fantastic headdresses and costumes and sang and danced to ancestral rhythms in community plazas. I wanted to see and hear for myself people who spoke Spanish as their native language, played joyous music on aging violins and guitars and trumpets, danced vigorously and gracefully in swirls of color and silver conchos. I wanted to learn more about the mysteries of ethereal figures of cemeteries and river walks, spiritual ministers from other lands, purported visitors from other worlds.

As I grew up, I continued to explore the Southwest whenever I got an opportunity. I helped document the archaeological sites of the Guadalupe Mountain National Park, in western Texas and southeast New Mexico; climbed the volcanic crater called Capulin Mountain, in northeastern New Mexico; tramped through the White Sands National Monument of south/central New Mexico; revisited the ruins of Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado; camped within sight of the Navajos’ sacred Shiprock in northwestern New Mexico; camped beside the San Juan River near Four Corners (where four states – Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona – meet at a common point); drove through the compelling formations of Monument Valley on the Arizona and Utah border; wondered at Nature’s handiwork in Bryce and Zion National Parks in southeastern Utah; and saw, for the first time, Nature’s masterpiece, the Grand Canyon, in northwestern Arizona. I learned first hand about the plant communities of the Sonoran Desert (with its regal Saguaro Cactus), the Mojave Desert (with its otherworldly-looking Joshua Tree yuccas), and the Chihuahuan Desert (with its scrubby Creosote Bushes and Honey Mesquites).

Ruin at Chaco Canyon, northwestern New Mexico.

I came to feel addicted to the Southwest, always yearning to see and know more. As years passed, I would travel most of the states and major cities in the U. S. I would visit Canada, running rapids on her rivers, fishing the waters of her lakes. With my wife and good friends, I wondered across Mexico, seeing Spanish colonial cities, Mesoamerican pyramids and columned buildings, isolated cliff dwellings and prehistoric rock art. In my profession and with my wife, I spent many months abroad, in Western Europe, Scandinavia and north-central Africa, and I spent brief stays in Colombia and the Caribbean. Still, I always felt the call of the Southwest, with its blindingly brilliant and diamond-hard summer sunlight, its dark and deeply etched mid-day shadows, its sandy and rocky desert basins, its forested mountain ranges, its monumental geologic formations, its diverse cultural blend, its waiting adventure.

Coming Home

Finally, in 1981, my family and I moved to the Southwest. I felt as though I had come home. We not only explored the places that I had known from my earlier days, we sought out places new to us—Canyon de Chelly, for instance, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Walnut Canyon, Wupatki, Oak Creek Canyon, the Canyonlands, Hovenweep, Colorado National Monument, Chimney Rock, Chaco Canyon, Aztec, El Moro, White Sands, Big Bend. We also sought out the lesser-known and out-of-the-way places, many of which can be reached only by four-wheel drive vehicles or by hiking, for instance, isolated ruins of forts, rock art sites from a remote past, the ruins of Indian rock shelters, the crumbling walls of isolated stagecoach way stations, the traces of historic trails, the supposed locations of lost treasures.

Bryce Canyon National Park, southwestern Utah.

After a quarter of a century, we have come to accept that the Southwest holds more treasures than we can ever truly see and know. We regard it now, not as a litany of travel destinations, but rather as a montage of personalized experiences, a setting for continual discovery, a renewal of the soul.

The Grand Circle

The greater Southwest, which spans the Four Corners states as well as western Texas, southern California and Mexico’s northern Chihuahua and Sonora, holds rich opportunities for discovery and adventure. The part of the Southwest often called the Grand Circle, which extends from northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado westward across southern Utah and northern Arizona, holds the greatest concentration of stunning geologic features, exotic plant and animal communities, spectacular prehistoric ruins and fabled historic sites.

The Grand Circle lies largely coincident with the Colorado Plateau, a 3000- to 7000-foot-high 130,000-square-mile geological wonderland with warm summers and frigid winters. It drains through the Colorado River system, which empties through the majestic Grand Canyon.

Zion National Park, southwestern Utah.

According to the U. S. Geological Survey’s Science for a Changing World Internet site, the Colorado Plateau rests on a foundation of rock that was uplifted by monumental forces and beveled into a relatively level plain more than 600 million years ago. Its foundation became blanketed by thick layers of sedimentary rocks laid down by advancing and retreating seas from 300 to 600 million years ago. During the periods free of seawater, the surface was shaped by wind and flowing streams, which invested the land with sand dunes and stream deposits. The Plateau was further shaped by winds, which laid down vast sand dunes; waters, which carved through earlier deposits and left behind new deposits; and volcanoes, which erupted in the west and blanketed large regions with ash between 250 and 300 million years ago.

As it formed under the infinitely patient hand of Nature, the Colorado Plateau – compared with the geologically active Rocky Mountain region to the north and east and the desert basin and mountain range region to the south and west – experienced relatively minor structural folding and faulting over the past 600 million years. It has shown “remarkable stability” say the geologists. Still, said Annabelle Foos in her paper “Geology of the Colorado Plateau,” the “folds of the Colorado Plateau are broad open folds,” and the “plateau is dissected by a number of long north-south trending normal faults.” Moreover, she says, “The volcanics on the plateau were deposited less than 6 million years ago and are as young as 1,200 years.”

Today, says Ray Wheeler in the Land Use History of North America Internet site, the Colorado Plateau has become “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,” a phantasmagoric land of natural arches, bridges, balanced rocks and basaltic dikes.

“The gigantic scale of the landforms, and the clarity of the air,” says Wheeler, “makes for vistas of breathtaking hugeness.”

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 to dinosaurs to Ice Age animals. Today’s salty floors of the desert basins and slopes and frigid peaks of mountain ranges host distinct and interrelated communities of plants and wildlife.

Grand Canyon, north rim, northern Arizona

The desert basins support shrubs such as the Greasewood, Saltbush and various sagebrush as well as rare species of cacti; the mountain slopes, boreal, or “pygmy” forests of Pinyon Pine and various juniper species; the higher mountain ranges, forests of Ponderosa Pine, Aspen, Lodgepole Pine and Douglas Fur; and near mountain peaks, Englemann Spruce, Subalpine Fir, and, in southern Utah and northern Arizona, 3000-year-old Bristlecone Pines.

The basins and mountain flanks became home for mammals ranging from the Colorado Chipmunk to Pronghorns to Elk; birds, from the Black-chinned Hummer to Golden Eagles; reptiles from the Collared Lizard to various rattlesnakes; and pond animals, from snails to frogs to fish.

According to Wheeler, “Nearly 80 species of fish and 340 species of plants are endemic, and the region hosts more than 80 plants listed or recommended for protection as threatened or endangered species.”

The Grand Circle’s prehistoric peoples included the nomadic bands who hunted the big game of the last Ice Age; the hunting and gathering groups who took the smaller game and collected wild food plants after the Ice Age ended, some 8000 to 10000 years ago; the early agriculturists, master basketmakers, who lived in caves or rock overhangs or open “pithouse” villages and raised corn; several Puebloan traditions, 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; and, finally, the hunters and raiders, for instance, 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 speaks to its historical legacy across its breadth in terms of famous passageways, pioneer heritage sites, ghost towns, military forts, gold and silver mines, trading posts and famous buildings and inns—landmarks of the Southwest.

In one measure of its stunning natural history, prehistory and history, the Grand Circle encompasses some nine national parks, 21 national monuments, three national recreation areas, a national historic park, a national forest and two national conservation areas.

What’s Next?

Over the next few months, we will publish a series of articles about some of the most spectacular destinations within the Grand Circle. We plan to begin in the Four Corners region, turn next to southern Utah’s canyonlands, then move over to northern Arizona and the incomparable Grand Canyon. We will see the masterworks of Nature, the supreme sculpture and painter. We will visit the prehistoric and modern communities of Indian peoples of the Southwest. We will explore some of the most legendary historic sites in the Americas.

We hope that you will discover new vistas in earth’s landscape and new dimensions in the life experience in our series on the Grand Circle. We hope that you will feel liberated.

Part 2 of Grand Circle

Grand Circle Part 2
Grand Circle Part 3
Grand Circle Part 4


Arches National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Canyon De Chelly National Monument
Grand Canyon National Park
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Monument Valley
Mesa Verde National Park
Zion National Park



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