Colorado Plateau, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah

Encyclopedia Article


A physiographic province that stretches across 130,000 square miles in the Four Corners Region of the American Southwest. The topographic features of this plateau include: high mountain ranges, deep canyons, river valleys, high plateaus, mesas, deserts, basins, and buttes. The highest elevation in the Colorado Plateau is the La Sal Mountains in Utah at 12,700 feet, and the lowest elevation is the Grand Canyon in Arizona at 2,000 feet. This vast difference in elevation means that the ecology of this landform is varied based on altitude and precipitation, from the alpine tundra of the higher elevations to the riparian areas along the Colorado River. This also means that there is variation in the animal communities based on changes in elevation and vegetation.

This landscape encompasses portions of two prehistoric cultural areas: the Great Basin and the American Southwest. This area has been continuously occupied since Paleoindian times, with the Clovis culture hunting game as far back as 10,000 B.C. Some of the most well-known structures of the Colorado Plateau are the cliff dwellings found in Mesa Verde, in southwestern Colorado. Around 1150 to 1200 B.C. Ancestral Puebloans began occupying these large alcoves, building stunning dwellings with hundreds of rooms. Around late A.D. 1200 through A.D. 1300 there was a massive migration from the Colorado Plateau south towards the Hopi, Zuni, and the Rio Grande Valleys. It is generally believed that an environmental catastrophe and subsequent collapse of societal organization caused this huge migration. Today, about one third of the Colorado Plateau is Native American reservation land designated to 31 tribes. The tribes that currently occupy the plateau include: Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, various Pueblo groups, Yavapai, Paiute, Apache, Havasupai, and others.

Photo Credit: 

"A map of the Colorado Plateau" by Mario1952 is licensed under Public Domain.