The Desert Southwest

USA – The Desert Southwest

America’s southwestern deserts are an other-worldly region of vast, cactus-studded plains; deep, river-cut canyons; high, forested plateaus; and expanses of colorful sandstone cut and curved by wind and water. The heart of America’s desert country is southern Utah and northern Arizona. Three national parks in this region – Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon – are all within a day’s drive of each other and provide a beautiful sampling of the desert’s splendors.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park, national park established in 1919, originally a forest reserve established in 1893. Located in northern Arizona, the park contains the world-famous Grand Canyon of the Colorado River and includes the river’s entire course from the southern end of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the eastern boundary of Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The great chasm has a maximum width of 29 km (18 mi) within the park, and it is about 1,500 m (5,000 ft) deep. The northern rim of the canyon is on the average 365 m (1,200 ft) higher than the southern rim and is closed to sightseers from October to May because of heavy winter snows. Paved roads wind around the rims of the Grand Canyon, and trails descend into the canyon, although only one of them, the Kaibab Trail, crosses the gorge from rim to rim.

The extreme variations in elevation from the depths of the canyon to the northern rim create four distinct zones of climate and plant life. Dense virgin forests of aspen, pine, fir, and spruce grow on the colder northern rim, and the southern rim is sparsely covered with piƱon and juniper. Wildlife includes deer, antelope, cougar, and mountain sheep. Prehistoric Native American groups lived in the canyon and on its rims; ruins of pueblos and cliff dwellings remain. The park is bordered on the south by the reservation of the Havasupai people.

In 1975 the park was nearly doubled in size by the inclusion of Grand Canyon National Monument (proclaimed in 1932) and Marble Canyon National Monument (proclaimed in 1969) and portions of Glen Canyon and Lake Mead national recreation areas. The effects of tourism and federal water management policies led the government to take steps to protect the canyon’s environment during the 1990s. In March 1996 a controlled flood through Glen Canyon Dam was generated as a way to re-create natural spring flooding through the canyon. The results of this led to a new water-management plan. This plan incorporates flooding to restore the canyon’s natural ecosystems, which had been changed by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. In 1997 the government restricted small planes and helicopters from flying over the canyon and was considering other ways to limit the effects of tourism on the park. Administered by the National Park Service. Area, 492,666 hectares (1,217,403 acres).

Zion National Park, national park established in 1919, originally Mukuntuweap National Monument proclaimed in 1909. Located in southwestern Utah, the park preserves a scenic area of colorful canyons, mesas, and cliffs. The most prominent feature is Zion Canyon, a narrow chasm cut by the Virgin River.

Early inhabitants of this region include the Anasazi, ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. The Anasazi lived in the region until the 12th century AD. The Paiute Native Americans who followed called the area Mukuntuweap. Mormons settled in Zion Canyon during the 1860s and named the canyon lands Zion.

The canyons along the north and east forks of the Virgin River dominate the park. Scenic roads run through the park, and numerous trails lead to such prominent physical features as Weeping Rock, Three Patriarchs, Angels Landing, The Great White Throne, Checkerboard Mesa, Hurricane Cliffs, and the Temple of Sinawava. Zion Canyon is the most accessible canyon; its walls tower 600 to 900 m (2,000 to 3,000 ft) above the river. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive goes north through this canyon to the Temple of Sinawava. The Narrows is a 26-km (16-mi) long stretch of the canyon that is only 6 m (20 ft) wide in parts. The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway runs east through the southern portion of the park. The road was completed in 1930 and passes through two tunnels cut through the cliffs. Openings in the tunnel walls provide excellent views of the canyon.

The Kolob Canyons, located in the northwest part of the park, feature high plateaus and sandstone cliffs. Kolob is a name that Mormons took from the Bible. The Kolob Terrace Road and the Kolob Canyons Road both go to the canyons. A prominent feature in the Kolob Canyons is Kolob Arch, which spans 94 m (310 ft) and is considered the largest freestanding arch in the world.

Vegetation in the park varies from cottonwoods, cacti, and sagebrush at the lower elevations to pine, fir, and juniper at the higher elevations. Wildlife includes mule deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions. There are more than 270 species of birds in the park, including golden eagles, Gambel’s quails, roadrunners, and American dippers. Administered by the National Park Service. Area, 59,326 hectares (146,598 acres).

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park, southwestern Utah, established as a national monument 1923, as a national park 1928. It is famous for its unusual rock formations, among the most spectacular and vividly colored of any in the world. Set on the eastern rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, it consists of a series of horseshoe-shaped canyons, 300 m (1,000 ft) deep. The sandstone walls of these canyons have been sculptured by erosion, and spires and pinnacles are common. The rock strata offer differing resistance to the elements and are variously colored pink, white, orange, and red. Area, 14,502 hectares (35,835 acres).