The Incredible Rock Formations of the American Southwest


By Earl Hunsinger

Many parts of the American southwest still retain the harshness, and beauty, of centuries past. Several examples can be found in the parks and protected land along the border of Utah and Arizona. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument of southern Utah was the last place in the lower 48 states to be mapped, and it is believed that there are some areas in these 1.7 million acres of public land that haven’t been visited by humans in the last 400 years. This area was established by presidential decree in 1986. This high, rugged, and remote region is filled with bold plateaus and multi-hued cliffs, providing historians, geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, and biologists with extraordinary opportunities for scientific research and education. It’s also a favorite destination for hikers and campers.

The two major river systems to be found here account for its main attractions. To the west, the Paria river and its tributaries formed a major canyon system that includes numerous slot canyons. These include Buckskin Gulch, the longest and deepest slot canyon in the US. It is narrow for about twelve miles, with the cliffs reaching a height of 500 feet. In another canyon, 1,000-foot sheer rock walls tower overhead, only a few meters apart in some spots.

The other major canyon system was formed by the Escalante river to the east. This was the last river in America to be discovered and mapped. In addition to various interesting canyons, this area also has numerous natural bridges and arches.

Near the town of Escalante you’ll also find the Escalante State Park. Here, and across the border in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park, you’ll see beautiful examples of petrified logs. The Petrified Forest National Park also contains a portion of the famous painted desert. Various minerals in the eroded soft sedimentary rocks create beautifully colored patterns. These are especially striking at sunset.

Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park contains another unique attraction. Here you can see numerous spires or chimneys of rock. These are known as sand pipes and are thought to be the solidified sediment that once filled ancient springs or geysers, left standing after the softer sandstone rock surrounding them was weathered away.

Another region of fantastic rock formations is known as the Paria Rimrocks. This area is found in Utah, just within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Here too, extraordinary rock formations in beautiful colors can be seen. This area also contains unusual formations known as hoodoos or mushrooms. These are created when softer rock and harder rock are found together and the softer rock erodes away, leaving a column behind of varying thickness. Some of the hoodoos in Paria Rimrocks consist of flat blocks of hard sandstone balanced atop narrow columns of softer rock.

One of the most interesting sites to see in this part of the country is Coyote Buttes. Because the principal attraction here is considered to be very delicate, this is also one of the few areas with access restrictions and a fee for hiking. This attraction is a formation called The Wave. Thin, swirling strata form a pattern between eroded sandstone domes that resemble ocean waves or ripples on a pond.

In total, millions of acres of the old west have been preserved in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Some of the beauty of this region can be seen from your car in a leisurely scenic drive. Much of it requires a little more effort. However, if you are physically able to do so, you will be amply rewarded for hiking to these natural wonders, gathering memories, and perhaps photographs that will last a lifetime.

subscribe for updates

Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting updates, and offers.

Leave a Comment