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Quick Guide to US Route 89 on the Colorado Plateau
Introduction to the Colorado Plateau Landscape
by Wayne Ranney
The Colorado Plateau is something quite special. It’s 130,000 square miles expose some of the most breathtaking scenery seen anywhere on our planet. This geologic province is dominated by wide swaths of relatively flat-lying and vividly colored sedimentary rocks. These rocks, although situated on an uplifted plateau, are easily observed because of the regions’ arid climate. In spite of this aridity, the rocks are deeply dissected by the Colorado River and its tributaries. This odd arrangement, uplifted but undisturbed strata and an arid but deeply eroded landscape, make the Colorado Plateau a unique landscape on planet earth. Forested volcanoes and prehistoric ruins serve as the “icing” on this “layer cake” of strata.
The portal to Highway 89’s plateau section of scenery opens at Sedona, Arizona, tagged by USA Today as America’s most beautiful location for a small city. The road then climbs through spectacular switchbacks in Oak Creek Canyon and once the Mogollon Rim is attained, travelers are treated to the cool scent of North America’s largest stand of ponderosa pines. Soon, the graceful outline of the San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountain in Arizona at 12,633 feet, and just one of over 460 volcanoes located in the area. The Peaks were formed in the last two million years and most likely were an additional 3,000 feet higher before they catastrophically lost their top, either in a big blast or a violent collapse. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, just north of the Peaks off of Highway 89, is the youngest volcano in this field and was actively erupting about 950 to 750 years ago when Sinagua Indian farmers tilled their fields of corn.
As Highway 89 descends this volcanic plateau, it enters the heart of the Colorado Plateau. Travelers are treated to stunning views of the Painted Desert, an eerily stark landscape littered with petrified logs. The Echo Cliffs loom large to the east and act as a giant rampart that guides wayfarers north. Another option awaits as 89 climbs the Echo Cliffs to Page, Lake Powell and the southern sections of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. 89A continues north at the base of the Echo Cliffs which leads to the only natural crossing of the Colorado River for hundreds of miles upstream or downstream, located near Lees Ferry and the modern crossing at Navajo Bridge. On this route travelers get a short reprieve from red rock scenery by climbing the forested Kaibab Plateau, the feature that makes the Grand Canyon so deep and so grand!
The two routes converge in Kanab, Utah and trend north along historic Long Valley. Zion awaits revelers to the west and Bryce to the east in this area. After crossing a drainage divide at the junction with Utah State Highway 14, the road follows the headwaters of the Sevier River all the way down to Gunnison, Utah. Here, the route traverses through the Marysvale Volcanic Field, where the core of 20 to 30 million year old volcanoes have been exposed by erosion to provide stunning scenery, as seen at the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Leaving the Sevier River Valley, Highway 89 climbs towards the Wasatch Plateau and it’s eventual descent to the Utah portion of the Basin and Range in Spanish Fork Canyon.
Wayne Ranney is a guide, educator, and author who specializes in making the diverse landscapes and geologic history of our planet come alive for curious and interested travelers. Trained as a professional geologist in the American Southwest, he is an adjunct faculty member at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff and frequently travels to exotic landscapes worldwide. His primary interests are in understanding landscape development through time and how human cultures intersect with these landscapes. This confluence of landscapes and cultures has, in many instances, helped to determine the course of human history.