Utah, the Red State

Utah, the Red State
Chinese Wall at Bryce Canyon National Park
Courtesy National Parks Service
Hi, I’m Holly Strand for Wild About Utah

Straddling the four corners region is a massive geologic province known as the Colorado Plateau. Varying from 5 to 10,000 feet in elevation the region covers an area even larger than Utah, and is composed of thick horizontal layers of sedimentary rock. Wind and water have whittled Plateau rock into dramatic cliffs and steps as well as fanciful domes, towers, turrets, and arches. A predominance of red bed deposits in the central area of the Plateau has prompted the nickname “red rock country.”

So what’s behind these spectacular red hues? The color of rock is primarily influenced by trace minerals. The red, brown, and yellow colors so prevalent here result from the presence of oxidized iron–that is iron that has undergone a chemical reaction upon exposure to air or oxygenated water. The iron oxides released from this process form a coating on the surface of the rock or rock grains containing the iron.

Utah, the Red State
Entrada sandstone is responsible
for some of the reddish rock found
in Arches National Park.
Courtesy USGS

Just think of what happens to a nail when you leave it outside. Upon prolonged exposure, the iron in the nail oxidizes and rust is formed as a coating on the surface of the nail. So basically what we have in red rock country is a lot of rusting sandstones and shales. Hematite is an especially common mineral form of iron oxide in Utah, the name coming from the Greek word “heama” or red blood. It only takes a tiny bit of hematite make a lot of red rock.

Certain rock formations in Utah are particularly well-known for their beautiful reddish colors. The Permian Period gave us Organ Rock shale which caps the buttes and pinnacles of Monument Valley. The deep ruddy browns of the Moenkopi formation were formed in the Triassic. In the early Jurassic, eastern Utah was a vast sea of sand with wind-blown dunes. These dunes became the red bed deposits of the Wingate Formation which today forms massive vertical cliffs. Entrada sandstone, from the late Jurassic, forms the spectacular red, slickrock around Moab.

Reddish brown Moenkopi Formation
in Capitol Reef National Park.
Courtesy USGS

So now you know what I’m thinking of when I hear Utah referred to as a Red State. I’m picturing the extraordinary splendor of the red, orange and rust- brown rocks that help to form the massive geologic layer cake in the south and east of our state.

For Wild About Utah I’m Holly Strand.

Utah, the Red State-Credits:

Photos: Courtesy National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/brca/ and

United States Geological Survey (USGS)http://www.usgs.gov/

Text: Holly Strand

Utah, the Red State-Additional Reading:

Chan,Marjorie A. and William T. Parry Rainbow of Rocks . Public Information Series 77. Utah Geological Survey. http://geology.utah.gov/online/pdf/pi-77.pdf (Accessed July 2008)

Geology Underfoot in Southern Utah by Richard L. Orndorff, Robert W. Wieder, and David G. Futey, Missoula, MT Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2006, http://mountain-press.com/item_detail.php?item_key=366

Chronic, Halka. Roadside Geology of Utah. Missoula, MT Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1990 http://mountain-press.com/item_detail.php?item_key=48

Fillmore, Robert, The Geology of the Parks, Monuments and Wildlands of Southern Utah, University of Utah Press, 2000, http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/upcat&CISOPTR=1328

Last Blank Spots on the Map

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Today the river corridor still retains
its wild and pristine qualities.
Copyright 2009 Dan Miller from the book
The River Knows Everything

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

The Green River is one of Utah’s signature waterways. It begins high in Wyoming’s Wind River Range and winds southward 730 miles to join the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. 60% of river’s extent lies in Utah– attracting river runners, archaeologists, fishermen, hunters and hikers. And of course, geologists.

Desolation boasts steep dramatic walls.
From the top of the Tavaputs Plateau to the river
is deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Click to view larger image,
Photo Copyright 2009 Dan Miller

It’s hard to believe that less than 150 years ago, most of the Green and the Colorado canyonlands were unlined areas marked “UNEXPLORED” on maps. One such place was the area between Uinta Valley and Gunnison’s Crossing — now called Green River, UT. Another blank spot lay south of the crossing all the way to Paria which is now called Lee’s Ferry in Arizona.

To some folks, a blank spot on a map is an irresistible call to come and see what’s there. So it was with John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran working as a curator in a small natural history museum in Illinois. He became intrigued with exploring the canyons of the Colorado and the Green after spending some time out west collecting rock samples.

Lighthouse Rock 1871
Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Impatient for adventure and discovery, Powell quickly assembled a crew of nine men –mostly rough and tumble mountain men used to living off the land. They set off from Green River WY and were making good time until disaster struck in the Canyon of Lodore. One of the boats hit a boulder, and a third of the food and half of the cooking gear sunk to the bottom of the river. A week later, a fire destroyed more food and gear. But eventually, five of the original nine made it all the way to the mouth of the Virgin River in Arizona.

A second expedition benefited from more funding, planning and hindsight. This time round, Powell chose a more scientifically-minded crew including a geologist, cartographer and photographer to research and document the trip. Once again they launched from Green River, WY. Powell perched in an armchair strapped to the middle bulkhead of a boat named after his wife, the Emma Dean . He read poetry to the crew as they floated along calm stretches of the river. The crew ran the Green and then started down the Colorado without any major incidents. After overwintering on the north rim, they ran the rapids of the Grand Canyon in late summer of the following year.

John Wesley Powell with Tau-gu
a Paiute, 1871-1872
Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Upon return, surveyor Alven Thompson completed a topographic map of the region, and Powell’s monumental account was published in 1875 by the Smithsonian Institution.

The last “UNEXPLORED”s on the United States map were now replaced by specific landscape features with measured altitudes. Nowadays we still use the many evocative names that Powell and his men bestowed during their travels. Names like Flaming Gorge, Glen Canyon, Dirty Devil River, Escalante River, Cataract Canyon, and Desolation Canyon tell us something of the experiences of these brave men as they were exploring Utah’s last mysterious places.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

Additional thanks to Rey Lloyd Hatt and the friendly staff of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River UT.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Images: Copyright Dan Miller from the book
The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green

Powell images: Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Text:     Holly Strand, Stokes Nature Center

Sources & Additional Reading

Aton, James M. and Dan Miller (photographer) 2009. The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green. Logan: Utah State University Press.


Stegner, Wallace. “ Green River: The Gateway” in Blackstock, Alan. 2005. A Green River reader. Salt Lake City: University Utah Press.

John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River UT http://johnwesleypowell.com/

USGS. 1976. Geological Survey Information 74-24. John Wesley Powell: Soldier, Explorer, Scientist.
http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/geology/publications/inf/74-24/index.htm [Accessed October 30 2009]

A Grand Old River

A Grand Old River: The Island Acres Part of James M. Robb Colorado River State Park Fruita, CO, Courtesy Daniel Smith, Photographer
The Island Acres Part of
James M. Robb Colorado River State Park
Fruita, CO
Courtesy Daniel Smith, Photographer
Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.A Grand Old River

The Colorado River is the largest waterway in the southwest. 1,450 miles long, the Colorado River basin drains 248,000 square miles in 7 large states. In Utah, the river enters near Cisco south of I-70, winds its way through Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, then flows through Glen Canyon and exits south into Arizona.

Less than 100 years ago, the Colorado River wasn’t in Utah or even in Colorado. Until 1920, “Colorado River” referred only to the river section downstream from Glen and Grand Canyons. Upstream, it was called the Grand River all the way up the headwaters in the Colorado Rockies. Thus we have Grand County in Utah and the town of Grand Junction in Colorado.

The Colorado River from
Dead Horse Point State Park,
near Moab,Utah, USA
Courtesy Phil Armitage, Photographer

According to Jack Schmidt, professor in Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences and a longtime scholar of the river, the good citizens of the state of Colorado weren’t pleased with the Colorado River’s location.
So in 1920, the Colorado Legislature renamed Colorado’s portion of the Grand River, with a somewhat awkward result: The Colorado River began in Colorado, became the Grand River at the border with Utah and then became the Colorado River again at the confluence with the Green.

This arrangement did not last long –again because of a Colorado legislator. U.S. Representative Edward T. Taylor, petitioned the Congressional Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce to rename the entire river as the Colorado. Despite objections from Utah and Wyoming representatives and the U.S. Geological Survey, the name change was made official by the U.S. Congress on July 25, 1921.

Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers
in Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy USGS
Photo by Marli Miller, Photographer

The objections were legitimate: In the 1890s the Federal Board on Geographic Names established the policy of naming rivers after their longest tributary. The former Grand River of Colorado and Utah was shorter than the Green River tributary by quite a bit. So the Green river should have prevailed and the Colorado should have been one of its tributaries.

However, if you judge tributary primacy by volume, the Colorado wins hands down. 100 years ago, the upper Colorado (or former Grand River) had a significantly higher total flow than the Green.

Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers
in Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy National Park Service

But what’s in a name? Prior to widespread European settlement, the Grand River was known as Rio Rafael and before that, different parts of the river had numerous Native American and Spanish names. A thousand years from now the rapidly evolving Colorado could have an entirely different identity. The main thing is that Utahns can enjoy and appreciate the habitat, scenery and many resources that this important waterway provides.

Thanks to the USU College of Natural Resources and the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Map of the Colorado River Watershed by Karl Musser based on USGS data This file is licensed under the CCA ShareAlike 2.5 License.
Map of the Colorado River Watershed
by Karl Musser based on USGS data
This file is licensed under the
CCA ShareAlike 2.5 License.



JamesMRobbColorado_riverDanielSmith.jpg: Taken in the Island Acres Part of James M. Robb Colorado River State park by Daniel Smith and released into the Public domain.

DeadHorsePtSP_UtahPhilArmitage.jpg: The Colorado River from Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab, Utah, USA. Photo by Phil Armitage (May be used for any purpose)

ConfluenceUSGSMarliMiller.jpg: Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in Canyonlands National Park. USGS Photo by Marli Miller.

ConfluenceNPS.jpg: Confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers in Canyonlands National Park. National Park Service.

Colorado River Watershed Map, by Karl Musser based on USGS data, licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 License: In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of the file under the conditions that you appropriately attribute it, and that you distribute it only under a license identical to this one. Official license

Text: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Holly Strand, Content reviewed by Jack Schmidt of Utah State University’s Department of Watershed Sciences and a longtime scholar of the Colorado River.

Additional Reading

Many years ago, the Colorado River was just Grand, Summit Daily News, Frisco, CO, Dec 23, 2003, http://www.summitdaily.com/article/20031223/OPINION/312230302

Largest Rivers in the United States, J.C. Kammerer, USGS, Rev May 1990, http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/1987/ofr87-242/

Benke, A. C., and C. E. Cushing (editors). 2005. Rivers of North America. Academic/Elsevier. Amsterdam/Boston, 1168 pages.

Casey, Robert L. Journey to the High Southwest. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2007, p. 20.

Colorado Historical Society, Frontier Historical Society, www.bioguide.congress.gov


”First Biennial Report of the Utah Conservation Commission, 1913,” Salt Lake City, Utah: The Arrow Press Tribune-Reporter Printing Co., 1913. p. 131.

McKinnon, Shaun. “River’s headwaters determined by politicians, not geography.” The Arizona Republic, 25 July 2004.

James, Ian, Scientists have long warned of a Colorado River crisis, The Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2022, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-15/scientists-have-long-warned-of-a-colorado-river-crisis

Buttes & Mesas

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Book Cliffs
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management
US Dept. of the Interior

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Not long ago , driving from Logan to Moab, I was admiring the dramatic and austere landscape features from the highway. To the north were the vertical escarpments of the Book Cliffs—gray slopes and cliffs that extend all the way from Price, Utah, to Grand Junction, Colorado. Gazing at them from the highway, I wondered : Are they plateaus? mesas? buttes? Any self-respecting Utahn should know the difference between these terms. But even with a master’s degree in geography, the concepts had become fuzzy in my mind with the passage of time.

When I got back home, I turned to Home Ground, a collection of American landscape definitions edited by Barry Lopez. Here you’ll read that a plateau is an extensive area of nearly level land that rises abruptly above a surrounding landscape on at least one side. In this sense, the Tavaputs is a classic Utah plateau and the Book Cliffs form its south-facing escarpment. The Wasatch Plateau –home of the headwaters of the San Rafael and Fremont Rivers –is another classic plateau.

Professor Valley:
Dome Plateau is really a mesa
from Sorrel River Ranch
Courtesy Matt Ceniceros

Plateaus are sometimes called tablelands. This can be confusing, because plateaus aren’t necessarily elevated on all four sides and they are too big to look like tables. But mesas do look like tables and the word mesa means “table” in Spanish. A mesa is a flat-topped mountain or rock mass, usually capped with a layer of weather-resistant rock. In general, a mesa is smaller than a plateau, but the size difference between them is not defined in any absolute terms.

At least everyone seems to agree that a mesa is always wider than it is tall. A butte, on the other hand, is always taller than it is wide. At one point in its development, the butte was probably part of a mesa. Then, over time, the connecting rock eroded away. I’ve often heard buttes referred to as a mesa’s child, or orphan. As a child, the butte’s parent mesa still exists nearby ; erosion has removed an expanse of rock leaving two structures instead of one. When the butte is an orphan, the surrounding rock has been completely removed, leaving a solitary outpost of resistant geologic history.

Eventually, even with a resistant cap, a butte will be weathered down to a landform that is narrower than it is tall. Then it becomes a spire. Synonyms for a spire include tower, monolith or monument.

Close-up of Fisher Towers
in Professor Valley
Courtesy Utah Geological Survey

You’ll often find that a particular butte is called Such and Such Mesa, and a mesa may be called Such and Such Butte or Plateau. This is because local names given by early explorers and settlers stuck whether or not they were consistent with any accepted definition. Thus, in the cliff-rimmed Professor Valley northwest of Moab, Dome Plateau is really a mesa and Convent Mesa is really a butte. And Grand Mesa, to the east of Grand Junction, is a whole lot larger than Beckwith Plateau near Green River, UT.

For pictures of Utah plateaus, buttes and mesas, check out our web page: www.wildaboututah.org.
Thanks to the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa for supporting the development of this Wild About Utah topic. The Ranch offers deluxe lodging and services on a scenic bend of the Colorado River, 20 minutes from Moab in the spectacular Professor Valley.

And to Dr. Jack Schmidt in the Watershed Sciences Dept. at Utah State University.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand



  1. “Book Cliffs” Source: BLM
  2. “Professor Valley: Dome Plateau is really a mesa” Source: Sorrel River Ranch (Matt Ceniceros)
  3. “Professor Valley: Convent Mesa is really a butte” Source: Sorrel River Ranch (Matt Ceniceros)
  4. “Close-up of Fisher Towers in Professor Valley” Source: Utah Geological Survey

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, Barry Lopez, Debra Gwartney, 2006, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX