The Colorado Plateau encompasses much more than just the Centennial State. This 150,580 square-mile physiographic region is anchored around the Four Corners area of the Southwestern United States. It, therefore, occupies a portion of Western Colorado, Northwestern New Mexico, Northeastern Arizona, and Southeastern Utah. This collection of plateaus and mesas is contained within a massive basin that is surrounded by the Rocky Mountains (to the North and East), the Great Basin (to the West), and the Sonoran Desert (to the South). Across the sandstone, shale, and limestone landscape, there are plenty of small towns from which to explore not only the magnificent physical features (which include the likes of the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend) but also the many notable national parks and monuments spread across the quadfecta of converging states.
The pleasant and picturesque town of Paonia is a mecca for anyone on the fringe of this crazy little thing we call life. Initially founded by farmers, ranchers, and miners, this Delta County community has since attracted a wholesome band of artists, as well as those with an appetite for outdoor recreation. Many of the seemingly disparate demographics were brought together by the unique climate bubble. Here, the harsh winters are traded in for lengthy stretches of moderate temperature – great for growing fruit. Paonia is an organic farmer's dream. In fact, Colorado's oldest continually-operating community-run festival, Cherry Days, takes place each Fourth of July long weekend. The local good vibes have also borne fruit of the human creativity variety. The artistic scene became so vibrant that the North Fork Valley was deemed a Certified Colorado Creative District.
Heading down to one of the great Colorado towns, Durango straddles the edge of the Rocky Mountains and the brilliant plateau in question. This La Plata County municipality, therefore, offers tons of exciting outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, climbing, and skiing, but also options for more relaxing, albeit still breathtaking sightseeing. The 235-mile San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway loop typically starts in and returns to Durango (or you can stop over in our next entry). A bit of John Denver and a lot of photo breaks will make this a road trip for the ages. Or, if you'd rather let your guard down entirely while soaking in the grandeur, why not take a ride on the 140-year-old Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad? This National Historic Landmark operates year-round and visits otherwise inaccessible portions of the San Juan National Forest.
If driving around Durango, then certainly include a visit to Cortez, just 45 miles West (and still within Colorado), at the foot of Ute Mountain. As mentioned above, this is another key stop along the San Juan Skyway, as well as the 114-mile Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, which focuses on the history and culture of the Ancestral Puebloan, Navajo, Apache and Ute tribes, and even the region's earliest-known Paleolithic societies. Speaking of the Ancestral Puebloan, no visit to this part of the Four Corners would be complete without some allocated time for exploring the cliff dwellings at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (less than 15 miles West of Cortez) and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mesa Verde National Park (a mere 10 miles East of town). The lesser-known Ute Mountain Tribal Park (just 20 miles South) is also well worth a visit to round out the Indigenous explorations.
Gallup, New Mexico
Once you drop into the New Mexico portion of the Colorado Plateau, giddyup to Gallup – a cultural and artistic stop along scenic Route 66. Situated just North of the Zuni Reservation and Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, East of the Hopi Reservation, and engulfed by the Navajo Nation to the North/West, Gallup affords an authentic Native American experience and from a variety of heritages. Amazingly, the majority of the world's verified Native American Art can be attributed to the tribes within this very region. Street markets and festivals provide an opportunity to connect directly with local creatives, and during the summer, there are even nightly dance performances. Those who time their visit for December will have a chance to see hundreds of brightly-colored hot air balloons rise against the red rock backdrop.
Just a smidge South of famous Flagstaff, Arizona, is the soothing, creative, and rather eccentric town of Sedona. In terms of soothing, the calming pastel red landscape is well-complemented by the robust local health and wellness industry, from yoga to massage to traditional healing practices. In regards to its creative side, there are over 80 galleries across town – evidence of the inspiring energy that Sedona offers its resident artists. And speaking of energy, Sedona fully embraces its alternative community. Crystals, psychics, new-age stores, and even vortex gatherings – Sedona is ready to satisfy anyone with a hippie-dippie or mystical side. And, of course, with the 1.8-million-acre Coconino National Forest all around, as well as Slide Rock State Park to the North and Red Rock State Park to the Southwest, outdoor recreation is in constant supply.
Northern Arizona's humble Coconino County community of Page is another spot on the Colorado Plateau eager to facilitate your next outdoor adventure. Built on the East bank of the Colorado River, following this national waterway leads the way to several premier attractions. The highly-photogenic Horseshoe Bend is just minutes to the South, as are the petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls just around the curve. As the river winds to the Northeast, it soon meets Lake Powell – one of the largest artificial reservoirs in the world. This opens the door to all kinds of fun on the water (including renting a houseboat) in a way that America's arid Southwest can often lack. Lastly, one of the area's most surreal natural attractions, the Wave, is roughly equidistant between Page and our first Utah-based entry.
Popping over to the Southwest corner of Utah, right on the Arizona border, Kanab is another fantastic basecamp from which to see some of America's best natural wonders and a cute little town (or rather, super small city) in its own right. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon beckons just 80 miles to the South, and the entrancing, almost eerie collection of hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park is a similar distance drive to the Northeast. The power of Zion National Park practically transcends the mere 30-mile separation (to the Northwest), and finally, the soft allure of Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is the closest of all. Even relaxing "off" days spent around Kanab will be an aesthetically rewarding experience. So many major Western films built sets in the foreground of the Navajo sandstone cliffs that this desert town earned the nickname "Little Hollywood." Practice your best Clint Eastwood impression before visiting the outdoor museum.
Plopped right next to the Colorado River in East-Central Utah and within a short drive, ATV, or even cycle of three awesome parks, Moab is a must-visit outdoor recreation hub. The expressive features of Arches National Park begin immediately North of town limits (on the other side of the Colorado River), the vista-packed trails of Dead Horse State Park are a red stone's throw to the Southwest, and the jaw-dropping expanse of Canyonlands National Park begins on just the other side (Southwest) of Dead Horse – with one its finest features (Mesa Arch) being the first point of contact. And it isn't just the formal parks that make Moab so attractive. There are thousands of square miles of choose-your-own-adventure BLM land on which to frolic, hunt, camp, and do whatever else your inner pioneer desires.
The Colorado Plateau is a wild and wonderful part of the Four Corners. Between the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, there are countless geographical, cultural, and experiential highlights and just as many great small towns to support them. With so many national parks, monuments, and scenic byways, an entire vacation could be easily passed in one of these eight must-visit places. Otherwise, why not string together an epic road trip and see how many you can check off?