The distinctive geology of the Four Corners region is the reason that you’ll find more national parks, monuments, and protected land here than anywhere else in the country. The dramatic mountains, volcanic necks, hoodoos, spires, arches, and other natural features that have been carved out of stone by water and wind draw visitors to the region to explore their stark beauty. The arid climate helps protect these formations, allowing us to enjoy them today.
While the Four Corners region is named for the spot where four states meet, the area is geologically called the Colorado Plateau. This huge expanse of high desert and red rock country covers 130,000 square miles in five states: New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and a bit of Nevada.
Millions of years of geologic activity have created the Colorado Plateau, including volcanoes,
deposits from long-ago inland seas, faults, and the uplift of the plateau, a single tectonic block, about 20 million years ago. Erosion by the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon, which opens layers and layers of geologic history for inspection. Wind and rain have eroded softer layers of rock material throughout the region to leave dramatic features.
Eight national parks and 20 national monuments are found within the region, plus state parks
and other protected lands. Let’s explore just a few of the locations you can visit on the Colorado Plateau to see the area’s geology for yourself.
This volcanic neck rises more than 1,500 feet above ground level with a total elevation of 7,177 feet. It is sacred to the Navajo, who call it Tsé Bitʼaʼí or “Rock with Wings.” The rock is what is left of the center of an extinct volcano composed of volcanic breccia and there are dramatic black dikes of igneous rock. Shiprock is on the Navajo Nation and is a National Natural Landmark.
It is near Shiprock, New Mexico, west of Farmington. It can be viewed from Indian Service Route 13, which passes through the south dike, or US Highway 491. Driving on the dirt roads leading to the formation is prohibited. It is also illegal to climb it, not only due to the danger but because it is sacred to the Navajo and linked to their origin stories.
For more evidence of volcanic activity, visit El Malpais National Monument near Grants, New Mexico.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Monument Valley, or Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, is also on theNavajo Nation and straddles Arizona and Utah state lines. It features iconic sandstone formations that are easily identified even by those who have never visited, most notably the East and West Mitten Buttes. Monument Valley is part of the high desert, with the valley floor at an elevation of 5,000 to 7,000 feet. The buttes rise as much as another 1,000 above the valley floor. The dramatic red color of much of the landscape here and in other parts of the Colorado Plateau is derived from an abundance of iron oxide.
Visitors can stop at the visitor center at the park to pay the entry fee and then follow a 17-mile driving tour. You can view the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte from the visitor center. Note that Monument Valley is operated by the Navajo Nation, so your National Park Pass is not accepted here.
Those who wish to explore further and see formations such as Ear of the Wind can reserve a
Jeep tour of the park with a Navajo guide. If you’d like to be photographed at iconic John Ford
Point, you may find a Navajo vendor there with a horse at the ready for your photo op!
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona has been lived in without interruption for almost 5,000 years and some Navajo families live there still today. Called Tsegi by the Navajo, this protected series of three canyons with walls of sandstone from the Permian Period is a rich agricultural area.
The sheer walls drop as much as 1,000 feet from the rim. Spider Rock, one of the most dramatic geologic features, rises 750 feet from the canyon floor. Navajo Fortress juts high from the canyon floor and was where the Navajo sought refuge from invaders.
Visitors can drive around the canyon on the South Rim, where there are six overlooks includingone for Spider Rock, and the North Rim, where there are three. Allow two hours for each rim drive. There is no charge to visit the park or tour the rim drives.
Along with the dramatic geologic features of the canyon, structures built by early Puebloan
people can still be seen, such as White House Ruin, Antelope House, and Mummy Cave Ruin.
Most of the dwellings were built between 1300 and 350 A.D. Pictographs also line some of the
For those wishing to explore the canyons below, free ranger-guided tours of areas of the monument may be available, and authorized Navajo tour companies offer jeep, horseback, and walking tours. The rich history and beauty of the canyon make it a must-visit while in the Four Corners, but if you want to take a tour, it’s best to book it in advance.
Sleeping Ute Mountain
Located in southwestern Colorado, this is a mountain range that is variously called Ute Mountain or Ute Peak. Part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation, the mountain rises almost 10,000 feet at its highest point. It gained its name due to its resemblance to a Ute chief lying on his back with his arms folded over his chest.
The Ute Mountains were formed about 72 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period
and are formed mostly of igneous rock.
Because the mountains are entirely within the Ute reservation, access is limited. However, due to its isolation from other mountains, the Sleeping Ute can easily be spotted from as far as 50 miles away.
Mesa Verde National Park
Also in Colorado is Mesa Verde National Park, which has more than 5,000 Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, which were built between 550 and 1300 A.D.
While it was first called Mesa Verde by Spanish explorers, geologically speaking, the landforms
here are not almost perfectly flat mesas, but cuestas, which in this case slant to the south.
Some of the cuestas have alcoves, large, arched recessions formed in the cliff wall, that protect the dwellings constructed beneath them.
The Western Interior Seaway reached this area about 100 million years ago, depositing Dakota
Sandstone. Formations here are also made of Cliff House Sandstone and Mancos Shale. Learn
more about the geology of the park here.
Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906 and was the first so designated to preserve the
“works of man.” The need became apparent due to the large number of artifacts that were
removed and put into private collections or museums outside the country. Today, Mesa Verde
is also recognized as a World Heritage Site and an International Dark Sky Park.
Driving tours provide easy viewing of some of the dwellings, such as Cliff Palace, which is the
largest cliff dwelling in North America. There are also trails you can hike through the park, but
you can only enter a cliff dwelling on a ticketed tour with a ranger, which must be reserved
through the website. Tours are offered from late May through mid-October. Check the website
for information on closures and available activities.
Mesa Verde is almost equidistant between Cortez and Mancos, Colorado, with Cortez being the larger of the two cities and only 15 minutes away.