The 120,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau are home to the greatest concentration of scenery in the Universe. the Colorado Plateau is home to 10 national parks and 18 national monuments, a difference that is not a difference: It takes an Act of Congress and approval by the President to create a National Park. The President alone can create a National Monument. National Parks are politically more difficult to create because the obstructionist Congress must approve, so many National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon National Park, started as National Monuments. The take away is this: visiting a National Monument is as rewarding as is visiting a National Park; only the name is different and both are of great interest to tourists. The bottom line is that there are at least 28 must see sights on the Colorado Plateau (there are many more if you include the many scenic highways that are outside formal status as a National Park or National Monument), and you see the problem-- too much to see, too little time.
There are three ways to approach touring the Colorado Plateau 1] The best is to do what we did 22 years ago-- retire here and go sightseeing, long and often; 2] the quick tour-- blow your mind with short visits to many places; and 3] in depth digestion of a small handful of the possibilities. Don't think of visiting Zion or Moab or whatever. Think of visiting the Colorado Plateau and then start narrowing it down with the big picture in mind.
Aside from our solution, I think quick and short visits are the way to start because the sights are so varied that if you have seen the Grand Canyon, you haves not seen Zion Canyon and if you have seen both of those you have never seen the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and if you haves seen all three of those you have not seen Bryce Canyon etc.
Its hard to believe until you experience it, but every one of those 10 national parks are so uniquely different from the others that you must see all of them to see the Colorado Plateau. Its 182 mile drive from Springdale, UT to Torrey, UT, but its a 3 to 10 day trip: Zion National Park, drive UT Rt 9, one of the world's most scenic roads, drive scenic US 189 to UT Rt 12, one of the world's most scenic roads. Visit Bryce Canyon National Park, cross Grandstaircase-Escalante National Monument to Capitol Reef National Park. And there are 7 National Parks left to go.
The Colorado Plateau was created on the floor of a great inland sea. Then tectonic action started raising the sea bed until it now reaches 10,000 ft above sea level. Most of the sea bed was sandstone, colored by the minerals transported to the sea by erosion (UT Rt 9 in Zion National Park runs through a section of petrified sand dunes in red, white, and yellow). Because of this uplift, it is not correct to say the Grand Canyon was carved down through the rock by the Colorado River. The river stayed in the same place while the surrounding land pushed up higher than the river, but the rise was so slow that the river maitnationed its position by eroding the gradually rising rock-- the Colorado Plateau is a geologic marvel.
It helps to understand what the Grand Staircase is. Its a series of increasingly
higher plateaus piled one on top of another, much like a flight of stairs looks, but on a vast scale. The bottom step is the bottom of the Colorado River, about 300 ft above sea level The top step is 10,000 ft above sea level at Boulder Mountain/ Aquarius Plateau, a place so big that it was discovered twice and given different names because the early explorers couldn't conceive of land forms this vast.
The National Park Service says the Colorado Plateau covers 240,000 sq. mi., making it bigger than France. Other sources say it is 120,000 or 130,000 sq mi, more than twice the size of the United Kingdom.
Getting the most out of a visit to the Colorado Plateau requires advanced planning on a large scale. To get started, here's a list of the National Parks and National Monuments from the National Park Service.
National Parks (from south to north to south clockwise):
National monuments (alphabetical):