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Field Guide Series – Arizona Landforms

by | Feb 2, 2024

Gain fundamental, practical knowledge of your surroundings.

Arizona Landforms Book Cover“Small but Mighty” may be the best way to describe our Easy Field Guides, reviewed by our own Yvonne Prater, Director of Operations. Each book is fully illustrated, and filled with a plethora of interesting facts that are easy to understand to help answer the thoughtful question, “What is that?”

If you missed them, you can read Yvonne’s first ten Field Guide reviews here. This is the eleventh guide in the series and is titled “Arizona Landforms.”

A Forever Changing & Evolving Landscape

The state of Arizona is blessed with a multitude of interesting and intriguing landforms. From the red rock buttes of Monument Valley to the mountain ranges in the southern deserts, Arizona’s landscape continues to draw people from all over the world. The arid climate leaves landforms here generally unencumbered by trees or other vegetation, making them easily observable and a welcome amenity in any outdoor adventure. Landforms by definition are the naturally produced surface features of the earth’s crust. They provide us with endless opportunities to learn something about how the Arizona landscape came to be.

The creation of these landforms involves ancient environments that left behind a thick stack of stratified sediment. This sediment originated in shallow tropical seas, sandy desert dunes, or ancient rivers that in some instances originated in the Appalachia hundreds of millions of years ago.

This is known as the “depositional” phase of Arizona’s geology. Rocks were eventually uplifted several vertical miles, initiating the “erosional” phase of the state’s geology. Many landforms today result from the interaction of these erosional processes acting on preexisting rocks. The last few million years have produced eruptions of lava related to a “volcanic” phase in the development of these landforms. This includes many canyons, buttes, spires and mesas so common in our state.

So where in Arizona do we find the different types of geological landforms?

The state is divided into three distinct geologic regions or “provinces”. In the north is the colorful Colorado Plateau, where the elevation is typically more than one mile above sea level and the rocks are composed mostly of stratified sediments.

In the south is the Basin and Range, a land of many low-lying valleys broken by isolated mountain ranges. The rocks here are quite variable being made of igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary types. These two provinces compose the bulk of Arizona’s landscape and were separated from each other only within the last 15 to 20 million years.

When this occurred, a third province called the Transition Zone was created. As the name implies, this narrow strip is transitional in nature, with rocks like those of the Colorado Plateau being deformed in a manner like the Basin and Range.

Certain landforms may be more commonly found in a particular province but there is overlap, and a few, like mesas or canyons, are common in each province. Canyons, mesas, buttes and spires are the more dominant landforms in the Colorado Plateau, such as the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Black Mesa and the Mittens in Monument Valley.

Mountains, valleys, playas and alluvial fans dominate the Basin and Range such as the Texas Canyon southeast of Tucson, Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Transition Zone has volcanic mesas, mountains and canyons, such as the Tonto Natural Bridge, the House Mountain near Sedona and the Granite Dells near Prescott.

There are many different landforms described in this guide, each denoting which geological phase it was created in, and which province(s) its features belong to. All landforms may seem everlasting to us, but they are forever changing and evolving.

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There is great pleasure to be had from gaining fundamental, practical knowledge of your surroundings. I hope you enjoy and anticipate each month the selected topics in this series. You can find much more information regarding Arizona Landforms in this Easy Field Guide. These guides are published by American Traveler Press and can be found in the River of Time gift shop, Riverbanks. We are open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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