Colorado Plateau Semidesert Province (Bailey)

February 4, 2011, 5:19 pm
Source: USFS
Content Cover Image

Monument Valley, northern Arizona. @ C.Michael Hogan

The Colorado Plateau Semidesert Province occupies an area on the Colorado River Plateau, consisting of parts of northern Arizona, northern New Mexico and southern Utah comprising a land area of approximately 75,300 mi2 (195,000 km2). The treatment here follows the province delineation according to Bailey.

Land-surface form

The Colorado Plateau Province consists of tablelands with moderate to considerable relief in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Elevations of the plateau tops range from 5000 to 7000 ft (1500 to 2100 m), with local relief ranging from 500 to more than 3000 ft (150 to 900 m) in some of the deeper canyons that dissect the plateaus (such as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River). In some areas, volcanic mountains rise 1000 to 3000 ft (300 to 900 m) above the plateau surface. Stream valleys are narrow and widely spaced. The Colorado River, which crosses the northern part of the province, is the region's only large stream. Many other streams flow year-round, but the volume of water fluctuates considerably. 

caption Monument Valley, Arizona, a well-defined tableland on the Colorado Plateau. Photo: John S. Shelton



Due to the region's generally high altitude, the climate is characterized by cold winters. Summer days are usually hot, but nights are cool; accordingly, the diurnal variation in temperature is considerable. Annual average temperatures are 40 to 55 degrees F (4 to 13 degrees C), decreasing with rising elevation. Average annual precipitation is about 20 inches (510 mm), except on the higher mountains; some parts of the province receive less than 10 in (260 mm). Summer rains are thunderstorms, with ordinary rains arriving in winter. Thus, this province differs from the Intermountain Semidesert Province, which generally lacks summer rains.


Vegetational zones are conspicuous but lack uniformity. In the lowest zone, there are arid grasslands, but the shortgrass sod seldom covers the ground completely, leaving many bare areas. Xeric shrubs often grow in open stands among the grasses, and sagebrush is dominant over extensive areas. A profusion of annuals and perennials blooms during the summer rainy season. At low elevations in the south, several kinds of cactus and yucca are common. Cottonwoods and, more rarely, other trees grow along some of the permanent streams.

The woodland zone is the most extensive, dominated by open stands of two-needle pinyon pine and several species of juniper, often termed a pygmy forest. Between the trees the ground is sparsely covered by grama, other grasses, herbs, and various shrubs, such as big sagebrush and alderleaf cercocarpus.

The montane zone extends over considerable areas on the high plateaus and mountains, but it is much smaller in area than the pinyon-juniper zone. Vegetation in the montane zone varies considerably from area to area. In the south, especially in Arizona, ponderosa pine is the dominant forest tree. Douglas-fir is associated with ponderosa pine or else grows in more sheltered locations or at higher elevations. In Utah, by contrast, lodgepole pine and aspen are dominant trees.

The subalpine zone is characterized by abundance of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir. On San Francisco Mountain in northern Arizona, the spruce is often associated with bristlecone pine. Because only a few isolated mountains rise above timberline, the alpine zone of this province is not extensive.

South of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, toward the American Desert, lies a foothill forest. The principal trees are Mexican pinyon, alligator juniper, and various species of oak. Forests of ponderosa pine and common Douglas-fir carpet moist canyons and northfacing slopes. Pointleaf manzanita is a common evergreen shrub.


Entisols occur along the floodplains of major streams. Aridisols cover plateau tops, older terraces, and alluvial fans. Badlands of rough broken land are extensive in the mountains and on plateaus.


Major mammals are the mule deer, mountain lion, coyote, and bobcat; elk are locally important. Pronghorn antelope are the primary large mammal in the arid grasslands. Smaller species include the blacktail jackrabbit, Colorado chipmunk, rock squirrel, wood rat, white-footed mouse, cliff chipmunk, cottontail, porcupine, and gray fox. The ringtail cat and spotted skunk occur rarely.

The most abundant resident birds are the bushtit, pinyon jay, plain titmouse, black-chinned hummingbird, Woodhouse's jay, red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, red-shafted flicker, and rock wren. Summer residents include the chipping sparrow, nighthawk, black-throated gray warbler, northern cliff swallow, lark sparrow, and mourning dove. Common winter residents are the pink-sided junco, Shufeldt's junco, gray-headed junco, red-backed junco, Rocky Mountain nuthatch, mountain bluebird, robin, and Steller's jay. Turkeys are locally abundant during winter.

Reptiles include the horned lizard, collared lizard, and rattlesnake.


  • Donald L. Baars. 2000. The Colorado Plateau: a geologic history. UNM Press. 254 pages 

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Disclaimer: This article  contains information that was originally published by the United States Forest Service. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the United States Forest Service should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




(2011). Colorado Plateau Semidesert Province (Bailey). Retrieved from


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