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SCENE FROM ABOVE - Aerial Views of the Colorado Plateau
by Thomas Wiewandt

NOTE: this exhibit appeared in September 2001. Click here to visit the current showcase.

All other exhibits: Click here to access

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Shiprock, New Mexico

Jutting 1,800 feet (550 m) above the plains of northwestern New Mexico, Shiprock dominates the landscape for miles around. What we see today is an ancient plug of lava that once filled the throat of a volcano. In Navajo legend, Shiprock is Sa-bit-tai-e, the rock with wings, a great bird that brought people to this land from the north. In another version, the Twin War Gods, great heroes of the Navajo, killed giants that inhabited the area long ago; Shiprock is the proof&emdash;the congealed blood of those giants.







Volcanic Dike + Shiprock, New Mexico

A five-mile-long (8-km) wall of volcanic rock&emdash;a dike&emdash;extends from Shiprock. When Shiprock Volcano was alive, the force of explosive eruptions fractured the surrounding bedrock; and radiating fissures filled with molten lava. Their exposed remains cut vertically through horizontal layers of rock, like a knife stuck in a layer cake. Because the volcanic rock was harder than the soft shale that once encased it, these mysterious features have remained standing long after the rest has worn away.







Sunset Crater Volcano, Arizona

This giant cinder cone is the centerpiece of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. In A.D.1064, earthquakes rumbled on the east side of San Francisco Mountain in northern Arizona. Then, one morning, the ground split apart. Native Americans fled the area as fiery rocks shot into the air and sluggish streams of lava crept over the land. Sunset Crater Volcano gradually took shape. It may have taken less than ten years to form the colorful thousand-foot-tall (300-m) cinder cone we see today. And when the eruption ended, the people returned to rebuild their homes on top of the cinders. Cinders rich in oxidized iron and sulfur give the cone its permanent "sunset" glow.







"Meteor" Crater, Arizona

When large chunks of extraterrestrial rock slam into the Earth, meteorite craters are born; and Arizona’s was the world’s first to be identified as an impact crater. Though small compared to some craters, the depression is vast enough to accommodate 20 football fields. Scientists calculate that a 63,000-ton nickel-iron rock the size of a small house crashed here about 50,000 years ago; and its main mass vaporized on impact. Rocks from space that reach the ground are called meteorites; those that burn up in the atmosphere as they fall are meteors. Meteors brighten the night sky for a brief moment as "falling stars," and most are tiny, about the size of a grain of sand. To Chumash tribes of southern California, a meteor was a person's soul on its way to the after-life.






Edge of the Moenkopi Plateau, Northern Arizona.

Golden and pink-hued sandstones, widespread across the Colorado Plateau, are ancient dunes that tell of a time when the region was even more arid than today, similar perhaps to the Sahara Desert. About 170 million years ago, these dunes were buried and cemented into place by solutions of minerals that percolated down between the sand grains. Today, weathering releases ancient quartz sand from these petrified dunes to be reworked and sculpted by the wind.







Winter Morning, Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah

Scenic mesas, buttes, and pinnacles abound in Monument Valley, seemingly fixed and perfected; but geologically no landscape will ever be “finished.” Plateaus&emdash;vast, elevated expanses of land bordered on at least one side by steep cliffs&emdash;erode away to become mesas, discrete flat-topped landforms that rise above the surrounding plain or valley floor. They maintain this shape because a mesa's tabletop, the cap rock, is more resistant to erosion than the rocks beneath. But mesas do weaken around the edges, and through undercutting, rock fractures and falls. As erosion continues, a mesa will eventually reach the proportions of a butte, when it becomes narrower than it is tall. As it shrinks further, often all that remains is a slender stone monument, a spire, a pinnacle. These stone sentinels, too, will crumble someday and join the rippling red sand on the valley floor.







Broken Shadow, Monument Valley, Arizona.

About 10 years ago, I was invited by colleague Walter Arnell to assist as second cameraman in the completion of a film&emdash;BALCONY IN THE SKY&emdash;which features hot air balloon adventures on three continents: Europe, Africa, and North America. With permission from the Navajo Nation, our team launched several balloons near John Ford’s Point (by Mitchell Mesa and the Three Sisters pinnacles) in Monument Valley. This was my first time aloft in a balloon, and floating within this exquisite earth-scene was beyond compare. Our photography was choreographed by the Wind God, fickle and often unreceptive to our wishes. And as we discovered during one difficult landing, when wind takes command, a touch-down quite literally becomes a drag, transforming the passenger basket into a sand scoop.







“Indian Blanket,” the Raplee Anticline, Utah

North of Monument Valley near Mexican Hat, layers of up-folded, twisted rock form Raplee Anticline. Even solid rock&emdash;under slow, steady pressure&emdash;can bend and fold like taffy. Locals call this colorful tapestry the “Indian Blanket,” and sandstone layers that have eroded into chevron patterns&emdash;flatirons&emdash;suggest those primitive appliances used by early pioneer women.







Rainbow Bridge, Utah

Natural bridges span watercourses&emdash;they are carved by running streams or intermittent runoff. Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest, stretches 275 feet (84 m) and soars 290 feet (88 m) above the canyon floor in Utah's Rainbow Bridge National Monument. This park shares boundaries with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and the Navajo Nation and can be easily accessed by boat across Lake Powell.







Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Mostly in Utah, this wonderland of colorful sandstone cradles Lake Powell, the second largest man-made lake in America, formed in 1964 with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Glen Canyon Dam is only one of 16 major dams and 50 smaller dams engineered to detain and divert water from the Colorado River and its tributaries. None of the dams is a permanent feature of the landscape however&emdash;no dam is.

Long before people populated the world, great lava dams in the western end of Grand Canyon blocked the flow of the Colorado River. Through 27 years of study, geologists at Brigham Young University determined that the largest lava blockade created a lake larger than Lake Powell and Lake Mead combined. The gargantuan waterfall that spilled over the dam was more than 12 times higher than Niagara Falls and five times higher than Africa’s Victoria Falls. Erosion and the accumulation of silt behind the dam destroyed it in just a few thousand years; and it’s unlikely that Glen Canyon Dam will survive in its original form for more than a few hundred years.







Goosenecks, Utah

At Goosenecks State Park, near Mexican Hat, Utah, narrow "necks" of land separate tight bends in the San Juan River as it meanders in graceful loops towards the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Here the San Juan has carved a 1,000-foot-deep (300-m) gorge and flows for nearly 6 mi (10 km) to cover just one straight mile as the crow flies.







Waterpocket Fold, Utah

This enormous step-like fold in the Earth’s crust&emdash;a sinuous 100-mile-long (160-km) monocline&emdash;forms the backbone of Capitol Reef National Park. Such formidable obstacles to cross-country travel were called reefs by early European settlers, harking back to their seafaring days. The name waterpocket comes from the countless potholes scoured in its sandstone terrain; the really big potholes, known as “tanks,” may hold water year-round.







Waterpocket Fold, Utah

Detail from the eastern flank of Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.






Canyon Diablo, Northern Arizona

The shapes of canyons and gorges are determined by the types of bedrock in which they form. Chiseled by the Rio Diablo, a tributary of the Little Colorado River, this V-shaped cut resulted from erosion through relatively soft sediments, producing gently sloping sides. In contrast, river cuts through more solid rock, as seen in Canyon de Chelly, for example, form U-shaped canyons with vertical walls. In the Grand Canyon and many other canyons on the Colorado Plateau, erosion of alternating layers of harder and softer bedrock creates a stair-step effect. The harder rock layers erode into cliffs, and soft layers into slopes, forming, in the case of the Grand Canyon, one of the finest stair-step canyons in the world






Grand Canyon, Arizona.

The Grand Canyon is a place of awesome proportions, defying simple description. The Hualapai Indians, who live on the canyon's south rim, tell of a great flood that once covered the Earth, and that to drain away the flood, a mythical hero beat the ground with a knife and club, creating the canyon's chasm. On seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, most visitors suppose that the Colorado River must once have been far larger than it is today, perhaps as wide as the canyon itself. Not so, but how did this great gorge, a mile deep and roughly 11 miles (18 km) wide, come to be?

Water and gravity are the main forces that have carved the Grand Canyon. As earth movements forced the Colorado Plateau to rise to its present elevation, the Colorado River began slicing into its cracked and faulted surface. The young river wore away a narrow strip scarcely wider than itself. Over the past 10 million years, right up to the present, the canyon has been widening by the countless tributaries and gullies that form on its sides. Cliff walls gradually crumble and fall, accelerated by freezing and thawing&emdash;when water freezes in crevices, it expands, forcing rocks apart. As heavy rains wash this rocky debris into the river, it is then carried downstream. Shortly before Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1964, the Colorado River carried nearly half-a-million tons of sediment and rocky debris through the Grand Canyon every day. Put another way, large (five-ton) dump trucks filled with this same debris would be speeding by at a rate of one per second.






Havasu Canyon, Arizona

For about 700 years, in this remote canyon, the Havasupai&emdash;people of the blue-green water&emdash;have made their home beside an enchanting creek that drains into the Grand Canyon. This is a place of mysterious beauty, a wonderland of mineral dams and draperies, waterfalls, and hanging gardens that nourish body and soul. In this photograph, Mooney Falls can be seen in the foreground and Havasu Falls behind. The Native American village of Supai lies two miles farther upstream.





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Please note: All images and text featured in the "SCENE FROM ABOVE &endash; Aerial Views of the Colorado Plateau." showcase are Copyright © 2001 Thomas Wiewandt, all rights reserved. This visual and written material is protected by U.S. and international copyright laws and may not be used or reproduced without permission. For licensing and usage information, please contact Thomas Wiewandt at To see more of this artist's work visit


About the Photographer: Thomas Wiewandt

Photographer and ecologist Thomas Wiewandt blends art and science to reveal the mystery, beauty, and complexity of the natural world. His films for the National Geographic Society and the BBC have earned him an Emmy Nomination in cinematography, a Gold Apple Award, and four Cine Golden Eagles; and his children's book Hidden Life of the Desert (Random House/Crown, 1990) made the John Burroughs List of Outstanding Nature Books for Young Readers. His work has also been featured in many books, calendars, and magazines worldwide, including Audubon, Arizona Highways, Smithsonian, National Wildlife, Geo, and publications by the National Geographic Society.

Tom Wiewandt holds degrees in zoology and ecology (MS, University of Arizona; PhD, Cornell), and serves on the IUCN Species Survival Commission for endangered iguanas. He lives in the desert foothills west of Tucson. His new book, THE SOUTHWEST INSIDE OUT, grew from more than a decade of leading photographic workshops and natural history tours in the Southwest.

To view more of his images, please visit Thomas Wiewandt Gallery at


Find photos of the Colorado Plateau in Land of the Canyons, the Photo Trip USA landscape photography guide book.


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