Science & Discovery 

Studying the environment and natural sciences on the Colorado Plateau


At Northern Arizona University’s Flagstaff campus, the Colorado Plateau is literally in our back yard—and as one of the most ecologically diverse natural labs in the world, it offers mountains, rivers, deserts, mesas, canyons, and the largest ponderosa pine forest on Earth.

Imagine a university set in one of the most remarkable geographic regions on our planet, where you can step out of the classroom to study everything from art to archaeology, from economics to education to ecosystem science, and from remote sensing science to practicing nursing in rural areas.

Our unique setting enhances the university experience for faculty and students from nearly every academic discipline:

  • World-class faculty in NAU’s forestry, earth sciences, environmental sustainability, and biology programs conduct a wide range of field research among the many natural wonders of the Plateau—in the Grand Canyon, on the San Francisco Peaks, on the Navajo Nation lands, and in the Colorado River—mentoring students in scholarly inquiry, research methodology, and the excitement of discovery. Informatics experts use state-of-the-art drones to survey snowpack and measure the impact of climate change on the region’s vegetation.
  • Students in NAU’s fine arts programs, inspired by the unparalleled natural beauty of the Colorado Plateau, reach new heights of artistic expression.
  • The Colorado Plateau is home to eight Indigenous nations, each with a distinct history, culture, and language. NAU students engage in a variety of academic pursuits in the arts, letters, and social sciences as faculty guide them in studying Southwest history, literature, and anthropology. Students in NAU’s education program prepare for their careers by teaching at schools in Indigenous communities, and those in NAU’s health sciences programs receive hands-on experience in public health and healthcare by working in clinics serving Native populations. And students in NAU’s business programs study the economic impact of real-life events on the region, such as wildfires and overgrazing on public lands.
  • Students such as Ronni Chavez, majoring in Geology and French through the Interdisciplinary Global Program, gain hands-on experiences working on real-world projects with NAU Faculty. Undergraduate students gain unparalleled access to projects typically limited to graduate students. Students have researched springs with Professor Springer and collected samples on the Navajo Nation with chemistry professor Jani Ingram.

A World of Opportunity

The Colorado Plateau is much more than a stunning view seen through an NAU classroom window. It’s a vibrant, diverse, exciting landscape that has much to teach us in so many ways.

Claire Sipos photographs The Grand Canyon on a trip with the NAU Honors College


  • Encompassing 240,000 square miles, the Colorado Plateau straddles the region known as the Four Corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet.
  • The Colorado Plateau ranges in elevation from 2,000 to nearly 13,000 feet above sea level.
  • There are five ecological life zones on the Colorado Plateau:
    1. Upper Sonoran (desert steppe or chaparral)
    2. Transition (open woodlands)
    3. Canadian (fir forest)
    4. Hudsonian (spruce forest)
    5. Arctic-Alpine (alpine meadows or tundra)
  • The Colorado Plateau is home to nine national parks:
    1. Grand Canyon
    2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
    3. Mesa Verde
    4. Canyonlands
    5. Arches
    6. Petrified Forest
    7. Zion
    8. Capitol Reef
    9. Bryce Canyon
  • The Colorado Plateau is home to 18 national monuments
  • The Colorado Plateau has been continuously inhabited by Indigenous people of the Americas for approximately 12,000 years. Today, the Indigenous peoples of the Colorado Plateau include the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Hualapai, Havasupai, Ute, Apache, and Southern Paiute.

Students and an instructor stand on the edge of a body of water at the Colorado Plateaumap of Colorado Plateaus Province

Student photographers at the Grand Canyon.