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June 2024
11min read

In the red-rock country of southeastern Utah is a new national park, a quarter-million acres of silence, brilliant color, and vistas unmatched anywhere on Earth.

“The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock—cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock. … a whole land of naked rock, with giant forms carved on it: cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled, and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance … and all highly colored—buff, gray, red, brown, and chocolate—never lichened, never mosscovered, but bare, and often polished.” Thus nearly a century ago John Wesley Powell, the first white man to explore it extensively, described the remote corner of southeastern Utah which in 1964 became our thirty-second national park.

Canyonlands does not have the easy charm of other parks, with their lush forests, clear mountain lakes, and abundant wildlife. Its distinguishing qualities are emptiness, silence, and austere, massive beauty; the impression it leaves upon the visitor is one of awe. Yet its quarter-million acres of mesas, canyons, arches, and monoliths surrounding the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers constitute a gigantic geology lesson, in glowing colors, unduplicated anywhere else on Earth. Its ancient Indian dwellings, built under overhanging ledges at about the time of the Crusades and abandoned now for seven centuries, speak of the mysteries of the continent’s aboriginal past. Its twisted junipers and pinon pines, with here and there an occasional clump of desert holly and a sudden, startling cactus blossom, testify to nature’s marvelous ability to survive in a stark and arid land.

The land was not always dry. Hundreds of millions of years ago it was submerged under water, first under a vast inland salt sea, and successively under fresher seas; in the lowest elevations of the park—in the canyons of the Colorado and the Green—marine fossils can still be found if one looks for them carefully (so, in other places, can dinosaur tracks arid petrified logs from the moist, warm climate of a later era). As the seas dried up and as, in the slow course of geologic time, the land rose and sank and rose again, layers of mud, wind-borne sand, and silt covered the deposited salt. These solidified into sandstones and limestones of varying hues and differing degrees of hardness. Once the seas had dried up, the natural forces of erosion—wind and rain, snow and frost—began their long, patient work of sculpturing the fantastic spires, the standing rocks, and the great crenelated buttes that confront the eye at every turn. And through the rock the rivers—not only the two major streams but their tributaries, and the creeks and rivulets tributary to them —slowly cut their labyrinthine ways.

This, then, is how the canyon lands were created, and the creation is still going on. Each spring the waters of melting snows flow down from the surrounding mountains, deepening and quickening the erosive rivers; steady winds scour the uplands, filling the air with the faintly acrid odor of powdered rock; and the runoff from sudden thunderstorms rushes down the dry washes. One knows that the land will never be quite the same tomorrow as it was yesterday. The changes are miniscule, of course, too small to be measured, but one is aware that a delicate arch seen today will wear thin and fall of its own weight one day, even though the day may be thousands of years distant, while new arches and pinnacles are constantly forming. It is a land that induces long thoughts. John Wesley Powell was not the first white man to see the spectacular red-rock country of Utah and northern Arizona. Spanish padres had traversed its lower reaches in 1776, and from time to time trappers and mountain men had wandered through this trackless wilderness. In the mid-nineteenth century Mormon missionaries and settlers trickled southward from their base at Salt Lake City into “Dixie,” as they called it, to preach to the aborigines and to till the isolated fertile valleys. About the same time, two army officers, Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives and Captain J.N. Macomb, explored various parts of the lower Colorado. But it was Powell, a determined, resourceful Civil War veteran who had lost his right arm at Shiloh and was known the rest of his life as “the Major,” who left his mark upon the river and the canyon lands.

He led two expeditions down the Green from its upper reaches in Wyoming, past its junction with the Colorado, and then down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, whence the river flows on to the Gulf of California. On each of the two expeditions—the first in 1869, the second in 1871—Powell and a handful of men, in small wooden boats powered only by oars and the current, covered nearly a thousand miles. They mapped the meandering rivers, named many of the canyons, climbed up to the rims with barometer in hand to measure elevations, and made notes on the area’s geology. The first trip, when the tricky channels and dangerous white-water stretches were strange to them, almost ended in disaster. Boats repeatedly swamped in the rapids, spilling men, rations, and precious scientific instruments into the water. After more than three months on the river, Powell’s men were discouraged and in rags, and their food supply was dwindling dangerously. Three of them gave up and, leaving their comrades, struck out over the mountains for civilization. They never made it: a party of Shivwits Indians, mistaking them for some other white men who had killed one of their women, murdered all three. Two days later Powell and the others reached the safety of a Mormon settlement. After the two river voyages the Major himself spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., but others under his direction completed the exploration and charting of the plateau country of southern Utah and of Arizona north and west of the Colorado. One of our last great wildernesses was finally mapped.

The remoteness and aridity of the canyon lands precluded extensive settlement, however, and for the next seventy-five years—until after World War II—about the only permanent white inhabitants were a few farmers, an occasional prospector or small mine operator, and the ranchers who ran their stock on the high mesa pastureland, along the streams, and in the grassy areas or “parks” scattered among the canyons. (Not recorded by the census taker were a few transient residents, rustlers, and fugitive train-robbers seeking hideouts in the more inaccessible rock crannies; the Hollywood horse-operas that have been filmed in the area are not entirely without basis in fact.) Then, in the mid-1950s, came what is still remembered locally as the Great Uranium Boom. As always in a great mineral rush, a few men got rich, but most made nothing. Still, for a while, prospectors and land speculators were jammed check by jowl into whatever housing they could find (some even slept in packing cases), claims were bought and sold over a bottle of whiskey, and the sleepy little town of Moab—today the site of park headquarters—ballooned from a population of 1,000 to ten times that. When within a few years the uranium market became glutted, the balloon burst. But the boom had focused national attention on the area. The uranium men had extended the stockmen's trails and jeep roads into the inner fastnesses of the canyon lands, and, in the process, opened up the country to prospectors for other minerals like oil and potash. To conservationists it was becoming apparent that if this scenic wilderness were to be preserved for posterity it would have to be done soon. Bates Wilson, superintendent of nearby Arches National Monument, began sending requests to his Park Service superiors for the creation of a national park. In 1959 a preliminary survey was made and in 1961 Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall himself came out from Washington and later returned for an extensive camping trip. He was so impressed that he began plugging for a large park of about a million acres.

That scared the mineral interests. In the end, the best the park’s advocates could get was a bill, sponsored by Utah’s Senator Frank Moss and Representatives David S. King and M. Blaine Peterson, setting aside an area of 257,640 acres shaped like an hourglass, with the confluence of the rivers near the waist. The bill was a compromise, but it saved the heart of the canyon lands.

Canyonlands is still a largely undeveloped park, but though it is difficult to get around in, the effort is richly rewarding. The northern portion, occupying the top of the hourglass and thrusting southward toward the apex of the triangle formed by the junction of the Green River on the west and the upper Colorado on the east, embraces three topographical levels. At the base of the inverted triangle is a 6,000-foot mesa, some 20,000 acres in extent, called the Island in the Sky. It sheers off on all sides into deep canyons and is connected to the rest of the “mainland” only by a forty-foot-wide neck across which cowboys once drove their stock, barricading the narrow trail behind them so that the grassy Island became a giant natural pasture from which the cattle could not stray. About 1,000 feet below the Island and clearly visible from its heights is another table of land, called the White Rim because its surface is of light gray, almost white, sandstone; this in turn overlooks the winding rivers, isolated stretches of which can be seen as they twist in and out of their canyons another 1,000 feet farther down.

The Colorado, once the Green has joined it, continues southwestward. The park does not extend very far west of the Green or the lower Colorado; most of the bottom half of its hourglass is what is known as the Needles District, so called because of the weirdly shaped pinnacles of rock which abound there. In this region are the isolated, rock-rimmed meadowlands like Chesler Park, as well as many of the most significant Indian pictographs, petroglyphs, and dwellings. Here, too, most of the park’s lovely, delicate arches can be found.

There is a vital distinction at Canyonlands between “four-wheel-drive” and “two-wheel-drive” roads. The latter can be navigated in modern, low-slung automobiles with automatic transmissions; the former are too narrow, too bumpy, too sandy, or too steeply graded (and, in places, all four) for any vehicles but specially equipped jeeps. The Island in the Sky can be reached by car, however, and this one-day trip is the best way to begin a tour of the park, for it offers the most comprehensive overall view.

From just north of Moab on U.S. 160, a twenty-three-mile highway, paved part of the way, leads across the neck and onto the Island, culminating in Grandview Point, a rock-strewn flat dotted with juniper and pinon pine. Overlooks along its edges give breath-taking views of the White Rim and, below it, Standing Rock (now renamed Monument) Basin, filled with the spires and cathedral-shaped buttes that awed Major Powell. Sheer cliffs layered like cakes clearly tell the story of the earth’s formation: to look 2,000 feet down to the distant, green-brown rivers is to look backward in an instant over nearly two million centuries of geologic time. From here and from Dead Horse Point State Park, situated on a similarly isolated mesa nearby, one can see the rock layers formed during the Permian, Jurassic, and Triassic eras as much as 180 million years ago; the synclines (downfolds) and anticlines (upfolds) of the earth’s crust can be seen along the massive cliffs. The colors range from white to chocolate through all the reds in the spectrum, and they are never quite the same from hour to hour: deep red in the early morning, lightening toward buff in the brilliance of midday, purpling in shadow as the sun’s light fades.

Only an eagle or a mountain goat could traverse the wilderness of serrated rock that separates the Island in the Sky from the Needles District in the lower section of the park. The human visitor must retrace his route out to the main highway, drive south to a point above the town of Monticello, then turn west again—over a thirty-five-mile road, graded but unpaved—until he reaches the ranger station near Cave Spring. Until circulating roads are built within the park (they have been surveyed, but constructionestimated to cost $300,000 a mile—has not yet begun), this marks the end of the trail for the ordinary automobile. From here on one must travel on foot, on horseback, or in the jouncing cab of a jeep. Most greenhorns choose a jeep.

If you don’t have your own—and even if you do, you had better be an experienced, steel-nerved driver—you have to rely upon one of the jeep guides licensed to take visitors to the more remote areas of the park. Their rates, regulated by the Utah Public Service Commission, are steep: twenty-five dollars a day for each adult passenger, half that for children under twelve. But the operating expenses—sky-high insurance rates and rapid -depreciation of equipment—are also steep, and the guides furnish everything: meals, sleeping bags, and much expert information.

Plus, of course, an exciting ride. One road into beautiful Chesler Park, for example, leads over two hills which seem impossible for any wheeled vehicle to negotiate. The first is called Elephant Hill—possibly because only an elephant could be expected to climb it; the other is known, for good and sufficient reasons, as S.O.B. Hill. In places the “road” consists of sheer, slick sandstone, and rises at angles exceeding forty-five degrees; one jeep passenger, holding tightly to the dashboard on a downgrade, is reported to have complained: “If I’m sitting down, how come I’m standing on my head?” But the trip is rewarding: along the way are fascinating Indian pictographs, particularly row upon row of handprints drawn or sprayed on the stone with liquefied vegetable dyes. Chesler Park, when one finally reaches it, is a revelation. Here the harshness of sand and barren rock disappears, replaced by a circular carpet of grass ringed about by fin-shaped canyons and the odd standing rocks which have given their name to the entire district. Some do indeed resemble needles, while others look like huge mushrooms and still others like totem poles or the stubby, upthrust fingers of ancient giants.

The trip to Chesler, like that to the Island in the Sky, occupies a full day, even without following the trails that lead north and west to the confluence of the rivers. But the region around the confluence—where the lighter-hued Green curves into the muddier Colorado—is worthwhile. Young Fred Dellenbaugh, who accompanied Major Powell on his second expedition, stood upon a promontory here, and over thirty years later he remembered it vividly: “Here was revealed a wide cyclorama that was astounding,” he wrote. ”… It was a marvellous mighty desert of bare rock, chiselled by the ages out of the foundations of the globe, fantastic, extraordinary, antediluvian, labyrinthian, and slashed in all directions by crevices; crevices wide, crevices narrow, crevices medium, some shallow, some dropping till a falling stone clanked resounding into the far hollow depths.” The description is accurate, and the terrain has hardly changed in the intervening years. Powell named the region Sin-av-to-weap—“Spirit Land.”

And the spirits of ancient men still seem to linger within the park. Seven centuries ago, cliff-dwelling Indians inhabited the canyons east of the Needles; more of them lived here, probably, than in any other region of Canyonlands, for here were arable land and a reliable water supply. Here, too, the sandstone cliffs that border the tiny streams had eroded in such a way as to create alcoves, overhangs, and ledges suitable for the kind of houses the cliff-dwellers favored. Modern Indians know these ancient people only as “the old ones,” but extensive archeological “digs” in recent years—including careful examination of their pottery, pictographs, slab-and-mortar houses, and sunken ceremonial chambers—have identified them as part of the Mesa Verde branch of the San Juan Anasazi. They were farmers of the late Pueblo Il-early Pueblo III period who came into the Canyonlands area about the year 1075, subsisted on the corn and squash they raised and on whatever game they could bring down with their stone-tipped weapons, and vanished about 1275, probably driven away by a prolonged drought. Some of their dwellings, like Tower Ruin in Horse Canyon, are still in reasonably good condition after seven hundred years.

From the Island in the Sky the canyon lands are seen from the top down, as it were. But to float along the rivers and see them from the bottom up as Powell and Dellenbaugh did, is a unique experience. Nowadays the park visitor may take a boat along the Green from Green River, Utah (considerably south of the Wyoming town of the same name that was Powell’s jumping-off place), to a point a little below the confluence. Or one can cruise down the Colorado from Moab by jet boat to the same spot. That is as far as the jet boats can go; thereafter the river plunges into dangerous Cataract Canyon.

The upper livers, relatively placid and shallow, meander through gorges of unbelievable grandeur. There are glimpses of beauty unexpected in a harsh, dry land. Suddenly, along the bank, a beach appears, its pure-white sand unmarked by human footprints. A flock of snipe or a rare blue heron is startled into flight by the buzz of the jet. In a fringe of cottonwood or tamarisk, deer, foxes, and bobcats can be seen.

Together the high mesas, the Needles and arches and cliff dwellings, and the rivers make this new national park a memorable wilderness experience. Park officials hope they can keep it so, even whenonce the development work is completed—the expected flood of vacationers arrives. The planned circulating roads will never take the visitor everywhere in the park, and the rangers hope they will not be forced to expand the campgrounds beyond what the land’s natural contours dictate. “Come to our wilderness,” Superintendent Bates Wilson told a journalist not long ago, “but be ready to rough it.”

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