Canyonlands

“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.