- Historic Sites
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.
October 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 6
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.