Canyonlands

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.”