Canyonlands National Park, Still A Work in Progress After All These Years

Canyonlands's Cheslar Park is a place of geological whimsy. Kurt Repanshek photo.

It is one of the most rugged and physically demanding parks of the continental United States. And it also is one of the most beautiful works of landscape architecture, one that continues to evolve. And yet, Canyonlands National Park is still not a completed work.

Even though it rises, falls, bends and plunges across 527 square miles, this red-rock gem in southeastern Utah is incomplete.

In a nutshell, in the early 1960s when politicians were working to set aside this unique landscape, the dialog was dominated by disputes between whether this new national park should have a distinct multiple-use bent -- primarily focused on mineral development and grazing -- or one more preservationist.

Those disputes reduced the size from a once-proposed 832,000 acres to less than 250,000 acres when the park was created on September 12, 1964. (For an excellent accounting of this battle, read Thomas Smith's article from Utah's Historical Quarterly magazine.)

While the park now stands at 337,598 acres, there long has been a contingent out there that believes Canyonlands will be incomplete until some lands -- largely to the east of the park-- are added. Back in 1987 there even was legislation in Congress to more than double the park's size, to 754,600 acres, but it gained little traction.

While hope remains in some circles that an expansion one day will come about, Canyonlands at its present size is nothing to scoff at. From the spacious views possible atop the Island in the Sky District and the colorful, and spindly, rock architecture in the Needles District to the rugged and archaeological-rich Maze District, this is one park you cannot tame. Depending on the season, you might discover that you have to carry your own water for a multi-day backcountry trek. In the high heat of summer, when temperatures eclipse the century mark, you'd be ill-advised to vanish for long in the backcountry.

But that's OK, as there are many incredible front-country sights that make this park user-friendly.

Atop the Island in the Sky you not only can gaze to the horizon through Mesa Arch or climb atop Whale Rock for a gander into Upheaval Dome, but you can look across the deep canyons cut by the Green River as its negotiates Stillwater Canyon. Climb up Aztec Butte and you can investigate the granaries that ancient Puebloans once used to store grains.

In the Needles District you can find yourself standing amid rock hoodoos and goblins, check out intriguing and curious formations, (including one dubbed Paul Bunyon's Potty and another known as Wooden Shoe Arch), or view not just a cowboy camp from the early 1900s but also prehistoric archaeological sites.

The Maze District is truly for the hardy, as it takes a somewhat long, jouncing ride along a dirt road off Utah 24 to reach the district, which you then need to hike down into. Once there, though, you can explore Horseshoe Canyon and try to figure out the meaning of all the strange and wonderful rock art images left behind by ancient ancestors thousands of years ago.

Above all, though, Canyonlands is a park where nature's stature, and demands, can overwhelm you. It's a park you definitely enter on its terms. But it's one where the geology, though stark and at times unforgiving, is also beautiful and intriguing.

Comments

Canyonland's is a beautiful park....one of the best I have ever visited. Great trails that lead to fantastic views.......this park is a must see. When Arches NP gets too crowded, just head a few miles up the road to Canyonlands......well worth the trip.

Canyonlands National Park is the least visited of Utah's five national parks and is truly one of the great gems of the national park system. Near and dear to my heart, and perhaps one of the most threatened by energy development, Canyonlands deserves to be expanded to include the Glen Canyon NRA lands to the west and BLM lands to the south all the way down to Dark Canyon, which is losing some of its protected status in the newly-minted proposed final Monticello Resource Management Plan. The canyons from Dark to the current park boundary would be excellent additions to Canyonlands.

The elements illustrated quite well for me how treacherous canyon country travel can be during a four day backpack trip in the Needles District. My friends and I had planned a Dark Canyon expedition during the very, very dry winter of 2005-2006, when by early March not a snowflake was to be found anywhere in the Abajo Mountains and Elk Ridge where our hike would begin. So, the second weekend in March, we arrived in Moab just in time for a blizzard, which cut off access to the upper trailheads to Dark Canyon west of Blanding. We made a last minute decision to spend four days in the Needles instead. When we arrived, the snow hadn't reached such a low elevation yet, so we were elated that we'd have a good-weather backpack trip. Our elation lasted until that evening while setting up camp in Chesler Park, which soon received about six inches of snow, drifting up to a foot in places. We spent the next three days negotiating icy slickrock above precipitous cliffs and slots, making an otherwise tame trail truly treacherous. During the whole hike, we encountered no other visitors and we had more fun in that wild, wild place than I've had anywhere else in a long, long time.