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Canyonlands National Park
The heart of the Colorado plateau
Canyonlands National Park preserves 527 square miles (848 square km) of colorful sandstone canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, Canyonlands and spires in the heart of the Colorado Plateau in Southeastern Utah. Water and gravity have been the prime architects of this land, carving flat layers of sedimentary rock into the landscape seen today. The park was established in 1964, “…to preserve an area…possessing superlative scenic, scientific and archaeological features for the inspiration, benefit and use of the public.” (Public Law 88-590, 1964). Canyonlands is divided into three land districts which are two to six hours apart by car. The park was expanded to its current size in 1971.
Canyonlands National Park preserves a colorful landscape of sedimentary sandstones eroded into countless canyons, mesas and buttes by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Located in southeast Utah, the park sits in the heart of a vast basin bordered by sheer cliffs of Wingate Sandstone.
The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers themselves. While the districts share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character and offers different opportunities for exploration and the study of natural and cultural history.
Most visits to Canyonlands involve camping along the trails, roads and rivers found here. The four districts are not directly linked by any roads, so travel between them requires two to six hours by car. Generally, people find it impractical to visit more than one or two districts in a single trip. Canyonlands National Park preserves one of the last, relatively undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau, a geological province that encompasses much of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits, this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possesses remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem.
The foundation of Canyonlands’ ecology is its remarkable geology, which is visible everywhere in cliff profiles that reveal millions of years of deposition and erosion. These rock layers continue to shape life in Canyonlands today, as their erosion influences elemental features like soil chemistry and where water flows when it rains.
A diverse habitat
Known as a high desert with elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet above sea level, Canyonlands experiences very hot summers, cold winters and less than ten inches of rain each year. Even on a daily basis, temperatures may fluctuate as much as 50 degrees.
The plants and animals in Canyonlands have many adaptations that enable them to survive these conditions. Some species are found only in this area. The diversity of organisms reflects the variety of available habitat, which includes lush riparian areas, swift rivers, ephemeral pools, dry arroyos, mixed grasslands and large expanses of bare rock.
To many, the most outstanding natural features of Canyonlands are the park’s geologic formations. In each of the districts, visitors can see the remarkable effects of millions of years of erosion on a landscape of sedimentary rock.
Two unusual natural features are common in Canyonlands and intrigue both scientists and visitors: cryptobiotic soil and potholes. Cryptobiotic soil is a living groundcover that forms the foundation of high desert plant life.
Potholes are naturally occurring basins in sandstone that collect rainwater and wind-blown sediment. These potholes harbor organisms that are able to survive long periods of dehydration, and also serve as a breeding ground for many high desert amphibians and insects. Both of these communities are very vulnerable to human impacts.
People have visited what is now Canyonlands National Park for over 10,000 years. Over time, various groups moved in and out of the area in concert with the availability of natural resources and the technology for exploiting those resources.
Canyonlands National Park history
The first humans known to visit Canyonlands were Paleoindians, who searched for large game animals and edible plants as long as 10,000 years ago. While some of their projectiles have been found in the park, it was not until about 5,000 years ago that people routinely lived in the area. During the time period from about 5000 to A.D. 250, people continued to gather wild plants and animals, utilizing stone tools and throwing devices like the atlatl. The importance of grasses is recorded on many archaic rock art panels, especially those representative of the “Barrier Canyon” style that can be seen in Horseshoe Canyon.
By A.D. 250, farming techniques from Mesoamerica had reached the southwest, and the hunter-gatherers were cultivating corn and constructing slab-lined cists for storing the collected grains. Initially, the agriculturalists did not have much use for the hot, dry climate of Canyonlands. However, growing populations in nearby Mesa Verde and new techniques of floodwater farming caused people to take advantage of bottomlands and alluvial banks in many canyons of the southwest. By A.D. 1200, there was a major occupation in Salt Creek Canyon in the Needles District. You can see the storage structures or granaries used by the ancestral Puebloans in the Needles District at Roadside Ruin, and at the Island in the Sky on Aztec Butte. Around A.D. 1300, the Ancestral Puebloans left the region and moved south to Arizona and New Mexico, probably due to climatic changes.
Utes, Navajos, and Paiutes
Utes moved into the area as early as A.D. 1300, living without permanent dwellings much like the hunter-gatherers in the Archaic period. Ute, Navajo and Paiute Indians all occupied southern Utah when Spanish explorers entered the area in the late 1700s, though their use of the Canyonlands area appears to have been minimal.
In the 1770s, the Escalante and Dominguez parties circled Canyonlands, looking for a route between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Monterey, California. Though southern Utah was recognized as a Spanish possession with the signing of the Adams Onis treaty in 1819, this did not deter French and American trappers from entering the area in the early 1800s. From 1836 through 1838, a trapper named Denis Julien carved his name throughout the Canyonlands area, including along the Colorado River. The US Army sent Captain John N. Macomb on an expedition to explore the Colorado Plateau for a wagon route from New Mexico to Utah in 1859. The Macomb expedition drew the first accurate maps of southeast Utah, and compiled geographical and geological information of the area.
Europeans knew little of the Colorado River and its tributaries until 1869, when Major John Wesley Powell completed his first expedition from Green River, Wyoming through the Grand Canyon. Powell repeated the expedition in 1871-72, continuing his studies of the geological, natural and cultural history of the area. Bert Loper, Charles S. Russell, and E.R. Monett made the first pleasure run down the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon in 1907. Julius Stone was the first to hire a guide, Nathaniel Galloway, to take him down the river in 1909. The first motion pictures of the canyons were filmed by Emery and Ellsworth Kolb on their 1911 trip, and in 1937 Norman Nevills started commercial river trips down the Colorado.
In March 1883, the Denver & Rio Grande railroad joined with the Rio Grande Western railroad near Green River, Utah, providing rail transportation to southeastern Utah. This, combined with the removal of Native Americans to reservations during the late 1800s and early 1900s, nurtured the growth of farming and ranching communities such as Moab and Bluff. With the Utes removed to the Uinta Reservation, Mormon settlers reclaimed the abandoned pioneer community of Moab, and Mormons from the town of Bluff settled Blanding, Monticello, and La Sal.
The first Europeans to permanently settle southeast Utah were ranchers. From the 1880s until 1975, much of Canyonlands was used for ranching, and features in each district of the park bear the names of these ranchers. Deb Taylor, Al Holman, John Shafer and many others grazed both cattle and sheep around what is now the Island in the Sky. Don Cooper, Mel Turner, D.L. Goudelock and Joe Titus ranched the Indian Creek area until 1914, when their holdings under the Indian Creek Cattle Company were bought by the Scorup and Sommerville families. Headquartered at the Dugout Ranch, just outside the Needles District, the Indian Creek Cattle Company still operates today under ownership of the Nature Conservancy.
The Biddlecomes, Ekkers, Tidwells and Chaffins are names common to the Maze. Many of the Ekker Ranch grazing allotments in the Orange Cliffs Unit of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are in the process of being retired. In addition to cattle, the rugged country around Canyonlands harbored cattle rustlers and other outlaws. Robbers Roost, a mesa top west of the Maze, served as a secluded refuge for Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy), Tom and Bill McCarthy, Matt Warner and others.
Due to the rugged topography of the Canyonlands area, much of it was accessible only by foot or horse until the Uranium boom of the 1950s. With the growth of the country’s nuclear arms program, the Atomic Energy Commission offered monetary incentives for the discovery and delivery of Uranium ore. Certain rock layers in Canyonlands contain Uranium, and prospectors built many exploratory roads on public lands in search of radioactive “gold”. Many of these routes, including the White Rim Road at the Island in the Sky, are popular four-wheel-drive roads today; others exist as scars that are slowly revegetating.
The Creation of Canyonlands
In the 1950s and early 60s, Arches National Monument Superintendent Bates Wilson began advocating for the creation of a “Grand View National Park” in what is now Canyonlands. Wilson first visited the area by horse in 1951, and spent four years working on a National Park Service archeological investigation of the Needles District. The Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, visited the area in 1961, and began lobbying Capitol Hill for a national park on what were then Bureau of Land Management lands.
On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-590 establishing Canyonlands National Park.