Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Majestic canyon vistas of the Colorado and Green Rivers are the visual reward of Canyonlands National Park. The rivers amount to ribbons of fluid sandpaper cutting through the sandstone canyons of eastern Utah. Rivers and rainwater are the major erosive architects here, with wind as an associate. This 527-square-mile wilderness of rock is part of the Colorado Plateau.

Getting to Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is in eastern Utah about five hours by car from Salt Lake City. Grand Junction, CO, is the closest fly-in point. To see the park you will need a vehicle. The major support town for travelers in the region is Moab, which has motels, restaurants, and campgrounds. Canyonlands has three entry or vista points along Highway 191 north and south of Moab. These roads are usable by the average passenger car.

The entry to the north is along Highway 313 west from 191 to the Dead Horse Point State Park and overlook. The overlook presents an unforgettable view of the Colorado River as it approaches a section of the park with mesas between the Green and Colorado Rivers, called Island in the Sky. The view from Deadhorse Point is one of the stunning views available in the American Southwest.

South from Moab along Highway 191 there is an overlook to the famous Needles rock formation, a gallery of rock sculpture, with the most prominent pieces a series of tall, thin pedestals. Water and wind, as always, are at work here, with frost and ice enlarging cracks, water weakening the calcium cement bonding the sandstone together, and wind rasping away at surfaces with fine blown particles.

Farther south there is an official entryway to the park that takes you past a petroglyph site, Newspaper Rock State Park, and puts you close to trailheads with exceptional views. From the end of Elephant Hill Road you can hike three miles into the Chesler meadow to see excellent close-up views of the Needles. From another trailhead, Big Spring Canyon, you can hike to the confluence overlook and see where the Colorado and Green Rivers meet. However, don’t make these hikes in the heat of summer. Moreover, the views from the road itself are not as spectacular as the view from Dead Horse.

History of Canyonlands National Park

Much of the discussion of geology in my Arches National Park article applies also to Canyonlands. The essential force at work here is erosion of the red Entrada sandstone and buff-colored Navajo Sandstone.

The difference between the parks is that Arches National Park expresses this erosion as arches and Canyonlands National Park expresses it as deep canyons. In the latter park the major river of the Southwest, the Colorado, flows through the park, joining its most significant tributary, the Green River.

The human history of the park is less compelling than the geologic record, with two notable exceptions.

Part of the history of the park is the story of the first Colorado river explorer, John Wesley Powell. This one-armed Civil War veteran mapped the Colorado from a small dory boat at a time when no one knew what lay around the next bend. While passing what is now Canyonlands, in 1869, he wrote, “We glide along through a strange, weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock.” Below the confluence the combined forces of the rivers begin a 14-mile rush and tumble through the rapids of Cataract Canyon, one of the most dramatic river rafting adventures available. As the only water source in the area, the river attracts all forms of wildlife, whose appearance is appreciated by the hosts of rafters who make this dramatic descent each season, following the wake of Powell.

The second major historical encounter that the traveler has is with the Anasazi Indians, at the southern entrance to the park, in two sites: Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument and Roadside Ruin.

The road into the park passing Newspaper Rock State Park is one of the most engaging drives in Utah. You pass through a narrow verdant valley with towering sandstone walls, almost desert version of Yosemite Valley. Wildflowers are abundant in this congenial, wooded setting. It is easy to understand how a large population of Anasazi Indians (the word is Navajo and means “the ancient ones”) could have lived here. The positive evidence for the casual traveler is their extensive petroglyphs, carved on rock in the desert varnish, a black oxide of iron and manganese. Hundreds of these petroglyphs are carved into Newspaper Rock. It is intriguing to study and speculate what the figures mean. The deer, mountain sheep, and sun signs are fairly obvious, but other, partly human figures, are more mysterious. The motives of the carvers are not well understood. Were they doodlers or did the figures have an intensely religious meaning, to name just two possibilities? Next to the rock there is a self-guiding nature trail with good examples of gambel oak, a prominent tree of relatively well-watered areas in this region.

Within the park, near the southern entrance, Roadside Ruin is a short trail leading to a well-preserved granary of an Anasazi Indian family. The Anasazis flourished in Canyonlands from 900-1150 A.D., though they were also present here earlier. After 1150 they apparently drifted gradually away, perhaps compelled by drought, resource depletion, over-population, and internal clan strife. This small granary, built into a cliff overhang, was the place where the family stored their cultivated crops (corn, beans, and squash) and their collected foods from wild plants. The short walk to this granary, with its labeled plants, instructs the traveler on what wild foods the Anasazi Indians ate. These foods included the seeds of grasses, such as Indian ricegrass, the leaves of shrubs, such as sage, and the seed nuts of trees, such as pinyon pine and Utah juniper. The pinyon pine seed, called a nut, is that same product found in our supermarkets and delis, known to gourmets as the desired nut for pesto sauce. Along this walk you may also see a mariposa lily, the Utah state flower.

The Indians also used many plants for fiber, building material, and dyes. For example, the bark of the Utah juniper was used for both sandals and diapers.

On this walk you’ll see a natural wonder called cryptogamic soil, a delicate web of small mosses and lichens that forms a soil covering, essential to transform open sand into moisture-retaining soil.

Main Attractions of Canyonlands National Park

The main attractions of the park can best be understood if the three entrances are discussed in greater detail. Keep in mind that Canyonlands, established only in 1964, is a minimum-service park. There is no dependable water, no gas, and no lodging in the park, although there is an excellent, spacious campground at the southern entrance. The setting of this rustic campsite is one of the most attractive in the National Park system, but the only amenity offered is an uncertain water supply.

The three entrances discussed are all paved or well-graded gravel roads easily negotiated by passenger vehicles. Paving into the park at the north entrance near Dead Horse State Park has made that approach easier. The visitors with a four-wheel drive vehicle or the backpacker has many additional areas of Canyonlands to explore, but the average visitor would be wise to avoid such adventures, especially in summer when late-afternoon thunderstorms can turn dirt roads into quagmires and cause a thundering torrent to flash-flood through an otherwise innocuous canyon.

Deadhorse State Park overlook, as mentioned, is awe inspiring. You can see 30 miles east to the La Sal Mountains, which the Spaniards named for their salt-mound appearance. You can also gaze 50 miles south to the Abajo Mountains. From a mound on the north edge of the parking lot you can get a 360 degree panorama that allows your eye to wander easily 100 miles on a clear day.

Appreciators of this panorama will argue passionately about the beauty of this vista in early morning vs. late afternoon light. The truth is that the view is splendid and different at all possible lights and times of the year. The Island in the Sky, the name given to the mesas bounded by the Colorado and Green Rivers, casts deep shadows and assumes a purplish appearance in late afternoon. In this no-man’s land small herds of bighorn sheep rank as lords.

Aside from the sculptural beauty of the Colorado curving around a section called the Goose Neck, you will also be looking out over elaborate potassium mining ponds. The potassium, used in commercial agriculture as an essential nutrient for plant growth, is mined near here and processed with Colorado River water in a clever method that separates the potassium from salts and impurities by floating off the potassium. Advanced technology allows the water to be returned uncontaminated to the river.

The Paradox Basin of the Green River is said to contain 11,000 square miles with 200 billion tons of mine-able potash, enough to supply world agricultural needs at current consumption levels for 500 years.

A mile before Dead Horse Point overlook, there is a Visitor Center with excellent interpretive material and a self-guiding nature walk. The walk is instructive on the strategies that plants and animals follow to survive in the desert. One fundamental insight is the obvious notion that animals, unlike plants, are mobile and can avoid extremes of temperature or moisture simply by moving. Plants are fixed, and may have to withstand a 170 degree differential in heat at Canyonlands over the course of a year. So plants develop their own survival skills. The globe mallow, for example, goes virtually dormant during drought periods.

Another insight into the reality of this area can be stated as a paradox: Water is a major erosive force because there is so little water here. The paradox involves a vicious cycle. Because there is little water, there is only sparse vegetation. When rain falls, there is little vegetation to absorb it, so the water runs off rapidly, causing much erosion. To qualify as a desert, an area must have less than 10 inches of rain annually and the rain must fall irregularly, which is exactly what happens here. If 10 inches were distributed evenly through the year, the effect would be grassy meadows. Here a late summer thunderstorm may commonly drop an inch or two of this moisture in a wave of water that runs off quickly in a silt-laden fury and is of little enduring use to the plants.

Dead Horse State Park has an improved campground, called Kayenta Campground, with electrical and dumping facilities for RVs, a major mode of vacation travel in this region.

The Needles Overlook is a singular lookout from a high promontory at striking stone spires.

The south entrance, besides the Newspaper Rock and Indian Ruin already mentioned, amounts to a pleasant drive through red Entrada and buff Navajo sandstone formations. It is somewhat ironic here that the more attractive landscapes, at least to this observer, are outside the park at this southern entrance, and that, once inside the park, you are too low to see the major features, which are accessible only by hikes that are too strenuous in the summer months when most travelers have their vacations.

The main physical experience of the southern part of the park is that of high, grassy mesas with sparse pinyon pine and Utah juniper trees. The dirt road out to Elephant Hill is adventuresome, but passable. Check with the ranger at the entrance to find out when they will patrol the road in case you become stranded. Carry a gallon of water per person per day in the southern area of the park.

Nearby Trips from Canyonlands National Park

Arches National Park and river rafting on the Colorado are the two main nearby attractions.

For Arches, see my Arches article.

For river rafting, which can be a one day trip or a several-day trip through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado, contact outfitters in Moab.

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Canyonlands National Park: If You Go

Start your trip planning with the official Park Service website at www.nps.gov/cany.

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