Southern Utah's high desert beckons with a shout and red-rock cliffs streaked black like tar and convoluted canyons and eroded spires

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

By —— Bio and Archives--April 30, 2011

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imageIt’s that time of the year, late April when southern Utah’s high desert beckons with a shout and red-rock cliffs streaked black like tar and convoluted canyons and eroded spires demand homage, photographically speaking.

This mind-altering terrain of 377,000 rugged acres 40 miles southwest of Moab cradled between the LaSal, Abajo and Henry Mountains and trisected by the twisting turns of the Colorado and Green rivers defies our paltry imaginations. Up close and personal the land is surprisingly verdant, and its million colorful canyons will forever alter any preconceived notion you might harbor of what a desert is supposed to look like. Brown, flat and perennially parched it is not.

Unlike Arches and Zion National Park, Canyonlands is remote and largely inaccessible. It’s vast and potentially perilous. Consequently, comfort-seeking, asphalt-hugging hordes drawn to the sublime and out for a quick nature-fix keep their distance from the heart and soul of this great land. And for that we thank them.

I fell in love with Canyonlands thirty years ago and the romance marinated to perfection over time, seeping into the marrow and deep places that matter. Back then in the days of hair I knew nothing of red-rock, sandstone and the geologic marvels of southern Utah until a spry lass - bonny, bright and dishwater blond - dragged me out of the Rockies and onto the Colorado Plateau during spring break my sophomore year at college.


“Trust me,” she said as we dropped down into the vast basin late one night under a pudgy, full moon, the old Ford Courier rolling along the base of thousand-foot cliffs that loomed overhead, the broken terrain etched in silhouette or soaked in the creamy white glow of that night’s gentle light. We rolled out onto the flats, then through narrow confined spaces all the way to Elephant Hill, no one around, straining to make sense of all those spires and white domes and mushroom caps that dot the landscape ad infinitum. Blocks and towers and narrow slits and a picket-fence wall of pinnacles and sandstone needles that pierce the empty sky.

“What is this place?” I muttered in confusion as we trudged on foot through a long, narrow slit, a deep crack in the rock, then stepped out in the open and down a dirt trail through a small amphitheater, passing twisted juniper trees under the round circle of the moon. I knew she was lost. “Just trust me,” she said, confident we would find her favorite spot, a cave I was told, a big hole that emptied out over a deep canyon, and above that, a ledge on the edge of that canyon with splendid views during daylight hours - and lots of privacy. She stopped and turned around to face me. “And whatever you do, don’t ever, ever, ever step on the cryptobiotic soil. Ever.”


That gave me pause and time to catch my breath and scratch my hairy head. “The what? The cryptic what?” She pointed to clumps of black dirt that lined both sides of the path. “It’s alive,” she warned before hiking off into the unknown as I struggled to keep up, fumbling with the letters of the alphabet tumbling around the inside of my brain as I tried in vain to spell “cryptic-whatever,” treading lighter now, overly cautious, almost tiptoeing. “What do you mean it’s alive?”

In the opinion of some experts, nomadic hunter-gatherers hunted and gathered throughout the Southwest, including Canyonlands, from 8,000 B.C. to 500 B.C. They left little evidence of their passage here with the exception of some fascinating rock art which can be found pecked and scratched on the walls of places like Horseshoe Canyon in the far northwest.

If the Great Gallery rock art panel at Horseshoe Canyon is too far out of your way, and I bet it is, superb petroglyph drawings by early nomads, the Anasazi, now called Ancestral Puebloans among the politically correct, and Native Americans present during the age of the conquistador can also be found at Newspaper Rock right off the 211 on your way to the Needles district. Granted, Rembrandt it is not, but for a bunch of illiterate peckers and etchers preoccupied with hands, snakes, stick figures, bighorn sheep, a Ferrari, some footprints, some road kill, a skinny man on a fat horse and some dude with antlers, hey, it’s not bad.


Whitey wasn’t nearly as enamored with the place back then as we are today. Those early European pioneers, Spanish priests like Dominguez and Escalante and Mormon settlers who settled Moab, Monticello, Blanding and Bluff, and anyone trying to navigate their way around this jumbled mass of rocks and cracks and holes in the ground, thought of Canyonlands as a pain in the private parts and something to be avoided or circumvented, but not permanently settled.

With only nine inches of rainfall a year, summer temperatures hovering over the 100 degree mark and snowy white winters below zero, there were more opportune places to make a stand and raise a family. Oh, and when it rains? Watch out for the mud unless you enjoy stomping around with six-inch clumps of sticky clay on the soles of your boots or getting your Jeep stuck up to the hubs in a ditch. Towing fees routinely exceed $1,000 a pop.

One-armed explorer John Wesley Powell and his brave group of fellow adventurers floated the Green and Colorado rivers in treacherous wooden boats through the heart of present-day Canyonlands during the 1860s on their way through the Grand Canyon. He was impressed like the rest of us, writing, “...The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock - cliffs of rock; plateaus of rock; terraces of rock; crags of rock - ten thousand strangely carved forms.” And he didn’t see the half of it.


Cows and lonely cowboys hung out here during winter when local ranchers grazed cattle out in the open country and among hidden canyons and draws from the 1880s to 1975, before and after Canyonlands was designated a national park in 1964. Notorious Butch Cassidy and a passel of other glorified deadbeat outlaw thugs holed up for long stretches in that extremely rugged country around the Maze west of the Colorado.

And then we blew up Hiroshima and Nagasaki and stood toe-to-toe with the Soviets and embarked down the path of domestic nuclear energy production which resulted in high demand for uranium beginning in the 1950s. And the one thing southern Utah has lots of, besides exquisite scenery and solitude, is uranium, the extraction of which necessitated the construction of over 1,000 miles of roads throughout southeast Utah.

Fortunately, few viable uranium deposits were discovered in the Canyonlands area, and in an ironic twist, those new roads which would be considered anathema from the purists’ perspective today opened up much of this park to the traveling public; four-wheelers, Jeepers and motorheads by the gross.

Quite the spectacle watching them rev and roar up and down virtually impassible roads or imagined pathways cut out of sandstone, grinding back and forth up STEEP switchbacks and down lumpy boulder fields and stair-step drops, backing up, jumping forward, bouncing, bouncing, tossing their passengers side to side as engines roar and tires squeal and hikers stand off to the side perplexed at the carnival show, the motorheads loving it with deep passion that borders on the obsessive.


After years of camping in the outdoors I had mastered the art of the squat. The first thing you must do is make sure no one is watching, although I made an exception for my college coed who waited patiently under that same full moon while I assumed the position; legs shoulder-width apart, knees bent, rear out, a look of helpless dismay etched on my beleaguered face. And with a deep breath and a grunt and a mighty spring in my young step I leaped out over Mother Earth’s dark and lumpy cryptobiotic soil, landing with a gasp and a groan on a slab of white capstone. Not an easy feat with a 50-pound pack strapped to your back.

It went on like that for a couple of hours, hopping and skipping over the good earth, like dancing over dry rocks in a wet stream, like a couple of prancing tooth fairies in tights. Like, … like … you know, … like a couple of diehard environmentalists determined to save the planet.


But it was all for a good cause. These piles of biological crusts are seemingly everywhere and are easily taken for granted by the unknowing and inconsiderate. They form a vital foundation for plant life around these parts, a living ground cover that looks like knobby, black lumps of black lumpy stuff, maybe tiny, ninth-century Irish castles crumbling with the ages, havens of living organisms dominated by cyanobacteria and fungi, lichens, green algae and mosses. They also store organic matter, nutrients and water for regional plant life - according to a few quotes from the NPS brochure we picked up at the Needles visitors center last week.

The third district, after the Maze and Needles, is Island in the Sky in the north sector of the park, with honorable mention going to spectacular Dead Horse Point State Park. To reach Dead Horse Point drive seven miles north of Moab on the 191, then west on the 313, I don’t know, a ways, and at the fork veer left until you reach the state park. You’ll be climbing quite a bit and you’ll know you’re there when you cross a very narrow natural bridge maybe 30 feet wide that separates the small peninsula from the mainland.


In the old days cowboys would corral wild horses out on the point and fence off that narrow bridge. Though handy for the drovers, it proved deadly for a herd of horses who were left to die of thirst in one of the most visually stunning places on earth. Hence, Dead Horse Point, according to legend.

I try not to think of those noble beasts suffering like that, and I long for the days when they charged no admission, when we camped out near the ledge in view of a beautiful natural arch for free, and the ever-thickening crowds hadn’t discovered these glorious 5,200 acres that tower 2,000 feet above the deep Goose Neck bends of the Colorado River. The panorama will knock your socks off. The land plunges at your feet, here, there, sheer walls falling away to great depths, the contorted landscape beyond human comprehension, the natural composition outstanding. It will bring tears to your eyes if you’ve got a heart. Don’t miss it.


But if you do, you can take the right fork back at the junction instead and drive, I don’t know, a ways, and once in Canyonlands National Park follow the winding paved road out onto the Island all the way to Grand View Point. As the name suggests, Island in the Sky is a lofty, juniper-covered island, or mesa, way up in the sky surrounded by more sheer drop-offs with skyscraper vistas, enormous flat walls and more red cliffs burnished black that plunge forever down. And at the end of the road lies the point.

Here, the view is without a doubt beyond grand as the canyons of Canyonlands below you unfold like a shag carpet to the farthest horizon, crimson red and vibrant orange at opportune light, tangled and twisted and calling ... yes, calling you, even you. Just don’t step on the cryptobiotic soil, please. It’s alive! And yes, we found that elusive cave in the cliff overlooking the deep canyon just like my bonny lass promised … the very next day.



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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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