Last updated: September 10, 2018
The sun rises, casting its light across an improbable landscape. A puzzle of canyons, cliffs and baked red earth. This land appears timeless, unchanging, yet the movement of each drop of water slightly alters its face, cutting into the accumulated sediment of 300 million years.
The Colorado Plateau reveals a story of transformation. A story told in rock layers that echo ancient seas, coastal mudflats, braided stream beds, and windblown dunes hundreds of feet thick. Clues to this past lie preserved in stone, ripples of sand, or the splatter of raindrops that fell when dinosaurs walked the earth.
In what is now desert, shallow seas advanced and retreated many times, their ebb and flow leaving behind thick deposits of beach sands, salt and marine limestone. Great rivers moved tons of sediment from eroding mountain ranges to low-lying areas. Pressure from accumulating layers and filtering water converted the buried sediments into solid rock. This mass of began to erode toward its present form about 10 million years ago when regional uplifts elevated the plateau and gave birth to the Colorado River system, slowly carving the deeply incised canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers.
Thousands of smaller tributary canyons formed as flash floods scoured and deepened small washes. Great blocks of rock, fractured by faults, eroded into needles, fins, and arches.
This intricate landscape of sculpted rock sets the stage for life in canyon country.
Life has adapted to this desert. Though its vital signs may be difficult to detect, even the soil, bound by microorganisms into a knobby, black crust lives and breathes.
Summer daytime temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit, yet may drop as much as 50 degrees when night falls.
Winter brings freezing temperatures and light snowfall.
This dry region receives only about 9 inches of rain a year. Most comes in the form a brief, violent thunderstorms causing rapid runoff and flash floods. When a rare, wet spring brings heavy rains, wildflowers cover the fields. Plants and animals have developed a variety of strategies for coping with these extremes: small or waxy leaves, deep tap roots, or the ability to store water. Others live near seeps, or complete their entire life cycles during the spring, when temperatures are cooler.
Adaptations also help animals endure this desert environment. Large ears radiate heat. Fur or feathers reflect the sun. Nocturnal behavior provides escape from the intense heat of the day. Larger animals rely on their mobility to reach water sources. Mule deer and bighorn sheep may walk many miles to reach a river or a rain-filled pothole.
Ancient rock art panels hint at the relationship between the environment and the people who made this area their home for thousands of years. The mobile hunter-gatherer societies of the Archaic people gave way over time to the sedentary, agricultural society of the ancestral Puebloans. These people left Canyonlands almost 700 years ago, probably because of persistent drought. Other Native Americans, and later trappers, used this area as a seasonal hunting ground but not a permanent home.
The Colorado River and the surrounding country remained largely unmapped until the river expeditions led by Major John Wesley Powell in the 1860s and '70s. "Wherever we look there is but a wilderness of rocks, deep gorges where the rivers are lost below cliffs, and towers and pinnacles, and 10,000 strangely carved forms in every direction, and beyond them, mountains, blending with clouds."
As the West began to fill, ranchers pastured cattle and sheep in the more accessible valleys and canyons. The remains of cowboy camps still retain some of their original flavor and should be left undisturbed.
The economic incentive provided by the uranium boom of the 1950s opened this area to modern travel. Prospectors and miners built roads that crisscrossed the terrain.
As travel into this area increased, so did public awareness of its unusual beauty. Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964, preserving hundreds of square miles of remote wilderness.
The Green and Colorado rivers divide the national park into three distinct regions: the Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze.
Island in the Sky, the most accessible area of the park, allows for a leisurely drives to panoramic views that dwarf human history. Looking down on the White Rim Road, we follow a rugged four-wheel-drive and mountain biking route that traces the shoreline of an ocean that's been dry for millions of years.
The Needles district in the southeastern part of Canyonlands provides hikers and four-wheel drivers with a much closer look at the park's mosaic of colors, shapes, and forms. Primitive roads and trails weave through colorful sandstone formations.
A confusing network of canyons and mesas, The Maze remains the least accessible area of Canyonlands. With no paved or two-wheel-drive roads, and few marked trails this wild and remote region draws visitors looking for a challenging, extended wilderness experience.
Deep river canyons, with no bridges to span their great width, separate the Maze, Needles, and Island in the Sky. A barrier to cars and hikers, these rivers act as natural travel corridors for canoes, rafts, and kayaks. Inside the park, the Colorado and Green rivers remain calm until they join forces at The Confluence. Below, the enlarged Colorado rushes through Cataract Canyon with tremendous speed and power.
This landscape appears tough, invulnerable, yet even seemingly harmless actions damage this special place. Fragile living soil crusts can be crushed by the tread of careless hikers, four-wheel drivers, or mountain bikers. Pothole ecosystems may be polluted by the oils from human hands. Archeological sites are vulnerable to souvenir collecting and the spread of graffiti.
Visitors who come to appreciate this wilderness of rock are essential to its protection. Preservation of the desert is about listening as it tells its story of change, uninterrupted, holding its creatures to a standard of survival that is no more strict nor lenient than nature intends: its rivers flowing freely, heavy with silt, displaying a field of stars against the black of night, now and forever.
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A brief overview of the area's geology, natural and cultural resources, as well as recreational opportunities provides a great introduction to the park. This video is also shown at the Island in the Sky and Needles district visitor centers.