Canyonlands National Park


Cultural History

Native Peoples

The first people known to inhabit Canyonlands were the Archaic hunter-gatherers, who wandered the area 2,000 to 10,000 years ago in search of large game animals and edible plants. They lived in the open or camped under overhangs, leaving behind such artifacts as projectile points, atlatls or spear throwers, fire hearths, and ghost-like pictographs.

By 2,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers were cultivating corn and constructing slab-lined cists for storing the grains they collected. The Basketmaker agriculturists also constructed pit houses and made fine basketry. Around A.D. 450 they developed pottery, adopted the bow and arrow, and developed multi-roomed pueblos with ceremonial chambers known as kivas. The Basketmakers, and later Pueblo people, are now collectively referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans. By AD 1300 the Ancestral Puebloans left the region, perhaps because of climatic changes that made life difficult.

Exploration & Settlement

Ute, Navajo, and Paiute Indians occupied southern Utah when the Padres, Escalante and Dominguez circled Canyonlands in 1776, looking for a route between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Monterey, California. The United States recognized southern Utah as a Spanish possession with the signing of the Adams Onis treaty in 1819, but this did not deter trappers from entering the area in the early 1800s.

From 1836 through 1838, a trapper named Denis Julien left his name carved throughout the Canyonlands area, including the Colorado River canyon. The U.S. 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 expedition members drew the first accurate maps of southeast Utah and compiled geographical and geological information of the area.

River Exploration
Little was known of the Colorado River until 1869, when Major John Wesley Powell completed his first expedition from Green River, Utah through the Grand Canyon. Powell repeated the expedition in 1871-72, continuing his studies of the topography, natural history and Native American cultures. Bert Loper, Charles S. Russell, and E.R. Monett made the first pleasure run down the Colorado River through Cataract Canyon in 1907.

European Settlement
The first Europeans to settle the area were the cowboys. Al Scorup began grazing cattle in the White Canyon area near Natural Bridges in 1891 on his way to becoming one of the most influential ranchers in the region. Sheep were grazed on the Island after 1900. Cattle ranching encouraged cattle rustling, and the rugged canyons provided hideouts for such outlaws as Robert Leroy Parker (Butch Cassidy), Tom and Bill McCarthy, and Matt Warner. Robbers Roost, west of the Maze, served as a secluded refuge for such gangs.

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 in the area, such as Moab and Bluff.

In spite of the early settlers, much of the Canyonlands area remained relatively inaccessible until the uranium boom in the 1950s. After the atomic bombings in Japan ushered in the nuclear age, the Atomic Energy Commission offered monetary incentives for the discovery and delivery of uranium ore. The uranium-rich Canyonlands area lured prospectors who built many exploratory roads in search of the radioactive "gold," opening up miles of previously unexplored public lands.

Park History

  • Established as National Park: September 12, 1964
  • Park boundaries expanded: 1971

Arches National Monument Superintendent Bates Wilson first visited the area by horse in 1951, riding to the Confluence and up Salt Creek. His early mapping of archeological sites in Salt Creek and Horse Canyon spurred the interest of University of Utah archeologists. Wilson worked from 1951 to 1955 for an official National Park Service investigation of the area.

In 1957 he began leading visitors into the Canyonlands area, publicizing its scenic and recreational values, and recommending the creation of a "Grand View National Park." Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, visited the area in 1961 and began campaigning for a national park on what were then Bureau of Land Management lands. On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill establishing Canyonlands National Park, consisting of 257,640 acres. The park was expanded in 1971 to its present 337,570 acres.

Natural History

Plants & Animals

A unique desert plant community that you are sure to see during your travels in canyon country is cryptobiotic crust. This crumbly, black soil crust is made up of fungi, lichen, algae, moss and bacteria all living together in a symbiotic relationship, one in which all the members benefit from their communal co-existence.

Cryptobiotic crusts are very important to the desert community because they stabilize the soil and make it less prone to erosion, make the soil more fertile by providing nutrients such as nitrogen, and soak up and hold water. A plant seed that lands in cryptobiotic crust has a greater chance of survival than one that lands in loose, dry sand. Unfortunately, cryptobiotic crusts are very fragile. One misplaced footstep can quickly turn crust to dust and recovery and regrowth may take decades. Please, watch your step, stay on the trail, hike on slickrock or in dry washes whenever possible.

Carnivores, like the coyote, bobcat, mountain lion and birds of prey, rely heavily on the fluids found within the animals they eat to supplement the water they drink. Fur and feathers can play a double role in some animals by shielding them from the sun during the day and insulating them from the cold at night.

Animals with a short sleek pelage are still able to lose heat fairly easily after exertion by laying the hair down flat. Birds can droop their wings down away from their bodies allowing heat to escape from their thinly feathered undersides. Birds and large mammals commonly pant as a means to increase heat loss.


Canyonlands National Park is a showcase of geology. The arid climate and sparse vegetation allow the exposure of large expanses of bare rock and the great canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers reveal 300 million years of geologic history.

Canyonlands is located within a geologic region called the Colorado Plateau. It is a great section of continental crust that has endured millions of years of rock building and erosion. Advancing and retreating oceans left thick deposits of beach sands and marine limestones and buried sediment became solid rock as pressure from overlying layers and filtering water cemented them.

After millions of years the erosion that continues today began. Roughly 10 million years ago, plates in the Earth's crust moved so the western edge of the continent began to rise. The slowly rising land mass, including the Colorado Plateau, became higher and therefore more susceptible to erosion. Newly elevated highlands captured rain and snowfall and gave birth to the Colorado River system. The uplifting land caused rivers to down-cut faster, entrenching themselves in solid rock. The results are the 2,000-foot deep canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers cutting through the heart of Canyonlands.

Canyonlands is one of the best places in the world to see classic landforms and the result of geologic processes. Much of our current understanding of the principles of geology come from this area when, in the late 1500s, geologists first studied the Colorado Plateau, reading the history of the Earth from one of its most exciting chapters.

  • Upheaval Dome: Island in the Sky
  • Joint Trail: Needles
  • Confluence Overlook: Needles.
  • Colorado and Green River canyons: To see a cross section of the park, take a trip by canoe, raft or jetboat through the canyons that created this landscape.

Thunderstorms drop huge amounts of rain locally. With little soil and vegetation to hold the water, runoff is fast. It quickly collects in gullies and small washes, magnifying its power as water funnels into the canyons. The erosive power of the debris and sediment-laden water is tremendous. Flash floods are continually scouring and deepening the canyons.

Hoo Doos
In the Needles District, great systems of parallel cracks formed as overlying rock slid toward the Colorado River on the relatively slippery salt of the Paradox Formation. From high vantage points, a cracked checkerboard landscape is visible. Over time, rainwater and snow penetrate through weak joints. The cracks widen and erosion accelerates with increased surface area until only thin fins and "needles" of rock remain.

Soft rocks that would normally form slopes can also become spires if they have a layer of erosion resistant caprock on top. A good place to see caprock spires is Monument Basin, visible from Grandview Point in Island in the Sky.



Hi! I was just browsing to see if any new articles had been published on my latest love ... The Upheaval Crater Complex just west of Moab, Utah. This area is in need of some serious study! Gene Shoemaker started the ball rolling, but his death in a car accident seems to have slowed down the process. Here are a few more bits you may want to add to your presentation. I haven't found accurate measurements on ANYTHING!

Briefly, halfway through the period of laying down the Navajo Sandstone (undisturbed in the half above the rift!) in a shallow sea, an asteroid (1600 ft di.) struck th water/sand at an angle of about 75 - 80 degrees traveling from south east to northwest at ???? speed. The gout of water/sand thrown out on initial impact carved the basis for Taylor Canyon to the northwest, while the angular down pressure began ripping a perpendicular rift (Robert's Rift) that moments later was about 50 miles long and two miles deep. As the sandstone formations were crushed downward, wavy funnels of sand were ejected at various areas around the parameter ranging from 60 ft. thick in the southeast to about three hundred feet in the northwest (omitting the area washed away by the initial gout).

The asteroid appears to have penetrated or compressed 6,500 ft. of strata, forcing the Hermosa Formation to shoot 2,500 ft. up into Robert's rift along with enough volatiles to blanch the red rocks white 20 ft. wide on both sides of the rift for 25 miles or so. As the shattered (?) asteroid rebounded, the now superheated groundwater addeda series of steam explosions to the rock rebound, doming a ten mile structure, andblasting thecentral three mile area away.

Heavy erosion in the area has removed most of the evidence, butshatter cones can still be found laying around, and the sandstoneexhibits shocked quartz. SALT? Ha!!!

All the clues are there. Your visitors would find it more interesting if they knew more about what they were looking at.



Other DesertUSA Resources
Gem Trails Guides Book
Related Books & Gifts - Trading Post
Desert Rocks, Minerals & Geology Index
Desert Survival Primer
Desert Survival Kit



Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms



Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
The movie Stagecoach, in 1939 introduced two stars to the American public, John Wayne, and Monument Valley. Visiting Monument Valley gives you a spiritual and uplifting experience that few places on earth can duplicate. Take a look at this spectacular scenery in this DesertUSA video.

Glen Canyon Dam - Lake Powell Held behind the Bureau of Reclamation's Glen Canyon Dam, waters of the Colorado River and tributaries are backed up almost 186 miles, forming Lake Powell. The dam was completed in 1963. Take a look at this tremendous feat of engineering - the Glen Canyon Dam.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly NM offers the opportunity to learn about Southwestern Indian history from the earliest Anasazi to the Navajo Indians who live and farm here today. Its primary attractions are ruins of Indian villages built between 350 and 1300 AD at the base of sheer red cliffs and in canyon wall caves.


Take a look at our Animals index page to find information about all kinds of birds, snakes, mammals, spiders and more!

life straw

Rockhound books

USB Charger solar

Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

Copyright © 1996-2019 and Digital West Media, Inc. - -