Canyonlands is named after the sandstone pillars of that area that dot the sky. This winsome national park has a rich and intriguing history that many people don't know about. For those who want to learn more about the impressive history of Canyonlands National Park, read on to discover how this natural playground came to be!
Fast Facts: About Canyonlands
Canyonlands has a breathtaking desert vista, two rivers, water-eroded sandstone canyons, mesas, and buttes that tower above you and stretch further than the eye can see—and that’s only a fraction of its beauty.
Canyonlands was established in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a legislation that designated the area as a national park. Occupying a whopping 527 square miles of land, it's the biggest national park in Utah, beating out Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks for the title.
Canyonlands is situated near the cozy town of Moab and located directly southwest of Arches National Park. Although the park is one big area, it's divided into four distinct regions—Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.
Before the Park: Visitors of Canyonlands
Canyonlands was designated as a national park in the mid-1900s, but the land itself formed long ago. Rock deposits were carried to the Canyonlands from elsewhere, and gradually, they built up, creating distinctive layers of sedimentary rock. The wind and water broke these layers down, carving out the rock formations we see today.
For centuries, Canyonlands has been a popular haunt for humans. The first known visitors dropped on by over 10,000 years ago. But they weren't there to gawk at the awe-inspiring scenery. They were questing after invaluable natural resources. Let's take a look at the various visitors this area had before it became known as Canyonlands. The very first of them were known as the Paleoindians.
Our ancestors, the cold-resistant Paleoindians, lived through the Ice Age. Living during an ice age was tough. The Paleoindians survived by eating large game and what few edible plants survived the frigid environments. And luckily for them, Canyonlands had an abundance of food sources. The Paleoindians throwing weapons and stone tools to hunt game and harvest plants in the area.
But these ancient humans rarely stayed in one place for long, and none settled in Canyonlands permanently.
It wasn't until A.D 250 that a group of farmers decided to call Canyonlands their home sweet home. They were the Ancestral Puebloans and they realized that Canyonlands was the perfect place to put a technique they recently learned to the test. That technique was floodwater farming.
They settled along the Salt Creek Canyon and remained there for over a century. But in A.D 1300, climatic changes made floodwater farming unsustainable, driving them out of the region they called home.
The Ute, Navajos, and Paiutes
Not long after the Ancestral Puebloans left the area, the Ute tribe moved in. Like the Paleoindians, they were hunters and gatherers, constantly on the prowl. They never established permanent bases in the desert region but made extensive use of its abundant resources.
The Navajo and Paiute tribes also spent some of their time in Canyonlands, though it was never their main domain.
From the late 1700s to the late 1800s, Utah was a Spanish territory. Members of the Domínguez–Escalante expedition came across it when they were searching for a route from Mexico to the California coast.
Spanish ownership of Utah didn't stop ambitious American and French explorers from venturing into the region and mapping out the canyons and rivers of the region, including those in modern-day Canyonlands.
The merger of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad and the Rio Grande Western railroad made traveling to and across Utah a breeze. Settlers flooded into the area and formed small farming communities such as Moab and Bluff.
While farmers were plentiful in these small communities, ranchers were even more plentiful. You couldn't trek more than a couple of miles in Canyonlands without seeing sheep or cattle getting herded by a cowboy.
In the 1950s, the United States decided to beef up its nuclear arms program. It was the middle of the nuclear arms race between America and the Soviet Union, and in order to compete, they needed more power. And to get more power, they needed uranium—and a lot of it. The government offered monetary rewards to anyone who could supply them with uranium ore.
Some of the rock layers in Canyonlands contain uranium, which made it a popular mining area. On the hunt for "radioactive gold,” as they called it, miners chipped away at Canyonlands' rock formations, carving out roads that remain today.
The Birth of a National Park
Talk of turning Canyonlands into a national park began in the 1960s, when Bates Wilson, the superintendent of Arches National Monument, visited what's now known as the Needles District in Canyonlands. Wonderstruck by its beauty, he advocated for the creation of a new national park in the area.
In 1961, Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior at the time, flew to a conference at Grand National Park. When his plane soared over the Green and Colorado rivers' confluence, he was stunned by the breathtaking view. Convinced the area was a natural wonder worth protecting, he joined Wilson in his lobbying.
Eventually, a Utah senator, Frank Moss introduced legislation to Congress that would turn the area into a national park. On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Moss's legislation, and Canyonlands National Park was established.
There you have it—the impressive history of Canyonlands National Park. That brings us to where Canyonland is today.
Nowadays, Canyonlands is a popular vacation destination for adventurers from around the globe. Countless people drive and fly to Utah each year to experience its beauty.
Many refer to Canyonlands as a natural playground—and that it is. There's something for everyone to enjoy in Canyonlands National Park, from ancient ruin tours to river expeditions to canyoneering,
If you want to explore Canyonlands' many wonders, contact Moab Canyon Tours. We have Moab private tours where our experienced guides take you and your group hiking, climbing, and canyoneering through the beautiful and history-rich Canyonlands. Contact us today to learn more about our tour packages or to book an all-private adventure!