They put a park on it in 1964. Canyonlands National Park. People struggled to define its borders, to
leave in Indian Creek, or to exclude Lavender Canyon, should the
Orange Cliffs be inside or outside?
congressional hearing was held. Meanwhile rocks off the Orange
Cliffs broke loose and moved from BLM land into proposed park land
and no one knew.
Lost Canyon flash-flooded and
dumped a load of pulverized cottonwood trunks and crushed boulders
into what is now called the Needles District.
No papers were signed for it. It was not even
The park was draped over the
confluence of the Green and the Colorado Rivers like a
527-square-mile acetate overlay. There were many battles and
concessions, with conservation groups squaring off against county
commissioners and uranium prospectors. They were talking tourism
dollars versus what some saw as honest ways of making a living. And
there was the valid argument that no one would visit a park which
had few roads and an interior accessible only with the shedding of
blood. All the more reason for a park, supporters said, especially
a park with a wild desert at its heart, where the greatest
diversity of shapes and colors had been jumbled around big
It is a park which grudgingly gives up
its secrets. In a few places a four-wheel-drive can poke through if
you throw enough rocks into the wash-outs to build bridges. Only
two main routes are paved. The rest is raw. Even the established
trails cannot avoid the dramatic topography. Seamless inclined
stone does not yield well to trail building, and major paths are
often marked by long, black skid marks of hiking boots sliding to
You've got to stare at this land
for a few days and shuffle around for a mile or two before entering
it. It requires some familiarity, or about the time you can't find
water you will find the trails fading off on naked rock around you,
or disappearing into sandy draws. No idle
The first days on the river were like an
opening and closing of stage sets. The props were buttes, cliffs,
uplifts, and broad, open bottoms. It is a sampler canyon because
every hour brought new topography.
formation rose over our heads, eroding into pale 100-foot
amphitheaters, gaping out great holes like phantom
I forgot to bring the maps of the river.
Or maybe I never wanted them. Too confusing, all those lines. We
followed the course of the water, making stops to poke into side
canyons that increased in number as we slipped lower.
We came to the first major rise in the
rocks, a curved uplift followed by a drop known as an anticline,
which arched the strata at the edges of the river. It was chinked
by cracks along the arc like a Roman fresco. Anticlines are bulges
pressed out of the land, and where the river bisects them, they
look like roller-coaster ramps rising and falling. They continue
upwards for thousands of feet in some places, going on for miles.
They are caused by a formation of salt and evaporites, the Paradox
salts, underlying the entire region. It is the same salt extracted
in the mine upstream. ...
The next day we pulled
the canoe onto a beach stretching out of a side canyon's mouth. We
broke through tangled arms of tamarisk trees, which hold fast to
every inch of shoreline like rip-rap. Beyond the tamarisk was a
gathering of cliffs, standing around each other.
Crossbeds on their faces told stories of extinct rivers. They
ranged from ripples to 15-foot swells, rising and falling in
Sand is always laid the same way.
Where the Colorado River slices through sand banks deposited last
spring, there are identical crossbeds. Sand sinks into a pile at
the river bottom and the current feathers it into a dune. The lines
themselves are made by different-sized grains falling into place at
different rates. The flow cannibalizes sand off the upstream side
and dumps it down the lee until the only patterns left are slopes
pointing down: the direction the water flowed.
These patterns repeat themselves between one-year-old sandbars and
cliffs of Pennsylvanian age, which eroded 280 million years
Boulders had split and fallen. They formed
a garden of rock, a labyrinth of passages with crossbeds lying at
all angles. It was like an exploded library with information heaped
everywhere, out of sequence. Entropy returns the information to
active elemental pieces through erosion.
placed my palms flat against a broken surface and as I moved them,
a dusting of sand came loose. Evidence of the past, so neatly and
painstakingly stored in these formations, was washing away with an
odd, but natural, nonchalance. ...
were uniform. Small grains formed a fine rock, ensuring that when
the rock broke, it would shear off leaving behind a wall. Beneath
this cliff is a bulbous purple sandstone, undercut and recessed
from the red crossbedded stone above. Its surface was rough and
injected with larger, irregular pieces. In places the sand was
replaced by a thin conglomerate of pebbles. This section, 12 feet
thick, may represent an ancient flash flood, rejuvenated erosion
from an uplift, or a shift in a river channel off the Ancestral
Rockies, dumping larger chunks across the flood plain. Where these
formations appear they make talus slopes and rough ledges rather
Everything here is on a
swinging scale, reproducing patterns at all levels. Find a sloping
sandbar along the river and dig a channel. Dump in a few
five-gallon buckets of water and a delta of sand will form where
the new flow contacts the river. Differing speeds from even this
small, makeshift creek will leave various-sized sediments at
different points. Heavy or coarse sand will drop first on the
delta. Lighter sand and clay will sift further out where the water
is the slowest.
A few more steady buckets will
undercut curves in your channel and meanders will form. While the
meander arcs, outside water moves fast, like the tip of a swung
baseball bat, while the handle, the inside the meander, remains
somewhat still. Sandbars form in that slow water as sediments lose
momentum and sink. And like a baseball bat, the working end of the
meander is the outside where fast water carves out a cliff. The
channel migrates outward at these bends. This will perfectly mimic
the dynamics of a large river: Around curves the Colorado River
leaves sandbars on the slow insides. High-impact erosion on the
outside scours the passage into a cliff.
buckets of water dig, they may hit a clay layer of fine particles,
more firm than the surrounding sand. This creates a ledge and a
waterfall. The material beneath the clay is usually more sand,
which is less stable, so it undercuts and a plate of this clay
overhangs until the waterfall breaks it. The action of loss and
gain, surrender and tenacity are embedded in the landscape, from
the cliffs to sandbars. It emanates from sand, the locking
granules, and the water, which either liberates them or nails them
Matter, according to laws of physics, can
neither be created nor destroyed. It can only be reshuffled. And
stone on this planet can never leave, so it circulates, over eons,
like a fluid. Nowhere is the design of that fluid more clear than
Stone Desert, A
Naturalist's Exploration of Canyonlands National Park, from which
this is taken, was published last year by Westcliffe Publishers in
Englewood, Colo., 1/800-523-3692.