Canyonlands is a park in name only; in truth only highly organized chaos reigns

  • A side canyon ending in an impassable 300-foot pour-off

    Craig Leland Childs
  • Spires of Organ Rock

    Craig LeLand Childs
  • Topography of an entrenched Colorado River meander with 500 feet of relief


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?

A 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 permitted.

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 rivers.

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 hard landings.

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 vacations.

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.

The Navajo formation rose over our heads, eroding into pale 100-foot amphitheaters, gaping out great holes like phantom mouths.

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 succession.

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 ago.

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.

I 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. ...

The cliffs 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 than precipices.

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.

As the 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 down.

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 here.

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.

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