See the power of the threatened Colorado River in Canyonlands

Dramatic red-rock canyons, buttes, mesas, and two great rivers define this southeastern Utah national park on the Colorado Plateau.

The sun peeks through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, Canyonlands offers backcountry adventures, scenic landscapes, and two major rivers.
Photograph by Josh Brasted,Getty Images

More than four times the size of nearby Arches National Park, with less than half the visitation, Canyonlands National Park abounds with backcountry opportunities: mountain biking, backpacking, canyoneering, four-wheeling, and boating. More than any other desert park, visitors come to Canyonlands for solitude and adventure.

According to archaeologists, nomadic peoples traveled here as early as 9,000 years ago. The region was briefly farmed by ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi), whose rock art is still visible there today. Rugged and hard-to-access geography helped preserve the area until the 19th century, when an army of uranium prospectors built hundreds of miles of roads in search of valuable minerals. Although the miners eventually departed, their roads remain.

The confluence of the Green River—running 700 miles from Wyoming’s Wind River Range—and the 1,450-mile Colorado River forms a northwest-tilting anchor that divides the park into its aptly named districts. To the north looms the Island in the Sky, a broad mesa with a bird’s-eye view of the river 2,000 feet below. To the south, the Needles district bristles with red and white-banded pinnacles, grabens, and arches. West of the confluence are the hinterlands of the Maze, a great place to lose oneself in the study of ancient rock art panels.

In July 1869, after two months of rowing from the headwaters of the Green River, John Wesley Powell reached the confluence during his legendary first river descent. After climbing up the walls, he wrote about the view in his book The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons: “From the northwest comes the Green in a narrow winding gorge. From the northeast comes the Grand [Colorado], through a canyon that seems bottomless from where we stand. Away to the west are lines of cliffs and ledges of rock—not such ledges as the reader may have seen where the quarryman splits his blocks, but ledges from which the gods might quarry mountains.”

In the 1922 agreement known as the Colorado River Compact, delegates from regions surrounding the Colorado River parceled out its water to seven states and Mexico. Unknowingly making their calculations during the wettest period in history, they estimated the river’s flow at 20.6 million acre-feet (maf)—more than six quadrillion gallons—a year. That’s enough water to support 35 million modern households, even though 80 percent of the river is used for agriculture.

(On the Colorado River, a long-feared reckoning is at hand.)

By 2018, following much drier years, the river’s volume had dropped to 12.5 maf—4 maf less than the delegates had split up and allocated to California, Nevada, and Arizona in the lower basin, and New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming in the upper basin, and Mexico.

In August, for the first time since the dam was built in the 1930s, the federal government declared a water shortage at Lake Mead, one of the river’s main reservoirs. Amid climate change and population growth, the ongoing “megadrought” underscores what most experts believe may be an enduring crisis in the Southwest.

Still, during early summer in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, where these two great rivers join and boaters test themselves on notoriously challenging rapids, it’s hard to see the shortage for now. One reason: The two major Colorado River dams are downstream.

Creating a national park

During the dawn of the modern environmental movement, Canyonlands National Park’s creation evoked the same preservation versus resource development storm that exists in Utah today. In 1961, Senator Frank Moss introduced the first park legislation, with support from Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. But state Governor George Clyde and Senator Wallace Bennett fought the proposal as one that would “lock up” Utah lands. Heated controversy ensued.

It came down to reconciling the differences between what Udall called the “scenery purists” versus the “resource hogs.” By 1963, Senator Frank Moss and Udall had compromised and reduced the size of the proposed park, cutting out sections prized for hunting, grazing, or minerals. More debate and more compromise followed, along with a delay that allowed the Department of Defense to fire rockets over the proposed park.

Conservationists suffered another blow in 1963, with the damming of the exquisite Glen Canyon on the Colorado River immediately downstream of the proposed national park. (This came after they had prevented a dam from being built upstream of the proposed national park, in Echo Park—now Dinosaur National Monument.)

As water began to fill Glen Canyon and pool upstream toward Canyonlands, President Lyndon B. Johnson finally signed the new park into law on September 12, 1964 (nine days after he signed the Wilderness Act). Canyonlands would be the first national park created in seven years—since Virgin Islands National Park—and it stands as the finest moment in Udall’s environmental legacy. Moss deserved much of the credit for the creation of the park, one of the most satisfying moments in his career.

Indigenous legacy

Most park visitors frequent Island in the Sky, which is close to Moab, Utah. The Needles area, also accessible by road, draws a smaller percentage of park visitors, while the remote Maze and its pinnacled labyrinth of canyons called the Doll House remain one of the most isolated and seldom-traveled corners of the contiguous U.S.

Horseshoe (formerly Barrier) Canyon, a detached section of park northwest of the main park, is known for artifacts dating back some 9,000 years. The rock art there, unlike most of the panels in the park, was created by archaic-period nomads, and could be up to 7,000 years old. Horseshoe, in particular, is famous for its Great Gallery, which shows more than 80 ocher-painted anthropomorphic figures that are up to eight feet tall.

The ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi, which meant “ancient enemies” in Navajo) first migrated into the Needles district of the park around the year 1200. Believed to have left Mesa Verde a hundred miles to the southeast when it became overpopulated, the ancestral Puebloans built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—that are still scattered throughout the park.

Tree rings show that these people lived briefly in Canyonlands, during a wetter time that supported farming. They wore fur or feather robes; plant-fiber sandals; and shell, bone, or stone jewelry. In addition to planting, they gathered piñon nuts, wild rice, and sunflower and mustard seeds to grind into flour. They kept dogs and turkeys.

In the 12th century it stopped raining, and the warlike Utes arrived. According to some archaeologists, the combination of drought and newcomers forced the ancestral Puebloans to head farther south and abandon the Canyonlands region. Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near their surviving granaries; visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.

It’s not hard to picture the lives of the ancestral Puebloans amid the ruin sites, where drawings of bighorn sheep or hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes endure.

(A decades-long fight to honor Pueblo Nations history is spurring an arts movement.)

In addition to carefully pecked or painted anthropomorphs guarding the walls, the artists often left “negative” handprints throughout the park. By spitting out mixtures of gypsum, urine, and yarrow from their mouths against their hands held against the wall, the former inhabitants effectively left their signatures along with a hint of flesh and blood. Being careful not to touch or smudge their artwork, you can view Wingate walls and sense the same heat of sandstone felt by ancient artists. It’s almost as if they could’ve passed through just yesterday.

A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks, which takes readers on an epic journey through the extraordinary and unique features that distinguish these wilderness areas.

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