The timeless magic of Canyonlands

Time stands still in Canyonlands National Park. There's the feeling that nothing is moving, growing, or changing. A stillness pervades the silence. You don't want to make a noise, or touch anything. At first, the quietness is overwhelming, but then you begin to hear things - like a branch moving, or the wind brushing against a rock, or a lizard screeching at the invaders of his territory. And suddenly you can almost hear yourself think.

Canyonlands, established as a National Park in 1964, is made up of 529 square miles of sandstone wilderness. It's a combination of colorful spires and standing rocks, ridges, fins, domes, gorges, and open sand flats. There are mammoth arches, high mesas, rushing rivers, and mysterious ancient Indian ruins and petroglyphs.

The Green and Colorado Rivers converge here to form the rapids in Cataract Canyon and then flow on to Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. As could be expected, numerous river trips are offered in the area - some lasting a few hours, others several days.

Much of southeast Utah is a desert created by eons of wind erosion. The canyons are cut into layered Cedar Mesa sandstone above ground and into the rock strata below. Typically, this desert area gets less than 10 inches of rain a year. And even that may come in a few heavy downpours that run right off, carrying soil away without soaking into the ground to sustain plant life.

Campsites in Canyonlands are primitive. The minimal facilities include a large tank of drinking water and pit toilets. No trailer hookups, no showers. Although there are a few jeep trails, relics of mining in the not-too-distant past, most areas are reachable only by foot.

Late last summer a friend and I headed south from Moab, Utah, on Route 191/163, then west on Route 211, for about 35 miles, to the Needles district of Canyonlands.

Beside the road stands Newspaper Rock, a large formation that has many petroglyphs and pictographs made by Anastazi Indians and later tribes. It is thought that when the Indians passed by the rocks they left messages for the next people who would pass that way. We were careful not to leave any messages for those who followed us.

At the Squaw Flat campground, we set up our screen tent and put the rain covering close by. It had rained the night before, but there was no rain that night on our tent. In fact, the light of the full moon shone through the treetops into our tent until the moon set. Then thousands of stars lit the sky.

We chose to take a daylong hike to Chestler Park, a natural meadow within a wall of strangely shaped pinnacles and ridges, some of which were hundreds of feet high. The round trip was about seven miles. We packed a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, and oranges, and took cameras, something to read, and water, since there is none to be found on the desert trail.

It's best to start early, rest somewhere out of the hot midday sun, and hike back in the late afternoon. So we drove three miles to the beginning of the trail at Elephant Hill. A few people were already there, some starting overnight trips. Primitive camping is permitted if you first inform the park ranger.

The start of the trail is marked by a sign, but along the way the cairns (neat little piles of rocks) point the way. We hiked around colorful sandstone formations, over great slickrock ridges, and through beautiful grassy meadows. In some places there are pinon pines and Utah junipers, prickly pear cactus, sage, and sparse grass. Then there are the lizards. Tales abound about the desert rattlesnakes and scorpions, but fortunately we met none on our trek.

It's important to stay on the trail, because a lot of the sandy area is covered with ``cryptogamic'' soil, actually composed of several species of mosses, lichens, fungi, and algae. It absorbs moisture and prevents erosion, providing nitrogen and other nutrients for plant growth. The delicate growth in this ``brown sugar soil'' is slow, so it is easily destroyed under the crunch of hiking boots.

We took pictures of some unusual formations and breathtaking views. It is a big order, however, to capture miles of incredible scenery on a little piece of 35-mm film.

At Chestler Park, we settled into the shade of a towering rock spire to spend the hottest part of the day. As the sun moved around the monolith, we moved into the shade. The heat of the Utah desert is like an oven. Yet in this desert environment, perspiration dries before it can create rivers on skin. Our exploration of the area took us through mazes of spires and age-streaked walls and into narrow crevices, and alcoves.

When the shadows lengthened we headed back to our campground. On the way, we noted how the shapes looked different, since the light now was coming from another angle.

Watching the glorious sunset from Elephant Hill made us realize it would take a long stay to explore Canyonlands fully. If only the National Park Service would let us live here for about a year. Or could we possibly get jobs as rangers?

If you go

Canyonlands National Park is open year round. No reservations are possible; people are allowed in on a first-come, first-served basis.

For details about camping and ranger talks, contact the National Park Service, 446 S. Main St., Moab, UT 84532.

Two books may be helpful: Edward Abbey's ``Desert Solitaire'' (Touchstone Books) and ``The Sierra Club Guide to the Natural Areas of Colorado and Utah'' (Sierra Club).

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