Why Canyonlands?

The author stands at the edge of a 1200-foot cliff face at Grand View Point in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah in April 2011.
The author stands at the edge of a 1200-foot cliff face at Grand View Point in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, Utah in April 2011.

Many people seem amazed and delighted when I tell them, or show them pictures, of our wedding at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. It is an amazing, beautiful spot, and the morning we got married there we had beautiful blue skies, abundant sunshine, and few visitors. But it’s not always like that.

Storm clouds brood over the Squaw Flat Campground in The Needles District at Canyonlands National Park in the spring of 2013. Even the trail circling the campground in this park is spectacular.
Storm clouds brood over the Squaw Flat Campground in The Needles District at Canyonlands National Park in the spring of 2013. Even the trail circling the campground in this park is spectacular.
Our small wedding party conducts our ceremony in brilliant morning sunshine at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, October 12, 2004.
Our small wedding party conducts our ceremony in brilliant morning sunshine at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, October 12, 2004.

The trouble is that Arches has, like so many once-wild places, been “discovered.” By that I mean that a combination of the internet and digital photography, huge numbers of people have decided to make sites like Delicate Arch their destination. They see gorgeous images of scenes like that and want a piece of it themselves.

The flaw in that kind of thinking is that at this point in digital history, places like Delicate Arch don’t have as much to offer because of the very discovery that made them popular. We’ve all seen these images too many times. I’ll grant you that there is some photographic potential yet to be cultivated there, but you have to take more steps toward the unusual to do it. Sunrise. In the snow. With the Milky Way behind it. And so on.

This paragraph shows Delicate Arch and its more or less continuous entourage of photographers on an afternoon in April 2013.
This paragraph shows Delicate Arch and its more or less continuous entourage of photographers on an afternoon in April 2013.
Though it is increasingly crowded, my wife and I still hold a special place in our hearts for Arches National Park and its signature feature, Delicate Arch, which we last visited and photographed in October 2014.
Though it is increasingly crowded, my wife and I still hold a special place in our hearts for Arches National Park and its signature feature, Delicate Arch, which we last visited and photographed in October 2014.

But we still see droves of self-important-looking photographers gathered on the approaches to Delicate Arch or in The Windows Section, with their $6000 cameras on their $1200 tripods, squinting joylessly at the target, making the same picture I made the first time, and every time, I go there.

It’s played out. It has become one of the “windshield tourism” National Parks. Even though my wife Abby and I have something of a special claim to the place, when we go there, we don’t take very much equipment, and we don’t take very many pictures.

But there is hope. Canyonlands.

Evening sun strikes sandstone pillars in Monument Basic, a dominant feature at Canyonlands National Park.
Evening sun strikes sandstone pillars in Monument Basic, a dominant feature at Canyonlands National Park.
The author hikes on the Chocolate Drops trail in The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park in May 2012. On the entire three-day excursion to this area, I only saw about five other people.
The author hikes on the Chocolate Drops trail in The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park in May 2012. On the entire three-day excursion to this area, I only saw about five other people.

There are parts of Canyonlands National Park that see only a handful of visitors every year. In The Maze District, for example, the rangers will warn you when you check in at the Hans Flat Ranger Station that, “You must be capable of self-sustenance and self-rescue.” Presumably this means they can’t come rescue you if you have a flat tire or a heart attack, or that it will cost thousands of dollars and will disturb the other visitors. When Dennis Udink and I visited The Maze in 2012, though, we only saw five other people during our three-day stay.

The Needles District at Canyonlands is, like the other districts, labyrinthian, as in this November 2002 image.
The Needles District at Canyonlands is, like the other districts, labyrinthian, as in this November 2002 image.
This biggest obstacle to most visitors in The Maze District at Canyonlands is the "road," seen here in 2012.
This biggest obstacle to most visitors in The Maze District at Canyonlands is the “road,” seen here in 2012.

Even in the easier-to-access sections of Canyonlands, there are only a handful of roadside turnouts. The rest of the park is scattered trail heads and many miles of trails, most of which I have hiked, but many of which, unlike the trails in Arches, remain on my to-do list. Some of the Canyonlands trails are long enough and difficult enough to require multi-day backpacking trips to make it from one end to the other.

I was able to introduce my wife Abby to Canyonlands in 2010, in the Island in the Sky District.
I was able to introduce my wife Abby to Canyonlands in 2010, in the Island in the Sky District.

Canyonlands is four and a half times larger than Arches, but receives about two and a half times fewer visitors. The most difficult marked trail at Arches is the Primitive Loop trail, so named, I expect, to at least somewhat discourage non-hikers from attempting the hike, which is 7.2 miles long and crosses varied terrain. Still, nearly every trail at Canyonlands is more difficult and primitive than the Primitive Loop.

Land of Lakes?
In November 2007, a park ranger told me that in the early 1960s, the director of the Park Service and the director of the Bureau of Reclamations each wanted to use the area that is now Canyonlands. It’s discouraging to imagine anyone ever considering covering this amazing area in water behind a dam, and I am glad and grateful the Park Service director got his way.

By the time you get more than a few hundred yards down the trails at Canyonlands, the only people you will see are fit, well-equipped, determined hikers. Not only are the trails more challenging at Canyonlands, they’re more fun, pass through more varied and beautiful terrain, and make better pictures.

I made this image, deep in the heart of The Needles District of Canyonlands, in November 2002. It took most of a day to hike to this spot.`
I made this image, deep in the heart of The Needles District of Canyonlands, in November 2002. It took most of a day to hike to this spot.
Spires of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the most common formation at Canyonlands, stand tall on the Devil's Pocket Trail in The Needles District of Canyonlands in March 2010. I hiked nearly an entire day over 12 miles, and saw fewer than a dozen people.
Spires of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the most common formation at Canyonlands, stand tall on the Devil’s Pocket Trail in The Needles District of Canyonlands in March 2010. I hiked nearly an entire day over 12 miles, and saw fewer than a dozen people.

At the most fundamental level of my outdoorism is, I believe, my desire to get as far away from civilization as I can, and the farther I get, the smaller and more humble I feel, and the more I feel like I am really accomplishing something amazing and unique. Canyonlands is one place where I can do that.

To my eye, Canyonlands is even more breathtaking than The Grand Canyon. I made this image from there Grand View Point at the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands in April 2011.
To my eye, Canyonlands is even more breathtaking than The Grand Canyon. I made this image from there Grand View Point at the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands in April 2011.
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6 Comments

  1. I have wondered often if, on my very trip to a place like Delicate Arch, I could make a photo any different than any taken by a thousand other first-timers. I doubt it. All I could do would be to make an image that would be “my” image, “my” version of the same one shot by so many other tourists. Which doesn’t strike me as very original or unique, when I think about it, but almost competitive, in a sense: my image is better than yours, or vice-versa, which is kind of a bullshitt-y way of going about photography. I’d love to this monument, but again, like you, I’m not sure what I could do that would stand out image-wise (except satisfy my own desire to take a photo there).

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  2. It interests me to hear you talk about “self-important photographers” with their expensive gear, and reminds me that really, if you don’t have the eye, all the expensive camera equipment in the world won’t help you. It reminds me that sometimes less is more, or at least equal to tons of crap that other people seem to want to carry. I mean, to tackle a place like Delicate Arch with only a Nikon Coolpix seems to me an extraordinary challenge … perhaps more so than lugging a $2K tripod all that distance. Your willingness to pare down and carry only essentials is inspirational and gives me something else to consider when planning any assignment or trip.

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  3. I would love to go there, but I am not fit enough to hike all day. Perhaps in cool weather maybe I could handle half a day. However, the older I get, the more I love the solitude and beauty of the canyons, so it would be wonderful to experience Canyonlands.
    Thank you for the beautiful images and new , interesting information.

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  4. Debbie, you are young and in good health. I challenge you to hike an entire day with some caveats: 1, you need to carry food and water – more than you expect. 2, you need to find your pace and didn’t let anyone rush you, and 3, feeling like you are at the end of your capacity to hike is just an obstacle like any other, the requires only your persistence and tenacity.

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  5. Dan, one of the most significant things about these overly-serious photographers is that none of them seem to be having any fun, and seemed genuinely annoyed if your fun “spoils” their images. Why would you even bother going if not to have fun?

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  6. There is wonder in what is most seen. Our whole planet is in motion. Sometimes the discovery is in the alignment of space and relationship. I recently told a group of young students I was like a time traveler and what I recorded would be a slice of time they could revisit when they saw the picture. That was a great shoot. We cannot escape what we ourselves bring to any moment. IDIC for Vulcans, Siamese Pickles for me. Reality is created when we perceive and to perceive takes work. It’s the real work our brain/souls crave to do.

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