This fall, I have a sabbatical from teaching history at Fort Lewis College to research and write about public lands.
Sixty years ago, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall proposed a “Grand Circle” of southwestern national parks. When the opportunity came to lead a September tour for four couples over 10 days to five national parks within the Grand Circle, I eagerly agreed.
We left Flagstaff headed north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Nothing quite prepares you for that first look over the edge at millions of years of geology spread out before you like a book, a metaphor first used by that intrepid explorer John Wesley Powell, who studied the canyon from the bottom up beginning in 1869.
Ten years earlier, Lt. Joseph Christmas Ives had ascended the canyon by water and gotten his small steamship stuck in rapids. He famously wrote that the Grand Canyon “looks like the Gates of Hell. The region ... is, of course, altogether valueless. Ours has been the first and will undoubtedly be the last, party of whites to visit the locality.” Not quite. Grand Canyon now welcomes 4.5 million tourists from around the world. On the South Rim on a sunny September day, we heard visitors speaking six languages as we all stared over the edge.
The National Park Service is doing an exemplary job welcoming visitors who have rushed back after COVID-19, though some buildings and interpretive centers remain closed. Instead, rangers greet you under sunshade canopies. We strolled the Rim Trail near Mather Point and then drove to Grand Canyon Village to walk the heart of the park from Vercamp’s Visitor Center to the historic Kolb Brothers Photography Studio. The next morning we dropped off the top to descend a mile into the canyon on Bright Angel Trail.
Many visitors come to southwestern national parks for selfies. Some want to photograph themselves and each other with scenic backgrounds to instantly share with friends back home. Rarely do these folks leave pavement or well-maintained gravel trails. They seek scenery, not full engagement with the landscape.
To drop below the rim in the cool of a fall morning and find serious backpackers straggling up the trail having camped below in 114-degree heat was a revelation. Some Americans walk only on beaches, at golf courses or in malls. To hug the canyon walls when a mule train clip-clopped by leaving fresh manure on the stone trail was a new olfactory sensation. We drank water, took obligatory photos and hiked back up.
I have many memories from the Grand Canyon: being there at 6 with my family, hitchhiking in as a college student, taking my wife there, hosting family reunions in the little Lincoln log cabins on the North Rim. Yes, the canyon is about geology and rocks from the basement of time at 1.6 billion years old, but it is also about us as Americans and what we find and bring to the canyon before we finally turn away and head home.
It rained steadily the morning our tour left. To see the canyon in fog is to see it in one of its many timeless moods. We drove east to Desert Watchtower, built in 1932 by Hopis under the direction of Mary Colter. Access to the tower is now closed by order of a fire marshal, but the view remains the same. A new bronze plaque commemorates those who died in 1956 in Crash Canyon when a United Airlines flight and a Transworld Airlines plane collided before the start of the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules and regulations.
I drove on to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, now shrunk to 26% of its capacity. Because my group was to raft below Glen Canyon Dam, we stopped near Page, Arizona, to hike to Horseshoe Bend, which has become a must-see social media site and an epicenter for selfies.
We joined throngs of other tourists. We stayed behind the recently-installed fence, but dozens of other visitors clambered atop the sandstone to look at tiny kayakers hundreds of feet below. The festive air seemed like a mini-southwestern Burning Man with chaos all around and no visitor center, no rangers, no water, no signs – just people laughing, staring and, one hopes, not falling to their deaths.
The next day we hiked into Antelope Canyon X, which is a segment of Antelope Canyon divided up by Navajo families on their traditional grazing areas who now welcome tourists for 1.5-hour walks. This is a new, successful style of Indigenous tourism especially important after the closure of the Black Mesa coal mine and Page’s three-stack power plant.
Traditional Navajo families can’t make much money on cattle and sheep, but tourists paying $100 each for slot canyon tours booked on the internet have created a viable, sustainable economy. For Antelope Canyon X’s family owners their big break came with busloads of Korean tourists flying from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and then pouring into the slot canyon. Here’s a new source of revenue not from grazing the thin grasses on top, but from exploring the hushed, sensuous, sculpted sandstone below.
We left Page for Springdale, Utah, and Zion National Park. Because it is only three hours from Las Vegas, Zion is constantly crowded and feels like an urban city park with vast red rock walls accessed by an efficient shuttle bus system. Climate change and late monsoons brought five separate flood alerts of the Virgin River to our cellphones.
At Zion we strolled through red mud. The waterfalls on the Emerald Pools trail gushed at 10 times their normal flow. This season a tourist was swept away and drowned while trying to hike the Narrows, which we saw at flood stage as a seething cauldron of rushing beige water.
From Zion, I drove to Bryce Canyon National Park, which because of increased traffic now sports a roundabout on the highway to get into the park. Ruby’s Inn near the entrance is surrounded by a newly-named Bryce Canyon City with a host of fresh motels and resorts.
As we walked the Rim Trail, fog lifted exposing the sandstone spires, which look like melting creamsicle popsicles. In fact, what we were seeing was the top of the Grand Staircase, the newest geology on the Colorado Plateau to go with the oldest we had seen staring into the Inner Canyon at the bottom of Grand Canyon. We all agreed how much we like the colors at Bryce.
At Capitol Reef, we hiked Grand Wash into a narrows with deep cuts through Navajo sandstone descending toward the Fremont River. Because of heirloom orchards in the park, the Gifford House serves individual-sized homemade pies. Add a small container of vanilla ice cream with a wooden spoon and we had our lunch for the day.
Then it was on to Moab madness and the Mesa Arch Trail at Canyonlands. Arches National Park now requires entrance reservations from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Signs posted along the road indicate an hour’s wait to get into the park from that point. Slowly you creep up to the next sign, which notes a 30-minute wait, yet the long lines of traffic persist. The hike to Delicate Arch has become a must-do for travelers, with streams of tourists for sunrise, sunset and all hours in between.
Who would have thought that sandstone seduction and red rocks would bring such crowds? Not only do millions of visitors now come to Arches and Canyonlands, but in the Moab area another 3 million are spilling onto Bureau of Land Management lands with trail signs and designated camping especially along the Colorado River.
Gateway communities to national parks are thriving, but we are wearing out the scenery. Park rangers used to privately quip that the fall shoulder season was for “the newly wed and the nearly dead” or retirees, but now there is no off season. We love our national parks, but don’t go there looking for solitude or silence.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.