Canyonlands and Arches: Two visions for national parks in one town

100-foot sandstone spires form the Doll House in the Maze, the most remote section of Canyonlands National Park.
100-foot sandstone spires form the Doll House in the Maze, the most remote section of Canyonlands National Park.

“Let the people walk,” reads the quote on a sign at Arches National Park, taken from Ed Abbey’s classic of nature writing, “Desert Solitaire,” about his two seasons as a ranger there.

Despite Abbey’s connection to the park, the quote is an odd choice: Arches and its location of Moab, Utah, have become virtually everything “Cactus Ed” hated. The road he opposed turned Arches into an epitome of “windshield tourism,” allowing visitors to see nearly every attraction with little effort. Once-sleepy Moab became a hub for “adventure travel” where outfitters offer mountain biking, zip lining, off-road driving - just about anything, it seems, except plain old hiking.

In “Desert Solitaire,” “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and other bestselling books, Abbey showed why wilderness should not be paved, making him a favorite of desert rats and many others.

“Most of the formerly primitive road from Blanding (Utah) west has been improved beyond recognition. All of this, the engineers and politicians and bankers will tell you, makes the the region accessible to everybody, no matter how fat, feeble or flaccid. That is a lie,” he once wrote. “They will never know what we knew or understand what we cannot forget.”

While southeastern Utah has become more developed since Abbey’s time, travelers can still find the starkly beautiful red-rock country that drove him to rapture. This corner of the state is known for its fantastic rock formations and the wide variety of ways people enjoy the landscape, be it by foot, bike, boat or car. Moab is also unique in that it has two national parks just outside its boundaries: Canyonlands National Park and Arches are on opposite sides of U.S. 191 about 10 miles apart.

Although they share a location, Canyonlands and Arches represent dramatically different visions of what a national park can be. Canyonlands is less developed than Arches, making it more work to see. Deep in the heart of Canyonlands, after a day-long hike and a crossing of the Colorado River, a hiking buddy and I discovered “Abbey Country” in a magical place called the Maze. We saw the sources of Abbey’s love: fascinating rock formations that look like candy and dolls; haunting Indian art; colorful cacti and yes, solitude.

Hardcore hikers will better appreciate Canyonlands, while less active travelers will prefer the easy access of Arches. Any true desert lover should see both.

Arches: An Auto Park

I started reading Abbey several years ago when I lived in Tucson, Arizona. Abbey died in Tucson a decade before my arrival and had a cult following throughout the southwest. Like myself, Abbey grew up in relatively bland surroundings - in his case, southeastern Pennsylvania - and fell in love with the dramatic landscape of his adopted home.

Despite writing almost two dozen books - including one turned into a Hollywood movie, and “Desert Solitaire,” called a modern version of Thoreau’s “Walden” - Abbey never really rose beyond the designation of “regional writer.” Perhaps that’s because he really had just one subject: his love of the desert southwest and his loathing of the forces he saw spoiling it - cities, dams and tourism, among others. He was a bit of a crank, as illustrated most memorably in “Desert Solitaire” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a fictional tale about some misfits wanting to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam and something of a bible for extreme environmentalists.

Such is Abbey’s love of the desert that he wanted to be buried - sans casket - in the desert, a wish his friends carried out in an undisclosed location in southwesterm Arizona in 1989.

In “All the Wild that Remains,” a book published this year, David Gessner argues that Abbey and Wallace Stegner are two of the most important writers we can read today. Abbey and Stegner detailed the forces unraveling the American West, while holding up with awe what remains beautiful and worth saving. Gessner traveled the West chronicled by Abbey and Stegner and called it a “place of startling beauty and jaw-dropping sights. But also a place in a world of trouble.”

On a visit to Moab, Gessner notes that Abbey would have been horrified by what the place has become. Moab tourism is big business, as anyone can tell by looking at the city’s advertising campaign - “Moab: Where Adventure Begins” - that has run in Sacramento and across the country, on the radio and on the side of buses. Utah businessmen and politicians have long sought to cash in on having two national parks so close to one another.

Personally, I have nothing against mountain biking, river rafting or other activities that bring would-be adventurers to Moab. In fact, I actively participate in some of those sports.

However, there were times during my visit to Moab when all the four-wheel drive vehicles and other off-road machines gave it the feel of a Middle Eastern war zone. And I worried that all the ATVs and mountain bikes were hurting the fabric and ambiance of the desert.

Abbey shared those concerns when he was a ranger, long before Arches or Canyonlands became a national park. In a chapter of “Solitaire” called “Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” he writes that Arches changed for the worse after he left and visitors “find serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in... from 3,000 to 30,000 to 300,000...”

These days, more than 1 million people come to Arches every year, or twice as many as Canyonlands, which is four times the size as Arches.

Natural arches abound at the park, but the real reason it attracts larger crowds is a paved road that takes you a short distance from all the major attractions. Delicate Arch, the red-rock wonder that adorns Utah license plates, requires the most work to see, a half-mile hike. Indian Gardens, Fiery Furnace and other beautiful geologic formations are right next to parking lots, each with a sign with a camera on it... just in case you didn’t know that you were there to see something beautiful.

I saw every major attraction at Arches in four hours and left the park before lunch. The geology was incredible, but I felt cheated. Experiencing nature should be about more than easy sight seeing.

To the credit of the managers at Arches, they give Abbey’s arguments their due in a display inside the visitor’s center. They also say the road was needed to meet the changing interests of American tourists who want to travel by car.

Canyonlands: More Wildnerness

On the other side of U.S. 191, most of the 520 square miles of Canyonlands cannot be accessed by road. The park is divided into four sections: Island in the Sky, the most accessible unit and a popular area for mountain biking; the Needles, a more remote area with spectacular rock formations; the Rivers, where people raft the Colorado and Green rivers; and the Maze, the least accessible area in the park.

Park managers have long faced pressure to build more roads in Canyonlands. They’ve largely resisted, convinced in part by Abbey, who urged managers in letters and newspaper op-ed pieces not to repeat the mistakes made at Arches, according to a Canyonlands history published by the National Park Service in 2008. The park’s managers chose a middle ground and created a park that recognizes Canyonlands as a “major scenic attraction” and “a model for preservation of a unique natural environment.”

The ruggedness of Canyonlands can for make strenuous travel, as me and my buddy would learn as we hiked past the spires, buttes and mesas that define the park. Carved by the Colorado and Green rivers, wind and other forms of erosion, the rock formations make the place look like another planet.

Outside Magazine, Backpacker and other publications have called the Maze one of the most dangerous hikes in the country. My buddy and I did not find the Maze dangerous, but that’s because we both had GPS units and paper maps to navigate through an area with few defined trails or signs. The Maze is considered risky because it’s easy to get lost there and it’s remote.

The difficulties we had were in getting to the Maze, which is why so few people visit the area. Approximately 4,000 people go to the Maze each year, and a majority of them take a truck or a jeep, a park ranger told me. The drive from Moab to the heart of the Maze is six-hours long, the last half over treacherous dirt roads that have probably prompted a few drivers to get out and walk.

We started our hike in the Needles district, a beautiful showcase of tapering rocks that inspired its name. Rain fell not long after we left, making the ground slippery underfoot. I fell and sprained my hand and bruised an arm and a leg. No matter: I got up and continued walking, motivated by the beauty of the desert at sunset and the mystery ahead.

The following morning, we reached our next obstacle: the Colorado River. The source of water for most of the West can only be crossed by boat at this section, the nearest bridge miles away. My buddy originally had proposed having a boat meet us there and carry us across. I had a better idea: My packraft. The 6-pound raft rolls up to the size of a tent, and along with a four-piece paddle, fits in my backpack. This option was cheaper and kept motorized travel out of the itinerary.

The current on the Colorado was stiff, I thought as I ferried across with our backpacks. Trees lined the shore on the other side, complicating my docking efforts. On the return trip to pick up my buddy, my raft was pulled downstream faster than before, perhaps because of its lighter weight without the packs. While rapids were absent, they would soon come in abundance as I was at the start of Cataract Canyon, known for its big-water rapids like those in the Grand Canyon.

I got to the other side well before the rapids, albeit several hundred feet off course and much sweatier than when I started. We crossed the river without incident and made our way out of the canyon and up to the Doll House, a collection of 100-foot-high sandstone spires resembling figurines. The spires form something of a gate for the Maze and provide a suitably surreal entrance.

We awoke the following day eager to hike the labyrinth-like canyons of the Maze. We would encounter only one small group of people during our time in the Maze, and they were driven in by an outfitter. We were awed by the Land of Standing Rocks, which features the Chimney Rock and the Chocolate Drops, both of which look like their names. And we were a bit scared by Harvest Scene, an ancient Indian pictograph at the bottom of the Maze, although perhaps the previous day’s travels made us easily spooked.

We had to return the following day, meaning we only had one full day in the Maze. If that seems like a short time for such a difficult journey, I can only reply as Ed Abbey would have: The Maze is not for you. Go to Arches.