Canyonlands Dark Sky


CanyonLands is a relatively new National Park opened in the 60’s. It is a 90 minute drive from Moab; rugged and minimally developed. Ninety-five percent of the park can only be reached by hiking or 4×4 trails, many of them considered “high technical difficulty.” ATV’s are not allowed. There are no amenities like food, gas or cell phone service. The only flushing toilets are in the visitor center. The campsites are paved, but primarily to keep vehicles from damaging the surrounding desert.

Even the dirt here is unique. It is called “biological soil crust”. The black knobby soil is primarily created by cyanobacteria, and home to lichens, mosses, green algae and microfungi. And more curious, when the crust is dry, the organisms are dormant, but in the rainy weather, the move through the soil forming a web of stick fibers that hold the soil and the inhabitants in a sponge-like structure that retains water, and eventually makes a home for larger flora. If you look at the soil in the lower left of the cactus flower photo you can see the knobby crust. The sandy colored soil here is another form of biological soil crust that holds the soil. That is the reason there are no dunes in this high desert. If you step off of the trails or rock surfaces you actually damage the soil and it can take years for the crust to reform; maybe 50 or more before it can support larger plants like the cactus.

This is a certified International Dark Sky location – one of the reasons I came. Last night crystal clear and Jen, the ranger gave a talk about stars and galaxies. We all laid on a rock outcrop and she used a green laser pointer to identify the various stars and constellations. The green streak seemed to terminate on the star. How cool! After about 30 minutes with no light your eyes become really adapted to the dark and you can see even faint star clusters. These days, southern Utah is one of the few remaining places where you can have this experience.

Besides looking for dark nights, I suspect those who come here are like me and are turned off by the crowds and commercialization of Arches, Grand Canyon and Bryce. The land is vast. The pictures don’t capture it very well. (See Canyonlands Cowboys and a Bit of Remembering)

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