In the past 25 years there has been no shortage of tourism-related businesses that have opened in Moab. But there are few tour companies that can say that they have had their doors open in Grand County for 50 years.
Canyonlands by Night can.
“Weldon Winn, everyone called him Skinny Winn, started it in 1963,” said Preston Paxman, a guide and the Chief Executive Officer of Canyonlands by Night. “Weldon helped to do the light show in Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas. After he worked on that show he came to Moab for vacation. When he got here he said ‘Mother Nature has put everything in these rocks, all I have to do is get a program.’”
Winn moved to Moab and set about getting things together. He got a boat to use and set up a trailer that could be towed behind the truck with a propane generator and three spotlights from World War II.
He had no office. He took reservations by phone and had guests come meet him at the boat ramp next to Hwy 191.
Once everyone was on the boat he had the truck with the lighting trailer drive parallel to the boat up the river on State Route 128, lighting the cliffs as it went, said Dee Tranter, who has worked at Canyonlands by Night since 1967.
Tranter first heard about the idea at a presentation Winn gave to the Moab Chamber of Commerce.
“I thought it was the dumbest thing I ever heard. I thought he’ll last about a month,” Tranter laughed. “At the time he had an old Texas preacher doing the narration.”
After a few years Winn was looking for a new narrator and “he handed me the microphone, and I’ve had it ever since,” Tranter said.
With very few tourists coming to Moab, Winn almost closed the business after the first year, but many of the people that had done the trip liked it so much, they were able to convince him to stay open.
Though business did not boom, it did slowly grow. Then, in 1978 when Winn decided to move back to Texas, Tranter and his cousin Paxman bought the business.
The opportunity to expand came in 1988 when the cousins decided to buy the piece of land on the north side of the Colorado River, where Canyonlands by Night sits today. But developing it wasn’t easy.
“It had been used as an old junk yard. We hauled old cars, all kinds of garbage, and about 25 dumpster loads of trash off this property just to put the office in,” Paxman said.
The office was just a mobile trailer. A small dock and a small covered patio made up the rest of the property.
Then in the late 1980s and early ’90s more and more bus tours started coming to Moab. But the bus tours couldn’t eat in town and get out to the tour in time, so Canyonlands by Night started offering Dutch oven dinners.
It was a big hit.
“We tried to create a home cooked meal atmosphere and I think we have done a really good job,” said Jeromy Williams, the head chef at Canyonlands by Night. “Everything is made from scratch. We serve it in an atmosphere that’s fun and where you are encouraged to talk with your neighbor and meet new people.”
Since they started offering meals to the ever-growing tourist crowd, Canyonlands by Night expanded several times to keep up with demand. They now have 32 full and part time employees. Ten of the full-time employees are husbands and wives.
And that family atmosphere, the staff believes, is one of the main reasons for Canyonlands by Night’s popularity.
“We get numerous, numerous people telling us how much they love the (staff) and that they feel like family when they walk in,” said Mallory Burton, the office manager. “We really strive to have our customer service at an exceptional level. We don’t hire anyone who doesn’t smile.”
Canyonlands by Night now offers four, three, and one hour tours on jet boats throughout the day, several of which include their famous Dutch oven dinner. They also have a range of combination tours that include everything from 4-wheeling to horseback riding with their signature boat trips.
And though Canyonlands by Night specializes in boats, they also know about and can book nearly every activity Moab has to offer, Paxman said.
“For our people in the office, we require that they go on every trip in town. We eat at every restaurant in town so we can tell you what kind of food they have,” he said. “I have the best employees in Moab. I’d put them up against any in Moab.”
For the future Paxman sees Canyonlands by Night continuing to do what it has always done: offer a time-tested experience and to treat its guests like family.
“The reason you have this business is because you really love people,” he said. “The community has been really good, it hasn’t been me. Any fool could do it. Moab has been a good place to do business.”