Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (left) photographed in the 1960's with the "Father of Canyonlands," Bates Wilson. [Photo courtesy of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands]

Canyonlands National Park turns 50 this week and the Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks (FACP), in conjunction with the National Park Service (NPS), are putting on a celebration.

FACP Executive Director Joette Langianese, said that there are many events planned to commemorate the anniversary.

“This is a great opportunity for us to celebrate what we have here in our own backyard,” she said. “Consider this the time to be inspired by the vast wilderness character of Canyonlands and enjoy the solitude and adventure that it offers.”

Canyonlands National Park encompasses 337,598 acres of rugged and remote landscape centered around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The park is characterized by its grand vistas, myriad twisting canyons, and strange erosional features, and is divided into four districts; the Needles, the Maze, the Island and the Sky, and the river canyons themselves.

“Canyonlands National Park offers something rare,” superintendent Kate Cannon said. “It has great natural beauty, it is remote and largely primitive, and it offers the chance to experience solitude and personal challenge.”

Bates Wilson, often credited with being the “Father of Canyonlands” was instrumental in the park’s creation. An early superintendent of Natural Bridges and then Arches National Monument, Wilson’s love and fascination for the region drove him to have it protected in the national park system.

He found an ally in then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and the two worked tirelessly with local citizens, county commissioners, and politicians on a state and federal level. Wilson’s favorite thing to do was to take people out into the country on camp-outs and let them see it for themselves.

After much negotiation, and often facing strong opposition, the two succeeded in having the designation of a park brought before Congress. And on Sept. 12, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

“The 50th anniversary of the park is an occasion to look back gratefully at the foresight of Congress in establishing the park, but then to turn and look ahead – far ahead – and consider how to keep the rugged, remote, and undeveloped nature of this park that people now cherish,” Cannon said. “That is our challenge.”

The celebration runs from Thursday, Sept. 11 through Saturday, Sept. 13, and includes film screenings, a book signing, an art show, and a picnic in the park complete with dutch-oven cooking where folks can mingle with some of the park’s first rangers.

And on Friday, Sept. 12, 50 years to the day that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation creating Canyonlands National Park (CNP), a ceremony and dinner will be held in the Needles District of CNP. This event however, is already filled to capacity.

The festivities begin on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 7 p.m. with a screening of three historic films about the Canyonlands region presented by Roy Webb, river historian, author of books, and retired multi-media archivist at the University of Utah’s (U of U) Marriott Library.

“I started backpacking in the Needles and Island in the Sky in the 1970s, and floating the Green and Colorado in the early 1980s. I always loved the diversity of Canyonlands,” Webb said. “It’s a place that deserved protection and love then and deserves it now, and I’m happy to be part of the celebrations of its 50th birthday.”

The first film, “The Desert,” was made in 1949 by documentary film makers Ray and Virginia Garner. They enlisted the support of superintendent Wilson, who provided them with a Jeep and a guide to take them into “the land in between,” referring to the area between the two monuments, a rugged landscape of twisted canyons and fantastic formations centered around the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.

“When Bates saw it (the film), he was so intrigued that he immediately decided he had to see the land for himself,” Webb said.

The second film to be shown was made in 1963 by Gregory Crampton and W.L. “Bud Rusho.” It was filmed on a river trip and archaeological salvage survey taken through Glen Canyon, and portions of Cataract Canyon, that were soon to be inundated by the rising waters of Lake Powell behind the then-recently completed Glen Canyon Dam.

Webb said that though the original film is about 1 1/2 hours long, he will be showing a portion of the film that depicts the stretch from Moab into Cataract Canyon, most of which is now protected by CNP.

The final film of the evening will be Charles Eggert’s “The Sculptured Earth,” produced in 1962. The film was produced by the NPS at the behest of Udall to generate support for the creation of CNP. To make the film, Eggert spent 49 days exploring the remote Needles and Maze districts with Wilson and others by Jeep, foot, and horseback.

At the time, the film was originally scheduled to premiere at the University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall, the screening was canceled because of political controversy within the state about the park’s creation.

“The creation of the park was very controversial in Utah, with grazing and mining interests, as well as the Utah State government, opposed to the idea,” Webb said.”The Sculptured Earth” is widely considered to have been very important in swinging public opinion toward supporting CNP.”

In addition to the celebration, FACP also commissioned a book about Bates Wilson whose tireless efforts and passion for the beauty and vastness of Canyonlands eventually resulted in the creation of CNP.

“The legacy of Bates has always been at the forefront of FACP mission and values,” Langianese said. “One of the best ways to keep his legacy alive was to write his biography.”

Langianese said that they formed an “ad-hoc” book committee with Andy Nettell, owner of Back of Beyond Books, and Anne Wilson, Bates Wilson’s daughter, to serve as co-chairs. They selected former local resident Jen Jackson Quintano to write the book and “Blow Sand In His Soul”, the story of Bates Wilson, was born.

Anne Wilson said that growing up, she was always aware that her father was integral in the establishment of Canyonlands.

“I remember hearing that some called him the “Father of Canyonlands” and thinking that was a pretty big deal, but when he ever spoke of it, it was always with humility and a recognition of all the other people who were a part of the process.” she said. “He mostly spoke about the places and visiting them and had great stories of exploratory trips.”

Anne Wilson said that one of the remarkable things about her father was his ability to draw people together and transcend differences.

“He enjoyed people; he really listened to them and he found ways to work with them,” she said. “I think his innate respect of differing perspectives always came through, and that combined with his infectious love of canyon country, knowledge about it, and sense of humor were ingredients that culminated in a great accomplishment for us all which is Canyonlands National Park.”

Anne Wilson said CNP’s 50th anniversary is “a great thing to celebrate.”

“The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Canyonlands is a great opportunity to learn about what went into to establishing the Park and who the players were,” Anne Wilson said. “And, it is an important opportunity to reflect on the next 50 years and what we, as a community, want for ourselves and the landscapes that surround us.”

For more information visit the FACP website at

Events will commemorate golden anniversary of Canyonlands National Park

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of Canyonlands is a great opportunity to learn about what went into to establishing the Park and who the players were. And, it is an important opportunity to reflect on the next 50 years and what we, as a community, want for ourselves and the landscapes that surround us.

What: “The Desert” documentary screening to kick off CNP’s 50th-anniversary celebration

When: Thursday, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.

Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.

Cost: Free