Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


Early Inhabitants

Small bands of prehistoric Indians, called Paleo-Indian people, roved and hunted through the Glen Canyon area at the end of the Ice Age, about 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. Later, a Desert Archaic culture developed that was based on a simple, nomadic lifestyle. 

Around 200 B.C., a new culture arose, the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) Basketmakers. They were primarily hunters and gatherers and were named for their tightly woven, elaborate baskets. As their corn production steadily increased, they built more permanent settlements called pit houses. 

Over the centuries, communities expanded into the architecturally ingenious cliff dwellings that mark the Pueblo period. These Ancestral Puebloans installed irrigation systems and used other canyon resources to make exquisite baskets, pottery, tools and adornments. 

Defiance House, located in Forgotten Canyon, was occupied at the peak of the Ancestral Puebloan culture, from A.D. 1050 to 1250. As the last of the Ancestral Puebloans left the area, Paiute, Ute and Navajo tribes moved in (and still live in the Colorado Plateau area today). 

Daring Expeditions

Two young and spirited Spanish priests from Santa Fe led the first documented journey through the area in 1776. En route home after a futile attempt to find an overland trail to California, the Dominguez-Escalante party of 10 men cut through the Glen Canyon area as a harsh and early winter threatened their survival. Without the help of guides, they negotiated the maze of canyons, keeping detailed journals and maps. They named many of the features of the Four Corners area, including the Colorado River.

This portion of Arizona was ceded to the United States by Mexico in 1848. Although some military groups were sent into the area, it remained largely unexplored. 

Then in 1869, Major John Wesley Powell—soldier, scholar, scientist and fearless explorer—mounted the first of his two Colorado River expeditions. He mapped, explored and kept detailed journals on the 1,000-mile trip while the public back east avidly followed his daring expeditions. Powell proved to be an intrepid leader.

The Mormon Settlers

In Powell's footsteps, Mormon pioneers came to the area. In 1871, at the direction of the Mormon church, John D. Lee established a ferryboat service across the Colorado River at present-day Lees Ferry, providing the first acces-sible canyon crossing.

One of the most courageous events of the early Utah pioneers was the Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition of 1879—1880. More than 200 people, 83 wagons, nearly 400 horses and more than 1,000 cattle headed eastward across southern Utah. Ahead of them lay 290 miles of the most -difficult terrain imaginable. They expected to reach their destination in six weeks, but instead, it took six months. At a point opposite Cottonwood Canyon, overlooking the Colorado River, they found it necessary to chop and blast the perilously steep path now known as "Hole-in-the-Rock." Ultimately, the settlers reached their destination, which is the town of Bluff, Utah today.

Gold and Grass

When gold was discovered in 1871, miners came in hordes to separate flour gold (fine flecks) from the mud of the Colorado and San Juan rivers. Much later, in the 1940s and early 1950s, there was a great mining boom in the area, this time it was for uranium.

Grass became another valuable resource as cattle and sheep ranches were established in the late 1800s. Drought and overgrazing affected the cattle industry, as did rustling. Robbers Roost, the occasional hideout of Butch Cas-sidy and the Wild Bunch, was located up the Dirty Devil River.

Tourism Comes to Glen Canyon

As time passed, increasing numbers of explorers, prospectors and pioneers were experiencing Glen Canyon. It was not until the early 1920s that tourism took the form of river trips outfitted and guided by David Rust, an early guide in Kanab. Rust built the trail from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, and then spanned the River with its first aerial crossing, by a tram attached to a cable. Rust took his tourists through Glen Canyon in canvas fold boats brought by wagon to Hite Crossing, and then taken out at Lees Ferry.

The Making of a Park

The area that is now Glen Canyon NRA was part of the 6,000-square-mile area proposed in the 1930s as Escalante National Park. World War II redirected national priorities and after the war, treaty agreements with Mexico and other commitments led to the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1966. 

During construction, it was agreed that the NPS would administer the reservoir's public use. In 1972, Congress established Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.