I began exploring the Southwest as a tourist in 1982. Smitten with the sublime light, the uncluttered space, dendrite canyons and silk-and-steel rivers, I decided to live there someday. Life had other plans, but I kept gravitating toward the red rock gardens, where Moab became a basecamp of sorts. Eventually, I moved there — for good, I thought.

Settling in Moab on the tail end of the uranium-mining boom, I felt fortunate, as this muscular and reclusive landscape became not only my home but also my workplace. During summers, I spent more days on the Colorado River and its tributaries than in town. My working outfit as a river guide consisted of sandals, sunglasses and shorts. People’s faces often lit up with envy when I asked them to step into my “office,” the raft.

Too soon, though, I became aware that the Promised Land, like many other places these days, suffered from industrial encroachment and thoughtless tourists. Cattle grazed the canyons inside Escalante, turning the national monument into “Escowlante.” Thumper trucks explored for oil, destroying delicate soils and vegetation bordering Canyonlands National Park. Politicians supported proposals to extract and process oil shale along the Green River’s grand Desolation Canyon. Nine-Mile Canyon, and the millennia-old rock-art gallery leading to it, has been eyed for a spur railroad for transporting natural gas. Commerce and people in garish getups discovered my hideout, pronouncing Moab the “Mountain Biking Capital of the West.”

For the longest time, I denied living in a resort town, even when the annual Jeep Safari forced me and many other residents to flee it for a week, to avoid traffic and the attendant party and shopping mayhem.

We river guides had a joke: How can you tell when spring has sprung in the canyon country? The license plates are turning green. Coloradans with a green plate graced by a profile of snowy mountains, by April at the latest, grew weary of white.

Why tourists flock to the Mountain West

Edward Abbey, writing “Desert Solitaire,” did a better job of advertising Arches National Park than the local Chamber of Commerce did, “but if Ed hadn’t done it, someone else would have,” a fellow ranger said. “He stimulated a whole horde of nature-lovers, real and self-styled, who would love southeastern Utah to death, and others who would like to take it back to the Pleistocene.”

In sync with rising visitor numbers, the affluent started to buy second homes in town. Property prices and taxes rose accordingly, forever placing the dream of a little shack of my own beyond reach. Millionaires lived for two weeks a year in their mansions in the red swells. The cost of some frou-frou coffee drinks soon began to equal half the hourly wage that river rats like me made in service industry jobs. Moab had no shoe repair place, no affordable health care or housing, no food co-op or noise control. Instead, it sprouted real estate offices, art and souvenir boutiques, motels and gas stations, and Jeep, bike and boat rentals.

Trinket stores began hawking “dirt shirts” to tourists — tees dyed orange with pigments from the slickrock that enclasps the town; you could save 20 bucks and easily fashion your own just by wearing a white one for weeks of backpacking and boating without ever washing it. More and more mountain and road bikers sheathed in Lycra rubbed sweaty shoulders with more and more hikers, climbers, Jeepers, base jumpers, skydivers, kayakers, rafters, golfers and vintage car lovers. They all rubbed my nerve endings raw. And the offseason many locals welcomed as a change of pace and a reminder of why we had chosen this town in the first place shrank year by year, cropped at both ends by mountain unicycle festivals and other bogus events.

Revisiting a favorite haunt in the Escalante watershed the first time in 10 years, I was appalled by the changes. Foot trails cut through cryptobiotic soil’s knobby carpets, betraying people’s laziness, their need to cut across canyon meanders. Cultural geographers call these “desire paths,” which necessitate the replanting of destroyed vegetation also to control erosion. On hillsides, the urge to rush like runoff rather than follow switchbacks had entrenched ruts along fall lines. My desire was to intercept their makers and spank them with prickly-pear paddles. They’d not simply trampled single tracks in that monument but whole networks, into each knobby surface.

A new travel plan could close hundreds of miles of Moab's desert roads. Is it needed conservation or government overrreach?
What's next for the damaged dinosaur tracks near Moab?

Some tourists, between what one wit rightly called “the most beautiful slickrock and sandstone walls this side of Mars,” had clearly misread the Bureau of Land Management’s plea to leave behind nothing but footprints. Where one tread, others were likely to follow. Perhaps they were ignorant of the consequences, though those seemed pretty obvious. At popular campsites, which appeared strangely denuded even for this arid country, wooden signs directed visitors to pit toilets installed, and hopefully emptied, by poorly paid seasonal monument staff. The voices of nearby campers echoed around slickrock bends, undermining the intimacy with the land I had hoped for. Aluminum pull-tabs and charcoal from illegal campfires had replaced the arrowhead fragments, potsherds and thousand-year-old corncobs once safe in alcove vaults. On Cedar Mesa, cameras now surveilled ruins and rock art, trying to catch vandals in the act. Elsewhere, fences guarded petroglyph panels, and boardwalks channeled tour groups.

Faced with these changes, I realized for the first time that too many hikers degrade a wild place as easily and permanently as do too many cows. While it seems obvious and convenient to point fingers at off-road vehicle drivers exclusively, any sentient biped will have to admit that he or she is part of the problem.

What are ‘acceptable levels’ of use?

The ecological concept of “carrying capacity” denotes a landscape’s ability to sustain a particular number of organisms, depending on their foraging techniques or food requirements. Without irrigation, deserts support small bands of hunters and gatherers better than they do high concentrations of sedentary agriculturalists. Throughout this canyon country, the crop now largely consists of viewpoints and tourists trails, and public lands managers still struggle to establish acceptable levels for recreational uses.

Acceptable for whom, I wonder. Grand Canyon National Park’s Colorado River Management Plan, in a 2006 update, increased non-commercial-user days by almost one third, trying to appease private boaters at the expense of mountain lions, bighorn sheep, silence and solitude. And private boaters are still unhappy, clamoring for more. An already overtaxed “resource” is stretched to the limits. The park’s zoning system, regulating backcountry hiking permits, is still rare on the Colorado Plateau. According to this allocation, a limited and seemingly justifiable quota of overnight permits is issued per sector. When filled, hikers either have to wait for openings or else settle for a less popular destination. With high visitor numbers in the spring and fall, the National Park Service and other agencies face a conundrum: to channel use and impact into fewer areas, or to spread it evenly over the lands entrusted to their care. In short, land managers accept that there will have to be “sacrifice zones.”

The need for respect and restraint

But even official closures of fragile places mean little in a culture lacking respect and restraint. Years ago, the author of several self-published guidebooks praised one southeastern Utah gorge as “the gem of Canyonlands.” Informed by the expert, people flocked to that sandstone cleft. Soon after, the Park Service decided to close that canyon. Hikers still go there, now for the extra zest of tasting the forbidden fruit.

Unfortunately, national glossies with circulation numbers as large as city populations hook affluent vacationers with paradoxical headlines like “The Ten Least Known But Most Scenic Hikes” — insert your favorite wilderness here. Biologists reported that, after one such feature, visitor numbers in Yellowstone’s XYZ Valley multiplied and the resident wolf pack temporarily left its home range.

For years, I was still content to take paying customers down rivers and canyons. But I slowly realized that many, if not most of them, were only after the shiny skin, not the meat and bones, or, heaven forbid, the soul of a place. They considered wilderness a sort of outdoor gym/tanning salon, a thrill ride with a picnic on the side, pretty scenery to write postcards from, or perhaps worst of all, just another checkmark on their “bucket list of adventures.” I’ve heard of people who tried to visit 59 U.S. national parks in 59 days.

My suggestion to them: spend 59 days in one park. You might learn something and truly earn bragging rights.


An argument can be made that public lands need to be used recreationally to ensure their continued protection and funding, to keep them from rapacious developers or corrupt politicos. On the other hand, more than 3 million visitors per year might easily enjoy the Grand Canyon unto its ruin. There are no easy answers to this dilemma.

When opportunity called elsewhere, I followed the current, moving first to Arizona and then to Alaska. Still, always, the canyon country will be my home in the sense Thom van Dooren defined it, as “a place that calls out in some way to be returned to.”

I am aware that moving to Alaska is not a solution. As an itinerant, I will become part of the problem there. It can’t be avoided. Now well past middle age, I feel that time is running out. To rephrase Aldo Leopold, I simply don’t wish to grow very old without wild country to be old in, or at least, to look at and ponder in my dotage. While relocating to Alaska in midwinter seemed unwise, I couldn’t think of a better place to start a new year, a new chapter. Let it be cold. Let it be dark. Let summers be buggy and bears haunt the woods. And let us keep some places raw and unspoiled.

Michael Engelhard is the author of books that include the memoir “Arctic Traverse” and the new essay collection “No Walk in the Park,” from which this essay has been adapted. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, he worked for 25 years as a wilderness guide and outdoor educator. A self-proclaimed Luddite, he now lives on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska, where he dreams of canyon sun when it’s minus 50 degrees.

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