Glen Canyon National Recreation Area


The first major human migration into North America from Asia may have occurred from 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. In relatively small groups, these people dispersed quickly throughout North and South America and lived in isolation for thousands of years. The tribes in this area, which we call Desert Archaic people, were hunters and gatherers. Their continuing subsistence needs left little opportunity for development of so-called higher cultural traits or for population growth. About 2,000 years ago a major cultural change—from causes about which we can only speculate—transformed these nomads into relatively stationary farmers now called Basket-makers. Their weaving materials included cotton, which was introduced to them by groups living to the south. As they incorporated other ideas from the southern cultures, including above-ground houses, these Basket-makers evolved into the culture we call Anasazi.

Various cultures have utilized area resources for thousands of years. The Anasazi culture is the most conspicuous, but evidence of other cultures, including Paleo-Indian, Fremont, and Paiute are present. The Hole-in-the-Rock trail and historic site is a reminder of Mormon pioneer heritage and uranium mining claims that date from the boom of the 1940s and 1950s.

Exploration: In 1776, two Spanish priests began an expedition that provided the first written record of Glen Canyon. Father Dominguez, Father Escalante, and their party set out from Santa Fe in July to pioneer an overland route to a military garrison on the California coast. After three months, having bypassed the canyon country, the party reached the Great Basin in Utah, where they decided to turn back before the onset of winter. On October 26, the party reached the Colorado River at the mouth of the Paria River. When crossing there proved nearly disastrous, the explorers climbed out of the river bottom and made camp near today's Wahweap Marina. They spent four more days searching for a way across the river. Finally, on November 7, they chopped steps in the sandstone wall at Padre Creek and safely led their pack stock to the banks of the Colorado. Here the crossing was wide but shallow. The Crossing of the Fathers today lies beneath the waters of Padre Bay.

Another journey of discovery began nearly 100 years after the Dominguez-Escalante expedition. Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, set out to determine these lands' potential for development. In May 1869, Powell and his crew of nine men left Green River, Wyoming to follow the fabled Colorado. On July 28, they entered Glen Canyon and found its waters calm compared with the rapids of Cataract Canyon. Their trip eventually took them through the Grand Canyon and on to the mouth of the Virgin River in Nevada.

Railroad men with visions of a line from Grand Junction, Colorado to the Gulf of California explored farther along the Colorado River. They declared the route feasible and said the trains could be powered by electricity generated from the flow of the river, but their bankers disagreed. Next came the settlers and, with them, the indispensable ferrymen.

Settlement: Although the Colorado River is accessible near the mouth of the Paria, as Dominguez and Escalante discovered, it cannot be crossed easily. John D. Lee was sent there by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, or Mormon Church, to build and operate a ferry. He built the Lonely Dell Ranch for Emma Lee, his 17th wife. By 1873 Lee had built a ferry boat named the Colorado. He was executed in 1877 for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the attack by Mormons and Palutes on California-bound settlers. The Mormon Church eventually bought the enterprise from Emma. The ferry ran continuously until 1928. It was replaced by the Navajo Bridge completed across Marble Canyon in 1929.

Mormon settlers sent to colonize the San Juan valley created a river crossing at Hole-In-The-Rock, just below the confluence of the Colorado and Escalante rivers. These hardy pioneers blasted, cut, and fabricated a road 0.75 miles (1.2 kilometers) long that descended nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters). Charles Hall, a member of that party, later found a somewhat better crossing about 35 miles (56 kilometers) upstream. He ferried travelers across the Colorado at Halls Crossing until Cass Hite found and developed another, still more accessible crossing. The ferry and the town of Hite remained active until flooded by the rising waters of Lake Powell. Cass Hite also found gold in the river's sands, and prospectors searched the canyon and surrounding plateaus for riches. The gold was mostly too fine to be mined commercially, and few miners profited from their efforts.

Rules and Regulations: If you encounter archaeological or historical sites, please treat these irreplaceable resources with care. Do not camp in or near these sites or climb on them. Resist touching petroglyphs and pictographs. Collecting pieces of pottery, arrowheads, or any other item is against the law, which is strictly enforced. Heavy penalties may be imposed. Remember that your descendants will also surely want to learn from and enjoy these places.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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