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You wouldn’t believe it was summer in south-eastern Utah, one of the sunniest places on the North American continent. Low grey clouds stretched across the entire landscape, and the desert, normally a vivid red, looked as drab as the North Sea on an overcast day.
Half a dozen vehicles, ours among them, were parked at the rim of a gorge in the “Primitive Camping” area of Goosenecks state park, looking like some lost band from a bleak scene in a post-apocalyptic movie. There were a pair of silver-haired old buddies from Arizona and Texas, parked side by side in their pickups, who told me they come here every year. There were families from Salt Lake City and France, and an Austrian couple in a rented RV, the husband sporting splendid whiskers and a huge meerschaum pipe, his wife never emerging from the depths of their vehicle. It turned out my son and I were the only people pitching an actual tent — did they all know something we didn’t? As the wind stiffened and the tent threatened to take wing, its fabric flapping furiously, the Austrian husband came over. “Could be storm and thunder tonight, yes?” he suggested. “You want sleep with us in the RV?”
But then, just as we were starting to wonder why we’d come, the thing that had drawn us all there, to the middle of nowhere, suddenly started to reveal itself in its true glory. Goosenecks is named after what has to be one of the most spectacular canyons on earth: an “entrenched meander” where the San Juan river has gouged out a series of huge hairpin bends to form an extraordinary snaking gorge. Half a mile south, half a mile north, back and forth runs the river, over and over again, in a series of loops so tight they almost touch at each bend. But instead of doing it all on flat land, like meandering rivers elsewhere, here they do it 1,000ft down at the bottom of a sheer desert canyon.
The sun slipped beneath the low ceiling of cloud and suddenly blazed across the landscape, turning everything the colour of a Campari and soda. Three hundred million years of bare geology were staring at us. Deep in the gorge itself, the air started glowing an eerie blue like an inert gas, with glittering glimpses of the river far beneath. Beyond the canyon the desert swept into the distance, toward the dark shapes of Monument Valley on the skyline. It was a breathtaking sight.
You’d think we were all gazing over land untouched by human hand or foot, and that this would surely be one of the most peaceful, uncontentious places on earth. But this region is actually at the centre of a controversy that has seized Utah over the past year, and has reached into the White House itself.
This weekend the US National Park Service celebrates its centenary, with free admission to all parks and events ranging from a concert on the south rim of the Grand Canyon to a 1970s-themed roller-skating party in Anacostia Park, Washington, DC. Although national parks have existed since 1872 — when Yellowstone was founded — it wasn’t until August 25 1916 that an agency was created to manage them and ensure they remained “unimpaired for future generations”. Today the service oversees 59 parks, 84 national monuments, 11 national battlefields, 30 national memorials and many more — 413 areas in all, covering 84m acres (about the same size as Germany) and welcoming more than 307m visitors last year.
Though it was Woodrow Wilson who signed the NPS into existence, his predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, the so-called “conservation president”, played an even more key role in the early environmental movement. After camping in Yosemite with John Muir, the naturalist and campaigner, Roosevelt wrote: “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.” By the end of his term in office, Roosevelt had overseen the formation of five new national parks and, more importantly, passed the 1906 Antiquities Act. While new national parks must be created by Congress, the act gave Roosevelt and future presidents the power to declare any publicly owned land as a national monument, affording similar protections (although they are usually smaller sites).
It is the possibility of that presidential power being wielded here that has ignited the controversy at Goosenecks. A coalition of five Native American nations, along with a consortium of conservationists and celebrity backers including Robert Redford, are calling on Barack Obama to turn 1.9m acres of land to the north of the San Juan river into the “Bears Ears national monument” (the name comes from two lofty buttes that form a local landmark).
Largest national park
Wrangell-St Elias, Alaska: 13.2m acres
Perched on the canyon rim at Goosenecks, you see what looks like barren wilderness, but in fact the area is full of human history in the form of abandoned cliff dwellings, ancient granaries, burial sites, ruined villages and numerous petroglyphs. The south-west’s answer to Europe’s cave paintings, the earliest petroglyphs here were left 3,500 years ago, in a style called Glen Canyon Linear, followed by the later Basketmaker and Pueblo styles, depicting flute-players, bighorn sheep, other animals, and all kinds of designs.
Looting has been a major issue. Vases and urns have been stolen and petroglyphs removed with rock saws. Law-enforcement officers are few and far between — as are roads — in this huge swathe of desert. Supporters of the proposal argue it would protect these historic sites, many of them sacred to the local tribes, while boosting tourism.
Smallest national park
Hot Springs, Arkansas: 5,549 acres
Opposing them are ranchers, local politicians and business groups who say that a new national monument would unnecessarily restrict animal grazing, oil and gas extraction and other economic development in a county where unemployment runs at over 8 per cent. This being the Wild West, the debate has become heated, fuelled by resentment over what some see as Washington exerting excessive powers.
In April, Phil Lyman, a San Juan County commissioner, was jailed for 10 days for leading a “protest ride” in which 50 people drove all-terrain vehicles down a canyon that had been closed by the Bureau of Land Management to protect ancient native American dwellings and burial sites. Last month Gary Herbert, the Republican governor of Utah, called the Bears Ears proposal a “political tomahawk” that would “create anger and division”. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican Utah Congressman, warns that the situation is on the “precipice of violence”. At the back of many minds is the fear of a repeat of the armed takeover of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year.
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee. Visitors recorded in 2015: 10,712,674
That first night camping we were woken again and again by rain squalls that roared on the flimsy tent, tugging it this way and that. The weather seemed of a scale in tune with the massive scenery all around — not just the vast Goosenecks meanders but the Bears Ears themselves, which rise 2,000ft above the plateau, and Comb Ridge, a limestone crest over 100 miles long, like an immense breaking wave caught and petrified.
The morning was hot. After campfire coffee and breakfast, we headed off by car in search of the Honaker Trail. Back in the 1890s gold prospectors created a footpath down into the canyon, but it’s not easy to find. A state ranger gave us directions. Follow one dirt track then another, then at precisely 4.4 miles from the last junction — watch your odometer — look out for a pile of rocks. Eventually we did spot a couple of large rocks, but it was hard to say if they constituted a bona fide pile. We took a chance and began through the scrub on foot. Soon there was a reassuring cairn a quarter of a mile ahead, and the canyon appeared.
Kobuk, Alaska. Visitors recorded in 2015: 0
Weaving between house-size boulders we dropped down into the gorge. Gaping abysses opened up beside us, and with the rock already heating up in the sun we were soon drenched in sweat. An hour later and a thousand feet lower, we found ourselves pushing through young willows on to the sandy banks of the San Juan river and cooling off in its swift silty stream.
After an even sweatier climb back up, we jumped in the car and cruised in air-conditioned relief toward the Moki Dugway, an old mining track cut through ramparts and shoulders of rock, to Muley Point, an overlook at the top of a series of cliffs. On a clear day like this you can see well over a hundred miles to the stacked peaks of Colorado, the snowy mountains of New Mexico, and the weird rocks of Arizona. Below us were huge striated gullies, pyramids, gorges, all so big and multicoloured that distance and size seem to dissolve, and it could all be a model landscape. It does something to the soul, a place like this. You might think the barrenness would be chilling but instead it’s exhilarating.
Will it soon be subsumed into the NPS system? Supporters of the Bears Ears proposal took heart when news broke on Wednesday that President Obama was marking the parks service centenary by doing exactly what they are urging him to do, albeit elsewhere in the country — using the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument. Announcing the creation of Katahdin Woods and Waters national monument, 87,500 acres in central Maine, the White House stressed the administration’s “commitment to protecting our land, water and wildlife for future generations”.
On Thursday and Friday, staff began erecting NPS signs at Katahdin Woods — the uniform brown signs with the same familiar fonts that stretch across the nation. Some will see them as staking a territorial claim, or as an overbearing attempt to tame the wilderness, but for others they are a symbol of American democracy and egalitarianism at its rare best.
Back-country cabins, wilderness camps and historic hotels
As well as managing vast swathes of wilderness, the NPS also oversees a huge range of accommodation, amounting to some 10,000 rooms, from luxurious hotels to back-country tents, writes Martina Bellisario.
Phantom Ranch, Grand Canyon NP, Arizona This lodge sits beside the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon — 5,800 feet below the north rim — and can only be reached by mule, raft or on foot. Commissioned by the NPS in the 1920s, Phantom Ranch remains one of its most popular lodges, with many visitors booking 13 months before their visit (the earliest that reservations open). Cabins for two from $142; grandcanyonlodges.com
Paradise Inn, Mount Rainier NP, Washington Built in 1916 among the wildflowers at the base of Mount Rainier, the hotel is a classic example of what became known as “National Park Service rustic” architecture. Largely built of local cedar and stone, it has 121 guest rooms and a large beamed dining room that seats 200. Doubles from $119; mtrainierguestservices.com
Kettle Falls Hotel, Voyageurs NP, Minnesota Local legend has it that Kettle Falls, which sits amid forest on the Canadian border, was bought in 1918 for $1,000 and four barrels of whisky. The National Park Service acquired the remote property almost 60 years later, renovating it extensively in 1987. Originally built to accommodate stonecutters working on nearby dams, and later marketed as a sanctuary for hay fever sufferers, the hotel is 15 miles from the nearest road and only accessible by air or water. Double rooms from $90; kettlefallshotel.com
LeConte Lodge, Great Smoky Mountains NP, Tennessee Supplies are delivered by trains of llamas to this collection of cabins established in the 1920s just below the summit of Mount Le Conte at 6,360ft. Guests must hike at least five miles to get there but are rewarded with views over the densely forested Smokies. From $140 per person per night; lecontelodge.com
Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, Yosemite NP, California This secluded camp sits beside the Tuolumne River, 60 miles from Yosemite Valley (the busiest part of the park) and 8,775 feet above sea level. There are 69 “tent cabins” — sturdy canvas tents assembled over concrete floors — that accommodate up to four guests; wood-burning stoves are the only source of heat. Food must be stored in metal boxes some distance away so as not to encourage nocturnal visits from bears. Tents from about $120; travelyosemite.com
Photographs: Getty Images; Alamy