The Stunning Beauty of Utah and Reimagining our National Parks

I’m writing this post from the deck of a cedar A-frame, 8400 feet above sea level. My kids and husband Andy, are here with me in southern Utah. I’ll characterize our location as the middle of nowhere, roughly equal distance to Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. We’ve been doing a lot of hiking, cooking, eating, and playing of games. Each member of our party has selected 15 songs, forming a playlist that accompanies our drives and household activities. Life, to say the least, has been heavenly.

Before leaving Ann Arbor, I visited the library and checked out a memoir by Edward Abbey to bring on the trip. First published in 1968, Desert Solitaire, tells of the author’s days working as a ranger at Arches National Park outside Moab. I haven’t finished this highly-praised treatise on what’s wrong with our National Park System, but so far, I’m enjoying the book. The back cover describes Abbey as an eloquent loner. Descriptions like naturalist, philosopher, humorist, and man with an axe to grind spring to mind as I read.

It’s clear from the outset that Abbey loves the wilderness and is committed to finding ways of preserving it. He’s unhappy with the National Park Service’s aspirations to make our country’s remotest areas accessible to as many people as possible. Abbey convincingly argues that the increase in paved roads and car traffic is destroying the very landscapes the NPS is chartered to protect. Rather than paraphrase Abbey’s words, I thought I’d share an excerpt for you to enjoy, along with a few pictures from my week.

Sunset at Strawberry Point
Sunset at Strawberry Point, Dixie National Forest

A Passage from Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey

Having indulged myself in a number of harsh judgements upon the Park Service, the tourist industry, and the motoring public, I now feel entitled to make some constructive, practical, sensible proposals for the salvation of both parks and people.

(1) No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs anything—but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bed rooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.

Consider a concrete example and what could be done with it: Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. At present a dusty milling confusion of motor vehicles and ponderous camping machinery, it could be returned to relative beauty and order by the simple expedient of requiring all visitors, at the park entrance, to lock up their automobiles and continue their tour on the seats of good workable bicycles supplied free of charge by the United States Government.

Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park

Let our people travel light and free on their bicycles nothing on the back but a shirt, nothing tied to the bike but a slicker, in case of rain. Their bedrolls, their backpacks, their tents, their food and cooking kits will be trucked in for them, free of charge, to the campground of their choice in the Valley, by the Park Service. (Why not? The roads will still be there.) Once in the Valley they will find the concessioners waiting, ready to supply whatever needs might have been overlooked, or to furnish rooms and meals for those who don’t want to camp out.

The same thing could be done at Grand Canyon or at Yellowstone or at any of our other shrines to the out-of-doors. There is no compelling reason, for example, why tourists need to drive their automobiles to the very brink of the Grand Canyon’s south rim. They could walk that last mile. Better yet, the Park Service should build an enormous parking lot about ten miles south of Grand Canyon Village and another east of Desert View. At those points, as at Yosemite, our people could emerge from their steaming shells of steel and glass and climb upon horses or bicycles for the final leg of the journey. On the rim, as at present, the hotels and restaurants will remain to serve the physical needs of the park visitors. Trips along the rim would also be made on foot, on horseback, or—utilizing the paved road which already exists—on bicycles. For those willing to go all the way from one parking lot to the other, a distance of some sixty or seventy miles, we might provide bus service back to their cars, a service which would at the same time effect a convenient exchange of bicycles and/or horses between the two terminals.

What about children? What about the aged and infirm? Frankly, we need waste little sympathy on these two pressure groups. Children too small to ride bicycles and too heavy to be borne on their parents’ backs need only wait a few years—if they are not run over by automobiles they will grow into a lifetime of joyous adventure, if we save the parks and leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. The aged merit even less sympathy: after all they had the opportunity to see the country when it was still relatively unspoiled. However, we’ll stretch a point for those too old or too sickly to mount a bicycle and let them ride the shuttle buses.

Navajo Lake, Dixie National Forest
Navajo Lake, Dixie National Forest

I can foresee complaints. The motorized tourists, reluctant to give up the old ways, will complain that they can’t see enough without their automobiles to bear them swiftly (traffic permitting) through the parks. But this is nonsense. A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles. Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time. Those who are familiar with both modes of travel know from experience that this is true; the rest have only to make the experiment to discover the same truth for themselves.

They will complain of physical hardship, these sons of the pioneers. Not for long; once they rediscover the pleasures of actually operating their own limbs and senses in a varied, spontaneous, voluntary style, they will complain instead of crawling back into a car; they may even object to returning to desk and office and that drywall box on Mossy Brook Circle. The fires of revolt may be kindled—which means hope for us all.

(2) No more new roads in national parks. After banning private automobiles the second step should be easy. Where paved roads are already in existence they will be reserved for the bicycles and essential in-park services, such as shuttle buses, the trucking of camping gear and concessioners’ supplies. Where dirt roads already exist they too will be reserved for nonmotorized traffic. Plans for new roads can be discarded and in their place a program of trail-building begun, badly needed in some of the parks and in many of the national monuments. In mountainous areas it may be desirable to build emergency shelters along the trails and bike roads; in desert regions a water supply might have to be provided at certain points—wells drilled and handpumps installed if feasible.

Virgin River Valley, Zion National Park
Virgin River Valley, Zion National Park

Once people are liberated from the confines of automobiles there will be a greatly increased interest in hiking, exploring, and back-country packtrips. Fortunately the parks, by the mere elimination of motor traffic, will come to seem far bigger than they are now—there will be more room for more persons, an astonishing expansion of space. This follows from the interesting fact that a motorized vehicle, when not at rest, requires a volume of space far out of proportion to its size. To illustrate: imagine a lake approximately ten miles long and on the average one mile wide. A single motorboat could easily circumnavigate the lake in an hour; ten motorboats would begin to crowd it; twenty or thirty, all in operation, would dominate the lake to the exclusion of any other form of activity; and fifty would create the hazards, confusion, and turmoil that makes pleasure impossible. Suppose we banned motorboats and allowed only canoes and rowboats; we would see at once that the lake seemed ten or perhaps a hundred times bigger. The same thing holds true, to an even greater degree, for the automobile. Distance and space are functions of speed and time. Without expending a single dollar from the United States Treasury we could, if we wanted to, multiply the area of our national parks tenfold or a hundredfold—simply by banning the private automobile. The next generation, all 250 million of them, would be grateful to us.

(3) Put the park rangers to work. Lazy scheming loafers, they’ve wasted too many years selling tickets at toll booths and sitting behind desks filling out charts and tables in the vain effort to appease the mania for statistics which torments the Washington office. Put them to work. They’re supposed to be rangers make the bums range; kick them out of those overheated air-conditioned offices, yank them out of those overstuffed patrol cars, and drive them out on the trails where they should be, leading the dudes over hill and dale, safely into and back out of the wilderness. It won’t hurt them to work off a little office fat; it’ll do them good, help take their minds off each other’s wives, and give them a chance to get out of reach of the boss—a blessing for all concerned.

They will be needed on the trail. Once we outlaw the motors and stop the road-building and force the multitudes back on their feet, the people will need leaders. A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches that is the right and privilege of any free American. But the rest, the majority, most of them new to the out-of-doors, will need and welcome assistance, instruction and guidance. Many will not know how to saddle a horse, read a topographical map, follow a trail over slickrock, memorize landmarks, build a fire in rain, treat snakebite, rappel down a cliff, glissade down a glacier, read a compass, find water under sand, load a burro, splint a broken bone, bury a body, patch a rubber boat, portage a waterfall, survive a blizzard, avoid lightning, cook a porcupine, comfort a girl during a thunderstorm, predict the weather, dodge falling rock, climb out of a box canyon, or pour piss out of a boot. Park rangers know these things, or should know them, or used to know them and can relearn; they will be needed. In addition to this sort of practical guide service the ranger will also be a bit of a naturalist, able to edify the party in his charge with the natural and human history of the area, in detail and in broad outline.

Alpine Lake, Cedar Breaks National Monument
Alpine Lake, Cedar Breaks National Monument

How could this most easily be done? By following the steps I have proposed, plus reducing the expenses of wilderness recreation to the minimal level. Guide service by rangers should, of course, be free to the public. Money saved by not constructing more paved highways into the parks should be sufficient to finance the cost of bicycles and horses for the entire park system. Elimination of automobile traffic would allow the Park Service to save more millions now spent on road maintenance, police work and paperwork. Whatever the cost, however financed, the benefits for park visitors in health and happiness—virtues unknown to the statisticians would be immeasurable.

Critics of my program will argue that it is too late for such a radical reformation of a people’s approach to the out-of-doors, that the pattern is too deeply set, and that the majority of Americans would not be willing to emerge from the familiar luxury of their automobiles, even briefly, to try the little-known and problematic advantages of the bicycle, the saddle horse, and the footpath. This might be so; but how can we be sure unless we dare the experiment? I, for one, suspect that millions of our citizens, especially the young, are yearning for adventure, difficulty, challenge—they will respond with enthusiasm. What we must do, prodding the Park Service into the forefront of the demonstration, is provide these young people with the opportunity, the assistance, and the necessary encouragement.

Excluding the automobile from the heart of the great cities has been seriously advocated by thoughtful observers of our urban problems. It seems to me an equally proper solution to the problems besetting our national parks. Of course it would be a serious blow to Industrial Tourism and would be bitterly resisted by those who profit from that industry. Exclusion of automobiles would also require a revolution in the thinking of Park Service officialdom and in the assumptions of most American tourists. But such a revolution, like it or not, is precisely what is needed. The only foreseeable alternative, given the current trend of things, is the gradual destruction of our national park system.

Lone tree, Bryce Canyon National Park
Lone tree, Bryce Canyon National Park

Let us therefore steal a slogan from the Development Fever Faction in the Park Service. The parks, they say, are for people. Very well. At the main entrance to each national park and national monument we shall erect a billboard one hundred feet high, two hundred feet wide, gorgeously filigreed in brilliant neon and outlined with blinker lights, exploding stars, flashing prayer wheels and great Byzantine phallic symbols that gush like geysers every thirty seconds. (You could set your watch by them.) Behind the fireworks will loom the figure of Smokey the Bear, taller than a pine tree, with eyes in his head that swivel back and forth, watching You, and ears that actually twitch. Push a button and Smokey will recite, for the benefit of children and government officials who might otherwise have trouble with some of the big words, in a voice ursine, loud and clear, the message spelled out on the face of the billboard. To wit:



Blooming prickly pear, Zion National Park
Blooming prickly pear, Zion National Park

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Wow. When was this written? 1968? That’s a bare two years after I went to Yosemite. Ten years before I took great advantage of National/state parks in ‘Bama… We’d rent cosy little houses for a few days at fantastic rates. I’m sure it’s still possible.
    I have a confession to make: I don’t have a car. Gave it up a while back. Only my wife has a car. When I have to move in the city, I call an Uber. For the rest I’m fine. Now, in Paris for instance, the no-car policy implemented by Anne Hidalgo is stupid. Public transportation is degraded every year, and at 70, I won’t ride a bike in the city. Too dangerous for me.
    But, but… In National parks? Let’s do what this guy proposed 50+ years. One can drive to the entrance of the park. Drop the car, and walk. Hike. Even at my age, I can walk 8 hours a day without a glitch…
    Enjoy the parks, the collective playlists. And fun together.
    Cheers. Et bon week-end.

    • Abbey’s suggestions might be a bit harsh but in general, more of this kind of attitude would be positive for both parks and people. My husband and I got along with one car until we had kids. By the time they were teens, we had 3! We’re back to 2 cars now and only because the kids still borrow them from time to time. All in their 20s and none of them own cars. A different era to be sure. Like you, we all walk a lot.

  2. My son was a huge fan of Edward Abbey in his teens. Really influenced his environmentalism.

  3. Thanks for reminding me I so need to read this book, it’s been for too long on my TBR

  4. You should read all of Cactus Ed’s books. He was ahead of his time and it’s too bad those in charge at that time weren’t listening. He could be cantankerous and purposely pushy and verbose, but always to get his points across to the reader and those they would interact with. Start with the essays and then move on to the fiction. Enjoy, it’s a great read and ride.

    • Thanks for your suggestions Jeff. The essays sound great. I have to wonder if Abbey’s insistent and entertaining style actually provoked some reforms. In many parks backcountry camping is controlled by a limited number of permits and only accessible on foot. When I was just at Zion, we had to take an electric shuttle bus to the trail we wanted to hike. I’m sure Abbey would be horrified by the traffic levels of today but at least there is some effort to regulate the stream of visitors.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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