Horseshoe Bend Meets its Future

It was a cold night on the rim of the Colorado River canyon as I waited for my camera to record the passage of stars and clouds.  I passed the time making notes and reading with my red headlamp.

In 2006 I was given a travel tip by a coworker:  there was a dramatic view of the Colorado River available to those willing to hike a half-mile to the canyon rim from a roadside rest area just south of Page, Arizona.  While on a trip to the state, I searched for it and found the barely marked spot described by my friend, and then found hints of a lightly used footpath across a barren expanse of desert to a rocky crest that hid the sudden drop-off behind it.

It was indeed a grand view, and I returned that night with my camera to attempt some long exposure star trails.  The conditions were not optimal: the moon was lighting the sky, but worse, clouds were interfering.  Still, it was a beautiful setting and I have learned that unexpected results sometimes occur, so I stayed several hours to record whatever happened. 

The results were not “stellar”, but the composition was strong enough that I include it among my nightscape favorites.

I have not had the opportunity to revisit that site until this year, when I looked forward to showing this hidden treasure to Poldi on our road trip through the area.  As we traveled toward Page, the obscure rest area sign we were looking for had been replaced by huge billboards. I was stunned to find that the parking area, previously able to accommodate a dozen cars at most, now had a capacity for hundreds!  And tour buses!  There was an admission gate where fees were collected by multiple lanes of toll workers!  Horseshoe Bend had been “Disneyfied”!

No longer was it a broken footpath to an exposed canyon ridge; a paved sidewalk had been installed to a fenced overlook, with benches at shade stations along the way.  Hundreds of visitors flocked to the viewpoint and took selfies with the same backdrop I had used fifteen years earlier (before “selfie” was a word).

I flowed with the crowd, amazed at the transformation.  I guess this is what happens at natural wonders as they become discovered and shared.  And I guess it could be worse.  It is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service.  For an example of “could be worse” look to Niagara Falls, the south bank managed by our NPS, preserving a beautiful park, but the northern Canadian side, with arguably a better visual vantage, is spoiled by unrestricted vendors catering to tourist sideshows and amusement parks.

The Horseshoe Bend overlook today (May 2021)

It is no longer possible to take the picture I made in 2006.  The expansive parking lot, which overfills during the day, must be empty by sunset according to Page city ordinance (which owns the land outside the national recreation area).  There is no easy access at night.

Although I feel like I have witnessed a historic change, a 15-year transition from patch of desert to parking lot is much less than a blink-of-an-eye in the geologic time scale that created this wonder.  In another million years, I expect the parking lot and the fenced overlook will be condensed to just another narrow but colorful band among the sedimentary layers displayed along the canyon walls.