Grace in the Hole

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: History Issue: October 2017
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Glen Canyon in 1959, approximately 59 miles upstream from the Glen Canyon Dam site. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society.

“When you go into a canyon, you always become of sound mind,” says Donovan Hanley, vice president of the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association. “You get in the right mind frame, and then you go in… We appreciate the energy that comes from the land, and we recognize it and respect it.” 

That spirit of reverence is recommended for our Seven Wonders of Arizona (page 98) and for the state’s emerging tourist attractions, many of which have been around for ages but have only recently drawn Instagramming hordes.  

Take Glen Canyon, which has been occupied by humans since the Paleoindian period in 11,500 B.C.E. and been the home of indigenous groups from the Fremont and Anasazi to the Paiute, Navajo and Hopi. In the photo (left), Bureau of Reclamation workers in October 1959 examine names inscribed on the rock by the first Anglo explorers of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871. Today, visitors come to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to see Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge National Monument and Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center. 

Tribal land reclamation has streamlined tourism in many of Arizona’s slot canyons, which for years went unvisited or, conversely, were so trampled by tourists that they began to lose their luster. Antelope Canyon – with its signature sunset-hued rock slopes and swirls – has benefited from the protection of Navajo Parks and Recreation, which requires a permit and Navajo guide.

“I know it’s an international, iconic thing for visitors, but for the local people it’s been there for a very long time,” Hanley says – long before it became a park in 1997. “With the phenomenon that is social media, people posting photos on Facebook and Instagram… Photographers really want that unique, unseen, untainted piece of land or canyon that nobody has seen before, and it kind of just took off from there.”

Giving the new generation of tourists their #wanderlust-worthy photo ops while respecting ancient land and honoring old-school visitors is a challenge, Hanley says. 

“They go in there and they want the photo,” he says. “But then you have another generation that is not keen on the social media stuff, and they go in there and they’re like, ‘OK, I’m not going to take a photo. I’m just going to breathe it all in.’ … I definitely recognize the impact social media has had on natural attractions, but I see the other side, too, from the community, of how do we protect?” 

 — Leah LeMoine

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