Rocks have attracted visitors to Arches National Park for thousands of years. The earliest visitors weren't just sight-seeing, though. Hunter-gatherers migrated into the area about 10,000 years ago at the end of an Ice Age. As they explored Courthouse Wash and the Salt Valley area, they found pockets of chert and chalcedony: two forms of microcrystalline quartz perfect for making stone tools. Chipping or knapping these rocks into dart points, knives, and scrapers, they created debris piles that are still visible to the trained eye.
Then, roughly two thousand years ago, the nomadic hunters and gatherers began cultivating certain plants and settled the Four Corners region. These early agriculturalists, known as ancestral Puebloans, raised domesticated maize, beans, and squash, and lived in villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park.
Few dwellings have been found in Arches, which was the northern edge of ancestral Puebloan territory, so it's possible they only visited seasonally - or that their dwellings have been lost to time. What does remain, though, are their drawings. Rock art panels are an invitation to wonder: Who made this? What were they thinking? Like earlier people, the ancestral Puebloans also left lithic scatters, often near waterholes where someone may have shaped tools while watching for game.
The Fremont were contemporaries of the ancestral Puebloans who lived just to the northwest. Distinctions between the two cultures are blurry, though certain characteristics of Fremont rock art, pottery, and other artifacts clearly demonstrate the existence of different technologies and traditions.
For a variety of reasons, people began leaving the region about 700 years ago. Descendents of the ancestral Puebloans include people living in modern-day pueblos like Acoma, Cochiti, Santa Clara, Taos, and the Hopi Mesas.
As the ancestral Puebloan people were leaving, nomadic Shoshonean peoples such as the Ute and Paiute entered the area and were here to meet the first Europeans in 1776. The petroglyph panel near Wolfe Ranch is believed to have some Ute images since it shows people on horseback, and horses were adopted by the Utes only after they were introduced by the Spanish.
Rock art is often found at crossroads and near waterways. One such site can be seen a few miles north of Moab, where Courthouse Wash joins the Colorado River. This large and colorful panel displays evidence of people's passage for hundreds of years.
Although rock art cannot be dated, it is thought that Archaic Indians first painted the long, tapered figures in what archeologists call the Barrier Canyon style. Later, ancestral Puebloans or Utes added bright white circular forms that resemble shields. Petroglyphs - images pecked, incised or abraded on stone - by Utes appear elsewhere on the wall and adjacent boulder, and on the walkway below.
Traders & Settlers
The first Europeans to explore the Southwest were Spaniards. As Spain's New World empire expanded, they searched for travel routes across the deserts to their California missions. One of these routes, called the Old Spanish Trail, linked Santa Fe and Los Angeles along the same path, past the park visitor center, that Highway 191 takes today.
The first reliable date for explorers within what is now Arches comes from an unusual source. Denis Julien, a French-American fur trapper with a habit of chiseling his name and the date onto rocks throughout the Southwest, left an inscription in this area on June 9, 1844. He was over 60 years old when he explored the area's streams and canyons trapping beaver pelts, which were highly prized then due to a fashion trend in men's hats.
Many other traders and trappers rode their dusty horses through the Moab region for decades before any attempt was made to settle the area. The Mormon Church established an outpost called the Elk Mountain Mission in what is now Moab in June of 1855, but conflicts with local Utes caused them to abandon the effort. In the 1880s and 1890s, Moab was settled permanently by a mix of ranchers, prospectors, and farmers. One enterprising settler, John Wesley Wolfe, built his cabin in a beautiful spot near Salt Wash where park visitors may still see it today.
Loren "Bish" Taylor, 1940s
Every small town needs a good newspaper, and early Moab was no exception. The beauty of the red rock country around Arches was glowingly described in print by Loren "Bish" Taylor, who took over the Moab newspaper in 1911 when he was just eighteen years old. Bish editorialized for years about the marvels of Moab, and loved exploring and describing the rock wonderland just north of the frontier town.
Some of his journeys were with John "Doc" Williams, Moab's first doctor. As Doc rode his horse north to ranches and other settlements, he often climbed out of Salt Valley to the spot now called Doc Williams Point, stopped to let his horse rest and looked back over the fabulously colored rock fins.
Word spread. Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, wrote to the Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1923 in an effort to publicize the area and gain support for creating a national park. Ringhoffer led railroad executives on hikes into the formations; they were impressed and believed such wonders would certainly attract more railroad customers, so the campaign began. The government sent research teams to investigate and gather evidence.
Civilian Conservation Corps
On April 12, 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed Presidertial Proclamation No. 1875, reserving 1,920 acres in the Windows and 2,600 acres in the Devils Garden for the purpose of establishing Arches National Monument. Since that time, the park's boundaries have been expanded several times. In 1971, Congress changed the status of Arches to National Park, recognizing over 10,000 years of human history that flourished in this now-famous landscape of rock.
Civilian Conservation Corps
In March 1940, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established to help develop Arches National Monument. Enrollees were unmarried, unemployed young men between 18 and 25 years old and mostly from southern states. Dysfunction plagued the camp, but they managed to complete an impressive amount of work in just a few short years: improving the entrance road, building drainage culverts, constructing headquarters buildings and starting work on a new scenic park road. Work was halted when the U.S. entered World War II. The Arches camp, one of the last in the nation, closed in March of 1942. Today, the lasting contributions of the CCC can be seen in a distinctive rock culvert and historic red sandstone building near the visitor center.
Turnbow & son at Wolfe Cabin
This humble, one-room cabin sits near the present-day trailhead for the hike to Delicate Arch. Visitors regularly peer through the doorway and wonder aloud, "Who lived here... and how?... And why?"
In 1898, a nagging leg injury from the Civil War prompted 69-year-old John Wesley Wolfe to leave his home in Ohio and seek a drier climate. He brought his oldest son, Fred, with him out west, and the two settled a 100+-acre property along Salt Wash, just north of the sleepy little village of Moab. The property had fresh water, enough grassland to feed a few head of cattle, and plenty of peace and quiet. For nearly a decade, they lived and worked alone on the remote "Bar DX" ranch.
Esther and Ferol Stanley
The scene changed in 1906 when John's daughter, Flora, made the westward trek with her husband, Ed Stanley, and two young children, Esther and Ferol. Appalled by the condition in which her father and brother lived, Flora demanded they build a new cabin with a wooden floor and real windows. John obliged, creating the small (17 x 15 ft / 5.2 x 4.6m) but sturdy cabin made of cottonwood logs that remains in the park to this day. He also constructed a root celler, irrigation dams, and a corral. All six family members lived and slept under the distinctive thatch-and-clay roof for just two years, when the Stanleys resettled in nearby Moab. (That house also remains, a few blocks off Main Street in the center of town.) John, Fred, and all the rest finally returned to Ohio in 1910, where John remained until his death in 1913 at the age of eighty-four.
The cabin passed through several more hands, including J. Marvin Turnbow (pictured above), the first custodian of Arches National Monument. The final private owner, Emmett Elizondo, sold the property to the U.S. government for inclusion in the monument. Wolfe Ranch and surrounding acreage were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.