The Paleo-Indian cultures lived in this area as far back as 11,500 B.C. Their descendants, the Desert Archaic people, also hunted and gathered here, and by about 1000 B.C. began to grow corn. As agriculture became more important to these people, they gave up their nomadic ways and developed permanent settlements. The culture that planted crops and built villages is called the ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi). By about A.D. 1100, there was ancestral Puebloan occupation in the Needles District of Canyonlands. The ruins around Salt Creek are evidence of small settlements.
The Fremont people, whose origins are more obscure, lived across the Colorado River to the northwest of the ancestral Puebloans. Both groups left their mark on Canyonlands. In all three areas of the park, there are scenes of hunting and harvesting, stylized figures and abstract designs left by ancient artists working in stone for purposes that remain unclear.
For about 200 years, the Fremont and ancestral Puebloan peoples cultivated crops in canyon bottoms and left rock art on canyon walls, but this was not to be a permanent home for them. A 20-year drought in the 13th century forced these groups to leave Canyonlands in search of more favorable living conditions.
Explorers and Ranchers
For the next several hundred years, Canyonlands remained little used. Native people may have hunted in the area. It was probably not until the 1800s that the first Europeans entered Canyonlands. In 1836, fur trapper Denis Julien traveled through this rugged country. Several more efforts to explore the area followed shortly thereafter. In 1859, Captain John N. Macomb entered Canyonlands in order to locate the confluence of the Green and the Grand rivers (as the Colorado River was then called), to chart the course of the San Juan River and to determine the most direct route from the Rio Grande of New Mexico to the small towns of southern Utah. John Wesley Powell explored the area by river in 1869 and again in 1871. Powell's expeditions resulted in the first detailed geologic and topographic information on this area
By 1885, cattle ranching was becoming a big business in southeast Utah, and cattle were beginning to graze in Canyonlands itself. Some of the descendants of ranchers who were running cattle operations in Canyonlands during the last century are still in residence today.
In the 1950s and 1960s, prospectors explored Canyonlands for uranium deposits. Bulldozed roads crisscrossed the landscape, and several deep shafts were dug. Although ore was found, the yields were not worth the effort required to extract it. In September 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation preserving Canyonlands as a national park for the enrichment of generations to come.
(from the National Park website)