Canyonland’s First “Friend”: Bates Wilson

By Blaine Reniger, Host of the History Hour on KZMU

Photo Credit: Tug Wilson

Bates Wilson arrived in Moab in 1949, taking on the role of General Superintendent for both Arches National Monument and Natural Bridges National Monument. Described as affable and approachable, Bates had a knack for simplifying complex subjects like geology, making them easily understandable to others. His tenure marked a transformative period for the parks.

Upon his arrival, Bates immediately envisioned making Arches more accessible to visitors. At the time, the only entrance was along today’s Willow Springs road, and the park lacked pavement, necessitating visitors to traverse via jeep or horse. In 1956, Bates initiated the construction of the present-day entrance and road, which wound through the Navajo sandstone and cut through The Courthouse Towers, previously accessible only by a hiking trail. Bates’ daughter, Cindy, reminisces about being driven by her father on the nascent entrance, where he cunningly asked her what she saw across the park. Her response, “I don’t see anything but the park,” delighted Bates, who revealed his intention to hide the road to preserve the park’s natural beauty. The entrance officially opened in 1958 following the completion of the pavement.

Photo Credit: Tug Wilson

Bates Wilson’s vision extended beyond Arches, encompassing the canyons connecting Arches and Natural Bridges in an area he dubbed “The Land In Between.” With the uranium boom waning and the land vacant of miners in the early 1960s, Bates seized the opportunity. Advocating for a new national park, he led expeditions, including one with National Geographic in 1962, showcasing the area to the world. Accompanied by Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior, Bates embarked on jeep excursions into the Needles and aerial surveys of the Maze and Island in the Sky. His relentless efforts, such as accidentally adding ketchup to his coffee one morning due to exhaustion but still drinking it, culminated in the establishment of Canyonlands National Park in 1964 after overcoming the “Canyonlands Controversy.”

Bates was a man driven by his visions, refusing to settle for anything less. In Arches, he extended the road to a viewpoint near the Delicate Arch trailhead, despite initial resistance from the National Park Service (NPS). Bates’ son, Tug Wilson, recalls his father’s insistence on designing campgrounds in the Needles where visitors could feel they had the world to themselves. When the NPS sent blueprints suggesting cramped camping arrangements, Bates defiantly marked them with big red X’s and returned them.

Photo Credit: Tug Wilson

While Bates Wilson may no longer be here to protect and serve the parks, his spirit lives on through the Friends of Arches & Canyonlands Parks. The organization continues to uphold his vision, ensuring the preservation and accessibility of these natural wonders for generations to come. Bates’ legacy is not only etched in the landscapes he helped safeguard but also in the hearts of those who carry forward his passion for conservation and stewardship.