Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names: An Essential New Book

Steve Allen

As a young canyoneer and backpacker, Steve Allen wanted to learn more about the
red rock canyon country of southern Utah. He began a desert quest that took him
into some of the wildest country in America. Forty thousand hard-hiking,
boot-busting, knee-wrenching miles later he shares his knowledge in Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names, a
Southwestern geographical magnum opus.

The son of desert rats, Allen’s father spent years with aborigines in the
Australian Outback. His physician-mother treated cowboys in the Black Rock
Desert. Allen grew up camping and hiking the deserts of eastern Washington,
northwest Nevada and Baja Mexico. A skilled climber and canyoneer with many
first descents through tight, twisting slot canyons, Allen also wrote Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell, Canyoneering 2: Loop Hikes in Utah’s
Escalante
, and Canyoneering 3: Technical
Loop Hikes in Southern Utah
. He loves teasing history out of remote canyons
and getting to know the country on foot, sleeping on the ground, and talking to
oldtimers over their cracked kitchen tables and bent tailgates of worn pickup
trucks.

His new book took 40 years to research and write, though he’d been dreaming it up half
his life in the pre-dawn or those last minutes of golden light on a canyon rim.
For 15 years, in nine month stretches, he base camped out of Hanksville, Utah
“living in my van. My only address was P.O. Box 62, Hanksville.”

It’s hard to be a writer. It’s not that writing is difficult, it’s that good
research and writing takes what Wallace Stegner called “time in the chair,” and
for outdoor afficianados, that’s a
tedious chore. Allen spent hundreds of hours in archives and research
libraries, but the time he loved best was talking to that last generation of
desert settlers who not only knew the country but named it. Allen explains, “I
thought I understood a lot about the desert, but once I started to find history
on the ground I wanted to know how the pioneers made the landscape work.”

Forty years later, he’s done it. He has published stories from the land. Osprey,
Black Diamond, and Petzl Equipment assisted with backpacking gear, and he wore
out countless boots and several vehicles.

Allen ached to attach stories to places and he succeeded. His two volume Canyon Country Places Names is 750,000
words with 4,000 entries from A to Z, careful notations as to which places are
on private land, and 2,180 bibliographic references. This tombstone of a book chronicles
explorers, pioneers, cowboys, miners and river runners “who put names on the
land” in 13 Utah counties with references to three counties in northern Arizona
and three in western Colorado.

Ever wonder how Wooden Shoe Buttes, Mollie’s Nipple or Ticaboo got their names? How
about Mexican Hat, Blanding, Salvation Knoll or Hell Roaring Canyon? Allen’s
got 12 versions of Birch Canyon, Birch Creek and Birch Spring, eight varieties
of Calf Canyon and 11 place names for Cottonwood Canyon. I was shocked to
discover that in southern Utah the devil has a canyon, garden, lane, monument,
pocket, racetrack, slide, and window all named after him. Turns out there are
20 Trail Canyons in eight Utah counties.

Allen’s got place names for every nook and cranny, meadow, mesa, mountain, side canyon
and draw in such well-known places as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Lake
Powell, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Arches, Bryce,
Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks. But he also covers canyon
areas that are less heralded such as Mancos Mesa, Lake Country, Cedar Mesa, and
the Dirty Devil/Robbers Roost country. And, don’t forget the upland areas
standing high over the canyons: the Aquarius, Awapa,  Kaiparowits,
Paunsaugunt,  and Markagunt
plateaus. Even the lofty ranges of the La Sal, Henry and Pine Valley mountains
are covered.  The book offers quotes and
observations from explorers, anthropologists, and local ranching families with even
a few lines of poetry.

I learned about Bachelor Basin, Bagpipe Butte, the Bears Ears, Cleopatras Chair,
and Cookie Jar Butte. Allen is meticulous with his spelling and translation of
Navajo and Ute place names. Who would have thought that in Navajo Comb Ridge
means “Mountain Sheep’s Testicles?”

I finally got the lowdown on how Shirt Tail Corner, Cheese & Raisins, and
Dead Horse Point earned their sobriquets. Research for this book is staggering.
Each page brought new place name revelations from the likes of Emery Kolb,
Barry Goldwater, F.V. Hayden, Kent Frost, Katie Lee, Edson Alvey, Richard
Wetherill, Zane Grey, Vaughn Hadenfeldt, Pearl Baker, Neil Judd, Bert Loper,
W.H. Jackson and “Cactus Ed” Abbey himself.

Stories attach to the land, and the pioneer quips and quotes stand out with bald humor.
Pearl Baker’s father, Joe Biddlecome, moved into remote Robbers Roost. She said
he “was a cowhand of such competence that he had been invited to leave western
Colorado, where his cows always had two calves and sometimes his bulls showed
up with calves following.”

I learned about stock tanks designed and built by the Civilian Conservation
Corps, stock trails, mining roads, river rapids, proposed dam sites, and
climbers’ first ascents of stone towers.  Allen notes that in Parunuweap Canyon, Maj.
John Wesley Powell’s 1872 descent “marks the beginning of the modern-day sport
of technical canyoneering in America.”

In the 1890s, gold miners along the Colorado River in Glen Canyon worked placer
claims. Steve Allen has worked his own claims, and this book is a wealth of
local history in shiny nuggets. How did Fry Canyon get its name? Mormon pioneer
Albert R. Lyman stated, “In the solitude of Elk Mountain and White Canyon, a
gray bearded hermit appeared every now and then, always alone, always armed to
the teeth, and always in rags and dirt beyond description. He gave the name of
Charley Frye, and while he lived, good horses, especially stock horses,
disappeared in a very remarkable way.”

As for the barefoot beaver trapper Claud Simmons, “as filthy and sloppy as a man
can ever get,” his hands were so callused and dirt-caked that with his fingers he
could lift live coals from a campfire to light his pipe. Locals nicknamed him
“Tidy.”

Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names is a tour de force,” says Andy Nettell, proprietor of Back
of Beyond Books in Moab. He explains, “Never have I seen a place names book
like this.  Usually you’re lucky to get a sentence or two; here Steve
gives you the USGS map on which the name is found, the usage over time and the
changes over time, and a cross reference to the source material he found
information in. It’s not uncommon for Steve to devote a page or more to some
locales.  His bibliography is a treasure trove of source material and will
be used by historians, researchers and enthusiasts for decades.  Every
library, academic or private, which focuses on the American Southwest needs
this book.”

Not only does Allen know how to research and write about the Southwest’s public
lands, he knows how to give back. For over 25 years he has been a legendary
leader of donor trips for environmental groups, raising hundreds of thousands
of dollars for non-profit organizations. His painstakingly planned backpack
excursions change people’s lives. He’s opened their hearts and they’ve opened
their checkbooks. Allen tells me, “We take them to places they’ve never heard
of that need protection, wilderness-eligible lands, and to see the visitors
realize that these landscapes are as good as it gets is very satisfying.” Allen
is booked a year in advance for 8-10 annual week-long backpack trips.

Marcey Olajos, board member for Durango Nature Studies and the Center for Biological
Diversity, says, “Whenever we went out with Steve, no matter where it was in
southern Utah, time was spent discussing environmental issues, in between being
awed with the landscapes and being challenged with his routes into and out of
various canyons. Steve has the ability to make his hikers aware of the
importance of protection as he leads us into fantastic places, without being
preachy.” She adds, “He truly loves the land. I would follow him anywhere.”

Ronni Egan for Great Old Broads for Wilderness explains, “He somehow manages to
present his groups with just enough challenges for their skill and fitness
levels, while maintaining safety and flexibility. One of his most remarkable
talents is knowing where to find water at the end of the day in places you’d
swear there wasn’t a drop in 100 miles.”

Every generation re-discovers southwestern canyon country. In this decade its Steve
Allen’s two-volume Utah’s Canyon Country
Place Names
that will teach us the most about the red rock desert and pioneers
whose lasting legacy is the names they bestowed upon the land. I’ll need two
copies—one for the shelf and one for the truck.

One Response to “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names: An Essential New Book”

  1. It sounds like a good read for any who desire more information on Utahs’s beautiful landscapes. I’m writing a novel that I would like very much to have real names to places without having to do so much research. That book could possibly be a shortcut

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