The Long View of Martin Litton
A Grand Canyon legend shares his favorite Southwest view
Two years ago, my wife and I were floating a glassy section of the Upper Grand Canyon, when our guide told us to take in our paddles. We were somewhere near Redwall Canyon, and he wanted us to stop and look closely at our surroundings—the blooming century plants along the banks, the 3,000-foot-tall rainbow cliffs that dwarfed us and the quiet might of 20,000 cubic feet per second that had carved the canyon. "We wouldn't have any of this today," he said, "if it wasn't for guys like David Brower, Edward Abbey and Martin Litton."
Brower, of course, is the founder of the Sierra Club and Abbey made his name with great books like Desert Solitaire and The Monkeywrench Gang, but not everyone knows Litton. Mostly environmentalists, river rats and those with very long memories have heard of this heretofore unsung hero. In his 95 years, though, Martin Litton has been, perhaps, the staunchest defender of America's Southwest—particularly its rivers. Through his roles as long-time commerical outfitter on the Colorado River (who exclusively guided the Grand Canyon in wooden dories), part-time freelance writer and all-the-time hell-raising environmentalist, he's saved some of the region's greatest riverine treasures—the Grand Canyon, the Green River's Canyon of Lodore and Whirlpool Canyon where the Yampa flows into the Green—from being dammed up and drowned beneath great civilized, banal manmade reservoirs. For all of that, Canoe & Kayak presented Litton with its Lifetime Achievement Award in August.
A few months before I paddled the Grand, I was working at a national magazine and was tasked with cold-calling Litton to find out what is his favorite view in the Southwest. I would have to wait (I got his voicemail), but not for long. Already 92 at the time, he still possessed all of the vigor and dogged persistence that for decades had made him such a thorn in the side of developers, federal agencies and extractive industries. He called me back within hours and left two long-winded messages peppered with intimate details of seemingly dozens of viewpoints. When we finally connected, he'd fixated on one particular view in Dinosaur National Monument. Over the next few days, he dug through guidebooks, old newspaper clippings and the wrinkles of his memory until he was satisfied. And he called me—probably half a dozen times—to describe the Harpers Corner view and what it meant to him. But his answer was never published—until now.
Here's the view and how he described it:
A partial view from Harpers Corner (Shutterstock)
"Harpers Corner is a viewpoint in Dinosaur National Monument that’s as spectacular as anything you can see in the Southwest, and it’s not well known. You can’t miss it, though, because it’s there at the end of Harpers Corner Road on a high, narrow ridge of sagebrush and juniper. It commands a vast and magnificent view 2,500 feet over the twisting, gnarled-rock canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers. The Canyon of Lodore brings the Green down from the north, the two rivers meet in Echo Park, and Whirlpool Canyon carries them west toward Split Mountain. And you’re not only seeing what’s there, but also something that was saved. I first came here in the days of the controversy, when we fought Echo Park Dam and Split Mountain Dam, two dams that were going to wipe out the purity, really, of Dinosaur. It reminds me of the West’s unbridled wilderness, and I still think of it for that reason."
Here's Litton accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award from Canoe & Kayak: