Monticello’s Canyon Country Discovery Center
On a brisk morning in October, we met our guides at the Canyon Country Discovery Center parking lot for the day’s adventure. As their white Ford super duty truck rumbled down the highway toward Bears Ears National Monument, Lauren Isbell and Bill Boyle explained the center’s mission.
“We focus on adventure, education and stewardship,” says Boyle, former board member of the discovery center. “We provide opportunities that you may not get on your own. Ed-venture or experiential learning can be life-transforming.”
It’s also a lot of fun. You can’t beat bumping through the desert in a big truck, hiking to petroglyphs and Native American dwellings, and eating lunch next to the San Juan River under a brilliant blue sky. You can visit the petroglyphs and dwellings on your own, but many are difficult to access and require four-wheel drive. And you won’t get the learning component — not to mention safety, permits and first aid if needed.
Now in its 35th year, this Monticello, Utah, nonprofit was originally called the Four Corners School of Outdoor Adventure. It offered adult and youth outdoor education programs, rehabilitated roads and trails, and protected archaeological sites on public land.
That was before it morphed into a 48-acre campus with a museum, kids’ discovery center, outdoor adventure center, walking trail and a futuristic-looking, silver dome-topped observatory housing a large telescope.
“Monticello will become to night sky what Cedar City is to Shakespeare,” predicts Boyle. The center’s Youth Corps is one of the largest employers of Native American youth in the region. The Ed-venture program offers unique river trips on the San Juan River, by horseback, guided vehicle or day hikes.
Respecting Bears Ears
“I’ve heard a Navajo girl sing a song of her people under her breath as our group approached the ancient dwellings,” says Isbell, education coordinator. “Some Native Americans have never been to these sites but their grandparents have told them about them. I don’t call them ruins, I call them dwellings. I take pride in using correct terminology, so we also say ‘rock imagery,’ not ‘rock art.’”
Her favorite question to ask youth is, “How do you behave when you approach a stranger’s home?” Some of their responses are: “‘You knock. You don’t enter if you haven’t been invited. You don’t take anything. You look from afar and admire.’ We are teaching respect here at the center, and to leave no trace.”
Isbell has a bachelor’s in physics from Kalamazoo College and Boyle an MBA from Stanford. Both clearly love this part of the world and want to educate and share the magic of the Bears Ears region with others. They try to build a connection between the lives of Native Americans who once lived in the area and our lives today.
“Look,” Isbell says. “You can see the fingerprints of those who pushed the mortar into the brick. A lot of hard work and labor went into these homes. And look at the hand and toeholds. You can almost visualize the rock climbers in their yucca sandals.”
On our foray into the desert, Isbell taught us about biocrust (desert soil containing living organisms), rabbitbrush, desert frogs and potholes. Her excitement about each discovery was palpable even though she’s seen them all many times before. We marveled at the rock imagery on the Wolfman panel and remote Native American dwellings in Lower Butler Wash.
“There’s a lot of speculation as to why the Ancestral Puebloans left so quickly,” Isbell says. “But they didn’t have a written language as far as we know, so we can only guess.”
Brick and Mortar Presence
The interior and exterior of the Canyon Country Discovery Center’s $8.6 million building are strikingly beautiful. Windows line every wall and a massive skylight sits inside the exhibit hall’s rotunda, bathing it with sunlight. A domed wooden ceiling is reminiscent of a Native American hogan. Inside the exhibit hall, kids play on a water table, design wind turbines, build hills and valleys, and much more.
About 70 people are employed by the center — 17 full time, 46 part time and 10 as guides. “The center was envisioned as an economic development project for Monticello as a way to bring good things to the community,” Boyle says.
In 2018, visitation to Discovery Center exhibits was more than 5,000, with an additional 5,000 students participating in educational programs at the center, in the outdoors and at area schools.
“Two million people or vehicles pass through Monticello every year,” Boyle says. “If we can stop a portion of them and give them a good experience and teach them something about this area, then we’ve succeeded.”