thousand-foot shadow of a Cottonwood moves slowly along sandstone
canyon walls, morphing into undulating shapes as it glides
over and into the natural crevices. The magic of light and
shadows is choreographed to music emanating from clear, distinct
speakers, vibrating the metal boat from which the spectators
float and watch. Can you be amazed and relaxed at once?
This spectacle can be observed any night of the week, here
in Moab, thanks to the unique program Canyonlands by Night
and Day offers.
This family-business has been operating for over forty years,
and is one of only a few light shows left in the country. It’s
not surprising that this show endures —it’s timeless.
Of all the many ways one can enjoy canyon country, Canyonlands
by Night offers a relaxing, one-of-a-kind program that can
include anyone, no matter the fitness level, age or agility.
evening, which includes dinner, begins an hour before sundown,
reflected in the varying schedule throughout the summer months.
Guests enter the building through a well-stocked gift shop,
where useful last-minute purchases such as hats, sunglasses
and such are available along with regionally-made jewelry and
pottery. After mingling in the shop or around the koi pond,
guests are invited to enter the restaurant area. The entire
restaurant has magnificent, floor-to-ceiling views of the Colorado
River, the Nature Preserve and Moab beyond.
The service is buffet-style, but runs smoothly and quickly,
evidence of the experience this family has in running its show.
night I attended, Preston Paxman, the current patriarch of
the family and business, hosted the event. He entertained
while enlightening the group about dinner protocol (how to
do a buffet without getting buffetted).
The intermingled down-home talk and time-tested jokes echo
the outer image he portrays with his cowboy boots and hat.
Considering that the family established itself and its business
in Moab long before this area became a hub of eco and adventure
tourism, his demeanor is no act.
One aspect of the dinner Paxman is particularly proud of is
the Dutch Oven cooking that requires the company chef, Louann,
to rise at 5:00 a.m. every morning to get started so the meats
can cook slowly over the next twelve hours.
Although Louann isn’t strictly part of the family, her
heritage makes her a perfect fit in this outfit. According
to the story Paxman tells, Louann was just a kid when The Duke
used to come down to this area to make movies, such as The
Rio Grande. John Wayne formed a friendship with Louann’s
older sister, and consequently employed them both as extras
in some of his films. This type of local lore surfaces throughout
the evening, giving visitors a full introduction to Moab’s
Going back to Louann, a clearly colorful character, she fibbed
her way into getting hired by claiming that she was well-versed
in Dutch Oven knowledge (but considering her knowledge of John
Wayne, who cares?). Apparently, it took a few false starts
years ago for her to get the hang of it, and now the tender,
moist chicken, beef and pork that comes out of her ovens is
out of this world. Really.
My husband and I made a point of trying all five meats (some
in gravy, some in BBQ sauce) and before the beef had melted
in my mouth I was wishing aloud that I could come here simply
It’s not fine dining, mind you, but the dining is truly
fine. The accompanying dishes include good ol’ fashioned
standards, like corn, BBQ beans, home-made biscuits, cow-poke
potatoes and a salad bar, followed by cake for desert.
Of course, the real desert is the reason people flock to Canyonlands
by Night. Nothing is sweeter than a tranquil trip on the Colorado
River on a fresh summer night.
The trip begins by motoring upriver for an hour and a half,
watching the sunset deepen the shadows and colors of the canyon
walls. Dusk is a particularly lovely time to be on the water.
A guide, very often Paxman himself, answers questions about
Moab and its environs and points out interesting shapes within
the rocks, much like playing guess-what-this-cloud-reminds-me-of,
with much of the same restful meditation and child-like joy
of finally seeing the hidden image within the natural formation.
Although Paxman must use much of the same material on each
trip, he delivers his brand of entertainment with sincere enthusiasm.
He injects puns and jokes into his explanations, starting off
by counseling his guests “only ask questions that I know
the answers to.” Clearly, that covers a great deal,
and he keeps the information flowing.
The real spectacle commences once the boat reaches its turn-around
point upriver and the sky has darkened. The light and sound
The three boats Canyonlands by Night uses are outfitted for
comfort, acoustics and views. Unless there is inclement weather,
passengers do not get wet or buffeted, so this is a perfect
experience on the river at night that can easily include children
The boats, all Coast-Guard-approved, are principally floating
pontoons with no overhead rigging so that every seat in the
house, or boat, has an excellent, unobstructed view of the
river, canyon walls and sky.
The sounds system is high-quality. You can hear clearly and
feel the vibrations of the music reverberate underfoot. The
music and dialogue are choreographed to the light show.
The audio portion begins with the first verse of “Genesis” from
the Old Testament and as soon as the words, “Let there
be light” are heard, the 40,000 watt spotlight hits the
rocks. The image is arresting.
As the presentation progresses, relating a Ute legend involving
the formation of the Colorado River and Canyon and then an
abbreviated geological history of the area, the lights echo
the pace of the stories. A good portion of the monologue describes
the local history of the last hundred or so years, mostly from
a settler’s point of view. As the Mormon Pioneers are
recalled, the lights play on the shadows, making it look like
a caravan of wagons climbing a hill.
Music intersperses the presentation, including excerpts that
vary from patriotic to pop, classical to oldies. My favorite
part of the trip was drifting down the river, listening to
an instrumental piece, and staring at the starry sky.
So much could be written to describe the magnificence of the
scenery, the awe-inspiring coordination between light, shadows
and sound, and the peacefulness of the river. But when nature
is so majestic and presented to you in such an accessible way,
it is difficult to capture with words. The trip should simply
Canyonlands by Night & Day can be reached at (435) 259-5261
or (800) 394-9978 or on the web at www.canyonlandsbynight.com.
They are located just north of the Colorado River Bridge at
the Old Mission Store. Night trips are priced at $49.99/adult
and $39.99/child + tax. Children under 4 are not permitted
(Coast Guard rules!).