Pipe Spring National Monument marks a century of Indigenous and LDS history
Pipe Spring National Monument near the Utah-Arizona border has long been an oasis in the desert.
Its steady flow of water in the dry Colorado Plateau has made it a hot spot for more than a thousand years — from Ancestral Puebloans to European settlers to the Kaibab Paiute people, whose tribal lands surround the park grounds.
Lead interpretive ranger Ian Harvey said tourists who stop by the monument today become part of that tradition.
“If you visit the visitor center and you wash your hands in the restroom [or] you fill up your water bottle,” Harvey said, “it's all coming from the same place.”
Larry Stevens directs the Springs Stewardship Institute in northern Arizona, which promotes the study and preservation of spring ecosystems. The overlapping stories of people who have used the spring’s water, he said, is what makes this monument special.
“I would call it a nexus of biological and cultural importance. … It's sitting on top of probably 10,000 years of human use.”
Centuries ago, semi-nomadic hunters and Ancestral Puebloans came to the springs, Stevens said, to ambush game drawn by the water and vegetation. By the 1700s, Paiute people living near the springs used its water to cultivate crops, such as beans, squash and corn.
The Armijo route of the Old Spanish Trail also passed through Pipe Spring on its way between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the California coast in the late 1820s. Once the St. George temple was dedicated in 1877, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would stop by the springs on the journey to have their marriages sanctified there — a route that became known as the Honeymoon Trail.
But for most of the park’s first 100 years, Harvey said, its educational materials left out much of the springs’ rich Indigenous history.
“Even up until the mid-1990s, if you were to get the official Park Service brochure about Pipe Spring, it still didn't even mention Kaibab Paiute.”
That’s something Harvey and other park employees — some of whom are tribal members — are working to change.
Many of the interpretive displays have been updated to give visitors a fuller picture of the site’s past, including the parts that are more difficult to talk about. The Spanish traders that passed by often enslaved Indigenous peoples. Some Mormon settlers also took Paiute children as indentured servants. The LDS settlement itself was part of the church’s broader expansion to colonize parts of the Arizona Territory — an action some Native peoples already living there viewed as an invasion.
As part of its centennial commemoration, the park recently put on a presentation about the spring’s role as a refuge for polygamists fleeing federal authorities in the late 1800s. Another event brought awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The monument’s visitor center and museum is now run jointly by the National Park Service and the Kaibab Paiute tribe, whose members have helped the park rewrite its brochures to do a better job representing Indigenous culture.
“Over those 100 years, many stories weren't always shared,” Harvey said. “Over the next 100 years, we hope to shed light on some of the other stories that have happened at Pipe Springs and try to provide a more balanced outlook on the history of this location.”
When the site first became a monument with a proclamation dated May 31, 1923, from President Warren G. Harding, Harvey said, the motivation was likely to give travelers a place to drink and rest during the trek between the neighboring parks that overshadow it: Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park.
The site is roughly halfway between those parks, on a journey that Harvey said would have taken early sightseers roughly nine hours in an open-topped bus with no air conditioning.
Today, the monument continues to serve more as a stopover point than a final destination, he said, even though the park offers more activities for visitors today than it did back then. And for travelers looking to escape the crowds of other southwestern parks, spending time at Pipe Spring might be just what they need. The monument welcomed just over 23,000 visitors last year — compared with roughly 4.7 million each at nearby Zion and Grand Canyon.
The park grounds are relatively small, as far as national monuments of the West go — at just 40 acres.
The main historic building is Winsor Castle, a stone fort LDS settlers built to defend themselves from neighboring tribes — but it was never used for that purpose. There’s a demonstration garden where roughly half the crops are grown with methods that would have been used by church pioneers and the other half are grown according to Native practices. A half-mile hiking trail introduces visitors to the region's plant and animal life and offers 50-mile views of the surrounding desert landscape.
But the site's main draw is and always has been its aquatic wonders.
“We're water in the desert,” Harvey said. “So anything that's happened in the area has happened here — primarily because of that water.”
The park grounds encompass four springs where underground water squeezes up through layers of sandstone in the dry Arizona Strip. When LDS Church members arrived in the 1850s, Harvey said, they found green grass as high as their horses’ bellies — a stark difference from much of the surrounding desert.
Those pioneers established an agricultural outpost with a farm and ranch where settlers used the springs to produce butter and cheese to send back to St. George as a tithe to the church.
But in recent decades, growing water use in the surrounding area has put these celebrated springs at risk.
The underground aquifers that fuel the springs became increasingly tapped for irrigation and residential wells in the 1970s. And the recharge rate — how quickly the aquifer refills — is very slow, Stevens said, due to the region’s dry climate and the layers of rock that precipitation must seep through to reach the aquifer.
“We've got climate change going on. We certainly have groundwater pumping going on,” Stevens said. “And the combination there can result in quite an impact on an aquifer.”
In the past 50 years, the water table dropped and spring flow declined.
The site’s primary spring — the one that Winsor Castle was built around — ceased flowing in the late 1990s and began trickling out in a different spot 100 yards away instead. The park service has since rerouted that flow to pump some water back to the castle.
It’s a microcosm of life in the dry Southwest, Stevens said, where everything relies on precious, dwindling water. And he hopes that this region can learn from the history of places like Pipe Spring and find more equitable ways to keep that resource around for the next century.
“I would hope that Pipe Spring would serve as … a beacon of concern about the importance of managing groundwater. … Learning from history is very important because otherwise we repeat it.”
Pipe Spring National Monument marks its 100th birthday on May 31, 2023, commemorating the occasion with a series of presentations and events.