Utah’s national parks and monuments were established in the teens and 1920s, but it wasn’t until the mid-century construction of the Interstate Highway System that station wagons began to snake their way through the American West in droves. In 1947, when LIFE dispatched Loomis Dean to photograph the people and animals that called the desert home, it seemed there were still more sheep in the roads than cars.
Dean’s photos, never published in the magazine, capture the future tourist mecca with nary a track in the sand save for the sheep, the shepherds who herded them and the Native Americans who lived there. Though the images are in black and white, it’s hard not to see the rocks as red and the sky, stretching on forever, as blue. There is something quiet about the photos—you can see the wind in the hair of two children on a mule and the blinding sun on a man’s weathered face, but the noise of traffic and industry is miles away.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.