Grand Gulch

  • DSC 0045A few years ago I lead a backpacking excursion through Grand Gulch a few days before Easter. Carrying tents and sleeping bags and foodstuffs on our backs, we hiked seven and a half miles the first day, forgetting – with each mile – the cares of the world. Focusing, with no agenda, solely on enjoying the canyon. I've hiked many wonderful red-rock canyons but I've never felt so completely captivated by a place as I did on this trip. It was outstanding.

    "There's a ruin that's not on the map; I think I'll go explore … I'm hungry; guess we'd better stop for lunch. The sun is setting, better find a campsite." It was a wonderful outing.

    I didn't realize how completely I had put off the cares of modern life until I reached the trailhead – the highway – and was confronted by 65-mile-per-hour traffic and cell phones. I felt a cultural shock, for a moment, as I mentally shifted gears, then threw my pack into the back of the car and headed for the city. I relived the hike in my mind as I drove home, thinking – with each mile – that I should have stayed for three weeks, not just three days.

    A friend had persuaded me to take his Varsity Scout troop into the Gulch. I had misgivings initially. Boys (even good boys) are often noisy, crude and obnoxious — some of the realities of modern life that I try to escape by fleeing to the canyons. I didn't want to impose a gang of teenagers on people seeking solace in the Gulch. And I wasn't at all confident the teens would appreciate the canyon and respect the ruins.

    I was pleasantly surprised. After a rowdy night camped near the trailhead, the kids settled down and enjoyed the trip. Actually, they were too tired to get into much trouble. After supper one evening a kid squealed and a leader immediately hushed him. But before I could launch into a lecture on the need for quietude, I noticed it was only 7:30 p.m. Everyone in camp was asleep by 8:30.

    DSC 0070I saw only one bit of litter during the entire 23-mile hike. That was a candy wrapper I picked up and carried with me. I'm pleased to report we left the canyon in pristine conditions. We watched carefully and the kids just didn't drop garbage... much. When one slipped, a reminder from a leader quickly solved the problem.

    The kids were fascinated by the ruins and showed great respect.

    The Scouts were all experienced backpackers but this was the toughest hike they had ever undertaken. Normally 23 miles in three days wouldn't be a great challenge but Grand Gulch is rough country – up and down and scrambling over rocks and up dry falls and across the stream dozens of times. It was grueling. The kids met the challenge well; it was the adult leaders who sometimes dragged behind.

    I experienced a remarkable rush as we climbed out of that canyon. It was a great thrill to have completed the tough hike through such remarkable country. But the greatest sense of accomplishment came knowing I had helped the kids complete such a spectacular hike. It was the kind of trip they will talk about for years.

    The most popular backpack trip here is a loop from Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon – 23 miles. You can hike further to other exit points, or all the way to the San Juan River – almost 52 miles below the Kane Gulch trailhead.

    I chose to hike the loop backwards, from Bullet Canyon to Kane Gulch, so we could talk to as many other groups as possible. Traveling against the popular flow gave us the chance to talk to a dozen different groups. It was interesting to see how long they planned to be in the Gulch and where they were from.

    Most groups were taking 4-5 days to do the Kane to Bullet loop. Our 3-day schedule was too tight. We camped at the trailhead and hiked 7 miles the first day and 10 the second. We hiked 6 miles then drove home the third day. Physically, we were able to do it, but the trip would have been more enjoyable had we spent another day in the canyon. Several times we saw places we would have liked to explore, but didn't feel we had the time.

    Of the 12 parties I talked to, only two included people from Utah. I talked to people from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and California. Grand Gulch is a world-class hiking destination. It is strange more Utahns don't appreciate its wonders.


  • This ruin is located just north of Hwy. 95, east of Blanding. It is an easy hike to an impressive vista overlooking the ruin.

  • The prehistoric Puebloan Indian ruins on Grand Gulch/Cedar Mesa Plateau are fascinating and provide great opportunity for thoughtful adventure. They were built hundreds of years ago by hardy native people who have come to be called the Anasazi. Expert stonemasons, they built homes on cliff faces and in alcoves throughout the Four Corners area. They also created intricate pottery and detailed rock art.

    Ruins and relics from the Anasazi culture survive in many areas. Some sites are close to roads and can be visited with little effort. Some of the most interesting sites are far from roads and can only be seen by those willing to day hike or backpack into the wilderness. Grand Gulch is the showcase of wilderness Anasazi areas. It contains dozens of well-preserved ruins, rock art sites and artifacts. The Gulch is renowned as a hiking destination. It is a big, rugged wilderness that can only be explored by backpacking for days at a time.

    However, some of the Grand Gulch treasures can be viewed by making day hikes into the canyons. For example, Perfect Kiva, my all-time favorite Anasazi site, is about 4.5 miles from the road and can visited day hiking — if you are in decent physical condition. The trail is moderately difficult.

    The photos illustrating this article were taken at Perfect Kiva and other nearby sites. I hope they whet your appetite and persuade you to explore this area. Grand Gulch would be worth hiking, even if it did not shelter ancient sites. It brings together a series of scenic canyons that provide unlimited opportunity for challenging hikes. But the ruins add an excitement that many people find addictive. I love them and feel a real compulsion to explore. . . to see more and more and more. Beware, this activity is contagious.

    Grand Gulch is a testimony that hikers can enjoy Anasazi ruins without destroying them. The area is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Utah. These ruins are visited more frequently that most backcountry sites. But hikers in recent years have almost universally shown the respect the sites deserve. The ancient pottery shards and corncobs and grindstones are still there – waiting for your visit – despite having been viewed by scores of hikers. We hope you will do your part to preserve these sites. Look but don't touch. Take photos but nothing else.

    Spring and fall are the best times to hike in Grand Gulch and many other southern Utah canyons. Daytime temperatures are mild and so hiking is enjoyable. Nights are crisp but not extreme. Summer temperatures can become very hot, but hikes can be enjoyed if you are careful. Some hiking is possible during warm, dry spells in winter, but extreme caution is needed.

    Day hikers are required to register and pay a small fee. This can be accomplished at the Kan Gulch Ranger Station or at trailheads. Backpackers need to make reservations and must pay for a permit. Group size is limited to 12 individuals. Horsepackers are allowed in parts of Grand Gulch and must also make reservations in advance. The area is administered by BLM; that agency’s website provides detailed information about permits and fees:

    A good map is essential, whether you are day hiking or backpacking. Maps focusing on this area are available on-line and at good map stores. Always stop at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and get updates about conditions in the canyons. You need to know where you can expect to find reliable water sources, for example. Water is a major factor in this country. You can carry enough for a day hike, but if you are backpacking you will need to be able to locate, treat and carry water every day you are in the canyons.

    Small streams flow in some areas, stop, then start again. Giardia is found in these streams, so treat or filter all water before drinking or using it for cooking. Storms can turn these small streams into raging torrents. Watch the weather.

  • DSC 0066The large blank spot on the map caught my eye. The name sounded intriguing: Grand Gulch Primitive Area. In my copy of Canyon Country Rock Art I learned "Grand Gulch and its tributaries are a network of canyons and washes that rank as some of the roughest yet most beautiful in the Southwest. . . Grand Gulch contains some of the most unusual as well as some of the grandest rock art in Canyon Country. . . Some figures appear in Grand Gulch that do not appear anywhere else."

    Grand Gulch sounded like the perfect place for my annual spring break to Utah. So far, my trips had taken me to Canyonlands and Arches. It was time to go some place more remote, more wild, further out there. Grand Gulch fit the bill.

    Humans have only made brief appearances in the life of Grand Gulch. The Anasazi lived in the canyons between 3,000 and 1,000 years ago. Throughout the canyon, evidence of their lives still remain. After the Anasazi mysteriously disappeared, only a few Native Americans and some trappers walked the canyons. In 1880 the Mormons came. Grand Gulch stood in the way as they tried to get from Hite to Bluff. The Mormons were determined enough to find a way across the Grand Canyon, at Hole in the Rock. But they had to go around Grand Gulch. It was too rugged. Later ranchers rediscovered Grand Gulch and began taking artifacts and even skeletons out and selling them. Richard Weatherhill came in 1893. He had already been digging at Mesa Verde. At the 1893 World's Fair he met Talbot and Fred Hyde, heirs to a soap fortune. They financed his expedition to Grand Gulch. The trip was a success as he found a great many artifacts and developed his Basketmaker theory. People lived in the canyons before the cliff dwellers. Weatherhll named them the basketmakers because they had not yet discovered pottery.

    In 1970, 32,847 acres was designated a primitive area to protect the unique archeological and scenic values. The area still has an important religious significance for the Hopi Indians.

    I began my trip at the Kane Gulch trailhead. There is a parking area and ranger station. It is a good place to pick up the latest information on conditions in the Gulch. The rangers are often out in the field, so the station does not have regular hours. Weather and water condition are posted outside.

    Quickly, I packed up and headed down the trail. Lesson number one: check the shopping list in the store. I forgot toilet paper. Luckily there was someone in the parking lot willing to share. My first night was spent at Junction Ruins two miles into the canyon. I may have been in the canyon physically but not mentally. The hassles of travel were still on my mind. After dinner, I climbed up to the ruins. There were pottery shards, corn cobs, twine, charred wood, and mud balls splattered on the ceiling of the overhand. There were thumb prints in the dried mud that held the bricks together. Suddenly I was back in time. It was easy to sit back, look out and imagine the Anasazi growing corn, getting water, and hunting deer. The sounds of their lives still echoed off the cliffs. My trip had truly begun.

    The first day set the pattern, exploring side canyons watching for wildlife, searching for rock art, crossing and recrossing the stream. It was easier to walk through the stream than spend all my time looking for places narrow enough to jump. The problem was my only pair of shoes were constantly soaked. I walked around camp at night in my socks. Lesson two: bring extra shoes.

    By trying to think like an Anasazi, I began to learn where ruins and rock art would be found. My system was not foolproof. There were many cliffs that looked like perfect spots but for some reason the Anasazi disagreed. I did see a variety of images: bighorns, deer, lizards, people of all shapes and sizes, cornstalks, swirls, zig-zags and more. At each site I sketched, took pictures and stared in awe. What did they mean. What were they saying? Why did they make them? And the biggest question: why did they throw mud balls at the cliffs? As usual there were more questions than answers. The number of artifacts still laying around was amazing, it was like hiking in an outdoor museum. The frustrating part was thinking about how much had been stolen from the canyon over the years. Hopefully everyone can resist the urge to take even one little pottery shard. No matter the rationalization, it is stealing a part of the canyon.

    Everything was going smoothly. Progress was slow, but I had no set destination. By day three I ended up at the junction of Bullet Canyon, twenty miles into the canyon. That night I learned lesson three. It can snow in the desert, even in April. All night I huddled under a small overhang. When praying is your best hope to stay dry, you know you are in trouble. Somehow I got a couple of hours sleep. By morning snow blanketed the ground. The snow was gone quickly but a problem arose. The creek was now a raging river. The nice clear stream ran sandstone red.

    Using surprisingly good judgment, I decided it wasn't a good idea to continue downstream. The other people camped at Bullet Canyon called it quits. I didn't want to leave so I explored Bullet Canyon. Hopefully by morning the water level would go down.

    Bullet Canyon is a major access point for hikers interested in doing a 3-4 day loop from Kane Gulch. A thousand years ago it was a major route for the Anasazi. There are several large ruins with names like Perfect Kiva and Jailhouse Ruin. I explored, caught up on sleep and dried out.

    By morning the water level was down. The country below Bullet Canyon is even more remote. The scenery is spectacular. Sheer walls and mounds of red rock piled on top of each other like a child's sand castle. I explored more side canyons, found more ruins and rock art. I was hoping to find an undiscovered rock art image, but every site had at least some footprint or sign of modern times. It is a blessing and a curse that the canyon holds onto all signs. The Anasazi artifacts remain but so do all our tracks and whatever else we leave behind. It is easy to see why it is important not to leave any garbage behind. If a corn cob lasts 1,000 years, I hate to think how long toilet paper will last. Being a low impact camper takes common sense and a little extra care.

    High above the river I found Big Man Panel. Several almost life-like human figures watch over the canyon. There are many theories as to why the Anasazi chose the place they did for their rock art. My theory is they picked the places with the best views. From Big Man Panel I shared the same scene with the ancient artist. In the life of the canyon we just missed meeting each other.

    I wasn't disappointed by the remoteness of the canyon. The people I did meet were true backpackers. One guy was hiking all the way to the San Juan River, then up Slickhorn Canyon. A couple I met had dropped off bikes at the end of Collins Springs and planned to ride back when they got there. Both good ideas. My plan next time is to get dropped off at Collins Spring, hike down to the San Juan and then up Slickhorn.

    The oldest hiker I met was a fifty-something year old women with a broken wrist. She was calmly planning her route out. The youngest was a five month old who slept right through the snow storm. Now that I'm a father, that family is a true inspiration. I may be a wilderness snob but sharing the canyons with these people only added to the experience.

    My last two nights in the canyon were spent in Step Canyon. I set up a base camp. It is much easier to explore without fifty pounds on your back. I made it as far as Polly's Island, half way to the San Juan River. The stream was clear again. I had lunch and watched the water slide over the rock. Only in Canyon Country can one get a sense of geologic time. A flash flood once or twice a year, plus some wind, slowly erodes the sandstone into a magical place. It is still happening, I was just a witness to one moment frozen in rock.

    Cottonwoods sang in the breeze over my head. Those incredible pale green of the leaves, with the light shining through, is my absolute favorite color. Each curve of the canyon was like a voice calling: "Come just a little further." I wanted to keep going further but the rest of the canyon had to be saved for another time.

    I backtracked to Bullet Canyon and headed out. It is amazing how much one misses the first time though. I saw even more rock art and tried to soak in as much scenery as possible. A single Kokopelli played his flute for me from high on a cliff. The climb out Bullet Canyon wasn't easy. The last few miles were very steep with lots of time spent hiking around and over boulders. At the top of Cedar Mesa I followed a wash and set up camp under a cedar tree, all set for an early start. In the morning I finished my hike, then it was on to Moab.

    My trip to Grand Gulch will never really be over. I'll be stuck in traffic and in my mind I take a quick mental vacation to Grand Gulch. The only thing that keeps me sane living in the suburbs of New York City is knowing places like Grand Gulch and other wilderness areas still exist. Places where nature is still in charge, not struggling to grow through a crack in the pavement. I hope Grand Gulch never gets overcrowded. The answer is not keeping places secret but, in protecting more places.

    Further Information:
    San Juan Resource Area Headquarters, Box 7, Monticello, Utah 84535
    Bureau of Land Management, Moab District, PO. Box 970, Moab, Utah 84532
    Canyonlands Natural History Association, 125 West 200 South, Moab, Utah 84532

  • Bullet Canyon Photos

    Perfect Kiva Photos

    Jailhouse Ruin Photos

    Grand Gulch Rock Art

    Grand Gulch Older Photos

  • By Dave Webb

    (Note, I wrote this article in March, 2009)

    I pushed the season and enjoyed a great backpacking trip into Grand Gulch the other weekend. We went in on Feb 27 - I think that's the earliest I've ever backpacked in Utah. We encountered a little ice and snow in spots, but not enough to cause problems. And we had the canyon's ancient ruins all to ourselves.

    Grand Gulch is a beautiful canyon - it would be worth hiking there just to see the scenery. The big attractions are the many Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) archaeological sites. I'm fascinated by the sites and enjoy searching them out.

    The Anasazi culture thrived in the Four Corners area some 1,000 years ago. The people formed large communities and built impressive rock structures in the area's rugged canyons. They also left interesting rock art.

    You can see impressive Anasazi structures in many places in SW Utah along roadsides or at the end of short hikes. Why would someone want to put in the effort to backpack?

    Well, I'm one of those crazy people who enjoy backpacking - getting away from civilization. Grand Gulch is pristine. As you drop down into the gorge you walk away from our modern world. There is no litter in the canyon - not a candy wrapper or coke can. No human sounds save our light footsteps. When the sunsets and the stars come out, they are unbelievably bright. It is a great experience in one of the few places you can still find solitude.

    There are usually a few other people in the canyon. You have to obtain permits to hike or backpack there and the number of visitors is controlled to ensure a quality experience. If you want to go, get permits well in advance.

    In Grand Gulch, most of the ancient sites still contain artifacts, and that adds to the interest. There are pottery shards everywhere. There are also ancient corncobs and grindstones and other items. More accessible sites have been stripped of artifacts - the stone walls and rock art remain but everything else has been hauled away by vandals.

    It has been about 10 years now since my first pilgrimage into Grand Gulch. On this trip I intentionally retraced my original steps and photographed some of the same sites I had visited back then. I was curious to compare photos and see how much had changed during that time span.

    Unfortunately, I have to report that I could not find some of the interesting artifacts I photographed 10 years ago. At one site, known as Perfect Kiva Ruin, my old photos show braided cords and a ceramic jug handle, but those items were not to be found.

  • By Dave Webb

    Perfect Kiva is located in Bullet Canyon, a tributary to Grand Gulch. To get to the trailhead, drive south on Highway 261, past the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, then look for a dirt road leading west to the trailhead. The road is signed. The turnoff is located about 7.5 miles south of the ranger station. There is a primitive toilet at the trailhead, but no water. (Fill up water containers at the ranger station.)

    From the parking area, begin hiking west along an easy and well-marked trail. You will stay up above the canyon for a ways, then drop down a sandstone water slide into the canyon. Hiking down the water slide is usually only moderately difficult, but can be tricky when there is ice, which you may find in early spring or late fall.

    The trail goes straight down the canyon. Spur trails branch off in many spots, but it is usually not difficult to identify the main trail. Most spur trails deteriorate quickly; if you get on one just backtrack and find a well-used trail that heads down the canyon.

    Always stay on established trails. Much damage occurs to fragile soil and vegetation if you tromp on it.

    The major ruins in Bullet Canyon can be seen easily from the main trail, if you are watchful. Mostly are located on the north side of the canyon –usually in protected alcoves with a southern exposure – and are often a couple levels above the canyon bottom. If you see an alcove, examine it for signs of rockwork or rock art. Binoculars really help in this process. In some spots "shields" are prominently painted onto rock walls and mark the site of a ruin.

    Perfect Kiva is located in a protected alcove in a small side canyon. It can be seen from the main trail.

    When you find Perfect Kiva, note how high it is above the main canyon floor. Several ruins are concentrated in this area at that level. A small ruin can be found by following that contour up the side canyon. The well-known Jailhouse Ruin is located just a short distance farther down Bullet Canyon, at the same contour level.

    Kivas were special structures built for religious ceremonies. They are often circular and built into the ground or at a lower level than dwelling units. The kiva here has been restored and is one of the most interesting on the Colorado Plateau. You can climb down into it to get a good look.

    The Perfect Kiva alcove shelters all kinds of artifacts. That’s one of the reasons I find it fascinating. Many ruins throughout the southwest have been stripped — everything that can be looted has been hauled away. Perfect Kiva is a wilderness museum with exhibits intact. The last time I was there I saw dozens of pottery shards (some with very impressive designs), ancient corncobs, braded reeds and a very large grindstone (metate). The metate rock has "stations" where several workers could use manos (the smaller stones used to crush grain against the metate) simultaneously. (Perhaps an early assembly line?)