Cedar Mesa Rock Art & Ruins

  • A New Yorker Hikes Grand Gulch

    The 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

  • Backpacking in Grand Gulch

    A 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.

    I 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.


  • Butler Wash Ruins and Rock Art

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

  • Cedar Mesa - Returning to the Places of our Childhood

    *There are 8 sites in Mule Canyon, home to ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art, all within 4 miles.

    *There are day use fees and pay stations located in different areas of the mesa. Backcountry permits are required for camping along the mesa, obtainable at the Kane County Ranger Station, on UT-261, from 8:00 a.m. to 12 Noon.

    *Muley Point is overseen by the National Parks service, however there is no camping fee.

    horse collar ruin in natural bridges
    Horse Collar Ruin by Aaron Webb

    the citadel ruin
    The Citadel Formation by Aaron Webb

    xan grand canyon
    Citadel Ruins by Xan Aintablian

    grand canyon power boat ride
    House On Fire Ruin by Aaron Webb

    grand canyon power boat ride
    Desert Wildflower by Xan Aintablian

    By Xanthe Aintablian, September, 2017

    I remembered many times standing at the tip of Muley Point, up from the Moki Dugway and above the Valley of the Gods. We’d venture out of our way up to Cedar Mesa as a long-way home, after spending time in Monument Valley. Some of these trips were with many of my extended family, caravaning together up the treacherous switchbacks of the dugway. Sometimes the trips were just with my father.

    As a child, I’d always get out and just stare at the view. I loved the colors and shadows of the valley below. I’d run around the big pot holes at the top of Muley Point, and jump on the giant stone slabs, layer to layer. I wanted to stay longer, every time, but we always had a destination further up the road.

    For over a year my brother and I talked about a scouting trip to the mesa as a way to explore and look for kid-friendly hikes we could take each of our own young families. My brother had similar recollections to mine, but told me of another favorite memory in the area.

    He once hiked a canyon near the mesa where he remembered seeing an enormous peninsula, of white sandstone. It looked like a giant stone fortress, and he thought he’d remembered seeing ruins on top. He and my father had hiked to a ruin below it, but he had always remembered how badly he’d wanted to go explore that castle.

    We set out on a friday to revisit a piece of our childhood. We left much too late, which we should really just accept of ourselves now, and due to stopping in Moab for dinner and gear, we arrived driving west on UT-95 just as the sunlight was receding behind the mountains.

    Cell service was in and out but in a moment of clear satellite signal, my father called and spoke to my brother. He described the castle area he remembered, and my father recognized the description and guess it was Road Canyon. My father also might have mentioned that it was the very same place I’d broken his expensive camera lense many years ago. Like I said, I’d had too much fun as a child jumping from rock to rock - not a good idea when I’d been entrusted to carry a camera strapped around my neck. I’d not remembered it had been in Road Canyon, nor did I remember the peninsula that had intrigued my brother so much.

    Mule Canyon

    We decided to hike Lower Mule Canyon at first light the next morning, so we pulled off and camped beside that access road. I slept outside under the stars and awoke several times that night with a range of moods. Sometimes amazement, as my eyes immediately were caught by the bright Milky Way and billions of jewel stars right in front of me. Sometimes in awe of the orange setting moon, and wishing I could see more moonsets. Once I awoke to annoyance, a lucky annoyance as I see it now, as the lone solitary mosquito pestered me for a few minutes. And once in fear as I heard the sound of coyotes howling and yelping around me. I just tried to remind myself that coyotes were probably harmless and fell back asleep.

    When I awoke in the light of the morning, I was eager to start out early. I woke my brother so we could pack up and hike Mule Canyon in the cool morning air. The trailhead was only about a quarter mile from our camp. We quickly grabbed what gear we needed, and set off.

    The wash was thick with wet, clay mud, cracking on the surface. Tiny toads bounced along everywhere we walked, startled by our sudden presence. Colorful wildflowers bloomed everywhere, which I was surprised to see in early September, and colorful sunlight was beginning to bounce and shine off the redrock walls.

    We hiked to House on Fire ruins, located on the east (right-hand) side on the canyon .9 miles from the trailhead. The ruins, fairly large and well-preserved, were impressive. The name is derived from the colorful and unique streaking of the rocks and cliffs surrounding the ruin. We’d read that when illuminated in sunlight, around 10 or 11 in the morning, the site can almost appear aflame. Since we’d reached the site at about 9 a.m., we decided to continue hiking up the canyon to the next ruin, before making it back to House on Fire for the morning illumination.

    We hiked for what seemed like about another mile, but didn’t see the next ruin. We had left our area guidebook back in the car, and since we didn’t remember how much further the next site had been, we decided to turn back to House on Fire again. Look back, the next site is located 1.9 miles into the trail. We’d probably been so close. We sat at House on Fire for an hour, now also hosting four other visitors. We chatted and watched the sun rise up from behind the canyon. It perhaps wasn’t quite as dramatic as I’d heard it described, but the sun did light up the cliffs, creating contrast to the interesting “flame” markings.

    Road Canyon - The Citadel  

    When we had sat and seen enough, we hiked back out of the canyon, and continued on our way. Stopping in at the Kane County Ranger Station seemed like a good idea. We checked and followed their recommendation on how to access Road Canyon. We followed UT-261 south, took Cigarette Springs Road for about 3.5 miles to the parking and trailhead.

    Road Canyon has several hikes that drop down into the canyon, including Fallen Roof Ruins, a shorter, moderate hike, and Seven Kivas, a long, rigorous trail. We wanted to reach the Citadel, the fortress above the canyon. We followed the trail along the top of the rim, easy and flat, though hot in the afternoon sun.

    I had never seen such a thick crust of cryptobiotic soil anywhere. It was inches thick, undisturbed, and allowed to grow black with white growths all along the trail above the red dirt. Except for the narrow trail, the black crust was only disrupted by the white stone canyon rim. Along the rim, we kept our eyes scoping the canyon walls for ruins across the way. My brother spotted three tiny windows which gave away a ruin far across the canyon and high up. From our distanced vantage point, we tried to consider the ways the ancient Anasazi climbed down to it.

    Eventually, I spotted the peninsula, or more the narrow bridge leading to the Citadel, that my brother described. When we got close, we didn’t spot any cairns leading the way, but the direction was clear enough. We had to backtrack a few hundred feet when we realized we couldn’t climb down. It was a steep scramble down several ledges. We kept realizing we needed to be down one more level, the closer to the bridge we came. My brother had no issues, but my slightly-paralyzing fear of falling kicked in and I had to take several deep breaths before crab-crawling on my hands and feet, back to the wall, down the white rock.

    Once you are on the bridge level, it is once again an easy flat walk, straight across to the citadel. There are several ruins on two different levels around the Citadel. They were excellently preserved, like House on Fire, and conveniently provided a lot of shade. We rested for a long time. There was such a good view of the canyon from all sides, it was easy to imagine the ancient people defending and watching from up there.

    On the way back, seeing what I’d already scrambled down made me even more nervous, as I had an even better view of the steep fall. I searched long and hard for the route back up that I felt most comfortable with (and may have let my brother help me quite a few times). The walk back was flat and easy again - probably close to 2 hours worth of hiking.

    Muley Point

    After we returned from Road Canyon and left Cigarette Springs Road, back on the pavement of UT-261, we decided to make a quick visit to Blanding to restock some ice before heading to Muley Point. That was my pick. I wanted to camp there, experience sleeping on the edge of the mesa, and really just get to spend more time there. We were just 5-10 miles south of the point when the sun set behind the mountains, which was a disappointment. I had wanted to sit at the edge watching the shadows and light run across Valley of the Gods. However, the next morning’s sunrise made up considerably.

    I had a spectacularly clear night, the moon a little too full for terrific stargazing (and I made a mental note to come again on a night with no moon), but still an amazing and full night sky. The 3 a.m. half-asleep peep at the sky provided another glowing orange moonset, and a darker sky more full of stars. I slept only about 30 feet from the edge of the mesa, and I felt the exact kind of excitement I thought I would have felt as a child, sleeping in my favorite spot, 1,000 feet above the valley floor. When I woke in the morning, the sun climbed higher and higher moving light across the valley, as I’d hoped I would see the night before.

    I don’t often run and jump around the rocks anymore like I did as a child, mostly because even in my late 20’s, I already feel more aches and stiffness, but something about the energy of that area for me just powered me up. I ran along the edge of the cliffs back and forth several times, stopping to glance at how the light changed things. I felt like a kid again. We took some photos while the sunrise remained, and I soaked in some moments before we packed up our sleeping bags and headed to our next destination.

    Sipapu Bridge, Horse Collar Ruin, Natural Bridges National Monument

    My father had recommended that if we had any time remaining in our trip, we hike to Horse Collar Ruin in Natural Bridges to take some photos for him. From Muley Point we heading back north on UT-261, took a left going west on UT-95 to Natural Bridges. The Horse Collar Ruin is located along the same trail as Sipapu Bridge, about a mile past the bridge.

    The hike down to Sipapu Bridge is steep, descending down to the bottom of the canyon. The park provides stairs, ladders, and chains to aid in several places. Once at the bottom of the bridge, the trail to the ruins follows the bottom of the river bottom, flat and easy. The ruins are on the right-hand side, up a sloped wall from the bottom.

    There is a cluster of some well-preserved and unique cliff dwellings. Hikers can see it well from the river bottom, or choose to scramble up closer to them.

    While the trail to Sipapu Bridge is more crowded in the peak seasons, the remaining trail to the ruins was fairly deserted. Hikers can also complete the entire loop, continuing past the ruins instead of returning, to the other two major bridges in the park, an 8.6 mile hike. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to hike the full loop, so we returned to Sipapu and hike back out.

    It was a quick, but terrific glimpse into the national monument.

    The entire trip was a quick glimpse into the Cedar Mesa area. I feel we accomplished a lot of what we’d hoped to find in the two nights and day and a half of visiting. We each revisited a place special to our memories.

    We’d reacquainted ourselves with the area a bit more, enough that we could confidently take our children to hike with us. The older kids (8 and up), my nieces and nephews, could have hiked anywhere that we’d gone and been fine with a little help from their dad. My littler ones (3-5) could have hiked Mule canyon with a little help from me, and at Natural Bridges.

    All in all, a successful mission.

  • Citadel Ruins

    The Citabel is an amazing complex in Road Canyon off Cedar Mesa. It was built to be defendable.

    Road Canyon juts east from Cedar Mesa, opposite Grand Gulch (its larger and more famous neighbor). All of the canyons in this area shelter good numbers of ancient Anasazi Indian ruins. Road, in particular, has some I find astounding. Road has long been a favorite destination when I want to disappear into uncharted beauty and mystery. I’ve hesitated to write about it; hoping it would remain obscure and thus protected from the hordes of hikers who overrun Grand Gulch and other nearby areas.

    But, alas, Road Canyon has been discovered. Photos and descriptions can now be found on other websites. On a trip into the canyon last weekend I was surprised to find a well-established hiker path leading to the spectacular Citadel Ruin.

    Road has been discovered! People are coming. It’s impossible to hide such treasures from the world. The only hope is to educate and encourage people to act responsibly when they visit these areas. So here I go, offering up the Citadel.

    Anasazi people thrived in the Four Corners area from about 200-1300 AD. For reasons unknown, they chose to live in this starkly beautiful but harsh desert canyon country. They raised corn, domesticated turkeys and hunted on the nearby hills. They learned to work with native rock, building multi-room homes, large kivas for religious ceremonies, towers and storerooms. They also created beautiful pottery and intricately woven baskets.

    Large groups lived in the area we now call Cedar Mesa, in SW Utah. Many well-preserved structures can be found there, along with artifacts like pottery shards, corncobs and grindstones. Many dwellings were built under alcoves, into the shelter of sheer canyon walls, where they have survived more than a thousand years.

    The Anasazi, it seems, where mostly peaceful throughout their long history. But the Citadel and some other ruins suggest they went to great lengths to protect themselves from enemies. The Citadel is a formidable ancient fortress, a retreat that was virtually impossible to attack.

    The ruins were built just under the rim of a towering rock formation at the end of a peninsula extending out into Road Canyon. Sheer walls make it impossible to reach the site from the canyon below. The only access is by scrambling down a rocky slope and then crossing the narrow neck of the peninsula. The remains of rock walls can be seen along the narrow neck, built as check points to control access to the fortress. Any attacker would be fully exposed to deadly arrows and other weapons used by the defenders.

    I think the Anasazi lived in and farmed the surrounding area, and retreated to the Citadel when they felt threatened.

    The ruins and associated artifacts are some of the most impressive in the region.

    Early Anglos carried thousands of pots, baskets and other artifacts from these canyons. Many went into museums and private collections. The BLM, which manages the area, now tries to control access to preserve the ruins and relics. Happily, the hordes of people visiting adjacent canyons are well behaved, for the most part. There is almost no litter in these canyon and most hikers resist the temptation to put pottery shards into their pockets.

    However, there is a growing danger that these areas will be loved to death, harmed by the vast number of well-meaning enthusiasts who visit the area. It is vital that hikers here learn to enjoy without impacting the environment. If you want to explore this area, learn about the rules and get proper permits. You need a permit to day hike or backpack into these canyons. BLM’s website has info.

    The hike to the Citadel is relatively short. The trail is easy where it follows the canyon rim, but becomes moderately difficult where you have to scramble down the rocks to get onto the peninsula’s narrow neck. If you choose your route careful, the hike is safe even for children. However, if you don’t pay attention you could easily get ledged or exposed to danger on the edge of sheer cliffs. This is not country for casual hikers.

    I’m not giving specific instructions for hiking the Citadel. If you know how to ready a topographic map, you can find it without much trouble. If you don’t know how to read such a map, you have no business hiking here.

    If you want an easy, controlled introduction to the region, make the short hike to the impressive ruins in nearby Butler Wash.

  • Grand Gulch Exploration

    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: www.blm.gov/utah/monticello/cedarmesa.htm.

    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.

  • Grand Gulch Photo Gallery

    Bullet Canyon Photos

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    Perfect Kiva Photos

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    Jailhouse Ruin Photos

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    Grand Gulch Rock Art

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    Grand Gulch (Older photos)

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  • Grand Gulch Then and Now

    (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.

  • Grand Gulch, Perfect Kiva Hike

    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?)

  • House on Fire Ruin, Mule Canyon

        This is a beautiful Anasazi ruin in Mule Canyon. In the right light, it almost looks like the ruin is on fire.


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  • Moon House Ruin and Rock Art

    Located in McLoyds Canyon on the edge of Cedar Mesa.

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  • Protect the Ruins in Our Anasazi Canyons

    Indiana Jones cut his young archaeological teeth on ancient ruins in the Moab, Utah, area, according to the final movie. That was a good choice because the Four Corners region, which includes the southeast corner of Utah, has one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric sites in the world.

    Most sites are from the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area's incredibly rugged and remote desert canyons. The Anasazi built great houses, square towers, D-shaped multi-story castles and tiny one-room dwellings out of native stone, often right on the edge of sheer cliffs. They grew corn in the poor soil on the edge of the cliffs, and worked clay into sublime vessels with delicate curves and bold colors and patterns. And they described their culture in rock art (petroglyphs) carved into the cliff faces.

    These Anasazi canyons are treasures I wish could be hidden from the world. They are silent guardians shielding the ruins of a mysterious and fascinating civilization. Ruins which modern man seems bent on destroying.

    There are dozens of canyons in this area that contain thousands of ancient sites. But these canyons are being "discovered," whether I like it or not; they are becoming popular destinations for hikers and backpackers. Many are located on BLM property — public property — which the public has the right to enjoy.

    And so I reluctantly write about the area, and I sometimes take people to see its wonders, because public awareness — education — offers the only hope of stopping the destruction.

    A few of the most significant Anasazi sites have become famous, and received protection from the U.S. National Park Service, including Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. They draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and are carefully protected. A fair amount of research has been conducted at these sites, but much remains to be done there.

    Other major sites, such as Hovenweep on the Utah/Colorado border, have received little protection or study. Hovenweep is designated a national monument, putting it under National Park Service control, but very little study has been accomplished there. Many of the canyons that contain large numbers of ruins have been declared wilderness study areas. Such a designation restricts development and motorized travel, but does little else to provide protection. Many sites in these canyons have not been studied at all.

    I visited Hovenweep some time ago and noticed the National Park Service had installed rope barriers to keep visitors from getting on the ruins, and marked footpaths to keep people from tromping the plant life. I felt mixed emotions as I viewed these "improvements." A year earlier nothing prevented me from walking up to ruins and sticking my head inside, and I consider that a more fulfilling experience. Yet I understand it is necessary to limit individual freedom to protect these sites.

    In the remote canyons there are no barricades, no rangers, nobody watching. Individuals must accept the responsibility to safeguard the sites. We must discipline ourselves so we can hike, explore, view and photograph without causing damage — without climbing on walls or handling artifacts.

    The BLM needs to do more to protect this natural resource. The agency doesn't seem to realize what it has in these canyons, and how public interest is building — more visitors every year, escalating quickly to an explosive level. BLM needs a plan to accommodate this growing interest.

    There are still undiscovered sites in these canyons, some with significant artifacts. Money and manpower must be made available to chart these sites and expand research. Trails should be improved to minimize the impact of hikers. And increased efforts are needed to educate the public about preservation, and to enforce the laws which protect ancient sites.

    More restrictive regulations may also be needed. For example, cattle roam freely in many canyons, stepping on artifacts and pushing against rock walls, causing considerable damage.

    Americans have been enchanted by ancient civilizations in exotic locations around the world, unaware of the fascinating and unique civilization which thrived in our own backyard. We have a treasure in these wilderness canyons — a treasure which we can enjoy and protect, or neglect and abuse.

    It will be years before scientists can work through the rubble and comprehend the significance of many sites. It will be our children or grandchildren who make these discoveries — who come to more fully understand the relics we casually view, and the culture which produced them. If we don't destroy them first!

  • Wolfman Rock Art

    I love this panel. It is worth searching out.