Hiking Johns Canyon Near Grand Gulch

As I turned onto the dirt road my pulse quickened with just the slightest bit of apprehension. I was on my way to Johns Canyon, a wide and rugged gorge that marks the southwest border of Cedar Mesa. In marked contrast to other canyons of similar size and beauty, Johns posts a no-show in the literature of the Southwest. Before getting into a canyon it is wise to do a bit armchair exploring by way of guidebooks and magazine articles. In this way you know what to expect and what look for. In the case of Johns Canyon there was simply nothing to read. The road I was taking to get into it, a sandy double-track that branches northwest from Highway 316, was a route I had stumbled upon by looking at maps of the region, and since maps don't offer much advice-well, I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting myself into.

Trekking into the unknown. It's an exhilarating experience that always gets my blood flowing.

As it turned out, I didn't have much to be nervous about. I found Johns Canyon to be a beautiful and enjoyable hike in a wilderness-like setting. While the canyon lacks a concentration of known Anasazi sites, it does offer a few interesting ancient structures. Because sites are few and scattered, it doesn't attract the hordes of hikers found in Grand Gulch and other nearby canyons. Johns is a great place if you want to exploreā€¦in solitude.

The access road is well-maintained and easy to negotiate. It took me right into the middle of Johns, where it crossed a small stream before heading off in the direction of Slickhorn Gulch. (An old mining track, the road used to reach all the way to the mouth of Slickhorn. Today it is closed to vehicular travel about a mile beyond Johns. The road offers spectacular views of the San Juan River and the cliffs and palisades of Douglas Mesa, but it is completely exposed to the sun and offers no water sources. I thought I could use the old track to day-hike into Slickhorn, but after hiking for four thirsty hours one-way I had to turn back because I was running out of daylight. I'm still not sure how close I got to Slickhorn after four continuous hours of fast hiking).

Johns Canyon is named after John Oliver, a stockman who ran cattle here in the 1930's. He was murdered by a horse-thief who wanted him out of the way so that he could convert the canyon his own personal stolen-horse corral.

Johns upper reaches are extremely rugged and more difficult to access than its sister canyons of Slickhorn and Grand Gulch. The cream-colored Cedar Mesa/Coconino Sandstone has eroded into extremely sheer walls with little or not breakage. A few Anasazi ruins are tucked into the very tips of its upper canyons, but unlike the other canyons on the Grand Gulch Plateau, Johns contains no "middle world" of terraces between top and bottom. You either hike its rim or hike its depths; the walls are too sheer for anything in between.

South of its hydra's head of many fingered canyons, Johns flares out into a vast gorge that is a mile or more in width. Here the canyon is a wide valley encompassed about by sheer-walled cliffs. Fanning across its level floor are deeps beds of alluvium-the pulverized bones of Cedar Mesa.

Johns remains this way for many miles, a vast hanging valley that to a horse-thief in John Oliver's time, an outlaw desperately in need of a place to keep and run his contraband, would have indeed seemed worth killing for. Its combination of inaccessibility, remoteness, and wide-open range-land made it into a kind of Robbers Roost/Kentucky Downs. (Incidentally, Jimmy Palmer, Oliver's killer, reaped the full harvest of his dastardly deed-but not the harvest he was looking for. After the killing he stole Oliver's old truck and fled south to Arizona to wait out the resulting manhunt, but he was captured anyway. Palmer died in a Texas prison, far, far away, both physically and spiritually, from Johns' free and open expanses).

Down near the San Juan Johns narrows again and a spring-fed stream begins to flow. The canyon commences a rapid descent of thousands of feet in just a few miles, dropping in a spectacular series of falls to the river. Where the road crosses the stream the water runs out over smooth dolomite limestone. Lush riparian vegetation lines its banks. Small cascades tumble over slabs of blue slickrock into lovely pools.

Some of these were large and deep enough to swim. After returning from my long and tiring Slickhorn Gulch fiasco, I was more than happy to oblige. How to describe the beauty and bite of a deep desert pool as the sun is going down and a cold November wind is howling down-canyon? Purity. That single word sums it up. The water slams you with its cold, burns you alive as it scours your skin of dirt and sweat, and leaves you feeling reborn. Talk about baptism! The symbology of that sacred rite took on a whole new meaning as I swam the pools of Johns Canyon, their waters shimmering in the pale glow of a rising autumn moon.

How To Get There: The road to the Goosenecks Overlook, State Road 316 on the Trails Illustrated Grand Gulch Plateau map, splits west from Highway 261 about 5 miles north of Mexican Hat. The Johns Canyon road branches northwest from 316 a few hundred yards west of the 316-261 junction. The improved dirt road should be passable for most high-clearance and some low-clearance vehicles (barring, of course, rain, snow, and ice). The road wraps around Cedar Mesa beneath Muley Point and then plunges directly into Johns Canyon. Past the stream the road divides. The south track heads west in the direction of Slickhorn but ends after a mile at a sign barring further passage to motorized vehicles. The north track loops up into the wide expanse of Johns middle reaches.