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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Land of the Lost: Native American Artifacts in Utah's Range Creek

Utah's Range Creek hides the most intact Native American artifacts in the United States. Get there now–while you can still play archaeologist.

by: Dan White, Photos by Adam Clark

Range Creek Pictographs
Range Creek Pictographs
Foundation of a Fremont dwelling
Foundation of a Fremont dwelling
Mark Connolly (Right) and a fellow ranger
Mark Connolly (Right) and a fellow ranger
Trailside petroglyph
Trailside petroglyph
Rugged terrain surrounding Range Creek
Rugged terrain surrounding Range Creek
Head ranger Mark Connolly
Head ranger Mark Connolly

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Mocqui Canyon

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"I wouldn't want some damned hippie digging me up and picking the gold teeth out of me after I die," says Waldo Wilcox, 77, the longtime owner of a 4,350-acre tract of high-desert country that included part of Range Creek Canyon, a little-known Utah wilderness where I'm standing right now. "I wanted to leave this land the way it was, so I left all the dead Indians' stuff alone."

It's an unorthodox land-management philosophy for a rancher (and vaguely insulting if you like Phish as much as I do), but that's what has made Range Creek, 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, such a stunning place to explore. Mysterious petroglyphs line the canyon's sepia-toned walls; they're so precise and unblemished, it's like they were etched in the rock yesterday. Cliff-side granaries are still stocked with dried corn. Visitors trip over grinding stones left by the Fremont, the native people who lived here and throughout Utah from 700 to 1400 AD, when they mysteriously disappeared. In fact, Range Creek is so well preserved that archaeologists have found intact sandals, woven baskets, and strands of ancient human hair. Standing here in the early November chill, I have the distinct feeling that the last 1,000 years never took place.

Waldo's family had owned–and tightly guarded–this swath of high desert canyons and scrubby grazing land since the 1950s. But seven years ago, with little fanfare, Waldo sold the property for $2.5 million to the state of Utah. Old age was making it hard for him to run his cattle operation, and he wanted to retire. The agreement stipulated that the property, which is surrounded by 100,000 acres of BLM wilderness, would remain undeveloped (though Wilcox retains mineral rights). It also allowed the state to open the ranch, which encompasses 12 miles of the 50-mile-long Range Creek Canyon, to the public. That last part made national headlines because of the artifacts scattered across the terrain beyond the ranch's gate. Many worried that looting was imminent. Fortunately, that hasn't been the case, in large part because the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which closely manages the area, permits no more than 28 visitors per day. Far fewer actually come–only 550 people a year have made the journey on average. It certainly helps that Range Creek is in the middle of nowhere.

My own trip involved a flight to Salt Lake City and a three-hour drive on an unlit highway into a land so remote I could only pick up one fuzzy radio station. (And it was playing "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,'' Trace Adkins's ode to cowgirls with plus-sized cabooses.) The night was intensely quiet, so dark and billboard-less that I had to shout along with the music to keep myself from falling asleep.

When I finally passed East Carbon City, I turned off of UT 124 and read this sign: Warning. Range Creek is a primitive area. You must carry your own drinking water. There are no toilet facilities and no cell phone coverage at Range Creek. Proceed at your own risk. Perfect.

The next morning, I emerged into the biting autumn air, expecting to walk a circuitous path dodging ruins and pot shards. But I didn't see anything other than dirt, clay, rock, and blue sky. Was I missing something? I was just starting to work myself into a panic when the sound of boots clomped out of the bushes. It was Mark Connolly, one of three conservation officers who watch over Range Creek.

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A.C. Harmon
Jul 22, 2010

I find Wilcox's comment about "hippies" looting his grave commical, considering that most of the prosecuted arc site looters in this region have been good-ol'-boy "rednecks", more akin to Wilcox himself than any "hippie".

Amanda Wilson
Jul 13, 2010

Range Creek is no managed by the Utah Museum of Natural History, or the University of Utah. A land transfer took place last fall. There are a few commercial companies that have permits to lead tours to Range Creek. One is Canyonlands Field Institute. Another is Carbon Rec,

norman vw
Oct 27, 2009

Anyone interested in this area should notice
Woodside, utah on highway 6 about 30 miles south of Rangecreek. Lots of history there in the 100 years ago neighborhood with Price river running through.

Frank Merwin
Oct 10, 2009

Um -- actually, there ARE archeologists working in the area on a regular basis. And the article does not include a map for looters. Also -- if a looter would be "drawn to the site,'' he or she would be disappointed. Nothing to steal -- unless you know how to scale vertical cliffs unsupported like Spiderman and try to wrench an extremely heavy granary off a cliff. Pretty unlikely -- considering the things haven't been opened ever in a thousand years.

Red Woods
Jul 09, 2008

It was a great article about a rare place that may be remote enough the tramping public stay away. I certainly don't see any Indiana Jones mentality or even a hint of one.It looks like the property has many good hikes for those willing to make a more than normal effort. It is a good thing the use is limited so officers can keep items from being damaged or removed.

Red Woods
Jul 09, 2008

It was a great article about a rare place that may be remote enough the tramping public stay away. I certainly don't see any Indiana Jones mentality or even a hint of one.It looks like the property has many good hikes for those willing to make a more than normal effort. It is a good thing the use is limited so officers can keep items from being damaged or removed.

Dana Evans
Jun 20, 2008

Thanks for this article. It's very well written and informative. Thanks for letting me know how to reach a place that should be open and available to the public!

Mark Heslop
Jun 11, 2008

I just returned from hiking Range Creek. If anyone thinks that they can waltz in and see the sites they will be disipointed. They are almost impossilbe to find with the untrained eye. My buddy and I hiked over 12 miles with only fair sucess. Towards the end of our hike Officer Mark Connolly tracked us down. He was aware of us the whole time, yet we never saw him. He was kind enough to show us the granaries high on the cliffs that we walked right past. He is very careful not to disclose any sesitive sites and was responsible for preventing the gps information for the archeological sites being printed. I think it is very important for everyone to experience Range Creek. It is impotant what the archaeologist are learning there. The real danger for the future of Range Creek is going to come not from the public but from Chevron who owns 2 well sites on the property. The BLM is leaning to allowing the to go ahead with their exploitation. If you want to know what impact that will have, go visit Nine Mile Canyon.

Chloris Lowe
Jun 10, 2008

I am extremely disappointed in the content of this article as it relates to the "Indiana Jones" mentality exhibited by the writer. You are a better magazine than this...I certainly expect more responsibility from "Backpacker" than this! SHAME ON YOU!

Jun 06, 2008

The illegal profits of archeological resource crime rival the international drug trade. While looters and "collectors" exchange billions of dollars, archeological sites around the world suffer unmeasurable and irreparable losses. You have drawn a map for looters to this site. How irresponsible.

Jun 05, 2008

You don't "play archaeologist." Why are Wildllife Officers conduting tours of archaeological sites....are there no archaeologists working in this area? This article seems to promote looting and illegal collecting. Very unprofessional.


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