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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

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I would soon discover that it's impossible to roll over a metate, or leave a footprint, without a state employee taking note of you. Archaeologists who study Range Creek photograph, catalog, and sometimes collect relics for study, but they keep a precise record of where they found them–and they routinely put them right back. And they still find "surface relics'' (things like arrowheads in the sand) on a regular basis. This is unheard of in nearby Fremont hotspots such as Nine Mile, near Price, Utah which was picked clean by sneak thieves years ago.

Most experts say the Fremont were a simpler people than other pre-Columbian tribes, like their famous neighbors to the south, the Anasazi, who lived in elaborate cliff dwellings and crafted fussy pottery. The Fremont hunted and farmed nomadically, ate out of grayware pottery, made clay figurines and buckskin moccasins, and holed up in pit dwellings when they weren't on the move. In this canyon wedged between the Tavaputs Plateau and Green River, Utah, they raised corn, hunted bighorn sheep, and chiseled arcane petroglyphs on the sandstone walls. Their population peaked in 1050 AD at around 1,000. Then, over the next few centuries, they vanished, and no one knows for sure why.

Connolly, a youthful 55-year-old with a bushy mustache and a burnished tan, handed me a pair of binoculars. I scanned the hillside until my eyes came to rest on a granary, hanging from the cliff like a mud wasp's nest. The seed repository was so high up, and so remote, that it remains untouched by European hands. Without 5.10 climbing skills, an archaeologist trying to reach it would probably break his neck. When I asked Connolly why anyone would build a grain-storage container on a near-vertical cliff, he mentioned rodent protection, then stated the obvious: These people were afraid of something more than mice. "They built these things 100 feet up so other humans couldn't get their food,'' he said. "They were trying to protect it from neighboring clans or, possibly, invading tribes."

After another frozen night, I hiked onto the main road and set out on an 18-mile out-and-back that would take me into the heart of the property. I planned to explore several side canyons, then double back to the road, retracing my footsteps to basecamp. That's another reason few people venture to Range Creek: Tenting in the canyon is off-limits, making for long (and repetitive) dayhikes.

Two miles from camp, beneath an overhang, I spot my first pictogram, the one Waldo Wilcox calls "the television screen.'' It's a huge, hand-painted drawing of a shield, high beneath a rock arch, with an anthropomorphic figure peeping from the center of the three-by-five-foot rectangle.

I stand for a while gaping, wondering what it could mean. There are no interpreters or books to guide your experience at Range Creek–and that's one of its very best qualities. The imagination runs feral out here, and it gives the place a magical feel. You're Indiana Jones. You're John Wesley Powell. You're exploring a wild slice of one of America's most remote corners–a spot that virtually no one has seen since the last Fremont left a cracked jug here.

Two miles southeast of the shield, I turn off the main road to a singletrack path through Barton Canyon, which leads past brontosaurus-size rocks up towards the hulking Tavaputs Plateau. The trail branches into a maze of tilting pines and silvery sage filling the air with wafts of herbal medicine. One moment, I scramble through open desert, the next I follow the dry bones of a creekbed. And later, I wind through dense pine forests crisscrossed with so many animal tracks that I can't identify them. My only tether to modernity is my GPS unit, which points me back toward the dirt road through Range Creek into Nelson Canyon.




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READERS COMMENTS

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. www.cfimoab.org. Another is Carbon Rec, www.carbonrec.com.

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!

Kate
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.

Travis
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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