Utah's Grand Gulch: Along Ancient Trails

Cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, ancient pottery -- Utah's Grand Gulch is thick with history.
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Cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, ancient pottery -- Utah's Grand Gulch is thick with history.

Ever dream of exploring wild, remote lands in search of relics from ancient times? I have, and that's why I headed to southern Utah's Grand Gulch Primitive Area, where amateur archaeologists and history-minded hikers can get a taste of the real thing.

Hidden in the canyons below a piñon pine- and juniper-covered plateau, Grand Gulch contains some of the most fascinating Anasazi tribal real estate in the Southwest. The Ancient Ones inhabited the canyons from about 200 to 1300 a.d., when they abandoned the region for unknown reasons. Seven hundred years later, it looks like they just left. Stunning slickrock alcoves and amphitheaters hold the well-preserved remains of cliff dwellings, granaries, ceremonial kivas, and mysterious rock art. Pieces of shattered pottery litter the ground.

There's only one way to experience Grand Gulch: Hike into it on the same trails the Anasazi did centuries ago. For a weekend-size trip, try the 23-mile loop starting at Kane Gulch and exiting at Bullet Canyon. This popular route serves up the best in ruins and rock art, plus sandstone surprises like natural arches and spring-fed oases. To experience the canyon without jostling for a campsite, go in early winter or early spring, when temperatures are chilly, but crowds are few.

As I hike deep into the canyon, it's easy to see why the Anasazi chose to live here. Even in winter, the weak sun warms the south-facing alcoves. Riparian corridors of cottonwood and oak give brilliant contrast to the desert-red walls. Canyon wrens flutter through the sky, their calls echoing off the rocks like laughter.

My pace slows to a crawl as I gaze around the canyon. Camouflaged ruins perch high on the walls, tucked on precarious ledges. Many of the famous sites, like Split Level House and Perfect Kiva, are named and marked on the map, but some of the side canyons hold 1,000-year-old secrets. Just remember: Look, but don't touch.

DRIVE TIME: Grand Gulch is in southeastern Utah, about 300 miles (5 hours) from Salt Lake City. Both Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Phoenix, Arizona, are about 51?2 hours away.

THE WAY: From Blanding, take UT 95 west 28 miles to UT 261 and go south. Proceed 4 miles to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and trailhead.

TRAILS: The entire Grand Gulch canyon system runs 52 miles (one way) from the Kane Gulch trailhead to the San Juan River. The 23-mile section from Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon boasts abundant ruins and reliable water sources. A short shuttle ride is required.

ELEVATION: From 5,160 to 6,500 feet.

The canyon rim is generally snow-covered from late December through February.

CAN'T MISS: Junction Ruin, Turkey Pen Ruin, Sheik's Canyon pictograph panels, Jailhouse Ruin, and Perfect Kiva Ruin, all archaeological high points on the Kane Gulch/Bullet Canyon Trail.

CROWD CONTROL: There is a quota system during peak hiking periods (spring and fall), when temperatures are most pleasant. The best times for solitude are early winter and early spring. In summer, the mercury regularly tops 100°F.

GUIDES: Grand Gulch Plateau map (Trails Illustrated,

800-962-1643; www.

trailsillustrated.com; $9.95). USGS 7.5-minute quads Kane Gulch, Cedar Mesa North, and Polly's Pasture (888-ASK-USGS; http://ask.usgs.gov;

$4 each). Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Glen Canyon Region, by Ron Adkison (Falcon, 800-582-2665; www.falcon.com; $14.95).

WALK SOFTLY: All archaeological resources are protected by federal law. Don't touch or move any artifacts! Take care not to walk on middens (Anasazi garbage dumps).

Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Monticello Field Office, (435) 587-1532; www.ut.blm.gov/monticello.