Grand Gulch, UT

Take in breathtaking views, stunning rock formations, and historical ruins on this 5-night itinerary.
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Take in breathtaking views, stunning rock formations, and historical ruins on this 5-night itinerary.

Grand Gulch, the largest canyon in the Cedar Mesa area of southeastern Utah, provides breathtaking views, stunning rock formations, and historical ruins that allow you to imagine what life must have been like hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Remarkably, the area has maintained a low-key reputation and offers a welcome escape from the crowds at Zion and Arches. Go in mid-March to enjoy pleasant shoulder-season temps.

Trail Overview

Our group took a less common route, going from the Collins Spring Trailhead to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, the main entrance point for Grand Gulch. This provided 45 miles of trudging through sand, willows, and slick rock over about 5 days.

Along the trail, there are several attractions to see, with ancient ruins being the highlights. The first one you will approach via this route is the Bannsiter Ruin. You will come across Big Man Panel, Jailhouse Ruin and Perfect Kiva (via a side hike into Bullet Canyon), Junction Ruin, Turkey Pen Ruin, and other sites. Look but don't touch: All of these ruins are federally protected with the notable exception of Perfect Kiva, which you can actually go inside.

Rock formations along the way will keep your head on a swivel. Arches are abundant, the most notable being Stimper Arch near the end of the hike. There are also many areas where you can drop you pack and scale the non-technical slickrock cliffs to get some even grander views.

You'll find yourself walking in the river bed (which is mostly dried up, of course) quite a bit. Expect sand, sand, and more sand in your shoes (and, er, some other areas). You'll also brush through sharp willows that will give your legs a fresh shave and some battle scars.

Important Notes

There are no designated campsites in Grand Gulch, but you should follow Leave No Trace guidelines wherever you camp. No camping in, or anywhere near, the ruins. Fires are not permitted in the canyon. Watch for developing thunderheads and climb at the first sign of rain; canyons can flood in minutes.

Grand Gulch Itinerary

Trail: Collins Spring Trailhead to Kane Gulch Ranger Station

  • 45 miles (including a side hike to Perfect Kiva in Bullet Canyon and other short side hikes)
  • 5 nights, 6 days (one very short day)
  • Day 1: 6 miles Arrived at Kane Gulch Ranger Station at noon to pick up permit, watched a short film about the area, then shuttled one car to Collins Spring trailhead. Six miles in, we found a sweet rock ledge to sleep on. The mild evening meant we could skip the tents. The stars were nothing short of incredible.
  • Day 2: 11 miles Water gets scarce in this section. Highlights include Bannister Ruin and Big Man Panel.
  • Day 3:  7 miles Camped near Bullet Canyon junction (again, no tent). Climbed around on walkable rocks to get higher and more breathtaking views
  • Day 4: 9 miles Take a very worthwhile side trip into Bullet Canyon to go check out Jailhouse Ruin and Perfect Kiva. Perfect Kiva is the only ruin that you can actually enter.
  • Day 5: 8 miles The photo-ops just keep coming: Junction Ruin, Turkey Pen Ruin, and Stimper Arch are highlights.
  • Day 6: About 4 miles Leave yourself an easy getaway day so that you can appreciate the canyon's spectacular exit view in the early morning light. You'll get a little workout from the most elevation gain (which is to say, still not very much) of the entire trip.

OTHER NOTES:

  • The trail is pretty mellow elevation-wise, so expert hikers and weekend warriors can certainly squeeze this itinerary into 3 nights.
  • Don't forget your map. The trail is difficult to follow at times, as there are many river bed crossings, leaves and other foliage to obscure markings.
  • Did I mention the razor-sharp willows?
  • Shuttle takes about 45 minutes each direction (from Ranger Station to Collins Spring Trailhead). Road to Collins is rough, 4WD only.
  • Water was pretty good at this time of year, thanks to snowmelt. In summer, the supply dries up and becomes extremely variable.