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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.

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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