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December 2000

Utah’s Grand Gulch: Along Ancient Trails

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.

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