Grand Gulch & Cedar Mesa 2017-04

This April I went into Grand Gulch for the first time, many years after hearing it was a place I had to visit. I’ve day hiked in the edges, and spent a fair amount of time on Cedar Mesa, especially Natural Bridges, but never backpacked there. Of course I have to wonder why I waited so long, it was great. 

Since I’ve been car-free, I’ve spent much less time in southern Utah, but still managed to get there some years on spring break trips with Joe and Jeff. So this trip was also an experiment with public transportation that worked well. I took the Amtrak California Zephyr from Sacramento to Green River, then caught the Elevated Transit bus to Blanding, the hitchhiked to Kane Gulch. I was concerned about the hitching, and in fact all the cars in the afternoon were headed into Blanding and not out towards Kane Gulch. It took a while, though in vehicles passing before people gave me rides, it was only a few, and both were good rides. 

I picked up my permit at Kane Gulch Ranger Station, and headed down Kane Gulch, the most used entrance to the canyon system. I explored Junction Ruin, and up Grand Gulch and up Todie Canyon a short ways, and camped in an alcove at a ruin I called pack rat because of the huge pack rat middens filling two caves. Though I’d brought the Trails Illustrated map, I trimmed it down to just the canyon, without noticing I’d trimmed off the key to the numbered pins on the map, which give the names of ruins and other points of interest. Some of the larger ruins have registers with the name of the ruin and background information, but many do not. This ruin is actually named Badger, for unknown reasons. An archeological stabilization crew was working in the ruin, stabilizing walls that were starting to fail and replacing some mortar fixes from the 1970s that hadn’t worked well. After a night of scattered rain, I headed down canyon. 

Grand Gulch, at this time of year and this year, has intermitant water, areas flowing, areas of stagnant pools, and long stretches of dry wash. I didn’t realize it would be necessary to plan campsites and water pickups around availability, but it is. I explored Coyote Canyon, which has a use trail for a short ways. I camped early where two amphitheaters are opposite each other, marked by a beehive shaped rock formation (Utah, after all). The amphitheater on the west side looked like a cut-off meander, with a slot Canyon up against the towering wall. But it ends in a slickrock chute well above the canyon level and I’m at a loss to explain it. The bench in the middle of the amphitheater has some of the best developed cryptobiotic crust I’ve ever seen, and it was hard to traverse using little sandy rivulets and patches of bare rock. The night was very cold and bright with the moon, leaving my water bottles almost completely frozen.

As I headed down canyon, box elders were leafed out, and eventually the cottonwoods as well, but in many ways the trees and flowers say it is early spring. 

In the morning, walking a bit while finishing breakfast lentil soup, I walked up over a saddle and down Sheik’s Canyon. Not sure why this well worn use trail is there, if there were ruins I missed them. Almost every use trail in the canyons leads to a significant ruin. Places without ruins or only traces, no trails, no use. For me this is good, because I can make my own way to places that are beautiful but ruin-free. Of course there are not that many places without ruins. I walked down to Bullett Canyon, which has a well-worn trail probably the second most popular entry point, and a loop trip. Explored Green Spring Canyon below Bullett, as far down canyon as I went, only 18 of the 52 miles to the river. There is plenty of Grand Gulch yet to explore, and I’m happy with my slow progress, seeing a lot of details rather than covering distance and heading towards popular destinations. 

I camped in Sheik’s Canyon, with a crowd of people, the first time I’d seen more than a few scattered people. The reason for the crowd is the Green Mask Panel, the most impressive pictograph panel I’ve ever seen. Ledges have fallen away, so the panel is far above the ruin and canyon bottom, preserved by inaccessibility. The green mask, though notable for the unusual green color, is not the most impressive part. 

Heading back up canyon I explored some side canyons, and then the trail shown on the map in Todie Canyon. Though the trail is obvious at the bottom, it becomes obscure in willow thickets and across rock falls. Eventually it heads straight up the south wall of the canyon, well marked but nothing I’d call a trail. At the rim it heads east over the slickrock to an old road. This would not be a pleasant route with a backpack, though I guess makes an interesting day hike entry point, only two hours from road to bottom. There are some ruins in Todie so high up on the canyon walls that I wonder how useful they were, with no alluvial soil in the canyon and a long complicated climb up. In general, the ruins in Frand Gulch seem much less accessible than most places in southern Utah, perhaps more defensive, but these ruins are an outlier even from that. I wonder sometimes if during the ascendancy of Chaco Canyon, the population was subjugated for food and crafts rather than the beneficiaries or free trade. 

After a five day backpack, my friend Joe met me at Kane Gulch station and we did two days of car camping and day hiking. First day was North Mule Canyon just north of Hwy 95. Though similar to and almost as easy as South Mule Canyon, it gets a fraction of the use. As does every canyon on Cedar Mesa, there were some interesting ruins and petroglyphs, but the main attraction is just the beauty of the canyon, the pools and slickrock, the flowers and trees, and the sky.

We camped out again, far up a road that faded out, cooking meals on Joe’s variety of little wood stoves, and telling stories far into the night. The second day we went to Natural Bridges National Monument, hiking the loop from Sipapu natural bridge to Kachina natural bridge and back across the mesa. Joe had not been here before and was amazed at how beautiful the canyons are, and though I’ve spent many days here, it is always good to see it with new eyes. We visited ruins in White Canyon that I had somehow missed seeing before. 

After one last night out, with Bears Ears on the horizon and the sky full of stars, we drove back to Las Vegas so I could spend Easter Day with my family, and then back to Sacramento on Amtrak. 

Photos on Flickr

About Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.
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