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Monday, March 02, 2009

Backpack into Grand Gulch

It is still early in the season - still winter - but I enjoyed a great weekend backpack trip into the Grand Gulch Primitive Area in southeastern Utah. (See video from my trip.)

Grand Gulch is a beautiful canyon - it would be worth hiking there just to see the scenery. The big attractions are the many Ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi) archaeological sites. I am fascinated by the sites and enjoy searching them out.

The Anasazi culture thrived in the Four Corners area some 1,000 years ago. The people formed large communities and built impressive rock structures in the area's rugged canyons. They also left interesting rock art.

You can see impressive Anasazi structures in many places in SW Utah along roadsides or at the end of short hikes. Why would someone want to put in the effort to backpack?

Well, I'm one of those crazy people who enjoy backpacking - getting away from civilization. Grand Gulch is pristine. As you drop down into the gorge you walk away from our modern world. There is no litter in the canyon - not a candy wrapper or coke can. No human sounds save our light footsteps. When the sunsets and the stars come out, they are unbelievably bright. It is a great experience in one of the few places you can still find solitude.

There are usually a few other people in the canyon. You have to obtain permits to hike or backpack there and the number of visitors is controlled to ensure a quality experience. If you want to go, get permits well in advance.

In Grand Gulch, most of the ancient sites still contain artifacts, and that adds to the interest. There are pottery shards everywhere. There are also ancient corncobs and grindstones and other items. More accessible sites have been stripped of artifacts - the stone walls and rock art remain but everything else has been hauled away by vandals.

It has been about 10 years now since my first pilgrimage into Grand Gulch. On this trip I intentionally retraced my original steps and photographed some of the same sites I had visited back then. I was curious to compare photos and see how much had changed during that time span.

Unfortunately, I have to report that I could not find some of the interesting artifacts I photographed 10 years ago. At one site, known as Perfect Kiva Ruin, my old photos show braided cords and a ceramic jug handle, but those items were not to be found.

There were impressive piles of pottery shards, but apparently not the same shards I saw 10 years ago. Every time the wind blows more shards are uncovered. Unfortunately, it appears that some hikers are taking them home. That is illegal and immoral and dastardly, but it appears to be happening.

These sites are fragile. At one point, grave robbers were the biggest threat to their survival. Robbers would bring in equipment and pound sites into rubble, searching for valuable items they could sell. Authorities have cracked down and that kind of activity in now rare. Now the biggest danger comes from respectful hikers, fascinated by the artifacts, who can't resist handling them and taking the pretty ones home.

I'll go back in 10 years and, hopefully, there will still be shards on the ground.

On this trip we took our time, pushed into rugged side canyons, and saw more ruins than I've seen on any of my previous trips. We also saw far more rock art on this trip.

We went in from the Bullet Canyon Trailhead and camped down near Perfect Kiva. From there we hiked and explored, and then returned up Bullet Canyon to our vehicle.

I had hoped to hike down to the Big Man rock art panel, about 9 miles below the junction of Bullet Canyon and Grand Gulch. Unfortunately, time did not allow for that excursion. I hope to get back down there within a few weeks and search that out.

The hiking/backpacking season is just getting started. We encountered some ice and snow, but it wasn't a problem. It will be gone within a week or so. Daytime temperatures were nice - perfect for hiking. Nights were cold, but we were prepared for that.

Temperatures will moderate quickly now. March, April and May are ideal months to hike Utah's desert canyons. Summers are very hot and hiking activity wanes. Activity picks up again as temperatures cool in fall.

This Gulch is grand indeed. I recommend it.

- Dave Webb


  • At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great photos, thaks for sharing!

  • At 4:44 PM, Blogger Chris Haley said…

    Hi, I made my first trip through the gulch in '92 and want to go again this year. I hear that some of the most scenic and less travled areas are from the Rio Grande outlet going back up. What I cannot figure out is if there is any way to get down there besides rafting. What access point did you use? Do you know anything about the South entrance?

  • At 9:05 AM, Blogger Utah Blog Admin said…

    Grand Gulch ends at the San Juan River. The lower portion definitely gets fewer visitors because it is harder to access. Some rafters hike in from the river, but don't go up very far. A few other people hike in from various access points - get a good map and it will show your options.

    I know there are excellent rock art images near the mouth, and also some impressive ruins in the lower portion of the Gulch. But my research suggests the highest concentration of ruins are in the upper portion.


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