I had the map for about ten years, a dream trip into a network on canyons in Utah’s Cedar Mesa, south of Blanding, Utah with the highest concentration of ancient Native American ruins anywhere. A gathering of adventuresome hiking pals took us to Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch for a backpacking trip unlike any other. From ~ 12,000 BC to 1,260 AD, the Ancient Ones thrived in southern Utah’s canyonlands, leaving behind magnificent ruins, stories written on canyon walls in ancient hand, pieces of life in a harsh land, all wrapped in mystery. Long thought to have simply vanished, these Ancient Puebloans left the arid canyons in the 13th century to build a new life throughout the four corners region – these Natives of the southwest are still here. For those of us fortunate to visit, a rare glimpse into life before white Europeans awaits.
Unfinished arrowhead, studied and returned to the exact location where I picked it up.
The Grand Gulch hiking experience follows the course of a stream, in and out of the streambed, through magnificent cottonwood gallery forests, and as my friend Jack Brauer told me – “if you think there may be a ruin, just look up, there probably is one.”
Headless figures and handprints petroglyphs in Sheik’s Canyon.
We climbed up steep sandstone to reach this ruin high above Bullet Canyon, a vertical landscape above the valley floor. The site was used for habitation, with a blackened ceiling, and likely for food storage where it could be protected and defended. Poking our heads inside, there are two rooms with a stone passageway. With the exhilarating climb and remarkable vantage point, this was a highlight of our journey.
Cottonwood gallery forests follow streams on the canyon bottoms. Here, Bullet Canyon runs from the bottom of the frame and Grand Gulch comes in from the right side at this important confluence.
Giant cottonwood trees seem to gesture and dance Along Kane Creek.
Each ruin has a midden, or trash pile where visitors are asked to keep off – there is plenty to be seen around the edges. Potsherds and arrowhead shavings show the craftsmanship of ancient artisans.
Roger shows a beautiful potsherd before returning it to the earth.
Water is life in the Utah canyonlands, and it’s important to know where to find reliable sources. We consulted with the ranger before launching, but this wet spring quenched both canyon and hikers with no difficulty finding water. The Ancient Ones lived through periods of extreme drought and food shortages. We would do well to learn from their experience as the Colorado River watershed is increasingly threatened.
Claret Cup cactus in full bloom.
In a very high alcove, remains of a ladder still dangle from Junction Ruin.
Our camp at the junction of Kane Creek and Grand Gulch before hiking out the next morning – rain began right after I made this image and continued all night, then cleared as we emerged from soaked tents to pack up. We hiked out in glorious sunshine, carrying memories of a walk through time.