[This is longer than my usual reports because I camped out for a change, and if it feels a bit more polished and researched, that is because my co-conspirator Leonie is a Real Writer, and kindly offered to collaborate. — ed.]
Grand Gulch drains most of the west side of Cedar Mesa, a wooded plateau southeast of Moab about 6500 feet above sea level. Running roughly east to west for 50 miles, from Kane Gulch to the San Juan River, the canyon floor ranges from 5500 to 5100 feet and is often wide, sandy and boulder-strewn. Leonie and I hiked from Bullet Canyon to Collins Spring, a distance of about 30 miles, though her Fitbit reckoned we covered almost double that navigating the twists of the canyon floor and scrambling up cliffs to sit with every ruin and pictograph we could find.
The central part of the gulch features sheer 800-foot cliffs of Cedar Mesa sandstone, the remnants of beach from the Permian era. Fossils from the sea floor during this era, about 250 million years ago, display a diverse and thriving marine system, then a swath of corpses. The planet’s third and most catastrophic mass extinction wiped out over 95% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial life; land-based ecosystems took 30 million years to recover. No one is sure what caused this mass extinction, but global warming and ocean acidification certainly contributed. We are currently in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but this time we know exactly whom to blame.
I wanted to tell her that her tears were wasted water, but neither of us could stop laughing. Our second “reliable water source” in three days was a seven-foot-deep pool of black sludge, its oily surface occasionally disturbed by bubbles from the chemical reactions in its depths. Once the laughter faded, we agreed that we had enough water to last the rest of the trip. This water could be saved for someone more desperate.
Grand Gulch was not on my agenda when I left California to escape the fires and smoke. I am a mountain person, drawn to open views and sharp, easily-catalogued summits, and the Gulch is a uniformly narrow and shallow canyon in a piñon-and-juniper desert plain. However it was conveniently located, and while my previous visit made planning easy, much of it was still new to me. Leonie and I drove over to Collins Gulch to set up a car shuttle, threw a couple gallons of water and what seemed like a few days’ food in our packs, and returned to Bullet Canyon to begin the hike. Ten minutes in, we reached the first spring, a patch of moss under an overhang with an icicle and a thin trickle of water. This did not bode well for the supposedly reliable water sources farther in, so late in a dry year. We dropped our packs, returned to the car to chug as much as we could, then resumed where we had left off.
This first part was familiar from my previous trip, when Renee and I had used Bullet Canyon to visit the northeast part of Grand Gulch on a long run. It is also popular, as the first ruins are close enough to the trailhead for most people to visit them in a day. But the terrain is largely slickrock and sand, where trails do not form, so I still had to pay attention as we alternately followed the wash and bypassed steeper sections to one side or the other. The ruins are also well-hidden on shelves above the valley floor, so despite my having visited both before, we barely found Jailhose Ruin, and I wasted plenty of time and energy failing to find Perfect Kiva.
Where most people turn right at the Grand Gulch junction, we turned left, heading downstream toward the San Juan River. We were just over seven miles from our other car, but covering that distance would take a good part of three days. A seasonal stream has cut the Gulch into a nearly-flat sandstone plateau, so it meanders constantly, and its sides are mostly sheer. Once you enter, you are committed to following its twists and turns, either through deep sand in the wash, or cactus and tamarisk on either side. I could not decide which was least bad, and every time I changed my mind we were forced to slog up and down high banks of loose dirt. As the sun set in our narrow strip of sky, the cold abruptly set in, and we found a sandstone bench above the brush and pooling frigid air to camp. I always struggle with the cold, short days this time of year, particularly while backpacking, and the canyon only made them colder and shorter. On the bright side, we had barely touched our water, so we could survive the next two days with no springs and only a bit of thirst.
Grand Gulch probably has some of the best stargazing in the country. Though it is not particularly high at only around 5000 feet, the air is dry and unpolluted. The nearest town, Mexican Hat, is over twenty miles away, barely inhabited, and hidden in the San Juan River canyon. We were visiting at a particularly opportune time, near both the new moon and the peak of the Leonid meteor showers. Anticipating this, I had brought my “real” camera to practice my night photography, so I was disappointed and annoyed at myself when I found that the cold had drained the battery. So much for my plan to while away the long hours between when it is too dark to hike and a socially-acceptable bedtime. Fortunately we had shooting stars to watch, and Leonie shares my insomnia and is an endless source of crazy stories, so I did not waste my evening with dark thoughts and depressing political podcasts.
While our campsite was mostly well-chosen, on a flat, clean sandstone bench above the pool of cold air in the wash, it faced north, so the morning routine of hot breakfast wrapped in down took longer than usual. I would ordinarily chafe at wasting any portion of a short November day, but despite the previous day’s battles with sand and shrubbery, I remained confident that we had only a modest distance to cover in the next two days. We hoped to find water at Green Canyon, but thanks to our decision to tank up at the car, I thought we could finish with only mild dehydration.
Grand Gulch can be frustrating, but is never boring. The best route alternates between the central channel and the banks to either side, with each transition requiring a minor battle with a steep dirt-bank. In the channel, one’s search for pictographs, ruins, and water sources is hampered by the ten-foot-tall banks; on the sides, by the need to dodge cacti wriggle through brush. Thus the mind stays occupied, even while the route is dictated by the canyon walls.
Leonie’s map mentioned a “Totem Pole” ruin in this stretch, but we were focused on making forward progress, and my failure to find the Perfect Kiva the day before had accustomed me to the disappointment of not finding ruins. It therefore cheered me and gave me a bit of confidence to spot, though the head-high brush, a two-story building on a south-facing ledge. We dropped packs, thrashed up brush and dirt, then scrambled some easy slabs to reach the ledge’s accessible east side.
The building was in a strong defensive position, with sheer cliffs above and below and the ledge tapering away to the west. The eastern approach was guarded by a thick wall with a low door and five apparent arrow slits, suggesting frequent vicious and petty wars between the canyon’s settlements. The building itself was solidly-built, with regular layers of larger rocks alternating with mud and smaller stones. While enough of the second story’s floor had collapsed to allow one to look inside, most of the vegas were intact, blackened by smoke. The ceilings were low for us modern tall folk — everything from doors to handprints to corncobs is small — leading me to believe that the Basketweavers were stunted by their sere environment.
As we turned to head back to our packs, I was surprised to see a man making his way up to the eastern side of the ledge. He patiently waited outside the defensive wall until we exited, and I probably would have just said a few words and moved on, but Leonie is more outgoing, and the man proved more talkative than I had expected. Dana had been visiting the Gulch for forty years, and was paradoxically documenting it online while trying to protect it from the rising tourist tide. He also had a long and wide-ranging mountaineering career, but he was reticent like most such people, and we all had miles to cover.
Before parting, Dana gave us a map pointing out some archaeological features that did not appear on ours, and suggested a possible water source up Step Canyon. We quickly found the nearby Quail Panel, small but more colorful than most in the Canyon. I took some photos, learned the Quail Panel Dance, then took off up-canyon in search of the fabled water source. This side-trip turned out to be a discouraging waste of time. Perhaps there is no water, but more likely I am simply bad at finding it. After an hour or so spent looking under overhangs and below discolorations, the best I found was some vile moss-mud hybrid that I could perhaps drink from by pressing my t-shirt against it and wringing a few drops into my mouth.
Leonie ran into Dana while gawking at the panel and waiting for my fruitless water expedition. He told her that the blocky rectangular figures are over 2000 years old, painted by people well-intentioned whites call Basketmaker. The oldest remnants Europeans found in the canyon are intricately woven watertight brackets which date from that era. The stick figures are from a later group often called Pueblo, who lived in the canyon from about 1000 AD to the 12th or 13th or 14th century, depending on whose account you trust. Most of the structures we passed date from this period.
There are five modern native tribes that trace their ancestors to Grand Gulch and Cedar Mesa- the Zuni, Hopi, Navajo and two groups of Ute. When Obama designated Bear’s Ears National Monument in 2016, he created a historic management partnership between federal and tribal agencies. Registers at some of the better known structures and panels offer tips on how to appreciate the sites with respect.
It turns out that hanging out by the panel was a better way to find water. Three NOLS instructors came by, and told us of a “good” pothole farther down-canyon. In typical NOLS fashion, they were on a ridiculously long backpack out-of-season through harsh terrain, descending another gulch to the San Juan, then somehow following that to the mouth of Grand Gulch before exiting via Bullet. Unusually, though, the instructors were keeping some distance from the students, who were supposed to figure things out for themselves. I am not sure how this worked, but imagined it involved spotting scopes and tranquilizer darts. Continuing on our way, we passed a couple groups of the students, instantly recognizable by their haggard young faces and absurdly large packs. As much as I respect NOLS, it is frustrating to watch it corrupt the minds of our youth with its slow-and-heavy style.
The promised oasis turned out to be a pool of stagnant water, roughly three by eight feet and a foot deep, sitting fifty feet above the canyon floor on the south side. Other than a few algae and some floating debris, it looked drinkable, though little like a “water source” to my mountaineer’s eyes, and nothing like a “spring.” We took turns forcing some water through my filter, mostly clogged by Chilean glacial silt, and boiling some for tea, a frustrating process for those used to dipping in alpine streams. However it was worth the effort, as it alleviated the persistent water anxiety and even gave us the option of taking another day. I had packed my food expecting to cover normal summer-length days, but since caloric needs are mostly a function of miles traveled, I could easily last another day.
By the end of two days in the canyon, I was developing a sense for where to find ruins and pictographs. The natives were smart, locating their dwellings and paintings on south- or east-facing ledges with overhangs, which would catch morning and winter sun, and be somewhat shaded in the summer. Thus I correctly predicted that another ledge was likely to contain something, and found some more pictographs not labeled on either map. Their ledge had partly collapsed though, so getting close required a bit of fourth class climbing — a bonus to me. My inner peak-bagger was frustrated by the constrained hike through a canyon, and each ruin was like a summit, this one requiring an interesting scramble.
A hurried search for a campsite before dark left us on a slightly worse ledge, west-facing and sloped toward the wash. Between the slow terrain and my fruitless side-trip for water, we had not covered much ground, but I was getting better at spotting ruins, and learning to lower my expectations about water. I ate my curry-flavored nutrient paste, then settled in for another night of conversation and insomnia beneath innumerable stars.
Water anxiety was no longer a problem: thanks to the friendly NOLS instructors, we had found usable water the day before, and knew of a reliable source ahead at the Big Pouroff. Thus we were in no hurry to get started, and felt free to stop and explore at our leisure. This included both normal tourist visits to ruins and pictographs, and sillier delays like chimneying up behind a giant sandstone flake just because it was there. Like Zion and Red Rocks, parts of Grand Gulch can feel like an adult jungle gym for those inclined to scramble.
Dana had marked some pictographs near our camp, but after failing to find them in a few minutes’ search, we headed on down the wash. As we imperceptibly descended toward the San Juan River, and more tributaries fed into the main Gulch. The greater seasonal flow manifested itself indirectly: the channel widened and became less brushy, its deep sand replaced by compacted gravel, cracked mud, and worn sandstone, and occasional wet patches began to appear. Leonie found some water in the form of calf-deep, shoe-sucking mud hidden under leaves, and shortly thereafter found a vile pothole in which to wash it off.
After two days of scrabbling up and down dirt-banks, thrashing through tamarisk, and plodding in sand, easy walking in the broad ravine was its own attraction. Our pace increased so much that we almost missed the “Big Man” panel featured on the tourist signs, had we not met an older couple hiking in to see it from the opposite direction. Rather than backpacking the canyon as we were, they were wisely dayhiking it from its tributaries to the east: Kane, Bullet, Government, and so on. We talked for awhile — as fellow travelers in the Western United States, we had seen many of the same places — then took off through the brush toward the indicated coordinates. I spotted a likely location for pictographs, a north-facing bench under a smooth overhang, and took off to investigate while the others waited.
My thrashy, slabby route was unsurprisingly the wrong way, and I discovered a well-traveled path just below the ledge. I had guessed correctly, finding the two large red figures, with the usual Basketweaver blocky bodies and spindly limbs, along with a few cruder white figures, many handprints, and either some fat abstract rodent or the severed head of a white girl with a ponytail. Leonie and the couple soon joined me, and we alternated posing for photos and signing the summit register (yay, I get points for this!). When the conversation stumbled into politics, I was relieved to learn that they were the kind of Montanans with whom I tend to agree. The northern Rockies states have a conservative and redneck reputation, but especially in Montana, I have found a strong current of wilderness conservation and defense of access to public lands. While the political divisions may be just as bitter as elsewhere, they are drawn on different lines than elsewhere, with hunters more closely allied with hikers and climbers.
We took a side trip near Polly’s Island to visit some handprints Dana had mentioned, but I was starting to succumb to archaeology fatigue. When I spotted a short wall on a ledge farther down-gulch, Leonie was content to hang out in the streambed while I thrashed up to take a closer look. A collapsed canyon wall on the right seemed to offer the most likely access, but while I found trails in the flat below, and an old cut branch higher up, the route did not seem to see much traffic. A final squeeze and exposed step landed me on the ledge. The walls were not much more impressive close up, and there were no pictographs, so I took a few quick photos and almost turned back.
Fortunately I decided to take a peek around the corner to the southwest, and saw that the ledge extended another couple hundred yards, sheltering a few more structures before disappearing into the blank canyon wall. I shouted to my companion that the side-trip was worth the effort, then waited for her to join me before exploring further. Though it was probably the largest settlement we saw, and seems easy to spot from below, the ruin did not appear on the map and lacked the usual BLM “please stay out” signs, and I found no recent footprints in the dirt along the ledge. We passed a well-preserved stick-and-mud wall and two- and three-unit “apartment complexes,” then stopped at the final round structure to absorb our surroundings.
Pictographs are worth recording, but I find it hard to relate to them. The stick figures and handprints show little skill, and the abstract paintings mean nothing unmoored from their culture. Buildings are another matter: the need for shelter is universal, and with limited labor and building materials, the ancient natives constructed structures I would find difficult to recreate myself. Sitting on that ledge, I could imagine the austere and circumscribed lives of an extended family living there, waking each morning to the same restricted view I saw. They would tend and gather their crops below, carefully manage their limited water, and trade or war with similar people a few miles up- or down-canyon.
Back in the present, it was time we looked to our own water, shelter, and forward progress. We dropped packs near the point of the Big Pouroff, a supposedly good water source, and I spent a half-hour following various game- and human-trails around a flat bend, peering under every discolored overhang and behind every cluster of greenish vegetation. I was expecting a mossy little oasis with a dripping seep, but instead found only more desert. Returning to our packs and the watercourse, we worked our way around a dryfall and found… well, the name “Big Pouroff” was accurate. Though dry now, the wide chute had once flowed into the largest pothole we had seen, still brimming with fetid scunge. While I tried to measure its depth without falling in and drowning, Leonie sat down to laugh uncontrollably.
This time we were determined to find a good camp-spot, flat and east-facing. We passed several other potholes, smaller and less vile than the Big Pouroff, but none seemed worth the effort given our adequate water. Toward dusk, I spotted a possible camping area high above the streambed inside a westward bend. Reaching it required some engaging class 4 sandstone slabs, and it was not entirely flat, but we would spend the night well out of the cold pool in the gulch, and feel the first sun after our last night.
Our unplanned fourth day was short, and the travel likely to remain easy, so we took our time packing up and scrambling back into the wash. The lower wash remained broad and smooth as expected, while the canyon walls twisted into sharper goosenecks, on their way toward wearing through and forming buttes, like Polly’s Island from the previous day. We passed one more ruin, with an intact kiva, a summit register, and dwellings on an inaccessible-looking shelf above. The information in the register box noted that using technical rock-climbing gear to reach ruins was illegal, which I of course took as a challenge to my scrambling ability. Reaching the shelf was no more than class 3, but the traverse to the buildings, on outward-sloping sandstone with little headroom, was more than I wanted to risk. I suspect that either the ledge has eroded, or the natives reached the dwelling via a ladder or the roofs of buildings below.
It was not even noon when we reached the junction with Collins Gulch, and the route back to Leonie’s car, so we dropped our packs to explore “The Narrows,” a feature labeled on our map. This turned out not to be a slot canyon like the Zion Narrows, but something more unusual, a gooseneck that had “recently” worn through to form an island. The new watercourse led through a gap no more than a dozen feet wide, with two logs jammed ten feet up. Being who I am, my first thought after “that’s cool” was “how do I stand on top of those?” I found two ways: a fourth class traverse from a side-canyon along a ledge on the right, and a more direct fifth class route up the right wall from below, mantling onto the log. Balancing across the lower log was heady but easy, since it was broad and stable. I posed for some photos on the summit block, then downclimbed back to the wash.
After failing to climb to the rim above the constriction, we returned to our packs and picked up the well-used trail up Collins. This was one of the settlers’ original routes into Grand Gulch, probably because it has a permanent spring at the top (though based on our experience, I am skeptical of both its permanence and its springiness). The route therefore follows an old developed trail, with spiked retaining walls in places and one section blasted into the cliff wall near the top. Despite its development and semi-regular use, the trail remains hard to follow in places, as it sensibly follows the wash where possible. This misled us into one dead-end, where we briefly wondered how mules had climbed a fifth-class sandstone step. The answer was that we had passed the point where an obvious trail left the wash.
Back on track, we climbed a ramp carved in the sandstone wall, passed through an old gate, and reemerged on Cedar Mesa, into a suddenly open sky and 360-degree distant horizon. The gulch where we had spent the past three days quickly disappeared in the undulating sandstone and spotted junipers. Unlike my familiar mountains, landmarks visible for tens of miles, Grand Gulch is a surprise, hidden in mere hundreds of yards. It must have been a cruel shock for early explorers, who had easily avoided the high and compact La Sals, Henries, and Abajos, to stumble upon this sprawling impasse. But in our modern world all terrain is known and mapped, all paths graded and paved. In only a couple of hours we had drive back around to Bullet Canyon to retrieve the other car, then down off the Mesa via the improbable Moki Dugway to spend a warmer night among the sandstone monuments to the south.