Spring in Utah can be a little schizophrenic -- over the course of a day the weather can oscillate between 70-degree-sunny-gorgeous or windy-blowing-sleet-nasty. We had a little of both this weekend down in Grand Gulch, but surprisingly the nasty sleety day ended up being a really cool desert experience.
We busted out after work and drove down to Grand Gulch. Grand Gulch is a serpentine canyon that delves into the otherwise gently sloping surface of Cedar Mesa, and it's packed with Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) rock art and ruins.
The Anasazi thrived in Grand Gulch between 800 and 2,000 years ago, and they left behind some incredible cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. You have to hike into the canyon to see these artifacts, and for the most part nothing is signed or marked. That feeling of wildness and discovery makes Grand Gulch one of my favorite places in Utah. Of course, parks like Mesa Verde and Chaco are incredible, but all the people, fences, and pavement make the ruins seem sort of artificial and sanitary. It's a totally different experience to be miles from pavement and searching for hidden cliff dwellings that are still surrounded by undisturbed pottery sherds, corn cobs, mano/metate, woven mats, etc.
On this trip, we did a couple day hikes. On the first day, we trekked 10.6 miles (round trip) down to the Big Man rock art panel, which was incredible. The panel shows life-size figures that are surrounded by hand prints. I love rock art hand prints -- there's something so essentially human about them. We also explored a couple nearby structures and granaries. If you're planning a hike into Grand Gulch, I'd recommend bringing Trail's Illustrated Grand Gulch map and David Day's Utah's Incredible Backcountry. They both show and describe the main features down in the gulch, which is especially helpful for things that aren't visible from the canyon floor.
To get to the Big Man panel, drive 13.5 miles south from the junction of Highway 95 and 261 near Natural Bridges National Monument. After passing the Kane Gulch ranger station and a couple other trail heads, you'll see a sign on the east side of the road that says "Cigarette Springs." Take the unmarked road on the opposite (west) side of the highway. You'll follow a good dirt road for about 7.5 miles. There are a couple intersections, but just keep following the signs that say "Government Trail." The last 1.5 miles of the drive are on a rough dirt road, and we ended up putting the Jeep in 4WD to get over a couple spots. This will get you to the start of the Government Trail.
Start your hike on the Government Trail. The first 2.8 miles of hiking are on an old 4WD road, which is still fairly scenic. You'll finally reach the edge of the plateau and get a great view into Grand Gulch and Polly's Canyon. Start the 620 ft. descent to the canyon bottom, then head 1.6 miles north upstream. The Big Man panel is about 200 feet above the canyon floor and you can't see it from the canyon bottom. It's a little tricky to find, so remember that about 1.2 miles upstream from Polly's Canyon you'll see another large side canyon coming into Grand Gulch from the east. Just after this point, the streambed swings to the west, creating a bulge in the canyon wall. The rock art is up on this bulge -- watch for a little cairn and a sandy social trail on your right.
The next day, we explored the Anasazi ruins in Mule Canyon. The hike is about 10 miles round trip, but give yourself lots of time to climb up and explore everything. The start of the hike didn't look too promising, because the canyon bottom was coated in tumbleweeds and a nasty storm was brewing. But I'm really glad we pushed on. We saw some incredible ruins -- one or two every mile! As we were hiking, a chilly rain started to fall. Normally we don't hike in desert canyons during a rainstorm, but Mule Canyon was wide and dry enough that we weren't worried about a flash flood. It was really cool to watch as water started flowing down the canyon walls and dry creak beds.
To get to Mule Canyon, drive east on Highway 95 past the entrance to Natural Bridges National Monument. After 9.1 miles, you'll see a gravel road on the north side of the highway leading up to Texas Flat. Turn left, drive 0.3 miles, and you'll see a little kiosk down inside the canyon on the left side of the road. Start hiking here.