Kane Gulch to Grand Gulch
An exhilarating day hike in two beautiful canyons, both of which contain a wealth of Anasazi ruins.
Cedar Mesa contains the largest concentration of Anasazi ruins in the southwest and Grand Gulch is at its heart. It’s also the most popular. Many people backpack long loops or even the entire 52 miles of the Gulch but day hikers are more popular.
This north-eastern entrance to the Gulch is a relatively easy hike via Kane Gulch which makes the trail especially popular. However, I’ve hiked here a few times in mid-summer and rarely seen anyone. This is a long hike (about 9 miles roundtrip to Turkey Pen Ruin) but feels shorter thanks to the ever-changing scenery that appears around every twist and turn. The trail is very easy to follow and not too demanding. Kane Gulch was formerly known as Wetherill Canyon, named after Richard Wetherill, the famous amateur archaeologist who was the first white man to visit many of the sites we know so well today, including Cliff Palace in Colorado. Soon after his marriage to Marietta, she accompanied him and his team to Grand Gulch and described Kane Gulch as: ‘. . . so crooked that even a rattlesnake would have a hard time getting down without breaking its back’.
Leave your vehicle in the Kane Gulch Ranger Station parking lot on UT 261 (don’t forget to pick up a permit and fill up your water bottles here) and cross the road to the signed trailhead by the sage flats. (I always take a small branch of sage with me and crush it occasionally under my nose – it has good reviving properties). It’s about 4 miles to Junction Ruin in Grand Gulch and a little further down canyon to Turkey Pen Ruin. The first mile or so of trail is well trodden and a mix of sand and slickrock, and well marked with cairns. In fact, outside of a national park, I’ve never seen a trail with so many cairns and I can only guess that’s because the rangers are often on this trail. After the sage field you enter the gulch where the walls are low and there’s still plenty of vegetation, including some annoying tamarisk you’ll need to wade through. As you gradually descend the height of the canyon walls increases, and after 2 miles the trail gets a lot rockier. You’ll be bypassing some pouroffs along the way. Some of the slickrock here is beautifully sculpted and occasionally you’ll come across huge boulders that have detached themselves from the canyon walls. Watch out for ‘The Nose’, a particular favourite of mine. There's also the occasional small ruin and some rock art to be seen along the way. If you find yourself in a very rocky section of the wash then the chances are you’ve missed a cairn that would lead you around the obstacle. The final section of the Kane Gulch Trail is easy walking in the wash amongst the cottonwoods. Here you can see the height of the water in flash floods by the debris caught up in the trees. Be warned. Grand Gulch is soon visible coming in from the right. To access Junction Ruin, turn into the Gulch at the junction and look for an obvious path that leads through a cottonwood grove. The ruins are just a few hundred yards away on the righthand north wall. You should be able to spot it before you enter the grove. The structures (including one really cute granary), situated under an enormous overhang, are in various states of disrepair but there are some features that make it special. You’ll find (unless someone has stolen them) manos and metate grinding stones, potsherds and plenty of rock art: abstract, animal and anthromorph petroglyphs and dozens of multicoloured handprints. If you’ve ever found it difficult to imagine people living their daily lives in such a place, this makes it so much more real. The other big feature here is the huge midden or trash pile. It’s fenced off to try to protect what’s left but you’ll see a lot of broken pottery in many different styles and even charcoal remnants and dried out corn cobs and flint sherds. As some of this is so small it helps to have some binoculars or a camera with a powerful zoom handy.
If time is short then head back the way you came. However, I recommend you hike down canyon for about 15 minutes to Turkey Pen Ruin – in a similar site to Junction Ruin. Again the condition of the ruins are for the most part poor but the chained off ‘turkey pen’ structure is interesting – whether it was actually built to house wild turkeys or not. Again there’s some rock art to enjoy. From here it’s a 2-3 hour hike back to you vehicle, allowing you to see features and ruins you perhaps missed on the way down.
You could do this hike in a long ½ day but I’d recommend taking your time to enjoy this lovely part of Cedar Mesa.