North & South Forks
Easy access, easy hiking, lots of ruins, solitude. What's not to like?
This is one of my favourite places in the area and I often hike here when the weather has made other dirt roads on Cedar Mesa impassable, as access to the trailheads is easy. Just driving here along UT261 from Blanding is a real pleasure and is probably one of the most scenic roads in the south-west. I must have travelled it 30 times and I never tire of it. When it was planned there was a lot of controversy and I can understand the arguments of keeping this landscape untouched. Yet traffic is sparse and there are only two signed attractions: Butler Wash Ruins and Mule Canyon Ruins. Don’t confuse the latter with what I’m about to describe though. Mule Canyon Ruins is a short walk from a parking area along a paved trail to a partially reconstructed kiva. Sure, if you have only 5 minutes before dashing off somewhere else then take a look, but it’s disappointing.
The easiest way to access the forks of Mule Canyon is to drive to the entrance to Mule Canyon Ruin (from the direction of Blanding), turn around and take the first dirt road (County Road 263) on the left (north side) after a few hundred yards. The road condition is very good though there is a steep descent down to the canyon bottom that may be a little tricky coming back if it’s wet. Once I parked at the top and walked the few hundred yards down to the South Fork trailhead. There are no big pullouts here so just park at the side of the road. It’s very wide. North Fork or South Fork? It’s possible to do a loop and cover both but most people don’t. Personally, I think the less popular North Fork may be prettier but it has less ruins. Either way you’ll need to pick up a permit at the trailhead. The South Fork trailhead is just ¼ mile from the highway and the North Fork is a short distance further on from that.
The forks of Mule Canyon are not majestic like many on Cedar Mesa, but gentler, more forested with Ponderosa pines, reflecting the higher altitude here. And I rarely see anyone on the trails here.
In the North Fork, the canyon walls start shallow as you follow the well-worn trail up canyon usually in the stream bed though elements of trail exist around obstacles. All the ruins will be found on the right hand side and the first come into view after about a mile. Others follow at around 30 minute intervals for the next three miles or so. Many are easily accessible. Some are in relatively good condition and you may still find some pottery sherds and ancient corn lying around. Some will have been carefully placed on a rock by their ‘discoverers’. It’s a shame that people do this, intent on making their own mark on the place in this fashion. One of the wonderful things about strolling through canyons is finding stuff like this beside a trail or amongst the rocks, and picking it up and handling it, then placing it back down where you found it for someone else to discover. This is apart from the fact that it diminishes the archaeological worth and provenance of the item, Rant over. Look out for rock art too. I’ve hiked here immediately after a heavy storm ad the creek bed was running with deep red silty water. It was a beautiful sight. Eventually the canyon gets brushy and hiking gets problematic so this is a good place to turn around ad retrace your steps.
The South Fork is more popular due to a named ruin, the so-called Burning/Flaming House Ruin. It’s the first ruin you come to after 20-30 minutes and is close to the trail. Some people miss it as it’s partially hidden by trees as you approach. Try to be there in the morning when the light is best and the roof of the cave appears (with a little imagination) to be engulfed in flames. Just up canyon a few yards is a small alcove with several handprints. Over the next 3 miles there are another 7 groups of structures, some easy to reach, others 200 feet above the canyon floor.
Whichever fork you choose each is an easy half day hike with little elevation gain and where you’ll likely be on your own. Mule Canyon may not have the cachet of Grand Gulch or other more popular Cedar Mesa canyons but you get a lot of bangs for your buck and it’s great for families with young children. Highly recommended.