This is a multi-day backpack with little elevation change, except going up and down sandy river banks. The reward is amazing rock art and ruins tucked in the canyon corners. This part of Grand Gulch gets a little thick with willow, but it is far from the madding crowds that can gather in the Kane and Bullet Canyon areas.
I did this as a 3.5 day/3 night backpack and it could easily take longer with more exploring for ruins and rock art, or taken at a more leisurely pace. Register at the Kane Ranger station or you can make reservations with the Monticello Field Office as noted below in the permit section. I recommend you purchase a topo map of Grand Gulch at the Ranger station ($12 cash only) or carry a good guide book, since none of the ruins are marked or signed. Drive around to Hwy 276 milepost 85 to the dirt road that leads to the Collins Spring trailhead. (It was 6 miles and okay for low clearance, as long as you took the slickrock sections really carefully. It may be worse if it has rained recently).
The trailhead is obvious and signed a nice gradual drop into Collins Canyon with a well-marked trail. The confluence with Grand Gulch is in 2 miles and there is a nice campground under a tree by the river. In mid-April there was plenty of water the entire trip. I poked around the area and found some nice rock art in a side canyon near the San Juan narrows (this is not a slot canyon, but a very short narrowing of the rocks). The next day, I rose early and hiked 14 miles to the Cow Tank area - a long day. In 3 miles, you pass the Banister Spring and in the next turn, Round House Ruin and Banister Ruin on the left. There are no signs, so keep your eyes open and try to follow the turns on the topo map. Stay to the left and take the high trail past some rock art in a camp area near Banister Spring. The willow begins to get thick as you continue on toward Big Pouroff in about 4 more miles. This is a nice pool to rest and soak your feet. The trail can get tricky to follow, with lots of stream crossings, but it makes a nice easy path through the shrubbery, if you stay on it. You don't need water shoes, unless there has been a great deal of rain, though you may end up with muddy boots. Right above the pouroff, there is a nice ruin hidden on the left - easy to access. There is another ruin off a side trail in about three more miles as you approach Polly's Canyon where the Government Trail comes in from the south. There is a nice campsite there and lots of slickrock, also.
I left the confluence at 7 am and reached Polly's about 1 pm, hiking at a steady B pace. In another 1.5 miles, you pass the amazing Big Man Panel of rock art. It is high on the right side of the canyon, just past a sharp turn. Again, there are no signs, so keep your eyes out and look for the side trail that heads up a steep slope. No touching - there are video cameras at most of the major ruins and art to make sure nobody disturbs them. There is another unnamed ruin along the trail past Big Man Panel, with a well-worn side trail to it. The willow is pretty thick by now, so this isn't the most fun hiking and camping spots are few and far between, but the treasures along the way make it worth it. Cow Tank Canyon is another 2 miles past Big Man Panel. I reached there about 4:30 pm and found a nice camping area.
On Day 3, I left my tent and day-hiked up to Step Canyon. There is an amazing ruin right at the entrance to this side canyon and it can be reached with a little care on the slickrock ledge. I explored up this canyon a little, but it was mostly a waste of time and a lot of bushwacking through thick willow. In another mile, I reached the rock formation known as Totem Pole, which was as far as time would allow that day. The willow is thick up to here, but I understand it thins out past Totem Pole and there are many more ruins and rock art beyond Totem, if you can do a trip where you exit Bullet Canyon. I plan to return and approach the area from Bullet Canyon on another trip. I glimpsed three people on the four days I was in Grand Gulch and spoke to one man who had come in the Government trail and was having trouble finding the Big Man Panel. Mostly, I only heard birds and it was delightful. I hiked back from Totem, picked up my backpack at Cow Tank and took it to Polly's Canyon on Day 3 where I camped comfortably on the slick rock. Day 4, I hiked out and saw more little ruins that I had missed on the way in, which is a reason to go in and out the same way.
It was tiring - muddy river, sandy trails and thick willow - but it was an intimate glimpse into Anasazi life. Some of the trails are deep trenches, that show they have been trod for hundreds or thousands of years. And this is only a beginning to what that area has to offer. I'm hooked! - May 17 2008 strawlady