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Canyons and Ruins and Rock Art, Oh My!
The Grand Gulch Primitive Area is a remote and rugged series of winding sandstone canyons which, given only the natural and geological splendor of the place, would be a world class hike. However, the walls of these canyons are packed with remnants of the Anasazi people who flourished here between 700 and 2,000 years ago; including dwelling and storage structures, some incredibly intact kivas and stunning pictographs.
This multi-day backpack may seem relatively easy, with its minimal AEG and shaded, cottonwood lined paths. However, the condition of the canyons change dramatically through the seasons, and a single easy-to-follow trail does not exist. Constant ups-and-downs associated with cutting the multitude of meanders, deep soft sand banks and dense vegetation add enough challenge to entertain even the strongest hiker. The seemingly endless number of ruins and pictograph panels also beckon further exploration, which when done properly, should slow hikers down considerably. We did this hike as a 3 day, 2 night through hike, which felt very rushed, and mildly taxing. Four days would have given us much more time to explore and soak in the peace of the place, and five would have felt like spending a week in one of the west's best playgrounds. As with all overnight trips into Grand Gulch, permits are required (see below for details) - and advance reservations are required for groups of 8-12. You will need to check in with the folks at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to watch an informative video before your trip. We hired Blackhawk Transportation (recommended by the Kane Gulch Rangers) to shuttle us from our car at Bullet TH to Collins - a little less than an hour point to point. This saved not only time at the end of the hike, but also meant we had to drive fewer cars to Utah to start with, and I think the service was well worth the money. Also worth the money was the canyon map I bought at the Visitor Center. It has the approximate location of some of the more famous ruins, springs and landmarks - as well as distances between these points. It helps a lot when navigating this sometimes confusing maze.
The descent down Collins Canyon is on a well-trodden, easy-to-follow trail. Just past the rickety gate at the top of the canyon, keep your eyes open for a large overhang on the left - it houses the remains of an old cowboy camp. Collins Creek is typically dry at this point - though pools of water may be found in rainy season. The trail easily negotiates past a couple of good-sized pour offs, a natural arch, and after two miles reaches the confluence with the Grand Gulch. A quick detour to the right (downstream) takes you through the "Narrows" and the "Abandoned Meander". The meander is an approx. 3/4 mile detour the stream used to make around a stubborn sandstone ridge. The weak point in the ridge gave way, allowing the stream through a narrow chute, and the longer meander was left high and dry. Be sure to check the walls of this fin on the downstream side of the narrows for some fun rock art and a small ruin. More ruins appear high up on the main canyon walls just upstream of the narrows - though actually getting up to them takes more skills (and nerve) than the author possesses. Turning upstream from the Collins/GG confluence the canyon is relatively wide and easy to follow, though there are a number of separate foot paths to follow here. The canyon is winding here, but the floor is wide and relatively level at this point. About 3 miles above the confluence, on the left, you'll find Banister Ruin and Round House (an intact kiva cordoned off by ropes). Bannister is famous for its log banister on the upper ruin - though that portion of the site has not been accessed since 1987 (according to information left in an ammo can to explain the site). Banister is a popular dayhike destination, and once you're past this point you're likely to see only backpackers until you reach the Big Man Panel.
Looking to the map, the next landmark was the "Big Pour-off". Just before you reach it there is a series of cool slick rock passages and deep meanders. The going is still relatively easy, however, particularly when the stream is dry. On our trip, there were periodic sections of clear-flowing water through this segment, and numerous clear pools. We reached the Big Pour-off, which if you've spent much time in slickrock country will be a bit of a disappointment. Contemplating the spacious camp near the clear pool of water found here, we decided instead that water seemed prevalent enough, and we'd keep on in hopes of keeping our required mileage down for the next day. Needless to say, above Big Pour-off the canyon dried-up right quick. The trail detouring the pour off was easy enough to find - just stay right and climb up over the sandy shelf. Might as well get used to this idea, too, as it becomes a repetitive theme beyond this point. Just above the pour-off is another set of ruins - these are easy to access and interesting to explore. Several more ruins appear on the canyon walls as you continue upstream, my favorite being one with a seemingly perfectly cylindrical structure tucked on a high ledge. It's symmetry is unreal, and in the afternoon light it felt almost alien. Our group finally made camp at the base of Polly's Island, and made the fateful decision to have a go with the reddish, heavily silted water in the Gulch. This filter-killing monster (too thin to farm, too thick to drink as they say) was only flowing in select places here - but above Polly's would become a regular mucky mess. There are a number of good camping areas in the area at the foot of the island, including a particularly handsome one at the mouth of Polly's Canyon. The map indicates that there is a spring about .4 miles upstream from the confluence in Polly's, but we didn't check it out. Our first day came in at between 12-14 miles depending on whose GPS we looked at, who did which side trip, and which meanders were taken or cut. A long slog in the sand no matter which way you cut it, though, and many of the ruins and rock art sites were rushed.
The next morning, we didn't shoot for an early start, as the longer days left us plenty of time for our 11 mile goal to get to the confluence with Bullet Canyon. The first order of the day (besides trying to find water that didn't look like goulash) was to find the Big Man Panel - about 1.5mi up canyon. Instructions were to look for a route up a steep slope to the right just after a small granary on the left wall. The trail seemed more than a little insane, and we doubted ourselves a few times, but when the panel came into view, it was all worth it. Another ammo can with information helped a little with interpretation, and a much better trail on the up-stream side helped with getting down. Just before we picked up our packs to head on, we encountered dayhikers again asking where the Big Man Panel was (likely that they'd hiked down the Government Trail). They were standing right beneath it at the moment, but would probably have walked right past if we hadn't been stopped there. Look high, friends, it's hard to miss. We tried to get water at Cow Tank Canyon, another 2 miles up, but found only a dry creek bed and difficult-to-bypass pour-off upstream from the confluence. If there is a spring there, it's going to be tough work getting to it. Just above Cow Tank Canyon was a cool "hole in a rock" formation on the left canyon wall, and immediately below that another set of ruins with some very cool rock art. This spot was definitely worth a few extra minutes exploring. Between these ruins and our next camp at Bullet Canyon, however, the canyon started really dishing it out. Though the topo looks fairly straight-forward and level, the actual course of the canyon is very twisting and winding, with lots of steep muddy banks to negotiate, sandy shelves to climb and descend, and plenty of areas where flooding and downed trees make navigation confusing and slow. I finally gave up on trying to keep my feet dry. This was the toughest portion of the hike by far, and also the section where we saw the fewest hikers. Makes sense. There's no real reason for dayhikers to explore this area, as none of the big ticket ruins are found through this area. Keep your eyes open, though, as there are a number of smaller sites and amazing rock art panels through here as well. One in particular on the inside curve of a meander gave an amazing feeling of how much the canyon must have changed since these people left their mark here.
The Totem is the first real landmark that helps you identify how far you've come, and shortly after that appears a number of wonderful campsites among the cottonwood and tamarisk at the junction with Bullet Canyon, where we finally found clear water at the Bullet Junction Spring. Unfortunately, our pumps were all totally ruined by the nasty stuff we'd been dealing with the days before, and we ended up needing to borrow a pump from another group camped at the same spot. Sometimes a little company can be a good thing... The party broke up at this point, with two members headed out to the Kane Gulch Trailhead and the rest heading up Bullet. This trail is well documented in other hike descriptions in the area, so I'll defer to those, with the added note that excellent camping is to be had near Jailhouse Spring. We failed to find the Perfect Kiva, but the trade off was a surprisingly easy climb up to the mesa top. The one slick-rock section described in other hikes as steep or tough was really just a fun challenge which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Not a walk-in-the-park hike by a long stretch, but well worth the effort in natural beauty as well as the cultural interest. Continuing out Kane would have been even better, though the sites in Bullet would have been a shame to miss. Always avoid pumping silty water and be sure to leave time for staring up at the green cottonwood leaves and listening to the whispers of the ancients. You won't regret it.
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