Grand Gulch highlights!
Grand Gulch Primitive Area has been one of the best places to see Anasazi ruins since the area was first discovered by Blanding ranchers and later the Wetherills during the late 1800s. Most of the major ruins have since been excavated or pothunted, their buried secrets winding up in museums and occasionally on Victorian mantles. Today, though, much remains in the backcountry of Cedar Mesa. Rock art dots high canyon walls. Ruins sprout out of sunny, south-facing alcoves. Artifacts litter the sandy ground in front of the ancient habitations. For the premiere, outdoor Anasazi experience, there are few places that can top Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch.
This hike is a shuttle hike, and can be run from either direction. The Bullet Canyon trailhead is here, while the Government Trail starts here. We ran this trip starting from the Bullet Canyon trailhead, so it will be described in that manner.
The trail from the Bullet Canyon trailhead is easy going at first, simply crossing the mesa top for about a quarter of a mile, paralleling the rim of Bullet Canyon. After about a quarter of a mile, the trail takes advantage of a natural break in the cliffs, and snakes down to the canyon bottom. The going is generally easy along the canyon bottom as well, though it can be sandy in places. In the upper portion of Bullet, pools are common, some quite deep, though most are easily avoided.
The canyon begins to deepen not long after you see a cliff-top ruin on the north rim of the canyon. As the canyon drops, the trail encounters a group of chutes. The first is a narrow slot that drops rapidly, and can often be icy early in the hiking season. This chute ends in a two to three foot pour-off, that can be down climbed fairly easily, though it looks pretty intimidating. The next chute is a broader slickrock basin. While no real pour-overs exist in this section, some sections can be quite steep and require careful slickrock navigation. There are often cairned routes through this area, though most seem somewhat useless. The best route seems to be down the central section to the first "flat" area, then detouring to canyon left to bypass a steep section. From there it is an easy walk across gently sloping sandstone to the canyon bottom.
The third "chute" is actually a tangled mess of a boulder fall, just past a deep pool. As you begin entering the boulders, keep a very sharp eye out on the right for a poorly-marked trail. This is a very important bypass, pulling you up and around the boulder fall. If you miss this trail, it can result in wasted energy and hours of frustration trying to pick your way through the boulder fall. The bypass looks down on the convoluted boulder-choked canyon, and then drops in a series of switchbacks back to the canyon floor.
The trail from here is very easy, meandering through the bottom of Bullet Canyon. Ruins and rock art can be seen along this stretch fairly often. Both Perfect Kiva and Jailhouse Ruins lay in this section, two of Cedar Mesa's most famous attractions.
There is a spring just below Jailhouse ruin, on canyon left, and there can be flowing water or some pools, depending on the weather, just below Jailhouse all the way until the next bend in the canyon. This is the only reliable water in Bullet between the deep pool above the chutes and the junction of Bullet and Grand Gulch.
As with the section just above Jailhouse, the trail is easy to follow and not terribly challenging as you cross grassy meadows and the wash bottom. Just before reaching the junction of Bullet and Grand Gulch, you rise up a stretch of old floodplain and get a very good look down canyon as the arroyo has cut down over the past hundred years or so. Ahead you can see an arch on the canyon walls; this marks the actual confluence between Bullet and Grand Gulch. There is a grove of cottonwoods, water, and great campsites at that location, and most people make the junction their goal for the day.
From the Bullet/Grand Gulch confluence camp, the trail heads straight down Grand Gulch. Turning right at the confluence will lead you up canyon towards Kane Gulch. The trail has to make about two miles to cover one as the crow flies, as Grand Gulch is much more convoluted than Bullet. The trail snakes around fins and ridges as strange hoodoos and ruins appear on the rim and ledges. There are several small side canyons with springs in this section of Grand Gulch, though most springs are at least a quarter of a mile up from the main gulch. Keep a sharp eye out also for The Totem Pole, a distinctive spire on the north canyon wall. While there are many trails that jump up out of the canyon bottom, most of these are simply cutting off stream meanders. If you want to save your knees some ups and downs, and the creek is not flowing, it is usually easiest to hike in the creek bed. Any dead trees or large boulders are probably worth bypassing, however. For a neat side trip, try hiking a bit up Step Canyon; there is some rock art and ruins well worth the effort on this side trip.
Most people camp either at Cow Tank Canyon (also called Cow Tail Canyon or Steer Gulch on some maps) or Dripping Springs Canyon. They are only separated by about a quarter of a mile of trail, so it is up to you which one to camp in. There are several good campsites in the mouth of Dripping Springs Canyon, while the mouth of Cow Tank is somewhat overgrown. Both canyons have springs about .8 miles up from the main gulch. Don't get discouraged if you don't come across water right away. Both springs are also marked on the National Geographic Trails Illustrated map.
From Dripping Springs Canyon, you only have about 4 miles left to go until reaching Polly's Canyon and the Government Trail, which will take you up out of Grand Gulch. This can take quite some time to cover, however, due to the large amount of amazing rock art and ruins found in this stretch. Of particular interest are Long House ruins, the Big Man Panel, and the ruins on Polly's Island. Other rock art and ruins are visible and accessible along this stretch of trail, and several arches stand out along the canyon rims.
Polly's Canyon has a spring not too far up it, and unless it has rained or snowed recently, this is your last chance to get water before leaving the gulch. Tank up as needed; the Government Trail is exposed and sandy with no water. Just down canyon of Polly's Canyon, on canyon left, the Government Trail begins as a simple dirt path. From the base of the trail, looking at the rim above a large pour-off, you can see a sign announcing the top of the Government Trail. The trail slowly gains elevation as it heads south, then makes a broad switchback and begins to get steeper just before the next bend in the canyon. As you ascend you being to see the world around you come back into view; the Red House Cliffs, the Henry Mountains, and the Bear's Ears. The top of the trail is marked, as mentioned, by a simple sign on the rim of a slickrock apron. The trail is cairned across the slickrock towards an old wagon road which will lead back to the Government Trail parking area. According to Google Earth, this stretch is about 2.6 miles long, though it can feel a lot longer as there is no shade and the trail is mostly sand. Once you get to the Government trailhead, congratulations! You've finished the hike. Sign out in the register (note water conditions as a courtesy to those coming in), and head on down the road to complete the shuttle!
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.