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On the Path of the Ancients
Grand Gulch via the Government Trail, Cedar Mesa
Friday, April 10
Cedar Mesa is a large, high plateau in south-eastern Utah. Cut into it's 6,000+ foot high flats are several canyons, all of which wind their way into the San Juan River and, ultimately, the Colorado. These canyons have a very high concentration of ancient Anasazi ruins, some of which date back one to two thousand years. These ruins include petroglyphs, residential cliff dwellings, ceremonial structures, and various bits of artifacts.

As mentioned on the previous page, we were unable to secure an overnight backpacking permit for Grand Gulch. Instead, we drove along a sometimes-rough access road to a point halfway down the Gulch, and camped for the night at The Government Trailhead. This trail provides access to the middle of Grand Gulch, and from there we would explore a short ways up and down-canyon, seeing some of the interesting archaeological sites there.

For the first time on our trip, we awoke to something that was other than a clear, blue sky. A high overcast had settled in, and we knew (from checking things out the day before) that the forecast was for unsettled and possibly wet weather for the next day or two. Given the wide nature of the canyons we'd be hiking in, we did not need to be as concerned about unavoidable flash floods. Anotherwords, the hike was still on.

After packing up our gear and stowing it into the trucks, we headed off along the Government Trail. In actuality, we weren't actually at the Government Trailhead, but rather at the edge of the Grand Gulch wilderness area. When the area was formed, the approach road to the trailhead stopped here. So we were really walking along an old road at this point.
Government Trail
Brian's ready to go
Government Trail
The trail led across the relatively featureless and undulating top of the Cedar Mesa for a few miles. The grey skies gave everything a somewhat drab and somber cast, and we were happy to see a strip of blue approaching on the horizon as we neared the edge of Grand Gulch. Perhaps the day would turn out nicer than expected!
The Three Stooges
Taking in the Gulch
Descent into the Gulch
Presently the trail started to angle downwards, towards the rim of Grand Gulch. Fortunately for us, the sky did start to break up a bit and we had a few spots of sun here and there. And right away, looking straight across to the opposite wall of the Canyon, we could see our first Anasazi cliff dwelling. Cool!
Switchbacking descent
Dwelling Closeup
Another Dwelling View
After a snack break at the rim, we headed down the well-marked trail, switchbacking down into the canyon. This was our first time hiking in a Cedar Mesa canyon, and we noted the particular signature of canyons here: bulge-y tan walls of the Cedar Mesa sandstone, with many ledges and nooks between the bulges. Ideal for cliff dwellings!
courtesy BConnell
Hiking in Grand Gulch
Now down in the bottom of Grand Gulch, our plan was to spend half of our time exploring down-canyon, and half of our time exploring up-canyon. We'd then return to the bottom of the Government Trail and retrace our steps back to the trucks. First up was our down-canyon leg.

There's no official trail in the bottom of Grand Gulch, but enough people visit here that use-trails have developed here and there. Mostly the trails serve to cut extra distance off the many bends and switchbacks in the canyon. So, sometimes one is walking along the bottom of the canyon's streambed, and at other times short-cutting across vegetated benches. Different members in our group had different perceptions of whether it was worth using the short-cuts, so there were many times where one group would go the long way in the streambed, and another would cut across on the short-cut trail. Sandy and soft bits in both the streambed and the cutoff trails made the hiking a little more difficult than what one would expect from an essentially flat hike.
Approaching Petroglyphs
Intricate Petroglyphs
Intricate Petroglyphs
We kept our eyes peeled for interesting-looking sites as we trekked along. Eventually, we came to a side trail which didn't seem to be just a bend short-cut, and we went up to have a look. Brian, Caroline and I went up ahead to scout it out. Sure enough, we came to an excellent and interesting petroglyph panel. There were scads of etchings in the deep red sandstone of the wall. Some looked quite sharp, and others looked much older. The symbology of some etchings were quite weird - looking for all the world like spaceships or weird mechanical devices. Pu thought the petroglyphs were modern fakes, and did not bother to come up close to have a look, and managed to convince Jenn and Bob to do likewise. Pity for them!
Brian and Petroglyphs
Well-preserved dwellings
Cliff Dwelling
After the excellent petroglyph panel, we continued downstream for a bit, arriving at a spot where there is an interesting series of ruins on a cliff ledge partway up the canyon wall. There were several distinct structures, including one very interesting round tower, and another well-preserved long three-windowed structure. There was also a spot where a wall had been constructed using some technique that involved reed.
Reed divider
Pu was convinced that he could climb up to the ruins. However, a quick glance at the bulging ledges that would have to be climbed led me to believe that it would be a bit dicey. Pu was sure, though, and so we bushwhacked over to the base of the easiest ascent route. I waited patiently below while Pu learned for himself that this route was too dicey.
Neat Circular Structure
\This marked the farthest down-canyon that we were going on this hike. We turned around, and retraced our steps back up to nearly the Government Trail, and stopped for a good lunch break. Afterwards, we decided to head around the back-side of an abandoned meander in Grand Gulch known as Polly's Bench. I'd heard that there was a good ruin back in there, and afterwards we could contine along the meander, rejoining the main Gulch on the other side.

A faint trail crosses the vegetated floor of the Polly's Bench. This vegetation was a uniform sea of short, stiff-branched bushes. Pu and Bob learned the wisdom of long pants on this section, getting their legs thoroughly torn up as we picked our way through thicket after thicket of the stuff.
Behind Polly's Island
Polly's Bench Ruins
We located the promised ruins in short order. They were cleverly hidden behind a huge slab that had fallen and half-covered an overhanging alcove in the far wall of the Polly's Bench meander. This was our first up-close look at an Anasazi cliff dwelling, and it was very interesting. There were small structures here and there, some in quite good shape, and others in various states of disrepair. Being careful not to touch anything, we explored around, marvelling at the little fragments of artifacts -- pottery shards, old dried-up husks of corn, arrowhead chips, and the like. There were also some cool paintings left on the walls. I was especially struck by a row of human hand prints that went up the backside of the huge slab. A very real and somewhat spooky reminder that real humans inhabited this very spot more than a thousand years ago.
Ancient Hand Prints
Pottery Shards
Polly's Bench Ruins
Structures, Polly's Bench
Heading back to the wash
Trail on Polly's Bench
After completing our very satisfying visit to this site, we continued on, hiking around the remainder of Polly's Bench and rejoining the main bed of Grand Gulch. Our final destination was the Big Man Panel -- a well-known painting/pictograph panel a short ways up-canyon from where we were.

By this time, everyone was getting a little weary of what was turning out to be a fairly long hike, and by the time we reached the not-very-well-marked spot where a side trail leads up to the Big Man Panel, we had a few defectors that didn't want to come up and see (Bob's toes were bugging him from some too-tight boots on the first backpack days before). Eventually we got everyone up to the panel. And an impressive panel it is. Situated at the bottom of a clear, clean slightly overhanging sandstone face (as almost all pictograph panels are), the Big Man Panel had, as it's centerpiece, to large squarish-looking humanoid figues. It was clear, upon closer examination, that one was male, and one was female. With broad shoulders and spooky-looking eye-dots, they were an impressive sight.
Big Man Panel
Big Man Panel
Roller Logs?
Elsewhere on the panel were many other interesting drawings, including several nicely formed handprints, strange squiggles, bars, and dots. There was one person-within-a-person drawing that seemed to depict a pregnancy. Interesting.
courtesy PChen
courtesy PChen
Hands and Figures
Pu's Eyes...
Life Imitates Art
After a good look at the panel, we turned around and headed back downcanyon. It was getting on, and we had seen a lot. I know there's much more to explore in Grand Gulch, but that'll have to wait for a future outing.
Brian's backrest
Several of our group were dreading the climb back up to the rim and the trudge along the flats above, but as it turned out, the walk back was surprisingly easy. Maybe it was the nearly 100km (60 miles) of hiking over the last week that had helped!

We arrived back at the trucks late in the afternoon, with the morning's overcast conditions returning as well.
Studebaker under Gray Skies
We had one more day to work with before we had to start heading back to Vegas. Everyone really enjoyed the ruins explorations today, so we decided to stick around and do another such outing. We weren't precisely sure which canyon we'd be doing, so we opted to head back to somewhere in the vicinity of the ranger station, camp nearby, and consult with them. After doing so (and after graciously receiving some water from the rangers' water jugs), we set up camp on a bit of slickrock just off the highway not far from the ranger station. The only fly in the ointment? The weather. At the ranger station, we had read the forecast for the next day, and it wasn't good. It predicted heavy rain for the next day. With that in mind, and accepting the fact that if the weather got really bad, we may not be able to do our hike, we settled in for the night (with the tents securely fastened against wind and rain).
Interactive Trackmap & Photo Points - Grand Gulch - click link to expand
Grand Gulch Hike, Elevation over Distance
Grand Gulch Hike, Elevation over Time

Hike Data Summary
Start Time:
Start Elevation:
5665ft (1727m) *
End Time:
Max Elevation:
5671ft (1728m) *
Min Elevation:
4990ft (1521m) *
21.79 km (13.54 mi)
End Elevation:
5651ft (1722m) *
Average Speed:
2.6 km/hr (1.6 mph)
* : +/ 75 feet
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