Harsh Beauty Big and bad: Remote, undeveloped and extraordinary, the Grand Gulch Primitive Area lives up to its name.

November 05, 1995|By Martin Pflieger | Martin Pflieger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

GRAND GULCH PRIMITIVE AREA, UTAH -- Not in a lifetime would I have chosen this remote desert canyon in southeastern Utah as a vacation destination.

But that's why I leave my Western wilderness travel plans to a Colorado friend. Jim Burrus has never failed to find the trail that is a lot less traveled.

He did it again in June, leading our trio into this little-known but starkly beautiful canyon south of the more popular -- and usually crowded -- Canyonlands National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Atypically heavy snowfall late into the spring in the Rocky Mountains -- and the spring run-off it was expected to generate well into June -- persuaded us to postpone our trip to Yellowstone National Park and head for drier climates.

For four days and three nights we hiked through heat and sand, over rocks and reptiles and past the well-preserved remains of Anasazi Indian civilizations that had disappeared centuries ago.

The Anasazi ruins are the primary attraction for people who venture into Grand Gulch. But because you can't drive your car or recreational vehicle right up to the front door of the sites, you'll likely only encounter the hardest-core hikers along the way.

We saw fewer than 20 hikers over four days. One of them, who had been to the canyon before, implored me not to write about the place when I returned. It would only attract more people to the ruins, she said. More artifacts would be stolen, she said.

Perhaps, but I'm skeptical. Grand Gulch is not the typical, heavily used tourist attraction. It takes some effort to get in and out.

The canyon is hot and dry, and water can be scarce. But with preparation and an above-average amount of rain in the region during the month before our visit, we managed easily.

The Grand Gulch Primitive Area is about 52 miles long, beginning near the Kane Ranger Station off Route 261 and ending near the San Juan River just northeast of where the river dumps into Lake Powell. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

We arrived at the ranger station one Sunday night after driving 450 miles from Boulder, Colo. It was too late to hit the trail, so as the sun made way for a full moon at dusk, we settled into a dinner of steaks cooked over a small grill and cold bottles of beer from Eddie McStiff's Brewery in Moab.

We slept without tents that night amid the scrub oak, under a moon bright enough to read by. Temperatures dipped into the 40s.

In the morning we registered with the ranger, left our truck in the parking lot and began the 38-mile hike toward our destination at Collins Canyon.

We carried a four-day supply of food. The stream beds were largely dry, but there was plenty of water trickling into large pools from which we drew our water, passing it through a light-weight water purifier before drinking.

We managed to cover 10-12 miles a day through the serpentine canyon. The well-worn trail began at the ranger station at an elevation of about 6,500 feet and descended very gradually to about 4,800 feet at Collins Canyon.

The trail wound from one side of the canyon to the other, down into the dry streambeds and up steep banks onto small plateaus.

During the hike I tolerated the heat, the weight of a backpack, a sore toe and a bruised ankle bone. But it was the pesky cheat grass that caused us the greatest aggravation. As we waded through it, small dart-like husks stuck to our socks and burrowed into them.

Rested near ruin

During rest stops we crawled into the shade of the canyon walls, often dropping our packs next to an Anasazi ruin.

Some of the structures have been patched in places to prevent them from crumbling.

Pottery shards, tool fragments and small corncobs scattered about the sites are slowly disappearing, pilfered by visitors who haven't the decency to leave them alone. The images the Anasazi painted on the canyon walls are fading but still visible.

The earliest known inhabitants of Grand Gulch were the Basket Makers, who were thought to have evolved from a nomadic hunting and gathering culture. The Basket Makers flourished from 200 to 600 A.D., and their culture developed into the Pueblo culture.

Sitting in the shade next to these ruins, we were quick to appreciate the Anasazi's wisdom in building where they did.

The settlements were made of rocks and mud and an occasional log, and faced south from the rock ledges on which they sat. This way they were exposed to the morning sun, but by midday when it was hottest they were entirely shaded.

"It's a hard place," Dan Reichl, the third hiker on the trip, said one day as we rested in the shade and looked into the canyon below. That was especially true during the day. The heat was draining. Temperatures were well into the 90s, but can reach 110.

We drank when we were thirsty and until we were full. Still, it barely was enough to replenish what we were sweating away.

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