Trip Reports: Grand Gulch Loop Hike, Utah - October 2009

Over three days and two nights this October I went on a ~25 mile loop hike from Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. I hiked down Todie Canyon, to Grand Gulch, then out Bullet Canyon. Most of the way the hike passes through dramatic canyon scenery with vertical cliffs and dramatic rock formations. But the highlights were without doubt the numerous ancient ruins and pictographs along the way.

The Thumb, Grand Gulch, Utah, canyon, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

The Thumb

This scene about halfway through my journey in Grand Gulch is typical of the terrain and scenery during the trip: steep canyon walls and interesting rock formations, with cottonwoods, sage, and other brambly bushes in the flat canyon floor in between. 

Pictographs, Grand Gulch, Utah, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Sheiks Pictographs

Pictographs on the canyon wall. Keep in mind that these are basically in the middle of nowhere, in the desert wilderness, so it’s really something to see this here and to imagine people living in this area. Don’t quote me on the specifics, but the various pictographs in this long inhabited location near a reliable spring range in age from 2000-600 years old.

Pictographs, Grand Gulch, Utah, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Sheiks Pictographs 2

Some of the imagery on these pictographs has faded away with time; supposedly the human figures used to have heads with elaborate headdresses.

Sheiks Canyon, Grand Gulch, Utah, stars, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Sheiks Stars

Stars above a high canyon wall over my campsite. I took this 60-second exposure while laying comfortably in my sleeping bag.

Grand Gulch, Utah, ruin, cottonwoods, canyon, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Hidden Ruin

A hidden ruin overlooks colorful autumn cottonwoods on the canyon floor. I saw at least a dozen ruin sites during my hike, and who knows how many more I missed along the way. Many of the ruins are perched high up on inaccessible canyon walls; others like this one are more easily accessed with a bit of slickrock scrambling.

Kiva, Perfect Kiva, Grand Gulch, Utah, ruin, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

This was my favorite ruin site I saw during my trip in Grand Gulch - a perfectly preserved kiva set in an overhanging cliff amphitheater. I’d imagine that the overhanging cliff site not only provided safety from attacks from above, but also provided natural shelter from the sun, and occasional rain.

Kiva, interior, Grand Gulch, Utah, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Supposedly this kiva was discovered intact in the 1890s, but by the 1970s the roof was starting to collapse. Restoration efforts were undertaken to reinforce the roof so now you can go down inside. It felt calm, cool, and comfortable in there, and interestingly it smelled really good too!

Grand Gulch, kiva, Utah, moonlight, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Kiva Dusk

Moonlight illuminates this ancient kiva near Grand Gulch.

Grand Gulch, kiva, Utah, night, Bears Ears National Monument, photo

Night Kiva

It’s strange enough just being in the desert canyon wilderness to begin with, but when I was at these kiva ruins this evening I could feel the mysterious caveman essence of it all. I tried some interesting lighting effects to try to portray the scene as it may have looked if people still inhabited the site.

I got the foreground glow by shining my headlamp on the cliff wall behind me – during the 60 second exposure the indirect light provided nice bounce light to softly illuminate the scene. I combined that exposure with another one where I climbed down the ladder and shined the lamp around the interior of the kiva to provide that glow, as if people were inside.