Bryce to Bears Ears: Part 7

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(previous: The Mysterious Moqui Canyon || next: Upper Grand Gulch to The Bears Ears)

Part 7: Into the Grand Gulch

May 11, 2021
Day 22

Set out in the morning walking along the road. I avoid road walking as much as possible, but on occasion it’s just the best way to connect points A to B. At least the scenery was pretty nice along this stretch and it wasn’t too hot. I was concerned about water along this segment, but luckily 1) I helped myself to some “cow water” which I found in a tank just off the road and 2) a nice couple from St. George saw me walking and stopped to chat and gave me some PowerAde and a frozen water bottle. Made the six-mile stretch go that much faster. Soon I could even see the Bears Ears up ahead up on the horizon.

But I wasn’t headed directly to the Bears Ears. Instead I would leave the highway near the top of Red Canyon and divert over to the Grand Gulch. I was headed toward the Collins Spring Trailhead. The road to it actually runs from the NW, but as I was coming from the south I decided to try to get there via going cross-county so I left the highway and headed that direction.

I knew Steer Gulch was between me and Collins TH, but I picked a line which looked feasible based on the topo map. I accidently drifted somewhat farther south than intended and when I got to Steer Gulch I found a sheer drop and no way to get down.

I decided to walk the rim north until I could find a way down in. It took a bit longer than expected; it was about a mile and then finally I found a way down in and backtracked back down the wash. In hindsight — I think I could have gotten down just south of where I originally intersected the canyon. Finding a way out the eastern side of the canyon was fairly easy and soon I was back up on top and headed toward the trailhead.

The  path of least resistance took me a little north of the actual trailhead. But, I noticed the waterworks there and wanted to check them out. Up the wash from the trailhead and the historical spring location, ranchers have developed a solar well which pumped to 3 different tanks. I stopped in the shade here and took a break for a snack and to filter some more water.

There was a sign that warned that all activities were recorded at this location to aid in the prosecution of any crimes committed. I didn’t think much of it until… an obnoxious alarm started blaring and a voice came over a loud speaker “Can I help you?”. 😱  The alarm soon went silent and I explained that I was just a long-distance hiker grabbing some water from the spring and meant no harm. The voice seemed almost as surprised to be talking with me as I was to him. He said that he wasn’t sure that the water was good to drink as it wasn’t meant for that. I explained I was going to filter it and was only grabbing about a half a gallon. He said “OK” and we chit-chatted just a bit, but then that was that. Very strange.

Soon I headed down the wash and connected with the official trail into the Grand Gulch. The route dropped fairly quickly bypassing a few dryfalls and I was soon walled in by the amazing Cedar Mesa sandstone.

It’s right at two miles to the junction of Grand Gulch proper. There was definitely a sense of awe for me being in this spot. It’s a place that had been on my “list” for a loooooong time, so it felt good to finally be here. From what I’d read it’s heralded as one of the best “museums” for the cultures that lived here 1000+ years ago — so I was excited to take it all in.

I began by dropping my bag along the dry streambed and headed south downcanyon on a short side trip. I wanted to check out out “The Narrows” — the narrowest section of the entire Grand Gulch. It’s really just a short section where the stream (when running) has cut a “slot” through the sandstone wall creating a huge abandoned meander.

After a few photos and some video, I went off to find some rock art nearby. According to my notes there was a good panel just south of the Narrows, but… I couldn’t find it! I went up into the lower end of the abandoned meander and followed several use trails that looked promising, but… nothing. The trails mainly led to potential camp sites, but no rock art. I tried going down the main canyon a bit farther — but still found zilch. So… I returned to the Narrows and then went up the abandoned meander’s top side. All of this was pretty exhausting work as the wash itself was cut fairly deep compared to the nearby rockwalls where the rockart would be. So, each attempt took a bit of effort, but finally… I find my first panel! And… there was more to be found along the entire wall.

After enjoying the panel for a while I made my way back to the Narrows and then headed back up the canyon to where I left my pack. Then… I headed up the canyon as it curved around one bend after the next. Soon I was at another “cut” through sandstone where there is another major abandoned meander. Looking at the map one can spot several of these. I continued up to the supposed location of another rock art panel and again found nothing! I wasn’t sure if I did have my “eyes” yet, or if my notes were wrong, or what! I was definitely already a bit frustrated at this point and as it was late so I decided to find a place to camp. Then… it dawned on me that I hadn’t really seen any good places to camp for a while either. The wash itself was nice and open and sandy — but the nearby banks were covered in thick brush. I didn’t want to camp right in the wash. It’s typically not safe idea and also it’s where other hikers would possibly be walking early in the morning. As I went farther the conditions seemed to be getting worse so I turned around and retreated to the second abandoned meander where there was a bit more open space. It wasn’t ideal, but I finally found a place to camp.

DAY 23

Headed up the canyon I noticed a granary up high on the southern wall approximately where my notes indicated it should be. My notes said “accessible” and this one didn’t appear to be, but I didn’t take the time to find out. Around another bendy bend in the canyon I came to a panel of rock art. It was in pretty bad shape, but had some interesting figures.

Continuing up canyon I passed the approximate area where Bannister Spring was to be located and the wash was still bone dry. The ruin by the same name was a bit farther up the canyon so in my mind I thought that that is where I would find water as well. In less than 10 minutes of walking I was there and at first glance the dwellings looked cool, but I was distracted by the fact that there was still no water to be found. I dropped my bag and decided to walk back down the canyon with just my empty water bladder to find the precise location of the spring as indicated on the map and there was NOTHING. On the way back I hugged the rock wall inside the wall of brush that ran along the wash hoping to find some sort of seep, but again nothing. Back at my pack I did a quick audit of my water and I still had plenty, but… if more noted water sources were found to be dry it would be problematic to say the least. I went ahead and checked out the Bannister House Ruin high above and the kiva found below on ground level. There were also some rock art and pottery sherds at the site.

As I continued slogging my way up the dry canyon I realized it didn’t look like water EVER flowed in this section. It was tedious walking as I trudged upward through 2-3″ deep pebble-sand. There canyon walls still rose high above, but much of the scenery was hidden from view by the tree tunnel that I was now enclosed in.

When I got to the junction with Deer Creek it was still completely dry. Here I decided to drop my bag again and do a side exploration. There was supposedly a spring about 1/2 mile up the canyon, so I thought it would be prudent to go check it out. Even though there was to be anther spring in the main canyon about a mile farther up — I thought I should take this opportunity. There was also supposedly another ancestral site in this side canyon so that too made the side trip worth some effort.

Headed up the canon I got to the location of the spring and… it was dry. There was a bunch of grass and vegetation, but no water. I was getting a little bit worried at this point as I hadn’t seen ANY water since leaving Collins Spring. I continued on up the canyon hoping maybe there would be a seep or tank father up where the canyon seemed to narrow. I was going to give it another 15 minutes of walking up the canyon, but in less than 10 I rounded a corner and there was a huge outbreak of water.

I took a break here in the shade to relax as I filled up all my jugs again. Then I headed back down the canyon and then set up a batch of water in the gravity filter as I went off to explore the side canyon of Deer Creek where the ancestral site was to be located. I found it just around the bend and though it was in pretty bad shape, there was still a lot to see.

Back in the main canyon I continued trudging up the tree tunnel. Before long I was at the next supposed water source — a spring just below the Big Pour Off. Again… there was no spring to be found, but instead just thick vegetation the tiniest of mudholes in the wash itself. I could see the Big Pour Off ahead though and it looked like there was a tank there. Sure enough — when I got closer I saw it was a quite large tank. There was a 8′ branch in the pool and I used it to feel for the bottom. To my surprise — I never did touch bottom, so it really was a deep pool!

An easy bypass took me up and around the pour off and I picked up a trail short-cutting the bend above the drop. Along the way I spotted a ruin but didn’t stop to really investigate. Then about 5 minutes later there a granary just off the trail — so this one I stopped to check out.

Soon I was back slogging in the sandy wash. Occasionally there would be a break in the trees and I could get a glimpse of the canyon walls and at a few such spots I could spot granaries or other sites up high. Most of this section is really entrenched so the wash is 8-10′ below the bench and vegetation above. A few times there would be trails leaving the wash and heading up into the brush as an possible short-cut around a bench. Sometimes these went through, but more often than not they disappeared into a maze of dense brush. I don’t think this part of the canyon gets enough traffic to really create a good use trail. So, on more than one occasion I’d get completely blocked and frustrated and just retreat to the wash and continue slogging up the long way.

At one such bend I spotted a ruin on the opposite bend. It looked good with a big dwelling and nearby rock art. So I climbed back down into the wash and found a way to climb out the other side and get to the site. When I finally got there I realized what looked like rock art from a distance was just erosion on the wall, but the ruin itself was interesting with crossbeams and windows. Much of the dwelling was charred by a fire and in hindsight I think this is the site Kelsey refers to as the “Black House”.

I continued up the canyon finding no more water along the way. There were more opportunities for side-hikes to potential sites, but by this time I was already experiencing “ruin fatigue”.  There really is SO much to see in this canyon — it seems like every bend of canyon has something (and there are a LOT of bends). But, each location takes a moderate amount of effort to leave the main canyon and climb up and investigate and some are relative duds IMHO. It’s a funny phenomenon as in most places ANY ancestral site would be awesome to see, but here there are so many that one gets fatigued and selective. I decided to keep walking until I got to the next major site — “Big Ruin”. Once in the area I again climbed out of the wash and crossed through a sagebrush field. At first I didn’t see anything, but then up high on the wall just a farther up canyon I saw the structures.

I dropped my bag and climbed up to explore more. It was a bit of a climb and I stopped just short of getting onto the same level as the multi-structure site. Looking back down I spotted another dwelling on the lower level near where I dropped my pack — I walked right by it evidently completely focused on the higher dwellings. I’d check it out on the way down.

As the sun had already gone down I decided to just camp among the sagebrush in this field. I hadn’t seen many open areas nearby, so thought this spot would do for my simple needs.

DAY 24

Headed up around the bend in the morning and soon was near the area known as Pollys Island — another large abandoned meander. There are supposedly several more ancestral sites in the meander, but I didn’t take the time to explore. I was happy to see a few small potholes of water in the main canyon though. They weren’t great looking, but it was a good sign. I decided to not get water, but instead walk another 5 minutes up canyon to the main junction with Pollys Canyon where there was supposedly a spring just up the side canyon. At the junction I ran into a group of four nice hikers from Idaho. They were the first people I’d seen since entering the Grand Gulch (actually… they were the first people I’d seen since leaving the highway and the first HIKERS since Halls Creek Narrows eight days prior!) They told me the spring in Pollys Canyon was DRY. They also said according to recent reports the known sources up the canyon were dry as well. The only potential good source was thought to be at Green Mask Spring, but they hadn’t gotten confirmation of this as they were just doing an out-and-back hike and not going that far up canyon. With this added bit of info I went back to the small potholes nearby and filled up!

I continued up the canyon. I was straining to get a view through the tree-tunnel to get a glimpse of the “Natural Arch” marked on the map. I finally got a view of it. Glad I saw it — though it really wasn’t that impressive and I’m somewhat surprised it earned a designation on the map.

Along this stretch the cottonwood “fluffies” filled the air. This is a fairly common occurrence in the spring and is really magical when the air captures them just right and they seem to fill a canyon. Hard to capture in a picture (see the video for a slightly  better view of this).

Just a bit farther up canyon I saw a steep trail climbing out the canyon on the right. I took it as I knew I was near the bend of the Big Man rock art panel. Sure enough the trail crossed the bench and then began climbing a cairned route up toward the canyon’s upper walls. Soon I was at the amazing site. This was the site that I was most excited to see in the Grand Gulch. I didn’t have an exact location marked on my maps, so I was a bit anxious about finding the spot — especially after a few fails earlier in the canyon. BUT… I found it and it was really great.

As with many of the popular sites, I found a ammo box here with a guest register and an informative pamphlet about the site. I’m glad I took the time to read it here because I learned that the figure that I’d always assumed to be the Big Man — was actually the Big Woman! Of the two large figures the man is actually seemingly shorter and on the right. The Big Woman is adorned in jewelry and patterned clothing and the Big Man is naked (confirmed with an inspection of his “private” area which here is NOT so private!) The pamphlet also pointed out how the figures were comprised of handprints and the existence of additional figures to the left which are hard to see as they are extremely faded.

I spent about 30 minutes at this great site. After climbing back down and into the wash I realized the panel is visible from the wash to the north of the site (thus probably much easier to find for those hiking DOWN the canyon.)

Continuing up canyon I was approaching another named site on my map — the Long House Ruin. Before getting to the where I expected it to be, there was a well-worn trail climbing up the steep bank to the west. I dropped my bag and went to explore wondering if the Long House was maybe inaccessible from farther up. Turns out… I was at a different site entirely. There was a granary with an amazing ceiling. I dubbed it the “Lightening House” as I tend to make up my own names. I’ve mentioned it before that Edward Abby disliked this impulse of many people, but I can’t help myself! The site also included a bunch of rock art — much of it appeared to be from the Archaic People with bold thick lines and zig-zag patterns.

I returned to my pack in the watch and continued up just another 5 minutes or so to another trail exiting the wash — this time it did indeed lead to the Long House. This site definitely included a long ruin with several collapsed rooms and more rock art on the walls. It’s possible to walk through this non-enclosed site, but if you do… always remember to be extremely careful and do not touch anything.

From the Long House there’s a nice view back down the canyon and to another “Natural Arch” marked on the map. This one is more impressive and is actually just above the previous site that I’d visited.

Continuing up the canyon I passed the site of the Parade Panel.

It looked like a large cool panel, but I didn’t investigate if there was a way to climb up and get a better look (if there was one, it wasn’t obvious.) Again I was starting to feel the rock art/ruin fatigue. There’s just so much to see here and each site takes effort to leave the main wash and climb up to explore. I realized I was going SO slowly as I worked my way up the canyon. Looking at the map from the previous day I realized that I’d only made it 2.5 “as-the-crow-flies” miles between my campsites for the previous days. BUT… accordingly to my Fitbit I actually walked 17 miles to connect those two camps! There canyons are incredibly sinuous here and there’s so much up/down side excursions to see the sites — it really is a lot of work.  With this in mind I ended up skipping several side canyons along this stretch. I hindsight I somewhat regret it because I know there are several good sites that I missed (Cow Tank, Dripping, and Step Canyons), but… if I did it all I might have been there for another week!

Soon I took a break and while enjoying a CLIF bar heard voices up ahead. I expected them to walk by me any minute, but to my surprise they never did. When I got up and continued walking I ran into the source of the voices — two older guys who had also just happened to stop for a break. Actually, they’d decided to camp there for the night next to some big boulders in dry wash. We chatted for a while and they informed me the canyon was nearly completely dry ahead. They said that there were two small pools of water just downstream from Bullet Canyon. They admitted that neither looked that great, but the smaller of the two was probably OK to drink. Then one of the guys actually gave me one of his small bottles of water. I refused at first, but he insisted. He was carrying ALL of his water for the entire trip and thought he packed too much so he was happy to share. He had 3.5 gallons of water all in 12oz bottles! They were only going to be out for 2 nights and his buddy had a filter if needed (I told them about the source near Pollys).

Around the next bend was the site of Two-Story Ruin — another great site. I climbed up to check it out and it ended up probably being the best site I’d seen thus far.

While at the site I pondered how a canyon which is completely dry can support so much vegetation.

NOTE: after returning from my hike and doing more research on the Grand Gulch, I learned that the canyon isn’t always as dry as what I experienced. The drought in southeastern Utah over the last decade or so has really impacted the region. What used to be a decent intermittent stream is now almost non-existent and 2021 in particular year was extremely dry with most of the semi-reliable sources dried up.

I climbed down and began looking for a place to camp and found none in the immediate area. This was beginning to become a nightly frustration in the Gulch. Though there are some nice established camping areas close to some of the sites, but most of the canyon floor is covered in thick brush making camping impossible. Around a bend farther up I escaped the tree-tunnel wash again and finally found a clearing and called it a night. I enjoyed the stars that night.

DAY 25

Got up and climbed back down into the tree-tunnel wash and continued hiking up the canyon.

Soon I passed the feature known as the Totem Pole. Luckily there was a break in the brush to get a glimpse of it.

Totem Pole


Just up from here was a dark, dank pool that the group from Idaho told me to watch for. They said it looked like oil sludge, but might be potable if desperate. Well, I found it and it smelled REALLY bad so I decided that I was not that desperate. I was near the junction with Green Spring Canyon and there was supposed to be a spring about 1/3 mile up this side canyon near a ruin. The Idaho group warned me this too was dry, but I thought I’d check it out. Sure enough… the area was dry and from what I saw of the ancestral site it wasn’t that great. But, I continued up the main canyon still hopeful for the water near Bullet Canyon the two guys told me about.

As I neared the junction of Bullet I was getting anxious, but the wash was still completely dry. Then I finally came to a small pool of opaque milky blue water. It didn’t look good, but I was encouraged there was water and the guys had told me the SECOND pool going up canyon would likely be the better source, so I continued on. BUT… in 5 minutes walking there was nothing. 10 minutes, still nil. Then after 15 minutes I was at the junction of Bullet and it was all still dry. So, somehow I missed the second pool or I missed the first pool and what I saw was the second. Either way I was not encouraged by what I’d found, but decided to drop my pack and go back for the water. After nearly 15 minutes back to original pool I saw a tiny pool that I’d missed before… and there was a big Gopher Snake at it getting a drink.

This was definitely the “probably good” pool the guys had described as it was smaller and the water was clear though it was filled with bugs (just as they’d described.) BUT… it was TINY and if I took what I needed it would almost drain the pool, so instead I opted to go back to the first pool. As I grabbed water from this pool I could immediately tell that it too had a foul, sulfuric smell to it. I hoped it would taste OK once filtered. After carrying about a gallon back to where I left my pack I ran some through the filter and tried it out — and it was terrible! I gagged trying to drink it. I poured most of it out, but left 1 liter in case of emergency. I still had about 1/2 gallon of good water on me. The situation was getting concerning, but was far from dire. I could exit the canyon here via Bullet Canyon. There’s potential water up this side canyon, and if not the route leads to a popular trailhead and eventually the road. BUT… instead I decided to push on. I was still hopeful for the Green Mask Spring site which was just a few miles farther up the canyon. If it turned out to be dry as well — then I’d have to reconsider continuing up the canyon.

I continued up the main canyon still entrenched in the tree-tunnel. I was glad to be mostly shaded though as the sun was blazing and things were warming up. Before too long I got to the junction of Sheiks Canyon — the side canyon home to Green Mask Spring and ancestral site. I headed up it about about 1/2 mile and blew right past the archaeological site only interesting in finding water in this moment. And then… the most glorious sight, water running down over slickrock!

I continued up another five minutes to find a nice large pool of clear water. I filtered some right away and it was great! I filled up my gravity filter to work as I went off to explore the ruins and rock art nearby. I’d end up filling all my jugs here — so about 1.5 gallons worth. My only container which didn’t get filled was the 1L of “sulfur water” which I left with my pack back down in the main canyon (and promptly poured out later!)

Fully hydrated and not worried about water I was able to enjoy the Green Mask Site — and what a great site it was! The pamphlet here informed me that this site was thought to be home to multiple generations of peoples spanning thousands of years. There is evidence of the Archaic People at this site which possibly dates back to 7,000 years ago as well as that of the Basketmaker culture which dates back to about 1500 years ago. There’s an eerie theme with the rock art here of many headless figures. High above on the far end is the namesake of the site — the Green Mask pictograph which is predominately green with read and yellow stripes. All-in-all this is definitely one of the more interesting sites I’ve seen in southern Utah.

Back in the main canyon and continuing north I notice a change in the environment. Soon the tree-tunnel wasn’t as prevalent and I could actually see more of the canyon walls surrounding me. This allowed me to check out some cool rock formations including a balanced rock and the spire known as The Thumb. Also, the canyon wasn’t as sinuous, thus I began making better time across the map instead of walking back-and-forth in seemingly never-ending bends of the canyon.  I also noticed the frequency of good/established camping site was also on the rise.

Soon the sun had set behind the canyon walls and I spotted a good-looking camp area just off the trail. I decide to throw down the pack and make it home fore the night. Once I had the tent up I went to explore a nearby alcove and found… the twin granaries.

It was a good way to end the day and back at camp which was free from the brush I was able to enjoy the stars again in the incredible night sky. Maybe I was just happy to be filled up on water once again, but things were looking up here in the “upper” part of the Grand Gulch.

Check out the full photo gallery below or continue reading the next section… Upper Grand Gulch to The Bears Ears.

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