Big Man Pictographs
Big Man Pictograph Panel
Distance: 10.6 miles (round trip)
Walking time: 6 1/4 hours
Elevations: 620 ft. loss/gain
• Government Trailhead: 5,370 ft.
• Grand Gulch: 5,050 ft.
Trail: The first 2.8 miles of trail is actually an old jeep road that has been closed to vehicles by the BLM. The 0.8 mile section of trail that descends from the canyon rim into Grand Gulch is a good trail. The remainder of the route is an easy walk through the bottom of Grand Gulch.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. Spring or fall are the ideal times for this hike. The canyon is very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The road to the car parking area is unpaved for the last 9 miles and may be impassible in wet weather. For current conditions call the San Juan Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, in Monticello at (801) 587-2141.
Vicinity: Near Mexican Hat
Before you begin this hike, pause to examine the small pond near the car parking area. The pond is an oasis in the middle of a largely waterless tableland. Although it was constructed originally by local ranchers for the purpose of watering their cattle, it has since become a haven for birds, deer, and coyotes. If you arrived too late in the day to begin your hike, the pond is a delightful place to spend the night. One starry, spring evening while I was camped there I was treated to an unforgettable outdoor performance by a local orchestra of very talented frogs and birds. The concert began at dusk, with a few bass frogs tuning up their instruments, and as the night wore on they were joined by a variety of birds and insects and even an occasional coyote yipping from a nearby hill. By about 10:00 p.m. the musicians all seemed to be doing their utmost to outdo each other, and although none of them could be seen I am sure they could be heard at least a mile away.
Years ago it was possible to drive a jeep from the cattle pond all the way to the rim of Grand Gulch, where the Government Trail begins. The Grand Gulch is now designated as a Primitive Area, however, and the road beyond the pond is closed to all vehicles. Getting to Government Trail today requires a 2.8 mile walk along the former jeep road. The walk can be hot in the summer, but it is not without a measure of scenery. The road parallels Pollys Canyon, across a flat, open forest of juniper and pinion pine and lots of sagebrush. It is ideal rabbit country and, consequently, supports a large population of coyotes. After an hour’s walk the road suddenly arrives at the canyon rim, where a weathered wooden sign identifies the Government Trailhead.
The view from the rim into Grand Gulch is magnificent. Pollys Island, a huge piece of the mesa separated from the canyon walls by a dry meander in the streambed, rises directly to the east, while up and down the Gulch the bright green canyon floor borders the pink, convoluted walls of Cedar Mesa Sandstone. Government Trail is only 0.8 mile long, and is the easiest of any of the five trails leading into Grand Gulch. It was probably built in the 1930s by the CCC workers to provide a way for ranchers to get cattle in and out of the canyon. The trail reaches the canyon floor at the base of Pollys Island, 0.2 mile south of the confluence with Pollys Canyon.
Once on the canyon floor it is an easy walk up the flat streambed of Grand Gulch to the Big Man Pictograph Panel. The Gulch is particularly pretty in this section, and there are numerous nice places to camp if you are so inclined. If you are observant you should be able to spot a small natural arch high on the east wall of the Gulch near the confluence with Pollys Canyon, and there are at least two Anasazi ruins on the canyon’s west side as you approach Big Man.
The Big Man Panel is about 200 feet above the canyon floor and it is not visible from the trail, so it is easy to miss if you are not paying attention to the map. About 1.2 miles upstream from Pollys Canyon you will see another large side canyon coming into Grand Gulch from the east. Beyond this point the streambed swings around to the west to get around a bulge in the canyon’s eastern wall. The Big Man Pictograph Panel is located precisely at the apex of this bulge, where the streambed straightens out again and then swings back to the east. If you watch carefully as you walk this section of the trail you should see footprints where other hikers have left the trail to climb up to the pictographs. The main trail follows the east side of the streambed in this area. If you see the trail crossing back to the west side it means you have gone too far.
When you see the pictograph panel it will become obvious why it was named Big Man. The central focus of the art is two life size human figures, one of which appears to be a woman and the other obviously a man. There is also a pictograph of a woman carrying a baby. But for me the most interesting part of the artwork is the signature handprints of the artists. Many pictographs of the Southwest include such handprints. The Big Man Pictographs were probably made by the Anasazi people who resided in Grand Gulch between 200 and 1300 A.D., but they could have been made much earlier than that. Archeologists have long been frustrated by the fact that no method now exists for accurately dating such art.
Content provided by David Day of utahtrails.com. Click here to order his book Utah’s Favorite Hiking Trails.