Grand Gulch-Bullet Canyon
Split Level Ruin, Grand Gulch
Distance: 22.8 miles (plus 8.3 miles by car)
day 1: 4 1/4 hours
day 2: 4 hours
day 3: 5 1/4 hours
Elevations: 1,080 ft. loss, 1,040 ft. gain
• Kane Gulch Trailhead (start): 6,440 ft.
• Bullet Canyon confluence: 5,360 ft.
• Bullet Canyon Trailhead: 6,400 ft.
Trail: Parts of the trail are primitive and unmaintained, but the route is well marked and generally easy to follow. Getting out of Bullet Canyon can be tricky-especially with a heavy backpack. Inexperienced climbers may find a fifteen-foot length of rope useful for hauling packs up the slickrock in a few places.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. Spring or fall are the ideal times for this hike. The canyons are very hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The road to the Bullet Canyon Trailhead is unpaved for the last mile and may be impassible in wet weather, but it is usually okay for most cars. For current conditions call the San Juan Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, in Monticello at (801) 587-2141.
Vicinity: Near Mexican Hat and Natural Bridges National Monument
Grand Gulch is the premier area in Utah to see the ruins of the prehistoric Anasazi Indians. Their culture flourished in the canyon between 700 and 2000 years ago, and today dozens of cliff dwellings and other stone and mud structures remain to remind us of their occupancy. The most obvious ruins are from the so called Pueblo III culture of the thirteenth century, but more subtle remnants of the earlier Basketmaker culture that existed in the canyon from 200 to 700 A.D. are also present if one knows where to look.
By 1300 the Anasazi had deserted Grand Gulch and the surrounding canyons and moved southeast into the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Precisely why they left is not known for certain, but drought, depletion of natural resources, and pressure from other nomadic Indians probably all played a role. For the past seven hundred years the Anasazi homes have stood in silence, clinging to the high canyon walls and causing the occasional canyon visitor to stare in wonder.
The first known white men to see Grand Gulch were the Mormons, who crossed Cedar Mesa in 1880. Soon afterward a series of amateur archaeologists begin to arrive in search of pots and other artifacts from the ruins. Between 1890 and 1897 at least nine expeditions entered Grand Gulch to dig for artifacts. The most famous of these was lead by Richard Wetherill, a rancher from southern Colorado who sold many Anasazi artifacts to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Wetherill carved his name into the sandstone at several of the sites he excavated.
Needless to say, these early explorers did tremendous harm to the archeological record in Grand Gulch. Now, of course, it is against the law to remove artifacts from the canyons or to deface the ruins in any way. Please do not carry out pottery shards, corn cobs, flint flakes, or any other artifacts you may find laying on the ground. Also, do not climb on the ruins, and try to stay off the middens as much as possible. If everyone cooperates the wondrous Anasazi ruins of Grand Gulch will be there for many more years to come, and our children will have the opportunity to enjoy them as much as we do.
Anasazi granaries, Grand Gulch
From the top of Kane Gulch the trail meanders gently downward for 3.8 miles before reaching the bottom of Grand Gulch. You should see your first ruin high on the southern wall of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone, about an hour into the hike. This ruin is unusual in that it is on the north-facing rather than the south-facing side of the canyon. The Indians generally preferred to build their dwellings on the south-facing side where they received more winter sun.
Upon reaching the bottom of Grand Gulch you can’t miss seeing the extensive Junction Ruin slightly upstream from the confluence. This area contains many fine camping sites under the cottonwood trees, and if you got a late start you may want to consider spending the night here.
Junction is one of the largest ruins in the canyon. It must have been home to many dozens of Indians when they lived in the canyon, and the number of stone buildings is impressive. It is also located near the stream bed and is quite accessible. Unfortunately, the midden in front of the ruin has been extensively excavated by amateur archaeologists and pot hunters over the years. As a result of all the digging, thousands of pottery shards, corn cobs and flints are now scattered about the ground’s surface in front of the ruin. Enjoy the patterns and designs on them, but, again, please leave them where you find them so others can enjoy them too.
Turkey Pen Ruin, another large accessible site, is only 0.7 mile below Junction Ruin, and fifteen minutes later, if you have sharp eyes, you will see another less accessible ruin in an alcove above the cottonwood trees. Finally, 2.5 miles below Turkey Pen Ruin, you will arrive at the mouth of Todie Canyon, where I suggest you make camp.
From Todie Canyon to Bullet Canyon, the suggested camp site for the second day, you will scarcely be able to walk a half hour without seeing a ruin of some sort. By my count there are at least eleven distinct ruins sites in the 8.4 miles between the two Canyons. Sometimes they consist of only a small granary or two, and at other times they will include the remains of fifteen or twenty buildings. The first ruin is only a five minute walk from the mouth of Todie. Stay on the right side of the canyon as you walk downstream, and you will see it just as the stream bed swings around to the northeast.
The most impressive ruin in this section of the Grand Gulch is Split Level Ruin, so named because it includes a structure with two adjoining rooms, one higher than the other. Also notice, at this as well as other ruin sites, the presence of many kivas. The kivas are the low, round shaped structures, with a bench built into the wall and a fire pit near one side. The present-day Hopi Indians have similar structures in their pueblos, which leads many anthropologists to believe that they are modern descendants of the Anasazis.
As the trail approaches Bullet Canyon you will see the wide, flat-bottomed canyon opening up on the left. The trail forks at Bullet Spring. There are no signs, however, so take care not to miss the turn. There are several excellent campsites within three hundred feet of the spring as you proceed into Bullet Canyon.
If you have time after pitching camp in Bullet Canyon you may want to spend an hour backtracking to Shieks Canyon (1.4 miles upstream from Bullet in Grand Gulch). There is an excellent panel of pictographs in the back of Shieks Canyon, 15 minutes from its mouth. There is also an interesting ruin on the canyon wall immediately above the Bullet Canyon camping area, just a few hundred yards up Bullet Canyon from Grand Gulch.
Most hikers complete the loop on the third day, walking up Bullet Canyon to the trailhead above the rim. There are at least five ruins to be seen in Bullet Canyon on the way up, but the most interesting one is Jail House Ruin, 2.4 miles from the canyon mouth. You will know you have arrived at Jailhouse Ruin when you see its unique pictograph consisting of three large white circles. The circles can be seen all the way across the canyon, but archaeologists have no idea what they were meant to represent. The ruin was named Jailhouse because of a small barred hole in the wall of one of its structures. The nearby Perfect Kiva Ruin is also interesting. It contains an extraordinarily well preserved kiva with a wooded ladder leading down into its interior. There are no restrictions against entering the kiva, but please take care not to damage it in any way.
As you proceed further up the canyon it soon narrows and becomes much more rocky. There are no ruins in upper Bullet Canyon, at least not that I was able to see. The canyon bottom is completely unsuitable for farming here, so if the Indians did build any dwellings they would most likely be near the top of the rim. As you approach the top of the rim you will be walking on slickrock part of the time, and there are some areas where a bit of scrambling will be necessary. A short piece of rope is useful for lifting backpacks in one or two places, so that you can climb unencumbered. Be sure to watch for rock cairns in the places where the canyon splits.
About ten minutes before you reach the top of the rim look up on the north side at a square masonry tower that was built by the Anasazis on the very edge of the rim. Why would the Indians build a dwelling in such an exposed place? Perhaps it was a watch tower or a monitoring station to keep track of who was descending into the gulch. The parking area is about a quarter mile beyond the square tower ruin.