Anasazi artifacts in Mule Canyon
Distance: 10.0 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 420 ft. gain/loss
• Mule Canyon Trailhead (start): 5,980 ft.
• camp site: 6,180 ft.
• Upper Mule Canyon: 6,400 ft.
Trail: There is an unmaintained trail throughout most of Mule Canyon. In some places it may be hard to follow, but if you loose it just follow the canyon bottom. There is very little scrambling and the brush is minimal. You should wear wettable footwear, however, as it is frequently necessary to cross the stream bed.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. The canyon is quite hot in midsummer and cold in winter. The ideal times for this hike are spring and fall. For current conditions call the San Juan Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management, in Monticello at (801) 587-2141.
Vicinity: Near Blanding and Natural Bridges National Monument
This hike could easily be done in one day instead of two, but there is so much to see you will want to take your time and make many stops along the way. The main attractions are the Anasazi Indian ruins that can be seen under the cliffs on the north side of the canyon.
The Anasazis occupied this area for about 550 years between 750 and 1300 A.D. They were a peaceful people who farmed the canyon lands throughout the four corners area, and, judging from the number of archeological sites they left behind, their population was substantial. In the last half of the thirteenth century the Anasazi people began to leave places like Mule Canyon, and by 1300 their communities had been completely abandoned. Why? A long drought that plagued the southwest between 1276 and 1299 was undoubtedly a major factor. Some archeologist believe another factor was the southern migration of Navajos and other nomadic tribes that came into the region at about that time.
The ruins you will see in Mule Canyon are between seven and nine hundred years old. They are not part of any National Park, Monument, or Wilderness Area, and they have never been excavated or restored in any way. The opportunity to discover these ruins in this wild setting, with no rangers around telling you how to behave, is what makes Mule Canyon such an exciting place. But with that freedom comes great responsibility. The ruins are a precious national treasure and should be treated as such. View them with awe, but please do not deface them in any way, and do not steal any of the pottery shards or other artifacts you may find around them. Preserve them so that others may also experience the magic of the canyon.
At the point where the trail enters Mule Canyon, the rim is only about 60 feet above the creek bed. The surrounding pinion-juniper forest is typical of the environment where Indian ruins are often found, but initially no ruins are evident. As you walk up the canyon it will begin to deepen, and you will notice occasional alcoves that have been eroded under the sandstone cliffs. These alcoves are the kinds of places often chosen by the Anasazis for their homes. Pay particular attention to the north side of the canyon as you proceed. The ancient Indians preferred to live on the north side because it receives more sun during the winter.
Finally, after walking about 1.3 miles, you should see your first ruin. It is only about 100 feet from the trail on the north side, but it is partially hidden by the trees and easy to miss. This ruin consists of about 5 rooms, some of which are very well preserved. From this point on, if you are observant, you should see at least one or two ruins for every mile of the trail.
As you continue up the canyon you will notice the forest gradually changing from pinion and juniper to Ponderosa pine. A good place to camp is at a junction, about 3.7 miles from the trailhead, where two small side canyons meet Mule Canyon and the canyon floor becomes much wider. Here the forest is primarily Ponderosa pine and the canyon floor is open and flat. Also, there is a nice ruin to explore about 200 feet above the creek bed on the north side.
Using your camp site as a base, you will want to explore further up Mule Canyon, and also check some of its small side canyons before heading back. I saw a total of eight ruin sites in Mule Canyon, four of which were above the camp site, but with some determination I am sure many more can be found. Be sure to check out the three short side canyons above the camp site coming into Mule Canyon from the north. Mule Canyon itself continues for about three miles beyond the camping area before arriving at the top of the rim, but don’t expect to find too many ruins in the last mile. The higher reaches of the canyon were probably too cold for permanent Indian settlements.