Anasazi granary in lower Fish Creek Canyon
Distance: 16.1 miles (loop)
Elevations: 1,340 ft. loss/gain
• Owl and Fish Creek Trailhead: 6,180 ft.
• Owl and Fish Creek Confluence: 4,840 ft.
Trail: The trail is primitive and unmaintained, but it is well marked with rock cairns and easy to follow. Getting in and out of the canyons can be tricky-especially with a heavy pack. A twenty-foot piece of rope is useful for lowering backpacks down one small ledge at the top of Fish Creek Canyon.
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 trailhead is unpaved for the last five miles 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
Southeastern Utah has one of the largest concentrations of Anasazi Indian ruins in the United States, and the area around Owl Creek and Fish Creek is one of the best places to see them. Most of the ruins in these two canyons are, unfortunately, located high on the cliffs in inaccessible alcoves. They are not generally obvious to the casual observer, and many hikers complete the loop having seen only one or two ruins. There is one excellent site, however, which is right on the trail in Owl Creek Canyon, so everyone can be assured of seeing at least one ruin site.
You will have better luck in finding the Anasazi ruins if you know where to look. First, bear in mind that these canyons are cold in the wintertime, and the inhabitants preferred to build their homes where they could get as much winter sunshine as possible. That means on the south-facing, or north side of the canyon. Rarely will you see a ruin on the south side of a canyon. Second, the Indians tended to live as close as possible to the land they were farming; consequently there are more ruins in those areas where the canyon bottom is wide and flat. In places where the canyon bottom is too narrow or rocky the Indians farmed above the rim, and in those locations the ruins will be nearer to the top. When looking for cliff dwellings it helps to have a small pair of lightweight binoculars. I spotted seven ruin sites the first time I walked this loop, but two or three of them would have been impossible to identify without binoculars.
Indian ruins are not the only attraction this hike has. There is also plenty of interesting scenery-especially in Owl Creek Canyon. The reddish colored Cedar Mesa Sandstone has been carved into an eye-catching display of pinnacles and spires, and at least three natural arches. Nevills Arch, about half way up Owl Creek Canyon, is particularly impressive. There are also a number of fine camp sites in both canyons-particularly near the confluence.
The loop can be walked in either direction. The ranger station recommends that hikers go down Owl Creek Canyon first, primarily because the trail down from the rim of Fish Creek Canyon is rather steep and rocky, and it is easier to climb out of that canyon with a pack than to climb into it. Personally, however, I feel it is best to go down Fish Creek first and exit through Owl Creek Canyon. I prefer that direction, first, because the trail in upper Fish Creek Canyon is sometimes vague, and one can easily miss the turn where the trail starts up to the rim. Second, there is more to see in Owl Creek Canyon, and I like to save the best for last.
From the parking area walk north on a well-trodden path for 1.7 miles to the edge of Fish Creek Canyon. The canyon rim, incidentally, is a good place to camp if you are getting off to a late start. Before dropping below the rim look carefully along the bottom of the cliffs on the opposite side of Fish Creek Canyon, and if you have sharp eyes you may spot your first ruin. The remains of a small, square, stone dwelling with a door on the right side are located there. The structure is quite far away, and with the unaided eye it is difficult to positively identify it as man-made. But with binoculars you will be able to see the telltale pattern of brick work and the log beams that once supported the roof.
Shortly after leaving the rim the trail comes to a ten-foot ledge that can be troublesome getting down with a backpack. The best way to negotiate this obstacle, especially if you are hiking alone, is to lower your pack to the bottom with a short piece of rope before climbing down. The remainder of the trail down to the canyon floor is quite steep and rocky, but well marked with stone cairns. Take care not to twist an ankle. Once you reach the canyon floor the walking is much easier.
There are not as many Indian ruins in upper Fish Creek Canyon as their are along Owl Creek; hence the 7.9 mile walk down Fish Creek to the confluence with Owl Creek is rather uneventful. I was only able to see one other cliff dwelling along this section of the hike. The canyon is quite rugged, however, and there is some interesting scenery. There are also at least two unnamed natural arches in upper Fish Creek Canyon, but unless you watch the canyon walls carefully you may not see both of them. As you approach the confluence the canyon widens, the juniper forest thins out, and more cottonwood trees can be seen. The best camp sites are in the immediate vicinity of the confluence.
If you have time after pitching camp you may want to leave your pack behind and continue down into lower Fish Creek Canyon for a few miles. The canyon floor is wide and flat in this area and the walking is fast and easy along a good trail. There are a lot of ruins along lower Fish Creek, some of them quite well preserved and easy to get to. This area was probably extensively farmed by the Anasazis. The first ruin in lower Fish Creek Canyon is located just above the confluence with McCloyd Canyon, about a half-hour walk from Owl Creek. Look to the left as the trail crosses a grassy meadow under a large, partially fallen cottonwood tree. It is not too difficult to climb up to this ruin, and a few pottery shards are still visible near it. Please don’t remove anything, however. Such artifacts have far more meaning if they are seen in the wild where their original owners left them than they could ever have in your private collection. And the thousands of others who will come into the canyons after you will be equally delighted to see the 700-year-old treasures. There are several other ruins in lower Fish Creek Canyon, and also in McCloyd Canyon. You may want to spend an extra day in the area to examine them.
Today will be spent climbing out of Owl Creek Canyon. The first half of the trail is flat and easy, through an area that was undoubtedly farmed by the Anasazis. Again, the canyon walls have been carved into an impressive array of columns and monoliths that stand like sentinels above the canyon. The most impressive geologic formation, however, is Nevills Arch, located 2.0 miles above the confluence. This huge arch, high on the canyon’s north side, would be impressive in any setting, but seeing it in the wilderness of Owl Creek Canyon is especially memorable. There are at least three Anasazi cliff dwellings within a half-mile of the arch, and its presence surely played an important role in their lives. It is a pity that today we know nothing of what the arch meant to the canyon people, or even what they called it.
Soon after Nevills Arch the canyon narrows, and the trail passes several small waterfalls as it slowly winds its way upward. There is usually not enough water in Owl Creek to present much of a spectacle at the falls, but they generally have at least a little water flowing over them. Two of the falls have fine swimming holes at the bottom-clear pools of water that have probably been a child’s delight for a thousand years. The last fall, located about 2.1 miles from the arch, effectively blocks the canyon floor, forcing the trail to make a 0.4 mile detour into a side canyon to get around it.
Finally, about 0.1 mile below the canyon rim, the trail passes a hidden cliff dwelling with an exceptionally well preserved Kiva as its centerpiece. Many of the juniper beams that once supported the structure’s round roof are still in place, and its cylindrical walls are almost entirely intact. This ruin has been exceptionally well preserved because it is located in a deep alcove, well sheltered from the wind and the rain. It must have been bitter cold here in the winter, however, as little sun ever reaches the alcove. Perhaps the Indians had their winter living quarters elsewhere, and used this site primarily for grain storage and religious activities.
From this last Anasazi ruin a crude, cairn marked trail climbs straight up the slickrock drainage to the rim above. Once you climb out of the canyon, continue following the cairns in a northerly direction for another 0.3 mile to reach the parking lot where the hike ends.