Balancing rock, Slickhorn Canyon
Distance: 10.1 miles (plus 4.5 miles by car or bicycle)
Elevations: 860 ft. loss, 950 ft. gain
• First Fork Trailhead (start): 6,080 ft.
• Trail Canyon confluence: 5,220 ft.
• Trail Canyon Trailhead: 6,170 ft.
Trail: The trail is very primitive, unmaintained, and poorly marked. Also, there are a few sections near the beginning and end that are steep and rocky. Because of the difficulty of carrying a backpack down the rocky terrain, I recommend you do this one as a long day hike rather than an overnighter.
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 trailheads is unpaved 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
Slickhorn Canyon offers an alternative for those who are interested in the Anasazi Ruins of Cedar Mesa but want more solitude than Grand Gulch can offer. The ruins are not as extensive as those in Grand Gulch, but Slickhorn does have one bonus: an almost perfectly preserved kiva, with the original roof still completely intact. The BLM has even provided a replica of an Anasazi ladder to give hikers access to the subterranean room through the opening in the roof. Also, the Slickhorn ruins do not appear to have been ravaged by Richard Wetherill and the other pot hunters of the late 1800s who excavated so many of the Grand Gulch ruins. Perhaps they didn’t know about Slickhorn Canyon.
Like the Grand Gulch, Slickhorn Canyon runs in a southeasterly direction from the edge of Cedar Mesa to the San Juan River. There are a number of side canyons which join the main canyon from the east side, and it is through three of these side canyons, First Fork, Third Fork, and Trail Canyon, that most hikers find access to Slickhorn. The hike described here is a loop between First Fork and Trail Canyon.
From the parking area at the top of First Fork, begin by walking down the bottom of the drainage in a southwesterly direction. There are no signs and no maintained trail, but enough hikers use this route that a primitive trail is beginning to form. After a fifteen minute walk you will come to a small pouroff that you can easily get around by detouring a short distance into a shallow side canyon on the left. Another mile down canyon will bring you to a much larger pouroff that cannot be dealt with so easily. This time you will have to climb up the south side of the canyon to a bench just below the top of the mesa that you can follow around the obstacle. Many hikers before you have taken this route, so look for the cairns they have left behind to guide you.
While you are on the bench be sure to look into the back of the short side canyon on the opposite side of First Fork, and you will see a small ruin near the top of the canyon wall. Also, take note of a large sandstone monolith that stands near the opposite side of the main canyon, about 500 yards downstream from the pour off. This monolith is approximately opposite the point where the trail again descends to the canyon floor, so be sure to watch for cairns.
The monolith will also help you find your second ruin. Look carefully at the opposite canyon wall about 200 yards downstream from the monolith and you will see a large alcove about half way up the side of the canyon wall. The ruin is in the back of this alcove. Once you reach the canyon floor, walk downstream for five or ten minutes until you see a faint trail leading up to the right. This is the way to the alcove. The ruin is not visible from the bottom, and there are very few cairns marking the assent (perhaps removed by rangers?), so it is easy to miss. Some scrambling is necessary, but the climb is not difficult. You will certainly want to spend some time checking out this ruin because it contains an extraordinarily well preserved kiva.
The Anasazi kivas are of special interest to anthropologists who study Indian cultures of the Southwest. Every Anasazi community seems to have had one of them, and the basic architecture has endured for centuries. Kiva-like structures have been around for at least 1300 years, and they still exist today in a few modern Indian cultures. The kiva in First Fork, though 700 years old, is almost identical to a modern Hopi kiva. Notice, for instance, the small hole in the center of the floor. Similar holes appear in the seventh century pithouse kivas of Mesa Verde, as well as in present-day Hopi kivas. The Hopis, who call the hole a sipapu, or spirit hole, believe it is an entrance to the underworld. They believe that their ancestors entered and exited our world through a sipapu.
Below the kiva ruin the trail becomes much less rocky, and after 1.6 miles it opens up into a large, sandy meadow where it meets a large canyon coming in from the left (Second Fork). There are two other ruins near the canyon floor at this confluence. The one on the west side of the canyon, a small granary, is particularly well preserved. 0.4 miles further downstream will bring you to the confluence with Third Fork. If you are interested in shortening your hike you can return to the top of the mesa through Third Fork. Doing this will shorten the hike by 2.0 trail miles and 1.3 road miles.
From the confluence with Third Fork, it is 2.4 miles of easy walking to Trail Canyon. Along the way you will pass at least one other ruin site on the west side of the Slickhorn Canyon, and one other major side canyon coming in from the east. There are no signs, so be sure you turn into Trail Canyon and not the one before or after it. Just remember that Trail Canyon will be the fourth major side canyon you encounter coming into Slickhorn Canyon from the east.
About 0.6 miles up Trail Canyon there is another pour off which must be detoured. If you see the pour off you have probably missed the way, and you will have to backtrack a short distance downstream to find a faint trail that climbs about 100 feet up the south side of the canyon in order to get around the obstacle. Again, the way is marked by small cairns. As you pass above the pour off look across to the other side of the canyon at three small ruins perched precariously on a long, narrow ledge. These are the Big Ledge Ruins. Two of them look particularly interesting because they are build primarily of juniper logs rather than stone. What a chore it must have been to haul all of those logs to the high canyon ledge.
After the Big Ledge Ruins the trail again becomes very rocky as it climbs upward toward the mesa top. Occasional minor scrambling may be necessary, and if you are carrying a bulky backpack you will wish you weren’t. Finally, after two miles, the trail breaks over the top of the rim into a large flat meadow of sagebrush. Continue walking eastward across the meadow and soon you will spot the corral where your shuttle car or bicycle is parked.