Grand Gulch

Grand Gulch Primitive Area

(Learn about other nearby Anasazi sites)

This is a truly unique location in Southeastern Utah. Remote and rugged backcountry, the area is accessible only by pack animal or on foot. The Anasazi ("Ancient Ones") flourished in Grand Gulch between 700 and 2,000 years ago. The fact that so many sites remain--and that they are in such excellent condition--makes Grand Gulch a special area.

Throughout the mesas and canyons of Southeastern Utah, there are countless places important to Native Americans and to the non-Indians who live or visit here. During your stay, recognize how important these sites are to all of us: Native Americans, non-Indians, historians, and archaeologists. You will see dwellings, pottery, tools, and art work. Treat it with care and respect.

Archaeology

The earliest known Anasazi inhabitants of Grand Gulch were the Basketmakers, who lived here from A.D. 200 to 700. This culture is thought to have derived from earlier nomad hunters and gatherers, but artifacts from the Basketmaker period are the oldest yet found in the Gulch. When the nomadic people learned to plant and cultivate corn introduced from the south, they became more settled, and the Basketmaker cultured evolved.

The Basketmakers constructed dwellings by excavating a shallow pit. Then they built up walls and a roof of logs and sticks and covered them with mud. They also used flint tools and wooden digging sticks. Their name was derived from the finely woven baskets they made. The most prevalent remains of the Basketmaker culture in the Gulch are their slab-lined storage cisterns, which can still be seen on the mesa tops or on high ledges protected from the weather.

A series of droughts apparently drove the Basketmakers into the surrounding mountains. When their descendants returned around A.D. 1050, they brought with them the influence of the Mesa Verde people to the east and the Kayenta people from the south. As time passed, the Mesa Verde influence predominated in the Grand Gulch area.

The Basketmaker culture developed into the Pueblo culture, which is characterized by the making of fine pottery (some of it highly decorated), the cultivation of cotton and weaving of cotton cloth, and the high degree of skill in architecture and stone masonry seen in the cliff dwellings in the Gulch.

Checkdams and diversion canals, used in crop irrigation, have been found on the mesa tops near Dark Canyon and other Colorado River tributaries. The kiva, an underground ceremonial structure found in Grand Gulch, is still in use by the modern-day descendants of the Anasazi--the Hopi and New Mexico Pueblo Indians.

Grand Gulch also has a diversity of rock art panels consisting of petroglyphs (pecked into the rock) and pictographs (painted on with pigments). As the figures do not present a written language, their meaning is left to our imaginations.

By the late 1200s, the Anasazi moved south into Arizona and southeast into the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, probably because of the droughts in the 12th and 13th centuries, depletion of natural resources, and pressure from nomadic Indians from the north.

Climate

Grand Gulch's environment can be extremely harsh at certain times of the year. You will probably find spring and fall to be the most comfortable periods. Spring rains usually end around the middle of May. The weather is hot from June through August and it is not uncommon for the temperature to rise past 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer rains come in late July or early August, bringing flash flood hazards. In the winter months, snow and ice cling to the canyons, and temperatures often fall below zero.

Minimum Impact

STOP, LOOK AND THINK before entering a site. Try to locate the midden area (the trash pile) so you can avoid walking on it. Middens are extremely fragile and contain important archaeological information. Walking over them will cause damage.

If a trail has been built across a site, stay on it. Foot traffic causes erosion that may undermine ruin walls. Climbing on roofs and walls can destroy in a moment what has lasted for hundreds of years.

Make your camp well away from ruins and rock art sites. Ruins are fragile; the less use they get, the longer they will last. Viewing a site from a distance, rather than entering it, will reduce the impact it receives and help to ensure its preservation. Never build fires in ruins or alcoves. Alcoves may contain hidden archaeological remains.

Enjoy rock art by viewing, sketching, and photographing it. Touching, chalking, or tracing these ancient figures causes them to disintegrate. Creating modern "rock art" is vandalism, which is punishable by law.

When you see potsherds and other artifacts, leave them. If each visitor took just one artifact, there would soon be none left.

Archaeological sites are places of spiritual importance to Native Americans. Please treat them with respect.

Grand Gulch Visitor Information

Visitors are required to:

  • Obtain a permit, pay a permit fee, and register at the BLM office in Monticello or the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Permits are needed for both day and overnight trips. Day hikers do not need to make advance reservations but backpackers do. A limited number of groups are permitted in the canyon at any one time and slots often book weeks in advance.
  • There may be a few slots open for last minute backpack trips if you can go mid-week or during the heat of summer. Advance reservation are required if traveling with stock or when total group size is 8 or more people. Applications should be submitted at least 4 weeks in advance.
  • Limit total group size to no more than 12 people. Visitors using horses and/or pack stock are limited to no more than 10 animals.
  • Limit stay to no more than two consecutive nights at the following campsites: Junction, Turkey Pen, Split Level, Jail House and the mouth of Bullet.
  • Keep pets on a leash, and only in the areas where saddle and pack stock are allowed.
  • Camp at least 100 feet from water sources to protect water quality and to allow use by wildlife and other visitors.
  • Bury solid human body waste, bathe, and wash dishes at least 100 feet away from any water source. Shallow catholes (4 to 6 inches deep) are recommended for disposal of solid human body waste. Pack out toilet paper.
  • Pack out all trash.

Visitors are prohibited from:

  • Damaging or removing cultural resources including historic and prehistoric structures, rock art and artifacts. Disturbing the ruins or other cultural remains destroys the scientific value of the site and reduces the value of the area to future visitors. Any person who excavates, removes, or damages, or otherwise alters or defaces any historic or prehistoric, artifact or object of antiquity on the public lands is subject to arrest and penalties of up to $20,000 and/or two years imprisonment.
  • Touching, tracing, or chalking rock art sites.
  • Building campfires.
  • Camping in any archaeological sites.
  • Using mechanized or motorized vehicles, including mountain bikes.

Visitors are encouraged to:

  • Use an established campsite rather than creating a new campsite.
  • Protect the cryptobiotic crust (the lumpy, dark soil layer) by staying on established trails, hiking in wash bottoms, and using established campsites.

Outdoor Safety

Please register at the BLM office in Monticello, the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, or at the Trailhead Visitor Box for your own safety and to receive information about present conditions in the Grand Gulch.

The slickrock sandstone ledges and boulders in Grand Gulch are hazardous; be very careful when climbing and hiking. High-topped boots with good gripping soles are recommended footwear.

During the summer, water is scarce in many parts of the Gulch, so try to carry enough water for your needs. Also, be sure you know where to find dependable water sources in the Gulch. Quality of the water has not been determined and you should purify all water before using it. Drinking water is not available at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station.

Watch for scorpions and black widow spiders, which hide in the dry overhangs and dark ruin interiors. They can inflict extremely painful, poisonous bites. Rattlesnakes have also been found in the area.

During July, August, and September, there is a danger of flash floods from thunderstorms. Good judgment can save your life. If you are in the Gulch when it rains, either in your vicinity or upstream, be careful to stay out of the stream channel. Always seek high ground during any rainstorm. If you are stranded by a flash flood, remain calm and wait for the water to recede. The hazard will usually pass in six to eight hours. After the water recedes, be careful of quicksand pockets in the stream channel. Icy conditions can make certain areas impassable in early spring and then again in late fall. Be cautious at all times.

Animals

Many animal species that the ancient Indians used for food and clothing can still be seen in Grand Gulch. The Anasazi caught cottontail rabbits in nets or snares; rabbit meat added protein to their diets, and they made the pelts into blankets and robes. Infants were often wrapped in rabbit fur blankets for burial. Rock squirrels, too, were probably eaten and their skins used for small items such as medicine bags.

These people hunted mule deer and desert bighorn sheep for food and clothing and fashioned tools from the bones. Judging from the frequency with which desert bighorn sheep are depicted on rock art panels throughout the canyon, they must have been especially important to the Anasazi.

Turkeys were also very important to the ancient ones. The feathers were often used as blankets, and it is believed that the turkeys were semi-domesticated animals.

In addition to these terrestrial animals, you may observe a variety of birds in the area including wrens, blackbirds, chickadees, finches, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, swallows, owls, hawks, and eagles.

Early Exploration

Pioneer ranchers and cowboys spent considerable time in the Gulch and found many ruin sites and rock art panels.

The first recorded crossing of the Grand Gulch areas was in 1880 by the Mormon colonizing group known as the "Hole in the Rock" party. They passed through the Gulch on their way toward Bluff. In the fall of 1890, Charles McLoyd and C. Graham from Durango, Colorado, began excavations.

Richard Wetherill, a rancher from Mancos, Colorado, excavated Anasazi sites for the American Museum of Natural History in 1893 and 1897. It was primarily from Wetherill's expeditions that archaeologists became aware of the time difference between the Basketmaker and Pueblo periods. Some of the artifacts collected can be see in the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The historic signatures of these early visitors may be seen in several places in the Gulch. Present-day visitors are reminded to sign only at registration stations located at the entrances to Grand Gulch.

Plants

The prehistoric peoples in Grand Gulch used a number of the native plants for food, medicine, clothing, housing and ornamentation.

Indian ricegrass and drop seed was probably the most important of the native grasses, which could be harvested in early summer and ground into meal for bread. Fruits of the prickly pear cactus were peeled and eaten, and the peeled and roasted leaves were an important food source in times of hardship. The Anasazi also used four-wing saltbush, blackbrush, Mormon tea, wild turnips, potatoes, rose hips, and sunflower seeds.

The narrowleaf yucca's sword-like leaves were woven into baskets and sandals, and leaf fibers were spun into cords for fine-quality sandals and bags. Yucca roots were used for soap, and the base of the plant was roasted and eaten, as were the fruits of a related plant, the broadleaf yucca.

Pinyon pine was a valuable source of housing material, fuel and food; in the past as in the present, a good crop of protein-rich pinyon nuts could be harvested every few years. Wood from juniper trees was used for firing pottery, and juniper bark was used for several purposes such as roofing shelters and padding cradleboards.

By 2,500 years ago, prehistoric peoples cultivated crops such as corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins, which became their major source of food. Corn, the major year-round staple, was stored in granaries and used in a variety of ways. A type of bean, which resembled modern-day pinto beans, was the second most important crop. Squash not only provided important vitamins and nutrients, but were hollowed out and used for vessels.

Further Information

If you are interested in learning more about the Colorado Plateau, call or write to the Canyonlands Natural History Association (address below) for membership information and a free catalog of maps and books available for purchase.

Canyonlands Natural History Association
30 South 100 East
Moab, Utah 84532
(435) 259-6003

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