Notes for Potential Hikers
We began our hike at the Slickhorn Canyon trailhead; this is located at the end of a reasonably well-graded dirt road easily negotiated by our two-wheel drive Toyota Matrix carrying five people and our gear. We descended Slickhorn until reaching Hanging Canyon, about 1.25 miles above the San Juan River. Here we accessed a broad shelf in the middle of the river canyon wall about 400 feet above the water.
Staying on this shelf for about six miles, we followed the San Juan downstream. A good bit of the walk was on an ancient unmapped use trail and was easy walking on unobstructed terrain. The rest was through boulder fields and rockfalls and took much time and care. The shelf gradually descended as we followed it downstream until ending just above the junction of Grand Gulch and the San Juan.
The rest of our walk was up the Grand Gulch, with exploratory trips in several side canyons to find water, ruins, rock art, good campsites, and to search for find routes to the rim. Our original plan was to walk the entire Grand Gulch to its terminus near Utah Highway 95. Our progress was too slow to achieve that goal since we spent so much time looking for ruins and admiring ancient artwork on the rock walls. We modified our route plan and decided to exit via the old CCC constructed Government Trail and then return to the car via a simple overland hike on the mesa top. Before exiting, we walked further up Grand Gulch to Cow Tank Canyon to explore more ruins and ancient art and then returned to the Government Trail to climb up to the rim.
Other than the Government Trail, none of the hiking was on established and maintained trails. In many places, there are use trails of varying quality. The canyon bottoms were dry, so walking in the riverbed was easy. There was almost no thrashing through tamarisk or other vegetation.
During Amy’s 1983 trip, much of the canyon bottom had knee-deep flowing water that made travel much more complicated and a lot slower.
There are three obstacles on this loop:
- A large pour-off in upper Slickhorn must be bypassed on the left looking-down-canyon. A bit of easy scrambling is required, and the route was marked with intermittent cairns.
- The traverse above the San Juan included some long sections of boulder scrambling with attendant route-finding complexities. Bypassing this section by staying at river level is not recommended, as it would require miles of thrashing through thick trailless riverside vegetation.
- There is an impassible pour-off about a mile up Grand Gulch from the San Juan. The pour-off is bypassed on the left looking-up-canyon and a short section of the route is potentially dangerous due to a steep, loose, exposed, and unprotectable traverse high above the canyon bottom. Use extreme caution on this section. Carrying a 50-foot rope would allow hikers to haul their packs up the unclimbable pour-off, an option that would make the exposed traverse easier. It may be possible to do a safer but longer and more convoluted traverse across a steep boulder field on the right side looking-up-canyon, but we did not explore this option.
We visited several Grand Gulch side canyons, including Shangri-La Canyon, a short unnamed canyon on the west side down-canyon from Redman, Redman Canyon itself, Deer Canyon, Polly’s Canyon, and Cow Tank Canyon. In Redman Canyon we were able to scramble up to the rim on a route that included climbing an obvious fun and easy fifth class slot up the middle of a steep pour-off. We walked around the rincon formed by the Narrows cutoff and circumnavigated the Polly’s Island rincon as well.
The Government Trail leads to fine slickrock campsites on the rim that provide great views of the surrounding area, including the Bear’s Ears, Navajo Mountain, and ironically, the cliff walls of Mancos Mesa. There were numerous dry potholes in the slickrock so after a decent rain, water should be plentiful in the area.
We found clear water and good campsites in Shangri-La, Redman, Deer, and Polly’s Canyons. There are also many fine, but dry, campsites in the main Grand Gulch drainage.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense. Use the stated distances as guidance; various sources of trail distances rarely agree.
The American southwest and in particular the Colorado River basin has been in a major multi-year drought. Rain and snowfall patterns in the region have changed negatively in timing, duration, and intensity. During our trip, most of southern Utah was designated by NOAA as in “Exceptional Drought” conditions, the driest designation. As a result, hiking in the area has become more complicated due to a significant reduction in traditionally reliable water sources.
Most intermittent springs have dried up. Potholes containing potable water were much less frequently found. Many perennial streams were no longer flowing. Complicating matters, reliable and timely information about usable water sources was difficult to obtain. As a result, backpackers planning on a trip in the area should expect to have to carry more water for longer distances.
We contacted the rangers at Kane Gulch Ranger Station prior to arriving and spoke with them again personally at the station the day before the start of our trip. They normally have a team of volunteers that occasionally visit the back-country springs allowing the rangers to provide recent information about water sources; the pandemic put those efforts on hold. Information about water sources in Slickhorn and lower Grand Gulch was one to two months old, and there had been no meaningful precipitation since that data was obtained. Many usually reliable sources were reported to be dry. Since the known water sources were drying up at unpredictable rates, the ranger could not tell us with any certainty what to expect.
Even though we ultimately found enough usable water to resupply on a daily basis, the issue that backpackers have to manage in these conditions is source uncertainty. When setting out from a known source of water, we could never be sure when we might find the next one; thus safety margins required that we carry between four and six liters per person. On our many previous trips, we could be reasonably sure that known sources would actually have water so we could plan ahead and usually carry much less with us at any one time. Many of our water sources on this trip looked like they could easily dry out completely in a few weeks. Other than the San Juan River, we saw essentially no flowing surface water. Many named springs were completely dry and very few potholes had any water at all.
Because of this situation, we are not including the water sources used on our trip map as we cannot predict whether or not they will have usable water in the near future. Also, please note that although many of our photos do show water sources, we photographed almost every significant source we came across.
We strongly urge anybody planning a trip in the region to try to obtain timely detailed information about actual water sources immediately prior to starting. Equally important is to carry enough containers to transport larger than normal quantities of water, as well as a willingness to do so.
A easily obtainable permit is required. Normally permits must be picked up at the ranger station where visitors must watch an orientation video. Due to the pandemic, our permits were e-mailed to us, and we watched the video at home.
Upper Grand Gulch between the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and Bullet Canyon is very popular with both backpackers and day hikers. It may be difficult to obtain a permit for starting a trip from either of those trailheads.
Anasazi Sites and Ancient Rock Art
A significant highlight of the Cedar Mesa area is the large number of archaeological sites. Many small ruins including walls, granaries, dwellings, and perfectly intact kivas can be found. Artwork in the form of pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (carved) can be seen on rock surfaces throughout the area. Some of these are publicized and their locations are well documented. Others are much more obscure and can only be found by paying close attention to your surroundings and spending time exploring side canyons, benches above river level, and walls that are obscured by vegetation. Pottery fragments, knapped stone flakes, corncobs, and other objects were also seen scattered around many sites.
Please do not disturb any sites by climbing onto their walls, don’t touch the rock art, and don’t move any objects you might find. The beautiful BLM orientation video provides guidance on avoiding impact on the fragile desert ecosystem and archaeological sites.
Neither Slickhorn nor lower Grand Gulch is visited nearly as often as upper Grand Gulch. On our trip, we encountered two parties of backpackers and half a dozen day hikers. We also met a group of San Juan River rafters at the mouth of Grand Gulch. The large sandy beach is reserved for river runners, and backpackers are not permitted to camp there; fortunately there are several fine campsites up Grand Gulch away from the river.
Prior to the start of our trip night-time low temperatures had been in the 30’s and daytime highs had been in the 60’s. Unfortunately a warm front arrived when we started and our daytime temperatures were about 20 degrees warmer. Early mornings were quite pleasant, but by most afternoons it was sunny and warm enough that we were seeking shade. One night we had a short and very tiny sprinkle of rain; enough to deploy the tent fly, but not enough to to leave anything noticeably wet the next morning.
We observed 44 species of birds, but numbers were lower than expected, possibly due to the drought. We saw no rarities, but a few Pinyon Jays were a treat. Mammals were also scarce; we saw a few mule deer, quite a few squirrels, and some cougar tracks. We had biting gnats one evening. We stashed our packs while we explored a side-canyon and a couple of Common Ravens took advantage of our absence to remove things from the exterior pack pockets; they tore into Alan’s map bag but did not snitch the maps. They would have been happy birds if they had found food in the pockets .