Weekend Photos: Grand Gulch, Bears Ears National Monument

I'll not deny I have some qualms about publicizing this amazing and somewhat over-visited area. I won't be including any precise location information for ruins or pictographs, though that info is out there.

This hike was the purpose behind the road trip featured last weekend. After picking up Gretchen at SLC and doing our hike at Little Wild Horse Canyon, we met the other 3 members of the party in the Valley of the Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument.

Today we'll focus on the hiking trip, and next week I'll provide a smorgasbord of ruins and rock art.

Pre-hike dispersed camping. Not an actual campfire, but a safe gas fire for us to sit around.

Because we had to pick up our parking permits and get water info at the ranger station, then leave most of the cars and pile into one for the drive to our start point, we hit the trail at a blazing 10 a.m.  Fortunately, the weather was still relatively cool following a very cold front (didn't hurt that the TH was about 5200', though we immediately dropped about 400' into the Gulch.

The crew, all clean and pretty at the trailhead.

The Narrows

At the bottom of the canyon we turned downstream, going a bit out of our way to explore a cut-off gooseneck bend with some ruins and pictographs, returning back upstream via "The Narrows," the point where the river at some time cut through the neck and abandoned the 3/4-mile meander.

A good zoom lens is handy for this stuff, as mostly I'm not up for climbing to these places, if it's even possible. I liked the feeling of family this panel had; notice also the duck or goose--a strong theme in the art throughout Grand Gulch.

 Our detour completed, we ate lunch and continued upstream in search of water and our first campsite.

What is it about arches that gets us so excited?

Camp 1 was at Bannister Spring, which (in a development that put us on notice for the trip) was barely flowing. You definitely have to adjust your view of "drinkable water sources" for desert hikes. Of course we filtered everything, but still...

Our campsite turned out to have a couple of issues. One was the distressing spread of Russian thistle, which is invasive and a very prickly neighbor. The other was the current hatch of tent caterpillars, which were busy eating the tree above our beds. Eating it, and pooping out a rain of tiny pellets, called frass, which sounds a little better than poop.

A fresh hatching about to eat everything.

I never really thought about caterpillars pooping, but trust me, they do. I ended up having to move my bed to a less flat spot out from under the tree so that I could sleep without getting covered in the stuff.

Hundreds of tents in one tree. They will eat all the leaves off a tree in a day or two, then drop off and go look for more, or for a place to build their cocoon. The trees seem to cope fine.
I have no idea if this is the source of/end result of the caterpillar infestation.

Temps were warming up, and we made a practice of being up at first light, more or less. That's when photography is best, of course, so I try to be there.

It was a little early for the bloom, but there was a lot of claret cup cacti showing color, in some of the largest mounds I've seen.


We passed a couple of good pools along the way, and should have loaded up with water.

A round granary, inaccessible to me.

When we found Polly's canyon, where water is usually abundant, we walked a mile up the side-canyon without finding anything. In the end, we filtered from a pothole in the middle of the main stream-bottom (otherwise dry), and as the camp at the junction was occupied, carried a night and a day's worth of water the better part of a mile upstream. The guys, who had hiked this canyon at least a half dozen times between them, said this was not normal.

Just happy to find a flat spot for my bed. I carried a tent as forecasts had been unsettled, but used it only one night, unnecessarily as it turned out.

Kitchen rock.

Our camp lacked water, but it had some great morning and evening light. It also lacked caterpillars, which made it a nice camp.

Big Man Panel is the most famous spot on Day Three's hike.

Rampant sexism. It's just as much Big Woman panel--she's on the left, he on the right.

In some ways it is an easy hike. The "trail" is the bottom of the gulch, often the stream bed itself, so no huge climbs (except the odd venture after ruins). But this year, with the stream dry, that meant a lot of walking in soft sand or gravel.

Taking a rest with Petey Possum.

Our third camp was in Step Canyon. We ended up scattered a bit, as some of us chose to sleep on the slickrock while others needed trees for hammocks. I always like a perch. Water was well below us but at least there was a good pool to draw from.

Reading in camp after dinner.

When we left camp in the morning we immediately had to stop to climb around and see some cool petroglyphs, and then a bunch of ruins, some of them actually accessible even to those of us who are kind of scared of heights.

It blows my mind how well-preserved these places are, after hundreds of years. As long as they are sheltered under an overhang, they weather very slowly.

Another gorgeous day with gorgeous rock all around.

We carried packs a shorter distance on day 4, instead making camp at the mouth of Bullet Canyon before hiking a good 5 miles round trip up canyon to see the Perfect Kiva and Jailhouse Ruins--and to find water, which we carried a half mile or so back to camp. I'll share some photos of the ruins next week!

The walk up the canyon reminded me at times of Chesler Park in Canyonlands. Not so very surprising--they aren't really that far apart.

This was the one night I used my tent. I think there were some clouds, but mostly it was about the mosquitoes. Once again we were kind of spread out, and Gretchen and I had a private "girls' camp" as a nice change.

Nice flat spot but a death of things to sit on. We might have carried our stuff the 200' to the boys' camp to cook and eat, but that was too much work after a day with distances approaching 13 miles.

Day 5 had another detour to see the Green Mask panel, which was amazing enough to me that you get to see it this week and next :)  Some of us also spent a chunk of the heat of the day lounging under a juniper tree near Split Level ruins, though one member of the party with obligations hiked ahead and all the way out that day. 

By this time I was learning how to look, and thus was seeing more of the small things up on the sides of the canyons without help from my companions.

Can you see the "eyes"--two little doorways in the cliff?


Sunlight reflects off the rocks polished by water which at times must move quite quickly through here.

The Green Mask. Globs of mud on the roofs of overhangs may have been a sort of rite or wish to grant women safe childbirth.

Split Level ruin.



Day 5 with no water for bathing makes for interesting hair! Thanks to Gretchen for this portrait of the writer!

After our long rest in the shade we were willing to push on to our farthest camp option at Toadie Canyon, where we had reports there was decent water not far up the canyon. We found our campsite and a short explore brought us to a couple of pools where the water was actually clean and moving. This water and what we had picked up at the Green Mask the previous day was the best we found in the Gulch.

Toadie Canyon Camp--last night.

Our final day was a short walk up the main Gulch to Turkey Tracks and Junction ruins--pretty much the only ones accessible on a (longish) dayhike, and thus most in need of protection, so that we couldn't get very close. There began to be more water in the main streambed, and an actual trail had sprung up in the last couple of days, allowing a lot of shortcuts across the bends instead of walking clear around them.

Morning light on the cliffs.

Cottonwood forest crossing.

Absolutely the best pictograph--a desert bighorn riding a skateboard, obviously.

With more water came reflections, which slowed this photographer down some!

After our final ruins, we turned up Kane Gulch to return to the ranger station--and our cars. The climb out of the gulch was a bit long and hot by this time, but we enjoyed lunch in a cool bit of shade by the stream--which was running pretty well, and was definitely the best water of the trip. We had one bit of confusion where we lost the trail, but eventually sorted it out and were back at the cars by early afternoon. 

Gretchen and I used the unexpected extra time for a visit to the Edge of the Cedars museum in Blanding, where we learned a lot to put the ruins and potsherds we'd been seeing into context. Then it was on to Moab for a hotel and the sweet bliss of a shower after a week in the wilds!

Last move out of the canyon before crossing the hot flats to the cars.

Next week I'll talk more about the archeology and what we saw down in Grand Gulch. Apologies for an unmercifully long post!

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2024
 As always, please ask permission to use any photos or text. Link-backs appreciated. 

Don't miss a post--Follow us!


  1. Gorgeous scenery! I've been to some of the red rock country in Arizona and Utah (I lived in Flagstaff for > 6 years), but I haven't been to Bear's Ears.

    1. I'd been through the area, but never really explored. Many of the best places do require high clearance to access, which limits what I can do without the help of friends :)


Post a Comment

Let us know what you think! We love to hear from our readers!

Popular Posts

#WEP--The Scream

#WEP: December Flash Fiction Challenge

#IWSG + Cozy Review & Author Interview: Murder in Second Position