History in this hike

Nine Mile Canyon home to American Indians' rock artThis is an example of how vandals have destroyed some Fremont rock art panels. Notice heavy chiseling around the upper right and lower left, meant to dislodge this panel from the rock wall it was pecked upon a thousand years ago.

At least a dozen previously undiscovered ancient sites have been unearthed during the reconstruction of Nine Mile Canyon Road. Plentiful reserves of natural gas are accessed from this road. In 2010, Bill Barrett Corp. secured federal approval to drill more than 600 wells on the plateau above it. As part of the approval process, Barrett agreed to pay $10 million for road reconstruction and protection of cultural sites.

This is an example of how vandals have destroyed some Fremont rock art panels. Notice heavy chiseling around the upper right and lower left, meant to dislodge this panel from the rock wall it was pecked upon a thousand years ago.


Nine Mile Canyon

Drive time and distance: 2 hours, 24 minutes; 159 miles to Wellington, Utah.

Length of canyon: 40 miles.

Drive time through Nine Mile Canyon: Complete Loop, 100 miles. All Day.

Difficulty: Easy, but watch for big, fast trucks.

The first thing most visitors to the area will notice is Nine Mile Canyon is 40 miles long.

The second thing most visitors will notice is Nine Mile Canyon is an incredible outdoor museum.

The third thing they’ll most likely notice is, ‘“Darn, that big truck just about drove me off the road!”

John Wesley Powell led a government expedition through this portion of Utah, about 150 miles west of Grand Junction, in 1869. His topographer, F.M. Bishop, created a nine-mile triangulation drawing that he named Nine Mile Creek. The canyon subsequently was called Nine Mile Canyon even though the canyon actually is 40 miles long, thus the name/distance confusion.

American Indians who made Nine Mile Canyon home as early as 300 A.D. were part of the Fremont Culture. “Fremont” is considered a catch-all term used to describe scattered groups of hunters and farmers. They also were artists and communicators who drew and pecked pictures all over these rock walls in Nine Mile Canyon, thus the feeling of traveling through an outdoor museum.

And those big trucks? They’re real, and my guess is any vehicle you drive here along this two-lane blacktop is much smaller than any of those big trucks rumbling by, so be careful.

The prehistoric Fremont culture once inhabited the western Colorado Plateau and eastern Great Basin. By 750 A.D., Fremont village life had developed with a number of farming communities consisting of semi-subterranean timber and mud pit houses and above-ground granaries. Fremont farming techniques appear to have been sophisticated and involved water-diversion techniques such as irrigation.

Favorable climate conditions allowed the Fremont culture to reach its height between roughly 700 A.D. and 1250 A.D.  Then, between 1250 and 1500 A.D., the Fremont culture vanished. The exact reasons for this disappearance are not known. Perhaps more aggressive people, such as the Ute, Paiute and Shoshoni, migrated into the region around this time. Those other cultures may have displaced the Fremont or absorbed the Fremont into their own culture. 

Whatever happened, it’s pretty evident these “ancients” knew a lot about the land they inhabited, and the rock art throughout this canyon is considered some of the finest representations remaining of the Fremont lifestyle.

The road through this canyon has its own history. Back in 1886, the Price-Myton road that runs through Nine Mile and Gate canyons was an extremely important artery.

The road was carved through this rough, high-desert canyon by the all-black 9th Cavalry. The road was needed to supply the 300 soldiers garrisoned at Fort Duchesne on the Uintah frontier. 

Following old Indian trails, the road linked the fort with the nearest railhead in Price. For the next quarter-century, the road was the most heavily traveled in eastern Utah. It was the main route for stagecoach, mail, freight and telegraph into Uintah Basin. 

Back then, it took six days by wagon to reach Fort Duchesne from Price. You can now do it in a day, if you take your time.

According to the BLM, most of the Nine Mile Canyon Road (about 36 miles) was rebuilt last year or is still under construction “for the purpose of improving the road to further protect cultural resources, improve drainage and satisfy public safety standards.”

In reality, Nine Mile Canyon and its rock art, which constitutes one of the most fascinating outdoor museums in the West, is being destroyed by heavy truck traffic. According to Pam Miller, an archaeologist and chairwoman of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, more than 10,000 unique petroglyphs and pictographs found in the canyon “are being obliterated by dust and destroyed by dust-suppressant chemicals (magnesium chloride) being sprayed on roads, and jeopardized by the vibrations of huge trucks, drill rigs, bulldozers and industrial traffic.” 

To reach this area, take Interstate 70 west from Grand Junction past Green River. Turn north toward Price on U.S. Highway 6/191. The principal access route to this canyon is eight miles east of Price in Wellington, Utah, on U.S. 6/191. Turn north (right) on 2200 East. That’s the Soldier Creek Road at the Chevron Station. It’s easy to find. There’s a big sign pointing to Nine Mile Canyon.

You should allow yourself at least one full day to tour the 100-mile Nine Mile Canyon Back Country Byway. (By my odometer, it is closer to 78 miles.) This includes about four driving hours and time for short walks and frequent stops.

The road is narrow, steep in places, has plenty of big cement dips to allow for flash flooding, and it has numerous blind curves. Be safe, drive slowly, and pull off the road when stopping to visit attractions.

There are no services available between Wellington and Myton, so be prepared, be self-sufficient, bring your own water — and watch out for those big trucks.


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