Past alive and well in Grand Gulch
Grand Gulch is a museum without a roof.
The network of canyons that once supported a thriving Puebloan culture is now a site rich with relics of the ancient past. The homes, ceremonial sites and tools used to build them have lain undisturbed for a thousand years or more, well-preserved in the dry climate.
The canyons are hidden in the isolation of southeastern Utah. The remoteness of the sites has undoubtedly been a key factor in their preservation. It wasn’t until the 1880s that a rancher named Richard Wetherill, looking for cattle that had strayed from his herd, came upon Cliff Palace in what is now Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.
Excavation of the sites began in earnest after that.
Many thousands of archaeological sites have been catalogued in the area where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona come together. Many are easily reached by road; then there’s Grand Gulch.
The casual tourist will not stumble onto this area. If you plan to visit the ruins of Grand Gulch, you will need good boots and a lot of stamina. There’s no paved highway with pullouts and interpretive signs. You’ll have to know what you’re looking for, and you’ll have to work to find it.
It’s a worthy investment of time and energy. The isolation and rugged terrain all but guarantee a relatively solitary experience. The maze of canyons and gulches can hold a lot of people before they start to feel crowded.
Some research before the trip will enhance the experience. Stop at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station on Utah Highway 261 before heading into the gulch. The ranger on duty can provide basic maps and information that will add to the enjoyment of the trip.
A round trip through Grand Gulch is 23 miles and requires at least one overnight stay. A backcountry permit is required for overnight stays; shorter hikes into Kane Gulch or Bullet Canyon can be done in a day.
The sites are fragile, so look but don’t touch. Disturbing the sites can permanently damage the artifacts, and under no circumstances should you ever take anything from a ruin — not so much as a corn cob or a pot shard. Federal laws forbid the taking of artifacts from any and all federal land. Leave these unique and irreplaceable wonders where they are.
With luck and care, this living museum will last another thousand years.