Pluck O’ the Irish
Irish Canyon a great place to see cultural resources in an isolated area
As an Irishman, I got a little teary-eyed when I first discovered a canyon in extreme Northwest Colorado called Irish Canyon.
It is, after all, one of the major landmarks in northwest Colorado — such an important landmark that it was designated by the Bureau of Land Management in 1987 as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
That has nothing to do with the Irishmen whom this canyon was named after. No, the canyon was named after three Irishmen who robbed a saloon in Rock Springs, Wyo., and drank a bunch of the booty in the north end of this canyon that cuts between Rock Springs and Maybell.
Three drunken Irishmen weren’t the only ruffians who visited this area at the turn of the last century. Outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, Matt Warner, Isom Dart and others spent time in the Browns Park vicinity because it was so remote, it was a great place to hide out.
The beginning of the canyon is not more than 50 yards wide with steep walls layered in red, green and gray. It’s a great place to get lost, and a great place to watch whomever is coming after you.
Despite the bad guys, this is an area of critical environmental concern because of geology, rare plant associations and cultural resources. Plus, the scenery is outstanding.
Geologically speaking, 12 of the 22 geological formations found in the eastern end of the Uintah Mountains occur here. If you can read rock, you could “obtain further insight into the past geologic activity in the area,” according to the BLM.
Rare plant associations include: the Utah juniper/bluebunch wheatgrass, critically imperiled in Colorado because of its extreme rarity and restricted global range (it is known to occur from northwest Wyoming south to northern Moffat County); black sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass, known to occur in Colorado only in the eastern Uinta Mountains of Moffat County; and Utah juniper-pinyon/curl-leaf mountain mahogany, known to thrive here, but extremely rare with a restricted distribution.
Cultural resources in this canyon include several important rock-art panels. The major panel interpreted at the south side of Irish Canyon on Moffat County Road 10 North presents a picture of Fremont style rock art dated from A.D. 400 to 1100, according to the BLM. Other rock art in the area dates from 1,500 years ago (basket makers styles) to the 1800s (pictographs from Ute Native Americans).
“So what?” you might ask.
Well, aside from knowing our own history, extinction of species is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Some people, especially around here, seem to wonder if we aren’t wasting time and resources trying to save endangered plants and animals.
It’s good to remind ourselves now and again what the preamble to the Endangered Species Act says. Congress believed these plants and animals merited protection because they “are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational and scientific value” to the U.S. and its citizens.
That’s what Congress believed. Republican President Richard Nixon agreed when he signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Idealists say we are morally obligated to save them. Scientists worry about consequences we cannot foresee as we exacerbate extinction via man-made causes, not necessarily natural causes.
Hiking through this canyon will certainly not upset the natural order of things. Even if all of us went there at once. This area remains so remote, most people never visit. Yet, it’s vast openness beckons us, as it did the old Mountain Men who were the first white men to visit Brown’s Park.
To reach Irish Canyon from Grand Junction, take Interstate 70 east to Rifle, then turn north and take Colorado Highway 13 toward Meeker. Just before you enter town, turn left, or west, on Colorado Highway 64. In about a mile, turn right (north) on County Road 7. It eventually turns into County Road 57. Turn left, or west, when you come to U.S. Highway 40. You’ll have the good fortune of traveling through Maybell, pop. 299.
From Maybell, on U.S. 40 turn northwest onto Colorado Highway 318 to Moffat County Road 10N (41 miles), which runs through Irish Canyon (4.5 miles from Colorado 318).
There are numerous spots on both sides of the road where you can view those cultural resources, including rock panels throughout the area. So, stop, get out, enjoy a lunch and beverage and take a hike.
Be prepared for inclement weather. This road is in great shape, but it’s unpaved through much of the canyon. If it’s sunny out, don’t forget your sunscreen, and watch out for the gnats. They can get nasty at times.
Remember, take only pictures, leave only footprints. These cultural, geological and plant resources belong to all of us — even three drunken Irishmen.