Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lower Mule Canyon Trail

The Lower Mule Canyon Trail enters the mouth of Mule Canyon as it makes a junction with Comb Wash on the west side of Comb Ridge in southeast Utah. The starting point is the campground area that is along the south side of Utah Scenic Route 95 just below the engineered notch in the massive Navajo sandstone wedge of Comb Ridge.

The ATV trail turnoff into Mule Canyon is about 0.8 miles south of Highway 95. I started at the campground and enjoyed the views south along Comb Ridge. The main county road can be driven further than I did and crosses a creek before the turnoff.

From the turnoff the trail passes along the Mule Canyon creek bottom, through an area that is thick with Cottonwood trees.

The trail crosses the creek twice before arriving after about 0.3 miles at a marked foot trail that loops around the first side canyon on the north side.

There are three small Ancestral Pueblo ruins sites on the east side along the trail and another on the west side.

The first two ruins sites are small. The third site is the largest. I didn't climb up to look closer but there may be some interesting features to this site.

The fourth site on the west side might be the first one that a hiker would spot as it is visible across the side canyon. Approaching from below, the most obvious structure disappears behind the ledge. There are also two other small structures above and to the left. 

Continuing on up canyon, there is another side canyon on the north side almost immediately. I didn't see a trail going up the second side canyon, but there is a sandy hill at the mouth that allows a good view.

I didn't see any ruins sites up the second side canyon, but the sandy hill had many gray pottery shards and a few with black on white designs. I also saw two reddish hard stones that looked like small sharp tools. 

There may be source of reddish chert in the area, perhaps in the first north side canyon. Chert breaks in a way that forms very sharp edges and it is very hard, a 7 on the Mohs scale. It doesn’t have much use today but was an important tool making material.

Further west the horse trail dips into the creek bottom, but I followed a vague ATV track that stayed closer to the north canyon wall. In this area there were many spring desert wildflowers in bloom including Cliff Rose and this spectacular Miribilis in the Four O’clock family (swcoloradowildflowers.com is an excellent source for wildflowers). 

There were also Single Leaf Ash trees, Roundleaf Buffaloberries, and I saw one Ponderosa Pine mixed in with the Cottonwoods. The Lower Mule Canyon area has a few Tamarisk trees but they haven’t taken over as they do is some areas.

There is also a fifth ruins site near the point where Mule Canyon turns to the northwest. There is a double alcove with some wall sections still standing in both of the high alcoves. I continued further up canyon for another 0.5 miles. This next section of canyon appears to be dry and narrow, no water and no farming fields. Hiking much further, a hiker could approach the popular hiking areas that are at the upper end of Mule Canyon.

I turned around after 2:30 hours of hiking and it took me 1:25 hours to return to my starting point. My total hike took 4:10 hours for about 6 miles. It was a relatively cool 55 F degree late May day that started with some light rain that cleared quickly.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

River Panel Trail

The River Panel Trail is a 6 or 3 mile round trip into lower Butler Wash to the junction with the San Juan River. On the bluffs just east and upriver from the junction is a large petroglyph panel. The starting point is 0.2 miles south down the road that leads to the Bluff, Utah airport, five miles west of the town of Bluff on Highway 163 in southeast Utah.

I hiked the 6 mile version across the level desert area with spring wildflowers, but vehicles with 4WD or high clearance can follow the dirt road about 1.5 miles to the canyon rim and start there. The road has a few sandy spots and there is a confusing rocky area near the beginning.

From the rim, the trail descends toward the wash bottom over some spots where the old trail construction with bricklike stones is obvious. There is a large alcove visible on the opposite side of the canyon. I looked at it from several angles with binoculars but couldn’t see anything that made it clear that it was a ruins site. It looks like there is a side trail leading into it.

The trail winds in and out of the wash bottom. There was some flowing water in mid May and the bottom was thick with Tamarisks, Russian Olives, Willows, and a few Cottonwood trees. The Fort Bluff Historic Site information mentions that the early pioneer cabins were constructed using the abundant Cottonwood trees.

 It now looks like the Cottonwoods have been pushed aside by the invasive Tamarisks and Olives. There were a lot of cactus flowers in bloom. I saw some Single Leaf Ash trees higher on the canyon sides. About 10 minutes before the junction with the San Juan River there is an alcove with a small ruins site on the west side.

The petroglyph panel faces the San Juan River just east of the river junction. Most visitors will probably arrive via the popular rafting trips that start in nearby Bluff at the Sand Island boat launch. Sand Island also has a large petroglyph panel and the large Butler Wash Panel is only a few hundred yards downstream from the River Panel. This area is very rich in rock art sites.

There are several hundred images to view. Many are at eye level and some are higher in places where you wonder how they were able to work on them. 

Some of the higher level images include broad shouldered figures similar to the ones that stand out at the nearby Butler Wash Panel. There are four grooves that look like stone sharpeners mixed in with the images.

On the return hike I noticed a second small petroglyph panel on the west side of Butler Wash just before the canyon junction with the San Juan River. There is a side trail leading up. This side trail is more noticeable on the return hike.

There aren’t as many images at the second panel, but it includes an interesting one that looks like two stalks of corn. My total hike to the River Panel took 3:10 hours for the six miles that I hiked. The segment from the Butler Wash rim and back took 2:10 for 3 miles and the panel viewing. It was a 75 F degree mid May day and I drank 2 liters of water.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs of Utah

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fort Bluff Historic Site

The Fort Bluff Historic Site is along Highway 163 in Bluff in southeast Utah. Fort Bluff was the work of the pioneers on the incredible 1880 Hole in the Rock Expedition that started in Escalante, Utah and blazed their own trail across the very difficult southern Utah wilderness.

The Hole in the Rock route was supposed to be a shortcut, avoiding the hazardous Indian country to the south and the longer route through Moab. The planned six week trip ended up taking six months.

After getting their crops planted, the settlers constructed small cabins from local cottonwood trees, placing them in close proximity to form a protective formation. In 2010 there is an ongoing project to reconstruct the one room cabins and fill them with historic artifacts. The cabins surround a central plaza where there are examples of antique wagons.

After 1883, many of the settlers moved to different plots around the town. The Barton family received a plot on the Fort site and expanded their house to include several of the other cabins. The Barton cabin is the only one of the originals that remains.

There is an interpretive sign by the Barton well that describes how the settlers originally tried to use San Juan River water but found it so hard and muddy that it had to be treated and allowed to settle overnight. Wells were dug and water was found at depths of 16 to 20 feet.

Hikers in the south Comb Ridge area will recognize the name on one of the cabins, of George B. Hobbs, one of the scouts of the Hole in the Rock Expedition. There is an interpretive sign along Highway 163 near Hobbs Wash that describes the difficult night of December 27, 1879 when he and three others took shelter in the area about 5 miles west of Bluff.

There is also an interpretive sign mentioning George Hobbs on the west side of Comb Ridge at Navajo Springs on the River House Trail leading to an Ancestral Pueblo Ruins site, the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel, the Rincone Trading Post, and the notorious San Juan Hill.

Near the northeast corner of the Fort Bluff site is one of the original wagons used through the Hole in the Rock. There are also several handcarts in the same corner. I didn’t see an interpretive sign explaining the handcarts, but I believe they are intended as replicas of those used by the Handcart Companies during the emigrations from Iowa City, Iowa to Salt Lake City, mostly in 1856 and 1857.

The Handcarts were used mostly by newly arrived European immigrants on the Oregon and Mormon Trails across Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The immigrants had to pull their possessions in the carts over difficult terrain, several river crossings, and up steep mountain slopes. Some of them started too late in the season and needed a heroic rescue from Salt Lake to make it through. I am guessing that some of these carts might be available in the future for visitors to try out for themselves.

Across the street from Fort Bluff is Jens Nielson’s house, built in the 1890’s. Jens was one of the leaders of the Hole in the Rock travelers and was also one of the 1856 Handcart migrants. He was a member of the Willie Company that had one of the most difficult crossings. Bluff area hikers might want to tip their hats when passing the Nielson house, for he covered a lot of difficult territory on foot in heroic fashion.