When I first visited Cedar Mesa in the 1980s, Grand Gulch was obscure, with word-of-mouth descriptions of arduous bushwacking and secret ruins. Since then, guidebooks have been published, books written, and the Bears Ears National Monument created, diminished, and finally restored, hopefully forever. A growing number of people hike regularly in the Gulch and its tributaries, and it seems that everyone has a secret undisclosed discovery, enticing the rest of us to keep looking. Despite growing popularity, it remains one of my favorite places; no one will ever peer into every hidden alcove or look behind every exfoliated boulder to find the last undiscovered treasure, and even without its cultural heritage, Grand Gulch is stunning.
In March of 2021, I spent a week with Ellen and our friends, Scott and Bay, hiking from Collins Spring to Kane Gulch, about 38 miles. We’d all walked much of this section and many of its side canyons before but in pieces on many trips over many years, so it was fun to traverse it in one hike.
While the walking was easy (we planned short days to leave time for ruins and rock art), the drought presented challenges. Water in much of the canyon had disappeared, and hikers, us included, planned our days and camps around what little water could be found, some barely drinkable even with filtering. I recently wrote about climate migrations in the Southwest, partly stimulated by this experience of traversing the canyon in a dry year. Until about 700 years ago, it supported a thriving Ancestral Puebloan community. The gist of that post was that drought destabilized their society, leading to abandonment.
While on this hike, I realized that drought need not be long-term to drive people out. After a few years without good monsoon rains or winter snow, most of the water was gone. How long could permanent residents of Cedar Mesa live and farm without regular rain? A few years? A decade? How much water could they store from ephemeral summer showers or winter snow? Are there enough obscure springs to sustain a substantial population through several dry years? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but when we were in the canyon in March, there was barely water to support a few dozen backpackers on their vacations, passing through the canyon for only a few days.
These are a few pictures from our trip. Except for some of the well-known sites, I don't specify locations.