Entering the Fabled Canyon

Entering the Fabled Canyon

Oftentimes you read of an area that lodges a place in your mind and then you can never shake it. This was the case for Kim and I when we first skirted the Gila and likewise when we were first made aware of Red Man Canyon. Over a decade ago I learned of an area near the Sweet Alice Hills between the Bears Ears and Canyonlands that haunted my thoughts. Time and again we would come near and the second guess ourselves; do we have enough fuel? Enough water? And once we came close but turned around when we realized we hadn’t informed anyone of our whereabouts. This time, it would be an informed and direct effort.

Thus, in early September, Kim and I snuck off into the unknown to learn an area that had been of high interest for years.

Valley of the Gods Sunrise.

After spending the night on the edge of Cedar Mesa, we began our trek across the plateaus, buttes, and valleys of the Bears Ears. Despite my hard earned knowledge of the area, I still kept referencing my map to ensure our whereabouts. After well over an hour of dirt road traversing, we changed our direction and started downwards into the furthest recesses of the Dark Canyon area we had driven to date. We moved slow, enjoyed the abundant wildflowers, and stopped at the frequent jaw-dropping vistas. It had been a while since Kim and I had a solo trip. We were savoring every minute.

The Xterra is still going strong and getting dirty.

Our journey began to get interesting once we reached our turn. The BLM sign post warned of extremely challenging driving and the last lodged entry was from 4 months prior. From the looks of the doubletrack, we had no reason to doubt the timeframe. So it was to be–shift into 4-Lo, drop it into 1st gear and slowly engage the clutch.

We descended a steep section of washed out road, damaged from the summer’s particularly violent monsoon season, and creeped our way down off the edge. Ruts turned into holes, holes turned into steep hills of bowling ball rocks tumbling ahead of our descent. The truck hummed along, engaged in it’s favorite pastime. We monitored the map and after some time we were within striking distance of our destination. A downed tree blocked our path.

No worries, of course, as we opened our wet box and grabbed our recovery gear. Using some clever triangulation we were able to secure our winch around the tree and work it to the side of the road. Maybe no one had been in here in a while after all…

The loneliest, happiest camp.

The end of the road provided just enough room for a campsite and there was an abandoned fire ring with ample wood left behind. We assembled camp, assessed the area, and promptly loaded our packs. Down we go!

The entrance to the canyon looked like an old mining road–steep, loose, narrow, and woefully eroded. Our sandaled feet slid on the loose surfaces and our knees begged for stability. In no time, on such a steep descent, we found ourselves at the canyon floor and stunned by the beauty. No trail could be seen outside of the fresh hoof tracks of nearby elk. The valley floor was covered with healthy purslane that made for an almost carpeted feel under our feet. Sunflowers fluttered lightly in the wind.

Not knowing where to begin, we elected to pursue a side canyon that looked promising. The steep canyon walls were near vertical, rising over 400′ to the canyon’s rim. Large ponderosa pines hugged the edges of pour offs while giant pinon pines and juniper followed the wash, eventually leading to the canyon’s abrupt end. We pursued the path of least resistance; an elk path had been freshly carved and ducked and dived between sage and chamisa.


Kim stumbled upon an elk antler shed which was oddly similar to one we had found near here a decade ago on our honeymoon that has lived on our fireplace mantel back home. We found a gurgling spring weeping into the canyon floor and then…Bear. A very mature bear. Kim, in an unusual change of disposition, showed concern. Large prints and a scat pile showed of very recent activity. No matter, we glassed the edges and checked our surroundings only to be left with the powerful presence of absolute silence. After unsuccessful attempts to find archeology, we began losing daylight and headed back up canyon.

Our night was spectacular. No wind and no moon made for a pleasant evening poking at the small desert campfire we assembled. We left our tent doors wide open and enjoyed the abundant stars filling the night sky. Tomorrow, as we dreamed, we would go deeper and in pursuit of whatever there was to find…

Our morning was brief: coffee, eggs, and bacon. We assembled our packs, checked our camera gear, and topped off our water supplies. Our minds swam with possibilities and our eagerness propelled us back down the scree slope and to the canyon floor. Wandering through the maze of chamisa and sage we crossed more animal paths and dipped in and out of the main drainage. And then, after a brief moment of canyon gazing, we locked eyes on a ruin high on the cliffs wall.

A castle amongst the canyons.

We marched straight to the canyon’s edge looking for a route. None seemed obvious. After some discussion, I pursued our first likely access point only to be turned back at an unavoidable ledge with no purchase. We scoured the edge of the sandstone in search of a path upwards until a meager crack in the layers provided a glimmer of possibility. I threw my pack up on the next ledge, knowing a full commitment was coming. After a scramble and a brief moment of fright, I was up and was able to provide a hand to Kim. We assessed our options, picked apart the puzzle above us, and slowly moved our ways upwards until we found ourselves looking directly into an assembly of ruins we had never expected.

A large wall protected the entrance with multiple granaries dotting the nearby cliff edges. The main ruin had a wide recess which we could enter and to our immediate left lied three beautifully constructed domes, appearing as if time had yet to claim a day from their lives.

We entered tentatively, quietly, as there was no sign anyone had been here in some time. Our curiosity turned to awe as we entered the alcove to discover a large T-shaped doorway, a la Chaco, protecting the entrance. Above the room there lied multiple vigas carved hundreds of years prior. In the corner, another granary. Behind us, a standing spring–drip, drip, drip–providing sustenance to the alcove. Small hanging flowers hovered. Fingerprints were still visible in the mortar. Knots still clung to thatching.

In all my years of wandering these canyons I had never seen a ruin with a water source within. A small hand print painted above the source reflected its importance. I moved around slowly, dialing in my manual focus lens, trying to capture the raw essence of this place. Kim sat quietly and observed the view. All sites give us pause, but this one resonated deeply.

After spending what felt like the entire day high up on the cliffs edge, we descended back to the valley floor stunned by our brief moment of personal discovery. Kim opened up some snacks and we elected to continue further downstream to see what other secrets the canyon may hold.

Soon we passed a corral from the time of misguided ranchers. Small pictographs dotted the rocks above, showing that more than once this particular spot was deemed important. Our meandering took us to the confluence of another canyon, leading to who-knows-where. We could hear water flowing and spotted more bear prints.

Much to our surprise, we found a spring that was gushing with cold water. Like a pipe installed into the land, the water poured from the earth with an eagerness. We topped off our bottles, sat down for a bit of lunch, and hid in the shadows of sandstone. No doubt our minds considered what could be around the next bend, but that would need to wait for another trip.

Refreshed and reenergized, we began our long walk back to camp. Our eyes keen on rock faces and crevasses, only to be entertained by geomorphology rather than archeology. We glanced back at the ruin on our way out, pausing in further contemplation.

A lone granary found on our walk back.

Looking up the old mining trail, we braced ourselves for the final ascent back out knowing we were leaving the valley for good. Our trip complete, our hearts content. After sweating back up the switchbacks and returning to camp, we took note of our day. In our solo pursuit, we had rediscovered our love of this canyon country and our silent travels together.

I stoked a small fire and Kim assembled elk burgers for our final night. Clinking of ice cubes echoed as we mixed gin and tonics and sat down for a quiet evening on the canyon’s edge. Golden hour struck nearby flora and nighthawks began their audible darts through the twilight hours. And then, just like that, our curiosity satiated and our bodies tired, we once again laid back in our sleeping bag and began to ponder the unknown.