Trip Report- Swell Rock Art, Grand Gulch, and Johns Canyon

We are back in Colorado after two and a half perfect weeks in southeast Utah. You never know what to expect at the end of September, but we had great weather with unseasonably warm days and nights. The skies were clear,  filled with stars, planets, and a full moon. Temperatures were a warm 85 to 90 or so during the day, dropping to around 50 to 55 at night.

Rock Art and Green River Town
We began our trip by visiting a few rock art panels in the San Rafael Swell area. All the panels are named, quite well known, and are found on most maps. The Head of Sinbad panel, the Lone Warrior panel, and the Black Dragon panel are all rather easy to find and get to, provided you have a four wheel drive, or are prepared for a little walking. All three panels consist of pictographs, with petroglyphs also found at the Black Dragon panel.

 

Head of Sinbad panel, San Rafael Swell. The detail in this panel is really amazing, the lines are very fine and crisp.

 

 

The Lone Warrior panel is as the name implies, a single, isolated image. The pictograph is exposed to sun and the elements and as a result is not as clear as the Sinbad panel.

 

Along the way we stopped at the town of Green River where they were having their annual Melon Festival. The honeydew, cantaloupe, and watermelon were at their peak of ripeness and sweet and juicy. We also made a visit to Crystal Geyser and spent an afternoon there, alternating between walking through the cold water erupting from the geyser, and then dips into the warmer water of the Green River. There is a new coffee shop in town, right at the corner of Broadway and 150 West- it is a few doors away from the Melon Vine grocery store.  They serve Illy coffee- stop in and support them. See our Desert Links page for more on Green River.

After we left the Green River area we did our usual drive south towards Cedar Mesa with stops in Moab, along the edge of Canyonlands, and in Blanding. Matrimony Spring in Moab is still running strong, and there was nothing in the paper and no talk around town about closing it down again.

Horsethief Road
One important piece of news out of the Moab area had to do with a torrential downpour some time in August. The storm literally washed away the switchbacks on Horsethief road coming up from Mineral Bottom. The road is impassable by any vehicle (even a Toyota Land Cruiser.) It can be walked, and I could portage a mountain bike up through the washed out spots, and get a good workout doing it. According to the Grand Junction Sentinel, the damage is going to cost Grand County about 2.5 million dollars to fix, and it will take about 6 months to do so. The estimated loss in revenue is about 5 million dollars! So if you are still planning a river trip with a takeout at Mineral Bottom, or a ride of the White Rim, you will want to review your plans. See the National Park Service website for more info and great photos.

Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch
We did a couple of overnight backpacks in Grand Gulch and its tributaries. On our first overnight we walked in on Government Trail and Nicolai finally got to see Big Man Panel, something he was very excited to do. Our next overnight took us down an unnamed canyon at the lower end of Cedar Mesa known locally as Lookout Canyon. This walk is not for the faint of heart or those that are out of shape, especially when it comes to exiting up the left drainage if you do the loop. Be sure to see our Lookout Canyon Dayhike page at the Desert Explorer website for more details on this hike. The hike is certainly worth it if you are up for it. Nicolai enjoyed the solitude, and we entered the canyon the night after a huge downpour, so we were negotiating not only downclimbs, house-sized boulders, pouroffs, and brush, but also pools and potholes filled with fresh rainwater. Red spotted toads were out in force after the rains. It was a great adventure, especially for a 6-year old.

 

Nicolai sketching the Big Man.

 

Johns Canyon Bikepacking Trip
Next we drove into Johns Canyon as far as is possible with a full-sized vehicle (Johns is spelled with no apostrophe, this is not a typo). After crossing over the drainage in the canyon bottom and heading south out of the canyon, there is a washout that apparently will not be repaired as it has been there for a number of years now and is just getting worse. It stops vehicle travel altogether, although dirt bikes and possibly ATV’s can get past. From this point we got on our bikes and rode most of a day to an even rougher section of what was once the road to the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon. Nicolai made the decision at this point that we should turn back and camp at a nearby switchback. It was a perfect campsite, allowing us to watch the sun set, then Venus, and Jupiter rise in the east.

 

Petroglyph in Johns Canyon- man with headdress, over a meter high.

 

Along the way we saw a number of rock art panels. I am sure we missed a few as well. It seems that this road was also a route used by the ancient inhabitants of the area to reach the San Juan River at the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon. If you do this ride, and plan to go all the way to the river, I recommend not hauling a trailer as we did. Panniers would make the portages through the washouts much easier. Be sure to carry a patch kit and extra tubes!

Unschooling in Southeast Utah
Adventures such as these are a large part of our unschooling experience. Nicolai does not attend school; his learning is largely based on what we decide to do on any given day, and on our travels and adventures, wherever they may take place. Learning for us occurs on many levels, but it is always occurring. For example while on this trip we studied not only the rock art of the basketmaker and Puebloan cultures who inhabited the area, but many other aspects of their cultures such as their technology, farming practices, building methods, food storage and preparation, and hunting strategies.

On our trips we always pay attention to astronomy- the planets and their appearance and disappearance, moon phases, and stellar navigation. On this trip we talked about how our view of the stars and planets differ between the northern and southern hemispheres. We always focus on geology while in Utah- discussing geology there is as necessary as breathing. Utah is a living geology textbook. We incorporate engineering and math into our discussions of ancient cultures, as well as the spiritual aspects of their lives. We discuss military tactics and strategies on our trips as well- Puebloan cultures and their choices for habitation lend well to this topic.  And of course there is the flora and fauna of Utah and our ongoing study of primitive skills. The point here is that learning is not something we do at a desk, and never will be. Learning comes with our daily experiences and we take advantage of every one of them to grow and learn and expand our horizons. For more of our thoughts on unschooling and nature, visit the Desert Explorer Wilderness Kids pages.

Next on the agenda: a trip to the Colorado Canyons. It has been years since I have visited the area, and I have been trying to get back there ever since. A few days exploring Jones Canyon from its mouth is in the works for early November. Check back for more on that trip. See our Colorado Canyons pages for more information on the area.

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4 Responses to Trip Report- Swell Rock Art, Grand Gulch, and Johns Canyon

  1. Karen Olson says:

    WOW…come by and see us please!

    • Hi Karen,
      Thanks for reading about our adventures. We will make it a point to stop by soon. FYI, moderation just means that I need to approve comments, although yours should automatically approve… If it was a rock I could explain it, WordPress I can’t explain.
      See you soon, Gerald and Nicolai

  2. I’ve just returned from Johns – I hiked out to the confluence on the old road, the washout is still there. I also attempted to access the canyon bottom and do that hike as per Kelsey, but unfortunately there is one crux move that I wasn’t comfortable with as I was solo and I’m a bit of a bigger guy.

    I did cairn the route to that point, including access to the pool below the large dryfall – a very worthwhile shorter hike.

    I also hiked up canyon the evening of my arrival for an hour or so, a relatively easy sojourn. There are some very nice campsites just upstream from the ‘Limestone Crossing’.

    Given the proximity to the San Juan Goosenecks and Monument Valley this is a great little adventure, very suitable for the explorer family.

    I also accessed the upper canyon, ‘Main West Fork’ as per Kelsey, a nice challenge and interesting, but not comparing to the rest of Cedar Mesa – including the Bullet Canyon epic, right at my personal limit.

    • Hi Doug,
      Lucky you. Sounds great. I was just talking to someone today about Grand Gulch. Really wish I could make a trip down there now, but it won’t happen till after the first of the year. Last time we were there my son did some splashing around in the pools at the limestone crossing. There were some nice deep spots, and a little waterfall that was great to kick around in during the warm weather. Regarding the washout, I think it has been there for some time now. My understanding is that it will not be repaired, that the road has been left to decay back to its natural state. I think I may have heard that from someone up on Cedar Mesa. Some day I would like to walk it, or bike it, all the way down to Slickhorn. Just for fun. And I haven’t been up John’s too far. Drove up till it ends, and that was the extent of it (Main West Fork I think- the route that takes you to the drill hole up above?) And yes, those campsites under the cottonwoods are nice. We spent a couple of nights there and have talked about going back next summer.
      Gerald

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