Wind in the Rock

The Canyonlands of Southeastern Utah
Ann H. Zwinger



I first saw these five canyons one April, on a trip down the San Juan River. Their names are as evocative to me now as when I first heard them: Johns Canyon. Slickhorn Canyon. Grand Gulch. Steer Gulch. Whirlwind Draw.

The San Juan River, after rising in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, runs southward into New Mexico, loops around Farmington and Shiprock, and then flows northwest through the Four Corners area —the only place in the United States where four states meet. Into Utah, it makes one arc past the small settlements of Aneth, Bluff, and Mexican Hat, and then cuts another, more intricate arc through the wilderness of southeastern Utah before joining the Colorado River above Glen Canyon Dam in what is now Lake Powell. The five canyons drain into that second arc, the river's last free-flowing miles, between Mexican Hat and the Clay Hills.

Going downstream that April I wondered about the breaks in the canyon wall bounding the right side of the river. There was a fifty-foot overhang that marked the mouth of Johns Canyon; at its base was a silt-rimmed plunge pool filled with clear water. I walked half a mile or so up Slickhorn Canyon, enticed by the coral-colored fossils locked in the gray limestone shelves. However, by the time I passed the sandy beach of Grand Gulch, I was miserably sick with flu, and Steer Gulch and Whirlwind Draw went by in a blur before we took out at Clay Hills Crossing. Still, I had wondered, what's above and behind that forbidding lip, that limestone stair, that dry waterfall? Wondered, went home, got well, and put the wondering aside in the press of other commitments.

A few years later, by an odd combination of events, I found myself in southeastern Utah, flying over the Grand Gulch Plateau, which borders the San Juan River on the north, and into which the five canyons are cut. My husband, Herman, who is a pilot, made the flight one clear October morning. Beneath the wing, there was not a farm, not a ranch, not a plowed field, and scarcely a trail—total and remote desolation as far as I could see. North of the San Juan River is "federal lands," administered by the Bureau of Land Management, either as a primitive area or for grazing or mineral rights. From the look on his face, Herman, who has become fairly philosophical about taking me to faraway places with odd-sounding names, must have thought I'd gone bonkers.

The five canyons wander through rough and empty country. Hard. Unyielding. There are no eastern greens, no gentle contours, nothing soft, nothing easy. Hundreds of miles of rock scarcely bluffed by vegetation, rib and vertebra without flesh, rock the color of dried blood, earth the color of old leather, scuffed and rutted, gullied and wrinkled. Most of the time even the sky is hard, such a vibrant, raucous blue, a color with such an edge to it that it is almost impossible to describe.

Curiosity nudged again. I came home and patched together the U.S.G.S. topographical maps that cover the area. The maps themselves indicate the enthusiastic lack of economic interest: there are only 15-minute series maps, no 7.5-minute quadrangles, the standard size available for most of the United States. On these maps, one inch equals a mile, hieratic red section lines imposed like a grid over a complex terrain slip, only sparsely inked with the green overlay that indicates vegetation. And there are places on the Grand Gulch Plateau map where there aren't any section lines drawn at all.

The contour lines on 15-minute maps are at 80-foot intervals and, drawn in brown, resemble scrimshaw; here they are so close on the canyon walls that 1, who am quite nearsighted, must use a magnifying glass to distinguish the intervals—a 1,000-foot descent can nearly be encompassed in a quarter inch.

My curiosity about this country intensified. I wanted very much to get out there and wa1k, explore, discover. To be there. For somehow I sensed that in this harsh landscape lay challenge; in walking there, discovery and delight.

And so I went. I discovered that, like all canyons, they have a powerful sense of direction and this becomes imprinted upon one's way of thinking: there are upcanyon and downcanyon, and one adjusts to that simple fact. More than anywhere else I sensed that here one must fit into the landscape, must know what is there and where, in order to survive. These canyons, like the ocean and the air, are unforgiving. They are not places in which to be cavalier or careless. Whatever direction, it's a long way out.

The canyon walls are, for the most part, formidable vertical barriers. The sandstone, limestone, and shale walls are carved either into overhangs or are sheer drops of hundreds of feet or treacherous talus. In most places they are simply impassable. Once down in the canyon, you're locked in. With plants that are thorny, spiny, hostile. Locked in with the potential of sprained wrists or ankles or broken legs for carelessness. With rattlesnakes—the ubiquitous buzztail, sunning on the rock ledge you're about to haul yourself up onto.

In spite of this, after walking there for days, coming home bug bitten, shins bruised, nose peeling, feet and hands swollen, I feel ablaze with life. I suspect that the canyons give me an intensified sense of living partly because I not only face the basics of living and survival, but carry them on my back. And in my head. And this intense personal responsibility gives me an overwhelming sense of freedom I know nowhere else.


One of the odd things about these five canyons is that, although they drain a relatively small segment of southeastern Utah, they are quite different in aspect. The differences lie in their placement on the Grand Gulch Plateau, the altitude at which they begin, the rock through which they cut. The canyons fan out north of the river like fingers on a hand: Johns Canyon farthest east; then Slickhorn; third and longest, Grand Gulch; and last Steer Gulch and Whirlwind Draw, the westernmost.

Taking the farthest tracing of the broken blue lines that indicate intermittent streams on the U.S.G.S. maps, Grand Gulch begins far up on Elk Ridge, its blanket of trees made possible by an altitude of 6,800 feet, which enables it to garner slightly more rainfall than the lower canyons. It does not truly become a canyon until it cuts into the massive Cedar Mesa Sandstone that blankets the plateau; then the entire canyon is entrenched in this sandstone, walls sometimes 500 feet or more high. It was named by a group of Mormon missionaries who traversed the Grand Gulch Plateau in 1880 and had to find a way around the head of this forbidding canyon. Grand Gulch is the largest of the San Juan's tributary canyons, and its 53 miles to the river proved a formidable deterrent to their crossing.

The Cedar Mesa Sandstone has weathered into large overhangs and shelters. These, combined with an open canyon floor in some reaches, a gentle gradient, and reliable water, provided places of habitation for the prehistoric Anasazi Indians who populated the plateau and at various periods utilized the canyon for living and farming and storage and burials. A multitude of prehistoric sites and their accompanying rock art lend to Grand Gulch a unique presence.

The Grand Gulch Plateau stretches over part of the Monument Upwarp, a tremendous low dome some 35 miles wide and 100 miles long that stretches from the Colorado River on the west to Comb Ridge on the east, and from the junction of the Green and Colorado rivers on the north to near Kayenta, Arizona, on the south. The upwarp elevates earlier ocean-laid sediments high enough to be incised by the two easternmost of the five canyons.

These older rock strata appear downcanyon in both Slickhorn and Johns, which is on the crest of the upwarp. Slickhorn was named after a distinctive herd of longhorns that ran in the canyon; Johns, after John Oliver, a rancher who kept cattle there. Fossiliferous gray limestones of the Pennsylvanian Age Hermosa Formation give specific character to the lower reaches of both canyons. In this dry climate limestone is a resistant rock that terminates both canyons in a spectacular series of stairsteps—walkable steps in the case of Slickhorn, descending to the San Juan River, and giant untreadable steps in the case of Johns, permitting no access to or from the river.

Red Halgaito Shale, which separates Cedar Mesa Sandstone from the gray limestones, is thin in Slickhorn, but in Johns, in the mid to upper reaches, forms a slanting red base for the vertical ivory sandstone walls above. Johns is the only canyon that has a broad alluvium-filled middle reach, the canyon walls a mile apart here. Because it is on the crest of the upwarp, it must cut deepest to reach the river, a drop of some 2,800 feet in 12 or so miles, and in doing so exposes the Honaker Trail Formation, the oldest rock in the immediate area.

Flanking Grand Gulch on the west is Steer Gulch. Steer Gulch quirks through flatter country but also drops off precipitously as it reaches the river. Here steers, culled out of the herd grazed on the plateau, were kept prior to being driven to market, hence its name. The westernmost canyon is Whirlwind Draw. Whirlwind begins at about 5,600 feet on the flank of the Clay Hills, the western boundary of the Grand Gulch Plateau. Named because of the dust devils that whirl up it in the spring, it drops quickly from the escarpment of the Clay Hills to a flat sandy terrace with few trees, running through low wandering banks, picking up little gullies along the way. Scarcely six miles long, Whirlwind ends at the San Juan River in a succession of impassable dry sandstone waterfalls.

None of these canyons bear perennial streams. Although there are rings, they are few and far between, and Steer Gulch and Whirlwind Draw have none. The canyons run with water only after a good rain, often in flash floods that clean off the stream bed and scour the walls and bore out the potholes a sand grain deeper and cascade over the usually dry waterfalls, and burst over the cliff walls like the jets from a dozen firehoses.


I would like to think that I could be set down blindfolded in any one of these canyons and know where I was when I could see: in the sandy reaches of Whirlwind Draw with the brilliant chunks of petrified wood washed down from the Clay Hills, or on the broad and open area of Johns, threaded with cattle trails, or beneath the overhangs of Grand Gulch, or upon the elegant limestone steps, inlaid with reflecting pools, of Slickhorn Canyon. I think in less than a mile of walking I would know. For, beyond the obvious physical characteristics, one begins to have a feel for each canyon itself—its way of going, its way of defining the sky, its way of turning, that belongs to it alone.

That kind of aware walking brings rewards. There is nothing vicarious or secondhand about walking there; instead, I have an exhilarating sense of immediacy. I'm not watching it or reading about it, I'm here, right now, experiencing it. When I crawl across a foot-wide ledge with nothing below, nearly nauseated with fear; when I claw up a sandstone wall, plastered against its abrasive curve; when I heave myself onto the top rim to see a view of such splendor that wonder washes away all my apprehension about getting back down; when I do what I knew I could not do—then I have a heady taste of glory.

To me there is an enchantment in these dry canyons that once roared with water and still sometimes do, that absorbed the voices of those who came before, something of massive dignity about sandstone beds that tell of a past long before human breathing, that bear the patterns of ancient winds and water in their crossbeddings.

Here I find something of necessity. Were I to discover that I could not walk here again, something essential would be missing from my life.

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Copyright © 1978. Ann H. Zwinger
All Rights Reserved

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