Unspoiled wonders show how Utah’s earliest farmers survived in the arid desert.
In 2002, I received a phone call from the Bureau of Land Management asking if I would be willing to take a look at the archaeology of a little-known place called Range Creek. It was, for all intents and purposes, unknown to the public because the crusty old rancher who owned the private parcels had for decades kept the gates locked to outside visitors. But the rancher, Waldo Wilcox, was selling out to a nonprofit for conservation purposes, and the entire drainage would soon become public lands.
Along with Duncan Metcalfe, curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah, we decided to spend the day with Wilcox. He took us to site after jaw-dropping site that left us speechless with wonder. There were ancient granaries tucked on inaccessible cliff faces, some glued to the sheer canyon walls with cantilevers. There were villages spread along the ridge lines and rock-art sites, some painted in a rainbow of colors.
And we were seeing something that neither of us had seen before: Range Creek was an intact human landscape unspoiled by looters’ shovels and graffiti.
We jumped at the chance to be the first archaeologists in roughly 50 years to investigate Range Creek, and in less than a week, a coalition of volunteers had documented more than 50 sites in the canyon unknown to the archaeological world. In the years that followed, more than 500 sites would be documented, each an important page in the prehistory of Utah’s earliest farmers, the Fremont Complex that dates from about AD 500 to 1300.
We managed to keep the gates locked and our discoveries secret for several years, but despite our best intentions, word leaked and hordes of international media descended on the canyon to see first-hand the unspoiled wonder. Granted, most probably left disappointed—the ruins there are not on par with Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon. The real treasure of Range Creek Canyon is in the layer upon layer of undisturbed deposits, each representing an important chapter in in how ancient farmers managed to thrive in arid environments where it is extremely difficult to do so today despite our advanced technologies.
Because of the scientific importance of Range Creek, ownership of the canyon was transferred eventually to the University of Utah, which has established a scientific research field station where graduate students delve into the ancient mysteries of the region.
And the gates remained locked to discourage looters.
But visitors are allowed and even encouraged to share in the remarkable wonders found there, although there are hoops to jump through if you plan to visit.
There are two ways to visit Range Creek Canyon: The easy way or the hard way.
The easy way is to book a guided tour with one of four partners who have permits to drive into the canyon: Canyonlands Field Institute, Carbon County Outdoor Recreation, Hondoo River and Trails, and the Tavaputs Guest Ranch.
The advantage of this approach is that you get to see so much more of the canyon. The guides are exceptional at helping you spot the ruins that might otherwise seem camouflaged along the 13 miles of canyon bottom between the locked gates and the Wilcox Ranch where the U’s research station is located.
The disadvantage is that there is no time for hiking and exploring, and the experience is not conducive to private reflections on prehistoric lifeway in the canyon (it can seem quite rushed because there are so many sites along the way).
The hard way is also the most personal way to enjoy the canyon: Day hiking into the canyon from the locked gate (horses are also allowed but I have never tried that means of access). This allows you plenty of time to explore and discover the archaeology much as we first did in 2002.
- If you choose this latter approach, there are a few rules and pieces of advice:
- You will need a hiking permit from the Natural History Museum of Utah. Permits are required for everyone in your party over age 5, but a season pass is only $1 per person.
- No camping is allowed inside the locked gate, so you will be required to hike in and hike out on the same day. There is a campground just outside the locked gates.
- Season-pass holders can visit as many times during the year as they would like, but not for more than five consecutive days and you have to have advance reservations (the number of canyon visitors is limited to no more than 25 per day).
- You will need to plan on carrying plenty of water (drinking the creek water is not recommended). You are a long way from assistance.
- There are no exhibits or interpretive signs, and you are on your own to find the ruins and rock art, although many sites are visible from the road.
Always remember to respect the past. It is a nonrenewable resource. And Range Creek is a reminder that we have so much more to learn from the ancients.
Jerry D. Spangler is executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of archaeological treasures on public lands in Utah and other Western states.