Cottonwood Wash

Round Trip Distance: 2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 4863 - 4937 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 2 hrs.
Trailhead: Cottonwood Canyon
Fee: none
Attractions: rock art, arches, scenic canyon

Cottonwood Wash is a jewel of the San Rafael Swell between Green River and Price, Utah. Located in the northeast corner of one of the Swell's least visited areas the majestic canyon offers easy hiking and backpacking with springs of water, natural arches and at least three large rock art sites. And all of that is just within the first mile of the canyon.

To get there from Green River take Interstate 70 Exit 157 and follow Highway 191 toward Price for 4.5 miles and turn left just before mile marker 295 onto the unmarked Smith Camp Road. At the 2.2 mile point turn right and bear left at the 3.5 mile point. Turn right again at the 6.6 mile point just before reaching the Smith Cabin. Up to this point the road is suitable for 2wd vehicles but high clearance 4wd is recommended for the rest of the way. Bear right at the 7.8 mile point and at the 9.5 mile point continue past the sign for the Upper Cottonwood Wash Trailhead. At the 11.2 mile point turn left at the sign that says 'Cottonwood Canyon Hiking'. Cottonwood Canyon can also be reached from the north by following the Green River Cutoff Road for 12 miles and turning south onto the Cottonwood Wash Road. Continue past Big Hole Wash at the 2.3 mile point and reach the Cottonwood Canyon Hiking sign at the 8.2 mile point from the Green River Cutoff Road or the 20.2 mile point from Highway 191. The southern route is 9 miles shorter and both routes have multiple spots where medium to high clearance and possibly 4wd are necessary.

After turning off of the Cottonwood Wash Road it is another third of a mile to the trailhead.

The trailhead has a primitive campsite and a loop that is large enough for someone pulling a horse trailer to turn around.

The route that leads up to the first panel of petroglyphs comes up about 500 feet from the trailhead. Watch for a slickrock ramp that leads up to a flat section of the cliff on the right hand side of the canyon. All that is needed is a little traction to get started on the slickrock after which it becomes an easy gradual climb.

The panel covers a large section of the cliff and most of the images still show up well even in direct sunlight. The way that some of the images fade away into the cavities of the cliff makes it appear that at the time this panel was created the entire face of the cliff may have had a smooth surface.

Back down in the floor of the canyon the hiking is easy and enjoyable.

On the left side of the canyon there are several caves that catch your attention. As you pass the caves and look back you can see Mystic Eye Arch.

Also on the left at the half mile point from the trailhead you can look up and see Cottonwood Wash Arch.

Directly across from Cottonwood Wash Arch there is a faint trail that climbs up to a shallow alcove where you can access two more rock art areas.

The alcove has a handful of Barrier Canyon Style pictographs as well as a number of petroglyphs. Unfortunately sometime in the past someone chalked and charcoaled most of the petroglyphs. The damaged caused by what was once considered an acceptable practice is obvious. Today with digital photography it is easy enough to enhance or trace images on a computer. Remember to be careful around the rock art and that even damage caused accidentally is prosecutable.

To get to the next panel that is about 100 feet back to the east you can either stay close the face of the cliff or follow a faint trail around some large boulders and talus fill. Here a large section of the nice and flat face of the cliff is covered with various images of bighorn, birds and anthropomorphic characters that all appear to have stories to tell.

We continued hiking up to the one mile point before turning around. The canyon beckons for another visit when it isn't quite as hot as it was well into the 90's on this day.

We spotted a small rattlesnake near the trailhead as we were starting out that retreated into a hole before we could get a better picture. Rattlesnakes are common in the San Rafael Swell so keep them in mind.

One the hike back to the trailhead we heard a couple of people that seemed to be looking for the petroglyphs to no avail. We would have gladly shared their location if we had caught up to them before they left. We spotted all 3 sites from the wash with our binoculars but if you have a general idea where the first panel is and know the other 2 are right across from Cottonwood Wash Arch then they are all pretty easy to find.

We can only speak for the first mile of Cottonwood Canyon but the mouth of it is like a desert oasis. The Old Spanish trail traveled some of the same route as the Cottonwood Wash Road and they surely looked forward to finding water there as much as the canyons ancient inhabitants. On the day we were there we saw bighorn tracks within the canyon and a herd of antelope out in the desert. Couple those sources of food and water with the natural caves that would have provided shelter and it's easy to see why there are 3 large rock art sites within such a short distance. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.