Virgin Spring Canyon

Round Trip Distance: 14 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5172 - 5315 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars (signal near trailhead)
Time: 7 hrs.
Trailhead: Fuller Bottom/Dutch Flat Rd.
Fee: none
Attractions: Rock art, scenic canyon

Virgin Spring Canyon is located in the Sid's Mountain Wilderness Area in Emery County, Utah. Along with Cane Wash and Salt Wash it is one of the main tributary side canyons along the 15 mile stretch of the San Rafael River between Fuller Bottom and Buckhorn Draw. This post is for a hike that begins at the west trailhead on the Fuller Bottom end and heads downstream to the mouth of Virgin Spring Canyon where 2 very nice Barrier Canyon Style pictograph panels can be found within a quarter mile of the river. Two more petroglyph sites in the main canyon can be found as an added bonus. The crux of the otherwise easy hike is that it requires wading across the San Rafael River 11 times in each direction. During the fall when the water level is low 3 of the crossings are knee deep with the rest being boot deep or less. (If you are accustomed to carrying your cellphone in your cargo shorts you might want to put it in a dry bag.)

The trailhead can be approached from either Castle Dale or Ferron. From Castle Dale it is about 18.5 miles to the Fuller Bottom crossing and another 1.2 miles to the trailhead. While that is the fastest route with the best roads there are some very deep sand bogs near Fuller Bottom that require a high clearance 4wd vehicle. There can also be places with deep powder via the Dutch Flat Road coming from Ferron and 4wd is also recommended for that route. Two wheel drive vehicles can make it easily to Fuller Bottom but that will of course add another 2.4 miles to the total round trip distance. For out latest trip we came in from Castle Dale and left via Ferron.

The trailhead that is 1.2 miles from Fuller Bottom is at the top of a hill on the south side of the river. From there a trail leads around a wash and down to the river where it joins another trail from Fuller Bottom that is used mostly by cattle and horses. 

The first water crossing is right at the 1 mile point and it is one of the deeper ones. It was just over knee deep on this trip. Trekking poles can be your best friend for maintaining your balance where there is slick mud and for probing ahead to avoid any deeper holes.

Stay to the left after the first crossing as though heading toward the mouth of a side canyon. Avoid following any of the cow trails that cross the river again. Just past the mouth of the side canyon there is a nice petroglyph site. 

The petroglyphs are at the base of the cliff maybe 30-40 feet higher than the trail. To get a closer look you can scramble up the loose talus slope. There are a few more petroglyphs that can be spotted on rocks a little further downstream and further from the trail. We used the zoom lens rather than trying to hike up to them.

From those petroglyphs the trail stays on the north side of the canyon traveling across a bench well above the river. Once the trail gets back down to the river the next couple of crossings are shallow if you find the best places to cross. Cows that graze in the canyon during the summer create a lot of side trails that lead through thick brush and tamarisks. If you happen to get led astray by one of those trails it is well worth it to backtrack and re-find the main route. Salt Wash comes up at the 2.8 mile point presenting an interesting backpacking opportunity that includes at least another half dozen sites to visit.

The hiking continues to be pretty easy between Salt Wash and the mouth of Virgin Spring Canyon. Most of the wading is also between those two canyon. The mouth of the canyon is narrow and the muddy bottom is slick. Stay to the left to keep from going in over your knees.

After crossing into the mouth of the canyon it is only about 1,200 feet to the 2 pictograph panels. They are both on the right hand (west) side and maybe 20 feet above the wash. They are easier to spot if you aren't right in the bottom of the wash. Watch for a little bench on the left that is only a few feet higher than the bottom of the wash but not the higher bench that is maybe 10 feet higher. Once you get right in front of the panels there is a brown carsonite post warning not to write on the rocks. If you start hiking around a bend in the canyon that goes to your right then you went too far. Many intricate details can still be seen of anthropomorphic images holding atlatls, spears, darts and other accessories. The image on the left with what looks like a bird head is a little reminiscent of the Egyption god Osiris.

The second panel is just as interesting but hard to get a good photo of in direct sunlight. I was trying to travel light and left the lens that I needed back in the truck. 

After wading back across the river there is a nice panel of petroglyphs on a ledge several hundred feet away that is well worth taking the time to investigate. 

The artist or shaman that created the panel had a style all of their own. 

We marked a few other sites on the map that are further downstream. Late summer and fall are the best times for this hike with all the wading involved. We made this hike in mid October and by then the days were getting almost too short even though the temperature was perfect. If you stick to the main trail the hiking is pretty easy and you can make good time. Getting into the water to make the first crossing is all it takes to get used to the idea. After that it becomes part of the adventure. At times it is even refreshing. Most people that go through the canyon are river rats but for that you need a raft and 2 vehicles. We came across a couple of cowboys on horseback that were on a roundup. If you want to go the horseback route you will probably have to park your trailer near Fuller Bottom and start from there. You might be able to cut the round trip distance down to around 12.5 miles if you don't do a lot of wandering around. We goofed off a lot and ended up with 16.5 miles. This is a special place however you decide to go about it. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.