Upper South Mill Creek

Round Trip Distance: 11 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 4550 - 5071 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 9 hrs.
Trailhead: Westwater Road
Fee: none
Attractions: lots of petroglyphs

Located in Moab, Utah, along South Mill Creek, between a section of the Steelbender trail and Ken Lake is a 3 mile stretch of canyon with over 50 individual panels of petroglyphs. The various style of petroglyphs have similarities with those found at other sites throughout Eastern Utah and Western Colorado. This post is a feeble attempt at pointing out a handful of the panels that one can expect to find if they choose to visit the area themselves. Even though it is practically within the town of Moab the area is isolated and sees very few hikers.

Those that don't have a suitable 4wd vehicle will need to hike the first 2.2 miles of the Steelbender trail. The closest parking area is near the top of the hill, on the right side of the road, after passing the Moab Golf Course on Westwater Drive. We added the North Steelbender Parking icon to Google Maps for turn-by-turn directions but in the meantime you can enter the coordinates 38.5367, -109.47433 into your driving app for directions. We saw a few stock Jeeps, dirt bikes and 1 ATV on the Steelbender trail. There is one nasty obstacle that comes up right around the 2.2 mile point where the South Mill Creek trail begins that would be too difficult for something like our Toyota Tundra. If we would have driven instead of hiking there were a couple of places right before that obstacle where we could have parked out of the way.

From the parking area on Westwater Drive the route follows the pavement up the hill for a short distance before dropping down into the canyon where the dirt Steelbender trail begins. This first mile long stretch of the route passes through private property and hikers must not leave the road. As the Steelbender trail continues up the canyon it cross Mill Creek several times. The water is normally less than a foot deep with plenty of stepping stones but you will notice that the flash flood level in places is 5 - 6 feet above the road. Right around the 2.2 mile point from the parking area is the staircase obstacle and it is at the top of this where the hard to spot singletrack trail that continues up South Mill Creek begins. It's easier to see the trail once you get across the fence which you can get around on the right.

What is labeled as the 1st Panel is actually the 2nd or 3rd but it is probably the first that is most notable.

There is one small panel just to the left of the 1st Panel that is worth mentioning because it seems to inspire the Coyote Placing the Stars motif, although in a different format from the one in Nine Mile Canyon. There is another panel further around the corner of the 1st Panel near the head of the short side canyon.

About a quarter mile past the 1st Panel there is a small waterfall and about a half mile past is an old cabin.

This Sheep and Spiral panel is past the cabin on the left side of the wash. There is another panel just to the left of this plus 3 others further to the left around the corner that are up high. One of those is even up around the rim.

Panels like this one are pretty high above the canyon floor but as you hike along the left side of the canyon if you stay up on the higher trails rather than drop back down to the creek you can forgo a good bit of effort. This small panel in the photo actually has several more panels on the same bench that we marked with a single waypoint. To waypoint every panel there is would make more of a confusing mess than what we have already made. If we saw something that stood out we created a waypoint.

There are some nice images in this panel that are hard to see because of the bright sunlight. As you can tell the images in the shadow are much easier to see. We've seen people carry one of those car windshield shades that twists up into a little circle for times like this. Of course, you usually need someone with you to hold it up while you take your pictures.

We believe that this is what they are calling the Faded Circles and Necklace Panel although that's not what is depicted here in our opinion. It's a good enough name for a reference though. Much better than the SMC # tags that we used for most of the panels.

This is the left side of the Big Picture Panel and it is only about one half of the very huge panel. By the time that we found it we were too tired to climb all the way up to take closer photos.

 This panel is on the left side of the wash about 150 yards or so from the house that sits in the middle of the wash. There are 1 o 2 other panels nearby. The last panel on the left before you come to the private property is the Bloody Nose Sheep.

This panel is also on the left side of the wash but back in the neighborhood of the Big Picture Panel. It has a lot of interesting images. Notice the surface in the foreground with what looks like a map and to the right of that on the cliff the bighorn with a spiral tail.

This is the Big Cat Panel that is on the west side of the wash. There are at least another half dozen worthwhile panels to see in the same area.

Heading back along the west side of the wash there are one panel right after the other with a varying number of images and themes.

Staying on the trail closest to the cliff makes it easier not to miss anything plus it is the fastest route.

This is part of the  very long Celebration Panel.

The Celebration Panel has quite a few kokopelli flute players. They seem to be celebrating, among other things, fertility, rain, harvest and hunting. Notice the 2 upright atlatls (they are the long poles with the circle near one end).

We read that there are people with something called polydactyly that have extra fingers and toes but some of these petroglyphs, both here and elsewhere, seem to make it appear that 6 fingers and toes were more common at one time.

After having explored the upper area of South Mill Creek we decided that if we do it again we will stay on the left side of the wash all the way to the private property line and then come back along the west side of the wash. The hiking is much more difficult on the left, or east, side where you have to keep scrambling up to see the panels. The west side actually has an old horse or game trail that is easy to hike in comparison. The roundtrip distance can very quite a bit depending on how you go about it. We would be on one side of the wash and see other panels on the other side that we couldn't tell if we had missed or not and we ended up crisscrossing back and forth. The further up the creek you go the more entangled it becomes with willows, Russian olives, mahoni and every other nasty shrub that grows in the area. All in all, the Upper South Mill Creek area with its very high concentration of petroglyphs is a rock art gold mine. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.