Step Canyon

Round Trip Distance: 8.4 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5650 - 6256 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 7 hrs.
Trailhead: Step Canyon
Fee: $5/person
Attractions: Ruins & rock art

Step Canyon is a tributary of the Grand Gulch that is located in the Cedar Mesa Area west of Blanding, Utah. The main branch of Step Canyon stretches for over 8 miles from its upper reaches down to the Grand Gulch. This post covers the first 4 miles of the canyon beginning near where it is crossed by the Emigrant trail and includes 7 or more ruins, a cowboy camp, some nice pictographs and numerous petroglyphs.

To get to the trailhead drive west on UT-95 from Highway 191 for just over 34 miles. Look for San Juan County Road 2301, the Mormon Trail, on the south side of the highway across from the west end of a long parking area that is on the north side of  Highway 95. After passing through a gate there is a kiosk where the requisite fee can be paid before preceding.

From Highway 95 measure 2.7 miles to a large area of slickrock with a cairn that marks the trailhead. The road is very smooth except for the last couple hundred yards. Many people choose to park when the road first starts getting rough and walk the last hundred yards or so. When you begin hiking don't follow the Mormon/Emigrant Trail any longer but head south across the slickrock and a little to the left to find a spot to descend off of the sandstone dome.

With no marked trail to follow the general idea is to plot a route over to the nearby drainage in the southwest direction. Once the wash is reached follow it downstream to a large spillover. The best route to get below the spillover it to hike around on the right until a spot is found to get down to the next level. Follow that level back toward the spillover to where it is easy to walk down the slickrock and get into the bottom of the wash. You might notice a route that runs down the south edge of this side canyon but going that way will cause you to miss some nice ruins.

The nice ruins that were mentioned are tucked away beneath overhangs on the north side of the wash a short distance from the spillover. These are 2 of the well preserved granaries.

After the first ruins continue down the side canyon to the main branch of Step Canyon and head downstream toward Grand Gulch. There are a couple of spots that require some minor scrambling down short spillovers that are followed by a narrow section that is tangled with willows and brush but it is all fairly easy to navigate. As you head down the main wash there will be a scenic pillar that comes into view on the left near the 2 mile point from the trailhead. As you approach closer to the pillar keep your eyes on the right side of the canyon for a shallow wash where you can look up and see a nice cliff dwelling.

There is still one room that is completely intact as well as others in ruins on both sides. There is even an interesting granary far off to the right that has a back wall built up against the crevice of the cliff. Even further around to the east side of the same bench is a small wall fragment that isn't really worth the effort to hike around to for a closer look.

Near the 2.6 mile point, counting the 0.2 mile excursion up to the last ruin, there is the first of 2 spillovers near the mouth of a side canyon. These are easy to bypass by scrambling up on the left of the first spillover, cutting across the mouth of the side canyon, and getting back into the bottom of the wash on the left side of the next spillover.

From those double spillovers it is about another 1.4 miles to the Cowboy Camp. Depending upon how many times you leave the wash to cut across switchbacks your overall distance may vary but the Cowboy Camp is right on the edge of the wash and would be very hard to miss. Once you find the Cowboy Camp the rest of the ruins and rock art are a cinch to find.

On the east end of the Cowboy Camp alcove there is a tin can hanging from a wire. Looking up at the ceiling in this area reveals some nice red and yellow pictographs. The way that these images are arranged in an arc give them a fisheye look. Besides this little panel there are also some nice handprints scattered about.

Practically under the same overhang as the Cowboy Camp on the west side above a sidewash are a few more ruins.

 Next to one of the ruins is a most prodigious pile of corncobs.

Looking on up toward the top of the cliff a trail can be spotted that leads up to a long set of ledge ruins. The longest section of wall is build like a defensive fortress with holes situated through which to spy and launch darts and such. We don't know enough to say whether bow and arrows were around at the time that these ruins were in use. We didn't notice any images of bow and arrows but we did see atlatls.

There are many large boulders on the slope below these ruins that are decorated with petroglyphs.

Some of these are even visible from the main wash below. The large anthropomorphic image with a snake on either side is a motif that we have seen elsewhere.

Carefully examining each side of the boulders and even the tops reveals many interesting images.

High up on one boulder there are several ducks, an atlatl, at least one dancer and a long snake with a 90 degree crook that points off to the left. Similar images of these designs can be found throughout the area of Cedar Mesa revealing a sort of kinship amongst the different sites.

Very little information was available to the general public about Step Canyon when we first visited it back in 2018. We had read a little about it in a book we had but it is obvious that the author hadn't hiked much more than the first couple of miles of the canyon. Step Canyon does provide access into the Grand Gulch but it is about another 4.5 miles from the Cowboy Camp to the gulch. It is a little over a mile from the Cowboy Camp to Pine Canyon. We have a book that mentions a Step Canyon/Pine Canyon Loop but hiking back to your vehicle across the top of the mesa without a trail might be a brutal trek. Anyway, as a ranger once told us 'you can't go wrong hiking Step Canyon'. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.