Quickstart Guide: Cedar Mesa & Grand Gulch, Utah || Wild archaeological epicenter

Green Mask petroglyphs, Grand Gulch, Utah

Years ago I was turned on to Cedar Mesa by Alan Dixon, but needed inspiration this spring from the roamings of Paul Magnanti to plan a trip of my own there. It was a perfect couples trip for Amanda and me: the wilderness that I needed after a winter inside, with an additional and more unique dimension for her.

What is Cedar Mesa?

Cedar Mesa is an uninhabited 400-square-mile plateau in the southeastern corner of Utah, with elevations ranging from 4,500 to 7,000 vertical feet above sea level. Starting below Elk Ridge in the north, the cedar-covered mesa slopes southwards to the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado; it is bordered by Comb Ridge to the east and Grand Gulch to the west.

The original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument set by President Obama included Cedar Mesa, but the new boundaries established by President Trump do not.

What is Grand Gulch?

Most of the eastern half of Cedar Mesa is drained by Grand Gulch, a mostly dry meandering canyon that runs about 50 miles in length and that has a dozen named tributaries like Bullet, Shieks, Todie, and Cow Tank. It flows into the San Juan River, and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Grand Gulch Wilderness Study Area.

Why should I go?

Cedar Mesa has many of the same appeals as other destinations in southern Utah: it’s a wilderness playground of deep canyons, lonesome plaeteaus, and endless slickrock.

Lower Bullet Canyon, typical southern Utah canyon country, with vertical walls and lots of slickrock

But Cedar Mesa — and Grand Gulch, in particular — has one additional appeal: thousands of Ancestral Puebloan cliff ruins and rock art.

Yellow House Ruins, upper Shieks Canyon

Overall, Cedar Mesa combines a wilderness experience on par with the Dirty Devil, Escalante, or Dark Canyon with an archaeological experience of a scaled-down Mesa Verde National Park. You will not find tourists, paved walking trails, restrictive backcountry regulations, and a glossy visitor center here.

Perfect Kiva in Bullet Canyon. It has been restored and reinforced so that you can climb down into it.

How do I get there?

Cedar Mesa is in a figurative middle-of-nowhere. It’s:

  • 2 hours from Moab,
  • 3 hours from Durango,
  • 4 hours from Flagstaff, and
  • 5.5 hours from Salt Lake City.

It cannot be reached with public transit. A personal or rental vehicle is necessary.

What is the best time of year to go?

Cedar Mesa is a high desert. Winters are surprisingly blustery, and summers are insanely hot. Spring and fall are ideal.

Personally, I prefer the second half of April: new leaves and sprouts inject a lively color, and the days are pleasantly long.

Where can I stay and eat?

There are no commercial services on Cedar Mesa. Bring all the food and water you will need, and plan to car-camp or wilderness camp.

On your approach to or departure from the area, find limited services in the historically Mormon communities of Blanding and Bluff, as well as Mexican Hat. Expect small grocery stores, tired-looking motels, and short business hours.

We had a very good experience with Canyonlands Lodging at their facility south of Monticello. We also considered Stone Lizard Lodging in Blanding, but it was full.

The kitchenette in the very cute, very clean, and very comfortable Silver Cabin Room at Canyonlands Lodging

What should I bring?

A recommended gear list is beyond the scope of this quickstart guide. Consult my gears lists and The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide for discussions of appropriate gear, supplies, and skills.

In general, be prepared for ample sunshine, brushy canyon bottoms, fine sand, and (usually) little water.

Is Cedar Mesa suitable for beginner backpackers?

I would not recommend Cedar Mesa for first-time or beginner backpackers, unless accompanied by someone with more experience. It’s an unforgiving place with few gimmes. The roads and trailheads are well marked, but otherwise there is no signage. The most popular canyons have unmaintained use trails with unreliable cairns. Water is scarce. Cell service is non-existent.

None of the use trails are maintained, and some are quite rugged. Shieks Canyon had several steep pitches up crumbly slopes of hardened mud.

What should I do while I’m there?

Cedar Mesa is appropriate for car-camping, day-hiking, and backpacking. I did not see promising terrain for or evidence of mountain biking or off-roading.

The San Juan is navigable, and a terrific (albeit ambitious) loop could be made by floating from Slickhorn Canyon to Grand Gulch.

The most popular canyons are those closest to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and Highway 261. Loops can be formed by combining Grand Gulch proper with the side-canyons of Kane, Toadie, Coyote, Shieks, or Bullet. These loops do entail some overland travel that’s comparable to navigating the open ocean: there are few landmarks.

Do I need permits or to be aware of other important regulations?

A permit from the BLM is required to overnight camp in most Cedar Mesa canyons and to visit some day-use areas. More information. The permit can be reserved beforehand on Recreation.gov, and must be picked up from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station between 8 AM and noon.

Fires are not permitted in the canyons or on the mesa. Pack out toilet paper, because it does not degrade quickly in this environment. And do not foul the water sources.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, please “take only photographs and leave only footprints” in Cedar Mesa. The ecosystem is very sensitive, and the ruins and rock art even more so.

Unnamed ruins in a deep alcove in Grand Gulch, between Bullet and Shieks Canyons

Where can I get more info?

The BLM has free maps and brochures.

For weather at Kane Gulch, use this point forecast from the National Weather Service.

AmericanSouthwest.net has good information about many of the canyons.

National Geographic Trails Illustrated offers a good overview map of the area, helpful for transportation and trip planning.

Use CalTopo to plan your route in greater detail and to print small-scale topographic maps, including USGS 7.5-minute tiles.

Peter Tassoni has written the sole guidebook for the area, A Hiking Guide To Cedar Mesa. It is the most comprehensive reference, and can supplement or be supplemented by online information.

Have questions about Cedar Mesa or Grand Gulch, or would you like to share your experience there? Leave a comment.

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  1. Phil Barton on April 24, 2018 at 9:05 pm

    Very cool! Bikepacking is a real alternative for Cedar Mesa. Here’s a suggested loop that also ties in to side hikes. http://www.bikepacking.com/routes/bikepacking-cedar-mesa/

  2. Debby Carnine on April 25, 2018 at 11:24 am

    Amazing place, probably the best backcountry destination I’ve been to. Recommendations for shoes? Meshy LaSportiva trail runners don’t work so well in sand.

    • Andrew Skurka on April 25, 2018 at 2:38 pm

      I wore Salewa Lite Train, https://andrewskurka.com/2016/review-salewa-lite-train-trail-running-shoes/, exactly for this reason. The uppers are breathable, but not open-pored. Some sand still got inside, but not nearly as much as would have otherwise.

      Besides the upper material, the Lite Train fit me better than any other shoe I have. They’re also low to the ground, which is great for uneven surfaces.

      Most people will not like this shoe, however: there is not enough cush, and it’s narrow fit. Impact-resistance is also lacking. A better option on all of these accounts is the La Sportiva Bushido.

  3. Norm on April 25, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    A really nice place to stay in Bluff is La Posada Pintada.

  4. Chris Ramias on April 25, 2018 at 10:57 pm

    One of my favorite areas in the southwest. If you visit, and stay nearby, please consider doing some research to ensure you are not patronizing a business that opposes the monument. Unfortunately, there isn’t an authoritative source for this info, but once you’ve selected potential lodging, you may find useful info by googling. In general, businesses and citizens in Blanding and Monticello trend towards anti-monument stances, while businesses in Bluff and Mexican Hat have a more friendly relationship with outdoorspeople, thanks to the long history of rafting on the San Juan.

    This calculus is easier in Grand Staircase, as all the members of the boulder-escalante chamber of commerce support the monument, which is nearly all the businesses in those towns. The main exception in this region is Ruby’s Inn, outside Bryce, whose owner has been vocally pro-Trump and anti-monument.

    • Mark Paulsen on May 16, 2018 at 8:53 am

      Seems to me that this is exactly the wrong way to think of interacting with the locals, who may well have some legitimate concern about the approach of the industrial tourism/recreation complex. Wouldn’t it be better to meet them with an open mind and see what kind of relationship might develop. Each side might learn something…and find that we are all just regular people.

    • Doug on February 14, 2019 at 8:12 pm

      why do you place your opinion and what you want on the locals that live and make a living their???

    • Sean Neves on April 3, 2019 at 9:24 pm

      I’ll be clear. I’ve been wandering southern Utah for 30 years. The most clear and present danger to our canyons is Instagram and Patagonia et al. What the REI culture has wrought upon our delicate southern ecosystem cannot be measured. Please, for the love of all that is sacred, speak with your dollars and spend them ELSEWHERE. Stop defacating in our canyons and peeing in our rivers. The last time (no really the last time) I went to Cyote Gulch there weren’t more than 12 inches between Subarus with REI stickers on them. The shear human filth in the canyon brought me to tears. I still haven’t seen an oil rig down there. I got nees for ya: YOU are the problem.

    • Waldorf S. on April 9, 2019 at 7:23 pm

      I found this to be a good point to consider despite what other’s have expressed in their reply. Some quick research on your own will show the city of Blanding has been very hostile to the monument. I may or may not be a big deal for you, but you should also be aware it is a dry town – zero alcohol served or even available for purchase in the city limits.
      I was just in several of the canyon and yes, there were people, but covered in filth? Hardly. We saw maybe 5-8 people in 2 or 3 groups when we were hiking.
      The reason I won’t support Blanding business is simply – they are fighting the protections to keep the place I love pristine so my kids and my grandkids can have and see the exact same place I did – something that is getting very difficult to do as time moves on.

      • Sean Neves on April 10, 2019 at 5:30 pm

        Thanks for the reply. You seem to be a person who values wilderness etc. National Monuments and Parks are not about wilderness. Keep in mind that SUWA and crew had an opportunity to protect 2.3 Million acres with the PLI and they rejected it whole heartedly. Wilderness is the designation, not NM. NM brings the crowds. I have no problem finding solitude down there, but good luck in upper Grand Gulch. I’m also careful not to tag my locations or post pictures on social media. Patagonia’s fly-overs showing place names to millions on Youtube do not help.

      • Dairmud McMurrough on May 13, 2022 at 7:13 pm

        I have to laugh reading these comments. April 2022 the National monument has announced the closing of Turkey Pen and other sites BECAUSE of increased tourism brought on by the Bears Ears controversey. Now everyone knows about Cedar Mesa because of the monument. There was never a mining or oil threat because of antiquities laws but the tourists are doing the damage. Monument personnel are spending money on road closures and fences. Now only Archaelologists will have keys. Thanks a bunch

        • Mark Paulsen on May 13, 2022 at 7:36 pm

          The outdoor recreational industrial complex had arrived full force

  5. Mitch R. on April 30, 2018 at 6:00 pm

    Recommend that you add technical canyoneering to your skill set. It will give you a different perspective of places like Cedar Meas.

  6. Kurt on December 7, 2018 at 3:43 pm

    Actually, Grand Gulch is on the WEST side of Cedar Mesa. But if people get lost and never find it, that is probably a good thing!

  7. Hikergrl on May 9, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    Do you have tips on storing food in this area? Are bears an issue?

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