Grand Gulch Below the Narrows: Where to find the Perfect Campsite


This looks like a pretty good fall campsite, don’t you think?   Lots of afternoon sun , reflected warmth from the canyon walls during the night, nice clear water in pot holes fifty feet away,


These pot holes might not look like much, but finding beautiful clear water like this in the desert southwest will make your day!

and even a cute little fireplace that someone built – even though fires aren’t allowed in Grand Gulch.   It’s nice to look at though.


Of course, sun in the afternoon means no sun in the morning, but that’s when we have coffee to warm us up, so it’s O.K.


Not a bad view to wake up to.

I’ve written about Grand Gulch before.  It’s one of my favorite places, and even after many visits we’ve only begun to discover its wonders.    It’s never crowded, and the stretch of the Gulch from the Collins Canyon trailhead to the San Juan River is particularly uncrowded:  on our recent three day hike there we saw only 4 people, and they were all day-hikers.

The hike starts out by travelling down Collins Canyon.  I’m not aware of any ruins or rock art in Collins, but you do pass by an old cowboy camp that’s fun to explore:

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At the bottom of Collins, head down Grand Gulch.  (By the way – it’s easy to miss the confluence with Grand Gulch.  One of the day hikers we met wanted to hike up Grand, but he ended up going down canyon because he thought he was still in Collins Canyon.  He had a nice hike anyway, but not where he wanted to go.)

The Gulch goes through an area called The Narrows, which can be full of water in the spring.  Not a problem in the fall.

The last time we went through the narrows this debris was not stuck.  Wouldn't want to be here during that flood!

The last time we went through the narrows this debris was not trapped between the walls. Wouldn’t want to be here during that flood!

The perfect campsite is about 3/4 mile below The Narrows, at the top of a little drainage that comes in on the left side of the canyon.   It’s not too close to the trail, so if you want to find it you’ll need to do some exploring.

It’s definitely worth staying a few nights to explore the canyon without heavy backpacks.  On a long day hike our second day we came to a meadow that was full of Chukars.   Chukars are partridge like birds that were brought from the middle east years ago for hunting.  They are chubby and cute and entertaining, and there were hundreds of them in Chukar Meadow.    They prefer to run from danger and they seem to have no problem running straight up cliffs.

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One was even obliging enough to to run under a pictograph of a quail.  (See the handprints on the wall as well?)


The goal of our hike that day was a panel of rock art that I remembered from our last visit.  It of course was further than I thought it should be, but after a few more miles we found it.  And yes, it is still amazing.  My favorites on this panel are the two folks waving up the canyon:


These two ravens are a close second, though:


There’s so much to see on this panel.

Tennis player?

Tennis player?

Guys cut in half…

Big horn sheep and baby.

It’s not hard to see why the Anasazi chose this spot for the panel.  You can see it from a long way off, and the wavers on the panel have a great view as well:


Back at camp, our view wasn’t too bad, either!


Posted in Adventure, Backpacking, Hiking, Nature, Southwest hikes, Wildlife | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Full Moon at Sunrise Over the Rocky Mountain Front

7:00 a.m., November 6, 2014.  Freezout Lake, Montana 







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Another Secret Ruin

It doesn’t get much better than spending days wandering the canyons and gulches of Cedar Mesa, looking for rock art and ruins.    Sometimes you know exactly what you’re looking for, since many folks have been there before, and the site is hardly a secret.  Those sites are still exciting to find, because they’re either hard to get to or just plain amazing.  (The Big Man Panel in Grand Gulch is a good example of both: it’s hardly undiscovered, but it’s not particularly easy to get too.  But once you see it: wow!  It doesn’t matter that plenty of others have seen it too.)

Sometimes it happens that you write in your blog about a “secret ruin” and a reader comments and tells you about an even better ruin that you missed.  When that happens, you have no choice but to return to Natural Bridges National Monument and seek out the even better ruin.

So that’s what we did a few weeks ago.

The hike down to Sipapu Bridge is a fun hike, with three ladders to climb down, and incredible views the whole way.  We hiked past the first ruin that we saw last spring and kept going.  On one bend of the canyon we discovered some fairly old signatures, which was pretty cool:

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Not Ancestral Pueblan, though.  We kept going.

I was just beginning to wonder if my blog informer was correct when we turned a corner and saw the ruin.  Excellent!


This was a nice little ruin, but I couldn’t see a way to get up there.  There had to be more.

We followed the cliff face, and there it was: a beautiful little ruin full of ancient kivas.

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There was even a kiva with an intact roof!   There are a few others on Cedar Mesa, but it’s a pretty darned rare find.


There were intact small rooms along the edge of the ruin, and some great rock art – including a wonderful panel of hands that were created by blowing the dye through reeds.

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I saw one lone pot shard  in the midden area of the ruin.  I’m sure there were more (I hope so!) but I didn’t want to tramp all over the midden looking for them.


We ate lunch sitting on the “veranda” of the ruin, looking out at the same view the Ancestral Pueblans saw 800 years ago:




Posted in Adventure, Hiking, Outdoors, Southwest hikes, Travel | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Beware the Steaming Bear

It’s not unusual to come upon plumes of steam coming from the ground when you’re hiking in Yellowstone.    You just walk around the vent, and keep on your way.

Sometimes though, the steam in front of you is not what you think.

If you’re starting a walk across a meadow on a cold fall morning with the sun glaring in your eyes, I have a bit of advice.

Look out!

That little column of steam may be coming from something a little scarier than a hole in the ground.


Yep.  You guessed it.  It’s a bear.  A grizzly bear.


The ravens hanging around him are a good hint that he’s got something to eat.

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And we all know that a grizzly bear is kind of OK with the ravens hanging around, but he’s not so willing to share his breakfast with you and me.



Time to retreat.

We could see him just fine from the safety of the road.

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Sometimes They Sneak Up on You…

It’s cold at 9,500 feet on a late September morning in the Gravelly Mountains – I’m glad for my down coat and warm coffee.    We’re sitting on a little ridge overlooking the pond we camped near last night, waiting for the sun to warm us up.   Yesterday evening a Bald Eagle stopped by for a drink, along with a young hawk who checked us out but was too spooked by our fire to actually come in for a landing.

Evening fire.

Evening fire.





RSCN2628RSCN2629RSCN2762RSCN2760So far this morning, though, no one’s come to visit.

Squinting into the rising sun starts hurting my eyes, so I turn my back on the pond and check out the meadows and mountains to the west of us.    It occurs to me that I’ve left my camera in the camper, but I’m too lazy to go get it.

I’m lost in a daydream when I become aware of an odd grunting noise behind me – from the direction of the pond.  I turn and squint into the sun.    A moose!  Having a morning drink at the pond!

He knows I’m there, but lets me go back to the camper and get my camera before he calmly heads out.

I was in such a rush to get my first photos that I failed to notice how perfectly he was reflected in the water.  Oh well –   I do like that you can see his breath.


He circled our camp, crossed into the big meadow and headed off into the forest.  Not a bad way to start the morning!







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Yellowstone Skies

The changing season brings out the best in Yellowstone.    The critters tend toward the frantic: the bull elk are madly trying to keep their harems in line, chasing after each other during the day and bugling all night long, the bears and bison are chowing down on anything they can find to get nice and fat for the winter, and the wolves are reveling in the cooler weather that they love.

Sometimes the activity on the ground is eclipsed by the activity in the sky; thunderclouds climb into the stratosphere, the wind whips into a frenzy, and everyone takes shelter from the driving hail and rain.    The setting sun turns the clouds an eerie fire-red, and the rain sets in with a vengeance, turning the rivers to mud and the creeks to rushing torrents.   By morning it’s all finished, and the sun scours away the clouds that hang in the valleys.



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Posted in Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Yellowstone | 15 Comments

The Missouri Breaks: Back to 1805.

On our second day in the Missouri Breaks we heard a four-wheeler grinding its way down the steep road to our camp on the banks of the Missouri.  A few minutes later a grizzled and weathered rancher with a border collie pup on the seat behind him pulled up and asked if we’d seen any of his cows.   Nope, we hadn’t.    We’d seen some across the river, but those weren’t his.

He reckoned he’d need to get out on horseback to find them; too many gullies and ravines for them hide in this country.

I reckon so too.   How do you find a few cows in the middle of this?


The Missouri Breaks is one of the most isolated spots in the lower 48:  with the exception of a few cows and the occasional rancher, you’re not likely to see anyone during your visit here.   The stretch of the Missouri between Fort Benton and the Fort Peck lake is also one of the least changed stretches of the Missouri; it looks the way it looked to both the Indians and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.


We were, in fact, camped near the spot where the expedition camped on the way west, on May 25, 1805, and where Meriweather Lewis also camped on July 30, 1806 his way to meet Clark at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers on their return trip.

In the May 26 journal entry, Lewis climbed the bluffs along the river, a “fortiegueing” job, but when he reached the top he was rewarded:  “from this point I beheld the Rocky Mountains for the first time.”  He could easily have stood at the spot where I took the above photo.   I was not too “fortiegued”,  having the benefit of a pickup to carry me up.

The road to Woodhawk Bottom, where we camped, is plenty steep.   You wouldn’t want to tackle it after a rain, that’s for sure.

We camped in the cottonwoods at the bottom.

We camped in the cottonwoods at the bottom.

See? Steep.

Evening and morning are when you can really appreciate the solitude and isolation of the breaks.  The nearly full moon rose across the river just as the sun was setting.


Coyotes called to each as the moon rose, and a crabby kingfisher zipped into the cottonwoods above us and kept up a rattling scolding until he decided we weren’t going anywhere, no matter how long he yelled at us.  Then, silence.

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Sunrise was magic as well.


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Can’t you just see William Clark sitting on this bank, writing up his notes?


Posted in Adventure, Camping, History, Montana, Nature, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments