Grand Gulch, part of the newly established Bears Ears National Monument, is a remote canyon system located south and west of Blanding, UT. Numerous sites dating from the Archaic period to PIII can be found here, as well as some of the finest examples of ancient rock art in the Southwest.
Located on State Route 261, the Kane Gulch Ranger Station is 4 miles south of US Hwy 95 at the upper entry point into Grand Gulch, visitors to the area need to stop by here and register with the ranger and pay the day use fee, or overnight fee if you are backpacking in the canyon. As the name implies, this is a non-developed, primitive recreation area. Access into the canyon is by foot travel, although horse/pack animal access is allowed in certain portions of the canyon. The trails in and out of the canyon can range from steep, slightly technical scrambles to long, flat sand washes with everything in between.
What You Can See
Besides the incredible scenery of the canyon itself, several archaeological sites including Jail House Ruin, Perfect Kiva and Junction Ruin, as well as dozens of granaries and rock art too numerous to count are all located in Grand Gulch, many within day-hiking range from the BLM Ranger station at Kane Gulch.
Surrounding Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa offers beautiful hiking, primitive car camping (in established sites) and opportunities to explore numerous mesa top sites.
Tips for Your Visit
Transportation on Cedar Mesa can be an adventure in itself. The roads leading off of State route 261 consist of unimproved dirt roads, most requiring at least an all-wheel drive vehicle. Low clearance, 2-wheel drive cars may not get you where you want to go here. Keep in mind that the character of any one of the Cedar Mesa roads can change dramatically after one rain storm. Washouts, sandy areas and arroyo cutting are all part of the adventure.
The ranger station has a good collection of books and maps for sale, focusing on the Grand Gulch/Cedar Mesa area. The rangers will also have information regarding which archaeological sites are open and accessible to the public. In addition, they have current water conditions and weather forecasts. Both are very important for anybody planning on venturing below the canyon rims. For more information on visiting archaeologically sensitive areas, check this link out.
Woke up and got going as early as I could. My goal was Tanner Beach, and that would be a 10.5-mile hike, across the most rugged terrain of my trip, so far. It would also be the hottest day of my 2-week journey, across the appropriately named Furnace Flats section, below the Unkar Overlook. Yay me. The morning started out, as usual, a quick breakfast, pack up, hit the trail and enjoy the morning shade as long as it would last. The first mile, or so, of trail wound it’s way along the lower end of Escalante Creek (a dry wash) and began to ascend up on to the ridge, immediately north of the drainage just as the sun devoured the last of the shade. Perfect timing. The route is easy enough to see/follow. It is narrow and sloping in many places, so careful footwork is required. I just kept up with my “…get there when you get there.” mantra, and listened to the theme song from “The Great Escape” play itself over, and over again in my head. PLEASE! Someone change the record! I stopped for a quick snack on the crest of the ridge and took in the view. It never gets old, looking around in the canyon. I also found my first tick of the season, and the second tick I’ve ever seen down here. I noticed it scurrying up my pant leg as I stood up to put on my pack. I gave it a good thump and sent it over the edge. Not today, my friend. Not today.
From the crest of the first ridge, the trail contours around the red, shale slope and maneuvers through a steep, boulder covered section. Mercifully, it was slightly shady here, and I made decent time despite having to pick my way around the rocks. It was here, almost exactly halfway between the Tanner and New Hance Trailheads, at 11:30 am, that I encountered four invincible male hominids, aged 19 – 25. They were all gingerly picking their way through the boulders when the one in the lead looked up, quite startled to see a lone hiker on the trail with a backpack. All four were dressed in light running kits – minimalist hydration bladder packs, a couple Gu pouches, running shoes/shorts/t-shirts. Their packs weren’t big enough for any kind of water filtration, extra clothing or substantial food. I just assumed they had come up from a camp at the river. The one bringing up the rear paused to catch his breath, so I said “Hey. Nice day for it.” He asked where I was headed, and I told him my itinerary for the day. I asked where they had spent the night before, and he looked confused. “Did you camp at Tanner or Cardenas?” I asked. “No.” he replied. “We came down the Tanner this morning.” “Wow,” was all I could muster. “We’re running out the ‘New something…?'” “The New Hance?” “Yeah! That one. It’s my first time here. I’m just following my friends.” At this point I decided not to break it to him that he still had 15 miles to go, the easiest 15 miles were actually behind him, and that it would get really warm before they even got to the river, which resembled chocolate milk and was the only water source between themselves and the rim. “Well, I need to get moving so I can get a good campsite. Have a nice run.” I didn’t see any helicopters circling the next day, but they usually wait 24 hours, so…
From that point, I just continued on around and out onto the ridge overlooking the Unkar area. The “hilltop ruin” is located a short way off, and is worth a visit. The views from the structure are amazing. So is the ancient finger of gravel bar it’s perched on! The next leg of my hike was spread out below me – Furnace Flats, Cardenas Creek, and heat waves, visibly radiating up from all of it. I can’t imagine what this place would be like in July. I don’t really want to. I’ll stick to spring. The trail from the Unkar Overlook winds down to the sandy flats by Cardenas. I walked down to the river, ate lunch in the shade, by the beach and found a 1/2 full bottle of sunscreen! Perfect timing, this find, as my little stash was empty and I was starting to pink-up on my shoulders. Thank you, unknown person, for the extra UV protection AND moisturizer, thank you. I checked my water supply and decided I had enough to make it to Tanner. Time to move on, it would only get hotter as the day wore on.
The trail leads away from Cardenas Beach, winds through the sand dunes, past several well camouflaged prehistoric sites, and strikes out across the dark brown/black gravel covered “Furnace Flats.” The ambient temperature was around 80 that afternoon, and it felt about 20 degrees warmer. By the time I crossed out of the Cardenas Use Area and entered the Tanner area, I still had a mile or so to go, and I was sucking air out of my hydration bladder. Mercifully, the distance went by quickly and I got to Tanner between 2:30 and 3:00 without feeling too miserable. I snagged my favorite campsite, at the west end of the area, under some junipers, with a rocky beach.
My first chore was collecting and filtering, and drinking water. This would be my last afternoon/evening at the river (on this trip) and I set up my sunshade, rinsed off in the river and enjoyed being there. By dusk, I realized I had the entire area to myself. I walked up river to the little ledges campsite on the other side of Tanner Creek, and, no one. I was the only human at the mouth of Tanner Canyon. Well, it should be a very quiet night.
The day would turn out to be my last in the canyon, for this trip. My original plan called for tanking up with enough water to hike up to a dry campsite, above the Red Wall. It would mean carrying extra water weight for the day, but I would have a shorter hike today, and a really short hike the next day. I was up and out of Tanner by 8:05 am and had a shady hike for the first 90 minutes. At 9:30 the sun rose above the canyon rim and there was no ducking it. The trek across the Dox is hot, and a bit tedious – it seems to go on forever.
Once you’ve ascended above this, the trail steepens and you get fewer flat sections to catch your breath on. There are a few little places, here and there, to rest in patches of shade, and I took advantage whenever I could. Before I knew it, I was at the break in the Red Wall and could see my destination for the day – just up there. I topped out on the Red Wall at 12:30, ate a handful of cashews and then started down the trail to my intended campsite.
I’ve camped up here before, and I like a particular site, between two big, cube-shaped boulders below the trail. It is situated directly below the Desert Watchtower, and if the wind is right, you can hear the tourist chatter on the tower. It was another hot afternoon, so I pitched up my poncho/tarp against the large boulder, for some shade and ate lunch and rehydrated. I was just relaxing, enjoying the shade and the nice, cool breeze when it occurred to me: “Why is there a cool breeze?”
I looked out from my tarp, just as a gust of wind whipped up a dust devil. Large, dark clouds had started building up on three sides. By this point, I had no idea what the weather forecast was. The bulletin board at Indian Garden had a 4-day forecast posted there, but that was 7 days ago. What was blowing in, and would it impede my hike out, up the friction slabs at the top of the trail? It was about 2 pm, so I decided to give it an hour, and see what happened. By 3:00 the clouds were beginning to consolidate and the wind was increasing. It was decided: Take enough water to hike out, put on the dry socks and head for the top. It would make for a long, steep day, but I wouldn’t have to navigate potentially wet slick rock slabs at the top.
Besides, a beer and cheeseburger suddenly sounded pretty good. The only potential issue, aside from how tiring I knew it would be, was finding a place to stay that night. I had a campsite at Mather CG reserved for the next night and had nothing planned for an early exit. I also wanted to try and get out and to the Village by 8:00 – a hot shower would really be a treat, and they close at 8:00. I drank a liter of water, ate the last of my chocolate and cashews, laced up my boots and started out.
I got up to Stegosaurus Rocks and met a couple resting after their hike down. He said the weather forecast didn’t look bad, but the buildup and wind hadn’t been predicted. I bid them farewell and kept hiking. From that point, the hike out isn’t too terrible. There are a couple of loose, steep sections (where have I heard that before) and, where the trail crosses through the drainage, large sandstone steps that trail crews have constructed. After ascending the Coconino formation, you start a series of switchbacks that wind through the trees. At the bottom of the Kaibab formation, you’re in the forest and the temperatures are significantly lower that what you’ve been used to. I zipped my pant legs back on and kept going.
At 6:00 pm, 2.5 hours after leaving my little site below the Tower, I came to a set of stone steps that climb up, and abruptly end at the edge of the paved road leading to Lipan Point Overlook. And, with that, I was done. I walked the short distance down to my truck, found a note from my wife on the dash, and thanked the canyon gods when the engine turned over without any hesitation.
I drove into the Village, and immediately found the campgrounds booked up for the night, “NO VACANCY!” I then headed to the rim and went into the lobby of the El Tovar – the rim’s fanciest accommodation. They also have access to any available rooms at the other hotels. As it turns out, the only room available, on the South Rim, that night, was in the El Tovar and they offered me a ridiculous deal on it, despite how I looked and smelled. The receptionist was actually quite excited to hear about my trip, and when I told him how long I’d been out, he took another $50 off the price of the room. Nice people, those folks at Xanterra.
I took the longest hot shower I’ve ever taken, well, not too long. It is the desert, after all. You don’t appreciate hot water and soap until you have been rinsing off in 50 degree, silty, chocolate water for days. It was at this point that I noticed my tan. I’d spent time at the beach in my climbing bra, burned through my long sleeved shirt on the trail, had pinked up around my pack straps, had worn my pant legs rolled up, or zipped off, been barefoot, worn my boots with my shorts. It all made for some interesting “topo lines” on my skin. Think “pink zebra.” After my shower, I found a cheeseburger, salad, ice-cold IPA and phoned home.
Usually, I find myself feeling down at the end of a backpacking trip. I put time into planning them and anticipating them, and then they’re done and behind me and I feel somehow disappointed, for lack of a better word. I haven’t experienced that this time, yet. I put more planning and effort into this trip, than usual. It’s the longest solo hike I’ve ever done, the longest number of days I’ve put in on a backpacking trip – period. I wasn’t afraid at any time, leading up to or during, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. My only real concern was how I’d do being along with my head for ten days. I’ve never done that before. Prior to the trip, that sounded like a lot. Looking back, it wasn’t much. I was in shape for it. I had prepared materially for it. The only equipment failure I had was a blown tent zipper (no biggie). I had worried about what it would feel like when I would catch site of the Tanner Trailhead, my endpoint. Would it be sad, would I feel disappointed that it was over? As the signboard at the top of the Tanner came into view, I didn’t experience any of that. I understood there, that I had taken this on for my own reason, to do the thing. Not how many miles I would cover in total, how fast I would do it, how “burly” it would be, what would my time be when I set my trekking pole tips at the trails’ end? My goal/reward/project was to go through the experience of the whole thing. That was it. All along, I’d been telling myself that I would get there when I get there. Well, I was here. Getting here was just part of the package. I had been rewarding myself the entire way, by just “doing the thing,” by just getting to know myself in this remote, rugged, potentially lethal, spectacularly beautiful place. It’s wasn’t the PCT, AT, or someone else’s “epic” journey. It was my journey, that I planned and executed and thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. I think I’ll be able to ride the high for awhile, then I’ll head out on the next one.
The hike from Hance Creek down to the river, and Hance Rapid (the mouth of Red Canyon) is about 6.5 miles. Heading-out Hance Creek is pretty easy, not too steep or loose. I left my campsite at Hance Creek around 7:30, and had good hiking weather – not hot, nice breeze, etc.
Even in mid-March, as you drop lower into the canyon it can feel hot. The reflected heat always feels about 15-20 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature. The hike down to Hance Rapid is also dry. Along the way, you hike through Mineral Canyon, a very interesting section of the Tonto. You pass through layers of petrified water ripples – shallow lake or sea shore deposits. These sit directly atop a huge, cemented cobble bed, resembling a frozen river bottom. It’s pretty cool.
As I was heading out this canyon, I passed two small, separate groups that were hiking out the Grandview. They’d come down the Tanner a few days before and were enjoying their last couple of days on the trail.
After you leave Mineral Canyon behind, you arrive at the top of a sloping rock garden. The trail winds it’s way through the large boulders, often marked by cairns. There are a lot of good places to duck into the shade here if you’re overheating. You can see Hance Rapid, and you can hear it!
About 45 minutes or so, the trail unceremoniously dumps you out at the edge of the beach, and when you pass between the two cairns, you’ve come to the end of the Tonto Trail. You’re now on the Escalante Route, that will carry you east to the Tanner Trail. The trail goes along the beach for a short distance, past a couple of larger boaters campsites and then ascends up slightly, into the sand dunes. This little bit doesn’t make for pleasant hiking, with a pack on, but the dunes are quite scenic and, when I went through, covered with Sand Verbena flowers.
My destination for this afternoon was a campsite, by the river, at the top of Hance Rapid. There is a very nice site situated under a small grove of large mesquite trees, and I usually stay there. It is really set up for multiple tents/people, so I opted for a small, single site in the willows below. The big site is for sharing with friends and, again, I didn’t want to take up more room than I needed, in case a larger group showed up. As it was, I didn’t see another human soul all day or that evening. I had the entire area to myself! I took advantage of the shallow, sandy bottomed river by my campsite and cleaned up, rinsed clothes and just relaxed and enjoyed the roar – Hance Rapid is a loud one.
After a light dinner of Mountain House Lasagna (one of my favorites) and some chocolate, I crawled into my tent and fell asleep to the roar and vibration of the rapid. I wanted to get an early start tomorrow, and would be looking out for my friends that had put in on a raft trip, seven days prior. I knew they’d be floating through this section (15 – 20 miles) and hoped to at least catch a glimpse of them. I know, total long shot… I also had the infamous “Papago Slide” to deal with in the morning, and wanted to put it behind me before it started to warm up.
Papago was waiting for me. I woke up early, even though I knew I only had around four miles to hike, today. My plan was to hike up to the mouth of Escalante Creek, and if the beach was dry and available, camp there. First, I had to maneuver up the Papago – a 20-minute crawl up a large, cone-shaped talus slope. The trail ascends this thing because the river cuts it off at the cliff edge below. It’s about a 45 degree slope, completely covered with assorted rubble/boulders/rocks in various stages of “stability” or, instability depending on where you put your feet. The trick is to keep an eye out for the “trail” (the obvious route previous hikers have taken), check the slabs you’re going to step on and make sure they’re solid, and move quickly. If you’re going up, I find the right side to be preferable. About half-way up, small stones began tumbling down past me, and I looked up to see a family of “Bumblies” trying to descend, in mass, down the upper left side. I asked them to please wait until I was up and clear of them, and they seemed quite surprised to see me. I’m not actually sure how they got to where they were, but when I suggested going down one at a time, and following the cairns, they agreed that it sounded like a good idea.
At the top, I stopped to take a photo and yelled “Hi!” to a kayaker floating past, below. He told me there was a large group of boaters camped about 1/4 mile up-river, and I might find my friends there. I’d been really lucky on my trip, so far. Maybe it would be Kat and Joe!
After you get through the “Slide” you have to down-climb the Papago Ledges. It’s a short, easy, class V section of slabby ledges. A section of rope or cord comes in handy here for lowering packs. Being solo, I chose to use caution and lowered my pack down all three short, down-climbs. Reshouldering the beast, I hit the edge of the beach and walked over to the rafter’s camp. They were just finishing rigging their rafts for the day when I caught sight of my friend Joe – I’d know those striped boardie shorts anywhere. I casually strolled up to him (he didn’t know I was in the canyon) and smiled. He looked a bit shocked, let out a few endearing expletives and gave me, and my pack, a giant bear-hug. “What the #$&* are you doing down here?!?” After recovering, he told me where Kat was, and I went over and startled her. She knew I would be in the canyon but, like I had also assumed, didn’t think we would actually intersect on our trips. It was really fun running into them. Just like I was, they were having a fantastic trip! After catching up for a few minutes, it was time for them to get going, and I needed to start my hike up as well. Kat gave me a much battered can of beer, that I would “put in the fridge” once I made camp. I waved them all on their way, and started out, on my way.
Hiking up, into the mouth of 75 Mile Canyon is one of the best sections of trail, anyplace. It’s a gravel wash that leads into a very lovely slot canyon. You wind your way along the bottom to where the slot canyon ends at a pour-off/bowl. An easy scramble up and you’re back on the main trail again. The entry into the slot reminds me of the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of The Rings – “The way is shut.”
A quick hike around from the top of the slot canyon, and you descend down to the river along a route of mixed dirt path and stone ledges. Here, I found the beach I was hoping would be dry and empty, dry and empty. It was all mine. I set up my camp at one end of it, put my beer in “the fridge” and enjoyed a long afternoon at the beach: wading, drawing, filtering water, snacking and relaxing.
There was a breeze blowing that evening, so after dinner (Chili-Mac washed down with a cold beer) and cleaning up, I put the fly on the tent. It helps keep sand dunes from forming inside. Tomorrow would be a long, hot, mostly dry day with a lot of narrow, up-hill trail to cover.
I hung my watch directly over my face, in the tent, so there would be no chance of not hearing the alarm. I was up at first light, had my kit packed and chose one of my quicker breakfasts: Alpineaire makes an instant smoothie that mixes with cold water. I brought a few of them to try out on this trip. They’re fast, taste good and are actually good for you. Moving as quietly as I could, I packed up and started hiking at 7:30 – I did not want to wake the Bullroarer or her group and planned on staying ahead of them for the day. They were just beginning to move around their camp, when I hiked out the ledges above them, leaving Lonetree.
The early start wasn’t a bad thing, the hike over to Grapevine Creek is almost 9 miles, a lot of it shade-free. Hiking past Boulder Creek, nice water there this year, I passed a small group heading to Lonetree. They had camped at Grapevine the previous night and were hiking out the S. Kaibab tomorrow. Soon after, I passed a second group of five, also heading into Lonetree. Lonetree would be a jumping place this evening. Glad I was on my way up-canyon.
I had perfect hiking weather – a few wispy clouds and a slight breeze. I pushed on at a pretty good pace and arrived at Grapevine in time for an early lunch/brunch. I love Grapevine Creek. Once you finish heading it out, it goes on FOREVER, you can find nice shade, slick-rock pour-offs, and pools.
The campsite arrangement can leave a bit to be desired. There are three larger established tent areas, with a few smaller ones located close by, upstream. This would be perfect if you were friends with everyone camping there, and you don’t mind potentially noisy groups. I had walked downstream from the trail crossing to find a nice pool to go wading in, and then returned to my pack by the trail to eat and relax in the shade. Looking around, I realized that if I stayed here, Bullroarer and her attendees would be right on top of me – the campsites are separated by about 5′ – 10′ of open air and dirt. I really don’t mind sharing camping areas, with people that understand the idea of peace and quiet, and I understand the NPS’ desire to minimize human impacts in sensitive areas – riparian zones in the canyon are rare and delicate. Keeping campsites from expanding all over the place is a necessity. However, after listening to Bullroarer bragging at Lonetree (for my benefit) about how she didn’t care who else was there, I decided to tank up on water, and hike out.
I’ve never managed to spend a night on the Tonto, out on the plateau. But, I’ve wanted to. It means carrying extra water for a dry camp, in exchange you have complete solitude and expansive views of the canyon. I hung out at Grapevine for a couple hours, just enjoying the creek and the shade, then loaded up and hiked another two miles, or so. I found a fantastic location below a series of ledges, close to the edge of the Tapeats, complete with nice flat boulders for my kitchen. It was perfect. I had a flat slab for my tent, so when I broke camp the next morning there would be no trace that I’d been there. The clouds completely disappeared by dusk, and there wasn’t a trace of wind so I didn’t bother with the rainfly. It was completely silent, with a brilliant star show. I even caught sight of a few meteors. I did have to pull my buff over my eyes when the moon rose. You can read by the moon down there.
Up at first light again, out on the plateau first light happens earlier than usual. Not a problem. I was awake anyway. Funny how early I’ll wake up when I go to bed at nightfall… By adding the extra miles yesterday, out to my site on the plateau, I had fewer than 8 miles to cover to Hance Creek – my destination for this evening. Along the way, I hiked through Cottonwood Creek, another lovely spot – flowing water, ferns, cottonwood trees and some nice campsites. This trip, I would only stop long enough for a quick snack and to dip my toes in the creek. I’ve camped here before, and I’ll be back. From there, the trail winds out onto the Tonto plateau and passes below Horseshoe Mesa and the climb up to the Grandview Trail. This would be the easiest route out, at this point, if I needed one. I didn’t. I kept hiking and made it to Hance Creek around noon, and hiked down to the large campsite under the cottonwood trees.
There I met Bob and his daughter, from Salt Lake City. They were on a New Hance to Grandview trip, testing new Hyperlight Mountain Gear backpacks. They invited me to share the shade, and we chatted about our respective trips, work, future trip plans, etc. They were only there for a rest stop and would be tanking up then heading out to find a plateau campsite, as I had done the previous night. I bid them “Happy Trails” and decided to set my camp up in one of the small, single tent sites a bit upstream. I didn’t want to hog the only large site, in case a group did happen to come in. A couple of guys hiked in from the east and settled into a small site well downstream from me. With the trees for cover and the creek noise, I felt like I had the place to myself.
Hance Creek is another of my favorite places in the canyon. There are cottonwood trees, year round water, and the ever-present, nightly peeper chorus. There is a panel of historic inscriptions, just up from where the main trail passes through the drainage, including one from the creeks’ namesake – John Hance. I spent the afternoon relaxing, did some exploring and a little light housekeeping.
I try to rinse the dirt and sweat out of my socks every afternoon. My big collapsable bucket comes in handy for this. I have a spare pair to put on, while the ones I wash dry out. It reduces blisters, for one thing. If there is enough water available, I’ll do the same for my hiking shirt. You can avoid (or at least alleviate) heat rash, pack sores, and other problems by practicing a little basic hygiene. Biodegradable, no rinse soaps are a great way to go, keeping in mind to use them AWAY from the water source. I see no problem wading in creeks or rivers, just don’t rinse soaps, detergents or any other chemicals off in the water source, not even the biodegradable ones.
After cleaning up, and dealing with the “warm spot” I’d developed on my big toe, during my speed hike out of Grapevine, I spent a little time drawing in my journal, then was ready for “Happy Hour” consisting of a batch of citrus flavored Cytomax and some spicy snack mix. Dinner soon followed – freeze-dried chicken teriyaki and some dark chocolate squares.
I put away the kitchen, hung the Ratsack and waited for the Hance Creek Male Peeper Chorus to begin their concert. The peepers in Hance are the loudest anywhere. It could just be the proximity of the cliff to the creek. It makes for a great echo chamber. Needless to say, I don’t actually fall asleep quickly in Hance. The concert usually doesn’t end until around midnight.
Any archaeological site needs to be treated with care. They are fragile and irreplaceable. They represent our nation’s past, our heritage. And, for many, are the main reason to travel to the Four Corners region. Many of the sites in the southwest are maintained by the National Park Service (NPS). Others are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or US Forest Service. The rules for visiting archaeological sites located on public lands are the same: take as many pictures as you want; do not take any artifacts or relics from public land; do not make rubbings of rock art or make any marks of any kind on a rock art panel; if a site is barricaded, view it from outside the barricade; if there are signs asking you to Keep Out, respect the sign; when visiting habitation sites, do not walk on the midden.
Common sense also goes a long way when visiting an archaeological site. If the ledge holding that granary looks like it could come down at any second, it probably will – just stay on the ground and enjoy the view from there. You don’t have to climb/jump down into the kiva to get a feel for it’s history. Do not make little “Museum Rocks” at a site. Piling up the pottery, flakes, corn cobs, etc. doesn’t help anybody. By collecting and piling artifacts, you take materials out of their context, expose them to the elements more than they would be if left where they are and, very likely, you had to trample across the midden to get them in the first place. As you explore a site, the sense of discovery and exploration is going to be much better if you can find the artifacts hidden about on your own, not bunched together on a slab, where they wouldn’t normally be. And, yes, it will matter if you take just one potsherd. If every visitor to a site takes just one potsherd or flake or corn cob, there will be none of those materials left for others to see, or for archaeologists to use in interpreting the site. Besides, taking artifacts from public lands – even that “arrowhead” you found on a hike – is violation of Federal Law (Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979).
Domestic dogs and archaeological sites generally don’t mix. In the heat of the summer, and often just because they can’t help it, dogs will dig down into the soil to make a nice, cool spot to lay down. This can be disastrous inside an alcove or rock shelter site, not to mention the impact Fido has when he lifts his leg on a granary wall or room-block corner. I have witnessed both. If you bring your dog, secure him to a tree or rock in a nice shady spot, with a bowl of water, outside of the archaeological site.
Any water-source you encounter in the desert is a matter of life or death to the birds and animals living within miles of it. Whether it’s a spring, pothole full of water or running stream, please treat it with care. Don’t bathe in it, wash dishes in it, answer the call of nature, cook or camp within 200 feet of it. And, please, under no circumstances allow your pets or stock animals to walk/play in it. Secure your llama, horse or dog, away from the pool or spring, and bring them a bowl of water. Human and domestic animal waste will ward off wildlife from, what may possibly be, the only water source within miles, as will sun-block, bug repellent, soap or other detergents – even the “bio-degradable” ones.
One last note: if you plan to explore archaeological sites in the Four Corners area, observe where you put your feet. Stay on slick rock or established trails. The crusty, black soil you will see there is alive. Composed of living organisms, “cryptobiotic soil” is the thing that keeps this region from blowing/eroding away. It fixes atmospheric nitrogen, helps retain moisture for the plants around it and stabilizes the soil/sand. One crushing boot print or tire track will take years to re-establish.
Why so much information regarding what you should not do? Simply put, the desert, and all that live in it, is incredibly fragile. The rules are there to protect it. If a few careless visitors violate the rules, or cause unnecessary damage, stricter guidelines will be made and enforced or, even worse, areas will be closed to access entirely. Take the approach that you are a guest in someone else’s house. You wouldn’t steal, leave a mess or be disrespectful. Look at all that you get to see and do during your visit.