BLUFF, Utah - "Keep your eyes on the ground. You might spot pottery pieces or corncobs left by the Anasazi," a teacher told a group of six students.
They had just reached a shady alcove on the first morning of a five-day backpack into Grand Gulch. A minute later, a student lifted a sandal from the sand where it probably had rested for 1,000 years. Before the teacher could say what a rare find it was, the student unearthed the other one.
Grand Gulch is a backcountry Mesa Verde. The twisted, 60-mile slickrock canyon was home to countless generations of American Indian hunters and farmers. They grew corn and squash in the gritty red soil on the canyon floor. They built humble stone and mud structures on the cliff ledges. They scrawled paintings and petroglyphs on the canyon walls.
Then, just before 1300, they mysteriously left their homes.
As at Mesa Verde National Park, 90 miles to the east n Colorado, the ruins were beautifully preserved by the arid air.
Unlike Mesa Verde, Grand Gulch never became a national park; it sits in a remote corner of Bureau of Land Management acreage.
Mesa Verde has paved trails, strict rules, guided tours, and an average of 600,000 visitors a year. Grand Gulch has no roads. The trails are tough and dusty.
And fewer than 10,000 people yearly make an overnight trek to the best ruins.
"It's not quite as elaborate as Mesa Verde," said Rob Gilbert, the teacher leading the students into the gulch. "There's no Cliff Palace, but there are no people, either."
Fewer visitors means fewer rules. At Mesa Verde, most of the cliff dwellings are off limits. In Grand Gulch, they're all accessible.
"It's like having an Anasazi backstage pass," one of the students said.
The backstage pass comes with certain responsibilities. Don't touch the rock art, Gilbert told the students. Don't lean on the walls. If you see a pottery shard, pick it up, take a good look, then set it exactly where you've found it. Let someone else make the same discovery.
When the students had carefully replaced the sandals and shouldered their backpacks, they learned why so few make the trek.
Gilbert led them on a "short cut" into the canyon that scrambled down a series of trail-less washes and ledges. In some spots, the teens had to pass along their backpacks and climb down one by one. Three miles took four hours.
Once in the canyon, it was easy to see why some people think the effort is worth it.
Gilbert led the students to a hidden alcove called Green Mask Spring. Here, where water has trickled from the rock for centuries, the ancient residents left a long mural of hand prints, painted human figures, and abstract lines scattered over a panel of rock.
At one end, an eerie green-and-yellow painting of a mask stares out from the rock. Archaeologists think it represents a ritually skinned head someone carried around like a trophy.
Not far from the mask is a small hole that once hid one of the most stunning burials found in the region.
Richard Wetherill, who brought fame to Mesa Verde, was digging for artifacts in the alcove in 1897. He uncovered a 5-foot-wide basket. Beneath was another basket. Beneath that basket was a fine turkey-feather blanket decorated with bluebird feathers, and another with yellow tufts from a canary. A last basket covered the well-preserved mummy of a woman, her body painted yellow, her face painted red. Wetherill called her the princess.
Like many of the most spectacular artifacts discovered in Grand Gulch, the princess was shipped east to a museum, but the pit where she lay is still here. The dry silence and strange painted figures that guarded her for centuries haven't changed.
That's the real treasure of a place like Grand Gulch. Some of the artifacts have been carted away, but the place that shaped the princess' life is intact. It sounds the same. The cold morning air feels the same.
And visiting on foot allows modern city dwellers to get a taste of how the ancient ones lived.
After an hour gazing at the panel, the students filled their water bottles at the spring below the rock pane, just as the princess might have. That night, they slept out in the same starlight.
Many visitors make the mistake of trying to see as much as possible by hiking a lot of miles.
"When you do that, it's easy to stare at your feet all day and not see anything," said Gilbert, who was leading his seventh group of students into the canyon. "The key is to get off the trail, right up against the canyon wall, and just wander."
For three days, that's what the students did. People have published maps and guidebooks for the canyon, but they show only a fraction of what's there. Around each corner of the accordion of alcoves and side canyons waits the promise of discovery.
On one overlooked slab of stone, the students found a 30-foot rock-art panel populated by strange-shaped human figures standing under a shower of comets. Nearby, a nearly complete spear point rested among a puzzle of pottery pieces and grinding stones.
Down the canyon, a circular kiva surrounded by sandstone rooms hung on the side of the cliff. The ruin had gone unvisited for so long that deep dust showed no footprints and the doorways were crisscrossed with cobwebs.
Over the next few days, the students discovered dozens of unmarked rock panels, dotted with the abstract drawings from 1,500 years ago. They found an unlikely entrance to a ruin that required a harrowing belly crawl along a high, narrow ledge.
Some sites that canyon veterans had told the group to look for proved elusive.
The students searched for Arthritic Panel - a long stretch of rock art that shows Anasazi figures increasingly bent with age - but never found it. A few of them combed a stretch of canyon for hours, looking for a green mask painted on a rock near a ruin called Jail House, but all they found was a series of sunwarmed pools that were perfect for a quick bath.
Many veterans of the gulch say it isn't what it once was. A few decades ago, they say, trails were scarce and pots and untouched granaries of corn were common. These days, the only artifacts left are well-hidden, and there seem to be fewer pottery pieces every year, one long-time guide says.
Still, as the pair of sandals at the beginning of the trip showed, there is much to discover. And as long as visitors treat the outdoor museum with the same reverence as the students did, that promise of something unknown will last for a long time.
"That's what's exciting to me," Gilbert said. "This is my seventh time down here, and I'm still finding things."
Exploring Grand Gulch
US Airways flies nonstop to Phoenix from Philadelphia International Airport. The lowest recent round-trip airfare was about $338. From Phoenix, it's about a six-hour drive through Sedona and Flagstaff to the Four Corners area and Grand Gulch.
The season. Hot summers and uncertain water supplies make spring and fall the best times to visit.
A portable ranger. With no interpretive signs, it helps to take a book or two. David Roberts' In Search of the Old Ones is a fascinating travelogue that delves into some of the area's best ruins and most colorful personalities. Peter Francis Tassoni's A Hiking Guide to Cedar Mesa is somewhat helpful. But the best way to craft a trip may be to buy the Trails Illustrated map of Grand Gulch (map 706), which has many major ruins marked.
Permits. A backcountry permit is required to visit Grand Gulch. Permits may be reserved up to 90 days ahead through the Bureau of Land Management's Monticello Field Office, 435-587-1510, or picked up at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station between 8 a.m. and noon daily.
Day-use permits. $2/person.
Overnight permits. $8/person per trip
Get a guide. Few trips could benefit as much from a guide as the one to the many hidden secrets of Grand Gulch. Vaughn and Marcia Hadenfeldt of Far Out Expeditions are the best. They can arrange everything from day hikes to multi-day expeditions. 435-672-2294, www.faroutexpeditions.com.
Lodging. The closest town, Bluff, Utah, has a number of motels, lodges and B&Bs. For listings, go to www.bluffutah.org.
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