Today Utah's Nine-Mile Canyon is a peaceful backway, its improved gravel road slinking between sandstone walls and small, secluded valleys with picturesque homesteads, cattle ranches and alfalfa fields. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to realize that a century ago this was the "interstate" of its day, the main freight route connecting Uintah Basin forts and communities with the rest of the territory.
And, almost a thousand years before that it was the home of a people we now call the Fremont. The canyon (or, to be more precise, the complex of canyons, including Minnie Maud, Cottonwood and Gate) is strewn with structures left behind by the mysterious Fremont, including pit-houses, stone homes and granaries. The Fremont inhabited the area 700 and more years ago, about the same time the Anasazi culture flourished further to the south.But the area, accessible via Wellington and U.S. 6 on the south and via Myton and U.S. 40 on the north, is most famous for outstanding Fremont and Ute petroglyphs and pictographs, painted or pecked out in the rock, often just above the modern roadway.
One popular example, the Cottonwood Panel, is a striking image of more than two dozen mountain sheep and hunting humans with bows and arrows. Other panels picture blocky men with what could be feathers or horns; deer and elk; buffalo, birds and snake-like figures. Some of these creatures have unusual shapes and features, including giraffe-ish necks or ant-eaterlike snouts. These outdoor galleries can continue along the rockfaces for quite a ways; turn a corner or glance under an overhang, and there's another example of imaginative artwork, centuries old.
"Nine-Mile Canyon has been called the world's longest art gallery," notes a brochure published by the Carbon County Travel Bureau and the Castle Country Travel Region. "Forty Miles of sandstone cliff faces have beckoned artists for thousands of years. Using only stone tools, these archaic visionaries painstakingly pecked and scratched away at the sandstone to create petroglyphs. They used natural pigments from native plants to paint pictographs in red, white, gold, green and black."
Just why Nine-Mile Canyon is called Nine-Mile Canyon is not entirely clear, though its name seems likely to have been derived from one of the creeks running through it. In "The Utah Guide," Allan Kent Powell explains that the canyon was named during John Wesley Powell's first exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869. Frank M. Bishop, Powell says, "did a 9-mile triangulation along what was named Nine Mile Creek."
Besides entries in the many book-length guides about Utah, two tourism brochures outline Nine-Mile Canyon's history and artifacts. One takes a look at the canyon, the San Rafael Swell and other sites of interest in the area and is put out by the Castle Country Travel Region. A more Nine-Mile specific brochure is published by the travel region and the Carbon County Travel Bureau. Call, toll-free, 1-800-842-0789, or 435-637-3009.
Information is also available from the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum, 155 S. Main, Price, 435-637-5060, or the Bureau of Land Management, 435-636-3600. The two pamplets are also available at other tourist centers, including the Utah Travel Council offices across from the State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
The latter brochure offers tips for those interested in visiting Nine-Mile Canyon. Among them are:
- Allow a whole day. "The Nine-Mile experience is enjoyed best as an all-day outing. For one thing, the road is fairly long. It is about 22 miles from Wellington to the first rock art site. Don't be discouraged or think you are on the wrong road after a few miles of driving," the pamphlet says.
- Road conditions. "The Nine-Mile Canyon road is mostly unpaved but well graded. A passenger car can make it easily, except during the most severe weather. Large motor homes and trailers should stay away from Cottonwood Canyon."
- Services. "It is 78 miles from Price to Myton," and vice versa of course. "Fill your gas tank before you enter the canyon and bring your own water. There are no gas stations or convenience stores."
- Climate. "Winter temperatures range from below zero to a high of 40 degrees Fahrenheit," the brochure notes. "Summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunscreen and insect repellant are recommended in summer. The dry air doesn't hold heat after sundown, so nights are cool most of the time." This is a home of deer, elk, eagles, hawks, lizards - and rattlesnakes.
And remember to take binoculars, scopes and hiking shoes: Nine-Mile Canyon is rife with ancient artwork; you never know when you'll espy a creature or panel that will take your breath away.