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Wading through White Canyon | R&R 5

Where was I? Oh right, I'd just completed an 11-mile hike before lunch in order to avoid the weekend crowds that never developed - at least, as far as I could tell. Still, I was left - in one of the most beautiful places in our country - with half a day to explore; the only thing standing in my way was figuring out where to go!

Ultimately, I only seriously considered two options. The first - having just hiked the South Fork of Mule Canyon - was to hike the North Fork. I had almost no info on it except for the trailhead, but at less than a mile away, it would have been an easy choice. In the end though, my second option won out - a half-hour drive to Natural Bridges National Monument in the hopes of finding a single pictograph hidden amongst the folds of White Canyon.

I've been wanting to see this pictograph for quite some time - ever since I'd read Randy's trip report from nearly 15 years earlier. Randy's always really good about giving a few hints while never revealing specific locations, so I'd done a bit of research in order to discover several rock art and ruin sites along the base of the canyon. The only problem was, I had no idea if any of them were the White Man.

Randy's photo that captured piqued my interest.

When visiting rock art and ruin sites, be respectful.

This is most easily done by following the Leave No Trace principles; leaving the place exactly as you found it and taking with you only photographs and memories. In case that is not clear enough for some reason, here are examples of respectful behaviors:

click to expand

Having already eaten lunch, it was a simple matter of pulling into a spot at the trailhead and gathering up my equipment for the 600-foot descent down into the canyon.

Visiting a place like this always feels special.

I'd hiked up this route several years earlier with several friends, and I have to say that it was even more stunning on the way down. Part of that was probably anticipation of what I hoped to see, but I'm sure that it was mostly due to the fact that I wasn't huffing and puffing up ladders and switchbacks, as is the case on the "up" end of this trip. And oh, that fun would come this time as well.

Before long, I'd covered the six tenths of a mile to the bottom of the canyon, the view of Sipapu Bridge growing more dramatic with each step.

The green is coming, but it's not quite here yet!

Also growing more pronounced was the sound of rushing water. Of course, that shouldn't have surprised me - given all the water I'd seen in the other canyons I'd explored on this very trip - but as I reached the bottom, I realized that the situation here was significantly different. Here, there wasn't a muddy wash with puddles and pools of standing water. Nope, here, there was a rushing river.

I suddenly found myself wondering if the rock art I was looking for would even be accessible!

Sipapu sunstar.

Pushing into White Canyon, it was immediately clear that I was one of the first - at least this season - to split from the main loop trail that connects three of the largest bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument. The trail here - if you could call it that - petered out quickly and it wasn't long before I figured out why: water.

I don't know if there's always some water here year-round, or if the wash is generally the trail, but on this particular afternoon, the trail ended abruptly as the canyon walls narrowed and the entire wash was submerged. I obviously had a decision to make - admit defeat and head back to the Tacoma, or push forward into the unknown depths and hope that they never got too deep.

Decision made.

With daytime temperatures in the mid-50s °F and nighttime lows in the high-20s, the water was not warm. Following the river upstream, I soon realized that the lack of trail and the constant crossings were going to make this little excursion take quite a bit longer than I'd envisioned.

I have to admit, not worrying about getting my shoes wet after the first crossing was liberating. In and out of the water, my shoes alternated between the cleanest and dirtiest they've been in a long time.

Despite the difficulty of hiking, it was hard not to love this place.

It took me nearly an hour to cover the distance between Sipapu Bridge and the bend in the canyon where I hoped to find the first ruin site. I decided that continuing past it - at the speed I was going, and already a bit after 3:00pm - was not in the cards on this particular trip. It was a decision I made out loud as I trudged through the mud and sand - perhaps an indication that I'm going a little bonkers. In doing so, I'm sure I mumbled - though I'm not sure it matters when there's no one around to hear - that it sure would be nice if this site was the White Man site!

And then, through the trees, jackpot!

With a little bit of determination, and mostly a lot of luck, there it was.

Looking back through Randy's trip report upon my return, I smiled at the hints I recognized only after visiting the site. He's a sneaky guy that Randy - I sure hope to meet him one day!

At any rate, as I thrashed my way through underbrush to reach the alcove containing the White Man, I noticed that there were several ruins not too far away. And, if there's one thing I excel at, it's delayed gratification. Well, that or I have the attention span of a squirrel. Whatever the reason, before continuing to that which I'd initially set out to find, I detoured to check out the ruins.

Big Boulder ruin.

A panel above Big Boulder sported both pictographs and petroglyphs!

Lightning bolts and a concentric diamond.

Studio room. Prime location. And with no windows, plenty of privacy.

There were several groups of deep morteros.

As it would happen, there were actually two small groups of ruins, and after checking out the first, I mustered up enough willpower and distraction to investigate the second. There, two of the structures sported small, deep holes that looked almost like storage cisterns - for water, perhaps.

At first I thought this might be a chimney or vent for the sunken room, but there was no connection between the two structures.

One of the holes had a crude screen "X" that wouldn't have kept out much of anything.

I really liked this door shape, and this ruin even had a small foyer/entryway once inside!

A few handprints on the wall. Modern - if I had to guess - based on their size and composition (mud rather than pigment).

Room with a door.

After building up my anticipation by putting off the White Man as long as I could, it was finally time. There are actually a few pictographs on the panel that contains the anthropomorphic figure, and while I didn't find the "Capital C with Teeth" or the "Bold T" as intriguing as the White Man, I must admit that I wondered exactly what the artist had against an alphabet he didn't even know. I mean, seriously, those are some scary letters.

So symmetric.


And then - of course - I did my best to replicate the shot that'd brought me here in the first place. You know, Imitation and flattery and all that.

Knowing that I'd only scratched the surface of what Natural Bridges - and even White Canyon - has to offer, there was no question that further exploration would have to wait for a future trip. Perhaps something in the fall - after things had a chance to dry out - or at the very least, on a year where the snowpack hadn't broken a record last set in 1952!

For now, it was time to head home.

Going with the flow.

My spirits high, the sloshing through the river was much more enjoyable on my return trip, and I even had a nice chuckle as plunged into the rushing water as two hikers pondered that very first river crossing I'd contemplated a few hours earlier.

"It's up above your knees in places, but a lot of fun," I said with a smile as I slipped off my shoes to empty out the few small twigs and branches that had settled out of the water as I'd crossed, before continuing on my way.

Back up we go!

Climbing the ladders, switchbacks, and stairs, I was halfway up the side of the canyon when I spotted the hikers making their way up behind me. Given their timing, they must have labored over the decision for a full ten minutes before saving their shoes and turning back - likely the same decision I'd have made given the time of day.

Arriving at the trailhead, I quickly shed my wet pants and shoes - shorts and flip-flops a much more comfortable garb in which to kick off my 20-hour drive home. It'd be the first time the Tacoma would make the long journey - since we'd began storing it in Las Vegas - in five months. And it was time for a little maintenance.

Bye-bye Bears Ears; until we meet again!



The Whole Story


  1. Anthony Williams
    Anthony Williams June 7, 2023

    "I have to admit, not worrying about getting my shoes wet after the first crossing was liberating."

    In that situation I always remember Kris Kristofferson's words, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose".

    BTW - you have not been in Cheesebox Canyon, have you?

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 7, 2023

      Love it!

      I have not been to Cheesebox Canyon (yet). I'm not off to look up where it is, and what's there. From your question, I take it you've been, and enjoyed it?

      • Anthony Williams
        Anthony Williams June 8, 2023

        No, but I did attempt it about 30 years ago, but in mid-winter snow stopped me in the approach. But I have been told, and the rope verifies that the scenery is great and the road rather spectacular, with many views down into White Canyon.. Since then I have gone from the Bears Ears down into the Canyonlands via Beef Basin, and have done various other things, but never tried Cheesebox again. Check it out.

  2. John Edmunds
    John Edmunds June 12, 2023

    Please can you tell me where you get your Taco serviced in Las Vegas. I live in LV and am looking for good service for my 2004 Taco and 2013 Landcruiser. You can email me at ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ By the way you should have a show on NatGeo you are that good

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 12, 2023

      Hi John, Thanks so much for the compliments, always nice to hear when you're enjoying the stories!

      I just wrote up my first "Rig Review" for storing the Tacoma in Las Vegas, so you should definitely check that out. As far as service goes, I haven't had any service done down there; rather, I plan to drive the truck home every 4-6 months to take care of maintenance items in my driveway. I actually just finished my first round of that "drive home" and it worked out pretty well, with the truck now back in Vegas and ready for the next adventure!

      I do know someone else who keeps their Tacoma in Vegas, and they live on the east coast. Let me check with them and see if thay have a place they use for service. Will get back to you when I hear from them.

  3. Darlene
    Darlene June 19, 2023

    I hiked White Canyon a few years ago in July, and completely avoided the "river". However, you could tell a flash flood did go through about four days before. Nothing but settled mud, and some footprints. Someone had gone through before me, possibly the day before. I climbed down the canyon on ladders, a major feat for me being afraid of heights. I think I desensitized myself that morning. "Look, Ma, I'm not afraid of heights." Not much anyway. I reached the bottom, sat on a log to have a snack and some water and wondered where the heck was Sipapu. I had started out on that trailhead, it was supposed to be around here somewhere.. I looked around, down the canyon, finally up, and by golly there it was, right above me. There was quite a bit of vegetation in the canyon. Sipapu is not easy to hide. I did see some ruins, especially the Horse Collar Ruin and a few petroglyphs. But my main focus was the hike. There is one advantage of going later in the year, not much water in the canyons, but one does have to watch the signs for flash flooding. I hiked just to Kachina, turned at a sign that said "Trail" and an arrow, and exited the canyon. It was a good hike, nice and leisurely. I'd like to do it again some day. I've stayed at Natural Bridges on more than one occasion. Beautiful place.

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