Nine Mile Canyon, Utah

If you love petroglyphs and pictographs, you’ll love Nine Mile Canyon. It features one of the highest concentration of rock art of anywhere in the United States. With at least 10,000 rock art images, it’s often called the world’s longest art gallery. On my last visit to Utah, I wanted to find pictographs to photograph and discovered a web page all about this wonderful area in northern Utah.

Road through Nine Mile Canyon Utah

Some more poking around uncovered a few guides to this very remote and beautiful place. The photographs on web sites I found showed some of the most exquisite rock art I’d ever seen. I knew I had to visit.

Nine Mile Canyon is actually not a very accurate name. The canyon itself is actually 40 miles long and the road traversing the canyon is a 78-mile-long Back Country Byway.  John Wesley Powell led an expedition through this remote section of Utah to map and explore; his expedition camped at the mouth of the canyon in 1871. His cartographer, F. M. Bishop, mapped the area and used a “nine-mile triangulation” to map the mouth of the canyon and the surrounding area. On maps of the area, this area was first referred to as Nine Mile Creek.

Old home site in Nine Mile Canyon Utah

The road starts out by winding through scrubby desert. You’ll see several old, abandoned homesteads, sometimes littered with old machinery, along the way. It’s very difficult to find the rock art panels if you’re not sure where to look. For one thing, many homes are still scattered up and down the road, and visitors need to be careful to respect private property. Be sure to print out a good guide to the canyon  (this is the one I consulted when I visited) before you stop and look around for rock art. If you don’t have mile markers, it will be difficult to find some of the panel high on cliffs. Guides also will tell you where you can pull off the road and park without irritating the people who live in the canyon.

big horn sheep petroglyphs Nine Mile Canyon

A few of the pull-offs features some very nice panels that you can get close enough to for some really nice pictures. I have a huge print of the above photo hanging in my living room. I love the pictograph of the long horned sheep. It makes me wonder what the Fremont thought about the sheep. Were they favorite prey? Or did the sheep inspire ancient people living in this harsh environment? After all, the sheep can climb cliffs that most people wouldn’t want to tackle even with modern climbing equipment!

Petroglyph panel in Nine Mile Canyon Utah

And who exactly were the people who drew all of this artwork? A culture called the Fremont created all of these intriguing panels. This culture thrived in northern Utah and surrounding states from around 700 to 1300 AD, about the same time as the Anasazi culture further south. Archaeologists don’t know a huge amount about this culture, but they do know that they were pretty successful farmers (especially skilled at growing corn), hunters, and obviously artists. The Fremont disappeared around 1300 AD. Nobody is sure why.

Historic graffiti on petroglphy panel in Nine Mile Canyon UT

In addition to the Fremont artwork in the canyon, you can also find remnants of some of the early American explorers. The above carving next to some great big horn sheep and spiral petroglyphs provides an interesting contrast of all of the people who have visited and explored this remote area.

Private Property Sign in Nine Mile Canyon Utah

Some of the people who now live in the canyon don’t like all of the interest in the rock art and ancient cultures. The above drawing is right off the road in a rock shelter. Evidently, the landowner is trying to make a point. Unfortunately he or she made the point right on top of a beautiful drawing. This is an example of why you should take care to respect private property while visiting this area.

Travel Tips: Nine Mile Canyon is extremely isolated. I’m not kidding. It’s unlikely you’ll encounter any people and places to ask for help are almost nonexistent. Your cell phone won’t work. Make absolutely sure you’re driving a vehicle that is reliable and that you have plenty of gas, food, and water. Driving the entire road one way takes at least two hours. Count on a much longer day if you want to get out of your car to look for and photograph petroglyphs. Be sure to tell someone you’re visiting Nine Mile Canyon and what time you expect to return. If your car breaks down or you run into other problems, someone needs to know where you are.

What to Bring: Bring insect repellant if you’re visiting in the warm months. Binoculars are very useful to see petroglyphs high on cliffs. Don’t forget your camera! The views and petroglyphs are spectacular!

How to Get There: It’s convenient to stop at Nine Mile Canyon if you’re driving from Salt Lake City to Moab (or the reverse). The turnoff to Nine Mile Canyon is eight miles east of Wellington, UT. From US 6/191, turn north onto 2200E (Soldier Creek Rd.). The town is quite small and sparsely populated, but the Walkers Food & Fuel gas station is located at the turnoff. You’ll also see a large, brown sign pointing the way to Nine Mile Canyon. The kiosk provides a map, driving information, and general information. Stop and check out the kiosk because road condition updates will likely be posted. You should be sure to fill up your gas tank and buy any extra food and water you may need. The first part of the drive is about 20 miles long on paved road. The road then turns into a gravel road.You can also reach Nine Mile Canyon one mile west of Myton, UT. Take  Highway 40/191 south.

Road Conditions: the road is being improved in 2012 and portions of it may be closed. You may want to contact the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) before planning a visit to check on road conditions and access.

Hiking: You can find a few short marked hikes in the canyon. You’ll see prominent brown signs indicating areas where you can hike off into the canyon. Kiosks provide a bit of information about the trails.

Petroglyph/Road Guide:  If you want to find the petroglyphs, you really need to review a guide to the canyon. This one is very good. Print it out and take it with you.

Camping: Some sources say you can camp at the Nine Mile Ranch in the canyon. When I visited, nobody was there and I’ve been unable to contact anyone associated with the camp. Don’t count on camping in the canyon. You can find one RV park in the town of Wellington, or you can drive about 25 miles west to the Price Canyon Recreation Area. Lots of other small campgrounds are located in and around Price. If you’re interested in camping, be sure to check out BLM resources (just search for “camping”). You can camp in many places on BLM land throughout the state of Utah.

Hotels: There’s at least one hotel in Wellington, and a wider selection of pretty nice places to stay is available in Price, UT about nine miles to the west.

Protecting the Artwork: Never, ever, under no circumstances, touch any of the art. The oils and dirt on your hand can permanently damage them. Obviously do not spray paint or do anything else harmful to the art. Don’t climb on them. Just look and take pictures. Also drive slowly. This help reduce the amount of dust from your vehicle; dust can damage the fragile artwork.

For more information:

  • BLM Information
  • Nine Mile Canyon Coalition (you can find a nice map of the canyon here)
  • If you want to learn more about the Fremont culture, here are some resources. This PBS video about another nearby Fremont area provides a really wonderful glimpse into these very mysterious ancient people:

Watch The Secret Canyon on PBS. See more from Scientific American Frontiers.



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