Heat from the summer sun reflects brutally off the sheer vertical rock walls of the canyon, turning the craggy, brush choked landscape into an oven. Hiking this section of southern Utah, takes patience, strength and water. Lots and lots of water.
But, if you have the heart and desire and if you keep your eye’s open, hiking Range Creek, Utah’s newest Wildlife Management Area, can lead you on a path of discovery. One that offers up lessons and stories as wild and varied as the old west itself.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
“You ever see this blacksmith shop?” 70-year-old Waldo Wilcox, owner of the ranch land that became Range Creek asked Mark Connolly, conservation officer for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as they drove through the site.
“Nope,” said Connolly.
Immediately, Wilcox pulled the truck over and got out to show him a rubble pile strewn with old blacksmith tools and the remains of the building that once housed them.
Wilcox said, “I talked to an old guy who used to work in there. He says Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up in Range Creek after the Castle Gate train robbery.
According to this old timer, Butch and Sundance robbed the train carrying the mine’s payroll and headed for Robber’s Roost which is farther down in southern Utah. Apparently, they had a bunch of horses with them that knew the way back, so they sent the horses up the trail alone.
The lawmen traced the horses and Butch and Sundance doubled back and rode into Range Creek. This old guy is working in the blacksmith shop and he looks up and sees a 30x30 rifle pointing at him through the window. So, he comes out with his hands up and it’s Butch and Sundance. They ducked the law and they were hiding in Range Creek.”
The Fremont Culture
Outlaws aren’t the only things hiding out in Range Creek. As you park your vehicle at the North Gate (the only public access to the park) you start hiking, gradually downhill into the canyon. If you keep a sharp lookout, you’ll find a treasure trove of artifacts from the Fremont Indian Culture -- the folks who called this Emery County canyon home from 500 A.D. to around 1200-1300 A.D.
Named for the Fremont River in central Utah where the culture’s first artifacts were found, the Fremont people were successful farmers and hunter/gatherers who probably traded with the Anasazi who occupied regions in the southwest (think Mesa Verde) during the same period.
As Kevin Jones, Utah’s State Archaeologist notes, “this time period is really the efflorescence of farming in North America.”
Well, at least until sometime in the 13th century when there was a general demise of farming across the entire region.
As Jones says, “One of the intriguing research questions at Range Creek is what really happened? What happened in the Anasazi area? What happened at Cahokia in the Midwest at roughly the same time that caused all of these people to go bankrupt in terms of their economy?”
Looking for Answers
The person working to answer these questions and more is Duncan Metcalfe, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Utah.
For two months each summer Metcalfe takes 12-15 of his students, three teaching assistants, and a few colleagues (including Jones) down to Range Creek to map the sites (over 300 found so far) and collect any artifacts worthy of additional study back in the laboratory.
As Jones says, “If there are clearly attractive artifacts lying around on the surface, we carefully map them and then take them. We’re collecting, but we’re not collecting everything because that would be impossible.”
So far, Metcalfe and his team have found and collected elaborate pottery, wild tobacco (cached in a rock wall), snare traps and even a collection of compound arrows with tips attached.
But, perhaps more important, they’ve identified and mapped hundreds of sites with pin-point precision using total station survey equipment (accurate to within 1 centimeter) providing a base line that Metcalfe and other archaeologists can use to go back and monitor how/if things are changing over time.
Public Access vs. Protection
Metcalfe and his team know just how important their time-intensive mapping effort is.
“Just north of Range Creek is Nine Mile Canyon,” says Metcalfe. “You walk it through and you can step onto sites that have what were once pre-historic structures and they’ve got big holes in them and there’s not an artifact to be seen. They’ve just been picked up.
The holes are clearly vandalism, under any definition of the term, but for Range what I’m really worried about is the person who walks around and thinks to themselves, ‘if I don’t pick this up the next person will’ – which is the most common excuse I’ve heard.”
As Metcalfe says, “if it’s three people, not much of a problem, if it’s hundreds of people, it’s becoming a pretty major problem and if it’s thousands of people, you can denude the sites in a couple of years.”
To protect against just this type of threat, the Division of Wildlife Resources, the department responsible for managing the 1,500 acres of land which control access to the canyon and the 46,000 additional acres of public land has developed a two-tiered protection system that utilizes the Internet and on-site law enforcement.
According to Connolly, the conservation officer with responsibility for Range Creek, “nobody can go into the canyon without being documented.”
In order to hike the canyon, interested parties must go online (http://www.wildlife.utah.gov/range_creek/apply.html) to purchase a one-day $5 permit, which captures their name, address, phone number and more.
“They’re totally documented,” says Connolly. “And, I personally hike every day that I work (40 plus miles a week). I hike with the hikers so I’m keeping an eye on what’s going on. And, we have these archaeological sites that I visit on a regular basis to make sure they haven’t been damaged or somebody’s altered them or something. So, if something does happen and we can pin it down to the day it happened, we’ve got the name and address of every person who was in there that day.”
To date, Connolly’s job has been less law enforcement and more tour guide/public relation’s officer.
He recognizes his job is to “make sure every visitor has the best experience possible.” To him, that means taking the time to show visitors particularly intriguing sites and making sure they have a safe experience.
Armed with a satellite phone, first aid supplies and water, Connolly has helped more then one hiker in distress.
“When you start hiking here, you’re hiking downhill,” he says, “and a lot of people don’t notice that. Then, they turn around to go back to the car and find they haven’t brought enough water with them. I pick up people that are four miles in and don’t have enough energy to get out.”
Though the summer sun can be brutal and the terrain is rugged, Range Creek offers visitors the greatest of all attractions – mystery.
If you visit, you might wonder why someone would build a granary 1,000 feet off the canyon floor with no visible/logical way to reach it. You might wonder how someone could even climb that sheer rock face without access to the technical climbing gear available to our civilization. And then it hits you -- they didn’t just have to climb it they had to climb it while carrying building materials and grain.
Is that even possible? Maybe, someday, folks like Metcalfe, Jones and Connelly will have let us know.