There’s a canyon in Utah not too far from the small coal mining town of Price that has one of the best rock art in the Southwest. A long, twisting road winds gently uphill for about 20 miles through what is known as Nine Mile Canyon. The canyon itself is much longer but the main section is a bit less than 10 miles in length, hence the name.
I was thinking about Nine Mile a few days ago after I saw an article noting how great a job we’re doing of meeting our energy-independent goals thanks to new technology that allows us to mine oil shale and frack deep down into the ground. Nine Mile, of course is where the rubber meets the road: there’s not only lots of coal in this part of Utah but oil shale as well and the race is on to develop access to that shale in places like Nine Mile Canyon.
Over the last few years the road has been improved dramatically to make it an all-weather route for the huge trucks that have become a constant in the canyon. The development is not only a threat to the rock art, both from the pollution and ease of access but the loss of ambience that comes with it. Once a quiet back-road route dotted with ranches and one ramshackle bed-and-breakfast, quiet mornings and equally pleasant afternoons, there now seems almost a frenetic pace to the canyon life that wasn’t there just a decade ago.
Regardless, Nine Mile Canyon is still one of my favorite places to spend the day. A few years ago a friend, named Charlie, and I cruised through the area in late fall, exploring a number of rock art sites. We stayed at a Motel 6 in Green River (cheap and clean) then headed out early for the 50 mile drive towards Prince and the turnoff to Nine Mile Canyon. We spotted an innocuous sign marking the turn up to the canyon about 10 miles shy of Price. It’s about 6 miles across the desert plain to the far cliffs that mark the entry into Nine Mile proper. Just at the point where the road narrows and begins to cut its way through the headwalls we pass a coal mine — almost deserted now.
Price is a coal town and its economy is tied directly into what happens in the mines and the railroads that carry the coal over the Wasach Mountains to the Salt Lake City area. A few years ago one of the nearby mines collapsed, trappping a number of the miners inside. Rescue efforts turned tragic when several of those working their way to the trapped miners died after the walls above them collapsed and that part of the mine was sealed for good.
Not too far past the mine the road turns to dirt — or at least it used to be dirt. Now it has some kind of roadbed base material topped with a chemicals that keep the dust down. At the end of the pavement you’ll want to zero out your odometer if you’ve gotten a copy of Mary and Jim Liddiard’s “Guide to the Rock Art of Nine Mile Canyon” that provides road mileages for the places you’ll want to stop. On this trip the Chevron gas station at the turnoff to the canyon had it on the counter. You’ll find plenty of information online as well.
Within a mile the headwalls fall away and the canyon opens for several miles until it closes down a bit. Just ahead Nine Mile Canyon begins and it’s pretty easy to spot the sign that marks the start of the canyon. The guide identifies 49 sites over the next 24 miles, meaning that you can’t go too far before spotting the next site. You’ll find all of the rock art on the north or sun facing walls and just off the road so spotting the sites is pretty easy. The road log helps quite a bit but you’ll still find yourself stopping and checking the canyon walls every few yards.
While some of the petroglyphs are within a few yards of the road, many are on the first headwalls just above the talus slopes. Most of the rock art is on the private ranches in the canyon so most the best advice is to have your binoculars handy and stay on the road. In my many trips through the canyon I’ve never had anyone stop me from hiking up to the upper panels. That may change with the increase in traffic and oil shale operations.
You’ll know you are in the heart of the canyon when you come to a large rock wall that extends down to the road. From this point the magic begins. Picture the long, winding canyon with a small creek that flows year round, open fields once grazed by a variety of animals, including antelope and big horn sheep, most likely hunter-gatherers who also subsisted on corn, beans and squash grown in the open flood plain areas. Quiet, but tough country. The Indians who lived here belonged to what has been called the Fremont Culture. Most likely they migrated up from the desert plains near Price about 500AD and were gone by 1300AD.
After the Fremont left nomadic tribes of highly skilled hunters — the Paiute and Ute — inhabited a great deal of the region and perhaps contributed to the rock art in Nine Mile Canyon as well. More than likely they left when extended cycles of drought made it impossible to survive here any longer but it may also have been due to the loss of game or hostile tribes from other areas. What they left behind in the rock art on the canyon walls provides a beautiful testament to a place that until recently is not much different than it was a thousand years ago.