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Wandering the West

Between Main Street and Redstone you’ll find a number of art galleries. From the top of Main to Kimball Junction, the art trail runs six miles or so. Park City’s long trail of galleries has works that carry some pretty hefty prices. But not too far away there’s an art gallery that’s much longer, and the art inside it carries no price. It is literally, priceless. And it’s also endangered.

I’m talking about Nine Mile Canyon, a misnamed canyon in central Utah that’s actually 40 miles long. It has long been a connecting point between the Colorado Plateau, represented by the red rock canyons of southern Utah, and the higher Uinta Basin and the peaks of the Uintas to the basin’s north. Look on a highway map for Myton in the north, and Wellington to the south, near Price. The gravel road between the two points is Nine Mile Canyon.

In Nine’s 40 miles, more than a thousand archaeological sites have been documented so far. As more people find the canyon, more sites are found.

But the energy explorers have discovered Nine Mile as well. The canyon’s many boosters think getting more people in to see what’s there is one way to make sure it is protected from the now developing natural gas fields and related pipelines and processing plants.

This is not a national park. You won’t find tidy visitors’ centers, discreet toilets and manicured campgrounds. The canyon is undeveloped. Ranchers through the late 19th and all of the 20th centuries tried to make a living there, but conditions finally forced them out. Same thing happened a thousand years earlier. Native Americans called the Fremonts by archaeologists arrived in the canyon somewhere around 950 A.D. They found a small year-round stream and irrigated the creek bottom for crops of corn and squash. They built granaries, pit houses, rock shelters, and must have had plenty of time on their hands because their rock art is everywhere.

By the time they left for reasons unknown, but probably an earlier version of climate change, they’d used rocks to chip out petroglyphs galore. Panels of hunters, deer, bighorn sheep and god-like fantasy figures abound. If you know where to look, you’ll find the much rarer pictographs, or painted figures produced by crushing berries and other natural colors.

After the Fremont, centuries passed. Around the 1600s, Ute Indians showed up, producing their own petroglyphs featuring animals that arrived later on the scene, like buffalo and horses. Wandering fur trappers added their names and, as idiots tend to do, more modern jerks have occasionally pounded their names into the rocks too.

You’ll also find abandoned ranches, the ghost town of Harper (not much to it), and other oddities like Balanced Rock. You won’t find signs pointing out the features, so you’ll need to do some research before you go to know where to look. There are several online sources, and road guides and brochures in the gateway towns of Price, Wellington, Duchesne and Fort Myton.

This is not a day trip. I’d suggest starting at the top at Myton, which is out U.S. Highway 40 from Park City. Then you’ll be driving downhill to see the canyon. It’s also a good one to bicycle from either direction, taking the side hikes to the historic sites.

Nine Mile is the middle of nowhere. Look for a motel room in Price after you’ve come through the canyon, or camp in the canyon, where there is one commercial campground. The next morning you can check out the College of Eastern Utah’s Prehistoric Museum, a really fine display of the geology, archaeology and prehistoric life in Central Utah’s coal country. The centerpiece is the Huntington Mammoth, a wooly mammoth dug up not long ago in the forest high above Price.

Since Price started as an ethnic mining town like Park City, there are still some ethnic restaurants hanging on. My pick is the Greek Streak, with top-notch Greek dishes and pastries. It’s open every day except Sunday until 9 p.m.

Nine Mile Canyon is a national Backcountry Scenic Byway, and because of the gas development, The National Trust for Historic Preservation has nominated it as one of "America’s Most Endangered Places." Heavy truck traffic down the gravel road shakes fragile ruins and kicks dust onto the petroglyphs. Studies are underway to try to measure any environmental impact, and activists are always ready with a lawsuit or two.

It’s not going to go away, but the quiet, out of the way, unsung art gallery is now turning into an industrial zone. See it before it gets worse.

Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.

THE VITALS:

Park City to Myton: 106 miles

Myton to Price: 74 miles

Price to Park City: 121 miles

Web sites: http://www.castlecountry.com http://www.climb-utah.com

Insider tip: You’ll need a map or brochure to find the sites in Nine Mile. Test your GPS abilities by downloading coordinates of the major sites from the Climb Utah Web site.


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