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  Little Westwater Ruin
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  Moki Dugway

 
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Hiking Upper John's Canyon on Cedar Mesa

     John's Canyon is a long and complex canyon system that originates on Cedar Mesa and runs off the south end of the Mesa to the San Juan River. John's Canyon is not a popular destination for most hikers which is a shame as it offers some great hiking opportunities. John's Canyon seems to be at the edge of ancient Anasazi inhabitation, so there are fewer ruins than in most Cedar Mesa canyons. There are three distinct sections of John's Canyon. The upper section is typical Cedar Mesa canyon terrain. The middle stretch gets broad and flat and the lower canyon entrenches again.

Upper John's Canyon
     As yo approach John's Canyon the canyon drops dramatically over a large pour-over. Suddenly the shallow drainage you are following becomes a serious canyon.

Upper John's Canyon has three forks at the head of the main canyon and there are two forks in  West John's Canyon, all of which provide great hikes.

     The most popular John's Canyon hike enters into the main fork of the upper canyon and heads down to western fork which you follow up and out, making a great loop hike. You can make this hike in either direction and you can park at either end of the hike. To hike the main fork, park along Highway 261 just north of the Moki Dugway. There is a large parking area immediately adjacent to the highway at mile 17.3. This is right at the junction where San Juan County road 2211 heads off to the west.  If you park here, the trail begins a couple hundred yards down SJ 2211. The other option is to drive on SJ 2211 about .6 mile to an intersection with a track that heads south. This road ends at an old drill hole right on the rim of the western fork. This is where you will exit if you begin your hike in the main fork as described below.

John's Canyon Pour-over      Looking back toward the entry to John's Canyon, you can see the dramatic pour-over that defines the beginning of the canyon. From about the point where this photo was taken you need to pick your way downward to get to the ledge you are seeking.

     There are no well-established hiker trails in John's Canyon but the trail into the main fork begins right at the BLM register which is roadside about a hundred yards from Hwy 261. Right by the BLM register is the beginning of a small creek bottom which you need to follow downward. The terrain is typical for the absolute head of any canyon on Cedar Mesa. Bland and shallow, it entrenched gradually as it drops. Soon, it becomes slickrock and you will be hiking down numerous small pour-overs. None are more than a foot or two in height so it is easy hiking down the creek bottom. Looking ahead you will see a much larger deeper canyon approaching and you soon reach a big pour-over into that canyon.

  This is obviously an impassable pour-over and here you need to begin picking out the trail you want to follow. Upper John's Canyon is very much a layered canyon with lots of cliff bands and large ledges. The best way to navigate the canyon is to get on these ledges and hike them as far as they go. In fact, from here a lower ledge goes all the way around the corner and up into the next fork of the canyon this is the ledge you need. Actually, ledge is not the best description as it is so broad that there are well developed soils
Upper John's Canyon      Looking across John;s Canyon at one of the small canyons that enter from the east. This is a main branch of Upper John's that can be hiked on the same level as the hike described..
and trees. When you hit the big pour-over you need to get to the west (right looking down canyon) side of the canyon and look for a way to climb down to the large flat ledge that you see below you.   

     
It is not too hard to find a route down to this ledge and once there, the hiking is easy. Head down canyon and after about a mile, the upper fork entering from the east is dominates the view on the other side of the canyon. This fork is one of several short forks that enter John's Canyon enters from the east and can be accessed from Hwy. 261. However, on this hike you will only look into the canyon from a distance

     Continue hiking down canyon on the ledge. Since it is so broad, it has developed a thick layer of crypto-biotic soils and all of the vegetation associated with them. One feature of crypto-biotic soils is how well they show footprints and how easily hiker trails become established. It's indicative of how few hikers John's Canyon sees that there are few if any obvious hiker trails in the soil of this ledge. This isunusual for the canyons on Cedar Mesa as most of them receive a lot of foot traffic.
John's Canyon Ruin      This alcove holds a badly eroded ruin, one of several ruins you will find on this hike.

   Continue to hike down canyon and you will soon reach the corner where the ledge turns to the right and begins to head up the western fork of Upper John's. Hiking down the main fork you will not see any sign of the Anasazi but as you hike up this branch you will find some scattered ruins. One you will soon spot is in an alcove a bit below your ledge. The hike down is easy any you will find a small site tucked into the alcove.

     From here, just continue up the canyon on the same ledge you have been hiking. As they do, the ledge soon climbs up into the rock layers and vanishes into the cliff side. From here it is time to climb out. There is no trail and you need to pick your way up the north side at the head of the canyon. The canyon bottom itself becomes impossibly steep and unclimbable and the way out is obvious; straight up and out on the right hand side as you look up canyon. This is a typical canyon exit - climbing, scrambling and finding ways through various cliff bands until you reach the top.

   When you gain the Mesa top, search for the four-wheel-drive road that was cut to the drill hole near the rim of John's Canyon. Once you pick up the road its three quarters of a mile of easy hiking back to the parking area. Of course, if you parked here to begin your hike you are ready to go. The hike as described here is no more than about 7 miles and makes an easy day hike.

John's Canyon Ruin      These ruins ae high on the canyon wall in the Western fork of Upper John's Canyon. Click to enlarge and you will see that the doorways still have their flat rock doors in place.

     I really like hiking in Upper John's Canyon. I love the canyon geology which is very similar to that of Lime Canyon. This is one of the least used canyons on Cedar Mesa so if you want to try a hike in some wild country this is a great place hike a rarely visited canyon.

Learn More:
     There are a number of books with good accounts of hiking John's Canyon. The most detailed hiking instructions are found in Cedar Mesa Hikes: by Jim Beard
      A good description of John's Canyon can also be found in A Hiking Guide To Cedar Mesa by Peter Tassoni.  
     

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