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Cedar Mesa Mule Canyon

Hiking Mule Canyon in SE Utah

Mule Canyon is located on the north end of Cedar Mesa about 20 miles west of Blanding, UT. Mule Creek cuts a deep canyon through the mesa as it travels eastward to empty into Comb Wash. The approximately 12 mile long drainage begins above 7,800 ft and drops to 4,800 ft in Comb Wash. Utah 95 runs close to Mule Canyon for most of it’s length and the highway provides easy access to a number of Mule Canyon hikes.

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About Mule Canyon

Mule Canyon is divided almost in half into distinct upper and lower sections. There are steep canyons in both sections but between them, the terrain flattens out considerably. The dividing line is basically where UT 95 crosses the canyon. On the north side of UT 95, the canyon heads upward with two major forks that join just above the highway. South of UT 95 the canyon immediately hits an impassable pour-over leading to deep and steep canyons.

The two upper forks are the South or Main Fork and the North Fork. Each of these is about 5 miles in length and they parallel each other as they run east. The two canyons join together a short distance above where Mule Canyon passes under Hwy 95. Both the South and North Forks of Mule Canyon offer great hiking with a scattering of ruins.

South of UT 95 there are ruins in the canyon and on the canyon rim. Most notably, the Cave Canyon Tower Ruins sit on the rim of a Mule Canyon tributary a short distance below the highway. It’s likely that much of the mesa top was occupied and there are many surface ruins in the area. One of them, the Mule Canyon Ruin has been developed into a fine roadside interpretive ruin on UT 95 at about mile marker 101.

This “middle” section of Mule Canyon is rarely visited. It’s possible to hike up from Comb Wash or to find an entry in Cave Canyon. However, few hikers visit the middle of Mule Canyon. The lower sections of Mule Canyon offer good hiking with a few ruins. This section is accessed from Comb Wash.

Directions to Upper Mule Canyon Trailheads

Two trailheads provide access into the upper forks of Mule Canyon. They are located about a mile apart on San Juan Country Road 263 which is a well-maintained gravel road that heads north from Hwy 95 at mile marker 102.3. The road crosses the South Fork in about 1/10 of a mile. Continue on for less than a mile to the North Fork parking area.

There are BLM trailhead registration kiosks at the trailheads. Be sure to register and pay the moderate daily hiking fee. For 2021 the fees are $5 per person for a Day Pass, $10 per person for a 7-Day Pass. Bring cash or check – no electronic payments accepted.

North Fork Mule Canyon

Parking for the North Fork is right where the road crosses the drainage about 1 mile from UT 95. The trail basically goes right up the bottom and is easy to follow. The creek bottom is flat and shallow for the first half mile or so. However, it soon deepens into a scenic canyon.

Ruins in North Fork Mule Creek
About three miles from the trailhead there is a well preserved ruin in an alcove high above. There is no easy approach so content yourself with inspecting it with binoculars and taking photos.

There are some Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins in the North Fork. After hiking about a couple of miles you can spot a nice ruin on the cliff walls to the north (right) side of the canyon. There is no obvious approach to the ruin so don’t attempt to climb to it. However, inspecting it with binoculars shows that there are some excellently preserved rooms and walls.

Continue to hike up-canyon around the next bend to a set of ruins that can be visited. If you make the scramble up you’ll find a few poorly preserved rooms and the remains of a collapsed kiva. Of interest here are the roof support timbers still in their original positions along the back of the kiva. This is an example of the construction technique used on probably thousands of kivas in the four corners area.

Collapsed kiva ruin in North Fork Road Canyon

The hike into the North Fork is typically one-way so hike as far as you want and turn around. If you continue up-canyon it gets more confined and tougher hiking but is still a great hike. I’ve made a loop out of this hike by hiking up for 4-5 miles then finding a way to climb out a side canyon to the north to reach a bench that can be followed back to the road. This is not an easy hike but it’s doable.

South Fork Mule Canyon

Parking is along the road where it crosses the south fork about .3 mile from UT 95. there is an obvious trail leading down to the creek bottom and the BLM registration kiosk at the trailhead. The canyon is in the BLM fee area so please pay the modest fee. From here the trail is obvious as it heads across the broad flat canyon bottom. At this point, the canyon is shallow with poorly defined, low canyon walls. Hiking is easy but uninteresting for the first 15 or 20 minutes after which the canyon quickly gets deeper with steep cliff walls rising on both sides.

After no more than 30 minutes of hiking, you can begin to spot the ruins that are scattered throughout the canyon. The ruins are mostly found in the alcoves located along the ledges on the north (right looking up canyon) side of the canyon. The Cedar Mesa sandstone that makes up most of the exposed rock in South Fork Mule Canyon easily erodes, creating these south-facing alcoves which are ideal locations for dwellings.

South Fork Mule Canyon Ruins
There are many ruins throughout the South Fork of Mule Canyon. Most are located on the south facing walls of the canyon where many alcoves have been eroded into the rock layers. These ruins are fairly high above the canyon floor and are easily spotted if you pay attention.

South Fork Mule Canyon Ruins

The ruins you find will mostly be in the Mesa Verde style although the Kayenta influence can be seen in a few places. While there was Anasazi occupation of this area for many years, most of the ruins date from the Pueblo II – Pueblo III period. One of the most photographed ruins in the area is the “House on Fire” ruin which is one of the first ruins you’ll encounter when hiking the South Fork.

House on Fire Ruin
House on FIre Ruin in South Fork Mule Canyon on Cedar Mesa.
Photo by John Fowler aka snowpeak

As you hike up the canyon keep a close eye for ruins on the ledges above you. The ruins are not in the canyon bottom so look up to find them. The trail works its way up the canyon bottom until it peters out near the steep head of the canyon. There is a significant side canyon that enters the South Fork about 4 miles from the trailhead. If you travel up this canyon you’ll view the remains of an interesting ruin on the cliff wall. Sometimes called the “Wall Ruin” the structures are not found in a typical alcove setting.

W@all ruins in Mule Canyon
Called by some the “Wall Ruins”, these ruins are in a short steep side canyon to South Fork Mule Canyon. Located on the north side of the canyon, this side canyon is about 4 miles in from the trailhead.

It’s about 5 miles to the head of the South Fork and it’s usually done as a one-way hike. Turn around any time and retrace your path to the trailhead. I’ve never tried to hike out of the upper end of South Fork Mule Canyon and have read differing accounts of the practicality of doing so. This could prove to be a difficult task as the canyon is very steep in its upper end.

remains of a kiva
This kiva has been significantly damaged through the years. However, you can still see the pillars and beams that built up toward the roof.

Mule Canyon Loop

The two forks that make up Mule Canyon join together a short distance below the trailheads for the canyon hikes. While almost all hikers head up one of the canyons, you can make a loop hike by heading down one and up the other. This hike is 2 – 3 miles over mostly easy terrain.

It’s not fair to call these drainages canyons as they are flat and shallow. However, it’s mostly slick rock and sand making it canyon-like. You can park at either trailhead but I usually begin at the South Fork. Follow the creek downstream for about a third of a mile to the junction with the North Fork. From there it’s about 3/4 mile up the North Fork to the road which is less than a mile back to your car.

When you’re at the junction of the two forks you can continue downstream. It’s only a short distance to the culvert leading under the highway. Continue below the highway for a very short distance to the sheer cliff pour-over that is impassable. Stay back from the edge of this cliff – it can be dangerous! The canyons ahead of you can only be reached by hiking up from Comb Wash or finding a way in from Cave Canyon.

Lower Mule Canyon

The mouth of Mule Canyon is a short distance south of UT 95 in Comb Wash. The trailhead for lower Mule Canyon is on the Comb Wash road about 3/4 mile south of UT 95. There is a short spur road to the west that leads to a parking area. You may be able to continue on a short distance if you have a suitable vehicle.

Hiking is easy in the lower canyon. There are some ruins near the mouth and that’s as far as many hikers go. You can continue on all the way to Cave Canyon or UT 95 which are about 5 1/2 miles ahead. Most hiking into Lower Mule Canyon is one-way so turn around anywhere.