Butler Wash drains the eastern slopes of Comb Ridge and joins the San Juan River a bit west of Bluff, UT. About 30 miles to the north, Butler Wash disappears where Comb Ridge blends into Whiskers Draw. The main section of Butler Wash is between Utah 95 on the north and US 163 to the south. I consider Lower Butler Wash to be that section south of US 163 where Butler Wash travels a short distance to its junction with the San Juan River. The middle section between the highways I refer to as Butler Wash. The section of Butler Wash north of UT 95 is what I consider to be Upper Butler Wash.
Upper Butler Wash is one of my favorite easy access/easy hiking places in SE Utah. It offers a variety of terrain and has a number of interesting archaeological sites. Several of these are well-known sites, including Butler Wash Ruins, Ballroom Cave Ruin, and Target Ruin. There are lots of other ruins throughout this general area so be sure to keep your eyes peeled if you are hiking/exploring the Upper Butler Wash area.
Directions to Upper Butler Wash Trailhead
The trailhead is located roadside on Utah 95 near mile marker 111, just to the east of the large and well signed Butler Wash Ruin parking area. Parking is in a good-sized pullout on the north side of the highway that has room for several vehicles.
There are no outhouses, water or any other type of services at the parking area. However, there are pit toilets at the Butler Wash Ruin which is just to the west. I’ve read hike descriptions for accessing Upper Butler Wash that recommend parking at the Butler Wash Ruin parking area and crossing the slickrock to join the Butler Wash trail. However, I find it much more convenient to park alongside the highway.
From the parking area drop-down the obvious trail a short distance to the Butler Wash bottom. The sandy canyon bottom is fairly flat and full of mature cottonwood trees and lots of annual vegetation. The deep soils that have built up in the wash bottom are home to many types of vegetation. At times you’ll hike through head-high growth of vibrant green. The seasons produce dramatic changes in the Upper Butler Wash vegetation. The lush growth that occurs every spring fills the bottom with vibrancy and life. Flowers scent the air and birds and insects are everywhere.
Hiking in Upper Butler Wash
Hiking is easy in Upper Butler Wash with a well-established hikers trail heading right up the bottom. The trail wanders back and forth across the normally dry stream bed. Although you will rarely find water in the wash, there’s no doubt that it runs with force at times. In fact, evidence is all around that there are occasional flash floods in the canyon.
As you hike the trail you come to a fork in the canyon soon after leaving the parking area (about a quarter-mile). There are trails in each canyon but most hikers will want to take the western fork (left looking up canyon). After about another half mile you will begin to find Ancestral Puebloan ruins located in the deeply eroded caves and alcoves found along the western sides of Butler Wash.
Target Ruin is the first you come to and many hikers miss the trail that takes you into the hidden box canyon which houses the ruin. Just up-canyon from here is the Ballroom Cave Ruin which is in a large alcove/cave that is easily spotted from the trail. The hike to this cave is short and steep but well worth the climb.
After Ballroom Cave you’ll encounter a series of alcoves along the western wall of Butler Wash, most of which house ruins. The alcove and ruins directly up-canyon from Ballroom Cave are impossible to visit as the eroded bank in front of the cave is too steep and soft to climb. Over the years there have been hiker-built ladders placed here but most times there is nothing. It’s best to observe these ruins from a distance. There are vantage points you can climb to that offer good views into the alcove so please avoid trying to climb into the ruin.
Alcoves, Caves & Ruins
Continuing up Butler wash you will find more alcoves along the left (west) side of the wash. Most of these hold some sort of ruins and most are easily explored. Most of the Ancestral Puebloan construction in the Upper Butler Wash area is of Mesa Verde style construction. However, some Kayenta influence can be found. Roughly speaking, Comb Ridge is considered a dividing line between the cultures but there is no exact line and many of the ruins in this general area show a mix of the two construction styles.
Most of the ruins are composed of more storage rooms than habitation rooms. This is typical of the Pueblo III period. This also seems to be supported by the high concentration of metates in the area. These grinding areas are indicative of significant corn production which would also create the need for a lot of storage.
As you continue to hike up Butler Wash the canyon narrows but the bottom is still filled with mature cottonwood trees long established in the deep sandy soils. However, as you move up the wash you suddenly reach a point where the soils disappear and the entire wash bottom is slickrock. This dramatic change is an indication that you’ll soon reach the end of your hike. This is because Butler Wash turns into a steep-walled box canyon with sheer walls on all sides. You are at the bottom of a pour-over with no way to continue on. However, this is a neat amphitheater and a great place to stop and enjoy the canyon.
Completing Your Hike
This is the end of the line and from here you retrace your hike back to the highway parking area. If you want to explore more you can follow the other main fork of Upper Butler Wash. This is the fork that runs to the northeast (right looking up-canyon) that you encountered early in the hike. There is not a heavily used trail into this section and this fork is not as deeply incised. It doesn’t have as many ruins but it’s a great place to explore.
There are few places better than Upper Butler Wash to take a short hike into an archaeologically rich area. In just a couple of hours, you can hike a neat canyon, visit a variety of ruins and really get a sense of how the Ancestral Puebloans lived. Although there are no spectacular ruins and not a lot of rock art, I highly recommend this hike for all visitors.
For the adventurists, the very upper sections of Butler Wash are about 5 miles further up from here and the dedicated hiker can find ways to get there. Careful observation will find sites of archaeological interest throughout the entire area, especially at the very top where Butler wash merges into Whiskers Draw, Cheese & Raisins, and the other canyons that make up the interesting area west of Blanding, UT.
Cedar Mesa Hiking Guide: Utah Anasazi Canyons by Joe Berardi discusses the hikes and has a map of Butler Wash.
The Anasazi of Mesa Verde and the Four Corners by William Ferguson provides some information about Butler Wash.