NINE MILE CANYON — There’s a strange juxtaposition in this east-central Utah gem of a canyon: Despite its ruggedness and relative remoteness, visitors on any given day can see large tanker trucks lumbering along its main road as if it were some major industrial route.
That’s because it is. Then, again Nine Mile is many things.
The canyon, which actually is 40 miles long, begins about 12 miles north of the town of Wellington, cutting an impressive gorge through the Book Cliffs, Roan Cliffs, and the heart of the West Tavaputs plateau. While best known for having the highest concentration of Native American rock art in North America, also serves as the most direct way for tankers to haul oil and gas from nearby fields in a region where reliably passable roads are scarce.
It also serves as a window into Utah’s pioneer history, with several now-abandoned homesteads and a ghost town attesting to the hardscrabble life of its first white residents. There are coal mines, both abandoned and active, in the area.
In addition to all this, its rare perennial stream makes it a haven for wildlife despite the face ongoing cattle and horse ranching in the area (most of the land on the canyon floor is privately owned) have degraded the riparian corridor. It’s not uncommon to see herds of 50 or more deer gathered in a pasture together.
Of course, most of Nine Mile’s human visitors are either working for energy companies or seeking out the myriad of petroglyphs, which were carved into the rock by Fremont Indians more than 1,000 years ago.
It’s estimated there are hundreds or even thousands of rock art sites in Nine Mile and its side canyons that remain undiscovered.
The canyon is attractive to tourists looking for ancient rock art because it has something for everyone. While more adventurous and seasoned visitors might hike deep into the rugged terrain in search of new sites, a few of its most spectacular petroglyph panels are located next to roads and easily accessed by explorers of all ages and abilities.
For example, the most recognized and popular panel in the canyon, known as the Hunter Panel or The Great Hunt, is found at the end of a short, flat gravel path where benches allow visitors to sit and contemplate what life must have been like for the person or people who created it. It’s a classic example of Fremont petroglyphs in the area, which prominently feature hunters, bighorn sheep and other mammals they subsisted on.
As industrial traffic in Nine Mile has increased in conjunction with increased oil and gas production in the region over the years, concerns have been raised about the impact of this traffic on the rock art.
Pam Miller, chair of the conservation group Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, said more than 10,000 unique petroglyphs and pictographs in the canyon are being obliterated by dust and destroyed by dust-suppressant chemicals, specifically magnesium chloride being sprayed on roads. The vibrations of the large rucks, drill rigs, bulldozers and other industrial traffic also pose a significant threat, she said.
Last year, two of the largest oil and gas producers in the area, Bill Barrett Corp. and W.W. Clyde Co., started work on a $20 million project designed to address the concerns of preservation advocates. Along with the help of state and county officials, they devised a plan to hard-surface 36 miles of the road where dust is thought to be having the greatest impact on the rock art.
Bill Barrett, which has been using the road for the past 10 years, is providing half of the financing for the project, with the state and counties chipping in the rest, while W.W. Clyde is the lead contractor. The main aspects include installing pipes to improve drainage (flash floods wipe out dirt roads in the region every year); widening the road to improve public safety; and hard-surfacing it with a double-chip seal to eliminate, or at least minimize, dust.
In the meantime, crews have replaced the magnesium chloride dust suppressant with a more environmentally friendly version.
A mild winter has allowed crews to get an early start on the work, which is scheduled for completion sometime this fall. The fact the Bill Barrett decided to put drilling for gas on the West Tavaputs temporarily on hold is also helping the project progress faster than initially expected.
The road is still open to the public, but it’s recommended that visitors coming for the petroglyphs wait until the project is done. There’s a lot of heavy machinery in the canyon right now, creating a potential safety hazard, and significant traffic delays are all but inevitable.
If you do go, whenever that may be, remember that you’re in a remote area with no services for 75 miles. Bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need, extra rations, and a spare tire in good condition. Also, make sure you have plenty of gas in the car. It’s a little ironic, but this fossil-fuel superhighway is no place for your tank to run dry.
The oils in human skin can also degrade the rock art, which is fragile despite having persisted for thousands of years, so look, but don’t touch — and as they say, take only pictures and leave only footprints. The risks and threats the panels face today did not exist until recent decades.
If you decide to take a trip to what has also been called “the world’s longest art gallery,” be sure to check out the abandoned homesteads and ghost town of Harper (from the other side of the fence, as these are on private property), and don’t forget to keep an eye out for wildlife while you’re at it.
Oh, and give those tanker trucks a wide berth.