Range Creek: Exploring Newly Discovered Ruins in a 2009 Nissan Pathfinder
We wanted it all. It had to be visually smart, yield excellent fuel economy, and have rugged off-road capability and lots of prowess, luxury, and comfort. Taking delivery of a 2009 Nissan Pathfinder for a much-anticipated seven-day road trip to Utah, we got exactly what we had requested. Powering this luxurious off-roader was a fuel-injected V-6 that delivers 266 horses and 288 pound-feet of torque, plenty sufficient for effortless driving and towing all kinds of toys as well as camping and utility trailers.
On our 1700-mile journey, the Pathfinder logged a respectable 23.5-mpg fuel economy out on the open road. Coupled to a five-speed transmission with shift-on-the-fly 4WD, climbing and winding up the primitive mountain trail to 10,250 feet above sea level proved as effortless for the Nissan as it was transparent to the four adults who were awed by the beauty outside while being immersed and surrounded by comfort and luxury inside.
The old mining town of Sunnyside sits at the base of the Book Cliff Mountains, and even though it's only about 25 miles from here to the top of the Tavaputs Plateau and the Tavaputs Guest Ranch and Lodge, it takes at least two hours to get there. The delight of moving from the desert at the base of the Book Cliffs, up and into pine-covered forests, and then through thickets of aspen on the top is easily enough drama to satisfy the needs of most sightseers. However, waiting for us at the end of the trail was the Tavaputs Guest Ranch and three days and nights of mountaintop living that would be a super natural experience.
You can stay in the lodge or in one of the private cabins, which are appointed with every convenience you would find at the Ritz. Tours of the mountaintop are offered and you can go horseback riding in the morning and afternoon. However, we had come for something else that's unique and available to guests of the Tavaputs Ranch. It's the opportunity to be guided by the Jensens on a full-day excursion down into Range Creek canyon where you are literally transported back in time a thousand years.
Each summer, the Jensens, who own the Tavaputs Ranch, move their cattle from the desert range below up thousands of feet above to the thick rich mountain grasses that carpet the top of the plateau. While summering their cattle here, the Jensens open up their lodge to guests who come from around the world to enjoy a true Western experience and an ultimate getaway.
Most everyone has heard of Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon or one of the many other ancient ruins that lace the West, where people indigenous to North America once lived, but Range Creek is different from these for one very specific reason. It was discovered only about five years ago and today is one of the hottest ancient civilization sites anywhere, attracting people from around the world.
How is it that this place went undiscovered for that long? The Wilcox family recently sold the ranch. At the same time, they called up the University of Utah Archeological Department, wanting to donate several thousand acres of the property in Range Creek for research. When asked why it would be donated for research, the Wilcox family explained there were thousands of ancient pit houses, granaries, and artifacts, with hundreds of panels of petroglyphs gracing the canyon walls that no one knew about. The family had kept it a secret to protect the property. Skeptics investigated and, sure enough, it was true. Archeologists estimate it will take years to identify and catalog all the ancient ruins and artifacts that Range Creek has been hiding up until now. The people who lived here (between 800 and 1300 A.D.) are referred to as Fremont Man, cousins to the Anasazi.
However, there is good news: Visitors staying at the Tavaputs Guest Ranch on top of the mountain can join a guided tour in a 4WD SUV and ride down through Range Creek to the old Wilcox ranch. The Jensens are the only private concessionaire licensed to take guests on guided vehicle tours into Range Creek--Jeanie Jensen, who conducts these tours, was born and raised on the old Wilcox Ranch (yep, she's a Wilcox).
One of these tours takes a full day. Jeanie obtains all the necessary permits, and she and husband Butch pack plenty of cold drinks, snacks, and a gourmet picnic lunch that is later enjoyed under the huge cottonwood trees at the old Wilcox ranch house. After a cowboy breakfast at the lodge, you ride in a 4WD SUV down an old cattle trail to be met at the bottom by a park ranger who by law must tag along.
From the point where you enter these hallowed grounds at the north end of the canyon down to the old Wilcox ranch at the south end of Range Creek is about 13 miles. You can pitch a tent, tow in a pop-up tent camper, or drive in a truck camper (getting here on the primitive road over Horse Canyon is no easy journey) and bivouac just outside the north entrance to Range Creek. Because you are allowed to enter Range Creek only by foot or on horseback, it's impossible to see much because of the distances between ancient sites and the fact that some sites have yet to be located. An old ranch road (in most places its two ruts through the dirt and rock) meanders alongside Range Creek as it flows down to and past the old Wilcox Ranch at the south end of the canyon. Everyone has to be out of Range Creek by sundown (no overnights inside), and the agencies that control this canyon issue only a few permits daily that are good for only a specific day.
The canyon is closed during the winter months because of snow. After getting their cows up to the top of the mountain and opening the lodge to guests, Butch and Jeanie take folks into Range Creek. You need protective clothing, good footwear, a hat, and plenty of sunscreen and must drink plenty of fluids (provided) throughout the course of the day.
At two different locations, we watched an excavation take place, with scoops full of earth being sifted through screens to find traces of Fremont Man, while other diggers used tiny brushes to whisk dirt off the objects being unearthed. One of the most unusual discoveries to date is a flute that was found nestled high up on a shear-faced wall where it had been sitting since it was last played centuries ago. It's the only Fremont flute ever found and is on display at the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price.
Because we were staying at the Tavaputs Ranch, we ended our day in Range Creek by riding in comfort back to the top of the Tavaputs Plateau (2500-foot-elevation gain in a mile and a half) to spend one last night at the ranch. Here we sat in a cedar swing facing east out over Desolation Canyon until the dinner bell rang. Then we dined one last time on delicious Western ranch-style fare.
Castle Country Tourism
CEU Prehistoric Museum
Tavaputs Guest Ranch