Natural History Meets Ancient Art
The rock art and heritage of Indian and Nine Mile canyons through Duchesne, Price, Helper and Myton
Location: Central Utah.
Overview: A highly diverse 145-mile drive combining lovely forested canyons, the traverse of old Native American and settler trails, and many cultural and historical attractions.
Travel Season: Generally year-round. The unpaved Nine Mile Canyon road may be a problem when wet. Snow can cause difficult winter driving on any part of this drive and can close Nine Mile Canyon. The foliage in Indian Canyon is especially brilliant in fall.
Special Attractions: Ashley National Forest, Indian Canyon, historic attractions and museums in Helper and Price, Nine Mile Canyon, rock art sites.
GPS of Start: 40.163391, -110.403076 (Duchesne)
GPS of End: 40.197049, -110.069351 (Myton)
Drive Route Number & Names: US 191/ Indian Canyon Scenic Byway, Nine Mile Canyon Scenic Backway.
Camping: Limited. State park campground at Duchesne, one national forest campground on US 191, commercial RV parks at Price and Wellington, free RV overnights at Duchesne.
Services: All services in Price and Helper, most services in Duchesne, basic services in Wellington and Myton.
Nearby Attractions: Reservation Ridge Scenic Backway, Huntington Canyon and Eccles Canyon Scenic Byways, Cleveland- Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry.
– The Road Trip –
This road trip combines Utah’s designated Indian Canyon Scenic Byway with nearby Nine Mile Canyon Scenic Backway, creating a 145-mile loop. The initial segment of this route is an alpine drive up beautiful Indian Canyon, 45 miles of wilderness scenery with a handful of picturesque farms and ranches at the Duchesne end. This part of the drive should take 1 to 2 hours, depending on how often you stop for pictures. The Nine Mile Canyon Backway is approximately 78 miles and requires at least 3 hours to complete. Plan on spending at least an hour in Helper and Price — much more if you intend to visit the highly recommended College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum at Price.
It is possible to do the entire loop as a very long all-day excursion from Salt Lake City, but a more practical strategy would involve an overnight stay in Helper, Price, or Duchesne, or a night of camping en route. This would allow ample time to poke around historic Helper and Price. US 191 makes an appealing alternative to the traffic of US 6 for those traveling to southeastern Utah. If you decide to stay overnight in Helper, be sure to poke your head outside after dark and look up; Helper is a certified International Dark Sky Community and its stargazing will not disappoint!
Although this trip involves substantial driving on unpaved roads, the mostly unpaved Nine Mile Canyon Backway is wide and well maintained. In dry conditions it presents no problems for any vehicle, though it is not recommended for those longer than 22 feet. Check in Price about road conditions, especially if it has been wet.
The route starts at Duchesne, a town that seems off the beaten track even today. According to one account, Duchesne was named for a nun, making this one of the few places in Utah named for a non-Spanish Catholic. There is a campground at nearby Starvation Reservoir State Park.
From Duchesne turn south on US 191, signed for Castle Gate (44 miles). The turn is easy to miss; it’s right in the center of town, across from the very helpful visitor information center. After a prosaic start past scrubland, the road climbs gradually up the canyon for 25 beautiful miles past old-fashioned ranches along Indian Creek. The final 3 or 4 miles of ascent to 9,100-foot Indian Creek Pass climb steeply. At the high-elevation section of this drive, you’re surrounded by miles of aspen and pine forests and high-elevation meadows.
Just after leaving Ashley National Forest, watch for a dirt road on the right, signed as Reservation Ridge Scenic Backway. This mountain backway winds for about 45 miles along Reservation Ridge, with broad views out over Strawberry Reservoir and Ashley National Forest, before meeting US 6 near Soldier Summit. The single-lane four-wheel-drive road is closed from November 15 to May 15.
The descent to the west of Indian Creek Pass is steeper than the east side. About 7 miles past the summit, note the small but attractive monument on the right, dedicated to Governor Simon Bamberger. This monument to Utah’s first non-Mormon governor (an immigrant German Jew) was erected here by inmates allowed to work on state roads according to a state law enacted in 1911. Road work might not be fun, but prison is undoubtedly worse.
Diverse Mining Towns
The scenic aspect of this part of the drive comes to an abrupt end at the coal processing plant at the intersection of US 6 and US 191, just north of Helper. Turn left here for Helper and Price and a short interlude based on social and industrial history. During the 1880s the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad discovered and developed the vast coal deposits of Carbon County. Since then, the ups and downs of the coal mining industry have determined the character of life in Carbon County, a place distinctly different from the rest of mostly Mormon Utah.
Helper, 2 miles from the intersection of US 191 and US 6, was named for the “helper” engines attached to heavily loaded trains for the long haul up to Soldier Summit. Helper was also known as “the town of 57 varieties,” due to its ethnic diversity. By the early 20th century, about one-third of all Carbon County coal miners were Italian, and there were also large numbers of Southern Slavs, Finns, and Greeks. All of this gives the Helper-Price area a distinct quality, more like other Western mining districts (places that shared this sort of ethnic diversity) than the agriculture-based LDS settlements.
It’s worth poking around Helper’s historic district. The town is run-down and gritty, but there are clear indications of the wealth that was floating around here at a time when people knew how to build on a grand scale. Helper’s chief tourist attraction, and the best place for a quick overview of the recent regional history, is the Western Mining and Railroad Museum, at 296 South Main St.
The best place for an overview of the prehistory of the region is down the road in Price. Like Helper, Price has a large non-Mormon population, and its Hellenic Orthodox Church is reputedly one of the oldest continuously occupied Greek churches in America. But the big attraction here, and a must-see for anyone interested in things prehistoric, is the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum’s excellent collection of dinosaur stuff. In the Hall of Dinosaurs stand four complete dinosaur skeletons; the museum also exhibits a complete woolly mammoth skeleton, unearthed in Huntington Canyon in 1988. Kids can measure their feet against dinosaur tracks preserved in coal.
There are also excellent displays of Fremont Culture artifacts, including a very impressive collection of rock art photographs and reproductions. The museum, at 155 East Main St., also houses a comprehensive regional travel council office with information about Nine Mile Canyon as well as other attractions throughout central Utah. This is a great place to ask about the many unpaved but rewarding backways near here, pick up maps, and grab a free copy of the Nine Mile Canyon tour guide. The museum is open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from April through September, and until 5 p.m. October through March.
When it is time to tear yourself away, drive south from Price 7.5 miles on US 6 through the town of Wellington. Its pleasant city park is a nice picnic spot. About 2 miles past Wellington turn left at the well-marked road for Nine Mile Canyon Scenic Backway. After about 1.5 miles of nondescript suburbs, you will pretty much be in the wilderness. WARNING: As the sign indicates, you’ll go 75 miles with no services on this route. Bring lots of water and snacks, and fuel up in Wellington.
Nine Mi le Canyon
The most logical reason why a canyon longer than 40 miles should be named Nine Mile Canyon is the 9-mile triangulation survey of the area made by John Wesley Powell’s mapmaker during the landmark 1869 Powell expedition. Maps presented to Congress clearly indicate Nine Mile Creek.
Long known to Ute and earlier Fremont Culture Indians, this historic trail still has the feel of the past, an aura partly preserved by the dust of driving on (mostly) unpaved road. The drive will take 3 to 4 hours, depending on your pace (and how much time you spend searching for the fascinating rock art that abounds here). There are many attractions along this drive; here we try to give accurate mileages, all measured from the start of the scenic backway. For very detailed information and photographs of petroglyphs and other attractions, pick up a guide pamphlet available in the visitor center and many other locations around Price.
Note: Please keep in mind that there is a mix of public/private land along this drive. There are many attractive old cabins, some on BLM-administered land but most on private ranches. It is especially important to honor the private property signs here, where the distinction between public and private is sometimes indistinct.
Ten miles from the “Scenic Backway” sign you will pass a ruined cabin in the vicinity of Soldier Creek. Elk and deer are often plentiful here. At the mouth of Soldier Creek Canyon the road begins to climb. At mile 12.5 you will pass a coal company, and the pavement ends. At about mile 16 you come into the wide valley called Whitmore Park. There was a stage station at the west end of this valley (probably near one of the several corrals).
Rock Art Abounds
Cross the bridge over Minnie Maude Creek at mile 21.3. Half a mile farther is a BLM sign describing the canyon. At about mile 26 you should begin to notice the first major petroglyph panels on a rocky point to the left of the road. In fact, you can see carvings all along the road from here if you look carefully at the dark, varnished areas of the rock.
At mile 27.2 is a county park with restrooms. The old town site of Harper is a little past mile 30. About 1.5 miles past the remains of Harper is a balanced rock to the left of the road. When viewed from the west, this rock is said to resemble Porky Pig. Just past this rock, on the left, is an excellent panel of rock art. View these from the road; they are on private property.
The cavalry troops who improved the road in 1886 also raised the telegraph line through the canyon on surplus metal poles left over from the Civil War. Many of these slender poles, with small arms branching off, can still be seen today. At mile 33 is the attractive stone house built by canyon resident and longtime telegraph operator Ed Harmon.
A BLM sign indicates the road up Harmon Canyon to the right. Just after the sign, on the left and about 30 feet above the road, are some of the canyon’s best petroglyphs.
After another 1.5 miles, stop at the prominent tall cottonwood that spreads its boughs across the road. Look up to the left, about 200 feet from the road, and note the very distinct snake design. For the next few miles the walls to the left will be full of ancient art.
At about mile 38 is the site of the Brock Ranch, a substantial cluster of log houses and newer concrete block buildings, all marked as private. This ranch served for some time as the headquarters for Preston Nutter’s Utah cattle empire. Nutter had more than 25,000 head of cattle ranged on land from here south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. As the midway point between Price and the garrison at Fort Duchesne, this was also the telegraph relay station—the stone building and log cabin next to the cliff were used for this purpose.
At 0.25 mile past Brock’s is a bit of route confusion at a major split in the road. The sign reads straight ahead for Prickly Pear Canyon, Dry Canyon, and Cottonwood Canyon; left for Myton. Go straight (continuing in Nine Mile Canyon), and shortly past the split you’ll see the remnants of a Native American granary. At mile 43.8, the Daddy Canyon Complex includes a hike to more rock art as well as restrooms. Past this point, the road gets rougher, so this makes a good turnaround spot. From here, you have two options: Return the way you came, or make the turn for Myton. Many drivers turn around here and head back to Price the way they came rather than continuing to Myton on a less scenic and more often washboarded road. Either way, consider a short hike on the Gate Canyon trail, located at milepost 43.6 on the road to Myton, which follows an original 1886 road segment that was bypassed for the later route.
Although the Gate Canyon road to Myton is officially the north end of the Nine Mile Canyon Byway, the road actually departs Nine Mile Canyon, climbing up and out of the drainage to cross into the Duchesne River Valley. From the intersection, the road winds and bounces up a dry canyon for 6.5 miles until it reaches a high point with expansive views off to the north. The road then descends back into the sage-covered scrubland below. At about mile 15 from the intersection are ruins of an important watering stop. Outlaw Ambush Point (site of an aborted stage robbery attempt by some Butch Cassidy pals) is 1 mile from the Myton intersection; the site of Gate Arch is 0.5 mile farther. The natural arch that once stood here was dynamited in 1905 out of fear that it might collapse on a passing wagon.
The pavement resumes at about mile 27 from the intersection in Nine Mile Canyon. Two and a half miles past the start of the pavement, turn left at the yield sign to reach US 40 after another 1.5 miles. Turn left to reach Duchesne (8 miles) and the fastest return to the Salt Lake Valley.
Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.