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The Back Door To Negro Bill Canyon
article and photos by Marcy Hafner

Located 1.5 miles northeast of Moab, Negro Bill Canyon has one of the few side drainages to the Colorado River in Utah that contains a perennial stream. Most visitors enter the canyon’s mouth at the front door on a well-known paved parking lot off Highway 128 on the Colorado River. A popular wilderness study area, Negro Bill is one of three in the Moab area. The other two are Mill Creek and Behind The Rocks.

Wilderness study areas are lands being considered for designation as a wilderness area, which is a tract of undisturbed federal land with at least 5,000 acres that has been set aside for the purpose of non-motorized pursuits – hiking, backpacking, hunting, etc. – while sometimes honoring the tradition of cattle and sheep grazing.

The back door can be found at the border of the Sand Flats Recreation Area. It starts on an old cattle trail that travels down a side canyon, which eventually connects with the main canyon of Negro Bill.

To get to the upper portion of Negro Bill Canyon from the entrance booth to Sand Flats, drive one mile beyond where the pavement changes to gravel. Then turn left at the sign for “Fins and Things” on to a dirt road with a radio tower where there is available parking.

From the tower I follow the white dots painted on the slickrock down a rough jeep trail that offers tremendous views of the La Sal Mountains, which are adorned with the first snow of the season. At the first junction that has a boldly painted arrow for the return to the Sand Flats Road, I go right and now the white painted dinosaurs take me to another junction where I swing left on to a well-used jeep trail that ends at a turn around on the rim of Negro Bill – a map showing this route can be obtained at the entrance booth. From the rim there is no sign for the trail, but from this viewpoint it can be plainly seen. The access into the wilderness study area starts immediately to the right at a broken down barbed wire fence - the only break in the cliff wall that allows a reasonable passage.

This canyon is named after William Granstaff, an African-American prospector who came to the Moab Valley in the spring of 1877. He grazed his cattle in the canyon and supposedly built a cabin in one of its side canyons. Accused of selling liquor to a band of Utes, he found it expedient to move to Colorado in 1881 where he lived until his death in 1901.

The footing feels secure on the steady downgrade, and when it levels out I am stunned at how quickly I have progressed below the rim. Craning my neck, those imposing vertical walls are an incredibly long stretch above me. Despite the big drop, I am still enclosed by one cliff above another below, as the trail wanders above the canyon floor. Walking along I let my imagination run wild as I study the various rock formations – first I’m seeing a seal, a little later I’m picturing the outline of a camel’s head.

As the trail swings around, I can faintly hear the soothing sound of water from my high-level observation point that is coming from the main canyon. Along its course there is a green belt of Russian olives, coyote willows, tamarisk and Fremont cottonwoods.

At a lower elevation, I decide that a cottonwood just above the creek is a good place for a pause. Hidden in the brush the creek is just below - just beyond reach – a long, long leap down! As I watch those autumn leaves bob and weave in the breeze, a northern flicker belts out his trademark call just before he starts jack-hammering a tree.

At this point it doesn’t take long to descend to the creek. Along this water corridor where the grass and willows thickly grow, I am now very ready for a long break, and a huge gray slab of rock provides a perfect outdoor patio. At this inviting spot I am mesmerized by the rhythmic flow of a miniature waterfall that splashes into a pool with an abundant growth of cattails. The sheer red-brown canyon walls also grab my attention as my vision slides from bottom to top, where their sharp-edged ridge draws a distinct contrast against the crystal blue sky. Glancing down the canyon I am captivated by the domes of sandstone, which portray the brute strength of a formidable castle fortress.

Next to my outdoor patio a pile of rocks, which look like a small shrine, mark an easy stream crossing for me to continue on my merry way. The clarity of the water at each pond offers some fantastic aquatic observations: Startled leopard frogs vocalize a little squeal before they hop into the water and swim away. Small tadpoles wiggle around, while others with big tails look like they are about ready to sprout legs and morph into frogs. Minnows scurry back and forth, a crayfish in slow motion moves around a rock, and the floating water skimmers cast their shadows as if walking on water - an amazing feat that has earned them the nickname of “Jesus bugs.”

The stream continues to gather more water, and with the added strength and flow the waterfalls become more vigorous as the ponds increase in size and the vegetation turns into a jungle. For short sections it almost consumes the trail before turning into a well-used pathway, as it gets closer to the fork for Morning Glory Arch, which at 243 feet is the sixth longest span in the United States. The title is deceiving. It received its name not for any flower, but for the sunlight that hits it early in the morning.

From that fork it is approximately two more miles to the main trailhead on the Colorado River following a well-marked trail that is filled with Gambel’s oak, water birch and tall reedy grass– a riparian paradise of many deep pools and rushing streams that attracts a lot of people and wildlife. Beavers swim up canyon from the river to build their dams and the movement of water and the thick vegetation is a magnet to a variety of birds.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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