Owl Creek–Fish Creek Loop, Cedar Mesa

Overview: A multiday loop backpack in two spectacular desert canyons. Both Owl Canyon and Fish Canyon are quite deep and narrow, with an abundance of stark, scenic beauty. During the hike you’ll pass Nevill’s Arch, two unnamed arches, and a few Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and rock-art sites. 

Start: The trailhead off San Juan County Road 253.

Distance: 17-mile loop.

Difficulty: Strenuous.

Trail surface: Wash bottom (no maintained trail).

Seasons: Spring and fall.

Land status: Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Nearest town: Blanding.

Fees and permits: Day-use permits cost $2.00 per person per trip. Overnight permits are $8.00 or $5.00 (depending on season) and are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station between 8:00 A.M. and noon. Advance reservations are available during peak seasons.

Maps: USGS Snowflat Spring Cave, South Long Point, and Bluff NW quads; National Geographic Trails Illustrated Grand Gulch Plateau Map; Southeastern Utah Multipurpose Map.

Trail contacts: Monticello Field Office, Bureau of Land Management, P.O. Box 7, Monticello, UT 84535; (435) 587–1510; www.blm.gov/utah/monticello

Finding the trailhead: From Highway 95 east of Natural Bridges National Monument and west of Blanding, drive south on Highway 261. In about 4 miles you pass the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Drive another mile and turn left onto CR 253. After about 5 miles on this road, you arrive at the parking area and trailhead at a reclaimed drill hole. DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 22 B2. 

Trailhead GPS coordinates: 37.474142, -109.818134

The Hike

This wonderful canyon trek is becoming a popular backpack for hikers of all ages. The area is experiencing increased visitation as a result of overcrowding in Grand Gulch—just to the west on the other side of Highway 261.Keep this in mind while you hike. More hikers, of course, means more impact on the land. Do your part by “walking softly”—keep a clean camp, use your backpacker stove, respect the privacy of other hikers, and, above all, do not climb on any Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites. The BLM is finding that innocent but frequent hiker impacts on these ruins can do as much harm as isolated cases of malicious damage.

Fish Creek and Owl Creek offer an environment quite different from Grand Gulch. While piñon, juniper, and yucca vegetate the gravel and dirt bottoms in Grand Gulch, hiking in Fish and Owl is along a slickrock streambed in the upper canyon areas and along sand-cemented gravel near the junction. Vegetation ranges from yucca, prickly pear, piñon, and juniper to the spectacular ponderosa pine and manzanita groves in upper Fish Creek.

The loop hike can be done in either direction, but the trailhead is closer to Owl Creek, and BLM cairns lead a quarter mile south to this canyon, so most hikers enter Owl Creek and exit through Fish Creek to the north.

The 7-mile hike from the trailhead to the Fish-Owl junction descends more than 1,300 feet. At the junction you begin regaining this elevation. It’s another 10 miles back to your car.

Follow the BLM cairns into Owl Canyon. You will shinny down sandstone, pass a small Ancestral Puebloan site, and become immersed in the canyon. Two pour-offs have to be navigated before you reach fresh water at the first canyon split — about 1.5 miles from the rim.

At both pour-offs, cairns mark a path on the left side. At the bottom of the second, you’ll find a good campsite for the first night. Camping is permitted in well used campsites only, and no fires are allowed in the canyons. You’ll find a spring here, as well as several side canyons worthy of exploration. Nevill’s Arch, an impressive sandstone feature, juts out from the north side of the main canyon about 5 miles into the hike.

Except for the pools, Owl Creek is usually dry between this spot and the middle of Fish Creek, about 9 miles away. Plan accordingly for the waterless stretch ahead. (It can be wetter during the spring snowmelt.)

Upon reaching the Fish-Owl junction, turn left (north) and begin winding up Fish Creek. This beautiful canyon has 500-foot walls dotted with many Ancestral Puebloan sites, with hiking primarily on ledged slickrock, which creates many pools filled with hanging gardens.

About 7 miles up Fish Creek is a major junction. Take the left (west) fork and continue 0.5 mile to a spring. A good campsite exists here, not far from the trail out of the canyon to the top. This is a good place to base yourself for a day or two in order to explore the upper reaches of Fish Creek. Here towering ponderosa pines reach for the canyon rim, and dense patches of manzanita carpet what little terrain is not slickrock.

If you encounter rain, by all means go hiking, but as with other canyon hikes, check with the BLM field office or the Kane Gulch Ranger Station for an extended forecast. Avoid hiking in narrow canyons if the weather looks bad, and don’t camp in a wash bottom. If you’re prepared for it, however, a storm in canyon country can be a delightful experience. The canyons turn silver as countless cascading rivulets pour over the rims, down slickrock walls, and into the streambed.

The climb out begins at the spring on the south wall of Fish Creek’s Left Fork. The steep, 600-foot climb requires a slow, steady pace.There are no dangerous exposures, and at the top several places just under the rim allow you to climb out.Take one of these routes and then locate the well-used trail at the canyon edge that heads south 1.5 miles to your car at the trailhead. 

Miles and Directions 

0.0       Start at the trailhead off CR 253, at the old drill hole.

7.0       Reach the junction of Owl and Fish Creeks. Turn left (north).

15.5     Climb out of Fish Creek’s canyon.

17.0     Arrive back at the trailhead.