Category Archives: Nine Mile Canyon

Horse Bench

On Black Friday, I rode mountain bikes with John and hiked to some ruins on Horse Bench, above the lower end of Nine Mile Canyon. The Horse Bench road was closed in 2011 through an agreement with the BLM, Bill Barrett Corp., and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Somehow the BLM was able to circumvent the normal procedure for closing roads and the public lost access without any input or chance to object. Luckily, the official closure order only prohibits the public from driving motorized vehicles on the roads.

We met in Wellington at 7AM and, since he’d already been driving for two hours that morning, John threw his bike onto the rack on the Jeep and hopped in with me. During the drive we saw a bighorn sheep at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon, in almost the exact same spot I’d seen my first bighorn in Nine Mile last year. We parked at the first of two gates along the road, saddled up, and were riding down the road before 9:00. The first few miles were graded, hard-packed dirt, which made for fast riding. The road became rockier and more loose as we progressed. Just beyond the second gate I saw ATV tracks on the road, but the tracks didn’t go past the gate. Hmm, odd.

Bighorn sheep at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon
Bighorn sheep at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon

Parking spot on Sage Brush Flat
Parking spot on Sage Brush Flat

First gate across the Horse Bench road
First gate across the Horse Bench road

Cruising on the graded dirt road
Cruising on the graded dirt road

Looking into the head of Pinnacle Canyon
Looking into the head of Pinnacle Canyon

Second gate on the Horse Bench road
Second gate on the Horse Bench road

ATV tracks on the road
ATV tracks on the road

View over South Frank’s Canyon
View over South Frank's Canyon

Steep climb up the road
Steep climb up the road

Narrow ridge just before reaching Horse Bench
Narrow ridge just before reaching Horse Bench

As we neared the first the first cluster of ruins it became easier to leave the bikes and hike the remaining distance. We got to the butte with the ruins on it and found the top to be inaccessible. In the satellite imagery it had looked doable, but we hiked around the entire butte and found it surrounded entirely by cliffs. In one spot there was a rope dangling down from the top, but it was a cheap hardware store rope and I didn’t trust it to hold my weight. We found a nearby vantage point where we could look at the ruins from a distance, but I was disappointed not to see them up close. Returning to our bikes, John found that his had a flat tire so he swapped in a new tube and we were on our way again. While heading back to the Horse Bench road we saw a couple of UTVs driving on it.

Inaccessible butte with ruins on top
Inaccessible butte with ruins on top

Knotted rope
Knotted rope

Circular ruin on top of butte
Circular ruin on top of butte

Circular ruin on top of butte
Circular ruin on top of butte

John fixing a flat tire
John fixing a flat tire

We rode farther down Horse Bench and again abandoned our mountain bikes and hiked toward another group of ruins. Again we found that the satellite imagery was misleading as we encountered another butte that appeared to be surrounded by cliffs. At the point where the cliffs were the shortest we found a crack that had some potential for climbing. At the top, however, was a constructed wall about five feet high that protects the top of the butte. I was amazed at the amount of work that went into building a defensible fortress. After trying for some time to climb up the crack facing forward, I figured out that I could climb up it more easily with my back to the wall, and I made it to the top. John wasn’t comfortable making the climb and waited below, but he helped shuttle my camera to the top using some nylon webbing. Atop the butte were three dry-laid masonry structures. I noticed no habitation debris or any other signs that the butte had been occupied, other than the circular rock walls themselves. After a brief rest and some lunch, we hiked back to where we’d left our bikes.

Old shed deer antler
Old shed deer antler

Steep climb up the butte
Steep climb up the butte

John checking out the final climb
John checking out the final climb

A tough climb
A tough climb

Rock wall protecting the top of the butte
Rock wall protecting the top of the butte

Circular, dry-laid masonry structure
Circular, dry-laid masonry structure

Another ruin
Another ruin

John at the bottom of the climb
John at the bottom of the climb

Headed back down
Headed back down

Happy birthday!
Happy birthday!

Climbing back onto Horse Bench
Climbing back onto Horse Bench

It was after 2PM when we returned to the road. We mulled whether to continue east to one last point of interest, but that would have taken us farther away from the Jeep. With the late hour and many miles still left to ride, we decided to turn around and head back. Again, there were more fresh ATV/UTV/motorcycle tracks on the road. Apparently the traffic was coming in from the landing strip near Sand Wash. I’m amazed that the BLM went to the effort requiring two gates on the west side of Horse Bench, but left the door wide open to traffic from the east. We made one last stop near the head of South Frank’s Canyon and hiked to a corral that John had seen in Google Earth. The corral had two sections: one with very sturdy construction made from juniper and pinyon pine trunks, and another with pole-and-rail construction that I would guess is newer. There wasn’t as much refuse as I would have expected to find–just a handful of cans and a few bottles.

Riding the Horse Bench road over fresh ATV tracks
Riding the Horse Bench road over fresh ATV tracks

Climbing a very mild grade
Climbing a very mild grade

Oh, really?
Oh, really?

Corral gate
Corral gate

Very sturdy corral made from juniper and pinyon pine
Very sturdy corral made from juniper and pinyon pine

Punch here
Punch here

Calumet baking powder lid
Calumet baking powder lid

We continued to grind almost entirely uphill as the sun went down, and got back to the Jeep at about a quarter past five. It was definitely the right call not to visit the last set of ruins, but that leaves open the possibility of another trip to the area.

John taking in the view
John taking in the view

Ridge top near Rock House Canyon
Ridge top near Rock House Canyon

A little color in the sky after sunset
A little color in the sky after sunset

GPS stats at the end of the ride
GPS stats at the end of the ride


Photo Gallery: Horse Bench