Nine Mile Canyon: Utah’s Ancient Outdoor Art Gallery

Over 1,000 years ago, Fremont people in what we now know as Utah created expansive murals across the face of a 46-mile canyon that depicted hunters, birds, and creatures with antlers. Some conspiracy theorists have speculated that the mural’s stranger, less easy to identify shapes may be depictions of ancient aliens who visited Earth long ago. In later centuries, other tribes such as the Ute added their own panels to Nine Mile Canyon’s sweeping mural. Nine Mile Canyon hosts one of the world’s largest concentrations of indigenous rock art.

Nine Mile Canyon is 46 miles long, so historians are a little confused as to why early settlers opted to name the area Nine Mile Canyon. Some Bureau of Land Management officials have speculated that explorer John Wesley Powell used a cartography method known as a nine-mile transect to map the area. Historians believe that fur trappers may have frequented the area around Nine Mile Canyon starting around 1867.

Nine-Mile Canyon / Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, USA

The Great Hunt
Photo by Runemaker/Flickr

In 1885, a small stagecoach town named Harper sprung up in the midst of Nine Mile Canyon. In 1886, a group of Buffalo Soldiers—a celebrated regiment of Black soldiers—constructed a road through Nine Mile Canyon that extended to Price. The road made traversing dusty Nine Mile Canyon much easier. The town of Harper thrived until stagecoach traffic began to decline in the early 20th century. After the two-story Harper Hotel burned down in the late 1980s, all that remained was the remnants of a stagecoach stop, a few crumbling log cabins, and a deteriorating corral. The ghost town of Harper is located on private land, but most of Harper is visible from the Nine Mile Canyon Backcountry Byway.

It is possible to explore Nine Mile Canyon by car, or on foot. Visitors can hike among petroglyphs created many centuries ago. or survey the remains of ancient Native American dwellings. The Bureau of Land Management urges visitors to be respectful, and leave no trace. Vandalism and escalating erosion caused by nearby natural gas cultivation have taken a toll on Nine Mile Canyon’s rock art in recent years. Conservationists remind visitors that most of Nine Mile Canyon’s murals are etched into delicate sandstone, which erodes exponentially faster when it is touched by human hands. Vast stretches of Nine Mile Canyon have been added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places, and the National Register of Historic Places.

Nine Mile Canyon at Daddy Canyon

Nine Mile Canyon at Daddy Canyon
Photo by Bryan Kercher/Flickr

Nine Mile Canyon showcases many different stages of the development of human civilization. From the earliest hunter-gatherer tribes who wandered the Western United States, to modern corporations extracting fossil fuel from the ground, onlookers can consider a vast spectrum of human civilization and walk away with important insights into the sustainability of the past, present, and future. If tourists and profit-minded corporations allow one of the world’s largest rock art galleries to fade away, what does that say about the values of our current civilization? Hopefully most people who visit Nine Mile Canyon leave with the desire to preserve an irreplaceable natural and cultural wonder.

Pig Rock / Nine Mile Canyon

Pig Rock. This distinctive balanced rock serves as an easily recognized landmark. BLM Nine Mile Canyon area. Duchesne Co., Utah.
Photo by Ron Wolf/Flickr

Petroglyphs at Nine Mile Canyon

Petroglyphs at Nine Mile Canyon
Photo by Ron Wolf/Flickr

Rock Art of Nine Mile Canyon.

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