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Indian Creek — Northern Section of Bears Ears National Monument

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

A return visit to Indian Creek gave me a better understanding of the region's importance—to its ancient inhabitants, to Mormon ranchers, and to modern-day bird watchers and rock climbers.

NEWSPAPER ROCK. Hundreds of petroglyphs, from several cultural periods, were inscribed on this rock face near Indian Creek by ancient travelers over a span of more than a thousand years. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Indian Creek was, for me, always the area to pass through to get to the real destination—the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Yes, Newspaper Rock was an interesting stop along the way, but until Indian Creek was incorporated into the new Bears Ears National Monument, I paid it little attention.

However, in preparation for an upcoming project involving the Monument, I felt obliged to get to know it better. In September, I spent several days there with my camera.

Indian Creek originates high on the north face of the Abajo Mountains, The steep drainage cuts a V-shaped valley as it runs roughly north to the vicinity of Newspaper Rock. The creek then veers left (west) and descends a gentle grade on a northwest course until it empties into the Colorado River.

The creek is surrounded by fairly lush vegetation as it flows down the north flank of the Abajos. When the creek nears Newspaper Rock however, the terrain becomes near-level, and dense stands of cottonwood trees and willows mix with grasses along its banks.

COTTONWOOD GROVES NEAR INDIAN CREEK. Cottonwood trees and grasses thrive on a small flood plain not more than fifty yards from Indian Creek. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Flowing northwestward, Indian Creek passes through wide valleys flanked by vertical cliffs of Wingate sandstone. Broad side canyons branch off the main canyon and give access to places like Lavender and Davis canyons, as well as Bridger Jack Mesa and Lockhart and Beef Basins. Fractures in the cliffs of these canyons have become a magnet for rock climbers who challenge themselves to use the cracks to scale the vertical walls.

INDIAN CREEK DRAINAGE IN LOCKHART BASIN. Looking southwest from Needles Overlook, the path of Indian Creek is etched into desolate Lockhart Basin. The Wingate cliffs are in the distance. Beyond them is the Dark Canyon Plateau. The lusher parts of the Indian Creek drainage and the Abajo mountains are further to the left (east). Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Before long, the creek drops over a waterfall and enters an entrenched canyon that follows a serpentine course through the barren landscape of Lockhart Basin to the Colorado River.

Indian Creek provides a natural route of travel from the Abajo Mountains to the Colorado River. Ancient people may have followed this route. We know they inhabited the area because there are several large panels of petroglyphs on the Wingate rock faces near the creek.

SHAY CANYON PETROGLYPHS. In a side canyon that empties into Indian Creek, hundreds of petroglyphs were made on a long section of canyon wall. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

STORM AND SIX SHOOTER PEAK. A remnant of Wingate sandstone points skyward, like a lightning rod. The line of cottonwoods marks the course of Indian Creek. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The shady cottonwood groves along the creek would have been an attraction to ancient people, just as they were to ranchers in the late 1800's who grazed large numbers of cattle in the area. Dugout Ranch is a functioning remnant of that era.

On a future trip, I'll pass through Indian Creek and head southwest to explore Beef Basin—because of its remoteness, a relatively little-visited part of Bears Ears National Monument.

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