Route begins near historic watering hole on Hwy. 191
Our desert with its scant eight inches of annual precipitation is a mostly parched land. But the rare places that have seemingly miraculous springs and streams flowing through them create gorgeous and astonishing oases.
Such is the case with Kane Springs Canyon that starts near the Hole ’n the Rock tourist attraction south of Moab on Highway 191 in San Juan County and winds “behind the rocks” to the Colorado River. The reference to the word Kane in the name of that and many other places in southern Utah is due to the cane-type vegetation that grows along these streams.
The trail, a rough four-wheel-drive road, is just over 13 miles long point to point, and according to a review on the web site alltrails.com has “so many creek crossings you lose count.” A number of spots have significant rock ledges that are tough to navigate even for the hardiest of off-roaders. The condition of the road changes with traffic, flooding and erosion, making some tough spots even more difficult.
The elevation fall is about 1,300 feet from where the springs begin to where the canyon meets the river. The water peters out several miles into the canyon, drying up along the way.
This time of year the water at the head of Kane Creek is gushing through sandstone channels, creating mossy green pools enhanced by the work of beaver that live there and enjoy the stands of cottonwoods and willows. Like most dirt roads in Moab’s backcountry, they were engineered by skillfully determined folks who had strong desires to get off the beaten path.
A review on the web site alltrails.com describes it as thus: “This trail winds back and forth across the floor of Kane Creek Canyon and crosses Kane Creek many times. It then climbs steeply out of the canyon along a narrow, photogenic shelf road. Officially this canyon is called Kane Springs Canyon, but most people refer to it as Kane Creek.”
The waters of Kane Creek begin at Kane Springs, which is the rest area just north of Hole ’N the Rock. This was an important watering hole for pioneers, and is referenced in many historic writings.
The Monticello Camp of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers note that Kane Springs “was a major water stop along the historic Spanish Trail, in use from 1829 to 1848. Large trade caravans halted here and drank from the abundant spring waters. In autumn months, pack trains carried woolen textiles and raw wool over the trail from the settlements on the upper Rio Grande to the coastal towns of California. On reaching California, wool merchants exchanged their goods for horses and mules, which were driven back to New Mexico the following spring. It took trail riders over two months to complete the journey.”
The Old Spanish Trail was 1,120 miles long and went from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles. “The trail avoided the deep canyons of the Colorado River,” crossing in the broad Moab Valley. During the post-trail period, “the waters of Kane Springs refreshed weary travelers, cattle drovers, pioneer settlers and outlaws,” according to DUP writings.
The spring’s water over the eons has cut and created the massive Kane Springs Canyon, now enjoyed by four-wheelers. Ranchers still graze cattle there seasonally. For purposes of my visit, I used a horse because I don’t have the nerve to drive on scary Jeep roads.
In the book “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names” by Steve Allen, Kane Springs Canyon was first called Hudsons Wash after a rancher named Joshua B. “Spud” Hudson who ran livestock in the area in the late 1870s. “He received his nickname for his well-known propensity for always carrying a potato in his pocket,” according to a citation by Allen.
The words Kane, Cane and even Caine can be confusing in southeastern Utah, for the different spellings are used for different areas. Notably different is the Cane Creek Anticline on the north side of the Colorado River near the potash plant, as opposed to Kane Springs and Kane Creek Drive near Moab on the south side of the river. The spring was historically spelled “Cane,” according to Allen, because of the many canes along its course. “For some unexplained reason, map makers started spelling the name with a “K” sometime after 1926,” he wrote.
The plant life is gorgeous in the canyon this time of year, as desert holly, Indian paintbrush and cliff roses are starting to bloom. Early Mormon pioneer Orville C. Pratt in 1848 called the spring Corasito or Corisite, perhaps due to a type of orchid-like plant that grows there.
On my recent visit, the route was nearly devoid of traffic due to tourist limitations posed by the current COVID-19 pandemic. There is a place along the route where visitors can either take a high ledge road or take a route that goes down into a narrow slot and crosses via an old wood and metal bridge. Both routes are spectacular and thrilling.
Since I was on a horse, I didn’t have the time to ride the entire 13-mile section, but it’s on my bucket list for a later date. The presence of water makes this trail more ideal than other long desert rides that equestrians might consider. A hiker or mountain biker might plan to have someone pick him or her up at one end or the other if they plan to ride from the pavement on Highway 191, through Kane Springs Canyon to the pavement on Kane Creek Road that parallels the south side of the Colorado River outside of Moab.
The trail is quiet right now, but virus notwithstanding, is generally a popular four-wheel-drive destination for Moab’s spring and fall visitors.