Idyllic. Sublime. Incredible. These are just some of the superlatives that come to mind when one first hikes Grandstaff Canyon Trail — and every time afterwards. Easily one of the most scenic hikers-only trails anywhere, Grandstaff is an up and back trek that, when finished, is about 4.5 miles long.
The trail is rated moderate in terms of difficulty, and some agility is required as the trail crosses a creek several times. There are slight but steady elevation gains. The ground ranges from sandy to slickrock on this well-marked trail and hikers will want to watch their step. If the cactus doesn’t get you, the poison ivy will — especially as you near trail’s end where it grows everywhere.
At trail’s end, however, is where the payoff awaits.
The aptly named Morning Glory Bridge, a natural sandstone formation that runs parallel to the canyon for an astonishing 243 feet, the remnant of a long eroded fin, gives hikers something at which to gawk in wide-eyed wonder.
Located off Highway 128 at milepost 3, the trailhead drops down on the east side of the creek. It’s worth mentioning the creek runs year round, which is kind of magical here in the desert. The first crossing occurs after about a mile and there are several more to be encountered for the next half mile or so.
The terrain begins to climb after about 1.2 miles and short sections of the hike are a bit steep, but not unduly so.
A second canyon can be spotted to the right at about 1.7 miles and that is where Morning Glory can be found. You see parts of the bridge about half a mile before you get there.
While the bridge is clearly the main attraction of Grandstaff Canyon Trail, there are stunning views all along the path, most involving water or towering canyon cliffs. Whatever you use to take photographs, make sure it’s charged and ready for a busy day.
There are dozens of places perfect for a picnic, to soak sore feet or to just sit and marvel at the spectacular natural beauty.
Grandstaff is popular with locals and tourists, and dogs enjoy it even more (though they should be on leashes).
The stories behind the name
There is a brown rectangular recreation sign at Lions Park that tells people they are two miles from Moab and two miles from Arches National Park — and three miles from Negro Bill Canyon.
Negro Bill Canyon was the official name of the canyon until 2017, as the sign attests. The pioneers used a more offensive name for the canyon until about the 1960s and there are those in Moab who wish that was still the name. Most, however, applaud the altered name.
Grand County Council Chair Mary McGann led an effort to change the name from Negro Bill to Grandstaff three years ago, the same year William “Bill” Grandstaff was inducted into the National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
So much is unknown about Grandstaff and so many conflicting reports of his life have been printed, this writer is hesitant to delve too deeply into all those stories.
There is general agreement that Grandstaff was either fully African American or half African American and half Native American, or Portuguese.
He was born a slave sometime around 1840 in Alabama and died alone and starving in his cabin near Glenwood, Colorado in 1901.
A lengthy obituary published in the Aug. 24, 1901 edition of the Glenwood Post referred to Grandstaff as “the colored prospector” who lived at the top of Red Mountain with a view of Glenwood Springs below.
He fell ill and rejected the advice of concerned friends to see a doctor. After weeks went by without any sign of Grandstaff, other “colored” men voiced their fears to the sheriff, who sent a deputy to the cabin. Grandstaff had been dead quite some time, and subsequently he was buried under a tree near his cabin, which was burned to the ground.
Grandstaff in the 1900 census was listed as a widowed coal miner who could read, write and owned his own home. He owned a saloon at one point, the Grandstaff Landing in Garfield County, Colorado.
More than two decades earlier, Grandstaff came to the Moab area sometime around 1877. He ran cattle in the canyon that bears his name. There are reports that he built a cabin in the canyon, but there’s no evidence that he did.
There also are reports that he fell out of favor with Moab’s white citizens after he allegedly sold liquor to Native Americans.
The March 22, 1962 edition of The Times-Independent featured an article that claims Grandstaff ran cattle in the canyon, as well as planted squash and corn, which he would trade for flour and sugar with the pioneers. He made a liquor gin to make moonshine and, according to the T-I, he traded the alcohol to Native Americans.
The newspaper also reported the Native Americans — members of the Ute Tribe — got drunk and used tomahawks to kill pioneers during the Pinhook Massacre of 1881. This is the generally accepted account of what drove Grandstaff out of Utah and into Colorado, but the story doesn’t quite make sense.
The Pinhook Massacre didn’t take place in Moab, but rather in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains, east of Castleton. A memorial marker near Castle Valley is dedicated to the battle. And while there were at least 10 white deaths, they weren’t caused by a blow from a tomahawk. Both sides used long guns.
The massacre began not because of drunken Indians, but because two posses pursued the Utes thinking they had stolen ranchers’ horses. It was Paiutes who went on a raiding party that began in western Colorado and ended in eastern Utah that sparked the massacre. If accurate, both Grandstaff and the Utes were unfairly blamed for things they didn’t do.
While the truth is forever lost to history, one fact is absolutely undeniable: Bill Grandstaff lived in a hiker’s paradise.
Sources: The Times-Independent, Bureau of Land Management, Grand Canyon Trust, Glenwood Post, and Discover Moab.