RANGE CREEK CANYON, Utah – High in eastern Utah’s rocky cliffs, the ruins of an ancient Indian settlement stand in pristine condition, a glorious piece of the American West frozen in time 1,000 years ago and virtually untouched by humans since.

Though locals have known about the tract for decades, it was just late last month that state officials unveiled what they’re calling a national treasure for its unspoiled condition and historic significance.

Skeletal remains, rock burial mounds, arrowheads, beads made of Pacific seashells, pottery fragments, cliffside granaries, collapsed sandstone dwellings, panels of rock paintings and carvings – the remnants of an ancient native people called the Fremont are scattered openly throughout a 12-mile canyon teeming with wildlife and sustained by Range Creek and wetlands.

The Fremont are named after the nearby Fremont River, which in turn was labeled after 19th century explorer James Fremont. They thrived almost 1,500 years until they disappeared about 1300 A.D., a mystery that could be solved in the coming years as experts explore and rediscover a land that society-at-large forgot, officials said.

Artifacts abound in the Range Creek Wildlife Management Area, so remote that visitors must drive two hours along steep clay roads to reach the gate, 130 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.

Protecting the edenic canyon since 1951 was its former owner, rancher Waldo Wilcox, 75, a cowboy throwback who said he likes to spin yarns about how he chased away trespassers and looters with a six-shooter or axe pick.

Wilcox, who sold his 4,169-acre ranch for $2.5 million in 2000, joined local, state and federal officials Wednesday as they provided journalists with a tour of the site that is expected to uncover thousands of ancient Indian sites in the canyon bottom.

At one point, Wilcox demonstrated how relics lay seemingly abandoned in a valley whose rock formations are lined like pages of a book laid sideways, hence the name the Book Cliffs mountains.

Wilcox pointed to what he said was one burial mound, marked by a heap of rocks at the foot of a rocky wall. He then meandered behind a boulder and randomly picked up three broken pieces of Indian pottery, which were confirmed as authentic by archeologist Pam Miller of the College of Eastern Utah.

Behind him was rock art, a Fremont carving distinctive for its trapezoidal depiction of a man’s body with curving horns on his head. Wilcox pointed to old stone dwellings high on both side of a canyon divided by a cottonwood-shaded waterway.

“You see the way they put the rocks up. If you dig down, you’d find a dead person down there,” Wilcox said of the burial mound. State officials say they will seek to place the tract on the national register of historic areas.

“It’s truly a national treasure,” said state archeologist Kevin Jones, who works in the antiquities section of the Utah Division of State History. “It’s one of the most significant archeological areas that remain today.

“This range is a jewel that has somehow escaped the ravages of vandals and looting,” he added.

The challenge ahead for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is how to open the site to visitors and still maintain its archeological integrity. State officials say one way is to use rangers to patrol the valley and guides to escort visitors; permits or other fees could be charged to sightseers, officials said.

The ranch was sold in 2001 to the Trust for Public Land with funds from Congress and the Utah Quality Growth Commission. The title was turned over to the state this year.

The purchase was strategic because the plot eases access to 100,000 acres of adjacent lands owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management and designated as wilderness study areas. The former Wilcox Ranch is prime habitat for wild turkeys, eagles, hawks, bears, cougars, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep.

of Range Creek, a tributary to the Green River and eventually the Colorado River, could be returned to a prime trout-fishing stream.

The most prized portion of the ranch are the 1,309 acres that sit at the bottom of Range Creek canyon.

While providing the most powerful human dimension, the presence of skeletal remains and burial sites could also be the most controversial. Native American tribes have been outspoken in seeking to have such sites labeled as sacred.

Officials have steered cleared of providing reporters with any view of burial sites, though Wilcox said many exist, including several just a stone’s throw from his former ranch house.

Some graves have revealed their skeletal remains as weather and wind over the centuries have worn away rocky protections, Wilcox said.

In the 1940s, mummified remains were discovered, including some skeletons wrapped in skins and others in cedar strips, and those mummies were taken to Arizona, Wilcox said.

As word about the site has leaked out in recent weeks, some looting has started to occur, said Joel Boomgarden, 31, an archeology graduate student from Mankato, Minn., who was working at a spot where artifacts such as arrowheads and pottery shards were being flagged.

He’s already discovered “looters’ piles,” discarded heaps of artifacts left after poachers have collected and taken the best pieces, he said. Moving artifacts from their original sites renders them archeologically useless, he said. The bitter irony is that the site had a lot of semi-subterranean dwelling structures called pit houses but very few artifacts, he said.

More disturbingly, though, Boomgarden discovered a few days ago that a half pot was stolen from a cliff 1,000 feet off the valley floor.

“I’m scared that people are going to start digging holes and looking for artifacts that just aren’t there,” he said. “When these stories go out, things are going to start going out.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.