Aztec Butte – Canyonlands National Park

Aztec Butte rises above the Island In The Sky plateau in Canyonlands National Park. It’s a prominent landmark visible for miles and must have been well used by the Ancestral Pueblo people who once occupied this region. This entire area was heavily used by various native peoples and there are some ancient granary ruins on the top of the butte.

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Most of the Ancestral Puebloan ruins found in Canyonlands are not easily accessed but Aztec Butte provides an exception. The parking area for Aztec Butte is right on the main Park road making this is a very popular trail. The trail to the top of the Butte is only about a mile long (2 miles round trip). However, I suspect that a lot of hikers fail to reach the top

Aztec Butte Trail

Let me describe the trail as I experienced it with my wife.

From the paved parking area the trail is very obvious, beginning in a typical Utah desert habitat. There’s a lot of vegetation – grasses, cactus and small trees and lizards abound. The trail runs straight toward Aztec Butte and is fairly level and mostly sandy until we get close to the butte. As we approach closer to the butte the hike changes dramatically, beginning with a climb up a long sloping section of slickrock.

Photo of Plateau Striped Whiptail lizard
Plateau Striped Whiptail – The blue tipped tail makes it easy to identify this common lizard.

This is a great hike up a long rock slope and as we climb I notice that hikers above us seem to be stalled just below the top.  In fact, one couple has turned around short of the top and is starting back down. As we climb higher the trail gets tougher and we soon pass the couple heading down and see that the second couple has also turned around short of the top.

Continuing up, we soon arrive at the steep rock face that has stopped the others. I scout it and determine that it’s well within my abilities so I head up and encourage my wife to follow. She scrambles up with a little difficulty and is genuinely glad to be on top. However, her pleasure is short lived as she begins to think about having to scramble back down this section of near vertical rock.

Close up photo of Aztec Butte
As you approach the top it becomes obvious that the trail climbs the broken rock ledge that slants upward to the right.

Great Views in all Directions

The top of the butte offers great views in every direction. It’s easy to imagine that the Ancestral Puebloan inhabitants of this area used this spot to watch for activities at a great distance.  There are a few badly reconstructed ruins on the top of Aztec Butte. Although I didn’t expect much, these ruins were a disappointment. However, the trail continued across the top of the Butte until it reaches the north facing edge of the butte. Here I scrambled down to a ledge below the rim where there are a few more badly deteriorated rock walls.

Having visited many other back country sites I find Aztec Butte to have very unimpressive ruins. Fortunately, the views are outstanding and make the hike to the top of Aztec Butte a great experience.

After soaking in the views, we head back across the top of the butte to the place where we need to climb back down the steep rock wall. I scrambled down and was followed by my wife who found that getting maximum body contact with the rock wall is her most secure position. After a short distance she eased herself down to the small ledge where we began the climb. From here it’s a great hike down the slick rock and across the sandy desert back to the parking lot.

Photo of hiker descending from the top of Aztec Butte
The steep cliffside just below the top of Aztec Butte can be a tough climb. Sometimes the climb down can be tougher than going up.

I recommend that anyone spending a day in the Island In The Sky District of Canyonlands add a hike on the Aztec Butte trail to their schedule. It’s a short trail that travels through some interesting habitats and provides some great views. If scrambling up the rock wall is not your thing, hike up the trail as far as you are comfortable. If you’ve never hiked on slickrock this is a great trail for a first experience.