Cedar Mesa

Hiking Upper Johns Canyon on Cedar Mesa

Johns Canyon originates on top of Cedar Mesa at 6,600 ft. from there it slashes down through Cedar Mesa for about 12 miles until it reaches the San Juan River at 3,850 ft. There are three distinct sections of Johns Canyon. The upper section is typical Cedar Mesa canyon terrain. The middle stretch gets broad and flat with a road through it and the lower canyon entrenches again. While all sections have attractions, this article focuses on the upper section of the canyon.

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Johns Canyon is not as popular as most Cedar Mesa canyons but it offers some great hiking opportunities. The Johns Canyon area seems to be at the edge of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) habitation, so there are fewer archaeologic attractions than in most Cedar Mesa canyons. What it might lack in ruins it makes up for in scenery and remoteness.

Hiking Directions for Upper Johns Canyon Loop

There are five possible entry points for hiking in Upper Johns Canyon. One each in the three forks at the head of the main canyon and the two forks in West Johns Canyon. The most popular John’s Canyon hike enters into the main fork of the upper canyon and heads down to the western fork which you follow up and out, making a great loop hike. You can make this hike in either direction and you can park at either end of the hike.

To hike the main fork, park along Highway 261 just north of the Moki Dugway. There is a large parking area immediately adjacent to the highway at mile 17.3. This is right at the junction where San Juan County road 2211 heads off to the west. If you park here, the trail begins a couple of hundred yards down SJ 2211. The other option is to drive on SJ 2211 about .6 mile to an intersection with a track that heads south. This track ends at an old drill hole right on the rim of the western fork. This is your exit if you begin your hike in the main fork as described below.

Note: This is not a hike for beginners. There is no developed trail and you will have to scramble up and down steep cliffsides. There is no trail so route finding is up to you. Maps and guidebooks can be very helpful. The information provided on this site is only to supplement your decision to hike in Johns Canyon.

View of the approach to the topp of Upper Johns Canyon
As you approach Upper Johns Canyon the mesa top gives way dramatically to the canyon.

Make Your Own Trail

There are no well-established hiker trails in Johns Canyon but the trail into the main fork begins right at the BLM register which is roadside about a hundred yards from Hwy 261. Right here is the beginning of a small creek bottom which you need to follow downward. The terrain is typical for the head of any canyon on Cedar Mesa. Bland and shallow, it entrenches gradually as it drops. Soon, it becomes slickrock and you will be hiking down numerous small pour-overs. None are more than a foot or two in height so it is easy hiking down the creek bottom. Looking ahead you will see a much larger deeper canyon approaching and you soon reach a big pour-over into that canyon.

Skirting the Pour-over

This is obviously an impassable pour-over and you need to begin picking out the trail you want to follow. Upper Johns Canyon is very much a layered canyon with lots of cliff bands and large ledges. The best way to navigate the canyon is to get on these ledges and hike them as far as they go. In fact, from here a lower ledge goes all the way around the corner and up into the next fork of the canyon, this is the ledge you need. Actually, ledge is an inadequate description as it’s so broad that it has well-developed soils and trees.

When you hit the big pour-over you need to get to the west (right looking down canyon) side of the canyon and look for a way to climb down to the large flat ledge that you see below you. It is not too hard to find a route down to this ledge and once there, the hiking is easy.

Head down-canyon and after about a mile, the East Branch Upper Johns Canyon dominates the view on the other side of the canyon. This fork is one of several short forks that enter Johns Canyon enters from the east and can be accessed from Hwy. 261. On this hike, you’ll only look into the canyon from a distance.

Upper Johns Canyon pour-over
Upper Johns Canyon begins with this pour-over. From here it becomes an entrenched canyon with high steep walls.

Protect the Cryptobiotic Soils

Continue hiking down-canyon on the ledge. Since it is so broad, it’s developed a thick layer of cryptobiotic soils and all of the vegetation associated with them. One feature of cryptobiotic soils is how well they show footprints and how easily hiker trails become established. It’s indicative of how few hikers Johns Canyon sees that there are few obvious hiker trails in the soil of this ledge. If you have a choice, always follow an existing path when you walk through these fragile soils

Finding Ancestral Ruins in Johns Canyon

Continue to hike down-canyon and you’ll soon reach the corner where the ledge turns to the right and begins to head up the western fork of Upper Johns. Hiking down the main fork you will not see any sign of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) but as you hike up this branch you will find some scattered ruins. One you will soon spot is in an alcove a bit below your ledge. The hike down is easy to a small site tucked into the alcove.

Photo of cliff dweller ruins in Johns Canyon
These ruins are high on the canyon wall in the Western fork of Upper John’s Canyon. Click to enlarge and you will see that the doorways still have their flat rock doors in place.

From here, just continue up the canyon on the same ledge you have been hiking. As they do, the ledge soon climbs up into the rock layers and vanishes into the cliffside. From here it’s time to climb out. There is no trail and you need to pick your way up the north side at the head of the canyon. The canyon bottom itself becomes impossibly steep and unclimbable and the way out is obvious; straight up and out on the right-hand side as you look up-canyon. This is a typical canyon exit – climbing, scrambling, and finding ways through various cliff bands until you reach the top.

Photo of alcove holding fuins in Johns Canyon
There is a crumbly ruin inside this alcove. Keep your eyes open to spot this and other sites.

When you gain the Mesa top, search for the four-wheel-drive road that was cut to the drill hole near the rim of Johns Canyon. Once you pick up the road it’s three-quarters of a mile of easy hiking back to the parking area. Of course, if you parked here to begin your hike you are ready to go. The hike as described here is no more than about 6 -7 miles and makes an easy day hike for strong hikers.

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