Jones Creek, Utah: An Oasis in the Desert

Vernal, Utah

A perennial stream in the desert is a blessing, and across the Colorado Plateau there’s nothing quite like Jones Creek on the Utah/Colorado state line in Dinosaur National Monument. To raft the Green or Yampa Rivers and to come out of the glare of canyon walls into the cool lush shaded banks of Jones Creek is to find an oasis in the desert.

Bighorn sheep drink from the creek. Trout abound. Cougars stalk deer. Bears munch berries and I’ve seen river otters playing. Always in the background is that sweet, rare sound of mountain water moving over rocks, cascading, pooling up, splashing towards the river.

On his legendary trip down the Green on his way to Grand Canyon, Maj. John Wesley Powell wrote in 1869, “We camp at the mouth of a small creek, which affords us a good supper of trout.” Two years later coming down the same route Powell named the creek after photographer Stephen Vandiver Jones. Today, 12-14 inch trout from the Jones Hole National Fish Hatchery five and a half miles up the trail lure fly fishermen who love the quiet and solitude of the creek with its steady flow of 100 cubic feet per second (CFS). River runners jog alongside Jones Creek and river guides bring their clients for an afternoon hike in the heart of Dinosaur National Monument.

Anglers float the muddy Green and Yampa Rivers for a chance to fly fish in the cold, 55-degree waters of Jones Creek shaded at noon by a boxelder tree canopy. A mile or so up the trail is a large rock where water continually cascades over the top hence its nickname Jacuzzi Falls. Behind the falls is a hidden pocket of air.

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As groups approach the rock, they are shocked to see their guides strip to almost nothing, plunge into the cold waters, and disappear for a few minutes behind the miniature waterfall of Jacuzzi Falls. Then when the cold water can’t be taken anymore, the guides burst out from behind the falls and slip and slide on wet stones back to the trail. On a hot 95-summer day, there’s nothing like it.

Originally, I scoffed at this river ritual, but finally I joined in the revelry. To get behind the waterfall one must duck into the freezing stream to come up behind the silver cascade gasping for breath and trying to stand on slippery rocks. Back on the trail, the rest of the group wonders where you’ve disappeared to, but shortly the cold water forces you out from behind the falls in a brief baptism as potent as any church immersion. You emerge a new man or woman to the laughter and adulation of those too uptight to risk a tumble. Then there’s Butt Dam Falls.

The trail splits for an eight-mile walk into Island Park. Along that route Ely Creek flows through a narrow rock channel. Children are encouraged to sit in the limestone groove, create a temporary dam with their posteriors, and then all at once standup to bring a flood of water down on their parents innocently positioned below. There’s a riot of laughter and then the process is repeated so participants get a cold shower on warm afternoons. This is what river guides dream up in their spare time.

But what really compels me to hike Jones Creek is an archaeological site two miles from the river’s mouth. Across the Colorado Plateau there are thousands of petroglyph sites or images pecked into cliff walls. Rarer are painted sites or pictographs, and the Deluge Shelter Site on Jones Creek halfway between Green River and the fish hatchery is a pictograph site with unusual visual power and presence.

The site represents an astounding 7,000 years of human habitation for a variety of prehistoric Native American groups. Rock art styles include Barrier Canyon, Fremont culture, Ancestral Puebloan or ancient Hopi, and Ute. In this remote canyon, Great Basin, Uncompahgre Plateau and Northwest Plains cultures intersected. Excavated between 1965 and 1967 by a team from the University of Utah, the deeper the archaeologists dug, the more seeds, flaked stones, spear points, arrowheads, and fire pits they found. What fascinates me are the ochre or red pictographs of an elongated design like a fishnet, painted warriors, a panel named the three chiefs, and the cutest elk with swept back horns that I’ve ever seen.

To walk alongside Jones Creek weaving in and out of shade and the sweet sound of flowing mountain water is to step back in time. The dusty trail has seen moccasins and sandals over millennia. The stillness of the archaeological site and its eastern orientation has kept the red paint remarkably intact over centuries, though a few panels exhibit spalling because stone has flaked away.

I also treasure a small red figure wearing a burden basket with a tumpline across his forehead to help distribute the weight. Early backpacking travelers did not have the strap systems we enjoy.  Ancient burden baskets were deep panniers with rounded ends made from interlaced willow wicker strands. The Hopi word for such a carrying basket is hoapuh.

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I interpret the site for visitors who then hike back to camp at Jones Hole. I whisper a few words and make an offering of precious water. As guests return down the trail, I think of the story I just told them and how they smiled when I ended.

For the story of this site is not just a tale of 7,000 years of human habitation, it’s also an account of the archaeologists who worked diligently one summer taking notes, gathering artifacts, mapping the site. Most archaeologists take their research back to universities and storage areas where ancient items end up in boxes on metal shelves in windowless rooms. But the Indian spirits along Jones Creek had a different idea.

One season of the archaeological dig the research team set up their tents and camps away from the site and closer to the creek. I’m sure they wondered why prehistoric Indians hadn’t done the same. Then a huge thunderstorm boomed out of the Uintah Mountains sending a wall of water down the canyon, tripling the stream flow of Jones Creek, and washing away an entire season of fieldwork, tents, tools, supplies and artifacts. Hence the name Deluge Rock Shelter.

The archaeologists bemoaned the freak storm that flooded their summer’s work. I’m sure the researchers saw it as an accident of nature, but I’m not so sure. I’ve been to this site many times. I’ve walked this riparian corridor and I’ve felt the spirit presence. I think the ancient ancestors didn’t want their artifacts in storage so they swept the collection downstream instead.

Whether it’s trout you’re looking for, a watery baptism at Jacuzzi Falls, or the quiet, palpable presence of the Ancient Ones, there’s nothing quite like Jones Creek.

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Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

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