Canyon Country Trail Ride

The history of the trails around the Paunsaugunt Plauteau in Bryce Canyon are chronicled in this article, including the United States Forest Service involvement as well as a local group of riders called the XP Rides.
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The pack train inches down the narrow ribbon of trail carved along the base of the Sunset Cliffs. The horses follow single file, their broad packs cantilevered across their backs, their loads wider than the trail itself in some places. Overhead, orange and pink hoodoos stand like soldiers guarding the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, creating a stark contrast to the cobalt blue sky. A Bald Eagle soars silently overhead, surveying the train's slow progress.

Step by careful step, the horses make their way to the canyon bottom, where a cool stream awaits them. As they rest, one rider passes the time by carving his initials into an outcropping of limestone rock. Then he etches the year: 1929.

Long before then and for decades to follow, this trail provided a route around the south perimeter of Utah's Bryce Canyon, and the southern and western rims of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. The plateau lies entirely within the Dixie National Forest, the largest in Utah. The rolling meadows, numerous streams, and noble forests are scenic, but it's the Paunsaugunt's dramatic rims that inspire awe.

The plateau ends abruptly, giving way to rugged limestone cliffs sculpted by wind, water, and time to form the spectacular Sunset Cliffs of the west rim, the Pink Cliffs of the southern rim, and Bryce Canyon along the east rim.

Early United States Forest Service maps recorded the trail's route, identifying it by the number 066. Over time, the trail gradually fell out of use and eventually died as a result of budget cuts into the funds needed to maintain it and the development of alternative, more accessible routes across the top of the plateau.

"About 25 years ago, the Forest Service discontinued many trails to reduce expenses," recalls Carl Guillette, of Fillmore, Utah, a retired USFS ranger who served the last 14 years of his 40-year career with the Powell Ranger District of the Dixie National Forest. "The trail was dropped because it was in such poor condition, and not many people used it any more, but it was still on the old maps."

By the early 1980s, the USFS had removed trail 066 from its maps. Afterward, only old blazes in the trees and old stories told by locals remained.

Pioneering Rangers

When Guillette started working for the Powell District in 1988, he didn't think much of the rugged country of the southern Paunsaugunt Plateau region, finding it harsh and inaccessible. But he quickly grew to love it. He thought others would love it, too - if they could gain access.

"I saw [trail 066] on an old Forest Service map dated from the mid-1970s," he recalls. "I knew the country pretty well, and I realized that there'd be some spectacular scenery the public could enjoy of we could reconstruct the trail."

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that Guillette and fellow Powell District employee Evan Boshell - a 30-year veteran of the USFS and rangeland management specialist for the Powell District for the past 15 years - started restoring the trail. The two scouted the area, looking for old blazes and other markers. Once again, the old maps became useful, as did locals' stories.

It was back-breaking, time-consuming work. Even with the help of the district's fire crews, who cleared brush, and the use of a shared trail cat, it took almost seven years to reconstruct the entire, 78-mile trail. But they got it done.

Guillette chuckles as he recounts how the trail got its official name. "I'm not sure that it ever really had an official name, but we called it the Under the Rim Trail because it was under the Paunsaugunt Rim," he says. However, the United States Park Service asked that the name be changed, as a trail of the same name was already on the national registry at Bryce Canyon National Park.

The Powell District staff came up with Sunrise Sunset Trail, because the sun rose where the trail originated on the east side of the plateau and set on the west side.

"Well, [the USFS] didn't like that either, because they had a Sunrise Point and Sunset Point in the [Bryce Canyon] park. So, we finally came up with the Grand View, because it is a grand view. You can see Bryce Canyon National Park, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Kanab country all the way to Arizona and the Kaibab [National Forest] and the North Rim. It's a grand view of a lot of country."

The name was approved. The trail was also given a number. This time, the choice was easy: 066. "That was the number that was on the old maps, so we stayed with that," says Guillette. The trail, with its new name, was official again.

Ride Under the Rim

The Grand View 066 Trail lies entirely within the Powell Ranger District of the Dixie National Forest. The 78-mile trail spans two counties, Garfield and Kane, as it follows the west rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau along the spectacular Sunset Cliffs, the southern edge of the plateau along the Pink Cliffs, and around the east boundary of Bryce Canyon, which lies along the plateau's eastern edge.

Seasoned trail riders looking to experience the majesty of Southern Utah's plateaus and canyons will find the Grand View Trail unprecedented in terms of the challenge it presents and the scenery it offers.

The trail's east end originates at Sheep Creek Trailhead (elevation 6,800 feet), located 10 miles west of Cannonville, Utah. The trail's west end originates at the Thunder Mountain Trailhead (elevation 7,200 feet), located in Red Canyon off Utah State Highway 12 Scenic Byway, three miles east of Highway 89. Between these two points are numerous designated trailheads and other access points.

The best time to ride the Grand View Trail is during the summer and fall. Daytime temperatures vary between the high 70s in August to the low 60s in October. Even in the height of summer, temperatures rarely exceed the mid 80s. Because of the elevation, expect cool to cold night temperatures, from the mid 40s in August to the high 20s in October. Afternoon thundershowers are a common occurrence.

November's temperatures drop to the low to mid 40s, and drop to freezing during the winter months before warming up again in April.

"The ideal time [to ride the trail] is late summer, after the Forest Service has had a chance to get in and clear the trail of winter downfall and make repairs," advises Boshell, who admits that the Grand View Trail is low on the priority list of trails to be maintained, due to low volume. However, he notes, "Several local groups help to maintain the trail, and users will take it upon themselves to clear it," says Boshell. "We would like to be a little more involved with them. But, as is, we don't ask them to do it. They just do it, and we appreciate it."

The largest group of riders to use the trail on a regular basis is a group of endurance riders known as the XP Riders and their organizer, Dave "The Duck" Nicholson, DVM. Every year in September, Nicholson hosts a five-day, 250-mile ride called the Bryce Canyon XP Ride. A base camp is established along Kanab Creek on the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Riders cover approximately 50 percent of the Grand View Trail during five days of riding on the plateau and into adjacent canyons.

"In the early days of the Bryce Canyon XP, the only trails to ride on were the OHV [off-highway vehicle] trails and roads, plus a few cow trails that we made use of," says Nicholson, who held the first XP Ride in 1992. "Now, the Grand View Trail is the only trail on the Paunsaugunt Plateau that is prohibited from OHV use. It is the jewel of the plateau."

Nicholson also studied the same old USFS maps and noticed the single-track pack trails recorded under the Paunsaugunt's rim. He, too, referred to the old trail as the Under the Rim Trail, and incorporated sections of it into the Bryce Canyon XP course before its reconstruction was completed. Each year, in preparation for the annual ride, Nicholson and his volunteers repair about 80 miles of trails on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, including the Grand View.

Karen Chaton of Gardnerville, Nevada, has ridden the Bryce Canyon XP Ride five times, and she considers it among her favorites. "The [Grand View] trail is incredible," says the veteran rider. "The colors of the limestone formations are so intense; the hoodoos are in red, orange, pink, salmon, white and yellow. The scenery seems to get even more incredible around each turn. It's so beautiful that oftentimes it seems unreal."

Such beauty, however, doesn't come without some warnings. "The trail is moderately difficult, due to the climbs," notes Chaton. "The switchbacks are wide enough that they aren't scary to ride on. However, you would want to have a horse that you trust and that's surefooted." She advises riders to bring plenty of drinking water, rain gear, and allergy medication or an EpiPen if allergic to bees.

Riders should also be on the alert for off-road vehicles, as all roads and trails on the Paunsaugunt Plateau are designated for OHV use. The Grand View Trail is off limits to motorized vehicles, but several sections on the trail's west end crest the plateau and merge for short distances with OHV routes before branching off again.

"The [Grand View] trail allows for foot traffic and bicycles, and in some places it merges with the Paunsaugunt OHV trail," says Powell District Ranger Donna Owens. "This is something to be cautious about. Riders might encounter off-road vehicles on those sections."

Camping on the Plateau

Because the Paunsaugunt Plateau is on USFS land, horse camping is unlimited. All camping is primitive, which will add to the experience if you're looking for seclusion and serenity. "Camping on the Powell Ranger District is open camping," says Boshell. "We do have some sensitive areas where we don't want people camping along the East Fork and Main Fork [of the Sevier River, which runs down the middle of the plateau]. Other than that, our district is totally open to camping."

Camps should be a minimum of 300 feet from springs and 100 feet from trails. All garbage must be carried out. "Equestrians should use weed-free hay to reduce the spread of weeds through the region," advises Owens.

The only designated equestrian camping area is at Coyote Hollow, about a half mile from Coyote Hollow Trailhead. From Coyote Hollow, you can connect to the Grand View Trail south of Red Canyon via the eight-mile-long Thunder Mountain Trail.

A hundred years ago, the homesteaders, hunters and packers who used the original 066 trail did so knowing its inherent risks. Although the Grand View Trail is now a designated forest service trail, those risks remain. Wildlife, including bear and mountain lion, inhabit the area. The trail is remote and not easily accessible by emergency personnel.

An experienced trail rider with an equally experienced horse will fully appreciate the effort that's been put into reestablishing this trail. Such riders will appreciate its challenges, as well, if they know what to do when encountering a washout or downed tree. The effort will be worth it.

"A year before I retired, there was an outfitter taking riders into the Straight Canyon area," Guillette recalls. "Some of the people were from the U.S., and some were from other countries. The outfitter had them record comments about the ride, and he sent them to me. They said [the Grand View Trail] was the most spectacular part of their trip."

Guillette feels a strong sense of accomplishment in restoring the Grand View Trail. "Our goal was to create this trail so people could get back into the backcountry and see the beauty of it," he says. "None of it did I do for my personal gain. It was to give others an opportunity to see it."

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